August 27, 2013

When the clock stopped ticking…

A red coloured Maruti van parked 100 metres away.

Four hefty men with bulging eyes.

Stark silence, dreaded darkness.

No familiar faces in sight.

The time was past midnight.

… a shiver ran down my spine.


Amidst the chaos and clutter of charred bodies being wheeled in with families breaking down, little did I conceive an event that even today, gives me Goosebumps, every time I read a news story of a woman being sexually violated, and her body, mysteriously dumped in an isolated place.

As a trainee journalist, covering an event as catastrophic as the serial bomb blast that shook the city of Mumbai in July 2011 was challenging at several levels.

Identifying that one aggrieved family member, who could narrate the whereabouts of their loved one before he/she reached the spot of the blast, sending real-time updates to the editor, maintaining my composure in such an emotionally-charged setup besides answering phone calls from my mother, who wanted to know if I was safe and had eaten my dinner, was a strenuous exercise, both, professionally and emotionally.


It was past midnight on the clock. Even as shutters of shops in the neighbourhood were pulled down and people on the streets had returned to the safe confines of their homes, the situation at the hospital only got more heart-breaking with every tick of the clock. More bodies were being wheeled in and the police personnel gheraod certain areas to keep the journalists at bay.

Since it was the first time, I was working in such a high-pressure situation I was accompanied by a senior journalist from my own publication. I had to ensure that I was on my toes, keeping her in the know of everything that I found.

It was at this moment, when I was with a group of journalists, who were busy listing out the names of the identified victims, an unknown man, standing a few feet away, called out to me. Bogged down with the pressure of finding any relevant information that could make it to the next morning’s paper, I didn’t think twice before responding to him.

“Madam, hospital ke back gate ke bahar, ek family hai jinke bete ka death hua hai. Mein aapki baat-cheet unke saath karwa sakta hoon.” (Madam, I will introduce you to the family of a victim, who died in the blast. They are waiting near the back gate of the hospital.)

Now, finding a family, which could talk to the press at such a time was a real challenge. Thus, when the man offered to help, I actually felt relieved.

After informing my senior in hushed whispers- hoping that no other newspaper reporter could hear- that I would be back in a moment after speaking to the family, I followed the man.

Unthinkingly, I walked along with the man, asking him questions about the deceased and which member of the family might be in a more composed state to talk to me. He insisted that the victim’s father was around and even assured me an exclusive interview with him. I believed him.

A minute into this conversation, the unfamiliar corridors through which he was directing me through struck me like a thunderbolt. It was just the two of us, away from the public and police glare, in the middle of the night. Moreover, the cemented walls in the large hospital ensured that there was either low or absolutely no mobile network for me to contact anyone. It was then that I started questioning my decision and this man’s intentions.

Suddenly, his genuine tone sounded pretentious. His eyes looked puffier than what I had first noticed, his story fragmented and fake with every word he uttered.

What would he get by promising me an ‘exclusive’ story?

Why would he take me through these unfamiliar corridors, when there is a direct road from outside the main gate to the morgue?

There were many more “Why” and “What” questions that sprung up in my mind. None had a convincing answer.

It was too late to turn back and move. We had crossed three long corridors and hastily turning back and running seemed like an implausible option. So, I decided to maintain my cool, go along with him, while hoping that some familiar face would suddenly appear to help me out of there. All this while, I continued to expect the worst and prayed to some divine unknown for deliverance.

Finally, after walking through several empty corridors that were towards the end, dimly lit, an exit door was visible. Three men, whom I immediately noticed were brawny and looked woozy, waited near a red coloured Maruti van that was parked a few metres from the gate.

My heart skipped a beat. A shiver ran down my spine. I felt numb.

“Gaadi ke peeche woh victim ka daddy khada hai. Chalo, aap mere saath aa jao.” (The victim’s father is waiting behind the car. Come along.) My feet refused to move. I didn’t find any escape route. There was no “daddy” visible through the faint light in the dark. Just the van and three men, staring at and into me.

I stood still for a few seconds.

What followed surpassed my imagination.

A senior journalist from a rival newspaper called out to me from behind, “Reetika, what the hell are you doing there? Just come here. Soon.” Who would have imagined that in following me to find out what story I was pursuing, she would in fact end up safeguarding me from a fate that could have been difficult to make peace with.

