Feb 8, 2010

A Man In India

I am a man. A man in India.

As a citizen of India, I have some rights - as do all other citizens of India. I may or may not exercise these rights, but I know that as a citizen of this country, no one can take these rights away from me.

I have the right to the highest quality of life in this nation. I have the right to the best food, the best clothes, the highest quality of education, the latest and most modern gadgets. I have the right to own the car with the best mileage. I have the right to live in a home with the best lawn and the biggest bath. I have the right to obtain a degree from the best university and grab the highest paying job in the fastest growing organisation.

I have the right to vote or not vote, to drink or not drink, to smoke or not smoke. I have the right to live and work wherever I wish to. I have the right to spend my time in whatever I find most worthwhile or most enjoyable. I have the right to entertain myself through whichever means are most pleasurable to me. I have the right to marry whoever I want to, whenever I want to, wherever I want to, in whichever manner I wish to. I also have the right to declare or not declare my love and my relationships to the world. I can choose to love whoever catches my fancy, to be friends with them whose company brings me the most joy, to love whoever is most compatible with me, to live with whoever brings me unending joy.

As a man in India, I also have some privileges. I may choose to exercise them, or choose to ignore them, but I know for sure that my gender alone is bestowed these privileges by the Indian society.

I have the privilege to molest a woman and get away with the slightest or no punishment, even harrass her to the extent that she ends her life and the associated torture. I have the privilege to throw acid on and disfigure any woman who refuses my overtures. I have the privilege to rape a woman and then become a magnanimous saviour and a celebrated hero by offering to marry her, since no one else will. I have the privilege to grope the breasts or genitals of any woman who passes by on the street. I have the privilege to feel up and/or press my body into any woman who travels in a bus/train with me. I have the privilege to forcibly drag a woman into my car and do with her whatever I please. I have the privilege to catcall, whistle at, pass lewd/rude remarks at, make derogatory references to, abuse, make fun of, belittle, demean and disrespect any random woman I wish to. I have the privilege to go 'see' as many women as I want to for selection of my bride, and then reject each one of them for being too dark or too tall or too fat or too slim or too short or too educated or too beautiful.

I have the privilege to label any woman who I molest or rape as 'characterless', and have the entire society in my support. I deem it under my privilege to consider asking a woman for 'permission' to touch her - it is my right. I have the privilege to rape a woman and then hold her responsible for not dressing right or being out late at night or talking to me or having been drunk or visiting a nightclub. I have the privilege to assault any random women who choose a lifestyle beyond my very limited comprehension or who dare to think for themselves or who dare to be happy in any place other than their husband's shadow. I can beat up girls who dare to have fun or believe in something I do not. I have the privilege to burn alive women who belong to a caste or sect or race or religion that is distinct from mine. I have the privilege to see 'gori chamdi' as easily available, to believe women who dress in jeans or skirts are wanting to be raped, to think that tourists who visit India are actually only looking for sex.

I have the privilege to harass women on social networking sites with demands for 'fraandship' and 'true relationship', regardless of whether they are interested. I have the privilege to superimpose pictures of random women and girls on those in 'objectionable' poses, and then harrass them for money or sex. I have the privilege to assault and abuse any woman that catches my fancy, and then be absolved of all responsibility since it is she who should have been careful enough while interacting with me. I have the privilege to assassin any woman's character merely by being seen with her.

I have the privilege to interfere in the life of my sister, control how she lives and who she talks to, decide what she wears and where she goes, plan (or not plan) her education and marriage as per my whims, beat her and/or confine her to my home if she does not listen to me, kill her for my 'honour' if she uses her own brain and makes her own choices. I have the privilege to have my wife wait upon my every command, to control her life and mind, to lord over her, to treat her as my personal possession, to ask to sever her relations with her kith and kin, to make unreasonable demands from her or her family, to question her every move, to force my wishes on hers, to smother her dreams and desires with my own, to strangulate her talents and reduce her to a monotron.

I have the privilege to be thought of fervently by my family, to be wished of, to be prayed for, to be conceived, to be nurtured in my mother's womb, to be allowed to be born, to be cherished at birth and for life, to receive the best from my home and my world. I have the privilege to choose the way I live, the way I dress, the way I behave, the way I think and act. I have the privilege to not be responsible for my behaviour and to pin the blame on the victim of my actions.

I have these privileges because I am a man in India - the nation that grants unconditional and unquestionable supremacy to the masculine gender right from when they are planned to be conceived. I am SP Rathore, Manu Sharma, Vikas Yadav, Mahendra Singh Tikait, Pramod Muthalik, Baitullah Mehsud, Ankit Dalal. I represent the Taliban, the Darul Uloom, the Ibtehad Council, the Fatwa Brigade, the Vatican, the Bajrang Dal, the Shri Ram Sene, the Shiv Sena, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu Jan Jagruti Samiti, the Sangh Parivar. I am the privileged one, not Ruchika Girhotra, not Jessica Lal, not Bharti Yadav, not Taslima Nasreen, not Mukhtaran Mai, not the 'Qatif Girl', not Neha Chhikara.

