Feb 26, 2009

She is Sunshine (Chapter 1)

She is a petite 13-year old with eyes as dark as the night that twinkle with mirth and the cheer of childhood. She is naughty et innocent, and loves to laugh; her laughter, fresh as the dew at dawn, tinkles like a hundred tiny bells in a meadow. She is also a victim of a ridiculous ritual that propagates child marriage. She is Minati Gagaria - winner of the 2005 National Bravery Award for her exemplary grit and spunk.

The morning of 15 January 2005 heralded the annual village festival of Magha Parab. For Minati and other members of Orissa's Munda tribe, the occasion is a chance to be gifted new clothes and knick-knacks, coupled with lots of dancing and merriment. Minati, adorned in a new dress and flower ornaments, went to the festival ground with her friends. At midnight, she along with other girls started dancing to the beats of dhol. Steadily, as the beats turned faster, the skies turned red with the sindoor that men threw at the dancing girls. Minati's life took a dramatic turn when 50-year old Suna Hembram threw sindoor at her and it settled on her forehead. The next moment, senior members of the community declared it a 'marriage' in accordance with a bizarre tradition of forced child marriages. That was when Minati stood up and said 'No'.

Amidst a crowd of dumbstruck onlookers, with her head held high, Minati walked up to where the village elders sat and refused point-blank to give in to the ridiculous custom. She accused them of trying to control her life, and warned that they had no business imposing their decisions on her. She firmly asserted that she would not accept a man fit to be her grandfather as a husband. Having said so, Minati went back home and locked herself in her room.

The next morning, and many such mornings after, her entire family accompanied by Hembram tried to convince her but failed. The bruised ego of Hembram was further riled by Minati's 'attitude', and he cornered her when she was alone at home one day. When Minati later complained to her mother that she had been raped, the entire family took it upon themselves to shame Minati for what was in no way her fault. The gritty girl gave her family one smoldering look and walked out of the hut she used to call home. Her family searched far and wide for her, while she slept peacefully in the forest for seven nights of hard-earned freedom.

Support came in the guise of a friend, whose husband helped Minati lodge complaints against her family and Hembram with the local police. Fortunately for her, they were all arrested. Later, while her mother and sister-in-law were released on bail, her father and brother awarded their sentences. As for the groom, he was booked for rape, and as Minati says with her impish smile, was good riddance.

My heart swelled with pride as I wished there were more girls like Minati who can make a difference. She has not changed the world, or the country, or even her village. She stood up for herself. By standing up to and against injustice. By not accepting anything just because it is religion/ tradition/ culture/ etc. By showing her friends the courage to do the same. By showing what is right and what isn't in our society. By having a mind of her own and using it.

I firmly believe that any individual who can't stand up for himself/herself will fall for anything on earth. Minati showed the world how standing up for yourself is bravery, not impudence or disrespect. She also showed us that all individuals, and women too, have a right to decide what is best for them. In India, this right is constitutional and irrevocable. How many women know that? How many women would use that right? Sadly, a woman in India may have her constitutional rights, but not her humanitarian rights - to happiness and to a mind of her own.

Feb 17, 2009

As my tears flowed... (Chapter 3)

This was just another one of those depressing stories we read in the newspapers almost every day. Savita Kasture lives with her three children in Ulhasnagar, a depressing industrial township on the outskirts of Mumbai. Some months back, her husband left home without explanation. Savita was forced to find work and also to borrow money from her neighbours for her survival. Then, one day, without offering any explanation about his disappearance, her husband returned. On learning that Savita had taken up a job - something that he had forbidden her to do - he flew into a rage. While she slept next to him that night, he cut off her nose and then threatened to kill their two children.

This may sound like a scene straight out of those tacky Bollywood films which are churned out by the dozen. Unfortunately, it is the actual experience of a very real and very ordinary woman. It comes as a rude reminder of the extent to which women encounter violence within the ostensibly 'safe' walls of their homes every single day. Women are good at compromise. Victims of domestic violence say that compromise brings peace to the household. But peace at what cost? Victims of domestic violence also say they suffer in silence 'for the sake of the children'. But the children will grow up following the same pattern. Women often say, "We only fought after the children went to sleep, so they don’t know anything." Children always know - sometimes more than adults.