I ran. Ran towards her with tears rolling down my cheeks.

The man in the background suddenly disappeared into the darkness and was later seen, only in the nightmares that I had in the following few nights.


August 26, 2013

Why Loitering is worth the Risk

By Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade

We post an extract from our book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets in the wake of the recent gangrape of a journalist in Mumbai. It is true that women get attacked in public spaces in cities (and elsewhere), but it is also true that everyday women access the city for work and pleasure, often enjoying this engagement with the city. Even as we petition for better policing and speedy justice; we must also demand better infrastructure in the shape of transport, lighting and toilets that make it possible for women to access the city. We must not lose sight of the fact fact that not only do we have the right to be safe in the city, we also have the right to have fun in city and yes to loiter too!

Extract from the Concluding Chapter titled ‘Why Loiter?’:

Loitering is perceived to be risky because it is often cast as dangerous and anti-social in some way. Interestingly, it is also illegal in many countries; good citizens are expected not to loiter, but to go about their work in an orderly fashion. Good citizens are then rewarded with the promise of protection in public space which is denied to those who loiter. This is even more stringently applicable to women who are forbidden from taking risks of any kind. When women demand the freedom to take risks instead of the guarantee of safety, we are implicitly rejecting this conditional protection in favour of the unqualified right to public space.

We would like the right to choose to be able to go out at anytime of the day or night or to choose to stay in. In some ways benevolent paternal protection is simple—it lays down the boundaries and all one has to do is skilfully negotiate them. Losing this protection, however conditional, will mean that one is compelled to take decisions and make choices whose outcomes we might have little control over. However, freedom from protection will also mean freedom, not from the male gaze or the threat of physical assault, but from having to consistently manufacture respectability in order to be worthy of protection. The right to risk is unconditional. The right to risk knows no temporality, no codes of conduct and needs no symbolic markers to define ones worthiness. The right to risk chooses freedom over restrictions and seeks freedom from restrictions.

We acknowledge explicitly that with freedom comes responsibility. The demand for the unconditional right to take risks in lieu of protection places the responsibility squarely on women. Our desire then is to replace the un-chosen risk to reputation and the unwanted risk of loss of respectability with a chosen risk of engaging city spaces on our own terms. Yes, there is street harassment, and yes, there is violence against both women and men. The fear of violence in public space is legitimate and cannot be merely wished away. At no point are we ignoring or even minimizing the violence, both sexual and non-sexual, that might potentially take place in the public and lead to physical as well as psychological trauma. Even as we ask for women’s right to engage risk in public space, we do not disregard the responsibility of the state and its mechanisms of law and order in dealing with public violence. Instead, we suggest that they deal very firmly with the aggressors of that violence and not tie up the victims of violence in endless blame games, inane dress codes, and relentless moral policing. The woman who seeks the simple pleasure of a walk by the seaside at night is in no way responsible for an attack against her. In another world, this would not be a risk, but given that it is a risk in Mumbai, and in several other Indian cities, the least one can expect is unequivocal justice if one is assaulted. The least one can expect is that the assailant be punished without collateral emotional damage to the victim. The least one can expect is to not be held responsible for that violence. The least one can expect is an acknowledgement of one’s right to walk on the beach, stroll on the waterfront, laze in the park without question.

At the same time, however, we also need to recognize another kind of risk: that of loss of opportunity to engage city spaces and the loss of the experience of public spaces should women choose not to access public space more than minimally. By choosing not to access public space without purpose, women not only accept the gendered boundaries of public space, but actually reinforce them. This renders women forever outsiders to public space; always commuters, never possessors of public space.

The right to risk is not merely abstract. From the perspective of the city, it must be mirrored in the provision of infrastructure. While the decision to take certain risks must be chosen, risks must not be thrust upon women by inadequate or miserly planning.

Infrastructure is central to access. The state and the city’s role in the provision of infrastructure like public transport, public toilets and good lighting are integral to the success of the larger claim to public space. Public space, then, does not mean empty space devoid of infrastructure and facilities, but a space that is thoughtfully designed with the intention of maximizing access. Not just functional spaces like train compartments, bus stops and toilets, but also spaces of pleasure like parks and seaside promenades are significant to creating accessible cities. For it is in these spaces that the joy of being in and belonging to the city is shared and communicated.

