May 07, 2014

Feminist Interventions on Gender and South Asia: Conference Highlights

South Asia by the Bay: Graduate Conference 2014, UC Santa Cruz, May 2-3, 2014

Image by Sheba Chhachhi.
A full program awaited attendees of this year’s graduate conference, organized annually by South Asia by the Bay, a consortium of California
Universities (UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Stanford.  The two days of stimulating panels featured graduate students from many
locations in Canada and the US as well as one from the UK and two from India. Panels had been expertly grouped by organizer Anjali Arondekar, and memorable keynote addresses were given by UC Santa Barbara Professor Bishnupriya Ghosh (“Witnessing Health”)
and UC Berkeley Professor 
Raka Ray (“The Precarious Middle-Class: Gender and Mobility in the New Economy”).

The first day treated the audience to subjects as diverse as the art of Zarina Hasmi (particularly her woodcut Divided Line),
paternal familial sovereignty in 19th century India, and a deconstructive history of the colonial Indian jails that housed women.
The second day showcased many essays including ones on the female renunciant in exile, the search for the disappeared in Kashmir, and
the militarization of the India-Bangladesh border. This last essay, presented by Sahana Ghosh of Yale University described the
case of Felani and traced how an extreme case comes to stand in for a whole phenomenon, and thus obscures other related events
or aspects of relations on the India-Bangladesh boundary.

Though I appreciated all the papers as well as the stimulating Q & A that followed,I want to highlight four
of particular interest to Ultraviolet-ers.

“Critiques of Home and Aesthetics of Complaint at a Womens’s Shelter in Kolkata” by student Amrapali Maitra
(Stanford) dovetailed very nicely with “Protection/Detention/Reform: shelters, sex workers and the law in India” by
Vibhuti Ramachandran (NYU). Both essays discussed confined women: women who were in a home for the mentally ill, and women
who were taken into a shelter in Delhi in an effort to extricate them from their jobs as sex workers. Each of them described a haunting
picture of isolated and depressed women, many of whom have been shut up without their consent after having first experienced
a similar sort of imprisonment in an abusive domestic situation or in a brothel.  Some of the mentally ill women were not ill at all; some
of the sex workers had not been trafficked. Both groups repeated a frequent question to the scholar-observer, “When do I get to leave?”
Gender justice was certainly not being served at either facility, though positive aspects and intentions were acknowledged, and one
of the matters left to ponder was how domestic workers, though in dead end jobs and sometimes very badly treated,
are not targeted for rescue and detention. Pawan Singh’s essay “Privacy and Other Absences: the Human Rights Subject of Sexuality
in India” invited the audience to consider the production and reception of the film My Brother Nikhil alongside agitation for the repeal of Section 377.

Finally, Amrita Kumar-Ratta (University of Toronto) delivered a memorable paper on “Sex Selection Among Indo-Canadian Women:
Discursively Constructing Reproductive Choice.” It covered many subtopics, but one was how the pro-life movement has used Indo-
Canadian women in their agenda to make abortion illegal, arguing that sex-selective abortion is common in this community. It turns
out that a recent pro-life march focused mainly on the slogan “It’s a Girl Should not be  a Death Sentence.” The speaker noted how
the unfolding rhetoric places a problematic double burden of patriarchy and practices labeled barbaric on one immigrant group.

March 08, 2014

A Day for Half the World

SO IT’S INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day. The world’s 103rd, if slightly differing records are to be believed. On this day, your neighbourhood beauty parlor will throw in a paraffin manicure free with your hairstyle, and you’ll be bombarded with advertising that has suddenly woken up to the “celebration of women”. (You’ll be spared swathes of pink, hopefully, since Valentine’s Day breezed by a mere 3 weeks ago.) Google has already put up a rockstar doodle, showcasing our many faces as women around the world. We even get our very own Wikipedia entry, educating us on the significance of the day! (Insert whooping sound.)

24 hours for 3 billion people.

Let this smack you across the face and settle into your system.

That’s how far we’ve gotten, ladies.

1 day of 365 for:

  -representing 49.6 % of the world’s population

-working two-thirds of the world’s working hours,

-producing half of the world’s food

and, in return,

-making 77 cents to a man’s dollar in even a “developed” country like America

-earning only 10% of the world’s income, and

owning less than one percent of the world’s property*

And all this only if a woman first makes it through the vaginal canal, past infancy, and into adulthood. Bonus points for a safe environment, the availability of adequate food and hygienic toilets, and the dazzling privilege that is an education.

We are to be appropriately grateful. We are to be suitably sensible. Socially submissive, kinship-compliant, undersexual, hyperwilling to please. Defined by our relationships.  Hemmed in by ceilings. Controlled by our idols. Our virtue strategically planted in our vaginas. Our bodies deployed as political minefields. We emulate men if we are to succeed. We manipulate through passive-aggression because it hasn’t occurred to so many of us to openly yank power off that plate. Of course we’re not uniformly subjugated.  We have been required to wrest patriarchal bonds like Superwomen smashing a chain-link fence. But in every rise of a neighborhood auntie’s eyebrow, in every seemingly innocuous question about marital choices and last names and keeping home, patriarchy lurks, now camouflaged and morphed, but deceptively robust and alive.

Many wonderful organizations pushing for gender change and empowerment will use this day to highlight how much more needs to be done. Because suddenly, for this one measly day, everybody is actually listening. And even as you consider availing of that pressure cooker discount or the latest commercial scheme to exalt our gender, promise your little corner of the planet this:

Claim that calendar. Sprawl across its weeks. Amplify our triumphs to its months, so as the years roll by, we won’t be mere statistics, savvy marketing sitting ducks, and victims in our own narratives.

For those who still question the need for feminism, or believe we’re in a post-feminist world, take a long, hard look at the other 364 spaces on the calendar that are filled with injustices against the sisterhood, a studied silence among the most treacherous. Watch who lives in those slots of gender and class privilege. Delve into their stories so you can hear what is not being said.

