November 18, 2013

Of teaspoons of sugar and knuckle dusters

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A few days back the social networks were heralding Anurag Kashyap as the newest feminist on the block. Curious, I decided to click the link on my friend’s Facebook timeline that lead me to watch the cause of such praises- his short film. Titled ‘That Day after Everyday’, the synopsis of the film described it as dealing with the serious issue of ‘eve teasing’. Therein began my reservations about the film. I think women have debated, ad nauseum, about terms like ‘eve teasing’ which do nothing but trivialize the issue of sexual harassment. Such terms break down the harsh reality of the phenomenon to bite-sized morsels that easily slip into the prevalent social psyche, to be easily digested and burped out.

 To watch on Youtube, click here:  That Day After Everyday

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The film shows three middle-class working women, two of whom we see come from families that are not very supportive of them going out of their homes to work. While one has a husband who keeps spouting age-old clichés of how women should not argue with men on the road or retaliate when someone says something, the other has a mother-in-law who thinks she should stay home and look after her son and exclaims at how her hands used to be soft before she started working. They go to work with another woman, whose family we have no clue about, and the film traces how they are harassed at every step of their commute from home to work and back- there are young boys in the locality who (not so secretly) take videos of these women on their mobile phones, men on the bus who fall on them each time the brakes are applied, men at the workplace who secretly record the movements of one of the women and pass lewd comments and, most seriously, there is a group of local goons who regularly harass them on their way to and from work.

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On the said ‘that day’, the leader of the goons physically assaults one of them. While the two other women run away from the scene, the third only manages to escape later and runs for her dear honour. It is on the same day that one of them decides to hit back at a man’s genitals when he throws himself at her in a crowded bus. Later that evening, we see the three women coming out of a self-defence class and asking the instructor when they’d be ready to fight the goons- they are answered in the shape of a cliché ‘jab tum darna bandh karoge, tab (when you stop being scared, then).’ On the way back to their homes, they encounter the goons and decide that ‘that day’ has come. Out come their knuckle dusters and the three women manage to take on the goons with a fine display of their newly acquired moves and kicks- obviously in front of a group of men who just watch but do nothing. Their trainer ‘didi’ too watches on, feeling like a proud mother of a six-year-old who has just won the lemon and spoon race. The film ends with the lecturing husband making tea for the wife who is now a hero, for the first time in his life (as is made evident by the fact that he does not know how much sugar she takes) and lecturing her now instead on how she did the right thing and how such things should be done.

I will go back to what I started with. The film comes from a person who refers to ‘sexual harassment’ as ‘eve teasing’. His perspective is coloured by this. Like the absolutely revolting Delhi Police advertisement featuring Farhan Akhtar, this film sets out to raise a voice against gender-based violence but gets caught within the rut of the same parochial thought. For starters, it fails to provide an answer beyond the paradigm of violence. It says that these things will happen, so get your knuckle dusters out; never once does it say that we should do things differently for them to not happen at all.

 The prevalent discourse surrounding any gender-based violence says that women ask for it- their skirts are too short, they talk too loudly, they roam around at night, they walk alone etc. The onus is on the woman to avoid being harassed. With all the talk around rape for the last one year, the onus, weirdly, has just been strengthened and curiously enough, we have begun asking questions like ‘why wasn’t she carrying a pepper spray?’ and ‘why couldn’t she call a cab?’  If the film is to be followed and heralded as the ‘How to Avoid Rape 101’, we will soon be asking even weirder questions like ‘Where was her knuckle duster?’ and ‘Why didn’t she train in taekwondo?’ What we don’t realise is that these things never help in addressing patriarchy but only add to the ever-growing fear psychosis in society and its people- especially amongst women. What kind of a country are we trying to build if we are saying that women can’t move around on the streets safely if they aren’t trained in martial arts? Are we not indirectly propagating the ‘Stay Home or Get Raped’ idea even more strongly? Why should it take the fear of a bunch of angry, kicking women for men to stop jumping on to them on deserted streets, and why should this fear be the only way to prevent men from groping them in crowded buses?

I must clarify that I am not against women learning self defence at all- what I am against is the hammering in of the idea that this knowledge is now their only saviour from sexual harassment; what I am against is telling my three-year-old niece that when she grows up, she necessarily needs to be a shouting, shrieking, kicking, violent person just so she can walk to her friend’s house in the adjoining neighbourhood safely. I am against the idea of being made to consider all men as threats, as subjects of fury who I will need to vanquish in order to just be safe (of course, one of the women in the film is called Durga).

After December 16 last year we have spoken of un-learning fear, we have taken back nights and claimed our streets but what does it reduce women to if we fall back into the same frame of thought which tells us to forever wear our knuckle dusters and hold on tight to our pepper sprays? If these are our streets, why should we fight to be walking on them? Most importantly, what does it reduce men to? People who are naturally programmed to harass, whose natural states of being thrive on groping, whistling, throwing acid, raping, inserting rods, killing and so on; people who necessarily have to be scared into behaving themselves, into keeping their pants on. What we often forget is that the only way we can bring down gender-based violence is by having the two sexes co-exist symbiotically, with mutual respect between them. Speaking for myself, I will never respect someone who I am forever being taught to see as a threat. Conversely, why will a man respect a woman whose anger he is taught to fear but whose refusal he isn’t taught to consider important?

Continuing with its love for clichés and absolutely hackneyed representations, the trainer ‘didi’s’ portrayal ticks off every box in the book of ‘feminist’ stereotypes. She obviously has short hair, smokes and is the brooding sort who doesn’t talk much beyond mouthing clichéd advice. More disturbingly here, there is a distinct class divide too- she owns an SUV which she uses to drop these women home and is dressed in track pants while the women continue to be in their salwar kameezes even post the martial arts training class. Her class position allows her to negotiate the streets in her track pants which leaves her in a position where she can stand and freely patronize these women with her clichés. When the three women fight the goons, she stands aside- letting ‘them’ fight their own little battle. My biggest problem with the film is that it never becomes her battle. Like the crowd of men (one of whom is the woman’s lecturing husband), she too becomes an audience to the fight- only looking on proudly at the warriors she has made out of the upma-making, forehead-massaging women. There is an inherent sense of condescension that disturbs me. If she can walk up to the scene of the fight from her car, why can’t she join in too?

I believe it is time we thought beyond these set paradigms and vocabularies. We don’t need to be the Madonna, we don’t need to be the Whore and neither do we need to be the Lara Croft, in order to demand to be safe in our own cities. The answer to rape is not an ever-growing fear psychosis, the answer does not lie in the little sprays we carry in our bags everyday; it lies in the not-so-radical and extremely simple practice of respecting sexes- both your own and the other. It starts with little things like letting the woman feel that she doesn’t need to sit there with her heart in her mouth just because the only other passenger on the bus is a man and letting the man on the road know that he isn’t any less of a man if he doesn’t keep sidelining your car to the pavement. I may be talking of a utopia here- something that filmmakers don’t even see a point in attempting to portray- but then, what are we even living for if there isn’t any hope?

Till then, I am quite all right with making my own tea and putting my own sugar in it.

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