They are women. They are women in India.

I am a man. I am a man in India. I am privileged.

Jan 12, 2010

Not Woman Enough?

I could hardly believe my eyes when I read this today. I read and hear the absurdest of accounts in newspapers every day, but this one is something the wildest of my imaginations could never comprehend. It made me marvel at the nadirs our supposedly 'honorable' courts manage to sink in to, and how a human has ceased to be considered so, and how all this is so easily allowed to go on.

The 'case' goes such. A woman (let's call her W) worked as a housemaid in a home. One day in April 2006, a man accosted her on way to work, dragged her to a secluded spot, and raped her. The woman, once she came to and realised what had happened, wasted no time in lodging an FIR at the nearest police station. Subsequently, the police nabbed the accused Kashinath and booked him under Section 376 (rape). Not surprisingly, he was soon released on bail, even while the case was still pending in a sessions court.

During the trial, the public prosecutor (a woman) asked W to narrate the unfortunate incident in detail, and W revealed certain facts from her personal life. She told a stunned court and bench that she had never had a menstrual cycle. This was also probably why, according to her, she had never had a physical relationship with her husband of two years. On undergoing a battery of medical tests, it was discovered that the sexual/reproductive organs of W were not fully formed - a congenital condition.

If you think this was a shocking pronouncement, nothing can beat the astounding decision the bench (presumably having some kind of basic minimum educational qualification) conferred on the accused. The defence counsel stated that the medical tests that W was subjected to were proof that she had 'not been raped'! And in an apalling judicial verdict, the rapist was set free, acquitted of all possible charges - even those of 'outraging modesty' or assault!

Now come to think of it, what could have prompted such an absurdity from the 'learned' bench? And on a tangential (yet related) note, who is a woman? Or rather, what is a woman? Does a person being have to have the entire paraphernalia of breasts and vagina and uterus and ovaries to be a woman? Or do the qualifying criteria also include the presence of supposedly womanly behaviour traits - compassion, tolerance, maternal instinct? Is the menstrual cycle the defining characteristic of what makes a woman? Or can a woman not have fully-formed or fully-functioning ovaries and yet be a woman? What about a woman who has her fair share of 'feminine' personality traits but lacks a uterus? Or contrarily, what of a woman who has the required physical attributes but does not love children and cannot tolerate the colour pink? Who, then, is a woman?

And anyway, why does a woman need to have sexual organs in order to be sexually violated? A female infant of a few months may not have a fully-developed uterus, has no breasts at all, and has no menstruation. But she is still considered vulnerable to being raped by the Indian law, and granted protection under the Child Abuse Act. Similarly, a woman well past her menopause with ovaries that no longer function and a non-existent menstrual cycle is also protected from rape by the Indian law. Why, then, did the same law fail to protect W?

Is she not woman enough?

Dec 24, 2009

What will shock us now?

If ever there was a travesty of justice, it is this. And we all stand as mute spectators to it. Shockingly, this has ceased to shock us any more than our hair turning white or our brow getting wrinkled would.

19 years ago, a man twice molested a 14-year-old child - a budding tennis star and a chirpy teenager. Today, he smiles as he fishes out a crisp 1000-rupee note to offer as 'punishment' for his 'frivolity'. As for the girl, she died 16 years ago, unable to seek justice and compassion, unable to see her tormentor tormenting her and her family, unable to ask for her right as a human in a state where a woman is hardly so, unable to look at tomorrow in a society where a girl is both unwanted and dispensable plus a lot of trouble, unable to live her dreams (or even her rightful life) in a nation that can see no reason but only power and clout. The story of Ruchika Girhotra is too common, too repetitive, too frequent.

In the summer of 2010, a woman will turn 58. Only, she will never know that, just as she has never known herself since 1973. A wardboy raped and sodomised a nurse, brutally assaulting her and asphyxiating her with a dog's leash. Today, the man walks the streets after a six-year sentence - not for rape, though. The woman, brain dead and oblivious to life, remains permanently vegetative in a hospital bed. The 'honourable' court demurred that the victim had been anally penetrated, so she was still technically a virgin - and thus could not have been 'raped'. The accused had gone to her 'with the intention to rape' - which, of course, was not seen as important enough. The nation has failed yet another woman, and Aruna Shanbaug will never know what she went through that night, what it has cost her and her loved ones.

In mid-2003, a nurse employed with a prominent hospital in Delhi was tending to a patient. Suddenly, she found a ward boy pressing into her from behind. As she turned to protest, the man plunged his fingers into her eyes - gouging out her right eye and grievously injuring the left. He then raped her and left her in a storeroom to be discovered unconscious the next day. The woman approached the court for justice and patiently waited for the judge to pronounce the sentence. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. The rapist Bhura proposed marriage to her in order to 'wash off her stigma' and 're-establish her in society', for he felt no one else would want to marry a 'used' woman. The Additional Sessions Judge J M Malik took up the offer and delayed the judgement, giving the victim time to 'consider the proposal'. The victim refused, citing the offer to be intensely degrading and humiliating to her. Bhura was then awarded a life sentence, but not before the judge stated that the 'last-minute marriage offer' was rendered 'malafide' since the accused had not expressed 'remorse' throughout the trial.