No one speaks of it. Women suffer it in silence. They are schooled to believe that ultimately it is their fault, and their fate. Behind the closed doors of a home, women are abused - physically, emotionally, verbally. But these stories rarely make it to the public domain because the victims themselves will refuse to speak. They will think there is no option but to keep quiet and accept. Marriages are made in heaven, they say. But for millions of married women, it is living hell on earth.

When the police caught Savita's husband and questioned him, he admitted to the crime and said, "My wife disobeyed my instructions and I decided to teach her a lesson." That is the key - 'teach her a lesson'. Men continue to teach women 'lessons' by raping them, beating them, torturing them or simply murdering them - the same women that they are supposed to love and cherish. The awful reality of the growing violence against women worldwide is that half of the women who die from homicides are killed by their current or former husbands or partners. Moreover, nearly one out of every four women in the world experience sexual violence by an intimate partner at least once in their lifetimes.

Every year, November 25 is regarded as the International Day against Violence Against Women. Worldwide, women's groups use the fortnight from that date onwards to put forward evidence about the reality of violence in women's lives and advocate strategies to confront and end this violence. But despite years of such campaigns, the statistics do not present a very encouraging picture. According to UNIFEM and other surveys, in countries ranging from rich to poor, women's experience of violence is almost identical.

In India, the National Crime Records Bureau (2000) reports that there are 480 cases of crimes against women reported every day. Also, there are 45 reported cases of rape and 19 reported cases of dowry deaths every day. The word 'reported' is of much significance here, because these numbers are but the tip of the actual iceberg formed by such violent acts. Statistics reveal that every hour five women face cruelty at home and there are four cases of molestation reported every hour.

Not any more. For, even if Indian society has failed its women on many counts, we can now celebrate the fact that India is one of the few countries around the world that recognises that domestic violence is a violation of the human rights of women. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which was notified on 25 October 2006, is path breaking in more ways than one. Most significant perhaps is its definition of 'domestic violence' as spelt out in Chapter II of the Act. All forms of abuse - physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, economic - are defined as 'domestic violence' by this law. It offers women victims of such violence civil remedies of a kind not available to them earlier.

Till now, women could use Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code to file a complaint against an abusive spouse. But this did not give the woman the right to, among other things, stay on in her marital home or demand a maintenance if thrown out or seek protection orders from the abusive partner. The law now provides her these civil remedies that are as important as the punishment provided under the law for committing the offence.

Violence-free homes make violence-free communities. They would make a difference to boys as much as to girls. Surely boys who grow up seeing the kind of violence as carried out by Savita's husband could decide the norm in how to treat 'your' woman. Reason being, behind the violence is a mentality of possession, of ownership, of a belief that men know best what is good for women, and that women must silently obey - or face the consequences. Whether it is honour killings, dowry deaths, wife beating or disfiguration, the motivation is identical - a desire to assert power and full control over another person.

As my tears flowed, I realised that the statistical graph of violence against women will continue to climb steadily until we can find a way to crack this belief in male superiority - in the undiluted conviction in millions of men that they were born to rule, to control, to be obeyed.

Feb 13, 2009

As my tears flowed... (Chapter 2)

"The right to life of women in Pakistan is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions."
- Hina Jilani, lawyer and human rights activist

Zahida Perveen's head is shrouded in a white cotton veil, which she self-consciously tightens every few moments. But when she reaches down to her baby daughter, the veil falls away to reveal the face of one of Pakistan's most horrific social ills, broadly known as 'honour crimes'. Perveen's eyes are empty sockets of unseeing flesh, her earlobes have been sliced off, and her nose is a gaping, reddened stump of bone. Sixteen months ago, her husband, in a fit of rage over her alleged affair with a brother-in-law, bound her hands and feet and slashed her with a razor and knife. She was three months pregnant at the time. "He came home from the mosque and accused me of having a bad character," the petite 32-year-old murmured as she awaited a court hearing. "I told him it was not true, but he didn't believe me. He caught me and tied me up, and then he started cutting my face. He never said a word except, 'This is your last night.'" In court, Perveen's husband stated, "What I did was wrong, but I am satisfied. I did it for my honour and prestige."

Honour crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonour upon the family. A woman can be targeted by individuals within her family for a variety of reasons, including refusal to enter into a forced marriage, being the victim of sexual abuse or assault, seeking a divorce even from an abusive husband, or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that dishonours her husband or family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life. Some women who bridge social divides, publicly engage other communities, or adopt some of the customs or the religion of an outside group may thus also be attacked.