Claim chunks of time from all parts of the calendar. Pencil in your plans and ambitions on both sides of March 8th. Fuel your power. Drive them to fruition. 

You are more than a day.

You are more than your fate.



 * Data source: Introduction to challenges in achieving gender equality

March 05, 2014

Women-driven Bollywood Films

Coincidentally or otherwise, too many of my Twitter conversations end up in a blog post. This post too, got kicked off by a tweet-discussion with Dilnavaz about ‘women-driven Bollywood movies’. Always grateful to people for giving me filmi things ponder about, I wondered what, if any, the difference between ‘woman-centric’ and ‘woman-driven’ was. My theory is that a ‘woman-driven’ film is one where a heroine, despite being handicapped by a short role or pairing against a bigger hero or a clichéd plot, has shaped the narrative. Now, this ‘shaping of narrative’ is subjective and disagreements are welcome. I have also tried to pick those movies that enjoyed commercial success for most part, since a woman driving commercial success is a bit of a rarity in Bollywood.

The pioneer in women-driven films was, of course, ‘Hunterwali’ Nadia. India’s first and only action heroine, she thought nothing of jumping over trains, cracking a mean whip and taking on muscular baddies in hand-to-hand combat. Unfortunately, these films have all but gone off public memory due to poor archiving. Here is my admittedly subjective list of recent and yesteryear Bollywood movies that are distinguished by virtue of being driven by women:


Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana

Sharmila Tagore played a grey-haired widow for nearly half the film, while her male lead , the reigning superstar, pranced around as her son. And yet, the story started with the hero getting besotted after seeing her on a train and ended with the hero accepting her as his mother at an Air Force honours function.

She fell in love, saw her lover die, had a son out of wedlock, tried to bring him up, saved her son by taking a murder rap upon herself, served a prison sentence and finally reunited with her son – her life being the focus of the story (“Saphal hogi teri aradhana…”). Rajesh Khanna was the reason people came to watch Aradhana but Sharmila Tagore was the reason they remembered it.


Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta

It takes a lot of courage to take Bollywood’s favourite ‘brothers lost in childhood’ plot and give it a distaff twist. But then, you had a heroine like Hema Malini to pull it off.  The biggest impact of Seeta Aur Geeta was not the film itself, where Hema Manlini stole Dharmendra and Sanjeev Kumar’s thunder with aplomb, but the aftermath. Amitabh Bachchan and Jeetendra remember the story of their film Gehri Chaal suddenly changing after the release of Seeta Aur Geeta and Hema Malini doing all the fighting. Because the distributors wanted it!


Waheeda Rehman in Trishul

Waheeda Rehman had about fifteen minutes of screen time in a film which had three of Bollywood’s biggest male stars and yet, she is the pivot on which the story of Trishul hinged.

Salim-Javed wrote a genre-bending tale where a son swore to destroy his father, in an industry where sons are always subservient to their parents. With his characteristic intensity, Amitabh Bachchan brilliantly channelized the pain of seeing his mother die a little every day (“Jisne pachchees baras apni maa ko har roz thoda thoda marte dekha ho, usse maut se kya dar lagega?”) and the film became an important piece in the document of the Angry Young Man.

In both Deewaar and Trishul, Bachchan’s anger was directed towards his missing father. In Deewaar, his mother tried to change his outlook. In Trishul, she extracted a promise that the son would take revenge on her behalf (“Main tujhe rehem ke saaye mein na palne doongi… Taaki tap tap ke tu faulaad bane, maa ki aulaad bane… main doodh na bakshungi tujhe yeh yaad rahe”).


Zeenat Aman in Insaaf Ka Tarazu

A model is brutally raped by a pervert, who is then acquitted by court on the ‘she-asked-for-it’ defence. This ‘reputation’ leads to her modelling career hitting a snag but when she is fighting back, the pervert (yes, the same guy) rapes her teenage sister. She kills him, emptying a revolver into the man.

Insaaf Ka Tarazu was notorious for its explicit rape scenes, which bordered on titillation. It suffered from over-dramatisation and very bad acting. But the plot, borrowed from Hollywood thriller Lipstick, centred on Zeenat Aman and she completely eclipsed the two male leads of the film. After this, Deepak Parashar – her lover in the film – became Bollywood’s Official Wimp and Raj Babbar became much celebrated for his villainous turn.

Moving away from the usual Bollywood tradition of hero avenging the female folks’ ‘dishonour’, here was a girl who pressed the trigger herself. 


Sridevi in Chaalbaaz

At her prime in the late-1980s, Sridevi acted in several films that centred on her but nothing exemplified her ability to steal the limelight than Chaalbaaz, where she acted opposite two of India’s biggest superstars – Sunny Deol and Rajanikanth. The film could have been just another remake of Seeta Aur Geeta but Sridevi’s manic energy took it to just another plane. As the two sisters who were separated at birth and came together after a multitude of crises, Sridevi made the most of the footage that was given to her.

A lot of people had wondered what would have happened if Sunny Deol and Rajani came together in a North-South Death Match. Well, Sridevi won.

Honourable Mention: Mr India, a film produced by the hero’s brother, named after the hero and boasting ofHindi cinema’s second most popular villain. And we are still enamoured by Miss Hawa Hawaii.


Urmila Matondkar in Rangeela

Why is this standard-issue-Bollywood-love-triangle a woman-driven film? Because despite the presence of two major stars – Aamir Khan and Jackie Shroff – it was Urmila who decided whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. In Bollywood love triangles, it is always the two heroes who decide on who gets the girl and the girl is just expected to meekly agree. Rangeela was different.

The entire contour of the film was built around backup dancer Mili’s quest to become a filmstar and the two leading men – one a tapori and one a star – just adjusted their lives around her. And then finally when one of them decided to sacrifice and exit her life, she refused to accept his decision. She went out and brought him back in her life.