While we must lobby for an infrastructure that will make it possible for us take risks as citizens, at the same time, the demand for infrastructure that reduces risks should not provide the grounds to indict those who choose to take other kinds of risks not dependant on infrastructure. The presence of well-lit streets in the city should not mean that women found in dark corners should be deemed unrespectable or blamed if they are attacked.

Choosing to take risks in public space undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency. Choosing risks foregrounds pleasure, making what is clearly a feminist claim to the city.

Extract from Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, New Delhi: Penguin, 2011

August 23, 2013

NWMI condemns gangrape of woman journalist in Mumbai & demands safety for women media professionals


The Network of Women in Media, India, (NWMI) is shocked and angry at the alleged gangrape of a woman journalist and the assault on her male colleague in the evening of August 22 while they were on assignment for a print publication near the Shakti Mills compound at Mahalaxmi in Central Mumbai.

The two journalists were accosted and intimidated by a few people who demanded to see their authorisation for shooting in the area. They took the woman journalist aside on the pretext of securing the authorisation for her, tied up her colleague and allegedly gangraped her. In all, five persons perpetrated the attack, according to preliminary reports. The woman journalist showed great presence of mind in freeing herself and also managed to free her colleague and the two then sought to file a complaint with the N M Joshi Marg police station. They are being treated at Jaslok Hospital now for multiple injuries.

The incident is a grim reminder of the deteriorating state of safety for women across the country, as well as the lack of security for media professionals, especially women media professionals. The harassment of women professionals in the media is on the rise and, along with work-place related harassment, journalists also have had to contend with anti-women prejudices and biased reactions from employers as well as law enforcement officers.

The Network of Women in Media, India extends all support and solidarity to the journalist who were assaulted. The NWMI also cautions its colleagues in the media to report on the incident responsibly and sensitively, without providing unnecessary details that provide markers to the identity of the journalists involved.

The NWMI demands that the police conduct a speedy investigation into the gang rape and assault and ensure that justice is delivered without delay.

The NWMI also urges media employers to desist from introducing restrictions on work assignments for women journalists and instead ensure the safety and security of their staff.

Yours sincerely,

Geeta Seshu, Mumbai
Kalpana Sharma, Mumbai
Meena Menon, Mumbai/Islamabad
Sameera Khan, Mumbai
Sandhya Srinivasan, Mumbai
Sharmila Joshi, Mumbai
Jyoti Punwani, Mumbai
Rina Mukherjee, Kolkata
Rajashri Dasgupta, Kolkata
Kavin Malar, Chennai
Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore
Ammu Joseph, Bangalore
Gita Aravamudan, Bangalore
Kaumudi, Pune
and others

on behalf of
Network of Women in Media, India

August 16, 2013

Loving “her” to Death

By Janaki Nair


A grisly attack on a young woman student and the violent suicide of a “spurned” boyfriend  has shocked and alarmed the campus community at JNU in Delhi. Long believed to be the small “republic” where few of the violent hierarchies that are the staple of Indian life prevail, and where the everyday brutalities of the National Capital Region have largely been kept at bay, the shattered peace calls for confronting some painful truths, of which such grotesque violence is only a symptom.

What does such acts of senseless violence reveal about the speed and direction of the bewildering changes in our social life, for which even higher education in one of India’s most prestigious universities does not prepare us, and to which it is not immune? And how do we prepare realistically for an increase in the rise of such violence, where aspirations are not matched by opportunities?

There are at least three levels on which such changes are occurring. For at least two decades, we have witnessed newer forms of misogyny that keep pace with the increasing individuation of Indian women. This has been difficult for not only men but for some women to accept. There is the violence with which women are reinserted into official kinship relations of which the khap panchayat is the most visible reminder: men continue to be well served by this “symbolics of blood” much more than women.  As student bodies are changing, with higher and higher proportions of hitherto underprivileged castes and groups, including women, seeking higher education, the hypervisibility of women from all backgrounds who control their destiny – intellectual, financial, political, sexual —  is too much for some sections to bear. Class differences combine in important ways with differences based on region, language and caste, and  have already been the cause of much tension in campuses such as JNU.