One of the most notorious such killings of recent times occurred in April 1999, when Samia Imran, a young married woman, was shot in the office of Hina Jilani, a prominent Pakistani lawyer helping her to seek a divorce which her family could never countenance. Samia, 28, arrived at the Lahore law office of Hina Jilani to seek a divorce from her violent husband. As she settled on a chair across the desk from Hina, her mother Sultana entered with a male companion. Samia half-rose in greeting, but the man, Habib-ur-Rehman, grabbed her and held a pistol to her head. The first bullet entered near Samia's eye and she fell. She did not scream; there was dead silence. She probably never even knew what was happening. The killer stood over Samia's body and fired again. Hina reached for her alarm button as the gunman and Sultana left. The mother never even bothered to look whether her daughter was dead. The aftermath of the murder was equally revealing. Members of Pakistan's upper house demanded punishment for the lawyer and none of Pakistan's political leaders condemned the attack. The clergy in Peshawar wanted the lawyer to be put to death for trying to help Samia.

The loose term 'honour killing' may also apply to killing of both males and females in cultures that practice it. This is practiced as 'karo-kari' in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Karo-Kari is a compound word literally meaning 'black male' and 'black female', metaphoric terms for the adulterer and the adulteress. These killings target women and men who choose to have relationships outside of their family's tribal affiliations and/or religious community. They are never given an opportunity to give their version of events: most significantly of all, often the making of the allegation alone suffices to defile honour and, concomitantly, to justify the killing.

Two main factors contribute against women in the name of honour. These are a woman's commodification and the cultural concept of honour. The concept of women as an object or commodity, and not a human being endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men, is deeply rooted in tribal culture. From time immemorial, they have been considered to be the property of the men in their family, irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious groups. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. This concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold. In fact, in the tribal society of Sindh and Baluchistan, a woman is equated with money. This view goes far towards creating a situation where she may be butchered if she transgresses the conditions under which she is bound to a man for life. She may also be freely traded or given away as part of a karo-kari settlement.

Ownership rights are at stake when women are to be married, almost always by arrangement of their parents. A major consideration is the young woman's future inheritance rights over family property or assets. In Pakistan, feudal and tribal customs dictate that property be kept in the family. It is not uncommon for girls to be married to cousins, so that control over the estate (jagir) is not weakened, as would happen if a daughter were to marry an outsider. In absence of a male cousin (paternal or maternal), the woman has to undergo the ceremony of haq-baksh-wai, or marriage with the Quran. While women are usually forced to accept such matrimonial decisions made by their fathers, men have the freedom to wed a second woman in accordance with their liking, and lead a life in the public sphere where they can find fulfillment. Women by contrast are usually confined almost entirely to the four walls of their home.

The commodification of women is also evident in that every marriage in the tribal society involves payment of a bride price. The bride is exchanged for a price in the market, which is paid by the groom to her father in lieu of the bride's possession and custody. The bride price varies according to the status, health, beauty and age of the woman and, like other possessions, the bride subsequently adds to the honour of the groom. To receive a sum of money in exchange for a bride is honourable not only to her family but also to the bride herself, whose worth is thereby acknowledged. Sometimes, the bride price is taken in the form of another woman. Men exchange their daughters and even granddaughters for new wives for themselves. While demanding a low bride price for their daughters, some men ask in addition that the as yet unborn granddaughter(s) be handed over to them to be married off for another bride price.

The commodification of women is also the basis of the practise of 'blood money', which is a compensation negotiated to end a dispute. Besides money, such compromise usually involves a woman to be given to the adversary. For instance, a woman may be handed over to compensate a man whose honour has been damaged or to settle a conflict between two tribes or families. The standard price to settle a conflict is either one girl above seven years of age or two girls under seven. Usually, it is seen that the girls' milk-teeth are broken to create the impression that they are above seven years of age. That way, a family would only have to give away one girl.

A man's property, wealth, and all that is linked with these forms the sum total of his honour value. A woman is also an object of value, and therefore is an integral part of the honour of a man. When the rights of a woman are transferred from her father to the man she is marrying, the guardianship of honour shifts as well. Perceived as the embodiment of the honour of their family, women must guard their virginity and chastity till, and even after, they are married. By entering an adulterous relationship, a woman subverts the familial order, undermines the ownership rights of others to her body, and indirectly challenges the social order as a whole.