And yes, her film within the film was a monster hit too! 

Honourable mention: Ek Hasina Thi, Urmila Matondkar, in a deglam avatar, sought revenge after being cheated in love by a slick con-man. And she got it, in the most gruesome manner possible. Ewwww… I get the creeps just thinking of it.


Bipasha Basu in Jism

With her bronzed back and never-ending legs dominating the posters and the most popular scenes of Jism, Bipasha Basu was the true blue femme fatale in the classic film noir style of Hollywood. Throughout the film, she literally toyed with John Abraham and got him to do her bidding, which would get her money and freedom. This was not a story in which the hero and heroine conspired to pull off a heist. This was a story where the more intelligent (and more ruthless) person manipulated the other to get what she wanted.

As the famous line goes, “Her body was the weapon, her body was the killer, her body was the scene of crime.”


Tabu in Maqbool

Tabu has acted in several women-centric films like Astitva and Chandni Bar but nowhere has she dictated the characters around her and controlled the circumstances as much as Maqbool.

As a desi version of the iconic Lady Macbeth, she was the Mafia don’s mistress – apparently living under his thumb, helpless and insecure. But her insecurity became a weapon when she used the don’s main henchman to fuel a rebellion and wrest control of the gang. It was Irrfan who pressed the trigger and ascended the throne but it was Tabu who spun the macabre web in which all her adversaries were caught.

She was not just the villain’s moll. She had blood on her hands. Literally.


Madhuri Dixit (and Huma Qureishi) in Dedh Ishqiya

The promos focused on Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi probably because they were the connecting link from the earlier film but there was no doubt that it was Begum Para and her associate who held all the puppet-strings. Soon, they had the two heroes and pretty much the entire cast eating of their hands – revealing a game bigger than what we had expected.

SPOILER ALERT: As the two rag-tag heroes ran into a wall of guns and goons in the climax, they realised the two damsels were stringing them along all through. And what completely broke all conventions was the distinctly romantic relationship between the two women, who rode into the sunset with each other as Naseer and Arshad looked on longingly.


Parineeti Chopra  in Hasee Toh Phasee

A PhD in Chemical Engineering. Works in Shanghai on high-density polymers. Is back in India to steal money to fund further research. A Bollywood heroine couldn’t get more anti-stereotypical than this in what is a very stereotypical movie. The same old ghisa-peeta theme of the hero realising his true love is not the one he is getting married to was given amazing twists throughout the movie as the heroine rescued the hero in distress, came up with the save-the-day ideas and then decided that happily-ever-after needed to be pushed back a bit… because there was a small matter to be settled with irate German debtors.

Honourable Mentions: Parineeti Chopra and Vaani Kapoor’s acts as the cool, sassy, sexually liberated, small-town girls in Shudh Desi Romance.

Kangana Ranaut’s crazed turn as the nearly-runaway bride in Tanu Weds Manu


The tragedy of actresses in Bollywood is that we have to think and make up a list of women-driven films. For each of the films I have named, there are a hundred mindless blockbusters where the heroine just wiggles her bottom and daintily waits to be rescued by her leading man.

With Dedh Ishqiya, Hasee Toh Phasee, Gulaab Gang and Queen coming in quick succession, this is probably the thickest concentration of heroine-driven films in hero-driven Bollywood. One hopes and prays that all these films will make truckloads of money and Bollywood will start making more of these.

And Boss II will not star Salman Khan, but Katrina Kaif. *fingers crossed*


Recommended Reading (AKA Not-so-subtle Plug):

          The worst clichés in depicting women in Bollywood

          Some ‘real women’ in Bollywood

          Some of the best dialogues by women.

January 29, 2014

Call for Papers: Special Issue in Honour of Lotika Sarkar

Journal of Indian Law and Society

“Indian Feminisms, Law Reform and the Law Commission of India: Special Issue in Honour of Lotika Sarkar”

Guest Editors: Rukmini Sen & Saptarshi Mandal[*]



Whether in terms of concrete statutory changes or as a discursive space for articulating new meanings, law reform has been an important political objectives for the Indian feminist movements. In pursuing that goal, the Law Commission has been a key institution that feminists in India have engaged with, influenced, used its recommendations for advocacy with other institutions of the state and at times, also rejected them. Be it the introduction of the offence of ‘dowry death’ in the Indian Penal Code, the proposal for gender neutral rape law, liberalizing divorce law by incorporating ‘irretrievable breakdown of marriage’ as a ground for divorce, spelling out the rights and obligations of parties in a surrogacy contract or whether  section 498A of the Indian Penal Code should be made a compoundable offence, the formulations and recommendations of the Law Commission have sometimes generated support, sometimes controversies and sometimes have opened new directions for feminists and caused new alliances to be forged.

Despite its relevance for feminists, critical evaluation of the Law Commission as an institution or its reports[*], from a feminist perspective, is rare. The only such study that exists was conducted by Prof. Lotika Sarkar, in 1988, as part of a larger initiative focused on ‘National Specialized Agencies and Women’s Equality’. On the effectiveness of the Commission, Sarkar wrote,

[w]hile the prestige of this professional body depends on its performance; its effectiveness certainly lies outside its own choices, between keeping faith with the spirit, or ideology of the Constitution, and what it perceives as immediate political imperatives. (…) Law reform is not a task to be undertaken in haste, by amateurs who are not in a position to examine the full implications and ramification of an existing or proposed measure. The need for a review body of experts, to advise the government, parliament and the public is self-evident. But the conditions, under which the body can function effectively and meaningfully, require critical examination by all who believe in the rule of law and its role as instrumental of social transformation (1988:xxiii).

