May 14, 2013
A powerful and poignant exploration of the oppressive darkness that lurks beneath the veneer of ‘modern’ India, Saswati Sengupta’s debut novel, The Song Seekers, raises compelling questions that continue to haunt the reader for a long time.
Set in the turbulent 1960s in Bengal, the novel revolves around the life of newly wed Uma, an English Literature graduate from Miranda House, as she steps into the threshold of her marital home Kailash, the ancestral mansion of the highly reputed Chattopadhyay family of Calcutta. Even as she tries to find her footing in a new, unfamiliar world, Uma is intrigued by the shadows that seem to linger in the sprawling mansion; her husband’s silence about his mother’s death, the presence of the enigmatic green-eyed Pishi, a few old letters kept safely in her father-in-law’s bedside drawer – all hint at a mysterious family past.
Uma is drawn by the overwhelming presence of the traditional Chandimangal – a mahakavya in medieval Bengali literature which celebrates Goddess Chandi – composed by her great-grandfather-in-law, the ascetic Brahman poet Neelkantha, and printed at the family-owned Ganges printing press at the height of the anti-colonial swadeshi movement in Bengal. Gingerly at first, Uma begins to read aloud the Chandimangal of the Chattopadhyays to an audience of three – the mysterious, aged Pishi, the lower-caste Bagdi maid Khema, and the poor, but upper-caste, cook Bamundi. These seemingly innocuous reading sessions, in which a motley group of women gathers in the kitchen of Kailash every afternoon to read and discuss an epic narrative, soon lead to a thrilling investigation of the past itself, as smothered histories begin to emerge.
How does one explain the sharp disjunction between the imagined power and freedom of the goddess, as celebrated by the upper-caste male poet, and the lived reality of flesh and blood women? How did the goddess who rode lions, slayed demons and roamed forests freely, get reformulated into the compliant, subservient wife, confined to the domestic sphere? Does the goddess, too, have a history? As the women of Kailash unravel the layers of the Chandimangal and interpret the figure of the goddess in terms of their own lived experiences, the answers begin to take shape. The normative feminine sphere of the kitchen turns into a space of subversion where the women grasp the “cunning of their opponents, no longer in awe of the sacred thread”, and the reader becomes a secret sharer of this subversive female knowledge.
As the plot unfolds, so does the tainted history of the Chattopadhyays – where every male member from Neelkantha onwards is a namesake of Shiva. The ‘kulin’ status of this respected Brahman family, it is revealed by the green-eyed Pishi, is inextricably linked to a horrific act of violence. The deep foundation of the great family mansion named after the abode of Shiva conceals the muffled cries of a small seven year old girl being smothered to death by a stranger who had married her. This gory family secret serves as a scathing indictment of the caste structure, and the Brahmanical preoccupation with purity of blood and lineage which inevitably has dire consequences for women.
The picture that emerges with the progression of the novel reveals how knowledge that is hailed as the ‘truth’ is consciously shaped, formatted and interpolated in order to consolidate the supremacy of the elite upper-caste male. As the four women of Kailash gradually learn, Brahmanical hegemony is established through an accommodation and annihilation of the culture, literature and social practices of those who are lower down in the caste hierarchy. Women and the lower-caste are denied any articulation in such a caste-patriarchal society, and are thus left to seek a song that they can call their own. The novel ultimately lays bare the oppressive assumptions that continue to operate in the name of tradition and asks for a new conception of culture, not as “sanskriti with its devouring fire sacrifices, presiding Brahmans and elite ways” but as “krishti that reminds us of the sweat of labour and the peasants’ lives”.