Womens' bodies must not be given or taken away except in a regulated exchange, effected by men. Their physical chastity is of utmost importance. By the merest hint of an 'illicit' sexual interest, a woman loses her inherent value as an object worthy of possession, and therefore her right to live. In most tribes, there is no other punishment for a woman accused of 'illicit' sex but death, often in the most brutal of manners and with an audience to witness. Their dead bodies are thrown in rivers or buried in special hidden kari graveyards. Nobody mourns for them or honours their memory by performing the relevant rites of a funeral.

The perception of what defiles honour appears to have been continually widened to the point where it is now loose. Male control does not only extend to a woman's body and her sexual behaviour but all of her behaviour, including her movements, language and actions. In any of these areas, defiance by women translates into undermining male honour, and ultimately family and community honour. Severe punishments are reported for bringing food late, for answering back, or for stepping out of the house without permission.

As my tears flowed, I marvelled the paradox that women who enjoy such a poor status in society and have no standing in the family should become a focal point of a false and primitive concept of family honour, which they are accepted to uphold at the expense of their inclinations and preference for how they wish to live their life.

Feb 12, 2009

As my tears flowed... (Chapter 1)

The date: February 27, 1998. The day: Friday. Close to 30,000 men and boys poured into the dilapidated Olympic sports stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan. Street hawkers peddled nuts, biscuits and tea to the waiting crowd. The scheduled entertainment? They were there to witness the flogging of a young woman, Sohaila, who was to receive 100 lashes. Sohaila had been arrested for walking with a man who was not a relative - a sufficient crime for her to be found guilty of adultery. She was single, so her crime was punishable by merely flogging; had she been married, she would have been publicly stoned to death. As Sohaila, completely covered in her shroud-like black burqa, was forced to kneel and then flogged, Taliban 'cheerleaders' had the stadium ringing with the chants of excited onlookers. Among those present there were just three women: Sohaila and two female relatives who had accompanied her.

These Friday circuses, at which Rome's Caligula would without a doubt have felt at home, are weekly fixtures for the entertainment-starved male residents of Kabul. These events are regular and continual; each inspiring the same frenzy in the thousands present to witness them live. There is nothing covert or hush-hush about the regime's punitive measures; in fact, the Taliban ensure they are as widely publicised as possible. In March 1997, the regime's radio station - the only one permitted to operate - broadcast to the nation that a young woman caught sitting in a clinic chatting with a man who was not her relative had been stoned to death. On another occasion, it was announced over the airwaves that 225 women had been rounded up and sentenced to a lashing for violating the mandatory dress code. A woman had her fingers amputated for the crime of wearing nail polish, and the grisly photographs appeared in newspapers around the nation.

The Taliban now control between 65 and 85 percent of Afghanistan, a country where statistics are anyone's guess. And they have easily overstepped Saudi Arabia to become the most oppressive nation on earth for women. Many of the Taliban's restrictions are rooted in the hardline Gulf state's gender apartheid. Saudi Arabia has also been financially supportive of the Taliban and the religious schools in which they are indoctrinated. The Taliban regime claim they are restoring Afghanistan to the 'purity of Islam', and world media invariably parrots them. But authorities in a number of Muslim countries insist that few of the regime's dictates have a basis in Islam. In fact, the Organization of Islamic Conference, a 55-country body, has withheld both a seat and recognition from the regime. "The Taliban is not the image the Islamic world wants to project", says a Muslim diplomat. And with good reason.

Islam dictates that education is mandatory for both males and females. At the time of the Prophet, Muslim women attained such scholarship they became teachers to prominent men. They also worked. In fact, the Prophet met his first wife because she was his employer. The medical corps of the Prophet's army was an all-woman corps, and in most battles, women took up swords and joined active combat. Women participated in public affairs, were involved in negotiating treaties, were even judges. Islam declared gender equality through the Prophet's words, "Women are the siblings of men." Islamic scriptures are very clear on the veil: only the Prophet's wives were required to cover their faces. In fact, when women undertake the Hajj, they are required to do so with their faces uncovered. They also mingle with men not related to them. Obviously, the Taliban's military prowess far exceeds their knowledge of Islam.