More important are the ways in which young men feel entitled to “love” women to death: our contemporary visual culture is saturated with messages that teach us, over and over again, that sexualized violence and violent male sexuality is normal. Love is unidirectional, declared by men, and succumbed to or accepted by women. Pre-marital love between Indians can blossom, but only on the distant shores of Australia, as in Salaam Namaste, which was set in worlds beyond the reach of parents and neighbours, litigants and agitators on behalf of female chastity and  “honour”.  The stain on national honour by the arrival of a love-child in Salaam Namaste was prevented by the timely production of a ring by the hero, and birthing squalls came safely after the legal bond, and conjugality was saved among Antipodean Indians.

No such luck, it appears, attends the lives of real life heroines. They are often loved to death by men who, once spurned, wield the axe, knife or acid bottle with great skill on their “loves”. Indian cinema has carefully nurtured this version of loving, a unidirectional flow of feeling from man to woman, whose outcomes are always predictable. In one Malayalam film, a police officer (Mohanlal) shackled the woman he “loved” to a tree and compelled her to say the three little words. Vishnuvardhan, the Kannada actor, playfully whipped his heroines into submission, and on the rare occasion when the filmic narrative called for Rajnikanth to be slapped by a woman (Chandramukhi),  the hero’s honour was recouped on the streets by his angry fans.

Real women are a different matter.  Many new entrants to the university system who come from a very wide variety of socio economic backgrounds, envy and fear the economic and social independence of women, themselves often from Dalit and OBC communities. They are a major threat to social life and civility as it has long been defined by men. Ironically, there are women fellowship holders on our campus who have become the new victims of the preying male, when the latter depend on them financially for years, but eventually leave them in the lurch (and several lakhs poorer). In addition to these new forms that a renewed patriarchy is taking are many features of the old ones: the entitlement that upper castes feel they have to lower caste female bodies, of dominant communities to minority women, of men who throng the repressive state apparatuses of army and police to those who they purportedly protect, and last but not least, of male faculty to their female students.

To make sense of the near pornographic performance of violence by the male student, we must ask, from what has this self destruction emerged?  Even as our youngsters are adept consumers of goods of every shape and description, and there is relentless pressure to acquire as much and as quickly as possible, they have become most vulnerable at an emotional level. An unprecedented brittleness is everywhere evident – in the excessive (and new) dependence on faculty; in the inability to face and accept the hard knocks that life sometimes deals us, whether in the form of low grades or unrequited love;  in the loneliness to which the new consumerism condemns us —  for which there appears to be no immediate succor. This is in inverse proportion to the precocious and promiscuous handling of objects from a young age – mobile phones and computers at the age of 12. Our young are increasingly unable to deal with the heaves and shoves of our monstrous society.

Leaning too heavily on securitization or the law alone is dangerously inadequate. What is needed most urgently is the building of a new civility by men and women, of lower and upper castes and classes, of urban and rural areas. The new civility must reveal that the social and economic independence of women is not always at the expense of lower class male prospects, that women are no longer the playthings that invite possession rather than respect. This new civility will be seriously challenged in the one sphere where the individualities of women have been celebrated, namely the market, turning women’s, or anyone’s, independence into a freedom to consume, and to be consumed.

To overturn such newly entrenched and older ideologies is no easy task, and calls for nothing short of a revolution. We may take heart in what caste movements in India have achieved over the past three decades, making discriminatory speech, actions or beliefs in the public sphere more difficult (though not yet impossible). At the same time, women are made the ground for new forms of assertion. A completely new gender and caste just civility must be the goal, which will make our campuses, and indeed the country,  safer and less threatening for women.

Janaki Nair teaches History in Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi.


August 13, 2013

Brown in America

My sister was born 4 years before me and a few shades darker. Just enough to cross the color line in the United States. When she tried out for Tom Sawyer, they cast her as Injun Joe. It didn’t matter that she was a girl; she was the only brown kid in the cast. East Indian or American Indian—they were both brown.