The novel does not progress in a linear manner, but continually flits across space and time, thus effortlessly weaving together the history of the militant goddess, the presence of the Portugese in Bengal, the rise of print, and the freedom movement and its repercussions, even as Uma attempts to unearth the dark secrets of Kailash. The constant flashbacks and parallel narratives, against the backdrop of Bengal’s political history, add to the density of the narrative and make the novel a layered one. The storyline is engaging and forceful, and the characters convincingly portrayed. The narrative is sprinkled with irony, such as that directed at the small and smug Brahman man who perhaps palpably felt the “purity of the blood that was coursing through his veins”, or at those elite upper-caste men who refused to interact with the children of prostitutes and set up the Hindu Metropolitan College, “though it is not known if at the same time they also stopped patronising prostitutes.”
In all, the book makes for a stimulating reading experience and is highly recommended. With its subversive feminist thrust and persistent questioning of what constitutes religion, tradition and culture, The Song Seekers is sure to strike a chord.
May 07, 2013
By Padmalatha Ravi
Date: 12 May 2013, Sunday
Time: 3.30pm to 5.30 pm
Venue: Jaaga, KH Road,Bangalore
Entry fee: Free
About the film:
Good girls don’t dance.
Good girls don’t go out after sun down.
Good girls don’t use mobile phones or have Facebook profile.
Good girls stay away from chowmein-eating boys.
Good girls don’t loiter.
Good girls don’t fall in love.
Good girls don’t wear jeans or show skin.
Good girls don’t drink. Good girls don’t question.
Good girls don’t party and good girls definitely don’t have fun.
But then, good girls don’t get raped or molested, or do they?
This is a crowd funded documentary film. It explores the notions of good girl and bad girl and the role it plays in society’s reaction to sexual harassment and rape. It is an effort to understand why the girl is blamed when she’s molested, sexually harassed or raped.
For more on the film: https://www.facebook.com/GoodGirlsDontDance
May 06, 2013
On the evening of the 16th of December, 2012, a young woman and her male friend boarded a public bus in the city of Delhi, India, to go home after watching a movie at a local movie hall. The woman never returned home. She was raped and beaten to death by the driver, conductor and four other men on the bus. Her friend barely survived the beating he received. The rape and murder of this young woman has shaken Delhi and the rest of the country and has opened up the dialogue on patriarchy, violence against women, government and police apathy towards rape to a much larger audience.
A few months ago, I attended a conference in Washington DC on transportation and cities. In general, I find that these conferences focus on technical content like cost-benefit analyses, climate related issues and transportation modelling. Many of the participants at these conferences are architects, engineers, urban planners and economists and the discussion tends to veer towards econometric modelling, physical master plans and transport master plans. This, of course, seems a natural extension of the hours and hours of work spent on producing physical and economic plans of cities, defining road systems for our constantly growing cities, and the detailed work and research on more efficient and optimal transport networks for cars, buses, trains and other modes of transport one typically sees in a city. It is, in many ways, endearing to see the passion at these conferences for transport (planes, trains and automobiles) and climate related subjects.
It is, however, very rare to hear a discussion on issues that stem from more human events such as the rape on the public bus in Delhi, like security for women and children, access for all members of society and gender that are and must be front and central to the discussion on transport and the growth of our cities. I keep hoping that I will see more work on the actual connection of public transport to human beings.
Public transportation speaks volumes about a society. It speaks about racism, economic injustice and the patterns of historical development of a nation – economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental – which are embedded in a transportation system that people take for granted. To me, public transport is a political service but at its most basic level it is a tool of independence, both in the city and in rural areas. Truly free societies see people stream through their cities with ease and freedom, using transport in all its forms, public and private, engaging in activities with an energy and verve that at some level, comes from the freedom that movement allows, and make the city or region vibrant and exciting. Another critical element of a truly free city is safety and security associated with public services, especially transport.
Twenty years ago, I took the same buses to traverse the city of Delhi. I never ever felt safe on those buses or even in the auto rickshaws (an event that was rarer as autos were more expensive and not affordable for the student that I was). For such a beautiful and well planned city that Delhi is, with many a master plan, transportation plan, BRTS, cycling plan and conservation plan that has been developed for it, somehow to me, the humanity of the city seems to be lost in the eternal cycle of technical and economic planning.