The pariah regime has expunged all leisure activities. Their list of what is illegal grows daily: music, movies and television, picnics and parties, celebrations, any kind of mixed-sex gathering. They've placed but a blanket ban on children's toys: dolls, kites, card and board games. Photography and painting people and animals is forbidden, as are pets, cigarettes and alcohol, magazines and newspapers, and most books. They've even forbidden applause - a moot point, since there's nothing left to applaud. Explaining why the regime has banned virtually all forms of entertainment, they say, "Time should be spent serving the country and praying to God. Nothing else. Everything else is a waste of time, and people are not allowed to waste their time."

It would probably be quicker to list what the Taliban haven't banned. The regime has even outlawed paper bags. Like many of their edicts, this would be laughable if the penalties for infractions weren't so severe. Break the Taliban's law and you risk imprisonment, flogging, or death in the most brutal ways. And to insure their dictates are followed, religious police, part of the "Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Suppression of Vice", constantly roam the streets. Often teenage boys armed with automatic weapons, they also carry broken car aerials or electrical cabling to whip those who they decide are not properly observing the regulations.

For women, the restrictions are even harsher. Female education, from kindergarten through graduate school, is banned. Employment for women is banned. It is illegal to wear makeup or jewellery, to pluck your eyebrows or cut your hair short, to wear colourful or stylish clothes and shoes, to walk about in high heels, to walk making a noise, to talk loudly, to laugh in public. In short, women are completely prohibited from being seen or heard, lest they 'excite' men into lustful misadventures, which all the afore-mentioned activities are supposed to do.

If women do venture out, it must be for an essential, government-sanctioned purpose, and they must wear the all-enveloping burqa at all times. Even then they risk their lives. Not so long ago, a young mother was shot repeatedly by the Taliban while rushing her seriously ill toddler to a doctor. Veiled as the law requires, she was spotted by a teenage Taliban guard, who tried to stop her because she shouldn't have left her home. Afraid her child might die if she were delayed, she kept going. The guard aimed his Kalashnikov machine-gun and fired several rounds at her. She was hit, but didn't die on the spot, as she should have. Instead, locals watching the incident in the crowded market-place intervened, and mother and child received prompt medical attention. When her family later complained to the Taliban authorities, they were informed that it was the injured woman's fault. She had no business being out in public in the first place.

The burqa covers women from head to toe; the heavy gauze patch across the eyes makes it hard to see and completely blocks peripheral vision. Recently in Kabul, a Taliban tank rolled right over a veiled woman who could not see it approaching. Fortunately, she fell between the tracks and was not crushed to death; she was severely traumatized, though. To ensure women are effaced as effectively as if they never existed, the regime has ordered all exterior windows of homes to be painted black, lest a woman inside be seen from the outside. It is illegal for women to talk to any male except close relatives, which precludes them from visiting male physicians, no matter how sick, or even when in labour.

Amnesty International calls Afghanistan under the Taliban 'a human rights catastrophe'. Afghan women, struggling to survive in what has become a police state claiming to be a theocracy, describe themselves as the 'living dead'. Conditions are so deplorable for these women that many are severely depressed. Without the resources to leave the country, an increasing number are now choosing suicide, once rare there, as a means of escape. A foreign physician working in the city tells his tale. "Doctors are seeing a lot of esophageal burns. Women swallow battery acid or poisonous household cleansers, because they are easy to find. But it's a very painful way to die." For most women, it's the living that is painful; death is but a release.

Why does the regime insist that women be confined at home? Reducing women to mere objects, a senior Taliban official says, "It's like having a flower, or a rose. You water it and keep it at home for yourself, to look at it and smell it. It [a woman] is not supposed to be taken out of the house to be smelled." Another leader is less poetic. "There are only two places for an Afghan woman - in her husband's house, and in the graveyard."

As my tears flowed, I surmised that the graveyard is a far better option; one is free there - free from the world, free from being a woman, free from being.

Feb 10, 2009

Chaddi Pehen Ke Fool Khada Hai

Come one, come all! Participate in the "Pink Chaddi" campaign this Valentine's Day to assert your being and raise your voice against the violators of our Constitution.

Women (and men, too!) all over the country are collecting pink chaddis and sending them to Shri Shri Pramod Muthalik as a Valentine’s Day gift. Surprised? Don't be! The idea is to arouse disgust and shame and other 'moral' feelings in the heart (?) of our beloved CEO of Morality, Inc. Yes, you heard me right - heart! He doesn't have a brain, now, does he? But he has a heart that's so filled up to the brim with filth, and beats so for a culture which according to him exists and we all agree to.