But no, all of this does not shock India’s judiciary. The Supreme Court and the not-so-supreme courts all remain mute as India goes on violating human rights. We continue to have abject poverty, appalling malnutrition, intense infant and maternal mortality, extreme numbers of farmers committing suicide, an unacceptable number of boots in the Kashmir valley, unspeakable atrocities in the North East, a laughable role in many of our neighbourhoods. But this does not awaken the citizens of this great nation, nor the many supposedly 'honourable' courts.

Judge Sturgess of England has famously remarked: "Justice is open to everyone in the same manner as the Ritz Hotel." At home in India, we can seamlessly substitute 'Ritz' with 'Taj' or 'Oberoi' or whatever takes our fancy. The truth remains the same - justice, far from being the most basic of human rights, becomes the personal possession of the privileged few. But then, a court of law need not necessarily be a court of justice.

These tragic tales are not only about justice delayed and denied. Importantly, they are about justice being made a mockery of, and of appalling disrespect for a fellow human. More importantly, they are also about the ruthlessness with which the morally corrupt seek to silence the victims of their misdeeds. But most importantly, these are sorry accounts of how the State, as we understand it, colludes with criminals to whitewash their crimes. When certain individuals - the rich, the famous, the mighty - get away with the most heinous of crimes, society loses respect for the law of the land. When such people are not shamed, let alone punished, the law-abiding citizen loses trust in those who supposedly implement/uphold laws. Worse, the judiciary becomes an object of ridicule.

I feel that dog collar around Aruna's neck is a manifestation of all that is wrong in the Indian society today. It is the noose that hangs around your neck for all your life, if you are not the high and mighty, and especially if you are a woman. Men get their fair share of injustice and harassment, no doubt. But it is a fact that, especially in India, wherever a case involves a woman, the public already has its verdict - the said woman must have overstepped/crossed some invisible line, the 'lakshman-rekha'. Why is it that, in a nation that virtually deifies the woman, it is so difficult for a woman to find respect for herself? Why is it that in India 'boys will be boys', but girls are always a burden (or politely put, a responsibility)?

If a woman's honour must be protected, why should it be at the cost of her freedom and her right to live her life as she wishes to? Shouldn't such protection come from educating our men - and women - to respect her as they would want to be respected themselves? Shouldn't we teach our sons and brothers that our daughters and sisters too are individuals - with the same dreams and wishes, with the same aspirations, with the same need for space, with the same right to oneself? Why do we instead choose to silence our sisters' laughter, strangulate our daughters' dreams - and draw their space for them? It is easy, isn't it, to control the one who can be easily controlled, rather than hold ourselves responsible for our actions? Let men molest and rape - it will always be because the woman was not appropriately attired or did not behave within the limits we defined for her, never because the men saw her not as a human but as their personal belonging.

Why do men think that women are their private property, that they can do with them whatever they fancy? Why do women think they can (or must) not raise their voice, or even their eyes, up to men within their homes and outside? Why is it that a man can get his way around by beating his wife, but a wife must stifle her dreams and desires to live the way her husband wishes her to?

Outside her home, why is it that a woman must take resposnsibility of the behaviour of men towards her? Why is she asked to dress in accordance with men's wishes? Is it because men are so intellectually and emotionally defunct that they go raving mad whenever they see as much as a stray hair or a bare arm of a woman? No, it is definitely not that, for men are beings of reason and understand their instincts/emotions perfectly. Then it must be because some men molest and rape, know it was wrong on their part, appreciate that the society will always judge the woman and not them, and therefore waste no time in pointing their finger at her.

Is this injustice so hard to spot, or is it that it has now become a way of life for our men and women? In a free society, anyone can have their own set of norms for acceptable behaviour which they would like to see in others. But they can do nothing at all to enforce that behaviour - that is simply not acceptable.

Even if a woman walks the streets stark naked at 1 am, it still does not give any random man the authority or the license to violate her freedom. At best, the said man can report the matter to the police if it violates the law of the land. But how does he suddenly get bestowed with the power to vitiate her private space? If a man gets aroused seeing a woman (and it could be her bare breasts as much as it could be only the veil over her face that aroused him), it is his problem and not her. It is his responsibility, and not hers, to control his urges. Tell me, what does a 2-month-old infant or a 90-year-old woman do to arouse a man? Contrary to popular imagination, they get raped too. It is about time men seriously grow up and start taking responsibility for their own behaviour. It is also about time women start taking responsibility for their own lives - their freedom, their space, their wants and desires, their rights.

But no, these stories do not shock us.

I simply have two questions to ask. If not us, who? If not now, when?

Dec 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Papa!

