Category Archives: Feminism

The Waiter at the Hotel and his blow for Women’s Rights

I have blogged earlier about the feminist audit of restaurants, a practice of looking at how restaurant staff treated the women customers, what were the roles they were expecting from men and women and how equitable was this.

 

I think at this point, the undoubted winner on my feminist audit is a little roadside stall in Coimbatore. I was there a few months ago with my husband. This  is a little shop with just maybe four tables, but he does roaring business. We were staying for a couple of days at a nearby lodge and we pretty much had every meal with him.

Like many little places in South India, food is served on banana leaves. Some of the restaurants also insist that the customer clears away the banana leaf themselves. Its probably a labor saving practice, and also the concept of ‘Ecchal (or Jhoota) is very powerful in Tamil Nadu, and some places may therefore feel that everybody clears up their own plate and food remains.

As customers, sometimes we forget to do this, not because we think it is wrong, but because one generally never thinks of cleaning up the plates in a restaurant. I had myself forgotten one morning during breakfast and he had to come and remind me as I was washing my hand, that I had to put my plate away.

This is what happened when my husband finished eating and walked away to wash his hand. He forgot to pick up his leaf. Two waiters were standing nearby, and one of them called after him to pick it up. Even as my husband was turning, the other one indicated to his colleague that I was at the table and I would probably clear up both our plates. But the first waiter gave a sharp rejoinder. Its his plate and he clears up. We cant expect her to clear it up for him.

I am not saying this man is a great feminist. I dont even know what he does at home. Does he wash his own plates or expect the women in the family to do it. And I have also seen men who may be doing all household work and not expect anything from the women, but still have their own notions of patriarchy and male superiority. But it was nice to see a public upholding of men and women having to take up equal responsibility.

Reflections of a almost five year old on Fairy Tales

I have recently introduced Migu to popular fairy tales and now our bed time reading as well as meal time stories are generally Cinderella, Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

As I have blogged in the past,here and here  Migu does not like to consume stories in a docile way. She has to constantly comment or critique a story. So this is how our story telling session on Snow White went.

Snow White had a step mother who had a magic mirror.

Migu : Wow step mother and magic. Is she like the fairy godmother? Will she wave her want?

Me : Well, no step mother and fairy godmother are different, sort of very opposite to each other. Will you let me continue?

As I continue we come to the bit about the mirror.

Me : The step mother asked the mirror, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, who is the fairest of them all?”

Migu : Wait, wait, I am the mirror, you are step mother, now ask me.

Me: Ok, Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Migu : Goldilocks

Me : Not Goldilocks, Snow White.

Migu : But that day you told me Golilocks was also beautiful.

Me : Never minds, its another story. Can we continue.

After some time, as we come to the bit about Snow White falling after eating the apple

Me : How do you think she revived?

Migu : How? How?

Me : A handsome prince came and saw Beautiful Snow Whites Body. When he kissed her, she revived.

Migu : Thats not fair. Thats what happened to Sleeping Beauty. You are simply saying this.

Me : No that is the story.

Migu : Why is it always the prince?

Me : I dont know, can I continue?

Migu : Ok

Me : The prince and Snow White got married and lived in a castle

Migu : No, that is what happened to Rapunzel

Me : So its a different prince, and it was perfectly OK for him to marry Snow White.

Migu : Getting irritated, there is always a prince (She said it in Tamil, so all who follow Tamil can truly understand the impact of a line like Eppopathalum Prince, Eppopathalum Prince.

After some time,

Migu : I dont like these stories, I only like Red Riding Hood.

Me : Why

Migu : There is no prince, only a wolf.

The Feminist in Me : You go girl, yes you dont need a prince.

Like I have written before, I didnt really question any story while growing up. I dont not always fantasize about a life similar to the one which I was reading about, but I accepted it and never thought to challenge their choices. I am glad Migu is growing up, questioning stories, and maybe unconsiously breaking stereotypes and challenging possibilities and choices.

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A to Z Blogging Challenge : W is for Women’s Day and why does it get so many mens backs up

 

I have never celebrated womens day in a personal way. Not because I don’t beleive in it, but because for me in my personal journey of empowerment, one day does not always significantly matter. That being said, I don’t doubt the enormous significance of this day, and definitely use it to express solidarity to all with other women I know, to individualls, to people who are driving social movements as well as personal journeys of empowerment.