How has the Law Commission responded to the feminist law reform initiatives in the twenty five years since the above was written and how effective have the interventions of the Commission been in furthering those initiatives? Given the changes that have taken place in our understanding of the state in the intervening years, what will be our assessment of the Commission today? Is there a pattern in the recommendations of the Commission that have been accepted by the government and legislated upon, and the ones that have not? Is the Commission still politically relevant for Indian feminist movements? Our understanding of what issues are feminist issues has changed significantly since the eighties. In her study, Sarkar focused on reports of the Commission that were ‘women specific’ and the ones that dealt with Family Laws affecting women. Today however we understand that feminists cannot afford to ‘do’ gender without simultaneously doing caste, religion or sexuality. In what new ways then, could we read the Commission’s reports addressing women? And what feminist readings could we offer, if any, of those reports that seemingly have got nothing to do with women, say for instance, the 193rd report on the law of limitation in transnational litigation?

For this Special Issue of the Journal of Indian Law and Society, we seek contributions from scholars, researchers and activists, reflecting on the above and other similar questions, that will not only update our understanding of a law reform institution that feminists in India have historically engaged with, but also help revitalize scholarship on feminist legal method and feminist pedagogic practices in Indian legal education.

Lotika Sarkar, who passed away in February 2013, was a law professor at Delhi University in addition to being a founding member of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies and the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. She was a member of the Committee on the Status of Women (Government of India) that produced the historic ‘Towards Equality’ report in 1974. She is probably best known and remembered as one of the four signatories to the Open Letter written to the Chief Justice of India, post the Mathura judgment in 1979. It is only fitting to dedicate this Special Issue on the Law Commission to her memory, for it seeks to build upon and continue a line of enquiry that she pioneered twenty five years ago.

Contributors should email a 500 word abstract to the addresses provided below by 8th March, 2014. We welcome contributors to discuss their ideas with the Editors prior to sending the abstracts. Shortlisted contributors will be informed by 30th March, 2014.

Submission of full papers (8000 words) is expected by 31st October, 2014. It is imperative that contributors stick to the deadline, so that there is sufficient time for peer review and incorporation of feedback.

Please email your contributions or queries to: and, with a copy to

[*] Rukmini Sen is Assistant Professor at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi. Saptarshi Mandal is a law researcher, based in New Delhi.

[*][*] Till date, 243 reports have been submitted to the government, which are available on the Commission’s website:

January 29, 2014

Foster parenting in Rajasthan

Children – they are more than a third of India’s population. Happily, India’s Constitution guarantees special attention to children through necessary and special laws and policies that safeguard their rights. For instance, the right to equality, protection of life and personal liberty and the right against exploitation is enshrined in Articles 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 23, and 24. But what happens on the ground today when children and their parents are separated from one another, whether through disease, death, mental illness, migration or neglect? Is there a foster care system? Are the people who run it making strong efforts to help vulnerable girl children?

Poster at FCI To better understand the answer in one Indian state,  Rajasthan, I traveled to Udaipur to learn more about an  exciting new organization called Foster Care India and to interview its founder, Ian Anand Forber-Pratt. What made  Foster Care India’s website stand out was its insistence on building new options in the most culturally welcomed and organic way possible. The clear emphasis on helping insiders and listening carefully to grassroots concerns strengthened my desire to meet this man in person. Since he did not grow up in India, I wondered how Ian was avoiding “outsider imposition syndrome.”

It turned out Ian was adopted from a Calcutta orphanage in  and grew up in Massachusetts, USA, returning to India on a college trip. On that trip, he fell in love – with a place. He told me Udaipur chose him rather than the other way around, and he just “knew it was home.” After gaining a master’s degree in Social Work at Washington University (St. Louis), leading therapeutic trips to India for adoptive families (which he continues to do) and studying intensive Hindi, Ian set up home in Udaipur, hoping to nurture already existing alternative care arrangements for children in need. One of the positive aspects of Rajasthan is that it already was aware of the impact of institutionalization on children and was receptive to alternative family construction. In fact, it has a scheme that specifically aids non-parental adults to provide care for children in crisis. He discovered a number of challenges as he explained.

Ian: When I arrived, it was great to see that a number of informal childcare situations and that there is financial support for them FCI Director Ian Anand under the Palanhar Yojana conditional cash transfer scheme. However, some caregivers do not even know about this scheme and thus don’t have official rights or access to financial funds that are available – and that they desperately need – to support the children. Another problem is that applications for the scheme get lost or buried: there are lots of bureaucratic pieces, tasks are often duplicated or fall by the wayside, and unfortunately there is insufficient communication between groups trying to serve the caregivers. Furthermore, there’s a lack of accountability. Any good system monitors the caregivers – we need case management, household safety checks and counseling for children who have been through trauma.

Bonnie: And would it be right to think that foster care might not mean the same thing to different stakeholders and government officers?

Ian: Right. There are various people tasked with starting foster care; yet not only are they not even given, say, a computer to do the job well, they are not told precisely what the job is or what steps to take.  Thus people aren’t given thorough information and just know they are supposed to carry out some top down international thing. They may care a lot but after no instruction they either disconnect for their own survival or feel a sense of mounting hopelessness. After all, wouldn’t you feel that way, in that position?

Bonnie: Yes, definitely. So Foster Care India has been formed to provide a foundation for the adults caring for kids to ensure kids’ long-term safety and stability. I understand you are focusing on advocacy and policy right now as well as supporting a group of families. Why did you have to prioritize policy?

 Ian: Social work is from the heart. But no amount of caring will be effective if there are no guarantees. The most sustainable social work has to be based on social change. Under the law I could technically license foster homes. But if a child or parent in that home has an accident or is accused of a crime, whether proven guilty or not, the government could break up the situation overnight. The Juvenile Justice Act has so many gray areas; unless we clarify it the foster care system will be arbitrary, and depend on which judge you get and whether he liked his chai this morning or not. You can’t run a system like that.

Bonnie: Do you support feminism? How is the care of children a feminist issue to you?