They say the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. My father? He loves his wife to death - sometime even more than his children, I feel! The first man in my life, he shall always remain so. He has been my harshest critique, compelling me to do better or look further beyond. He has also been my greatest comfort, healing those skinned knees and broken hearts of my childhood. He has told me stories and fairy-tales when sleep eluded me. He has held me tight in his arms when those nightmares haunted me. Today, in the 28th year of my life, he still tells me comforting stories to make me sleep and still holds me tight when the nightmares of life terrify me.

Papa has been my Santa Claus, bringing me whatever I desired whenever I did (and even when I did not!). He has been my Easter Bunny, surprising me with things I'd only dreamt of but never asked for. He has been my co-conspirator whenever we ganged up against Mummy or my brother. He has also been my 'agony uncle' when I lamented about that guy who I had a crush on, or the one who had a crush on me. Then, he has been my panacea when growing pangs ravaged me, and still do. He is, I'm proud to state, the best cure for my crankiness and torment on those difficult days of the month!

Most of all the other wonderful things in life come by twos and threes or by dozens and hundreds. There will always be plenty of flowers, stars, sunsets, dewdrops, rainbows, brothers, sisters, friends. But there is only one father in the whole world. My father is someone I never have to seek - he is always there when I want him, and always a step behind me when I need to be left alone. No gift to him can ever equal his gift to me - life!

Happy birthday, Papa.

A little girl needs her Papa
For many, many things:
Like holding her high off the ground
Where the sunlight sings!
Like being the deep music
That tells her all is right
When she awakens frantic with
The terrors of the night.
Like being the great mountain
That rises in her heart
And shows her how she might get home
When all else falls apart.
Like giving her the love
That is her sea and air,
So diving deep or soaring high
She'll always find him there.

Jul 27, 2009

The Great Indian Cultural Tamasha

This, this, and this - if nothing else, must be Indian culture. Oh, and this definitely is.

I'm speechless.

I'll only say, "Support bacteria - they're the only culture some people have."

I'm not trying to be funny or insensitive, but I'm too disgusted to comment on those. And sickened with seeing this happen every damn day.

How, how, can we accept people hating each other as part of culture and look the other way, yet not accept people loving each other (and I'm not even talking about same-sex)?

How is it that we think nothing of humiliating, hurting, harassing, raping, killing other people yet would never ever wish the same upon ourselves or our dear ones?

How is it that we are so blind to others and so full of ourselves that we just cannot accept anyone who is even slightly different than us or does not think/act/live/drink/eat in the same way?

How can we justify any amount and any magnitude of wrongdoing under the labels of 'culture' and 'religion'? How can one person/group have a definition of 'culture' or 'religion' that can be applied to the family, state, nation or even humanity as a whole?

When will we see a woman as just another individual and not a 'woman'? When will we see her as a human being just like any of us? When will we see her as a person and not our or someone else's or just anyone's property? When will we see her as an equal?

Why are we tolerant of the wrong things - harassment, rape, murder, crime against women, crime against children, deceit, betrayal? Why are we not tolerant about religious freedom? Why are we not tolerant about artistic expression? Why are we not tolerant about relationships - between the same or opposite sexes? We could be but we are not. What we are tolerant of, instead, is bullying, crime, gross neglect of safety, and the subversion of justice.

Why do some of us, despite being taught to worship women, go about raping/molesting/killing them? Why do some of us think that if a girl wears a sleeveless top or shorts, she is 'available'? Why do some of our men have serious issues with reporting to a female boss? Why are some Indians so sexually repressed that even looking at a woman arouses them enough to molest/rape her?

The real issue that we must grapple with when such incidents occur is India's collective inability to accept that women have rights, that they are human beings, that they should be left alone, and that they have a right to occupy space in the public arena. If we do not tell a woman to eat brinjals instead of potatoes or drink juice instead of water, what possibly can give us the right to ask her to wear a saree instead of jeans?

It runs deep into our collective psyche. Most of our men wish to marry so that they won't have to eat outside food while living alone in their city of work. In a family run by a working couple, it is the woman who is expected to carry out all the household chores after performing her duties at the office. The men just take it for granted. The women do, too. What's worse, if an understanding husband tells his buddies that he manages the home/kitchen or babysits while she is at work, as a genuine gesture for the woman he loves and not as a favour, he is likely to be ridiculed and laughed at.

It is an insult of the highest order to call a man a woman, or to say he tends to display certain 'feminine' qualities (such as love, caring, understanding). Why can a man not be accepted as being loving and caring and understanding? Why is a man who loves his wife and stands up for her called her slave, or even an eunuch? Why does a man constantly need to prove his manliness to the society by lording over the women in his life? Can he not love her or care for her as she does?