The aim of the campaign is to scream from rooftops the infalliable fact that this monster (no, no, that's not a typo on 'mobster') has been busy piling up his bigoted views on 'culture' and 'dignity' and 'chastity' and what not in filthy heaps all over the nation. We just cannot let HIM, of all people, take our freedom away.

Gifting panties may seem like a soft, even mushy, way to protest. Yeah, I know. But trust me, I seriously did consider options like face-blackening or dung-splattering these morons. On second thoughts, however, it gives much more credence to our collective lack of 'morals' and 'shame' and 'virtue', those extremely desirable qualities the revered Morality, Inc. is so very desperate to see in us women.

What's more, the campaign planners will hold a press meet to announce their collection of pink chaddis. The campaign is all about letting people know what we think of Muthalik and his goons, these blots on our society. Shri Shri Muthalik used the media in a clever and planned manner to cover the Mangalore assault, thereby getting their propaganda known far and wide. So why not give them a taste of their own medicine?

Girls, contribute chaddis in all shades - baby pink, bubblegum pink, rose pink, candy pink, candyfloss pink, hot pink, fuschia, magenta, whatever! They can be lacy, frilly, high-cut, thong-like, cotton, silk, spandex, whatever! Don't have a pink chaddi, you say? Well, go and buy them, then! Buy the cheap ones, though; it is recession-time, after all, and seriously, Victoria's never intended to let out her Secret, if you get what I mean!

Boys, if you don't wear (or at least don't own) the pink 'uns, buy a pair or two and contribute to this 'moral' cause. Heck, borrow from your girl! Better still, boys, you can also send in a pink 'dhoti' or 'lungi' or 'langot' or even one with a pink 'naada', for this is all about preserving Indian culture! Just-for-men hint: polka dots make it even better. You can also pepper your contributions with one-liners such as "Real Men", "Macho Me", "I Love Pink and Respect Women", and so on. Just a thought!

If you're not already doing it, or have done it, please film yourself or others doing it, with reactions and views of the contributors, and put it all up on Youtube. Its all about publicity. A real kick in the you-know-where to Shri Shri Muthalik.

However, a teeny-weeny part of my mind cautions me: Will he even get what this is all about? Is he capable of understanding, the moron?

Feb 9, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Horror

"Man endures pain as an undeserved punishment; Woman accepts it as a natural heritage."

Every year, the drought-hit districts of Rajasthan speak about the number of deaths for the day, of bodies and carcasses strewn all over, of predictions for the continuing drought. Sometimes, the state speaks about a small village, Adharpura in the Banikantha district, where the news is of another kind of squalor.

Women from Rajasthan have from time immemorial overstepped their conventional boundaries, travelling far and wide in search for water. But women from Adharpura travel far and wide with their husbands in search for sex. Not for pleasure, but for money. Sometimes with fatal consequences. Fatal for the women, that is.

Every year, when the scorching sun divests them of water for months on end, the men turn to pimping rather than toiling in their parched fields. Many families live off the money that the women of their home - daughters, sisters, wives, mothers - bring in from prostitution. While the rest of the state languishes in famine, there is convivial celebration in this village which satiates all kinds of hunger - carnal, too. Then, without as much as batting an eyelid, the men return to tilling their fields once the rains begin to fall, and the women are shackled to their four walls. Till the next year’s drought, they are respectable people - who traditionally worship the Goddess.

Men in traditionally patriarchal societies in India either abhor women in the household as 'useless', or respect and love them as the 'weaker sex'. But men from Adharpura have little qualms about treating the women as Goddesses when the rains abound, and as prostitutes during drought. Men are seen leading 'clients' into their wives’, daughters’, sisters’ and sometimes their ageing mothers’ rooms - and whilst customers are serviced, the men distil illicit liquor for their guests who come from all over the state.

To read about this the first time was nauseating to say the least. Worse, I also discovered that the women are nonchalant about it; they joke about the sexual pleasures they might not have known if not for their summer prostitution. The men are another matter altogether. How could a person offer the body of his own mother/ daughter/ sister/ wife to another man for a sum of money? How do they suffer the ignominy?