On a given day, I might call myself South Asian. To a more discerning eye, I’d add I’m Parsi, my father is from Mumbai. My mother was born in Germany. Her father came from Italy. She is white.  My mom is the immigrant to America, but I am the one who gets stopped on the street. What are you? Where are you from? But what they really mean is what makes you brown?

De colores. Of color. I am a woman of color.

In my younger years, I “blended in,” a.k.a. passed as white. My blonde-haired best friend once whispered to me, I don’t think of you as Indian. You are white to me. It was a gift, like a vanilla cupcake frosted with sprinkles on top. One of my mom’s boyfriends, who was the lightest black man she dated, told her she had to stop raising us white.  I think of that now—of what it meant to be raised white. It has something to do with entitlement, with power structures, with seeing pieces of yourself in the images around you.

White identity is not just about discrimination. It’s about belonging. This idea that we all fit in our place, but white is on top. For years, I cultivated whiteness and when I got it in friends and boyfriends, it felt like success. I was raised white, hiding those darker sides of myself, making fun of Indians. I want to push those memories away. I want to wad them like used tissue and toss them into a bin. I wish I was a better person. But racism is a part of me. I remember one of the Indian girls came to our class from India in second grade. Her name rhymed with super. I called her the super, duper, pooper scooper. Because her skin looked like poop. I wanted to rub every bit of brown out of me. I did everything I could to distance myself from my roots. Images of white teeny bopper boys plastered to my room walls, anemic, bulimic barbies, porcelain dolls. In the summer, I swam until the sun bleached chlorine blonde in my hair. My father was onto his second marriage and wore white Velcro shoes and billowing American shorts. The Indian almost scrubbed right out. We went to India and stayed at five-star-hotels. Madam. Droves of men stared at the spectacle I had become at 15-years, baggy pants, a Bob Marley shirt and Indian nose with such light skin. America.

I went to one of the whiter colleges in the state—UC Santa Cruz, but as life is laden with ironies, it was where I grew to love my brownness. Found my roots. When I walked into a room there was so much at play—race, gender, class, sexuality, age. I watched the factors play out and found that I could see things from different sides. It was new, recognizing the discomfort of the assumption that white was better: a law I’d grown up worshipping. It was one of my boyfriends who taught me to see my own whiteness. Made that lens visible to me. When we walked in a room and everyone was white, his shoulders tightened, he went out to smoke a cigarette. There were some terrible moments we went through, bridging race and class as we brought our families together. One of the worst times was when my German grandmother asked him if he knew any poor people that she could give old underwear away to. We never spoke about that moment. But even now, I can see the hurt and pain in his eyes—that helpless stare. Is that what she thinks of me and my people that we want her cast-off underwear? My stomach tightens, I wish the moment away, but every part of him said—I endure this hurt because of my love for you. It was this love that let me see whiteness as a sort of blindness. An inability to see—to really understand how your presence silences another. Just by walking into a room.

In 2001, the twin towers came crashing down and I became brown. The type of brown that people stop on the street and ask Are you from Afghanistan? I get stopped all the time. I thought that most people did. Once a man went jogging by and actually turned around and jogged right back to me ask where I was from. Too many places, he said, and jogged away. When we bombed Iraq, the question changed: Where are you from, Iraq? Finally, when George W. was fomenting about Iran’s nuclear program, they hit a vein of my lineage. Are you from Iran? Yes, I’m Parsi. My ancestors left Iran 1,000 years ago and settled in Bombay. I’ve been thinking of doing like an Israeli and making off for Iran, building a wall and settling to reclaim my homeland. Since U.S. bombings aren’t making headlines these days, I’m back to the gamut—the guy asking for change at the stoplight came right up to my car window asking if I was Greek. In Italy, they think I’m Sicilian or grab their wallets tighter in case I’m a Gypsy. In Germany, they are sure I am Turkish. In the south of India, I must be Kashmiri. Everywhere I go, I am other.

I could spin the globe and land on Italy, India, Germany, Iran, California and legitimately go home. But none will be my homecoming. The thing about being mixed is that you understand both, but belong to neither worlds. Infinite possibilities at your fingertips, but nothing at your feet. Nowhere to call home. But my people are everywhere. Can you see a bit of yourself in me? There are more of us. As we band together—we are not a minority. Our otherness makes us the majority. We are the new global citizens here in California—Azteca, Asian, African, Arabic. Different shades of brown blending together. We are the living possibility of a people without borders, an identity beyond the nation state. The heartbeat of freedom.