The answer is staring us in the face - everyday. In our towns and villages, millions of little boys grow up listening to someone telling a woman that she should not hold her head high when she walks, or that a woman's true calling lies in serving her husband and his family (mostly extended). In some small town a rape victim is asked to marry the rapist. In another village, a girl without a dupatta is called a whore and beaten and/or killed, and I haven't even mentioned jeans yet! In a well-built house in an affluent colony, a mother calls upon her daughter to help her with the dinner, never her son. In the same house, the father asks his son to get stuff from the market, never the daughter. So deep rooted are these gender roles that it is almost impossible for the average Indian to think of an gender-independent environment. Most of us discriminate without even realising it!

We as a nation are so sexually repressed and so condescending/patronising towards our women that we make it seem acceptable for a guy to feel a girl up in the bus, or slap her bottom on the road, or grab her chest in a shop, or touch/look at her inappropriately. Every single woman in this country will have a similar story from her life - regardless of whether she was wearing a burqa or a ghunghat or a saree or a skirt or a two-piece bikini. So much for the attire being responsible! Those who say women must not show skin since that turns men on must remember that their are men who can get turned on even by a glimpse of a woman's eyes or hair or hands or feet. Or simply her height - that turns on people too! So what must women do, be seen with a blindfold? Or not be seen at all? Or not be at all?

Indian society, with its holier-than-thou hypocrisy thinks nothing of perpetrating crime against women. Not even babies are spared! How do we stop it? Do we make fornication legal? Or do we make being a woman illegal? I believe a better way would be if we stop blaming the woman for the crime against her. If we really can accept that if drinking or smoking or dancing or losing your virginity is wrong for girls, it is wrong for boys too. If it is okay for boys, why not for girls? Our Constitution says we are all equal. So why do we add an asterisk to that and say 'conditions apply - check if you have a penis or breasts'?

We can never completely eradicate crime in a society, and even not crime targeted at women. But we definitely don't need educated (not simply literate) men demeaning their wives. We definitely can't accept mobs sexually assaulting women. We definitely can't tolerate a woman being shamed for being molested or raped. Lastly, we definitely must never let a woman feel she ought to have been born a man. How, as a nation, can we be outraged if a terrorist goes about killing innocent people, yet not feel even as much outrage if 50 men strip an innocent woman?

When will we learn to treat our women well? When will we give them the respect that they so deserve - if not for being women, at least for being humans? When will we stop judging our women on the basis of how and what they eat/drink/wear/say/act/live? When will we see our daughters and sons as no different from each other, both being our children? When will we see our husbands and wives as our partners and friends, with equal rights and equal responsibilities?

The links at the start of this post say (rather scream in my face), "Not any sooner."

Edited to add:

It was a saree-clad Sita that was abducted by Ravan. It was also a saree-clad Draupadi who was publicly stripped by Dushasan. Yet, it is Sita's fault coz she overstepped her boundary and Draupadi's fault coz she laughed at Duryodhan. Never mind what Ravan and Dushasan did! And if they could do it and get stories written and TV serials made for themselves, so can we. Behold the modern Ravans and Dushasan - a dozen a penny! Oh, and 'God' Krishna could get away with stealing the clothes of women who were bathing, and we proudly narrate the story to our sons!

Jul 3, 2009

So Did You Miss Me?

Hi there, everyone! I disappeared for a while, and without letting anyone know. My sincere apologies.

Its been an unintended break, longer than expected. But like it tends to, life intervened. I’ve been busy with work, practically trying to keep my job in the dark economic times. Work aside, I have been suffering from the worst writer's block ever. Maybe the turmoil at work had something to do with this.

I promise to be up and shining soon, but it may take a little more time so don't forget to watch this space (and my other one too). I failed to write the last few weeks, which have been some of the most turbulent in my professional life. This, I confess, was totally deliberate. It just felt like I wasn’t doing justice to my writing if I wasn't writing with my mind and heart in it, and both these critical components of my being were kind of preoccupied with seemingly mundane issues. Nonetheless, enough excuses.

If there's one thing my being absent from the blogging scene has shown me, it is how much my writing is valued and appreciated, even eagerly awaited, by my friends on the blogosphere. Many thanks and a zillion hugs to my bestest friends here, especially Solilo, Indyeah, IHM, Monika (in no particular order). And everyone else who patiently awaited my return and regularly visited this space to check on me. I am ashamed to admit I'd actually thought my friends would have lost interest in my blogs since I'd not written for so long. I'm so very touched to see they are as loyal to my blogs as I am to theirs, even when I never announced I wouldn't be writing for a while. Thank you.

May 10, 2009

The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

I'd rather be a mother than anyone on earth,
Bringing up a child or two of unpretentious birth.
I'd rather tuck a little child all safe and sound in bed,
Than twine a chain of diamonds about my carefree head.
I'd rather wash a smudgy face with round bright baby eyes,
Than paint the pageantry of fame or walk among the wise.
(Meredith Gray)

Zaputou Angami felicitated at the CNN-IBN and RIL "Real Heroes 2009" initiative

She is 85 and has mothered 81 children. One, her biological daughter. And the others, abandoned children from the insurgency-hit North East. She is Zaputou Angami, the Founder of the Kohima Orphanage in Nagaland's capital.