Ian: Yes, of course, because I support a balanced society. A lot of work has to be done to help women attain equal voice and thus there needs to be disproportionate or extra focus on women’s rights to achieve that. The current scenario still has more girl children that are abandoned, for instance. I feel that the extent of women’s rights and women’s empowerment has to be built into the curriculum – people have to hear this message over and over so that the balance begins to be righted. I want to envision an equal world here in Rajasthan, but at this moment I have a tough time doing it. The imagination falters. But I have to take one step at a time: there just has to be forward step after forward step.

Bonnie: I know that someday you plan to write a guide to starting an NGO in a developing country. What three qualities would you emphasize?

Ian: It takes patience, a support network and continually concentrating on the big picture. You have to be assertive and confident but without ego. Don’t be surprised if you go through a depressive period. Mine lasted three months, and one day I was able to use a business management technique (SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats analysis) to climb out. One will get constant criticism but you have to know at the end of the day that you are doing the right thing and, if so, success will manifest itself.

Bonnie: Congratulations on the recent steps that Foster Care India has been taking – drawing up an action plan for the Chief Minister and pairing with Unicef to circulate your plans. It has been a privilege to get an early glimpse of an endeavor that is sure to help generations of children.
As a final note, Ian welcomes visitors and well wishers to Foster Care India. Learn more about how to help here or listen to what a family means to a child who has not always had one. My Family, My Dream is a 5 minute film made by FCI that will soon compete at the International Women’s Film Festival – Herat.


January 23, 2014

On Feminism, Diaspora, and Giving Back: An Interview with Amar Rao

AMAR RAO IS an intrepid Silicon Valley entrepreneur, whose specialty is the high technology sector. He currently heads marketing, sales, and business development for a start-up company. Additionally, he is the San Francisco Bay Area chapter head of Pratham USA, the American arm of the Indian education non-profit Pratham. We had an enjoyable conversation about his experiences, feminism, and why he does what he does.

DB: Hello! Thank you for sharing your time with Ultra Violet. Could we begin with you telling us a bit about your background and work? 

AR: My name is Amar Rao and I spent the first 20 years of my life in India. I grew up in Hyderabad, came to the US in the late 1970s to pursue graduate education and ended up settling here. Currently, I head Marketing, business Development and Sales at an early stage software company based in Silicon Valley, California. I am also involved in supporting a non-profit called Pratham that supports primary education for the underprivileged children of India.

DB: How did your belief in feminism come about?

      AR:  I grew up in an India that was a traditional society, and as is the case in most traditional societies, the deck was stacked against the full blossoming of women. Even when I was very young, I noticed this. There were double standards for boys and girls in term s of what they could and could not do.  As a teenager, I was frustrated by the near-total segregation that existed in schools, public spaces, etc. as a way to “control” and “protect” women. I remember my mother telling me about her wanting to be a doctor when she was young, and instead of supporting her, my grandfather insisted on getting her married off at a very young age. It was a very paternalistic society, where in the name of tradition, women were dis-empowered at every turn. All of these experiences collectively shaped my views and when I came to the US, I saw that things were a lot better for women. It did not take me too long to realize that while women had made a lot of strides in the west, there were still many things holding them back.  My journey on this subject has been a lifelong one. Even in the 21st century, the struggle goes on. As recently as the 2012 national election, there were many ways in which men tried to control women, ranging from a woman’s right to control over her own body to the sexualization of women in the media and culture. I firmly believe in the rights of women to control their experience. My feminism also has been stoked by my realization that from an economic development and evolution of society, giving girls and women equal opportunity and empowerment in all aspects of life are key to achieving the full potential of our civilization.

      When I was in India as part of a 2-year assignment from IBM, I found out how traditional societal norms came in the way of empowering and enabling women in the workplace, reinforcing the need to have “encouragement” and “special” ladders of opportunity for women in the work place, especially in more traditional societies. My experiences working for Pratham made me realize how by empowering and educating girls, we could accelerate development of impoverished societies. An educated girl was more likely to resist being exploited by the norms of the “traditional” paternalistic societies, more likely not to put up with exploitation from abusive males in her family, break patterns of generational poverty of mind and body, have earning power, and also help toward a more sustainable planet by having fewer children, later in life.

      DB: You mentioned you were a feminist within minutes of our initial meeting, and as much as I would love to see more people do that, we grapple with the reality that most men and women don’t give it much thought.  What makes you react differently?

       AR: I support feminism with the hope and objective of eventually creating a more just society that would allow all humans to achieve their potential and everyone has the potential to achieve self realization. This would result in a more happy and fulfilled society. There are too many women like my mother who do not achieve their full potential because societies put them “in their place” and everyone loses in the process. I would like to see much higher levels of women participation in leadership roles in business and politics. We would be all much better off for it. We would have fewer wars, more just societies, and more work-life balance if they had more control on the levers of power. I think life would be more interesting and fun for men in a gender-blind society. I know it would be for me. I would much rather walk hand-in-hand as an equal with a woman than have her following “seven paces behind”. I would love to see women priests, presidents, chief justices of the Supreme Court.

      My experience with Pratham has taught me that the best way to break the grip of extreme poverty that envelops developing countries is to educate and empower girls and women. An educated girl would less likely put up with abuse form her husband and relatives, would have fewer children later in life (wouldn’t that be great for reducing overpopulation and improving the environment?) and the generational cycle of poverty would be more easily broken. We would have happier and less violent societies and countries. It is not an accident that Denmark, which was ranked as the happiest country also has a higher participation of women in all walks of life, including government. Countries and societies that suppress women are usually the most backward. An example is Afghanistan, where in the name of extreme religion, girls are discouraged from going to school and working outside the house.

DB: You are a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, in addition to heading an arm of a global non-profit. How would you recommend men crystallize their beliefs about feminism and harness them for social good and professional success? What do you see are the benefits of being openly feminist?