August 02, 2013

The Myth of the Supermom

By Shazia Nigar

This year on Mother’s Day I came across a cartoon strip that I thought was appropriate for my mother. Two kids were peering into their mother’s closet in absolute awe. They had just discovered a ‘Superwoman’ costume in there. One of them says “ So that’s how she does it…”

I, too, have been looking for that answer for a long time. How does she do it? It was only recently that I realised, she does it because she does not have an option. Women do not have a life outside of the family and if they do, it has to be a perfect balance or an imbalance tilting in favour of the domestic. So, in order to earn her independence, to live her life and to be able to enjoy all that she has worked hard to achieve, my mother has no option but to be as much of a supermom as she can be. The merriam-webster dictionary defines supermom as a woman who performs the traditional duties of housekeeping and child-rearing while also having a full-time job. So, if you want your independence, you have to have it all. Thus while my mother runs an international organisation as its country head she has to ensure that the kitchen back home in India is running smoothly. That my grandmother has had her cup of Horlicks. That I am not broke. That my father is taking his medicines.

Men, on the other hand, are defined by their individual accomplishments outside the home. The promotion, the big car, the powerful friends. They do not have to juggle the delicate balance between home and work. They do not have to perform under the intense pressure of living up to the myth of a superdad. If he is not around to see you recover from chicken pox, that’s fine. We all understand. However, if she is not around while her child is suffering, she is a selfish career minded woman.

The traditional idea of motherhood demands that women sacrifice. In a recent interview Rishi Kapoor praises his wife, Neetu Kapoor. He says “ At the age of 22, she gave up her flourishing career and had Riddhima the same year. Which actress would be able to do that?”. Sacrifice. Is that what it takes? That they give up their desires, their achievements and their individual life to prove that they are good mothers. Why is that the ability to sacrifice is a measure of their value in the eyes of their husbands, society, and even their children?

My mother, from as back as I can jog my memory to, has always had to play out this delicate balance between work and home. Sometimes, she managed. Sometimes, she didn’t. She wasn’t around when I had chicken pox. She wasn’t able to make it to the parent-teacher meeting every year. The first time she wasn’t home for Eid, it was a big deal. Of course, I had phases where I grudged her absences. While everyone else was getting pampered as their mother fried evening snacks and packed aloo paratha for lunch, I wished my mother was home. To an eight-year-old me it only seemed ‘natural’ that my mother should also be around. Because, I thought and it seemed as if that is how it should be. She was the only working woman in the family. Of course, my aunt was a teacher in a school. But that didn’t kept her away for days from her family. It was always secondary. To supplement her husband’s earnings, to utilise her education. Not to define herself. Not to create a life that was her own. Never to be independent. That was for my mother to do. And that is what I grudged – that she had a life beyond my father and me.

But, as I grew up I got used to it. Not in a I-can-manage sort of a way. But in a it-is-perfectly-fine-if-she-is-not-always-around sort of a way. As I began to feel the pressure of what it means to be a daughter or a granddaughter as opposed to being a son or grandson, I began to appreciate my mothers struggles better. In an environment, where the domestic is mostly the responsibility of the woman, it is bound to compromise other ambitions she may have. I have felt it irk me when I have been asked to serve guests when I would rather read. Or when my cousin sister has had to fold clothes during her exams while her brother is free to do as he wills. Small examples these. But these build onto larger things. They signal towards what your priorities should be as a woman. And in some way it was these expectations that I was imposing on my mother.

I now realise that just like Superman, the idea of a Supermom is a myth. An urban legend that only makes our lives harder. We cannot have it all. And that is okay. No matter how hard you try, there will be moments you will miss out on. Personal or professional. And that is no reason to allow guilt to ruin the life you have built for yourself. You chose to have a life beyond the family and those close to you need to respect that, not be threatened by it.