A virgin, newly introduced to the trade, relates her traumatic experience. She was afraid; her father forced her into the room after beating her up, and her 'customer' raped her five times during the night. Her family kept vigil outside the room where the 16-year-old was violated; they would wake up periodically through the night when they heard her repeated screams, and then go off to sleep again. Early morning, after her customer’s departure, her father came into the room and had sex with her!

One has heard about incest, but this is something else entirely, for it combines incest with commercial prostitution. And it is all perpetrated by the family. The residents of Adharpura are mostly descendants of nomad migrants from Rajasthan who came here following one of the worst droughts two centuries ago. Faced with an uncertain and destitute future, some women clandestinely took to prostitution. The landlords were willing patrons. Thanks to the 'success' of these women, virtually every house in the area turned into a brothel overnight.

There have been countless programs over the years to eliminate prostitution from the area. The police has kept a vigil to deter 'customers' from coming. Welfare schemes have been launched with loans and subsidies to the villagers to start businesses. But each year, the residents of the village return to this profession, whether or not they have enough to eat and enough to wear.

Health workers conduct HIV tests on the women and men of the village. About 70% of them have tested positive for AIDS and another 20% suffered from some kind of sexually transmitted disease. With the lack of awareness about AIDS in Rajasthan, this disease will spread further beyond the boundaries of the village.

One may, in their anger and disbelief, feel it is just retribution for the perpetrators of the crime, and the participants. But how about the countless women in other parts of the state who had no idea that their husbands were 'clients' and are now infected? How about the children of women who participate in this seasonal activity? These innocent lives would be doomed but for the actins of others and no fault of theirs!

This problem does not have an easy solution. It needs people like you and me to contribute, start an awareness drive, organise campaigns to educate those who can be, and punish those who refuse to change. The government will listen, but only if we make the effort first.

Report by: Ms Deepika Singh

Feb 7, 2009


I feel liberated when I hear this song. It should be the anthem for the women of India.

Ae masakali masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Ae masakali masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Ae masakali masa masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Masakali masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Zara pankh jhatak
Gayi dhool atak
Aur lachak machak ke
Door bhatak

Ud dagar dagar kasbe kooche nukkad basti mein

Titli si ud adaa se mud
Kar le poori dil ki tamanna
Hawa se jud adaa se ud
Phurr phurr phurr
Tu hai heera panna re

Masakali masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Masakali masa masa kali
Hey matak

Ghar tera saloni
Badal ki colony
Dikhla de thenga
In sabko jo udna naa jaanein

Udiyo na dariyo
Kar manmaani manmaani manmaani
Badhiyo na mudiyo
Kar naadaani

Udiyo na dariyo
Kar manmaani manmaani manmaani
Badhiyo na mudiyo
Kar naadaani

Gaa taan le muskaan le
Kahe sa na na na na na hawa

Bas thaan le tu jaan le
Kahe sa na na na na na na hawa

Ae masakali masakali
Ud matakali matakali

Ae masakali masakali
Ud matak matak

Tujhe kya gum tera rishta
Gagan ki baansuri se hai
Pawan ki guftagu se hai
Suraj ki roshni se hai

Udiyo na dariyo
Kar manmaani manmaani manmaani
Badhiyo na mudiyo
Kar naadaani

Udiyo na dariyo
Kar manmaani manmaani manmaani
Badhiyo na mudiyo
Kar naadaani

Gaa taan le muskaan le
Kahe sa na na na na na hawa

Bas thaan le tu jaan le
Kahe sa na na na na na na hawa

Masakali masakali
Ud matak matak matakali

Masakali masa masakali
Matak matak

Once again, I fail to find words to thank Mr. Rahman for another priceless gem. I can only bow my head in reverence for this great yet humble artist. My humble gratitude to Prasoon Joshi, the lyricist and Mohit Chauhan, the singer.

'Masakali' is the name of Sonam's pet dove in the movie, and means 'freedom'. I think the dove and Sonam (at least in this song) are synonymous to each other. Sonam represents a girl perfectly - a mix of innocence, beauty, naughtiness, freshness, irreverence and freedom.