 

I was therefore a bit surprised to read on my FB page about some men complaining about womens day and how women are getting too empowered these days. Now I know social media forces me to read some arguments I find really stupid or crass, or some downright misogynist comments, but mostly I have learnt to ignore them. I pass over stupid comments which say stuff like women can prosper only if they dont sabotage each other, and as long as mother  in law and daughter in law cannot get along how can women prosper. I want to challenge these people to think deeper about the arguments they are making, to understand certain underlying issues which mediate relationships between women as well, but I dont have the energy to have these arguments on Facebook.

 

This year, I read something far more disturbing. Someone had shared the story of a man, who committed suicide, because his wife had complained against him and his family for dowry and even threatened to complain against his father and brother for rape. According to him all these charges were false, his wife was not happy with him and wanted to torture him this way. And he felt as long as he lived his family would continue to suffer, and therefore decided to end it all.

 

This is truly a sad story and if it is true, I really feel bad for the man and his family. But this article I read went on to argue that for his parents, womens day is now a bad day because it took away his son. It is laws like Dowry prevention act which drove their son to suicide. It is a bad law which is being misused by women.

 

Now blaming women’s empowerment or progressive laws for this mans issues is mind boggling. I am sure dowry act  or the domestic violence act can be misused, but a far greater concern is how underused it is, how despite there being so many issues of dowry harassment or domestic violence, so few reach the police and still fewer are pursued by the police. I am sure even laws relating to homicide and murder can be misused and falsely accuse someone, but surely we are not protesting against their misuse, why then do we need to protest so much against something which acknowledges womens issues and tries to reach out to them. Even on the issue of sexual harassment at workplace, I remember attending a talk on this by a senior HR person who spoke about how they implemented these policies in the workplace, and how he was proud that not once has it been misused to frame someone falsely. I told him it was great that no one was falsely accused, but was he really sure it was being used fullly. Was it being underused? He had no answer for that, he had no way of even knowing if his policies and redressal systems could be underused.

 

I am, in my own way, a feminist, but I am the last one to say the feminist movement has solved every issue. We have a long way to go in truly understanding lived experiences of every kind of women and including them within our ideology. But at least I thought we had acheived the step of convincing the world that women were entitled to basic human rights. But have we really, if every progressive legislation (never mind that these legislations are very seldom progressively interpreted or implemented)is challenged because it has a potential for misuse.

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A to Z Blogging Challenge : M is for mentrual tabboos in India and living with discrimination

A to Z Blogging Challenge Apr 15 M

I dont know why, but suddenly menstrual taboos in India is getting a lot of virtual column space. Practically every time I log into facebook, I see someone posting something about how menstrual taboos are demeaning to women and how it is time it stopped and what not. Or alternatively how menstrual taboos are deeply scientific and how ancient hindus knew a lot of science and we are better off following whatever they say.

 

Being an Indian woman from a conservative family, I am fully familiar with menstrual tabboos. I have faced my share of them, and right from puberty during my monthly ‘time’ I was not supposed to do stuff which I otherwise do. Now if I describe what the taboos were, it may sound awful and inhuman, but actually it was not that bad. After I read up a lot on feminism and started seeing these taboos as something demeaning to the essence of women, I resented them, yes. But the people who were imposing these taboos were my own family, people I loved. No matter how strong my resentment, I somehow complied because in the larger scheme of things, this didnt seem worth fighting over.

 

And of course no matter how much I claim that I dont share these taboos, I would still hesitate to walk into a temple or even a public pooja during that time. It is not just me, friends of mine, who were bought up in more open settings (without so many taboos) still hesitate to walk into temples. Maybe it is an example of how we are complicit in our own discrimination. But no matter how comfortable we were in our private prayer settings, going to a temple was somehow not OK.

 

But my most major insight about the experiences were that I railed against them for what they meant, but that was at an intellectual level. In actuality I was quite compliant of what was expected of me. Sometimes I even enjoyed the fact that I didnt need to do household chores at that time. Taboos which were inconvenient for me I railed against or did not follow, but things which didnt affect me negatively, I simply followed them or even benefited from them.