As a long term student of cities and urban planning, and as a keen proponent of the work of David Harvey, Jane Jacobs and Lefebvre on cities, I am keenly aware of the politics and power structures related to transport: the radical transformation of lifestyles that bring about new products such as two cars in every driveway, the increased consumption of oil, the suburbanization of America and the expansion of the highway system that feeds in the discussion and rhetoric of transport and climate change development. With the new infrastructure came an altered political landscape, with the segregation between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ becoming more and more distinctive, primarily with the ‘have-nots’ stuck in the city, often dependant on poor public transport options and effectively disenfranchised.
I still use public transport extensively both in Washington DC and Baltimore, and especially in Baltimore, I notice how my co-passengers in buses are very rarely middle-class white people. Mostly, they are non-white and poor. Most are incredibly dependent on an aging and inefficient bus network and the stress and tensions associated with leaving home two hours earlier to catch a bus to work is often etched on their faces.
Is there a more humanistic solution to dealing with the ugliness that befell the young woman on the public bus in Delhi and that faces the riders of buses in Baltimore? Is there a way that we can speak about transport, cities and the climate in a more humane and gender nuanced manner? I am always on the lookout for a more sensitive approach to the way we plan our cities and approach transport planning. Maybe the planners, economists and transport experts at the next conference will surprise me with the narrative, tone and scope of their work.
(Editors note: This is part of a new open-ended series on public transportation and gender. Contributions welcome and invited!)
April 30, 2013
[Editor's Note: Continuing with our Feminism & Humor series, here is the first of what we hope will be Lavanya Karthik's many comic strips for Ultra Violet. This was first published in the DNA, Bangalore, and can also be viewed on the cartoonist's website. Feminism and the funnies are not mutually exclusive. Come laugh with us!--Dilnavaz Bamboat]
Comic courtesy Lavanya Karthik
April 24, 2013
Women and Democratic Movements in India: Changing Dynamics, Altered Perspectives
Date & time: Tuesday, April 30, 2013; 1 pm
Venue: Encina Hall West, Room 208, Stanford University, 616 Serra St., Stanford, CA
About the event & the speaker:
Fee: This event is free and open to the public.
April 24, 2013
This is the second of a series of posts written from the experiences at CREA of implementing a program called “Count Me IN! It’s My Body: Advancing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Young Girls through Sports”. CREA is a feminist human rights organization based in Delhi (www.creaworld.org).
(Take fifteen seconds for each of these words.)
Think of one regional language word each for the following: Consent. Assumption. Choice. Pleasure. Agency.
These are some of the words which form the foundation of the world of sexual rights. How many did you get?
How does one talk of sexuality? How does one express desire and consent? How does one articulate violation? What do we call the body parts, what do we call ourselves? How do we claim identities or demand space and rights on sexuality? In societies where conversations about sex are silenced, how do we talk about our everyday lives, which are as much about sexual boundaries and norms as they are about the politics of caste, religion, gender, class and so much more besides.
Working on sexuality in local languages is not only crucial but radical. It is radical because it dispels the myth that most of sexuality work happens in the ‘English world’. It is also radical because it demonstrates that no cultures are devoid of sexualitymeans, saying that “we don’t have the language to talk of sexuality” isn’t correct. A friend from Meem[i], Lebanon, berating the mainstream western understanding around the ‘Middle East’ and sexuality, said recently to me, “it’s not that we don’t talk of sexuality, it could be that we just don’t call it sexuality.”
Also, the concept of sexuality isn’t unpacked in a uniform way everywhere. Different meanings are made of it in different contexts. A group of young girls we work with from Jharkhand, when asked what what they understood by sexuality, said in unison,“sexuality means what we like and don’t like in all aspects of life.”
There are many terms, words and connotations that find space in a regional language, but not in English. Hindi offers the space for many terms that connote a cultural construct – such as Hijra. There is no equivalent term in English for Hijra – the only word that comes closest is ‘transgender’, an unsatisfactory translation. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s work[ii] brings together diverse texts that uncover stories of same-sex desire and gender diversity, spanning centuries of the subcontinent’s history and numerous linguistic traditions. Non-English speaking people have not needed English to claim and articulate their realities. Their lives are lived, and desires expressed in a manner they find appropriate for themselves.