Feb 4, 2009

Morality begins at home

What really defines India in all its 'cultural' glory? A woman being paraded naked in front of the whole village and her children because she dared to call a painter to whitewash her home when her husband was not in town? A child being molested and then burnt alive by her own grandfather for daring to wear lipstick? A young educated woman being beaten by her 'educated' husband in a crowded marketplace for wearing jeans, a 'manly' piece of clothing, when out shopping with her parents? Or the police dismissing each of these incidents as a 'family matter' and no case being filed against any of the accused?

Shocking? Yes. Outrageous? Yes. Disgusting? Disgraceful? Shameful? Reprehensible? Yes, yes, yes. But horrific? Only to one really innocent about honour crime in India. Let’s face it. These are clear incidents of honour crime - acts of violence against women from male members of a family or community who decide that the women have brought dishonour upon their unit. Recently, some right-winged bigots sick in their head believed that women having a drink or socialising with male friends was a blot on India’s collective honour, and decided to protect Indian 'culture' and sense of 'decency' by groping, beating and trying to strip five hapless young women. Unfortunately, in the lurid landscape of honour crimes, such violence is rather moderate behaviour. The other accounts are more gruesome for the simple reason that they occur in the courtyard and rooms of homes where the victims are born and brought up. What's more, they are carried out by the very men they place their highest trust in - their own fathers and brothers.

Crime in the name of 'culture' or 'morality' does not occur only in the back of beyond, safely tucked out of sight of urban India. It also happens dangerously close to the nation’s nerve centre, and in uppity urban areas we christian as 'happening'. In November, in Greater Noida, two schoolgirls were killed by their brother for running away from home, apparently with their boyfriends. In September, also in Greater Noida, two teenage lovers were lynched by the girl’s family. On the eve of Republic Day, a young couple were chased and publicly shot dead in Punjab by the woman's father and brothers for marrying against her family's wishes. In June, in Hyderbad, a spunky 20-year-old was bludgeoned to death with a pestle by her brother for asking the village head for help in settling the argument with her family over her love affair. But perhaps the most tragic of all is the story of a little 12-year-old girl of Bulandshahar in Uttar Pradesh, who was mercilessly beaten to death by her father and uncles because they found her schoolmate, a 14-year-old boy, studying with her in her room.

There are hundreds of murders in the name of protecting honour every year, both within and outside the family. All of these are believed to carry 'reasons' which 'provoked' the murderers and are hence justified. Dozens of women are maimed and blinded for life as they are attacked with acid by men raring to teach a lesson to women who spurn their unwanted advances. It is no longer even ironic that the same women would be maimed and killed by their own families and communities if they were to accept those very advances. The life of a woman is deemed so trivial and so worthless that a man dreams his wife has cheated on him, wakes up to find her naked in bed with him, and slits her throat without a distinction between dream and reality. This actually happened and the killer escaped punishment. Those who heard justified his crime as an act of immense love and passion for his wife, so much that he could not bear to be separated from her. Now how could that be a crime?

This, from the land of Krishna and Radha, who were unabashedly open lovers and whose love people revere to this day. This, from the land of Heer and Ranjha, Sohni and Mahiwal, Laila and Majnu, whose love-lorn tales echo from the days of yore and colour our culture with their passion. This, from the land of the Kamasutra and Khajuraho, which teach us that making love is not merely a bodily function, it is an entire art in itself which must be enjoyed by the acting couple. This, from the land of Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali - who are worshipped as goddesses for epitomising those facets our patriarchal minds connote with men - power, wealth, wisdom, wrath. Whether it is the village panchayat or an urban right-wing group, male fanatics attack women, who they perceive as their property and who are excluded from power equations, to preserve the values of a patriarchal society. And politicians don’t dare fight such practices, for patriarchy runs deep and is allowed to justify the most vicious of crimes.

We Indian women have won our rights and freedom - to education, to choose partners of our choice, against child marriage, against being burnt alive for sati, to equality in the workplace - through a bitter struggle. Yet we fight daily for simply our right to live and be respected as a human being. Let us not surrender these rights to the diktats of the saffron or white or green fundamentalism. Let us raise our voices loud and clear against the self-appointed custodians of 'morality'. The only morality we uphold is one which respects a woman's unfettered freedom and her right to decide the life she chooses for herself - including education, profession, life partner, clothes, food and drinks, entertainment. The only morality we uphold is also one which abhors any attempts to poison relationships between communities and places tolerance for others at its pinnacle. And treats all individuals - men, women, transgenders - as humans first, which they are, all of them.