 

This is perhaps one of the truly discriminatory experiences I have actually faced (I may have faced discrimination as a woman, but nothing so obvious). And when I think about it, I am stuck by the fact that despite understanding the discrimination, I have not blown hot about it. I have subverted some aspects, accepted some aspects and moved on.

 

I am not trying to say people who are discriminated enjoy it, just that their experience of it is much more complex than simple acceptance or denial. I have observed similar things in my workspace where I have interacted with leaders of sex worker collectives. One of the primary steps in empowerment of sex workers is helping them value and respect themselves and not internalize the notion that they are doing something ‘bad’. But I have seen this is rarely an either or situation. Sex workers can accept that they are not fallen ‘women’ that theirs is a job like any other. They can even take pride in it. But their acceptance is not always complete, it is always a journey towards greater acceptance of themselves.

 

Maybe this is what a lived experience of discrimination is like. You rail against it but accept and subvert it in your own ways. And perhaps emacipation itself is also a personal lived experience, as you gradually throw away or subvert more of the discrimination

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How free are you ? Social Roles get you one way or the other

Recently, I heard that a young couple who had gotten married fairly recently were expecting their first child. My first reaction was, “Of course I am not surprised. The girl is not working.”

This reaction and all the judgment it involves set me thinking about the fact that as an educated working woman, I have spent so much of my life trying to fight the social role of a conventional woman, which is usually imposed on us, but at the same time, I am replacing one social role, with another, and judging a lot of women by whether or not they measure upto it. My new ideal woman is someone who has a fairly decent education, is capable of working. But this is only a superficial description. Underneath, I also assume that she will be aware of family planning, willing to follow family planning and capable of doing it.  If anyone therefore got pregnant right after marriage, she was not really educated or concerned about a job. That a woman, educated or otherwise,  may choose to have a child soon after marriage is not a possibility I was willing to grant anyone.

In that way I exclude many possibilities for educated women. I wonder why someone would choose not to work (even if she has no commitments like children). I wonder why someone gives up a chance for a productive job to dabble in some kind of hobby. Actually, I exclude many possibilities for myself. Though there are times when I find the dual responsibility of motherhood and a job physically and emotionally exhausting, I don’t even consider quitting. There are days when I feel, I would love to not have to do a job, so that I can read all the amazing books which this well stocked library possesses, but I know that is totally fantasy. There are days when I feel I want to quit all these jobs, and pursue yoga seriously, but again, I know that thought is going nowhere. I dont mean to say I work unwillingly, but I acknowledge that my decision to work is not wholly a ‘free decision’. At some level, it is influenced by my expectation that a woman should work.

This is not just my expectation. A scan of matrimonial ads will show that in most cases prospective grooms desire working women, preferably, professionally qualified.   A lot of recently married women tell me something like, my husband would like me to work, So I will settle into the new place and start looking for a job. He does not want me to be a house wife. Now I wonder, and I want to ask them, “Do you really want to work there, or do you just think you want to or your husband wants you to. Would you prefer to settle into married life without the additional responsibility of finding a job. Would you prefer to pursue some hobby which you never had the time to for now. Would you continue to value and respect yourself if you dont take up a job. Or will you feel like an underachiever every time you hear of a career progression of a friend or erstwhile colleague.

So is this where my personal empowerment has led me?  Replacing one set of ideals with another. It was far easier fighting the other role of an ideal woman as a ‘good and dutiful wife, mother, daughter in law etc etc’. It is so much more difficult to fight this role, since its something I created myself. I will need to shift my empowerment drive to a higher gear, where I really make free and informed choices, with no pressure to fulfill any social role.

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A Feminist Audit

According to most people, feminism has made me a raving, ranting, over-analytical, hyper-sensitive WOMAN. But I have thoroughly enjoyed filtering all my experiences through the philosophy of feminism and seeing how so much of our social behavior is shaped by expected gender roles. One of the most delightful pastimes which emerged from this was the Feminist Audit of Restaurants, which I started doing. 