It all began in 1973 with one child. Zaputou was a nurse at the Government Hospital in Kohima when she brought home a baby abandoned by his parents. From that moment on, there was no looking back. Zaputou had brought home seven children when it hit her. She wondered how and why so many babies did not have parents.

Zaputou found herself to be very happy in the children's company. She found the job of feeding hungry mouths and singing to sleepy eyes and tending to injured knees to be more rewarding than any other job she wold ever do. The rest, as they say, is history.

To say it has been easy for Zaputou, or that life has been kind to her and her children, would be an insult to what this great mother has done and continues to do. She has seen days when there wasn't a paisa in her pocket but there were mouths to feed. She has seen nights when insects ravaged tiny bodies that only wished to sleep but there was nothing that could be done. She has also seen times when illness rampaged across the orphanage, and all that she could give to the children was her love.

37 years later, the road remains as difficult. Yet, Zaputuo has never thought twice about her journey. In insurgency-torn Nagaland, the Kohima Orphanage stands as a symbol of love and strength for children without a home. Amidst all the hate and the killings and the unrest, here is a place where life and hope abounds, where a goodnight kiss can wipe away tears of strife, where the strains of a lullaby can silence the loudest of bombs.

Zaputou's home runs on help that comes in bits and pieces from the state government, well-wishers, the church and the Assam Rifles. Today, a total of 80 children - from across Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and even Myanmar - are all proud members of Kohima Orphanage. Also with Zaputou is her own daughter Nebunuo, who smilingly supports her mother in the best and worst of times.

Sometimes, in this certain yet uncertain life for Zaputou and her children comes the time of presents and cakes and songs - a time all the little ones look forward to for simple joys. Beyond all this, the truth remains that this home survives on meals and clothes donated by people. Yet, unperturbed and undaunted, two brave and loving mothers - Zaputou and Nebanuo - continue on with the calling of their life, day after day.

Today, on Mother's Day, I pay homage to Zaputou and the many women like her around the world - who define motherhood in the true sense. Who are mothers not only because biology made them so, but also because they possess the grit and strength that only a mother can, and the will to not merely survive but actually live against all odds.

Happy Mother's Day, Mother!

Source: www.ibnlive.com
Picture courtesy: www.realheroes.com

May 1, 2009

Being 9, a girl, ... and PREGNANT!

Brazil is home to coffee, carnivals, Pele, and the most number of Catholics in the world. It is also home to a 9-year-old child pregnant with twins. Till recently a sprightly and bright child, she was raped and impregnated by her stepfather. Doctors warned that she was not developed enough to carry forth a pregnancy, much less twins. In fact, not only was the child not physically developed to carry a pregnancy to term, but any attempt to do so would have jeopardized her life. The child herself weighed only 80 pounds.

Defying all rational thought, and in a declaration that would scare the daylights out of any sane individual, the Catholic Church declared the decision to abort the foetuses as amounting to 'murder'. Although abortion is illegal in Brazil, there are exceptions - and this case certainly qualified. Unfortunately, the child has now been labeled a murderer. I can not help but wonder how furtive glances of pity and shame would affect her as she attempts to build her life over the years with the weight of what she has already endured on her heart.

Then there is the man who raped her. He is in jail and will hopefully endure severe repercussions once he is convicted, although that may not be likely. Brazil's laws on rape would have been laughable had the situation not been so grim. Rape in this country is considered a crime only if the victim is a virgin or 'an otherwise noble woman'. Not surprisingly, the term 'noble' is not defined in the country's law books and is left to the imagination. Moreover, rape of a virgin whose age is between 14 and 18 is only punishable by 6 years in jail. Victims only begin to recover after 6 years; in Brazil they would be forced to live with the reality of once again running into their rapist on the streets. Again, kidnap and subsequent rape of a woman is a crime, provided she is a virgin, but the maximum sentence is only 48 months.

In Brazil, an unmarried woman who is not a virgin cannot legally be raped. Never mind that the emotional rape will continue to haunt her for the rest of her days. In the eyes of the law, violation of a sexually-active unmarried woman, or one who is not a virgin, is not recognisable as an offence. But the most horrific flaw in Brazil's legal construct is the fact that it makes no mention of any repercussions for raping girls under the age of 14.

What's with the world that they judge a woman against a flimsy tissue called the hymen? Why?

The vicious cycle associated with all forms of child abuse is reliable by definition. Some warning signs of abused children include:
  • Depression at an early age
  • Withdrawal from friends and those outside immediate family
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • MPD (multiple personality disorder) or DID (dissociative identity disorder)
  • Suicide attempts
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviour even before puberty
Once these children reach adulthood, the multitude of problems they would encounter are merely extensions of those that would have developed years ago. Often, without resolution via counseling or not being allowed to pursue legal avenues to prosecute these abusers, the cycle repeats itself later in life. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this cycle is the common profile of a paedophile. Many paedophiles are themselves victims of abuse as children and/or had parents who were addicts. These children had low self-esteem which only lowered further with every passing day. Clearly, the cycle repeats time and again.