In its initial phase of work, sexual rights activists in India were constantly told that poverty was a far more pressing issue than sexuality. These activists brought forth an understanding of intersectionality as a perspective to do any work related to human rights. This perspective also sheds light on access to language in which work is done and the need to work in different local languages is something that became clear fairly earlier on. Since most of the activists who began this work were themselves urban and English speaking, their work would be inaccessible, possibly culturally-alien, if it remained only in the realm of English. Sexuality is a deeply cultural thing – in terms of its specific taboos, the controls, the ways in which it is allowed to be expressed, the breaking of norms, articulation of experiences which are different, naming desire. In India, how can these multilayered cultural manifestations ever be fully expressed in English, without losing its richness?
A few friends decided to say words which we used for our nether regions. Cunt was one of the most used. We felt very empowered, smugly so. At some point one of us said, but what are the non-english words? We came up with a few, choot being one of them. None of us appropriated a single one of those words for ourselves or our amorous moments. We were empowered in English. Elsewhere, we were as good as people who didn’t/couldn’t say cunt.[iii]
One of the challenges of working in Hindi is that sexualised words often also used as slang, and are therefore considered obscene, or are stigmatised. It could feel less personalised. But what is it really that makes us uncomfortable? Could it be that for the English speaking people, our language of thinking limits our expressions around sexuality?
In this work in Hindi, creating new language, and sometimes modifying the existing language becomes crucial to convey meaning.[iv] In the latest edition of the annual Hindi journal on sexual and reproductive health and rights, Reproductive Health Matters (RHM), themed Abortion and Rights, we wanted to highlight the element of ‘right to choice’ for termination of pregnancy.[v] The popular hindi term, garbh paat seemed stigmatised at one level and on further research, it was clear that its literal translation means miscarriage. To keep the right to choice about one’s body and life inextricably linked to induced abortion, we chose to use a lesser used but thought provoking term, garbh samaapan (termination of pregnancy). Such experiments in translation and creation of a new language to talk about sexuality and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR), keeps our work political.
Another crucial point is about the kind of hindi scholarship around sexuality being created. Is it influenced by the assumption that theory is for English-speakers, while practice is for non-English speakers? This despite the interconnections between practice and theory, and the influence our everyday worlds and their construction have on theory. The diversity in resources available on sexuality in English isn’t the same as that in Hindi. We felt the need for Hindi RHM, a peer reviewed journal, precisely because such theoretical scholarship was not available for Hindi speaking activists. The Institutes on Sexuality, Gender and Rights in Hindi have as much reading and engaging with theory as the English Institutes.
Sometimes popularising certain English terms may make more sense. The term Intersex in Hindi would be antarlingi. Not only does this term in Hindi have no resonance in colloquial Hindi, it is a highly sanskritised way of using language, which we are, very consciously, trying to move away from. The words sex, transgender, surrogate, sex work are some more of such examples.
As part of our sports and SRHR program, It’s My Body, we produced resources for young girls. We wanted to steer clear of the producing material which looks like SRHR outcomes – HIV transmission and menstruation. We realised that we need to think about the kind of language we want to use. We wanted to talk not only of menstrual cycle, but how young girls should have information around their bodies. We wanted to not only talk of how to have safe sex, but that young people should be able to decide who they want to have sex with, when and also have the knowledge, confidence and agency to be able to say yes, no as well as maybe. We decided to use words like sahmati, poorv-anumaan, chaahat, chunaav, haan, naa, pasand – the language used in the work with the groups of young girls. We designed them in a way so girls can keep them hidden, if they needed to; to take out and discuss and read with peers when they felt comfortable.