Looking at the dictionary definition of a supermom, I think it is time we stopped celebrating the concept. It is time that we challenge the notion of “traditional duties of housekeeping and child-rearing” being the domain of the woman despite the fact that she is as much of a bread winner, if not more. It is time for the woman to stop feeling compelled to play out this balancing act. It is time that we challenged men to rise up to the idea of ‘superdads’. Being a supermom doesn’t leave you with much to do. The idea dissipates your energies to an extent where you are torn between running a kitchen and ensuring that file is sanctioned at the right time. Besides, the categorization as supermom again restricts the identity of women to the realm of the domestic. That you are a mom, who is also working just by the way.

In a time and space where girls find role models in painted faces gyrating for the male gaze or in mythical ideas of the ‘ Bhartiya Nari’, my mother has taught me the biggest lessons a girl needs to learn. I will not be reduced to being a wife, a mother, a daughter and a sister. These things are important to different women to varying degrees. But, never will it be the whole of me. I will be my own person. I will party loud or seek solitude, just for myself. She has taught me that my life consists of several aspects. Friends, Family, Work and Pleasure. And that never will I allow my relationships to define who I am.

She has taught me that to seek joy outside of the family is an important aspect of being empowered. Work provides a sort of empowerment that is often measured and justified. A woman is allowed to work to earn, to provide, for a purpose. But seeking pleasure, for oneself. For the sake of it, not justifying it, is another degree of being empowered. My mother travels with her friends during holidays; she lives alone, hosts friends, goes cycling and learns the guitar. In today’s world, it is still a rarity. The sad truth often is that once women become mothers, their lives are expected to be all about this all important role, motherhood. My mother has taught me that it need not necessarily be so. And I am forever grateful for that.

To try to be my own person. To own my life. To create an identity for myself. To seek pleasure in travel (although she does get paranoid over tickets/trains/hotels/co-passengers whenever I travel), in photography, in earning my own money and in splurging on myself. To have a life beyond the family. To live. These are the lessons my mother taught me. And I won’t hold a grudge against her for not being there when I had chicken pox or for every parent-teacher meeting she missed or for having a life beyond my father and me. For, she couldn’t have taught me these lessons otherwise.

Shazia Nigar is a journalist. Having completed her Masters in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she has worked with Tehelka Magazine in the past. Her articles have previously appeared in Kafila and Counter Currents.

July 27, 2013

Commercial Surrogacy: choice and health

ASenguptaBeing pregnant comes with its advantages. One of these is that a healthy amount of pampering is expected and endured. Pregnant women can put their feet up more than usual, or at least that’s how it should be, how we want it to be. Because for most of us, this is supposed to be (at least ideally, at least in reasonably okay families), a special time.

Why am I thinking of this now? Well, it’s baby season with balding William having a baby. If I could be bothered, I’d think of something cute to say but given that the world’s topmost designers are busy proposing designer prams, I’ll pass. In the meantime, there have been other babies back home that made news; yes, I’m talking about Shahrukh Khan’s surrogate baby. Also, more importantly, the draft Assisted Reproductive Technologies (Regulation) Bill will soon be tabled in parliament. The bill, also called the ART Regulation Bill, is an attempt to regulate the fertility industry including In-Vitro Fertilisation, sperm donation and surrogacy.  But the section titled “Rights and duties in relation to surrogacy occupies only a few pages and many of the clauses focus on protecting the rights of the buyers. In this multimillion dollar industry, the woman who carries a child only plays a small part, it would seem.

So the inherent specialness of the time or the woman—that’s relative, isn’t it? In commercial surrogacy, for example, pregnancy and reproduction are nothing more or less than a service. It can be bought and sold, contracted. There are middlemen. It is an industry. Sometimes, it is a celebrity decision and a celebrity baby. The baby is special. The baby is god’s gift. The woman, ah, that’s another matter. There’s a lot of fuss about celebrity babies and sometimes about celebrity moms. There’s less fuss about surrogate moms of celebrity babies and absolutely no fuss about surrogate moms of ordinary babies. In fact, ensuring a basic minimum of health for them seems difficult.

Western feminist perspectives on commercial surrogacy are varied with issues of personal autonomy, reproductive choice and dehumanisation all making an appearance. Take a look at this Stanford University group for an overview though their subtle tilt toward supporting surrogacy is troubling. Boiling the debate down to an issue of choice is simplistic. There are perspectives on power, dominance and inequality that Indian feminists have explored and it’s worth revisiting these. Most importantly, there are questions on women’s health that need to be foregrounded.