AR: I would tell men that it would be a better place for them if they became feminists and women were truly equal in all walks of life. The world would be more prosperous, it would be more peaceful and less violent. There would be less poverty and the environment would be less degraded. Most importantly, it would be a more fun place for men. Would it not be more fun to have a more interesting workplace, a more interesting partner, and a more interesting society? I have not sought out feminists actively, but I associate with progressive people and so many of my friends are feminists. I do not place much credence on labels. It is more what you do that matters. I treat every woman I interact with as full equal with respect. It is no different than how I would treat another man. To me, feminism is all about full equality in every respect, regardless of gender.

DB: What led you to become head of Pratham USA’s Bay Area chapter? How do your beliefs tie into the cause?

When I reached 45 and my daughter was a teenager, she went to a Catholic school that really promoted social justice and I got involved in supporting the school financially and also helping raise funds for them so they could support subsidizing education for less affluent children. I realized that there was more to life than accumulating wealth and moving up the corporate ladder. The lesson that got deeply ingrained in me was that it was important to give back and pay forward. I also realized that education was the way to transform people’s lives. Most of us in Silicon Valley are successful because of our educations. I discovered Pratham while watching a TV show. I learned about its amazingly cost-effective model for supporting education for the poorest and most underprivileged children of India. There are many good causes out there that are worthy of supporting, but I believe Pratham is unique in charities and here are my main reasons for supporting it:

1) Impact at scale: Pratham has developed a decentralized, highly scalable model that has demonstrated ability to scale to tens of millions of children, and can have an impact at national and global scale.

2) Return on donor investment: Charity Navigator has awarded Pratham USA the highest 4-star rating for the fourth year in a row. Pratham delivers 93 cents out of every dollar donated to projects in India. The average cost of supporting a child in the Read India rural program is less than $10 per child per year.

3) Focus on educational outcomes: Pratham surveys 600,000 children annually across India to gauge learning levels and maintain accountability for quality outcomes in education.

4) Innovation: By adopting novel techniques and approaches to education and learning outcomes, Pratham has been able to deliver strong results. Our most recent validation is the WISE prize awarded to Madhav Chavan, which is considered by many to be the Nobel prize for education.

 DB: What do Pratham’s USA chapters hope to achieve? How can the diaspora pitch in other than writing a cheque?

AR: There are over 4 million people of Indian origin in the United States. Pratham has about 5000 active donors. Pratham is having a great impact, but much more needs to be done and Pratham is limited today by the resources it has to scale up its programs further. Can you imagine if we got 100,000  people to give just $100 a year? That would be an additional $10,000,000 a year. $100 year is about $8 a month. Put another way, it is 2 cups of coffee at Starbucks. $100 would support about 10 rural children for a year in the Read India program. Pratham has 14 chapters spread out across most of the large metropolitan area in the US. We would benefit from having volunteers who could help in increasing awareness of Pratham’s work and also help raise funds.

 DB: Looping back to your ideology, do you think it necessary for more men to speak up in support of an openly feminist society?

AR: Despite all the progress we have made over the last several generations with regards to women’s empowerment, there is much more work that needs to be done. It is a task that is the responsibility of progressive men and women everywhere–they need to speak up and be proactive on this topic.

DB: What role do you see the next generation playing in furthering feminist causes?

AR: I think that the next generation is way ahead of the older generations in attitudes about feminism and full equality between the sexes. So I am hopeful that as in many other social causes, the new generation will lead the way towards a more inclusive, open and equal society, regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation.

 DB: It is inspiring to know you, Mr. Rao. We would like to know what inspires you to do what you do?

AR: I think each of us can make a difference every day in making the world a better place. I believe in doing what I can every day, even if it is in small measure. The moral is that you do not need to wait until you become a millionaire to start giving back. Start today, with what you can. It will make a difference in someone’s life. I try to live a simple life, uncluttered by material things, and it is important to have meaning in your life, and nothing gives more meaning than trying to help the underprivileged in whatever way you can. 

Thank you for this motivating conversation, Mr. Rao. It was a pleasure chatting with you!

January 19, 2014

Gloria Steinem and Ruchira Gupta Mesmerize the Jaipur Literary Festival audience, January 2014

Steinem 1Gloria Steinem, whose powerful work has been inspiring feminists across the globe for 50 years, along with Ruchira Gupta, who founded the anti-trafficking organization Aapne Aap, led a session at the Jaipur Literary Festival on January 17and were welcomed by a warm and enthusiastic crowd. I enjoyed how the pomp of the session’s title “The Essential Gloria Steinem” was toned down by the very warm and approachable Steinem immediately clapping for the audience’s presence. Steinem began by saying that the women’s movement was not her, and instead “The women’s movement is wherever we are.” She went on to say the movement is too often put into a silo and instead our challenge is to help people see how ideas of equality are all around us and becoming ever more compelling. She was quick to mention that men’s roles have also been restricted which diminishes their humanity. I also appreciated her reminding the audience that she had walked with followers of Gandhi as a young woman, and that India had been a crucial part of her awakening to non-violent and yet uncompromising activism.

She challenged the audience to judge a country by the treatment of its women, saying that one of the greatest predictors of whether a country will wage war against another nation was the degree of violence experienced by its female citizens. She went on to mourn that “what is toxic in the west is often exported to the east” from pesticide to Playboy bars (about to open in Goa). Both she and Ruchira Gupta are currently focusing on how the violation of women – from verbal slander to physical and sexual abuse – reinforces the tired lie that men can only prove their integrity by dominating another group of people and carrying out brutal actions. This flows over to women and to children, they were quick to point out, as “not all men can get enough submission from another adult and thus they turn” to another vulnerable target. Stressing that “the power of others stops at our skins” and continuing her life-long refrain that “our bodies belong to ourselves,” the speakers went on to talk about Aapne Aap, which is recommending the decriminalization of sex workers along with supplying true alternative work. The organization also seeks to penalize not people engaging in sex work but their customers and to inform these customers precisely how they are complicit in a trafficking system that is now bigger than the illegal drug industry and almost as big as the sale of illegal arms. Gupta announced that France and Sweden have just voted to adopt this kind of model and explained how Aapne Aap was able to convince the Gates Foundation to change a program that ended up focusing more on educating the male consumer of transactional sex than protecting the women who had multiple male partners. From a scholarly perspective I am familiar with disagreements between those who favor legalization, decriminalization and abolition of sex work, and a short speech could not answer all my questions, of course, so I look forward to engaging with their argument and evidence in very-soon-to-be-available  As If Women Matter: the Essential Gloria Steinem Reader edited by Ruchira Gupta, published by Roopa (English) and Rajkamal (Hindi).