A conversation on language and sexuality is incomplete without thinking about who is creating the Hindi scholarship in the sexuality world. The people who live in both ‘English and Hindi worlds’ are different from people who live in ‘Hindi worlds’. If we are clear that practitioners are also capable of creating scholarship (as we should be!), a larger objective of creating Hindi scholarship on sexuality must be to put this work in the hands of people for whom English is not the first language. That will alter the canvas of negotiating the language of sexuality.
Author’s note – Big thank you to S. Vinita for thinking this through with me and Sanjana and Vrinda for their very useful feedback.
[ii] Same-Sex Love in India, Readings from Literature and History: Edited: Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Macmillan 2000
[iii] An old conversation between a group of English speaking friends.
[iv] This blogpost focuses on Hindi as a language but the arguments are relevant for any regional language.
[v] Reproductive Health Matters (RHM) is an independent charity, producing in-depth publications on reproductive and sexual health and rights for an international, multi-disciplinary audience. http://www.rhmjournal.org.uk/ CREA has collaborated with RHM since 2005 to bring out annual editions of the journal in Hindi.
April 20, 2013
We all know that mothers and babies in India are dying. We have some of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world and tragically, a lot of it is preventable. Access to information is key. Quite simply, many women do not do the right things because they don’t know what they are. Across rural India, this need is being tackled through government healthcare workers or ASHAs (Accredited Social Health Activists). There are those who say that the ASHA program needs to be improved in terms of how ASHAs are selected, trained and rewarded. There’s certainly no arguing that a lot is riding on the ASHAs and the quality of information they give out.
ASHAs are supposed to advise pregnant women on institutional delivery (why it’s better to deliver in hospital), keeping the baby warm after birth, nutrition, breastfeeding and family planning methods through a series of antenatal sessions. So far so good. But how effective are these sessions and what are the possible pitfalls?
Like any system that is heavily dependent on lots of people, there are danger areas caused by the specific attitudes and personalities of these people. A study published in PLOS collections points out one such danger area: the deep-seated inequality that is present in the system. According to the study published in 2012, richer women who visit antenatal centres are likely to receive more information than poorer women.
The researchers studied seven components of advice and found marked differences. To begin with, women who visited higher level facilities had a greater chance of getting advice compared to those who visited lower level facilities. This can be a matter of life and death. For example, 65% of women availing of antenatal care in the higher level facilities were given advice on keeping the baby warm compared to only 59% among those who availed themselves of antenatal care in the lower level facilities. This means 41% did not receive advice on keeping their babies warm after birth. Many parts of rural India get bitterly cold at night. Consider lack of adequate sheets / linen, the fatigue of the mother and the general lack of information. It adds up to dead infants. When I visited Dr Abhay Bang’s non-profit organisation SEARCH in Gadchiroli, he mentioned that hypothermia is a leading cause of infant mortality in rural India.
Rich women were also more likely to receive advice on institutional delivery, nutrition and breastfeeding. According to the report, the advice given to pregnant women was also quite variable. While most women were advised on breastfeeding and nutrition, about 35% of pregnant women were not advised on keeping the baby warm. About 39% did not receive advice on institutional delivery and visiting a health facility for pregnancy complications. This means a lot of women not knowing what to do when they start bleeding in their seventh month or when they swell up dramatically and need to be checked for preeclampsia.
What this study concludes is that health workers “proffer advice to their clients based on their own perceptions of the clients’ needs.”
The solution seems like common sense: train and sensitise health workers about the catastrophic effects of their inbuilt biases. But here are some questions. Given that we are a country steeped in bias, what kind of training programmes are effective? Who conducts these programmes? How can we be certain that the trainers themselves are not passing on biases? In other words, who watches the watchers?
This is where technology could play an important role. Projects such as Dimagi’s CommCare in Bihar and Armaan’s mMitra in Maharashtra depend on the healthcare worker but also try to standardise the information she will give out.