What, then, can be the answer? Experts usually disagree on the best solution, but most endorse the presence of the victim during the legal proceedings. If these children do not witness justice meted out to them in an accepted manner, they will equate it to not being important enough to be given justice. Sadly, even despite a robust legal construct that are in place, far too many victims either fall through the cracks or do not survive to seek justice. For those who are removed from their abusive homes and placed in protective custody, history repeats itself in more terrifying ways. The most frustrating aspect is breaking this cycle before it sends up the red flags.

That said, it is certainly not a lost cause to ensure protection for these children. A collaborative and coordinated team approach can be designed to protect the rights of these children. The legal representative must work hand-in-hand with government agencies, counsellors and guardians or custodians of the victims. Such combined effort can work to the advantage of the children and are make them feel as though someone is looking out for them.

We can only hope (against hope) that the Catholic Church reconsiders the label it has so carelessly placed on this innocent little girl. She already carries enough on her young mind without being accused of murder too.

Courtesy: LawyerAhead

Edited to add:
Someone actually wrote this in his comment on a forum: "Why do you need to give a man a life sentence or death for a rape when the female can easily get on with her life after sometime? It is a crime that can in no way equated to murder or cutting off a person's hands or legs."

Apr 27, 2009

Maa Tujhe Salaam

The picture above shows a resplendent and radiant mother-daughter pair. But behind the radiant smiles and crinkled eyes are ears of trauma and a long struggle. A struggle to give birth. A struggle to be born. A struggle to live.

This is the story of three persons who were told they deserved to die, or at the most live a second-rate life. Just because they were women. They were abused, abandoned, berated, belittled, disowned. Just because one was a mother who was not given the right to beget a daughter. Just because the other two were offsprings who carried a different DNA pattern than the one desired by their family. Just because Neera had the guts to bear and raise Shubhra and Pooja despite the hardships she had to endure for doing so. Just because Shubhra and Pooja were determined to live the life their mother struggled to provide for them.

Like any other Indian girl, Neera was married to a well-placed and fairly well-to-do man who she'd thought would be her 'partner' for life. The marriage was not the perfect romance or a bed of roses or a perpetual honeymoon or any other simile the word is accorded by poets and romantics. But like any other Indian wife, Neera tried her best to pull the relationship through. And then she discovered she was pregnant with her first child.

Neera's in-laws told her everything would be back to normal with her husband if she could give him what she had been brought into the family for - a son. When Shubhra was born, the marriage predictably went from bad to worse. Her husband decided to seek on the streets the son he did not get from his wife, and made no qualms about flaunting his many 'women' in his wife's face. Despite that and everything else she was subjected to in her marital home, Neera did not (read could not) walk away. Just like any other Indian daughter. She tried her best to please everyone from her malicious mother-in-law to her adulterous husband, all the while hoping and believing that she could win them over. This despite the fact that she served her cancer-stricken mother-in-law with all her heart only to hear abuses hurled at her. This despite the fact that her husband brought one of his mistresses home and announced their imminent wedding. This despite the fact that there was nobody who stood up for Neera or even felt for her.

Then Neera was pregnant a second time. This time, she fervently hoped and prayed for a son. But I wouldn't have been writing this and being inspired, had Pooja not been born to her.

Neera's worst fears came true when nobody from Pooja's paternal family ever came to see her. She had to borrow clothes for her newborn daughter from the new mother in the adjacent bed. When Pooja was 20 days old, Neera made a choice. She left her marital home with her daughters, and hasn't looked back since.

This was not the end of misery or hardship for Neera, but she could breathe again. The freedom from a shame and a guilt that were in no way hers brought the courage to live again. For herself. For her daughters. Needless to say, the little girls imbibed their mother's grit and devotion to them, returning and sharing the feelings in equal measure. They not only lived for each other, but were determined to live for themselves as well. Not surprisingly, Shubhra today is a management professional happily married and blessed with a daughter.

As for Pooja, we saw her crowned Miss india-World 2009 on a night when the stars shined down upon her. Amidst these, the brightest star is her mother, who truly and completely gave her life. More than any ordinary mother could.

Apr 11, 2009

Am I So Pretty?

A cute little girl peers into the mirror and asks her father if he thinks she is pretty. She tells him that nobody looks at her (possibly due to her obviously visible spectacles). She remembers how she willed the little boy seated beside her to look in her direction, but he doesn't. The next day, her father arrives at school in a brand new Maruti Suzuki "Dzire", and picks her up right from the middle of her classes. As the car moves out of the school porch, she is delighted to see scores of her fellow students clamouring for a look at her (or was it the car?). She asks her father, this time in a thoroughly upbeat tone, with just a tinge of vanity, "Am I so pretty?" The background score goes, "Take a look at me now."