Throughout the conversation I especially appreciated the way Steinem was careful to state that men are socialized into violence andSteinem 2 do not themselves choose to be born into a social system that demands displays of dominance. Reminding us that our adversaries seek to depoliticize our current dynamics by suggesting that violence is inevitable and unstoppable, Steinem gave an impassioned plea for societal structures to enable more men to spend time nurturing children because children teach us that being emotional in the moment is “human rather than bad.” She ended the session by reiterating, “The art of behaving effectively is the art of behaving as if everything you do matters.” The audience broke into a huge round of applause as she declared, “The flap of a butterfly’s wing is supposed to change the weather. We make one hell of a butterfly here.”


December 13, 2013

On the SC judgement on Sec 377: Statement from TISS teachers

It is with deep shock and disappointment that we received the regressive judgment of the Supreme Court dated 11-12-13, on the reading down of Section 377 of the IPC related to the rights of queer (lesbian bisexual gay and transgender…) people in this country, which reverted the decriminalisation of non-normative sexualities following the Delhi High Court judgement in 2009.

The Delhi High Court had based its expansive judgement on the eloquent discussion of constitutional morality by the framers of our Constitution, especially Dr. Ambedkar. Constitutional morality, they argued is the basis for equality of citizens since public morality which is largely the morality of the dominant forces in society can never guarantee democracy, and perhaps even more importantly equality and dignity to its citizens, especially its most marginal citizens. Additionally, The Delhi High Court judgement evoked the spirit of dignity, inclusiveness and non-discrimination, thereby emphasizing equality of all citizens that Nehru spoke of during the Constituent Assembly debates, so necessary for the deeply hierarchical social fabric that our country represents.

We, the undersigned teachers at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences express solidarity with the struggle for the recognition of the basic human and democratic rights of LGBT citizens and for our right to self-determination in keeping with the foundational principles of the Indian Constitution.

In solidarity,

  1. Meena Gopal, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  2. Wandana Sonalkar, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  3. Asha Achutan, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  4. Bindhulakshmi, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  5. Sangita Tosar, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  6. K.C. Bindu, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  7. Ilina Sen, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  8. Nishi Mitra, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  9. Zeba Imam, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  10. Sujata Chavan, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, School of Development Studies.
  11. Anjali Monteiro, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture, School of Media and Cultural Studies.
  12. K.P. Jayasankar, Centre for Critical Media Praxis, School of Media and Cultural Studies.
  13. Shilpa Phadke, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture, School of Media and Cultural Studies.
  14. Faiz Ullah, Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture, School of Media and Cultural Studies.
  15. Nikhil Titus, Centre for Critical Media Praxis, School of Media and Cultural Studies.
  16. Ketaki Ranade, Centre for Health and Mental Health
  17. Roopa Madhav, School of Habitat Studies
  18. Trupti Jhaveri Panchal, Centre for Equity for Women, Children & Families, and Special Cell for Women & Children Maharashtra & Resource Centre for Interventions on Violence Against Women (RCI-VAW)
  19. Taranga Sriraman, Vinita Ajgaonkar, Yashoda Pradhan, Manisha Kande (Resource Centre for Interventions on Violence Against Women)
  20. Sivakami Muthusamy, Centre for Health and Social Sciences, School of Health Systems Studies.
  21. Nilesh Gawde, School of Health System Studies
  22. Vijayakumar, Centre for Social and Organisational Leadership
  23. Lata Narayan, Centre for Lifelong Learning.
  24. Tejaswini Niranjana, Centre for Indian Languages in Higher Education.
  25. Monica Sakhrani, Centre for Social Justice and Governance
  26. Bal Rakshase, Centre for Health Policy Planning and Management, School of Health Systems Studies.
  27. Shalini Bharat, Centre for Health and Social Sciences, School of Health Systems Studies.
  28. Sanjay (Xonzoi) Barbora, TISS Gawhati.
  29. Ramakumar, School of Development Studies
  30. Manish Jha, Centre for Community Organisation and Development Practice, School of Social Work
  31. Mahuya Bandyopadhyay, School of Development Studies
  32. Anjali Dave, Centre for Equity for Women Children and Families, School of Social Work.
  33. Sabiha Vasi, Centre for Lifelong Learning.
  34. Rekha Pappu, TISS Hyderabad
  35. Padma Velaskar, Centre for Studies in Sociology of Education
  36. A. Ramaiah, Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies.
  37. Neela Dabir, Deputy Director, Admn
  38. Shubhada Maitra, Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work.
  39. Geeta Sethi, LSE-TISS Chair Professor, School of Health Systems Studies.
  40. Vijayaraghavan, Centre for Criminology and Justice
  41. Swati Banerjee, Centre for Livelihoods and Social Innovation, School of Social Work.
  42. Anil S Sutar, Centre for Research Methodology.
  43. Tanveer Hasan, Centre for Indian Languages in Higher Education.
  44. Shalini Sharma, TISS Guwahati.
  45. Sandhya Limaye, Centre for Disability Studies and Action, School of Social Work.
  46. Subharati Ghosh, Centre for Health and Mental Health.
  47. Asha Banu, Centre for Health and Mental Health, School of Social Work.
  48. Katy Gandevia, School of Social Work
  49. Anil Kumar, Centre for Health and Social Sciences, School of Health Systems Studies.
  50. Suryakant Waghmore, Centre for Environment Equity and Justice
  51. Leena Abraham, Centre for Studies in Sociology of Education
  52. Shivani Chauhan Barooah, Labour Studies and Social Security, TISS Guwahati.
  53. Sohini Banerjee, TISS Guwahati
  54. Rekha Mammen, Centre for Community Organisation and Development Practice
  55. U.Vindhya, TISS Hyderabad
  56. Padmini Swaminathan, TISS Hyderabad
  57. Priyanka Jawale, School of Law, Rights & Constitutional Governance
  58. Surinder Jaswal, School of Social Work & Doctoral Students Office
  59. Samhita Barooah, TISS Guwahati
  60. Janki Andharia, Jamshedji Tata Centre for Disaster Management
  61. Bela Bhatia, TISS
  62. Hemal Shroff, School of Health System Studies
  63. Nandini Manjrekar, School of Education
  64. Sohini Sengupta, TISS
  65. Mahima Nayar, Centre for Disability Studies and Action
  66. Mouleshri Vyas, Centre for Community Organisation and Development Practice, School of Social Work
  67. A. Rambabu, Centre for Studies in Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies
  68. Shankar Das, Centre for Health Policy Planning
  69. Jyothi Krishnan, TISS
  70. Shahaji Chavan, TISS
  71. G G Wankhede, School of Education
  72. P.K. Shajahan, School of Social Work
  73. T. Jayaraman, School of Habitat Studies
  74. Sharit Bhowmik, School of Management and Labour Studies.
  75. Narendra Kakade, School of Health System Studies
  76. Varsha Ayyar, School of Management and Labour Studies
  77. Jennifer Kipgen, School of Social Work
  78. Lakshmi Lingam, Deputy Director, Hyderabad
  79. Virginius Xaxa, Deputy Director, TISS Guwahati
  80. S. Parasuraman, Director, TISS and many other TISS faculty.