The technological solutions provide the healthcare workers with ready-made modules of information when she visits pregnant women in their homes. This may go some way toward reducing the element of human bias and ensuring that all women receive a certain basic amount and type of information. (Of course, it could still have loopholes. Healthcare workers may simply not visit poorer women as often or not play the entire module for them. Still, it tackles some of the gaps.) Technology can’t replace counselling. We still need to do work toward changing mindsets and biases. Health workers are the most important link in this chain and investing in them is a huge priority. But we shouldn’t ignore the possibilities of technology either. Tech solutions that systematise or regularise some of the processes are bound to help. Techies, CSR types, other head honchos — are you listening? In the meantime, this blog post covers various ICTs for maternal and child health that are currently being piloted in India.
April 15, 2013
Choosing to take on your husband’s name after marriage doesn’t bode well for a budding feminist, at least that’s the impression I get from the heated debates that have been criss-crossing the web diaries of feminist writers in the quarter that just went by. On the one hand, we have feminist debates that focus on identity politics. In ‘Why should married women change their names? Let man change theirs,’ The Guardian writer Jill Filipovic writes about how societal expectations for a woman to change her last name post marriage play into patriarchal injunctions against women’s selfhood: “The cultural assumption that women will change their names upon marriage – the assumption that we’ll even think about it, and be in a position where we make a “choice” of whether to keep our names or take our husbands’ – cannot be without consequence.”
Identity is also something that drove Claudia Maittlen-Harris to stick to her maiden name. She writes in The Huffington Post: I couldn’t part with the identity and history I have attached to my name, and I couldn’t part with who I believe I am with this name. Jonathan Jackson (nee Jonathan Jones Camery-Hogatt Jackson) reflects on the backlash he received on his decision to go against tradition. He writes in The Huffington Post: “Our society needs an overhaul, and this last name choice won’t make a huge difference by itself. We know that. It’s quiet. It’s subtle. But it still undermines small power asymmetries. In that sense, our last name has the potential to stand for something much, much bigger: it symbolizes our relationship with society itself.”
The kick-off point for my own exploration of why I gave up being a Miss Haja to become a Ms. Ansher began with three of my good friends getting married recently: forget hyphenating their last names, the thought of giving up their surnames didn’t even enter their minds. While one of them is an avowed feminist, the other two aren’t. For them, the question of taking on their husband’s family name was a moot point; why should marriage preclude women from holding on to their individual identities, and not place any such expectations on married men?
The narrative of associating our names with identity runs strongly through all the articles I mention above. Filipovic even mentions how patriarchy conditions women to treat their names – and therefore their identities – as temporary, something which will soon be appended by their true, permanent and real names. This is something I understand and can trace to my own childhood spent day-dreaming with cousins about the possible romantic surnames that we would all have, post-marriage. In the Tamil Muslim community I come from, married women take on their spouse’s first name post-marriage – and not the surname, family, village, or clan name as is the case with the country’s multitude of ethnicities. So, for us, it was doubly exciting to contemplate getting married to a Salman, or a Zubair or an Armaan, and not bother too much about the Khan, Syed or Mohammed addendums.
What I was very clear about was not adding the prefix of Mrs. to my name. To me, this more than anything else placed more emphasis on a woman’s marital status and projected her as a wife first, and a woman later. In the lead up to the wedding, my fiancé was least concerned about what name I would take up post-marriage. It was I who had to bring up the topic. With three months to go for D-Day, I went ahead and signed up for new Facebook and Google accounts, shutting down my old ones and generally making a fuss about the impending nomenclature change. My friends thought it was an excellent way to announce my new status in life and none of them questioned why I chose to drop my father’s name.
What I didn’t anticipate was that in the course of my marriage, I would also grow to recognize and embrace the feminist in me, and this certainly made things uncomfortable for the smug Ms. in me. I questioned the implicit social expectation that required women to disassociate their married selves from their maiden lives. The reason why this act of rechristening holds so much power is because we invest so much of our emotions, memories, selfhood, and character in the names chosen by our parents. I also began to understand the agony of some of my other girl friends who wanted to stick to their maiden names, but couldn’t.