Now this ad left me shocked, and not to mention disgusted. Shocked because the ad had one of the cutest little girls I have seen on TV saying those lines and portraying those feelings. A child - who should be spending her time playing and studying and making new friends and discovering new wonders, instead of fussing before the mirror or vying for a classmate's attention. Disgusted because of the advertising world's obsession with the feminine to sell any and every product. Never mind if this time it was a little girl instead of another of those models with unrealistic bodies and unrealistic emotions.

Every channel we flip to and every show we watch is interspersed with a plethora of ads. Almost all of them (and the exceptions are right on top of the 'highly endangered ads' list) use women and their body parts to sell everything from food to toiletries to cars to men's underclothes. Any women's magazine one may open is full of articles earnestly proclaiming that if a woman can only just lose those so many 'extra' kilos, she'll have it all - a perfect marriage, a doting spouse, loving children, amazing sex, and a rewarding career. Bliss lay all this while in the race to size-zero (or even negative), while I ran after chocolate and friends and fun and love. How naive of me! Phoo!

Discriminatory, unrealistic, and even insulting standards of beauty are imposed on women, a majority of who are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models. Ever wondered why? The roots to this practice are clearly economic. By presenting a target of outward appearance that is obviously difficult (sometimes impossible) to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and fitness industries are assured of growth and profits. It is no coincidence that flawless youth is increasingly promoted as the most essential criterion of beauty. Either all women need to lose weight, or they are ageing. If nothing, their complexion has yet not reached that perfect shade. According to the industry, age is a disaster that needs to be dealt with.

The stakes are huge. On one hand, women who are insecure about their bodies are more likely to buy the products that promise them socially acceptable standards of beauty. On the other hand, a deliberately constant exposure to images of stereotyped female bodies that are presumably deemed acceptable by society's yardstick may culminate in loss of self-esteem and the development of an alarmingly unhealthy lifestyle in women. Worse, the age profile of these women gets younger every passing day; it has begun to influence girls as young as 5. The evidence - the ad I mentioned at the start.

What is perhaps the most disturbing facet to this image-consciousness is the fact that media images of female beauty are unattainable for all but a very small number of women. Recently, researchers in the USA generated a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions. The study found that if such a woman were to exist, her back would be unable to support the weight of her upper body, and her body would be too narrow to contain more than half a liver and just a few centimeters of bowel. Incidentally, the small and large intestines together are a total of upto 8.5 meters in length. Such a woman would therefore suffer from perpetual chronic diarrhoea and eventually die from malnutrition. Frightened? Here's more. A Mattel study also indicates that 99% girls aged 3-10 years own a Barbie doll, or at the least have seen one.

The deluge of overt and covert messages about warped ideas of beauty tells 'ordinary' women that they are always in need of adjustment, that their body is an object to be perfected. These overwhelming reminders mean that real women's bodies have become invisible in popular media. The real tragedy is that many women internalize these stereotypes and begin to judge themselves by these standards. They learn to compare themselves to other women and compete with them for male attention. This focus on beauty and desirability insidiously destroys any awareness and action that might help to change this situation. Women across ages and ethnicities get and stay trapped in this vicious circle, a proverbial catch-22 situation.

Like a whiff of fresh air comes the Women's Horlicks ad with Konkona Sen Sharma as the face of the product. The film shows Konkona waking in the morning and beginning her day with running down a a list of things to do. She is shown taking up one task after another - from household chores to professional responsibilities. As the day passes, she looks at the myriad notes that she had made at the day's start, and realises that she forgot about herself. A voice-over says, "Aaj is badi si list ne chhoti si baat ka ehsaas dila diya. Apni hi list main apna naam nahin." Konkona enjoys a cup of the drink and indulges in a variety of pursuits for her health. The ad ends with her proclaiming, "Because your body needs you too."

It is high time we women (and our men) begin to look at ourselves as a whole person and not focus on body parts. We deserve to do things that we enjoy, no matter what shape or size we are. We can begin by understanding that images and stereotypes portrayed by the media are created for a commercial purpose and are not reflections of reality. This understanding must also be shared within our family and other social units to avoid misconceptions and dissonance in thought. We can encourage ourselves and each other to think beyond traditional stereotypes. For instance, instead of complimenting someone or ourselves by saying, "You/I look great/ pretty today", we can actually say, "You/I did a great job today". This would help widen the range of appeal beyond the aesthetics to grounded realism. Lastly, everyone should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them.

Consider this. What would life be if not a melange of different people - truly different and not assembly-line products similar in appearance? Variety, as they say, certainly is the spice of life! So let us all be different and celebrate the fact. Surely, love and laughter, and not external appearances, make the world go round.

Now go watch this, rejoice the fact that you aren't there yet, and promise yourself you never will be.

"Then be bold and love your body and stop fixing it. It was never broken."

- Eve Ensler, "The Good Body

The comments on the advertisement of "Maruti Suzuki Dzire" do not necessarily become applicable to the actual product. The description is also not intended to discourage purchase of the same.

Source: Media Awareness Network
Video Courtesy: JaagoRi