November 24, 2013

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence – Queer Feminist Caucus India

Queer Feminist Caucus India is hosting 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence online. This year’s theme is militarism, and we are especially focusing on AFSPA and gender violence.
We are:
1. Tweeting – We’ll be hosting two tweetathons from our Twitter handle @InQueer on Nov 1 and Nov 7, from 9 pm IST onwards. Please tweet with the hashtags #16days, #EndGBV and #AFSPA from 25 Nov 2013 – 10 Dec 2013.2. Blogging – Please send write-ups, artwork and/or photographs on gender violence, especially related to militarism, to our email id: and we’ll feature selected entries on our 16 Days of Activism blog!

3. Signing – We will be circulating key petitions on militarism and gender violence for people to sign and share.Please join us!

Twitter – @InQueer
In solidarity!
Queer Feminist India Caucus

November 21, 2013

Of Penance and Justice

In the January 2013 edition of Tehelka Weekly, managing editor Shoma Chaudhary severely condemned the absence of “harsh and swift punitive measures to puncture the idea of immunity” built up around the discourse of rape and sexual assault in the country. It was this very publication, which also severely condemned politicians, who made callous remarks following the gangrape in Delhi.

Cut to November 2013, and the discourse of rape has changed.

With the face of the offender suddenly all too familiar, Chaudhary’s sentiments have apparently been toned down. An act of sexual harassment is referred to euphemistically as an “untoward incident”, which is of course, highly “unfortunate”. “Harsh and punitive measures” have assumed the form of allowing the offender in question to take a six month break, only to return guilt-free and scot-free and continue unearthing new “unfortunate incidents”.

Hypocrisy much? 

For a publication that has so far been considered synonymous with Indian investigative journalism, it was appalling to see that the “incident” of sexual harassment reported against the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal by a young journalist was conveniently swept under the carpet. All under the guise of it being an “internal matter”.

So, considering several incidents of sexual harassment- assuming the form of domestic violence and rape- take place inside the confines of locked spaces, shouldn’t all of them be touted as “internal matters” needing no criminal proceedings? Should it be now be considered acceptable for all offenders to merely render apologies to their victims, take a six month break to apparently engage in “penance” and then return to the same setting: guilt-free and scot-free?

Oh, also, would it be okay for the accused to decide if the victim is “satisfied” with an e-mail apology, which is written in fancy and euphemistic language, geared towards creating a martyr out of a sexual offender?

What makes this “unfortunate incident” any different from several other cases reported so far?

The offender was drunk.

The offender forced himself on the victim.

The offender exercised control, sent out text messages, threatening the victim.


So, what makes Mr Tejpal any different from many others, who have had to undergo criminal proceedings and be charged for their crimes?

Answer: Media-created safety net, a supportive managing editor (who duly sent out an email to the organisation staff, almost sympathizing with the offender) besides the gall to return to his chair of editor-in-chief after a six-month sabbatical to guide hundreds of budding journalists. With no proof of his criminal record, of course.


Amidst the hordes of tweets and other posts on social media, another disturbing aspect that came to the fore was the brazen voyeurism of the masses. The Twitterati also christened themselves as the messiahs for justice.

Bits and pieces from the confidential e-mail sent out by the victim made its way to social media websites. Within minutes, intimate details about the grave nature of the “unfortunate incident” were analysed, re-analysed, tweeted and re-tweeted.

The words “penetration” and “disrobing” invited the wrath of several tweeple. Conversations on the World Wide Web were spent on finding aspects to identify the ‘victim’ without naming her. Thus, with every minute passing by and every new notification, the seriousness of the offence was duly replaced with the need for more intimate details.

Under the guise of disseminating “justice” and backing the ‘victim’, there were aspersions cast against Tejpal’s twenty-something daughter. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and according to news reports, was compelled to delete her Twitter account.


In this cacophony, I fear that this “unfortunate incident” i.e. an act of ‘sexual harassment’ will be eclipsed by hypocrisy, voyeurism and the unending need to dispense justice in 140 characters.


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