Basically, the Feminist Audit was about how the restaurant staff treated you and how this was influenced by what they expected from women. It was specially a lot of fun to do this when I was eating out with my husband (then my boyfriend/friend) and we had an understanding that each of us would pay alternately for the times we ate out. The times when the bills were handed over was hilarious. Here are some extreme cases : 

1. One restaurant hands over the menu to my husband. Worse, whenever I order something (even a roti), the waiter looks at my husband for confirmation as to whether the order can really be taken (I am not overweight or obese, so I can safely say concern for my overeating was hardly the reason to seek this confirmation). Worse, he automatically handed the bill to my husband, and even after he saw me taking the bill, taking out my purse and paying for it, he handed the change back to my husband. Must have thought I was one crazy woman who could not even count the change. 

2. At one super posh restaurant, I am overjoyed after the meal when the ‘bill’ is handed to me. I think that this waiter deserves a big tip, open it to find that its not a bill, but a suggestion form. Bill obviously goes to the male. (Btw, I get the thing about bill going to the male, but why should suggestion form come to the female. Are males not capable of having an opinion about restaurant experiences and stating this opinion). 

Funnily enough these instances have always occurred only in big restaurants. When we are eating out on the roadside, bills are randomly given, I think based on whoever is standing/sitting more closely or whoever has made eye contact at that point of time. 

Anyway, this is just about restaurants. I have found similar attitudes in lots of places. Railway ticket collectors who expect my husband to have the ticket and id, even thought its mostly me who carries it, doctors who, when trying to assess our situation want to know where my husband works, but does not consider asking me that question, travel agents who want details of my husbands bank account when I apply for some visa. It would be extremely irritating, were it not for the fact that the look on their face when the see the woman taking the lead in those situations is priceless. I hope to continue bashing many such social expectations. And to all my woman friends out there, break some more.

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Political Correctness or just sensitivity??

Political Correctness has become one of the most damned phrases in English language. It is taken to mean everything from superciliousness, hypocrisy, pandering to a minority to outright lying. Its cool to be ‘politically incorrect’, but of course we  never stop to wonder how politically incorrect we routinely are in much of our speech and interaction. 

Take an example, Manmohan Singh bashers jokingly call him Manmohini Kaur, presumably to show his powerlessness and obsequiousness to Sonia. But what does this mean, that ‘women’ are powerless and spineless and Manmohan Singh a man, is powerless and spineless and therefore a woman. Today, I heard that he was referred as Shikandi (Shikandi is a warrior in the Mahabharata, but in common parlance today is taken to refer to a eunuch). I saw a post on FB which said ‘Jab Tak Suraj Chaand rahega, napunsak PM tera naam rahega.’Again, does it mean that eunuchs are spineless. Without even realizing it, isn’t there a hierarchy here of the assertive alpha male, and the ‘submissive’ female and ‘gutless’ transgender. I know its a joke, I know we are not expected to over-analyse this, but if jokes routinely promote such stereotypes, what is the message we are giving.  

While on the subject of Manmohan bashing, maybe it is time for his critics to reflect on whether he draw so many brickbats because he, as the elected Prime Minister listens to Sonia, who holds no political office, or that he as a man and as a elected Prime Minister listens to Sonia, who is a woman and holds no political power. This is not to justify any of Manmohan’s or UPA’s actions, I am not politically astute enough to critique it. But as a woman, I am able to pick up the some element of gender bias in this.

Its not just gender, I am sure our everyday language is full of idioms, which, while not intending to be derogatory, paints a negative, or patronizing picture of some group. I have been lucky that I am a member of the majority community in my country, I come from Mainland India and I come from a relatively privileged socio-economic background. Apart from gender, I cant really pick out any of the other stereotyping idioms. But millions of others are not so lucky.  

Political correctness is a jargon, simply put, what it means is that we are sensitive to what other people feel. That if we truly aspire to be a society where people of all castes, religions, ethnic identity can interact as equals, through our words, through our behavior, we constantly reinforce our equality. Not just when we are interacting with people from the other groups, but routines, as a matter of practice, so much so that we are not really aware of it. Its not easy to do this, equality is not an inherent value for any of us. But can we start by reflecting on what kind of impressions- intended and unintended- we convey through our words. Can we stop making ‘political correctness’ a dirty word? Can we stop making people who are aspiring to be ‘sensitive’ feel like they are a bunch of hypocrites?

 

 

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