It’s been five years since I took on a new last name. Today, despite being aware of how chauvinism and misogyny operate, I don’t feel anything less than a complete woman, or anything less than what I was before marriage. In fact, marriage has added to my journey, to my successes and to my discourse of being a feminist. I cannot exhort my husband to consider changing his name because he never asked me to change mine. And by the very same standards that chauvinism thrives on, if I expect my husband to change his last name for my sake, to prove his love, or in the name of tradition, I would be playing into the same constructs that patriarchy thrives on.
I have also come to believe that our given names are not sacrosanct and christening your children brings into play the patriarchal construct of parental authority over offspring. Not choosing to take on our husband’s name, but choosing to keep our father’s surname, is what I would call ‘same difference’. The act of holding on to our maiden name doesn’t strike a blow to the bogeyman of tradition and favouring a male name as the carrier of heritage and genealogy. We invest so much of who we think we are in our given name that the only way we can dismantle this specific tradition is when we voluntarily choose our own name, either when we become a legal adult or perhaps by fomenting new traditions that allow children to christen themselves as they wish and making it legal. As Jessica Grose writes in The Slate, citing a 2004 essay written by Katie Roiphe: “Our fundamental independence is not so imperilled that we need to keep our names.”
As it is, with my new found awareness of how patriarchy functions, I am still comfortable going around as Nilofar Ansher. I don’t feel subsumed or shorn of my selfhood, neither is there more emphasis on my wifehood merely because my last name is now associated with my husband’s. The sense of love that pervaded my decision does not warrant second-guessing and neither should women who choose to go my route face censure from feminists. Jen Doll, who writes in The Atlantic Wire, sums up this sentiment: “…whether or not one takes a husband’s name upon marriage is no big deal, really; everyone should do what they want, and may the best name win. Judging someone for doing whatever it is they decide to do for themselves is the problem.”
What is really at the bottom of this issue is the fractured idea of empowerment we each hold. To me, empowerment could be the very act of breaking away from my pre-marital family narrative and willingly taking on that of someone whom I chose to adopt as my family: my husband. In doing so, I have not given up who I am, but instead have added to the narrative of who I hope to be. Someday, in the future, it will no longer be necessary to justify our choices, either in the name of feminism or love. For me, these aren’t mutually exclusive constructs.
April 06, 2013
TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) is a Delhi-based NGO that works on sexuality with an affirmative and rights-based approach. It runs an infoline on topics related to sexual and reproductive health, HIV, contraceptive choices, sexual and gender identities, violence, safety and pleasure. The organisation is also involved in training, advocacy and research. In light of the ongoing discussion around sexuality education and more specifically in relation to this post, I interviewed Prabha Nagaraj, Director of Programmes at TARSHI. A transcript:
1. In your opinion, how should a comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) programme be structured? What are the important characteristics of such a programme? Are there any countries in the world which provide a role model?
There is no ‘one size fits all’. And it is not easy or even advisable to apply a ready-made curriculum from another country (or for a multicultural, multilingual country like ours, even from one part of the country) to another. The din around whether there should be sexuality education or not has prevented a serious dialogue on what constitutes good quality CSE, when the right age is to start, who should be responsible for providing this education etc. We need to go beyond whether there should be CSE or not and have discussions with various stakeholders (parents, teachers, educationists, young people themselves, NGOs working with diverse audiences, policy makers, psychologists etc.) about what information and skills are essential for each age group, who should develop the material, who should provide the information, how will the teachers be trained, who will create the training material and programmes, will this be provided in class as a separate subject or integrated with all/specific subjects, will it be an extracurricular subject etc. Because these discussions have occurred in small pockets around the country, and mainly amongst educationists and policy makers (with little input from other stakeholders) we don’t see a nuanced understanding of the problem as it stands
In other words, a simplistic response would be to say that age appropriate CSE starting as early as possible and moving up in a graded manner would be ideal. But, this response does not convey the complexities involved in creating appropriate curricula for diverse groups.
2. What type of problems does the current AEP (Adolescent Education Programme) curriculum have?
The present revised curriculum is a marked improvement from the earlier one (that was withdrawn in 2008 I think). However, the language of the curriculum remains ambiguous and abstract thus possibly leading the facilitators who transact the curriculum to exacerbate young people’s confusions around sexuality issues. For example, there is no mention of what sex entails and this could be confusing. A mention in the section on conception is illustrative of this: “New life occurs when male (sperm) and female sex cells (ovum) unite at conception. At the time of conception the genes and chromosomes from the mother and father unite to form a unique individual with particular traits and characteristics”. The abstract language used will encourage facilitators in turn to talk in vague terms, leaving students to figure out on their own how this transpires. Also, given that sex finds mention within the section of conception locates it within the discourse of reproduction alone.
Also, the revised version of the curriculum remains exclusionary leaving out those who do not conform to stereotypical societal norms of sex, gender, sexual orientation and ability. The present curriculum contains a few illustrations that steer clear from any human anatomical representations against which people had expressed reservations earlier
3. What kind of training process should be in place for trainee teachers so that they can address CSE effectively?
Both trainee teachers and in-service teachers require training so that they can overcome their own discomfort and lack of complete information around these issues. In addition, they would need skills in conducting sessions in the classroom. Equally important would be training in a rights-based perspective that ensures that students are not given fear-based, abstinence-only kind of messages which ignore the reality of many of their lives and experiences. We feel that every training needs to have the following components:
a) Information (on why CSE is important, on the subject area i.e. anatomy, physiology, growing up changes in the body, emotional issues while growing up, relationships and attraction to people of other genders as well of one’s own gender, abuse, conception, contraception etc to name a few)
b) Skills (on providing information in a matter-of-fact, simple and non-fear-inducing manner, on keeping lines of communication open between the student and teacher so that the adults in young people’s lives can guide and assist them in times of trouble too)
c) Perspective (gender sensitive, rights based, sex affirming, queer sensitive etc.)
4. In the absence of sexuality education in schools, what can parents do to provide this for their kids? At what age should they start?
Ideally, parents need to start as early as possible. Providing CSE to toddlers does not mean one is teaching them about sex at that age but that they are taught to name their genitals for example, taught about private and public spaces, who can touch them on what parts of their bodies. It also involves the beginnings of gender-related messages and not feeding them stereotypes about what girls and boys, women and men can or cannot do. Parents get ample opportunities to bring up such topics as part of daily activities like bath time, watching TV etc so it does not have to be a formal ‘talk’ or lecture. This also conveys to children that they can talk to their parents about anything which is very important in protecting them from abuse as well as ensuring that as they grow up, they will continue to turn to their parents for information and guidance rather than to ill-informed peers or other unreliable sources.
Download the Red Book, a free TARSHI resource for 10 to 14 year olds.
Download the Blue Book, a free TARSHI resource for 15+ year olds
5. Can you tell me a little about the other publications you have created for parents and teachers?
The Yellow Book is full of tips and tools, information and advice to help adults convey accurate information in the best possible way to their wards. It is divided into sections for parents of preschoolers, middle school and high school children with specific suggestions for each of these age groups. There is a fact-sheet section in the book that gives basic information on various topics including sexual abuse and information for parents of children with disabilities.
The Orange Book is a workbook with 28 exercises that teachers could do on their own and is meant to increase their level of comfort around CSE. Chapters address issues like why CSE, body image, self-esteem and decision-making among youngsters, basic concepts of gender and sexuality, information on anatomy, physiology, HIV and AIDS, issues around harassment and abuse, how to address sticky situations, prejudice, stereotyping, stigma and discrimination. It has basic information as well as exercises based on newspaper articles and real-life incidents to help teachers apply the ideas presented to their classroom interactions.
Both books have extensive web resources for those who would like to explore particular topics more in-depth.
Also, download the UNICEF concurrent evaluation of the Adolescent Education Programme.