A paper called Birthing a Market which was published by SAMA in 2012, reveals how irrelevant the discussion of choice can be in a scenario where women are misinformed or do not understand the implications of what they are participating in. Often, they feel intimidated or alienated by their surroundings and don’t feel like they can ask questions. An excerpt from the paper:

Surrogates in the clinical setting experienced a general atmosphere of intimidation to open communication. In such an atmosphere, it was improbable that surrogates themselves would seek information. Asked whether she desired any further communication with the doctor, SD1 said that she could not ask too many questions, “With these people, if you talk too much, it doesn’t look good.”

As the paper says, the surrogate was meant to give her consent under these circumstances. What are the chances that ‘consent’ here became a bit skewed?

The paper talks about the lack of information around possible medical repercussions.

On discovering that she was carrying twins, SP4 expressed concern about the effect of this on her health. The agent told her, ‘It does not matter. It will be fine.’ In such a context, surrogates could not possibly anticipate any effects or problems that they may face afterwards. They were required to simply resign themselves to the situation, undergo the procedures, and bear the unexpected pain and complications stoically. The possible impact on their bodies and the effect on their health were neither considered while making the decision, nor did these considerations figure as meaningful factors when it comes to the remuneration and longer term health coverage.

Inequality is measured in the daily meals, the missing nutrients, the messed up medical procedures. It’s all very well to talk of choice but when it comes to health issues, I’m suspicious of double standards. The full set of prenatal check-ups and oodles of emotional support is required for one woman but a careless legal formality is okay for another?

The paper also gives a chart of common health problems experienced by surrogates. These include weakness, double pneumonia, gilti (lumps where injections are given), fatigue, vomiting, dizziness. One surrogate said: “Used to have aches in my body and stomach from the first day. The child was born with a lot of trouble. I had got an infection in that area after three–four months. They gave me an injection so I don’t lactate, one hour before discharging me. But the milk had been formed. It hurt very much later when I was home.”

The entire paper is an interesting read and is available here.

The choice argument is obviously based on an assumption that a woman is fully aware of all the possible repercussions—medical and emotional—that she may have to bear. Clearly, this is not the case for many women who choose to become surrogates. Worse, in many cases, gross negligence gives way to deliberate cruelty for profit. In a recent article in The Hindu, Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research (CSR), said: “…some surrogate mothers are also impregnated without their knowledge to ensure high success rate. In case of unhealthy pregnancies, abortion pills are given by the doctor to terminate the pregnancy and the surrogate simply thinks that she had a spontaneous abortion.”

The hope is that legislation will help improve some of these health problems but the bill is lacking in its very formulation. This review of the draft bill mentions that it does not address concerns related to informed consent and counselling of the surrogate. The bill also “fails to mention any of the physical risks, such as those involved in egg retrieval, common in the ART process”. The review points out that the nature of the industry is such that doctors and clinics will gain from not informing the surrogate of possible negative impact. By not enforcing this legally, we’re clearing the path for rampant exploitation.

No discussion of rights can take place in an elitist, idealised and unrealistic cocoon removed from concerns such as health. The mundanity of headaches and blood leaks have the power to build or destroy a woman’s life, and her personal autonomy. Because commercial surrogacy is intimately bound up with the body, the people we need to hear from are women whose bodies are undergoing these procedures, not just during the procedures but long after. We also need to ask questions: who guarantees that the woman’s health is going to be privileged over the child’s? Typically, expenses cover the woman’s health expenses only until childbirth and not after. What if complications are discovered later? Who will take responsibility for the woman’s health at that point?

Also read this article by SAMA in which talks about the 2010 draft of the ART Bill and its problems and this slightly older article by Imrana Qadeer & Mary E. John, again in Kafila.

July 20, 2013

Talking to kids about sexual safety – II

In an earlier post, I talked about Childline India’s programme on educating school kids on sexual safety. The programme, which runs in 180 schools across the city, teaches kids about basic concepts related to sexual safety. When they started devising the programme in 2011, they found that when it comes to sexuality education, “there is a tremendous communication gap between teachers and children, parents and children,” says Nishit Kumar of Childline India. “Parents expect that school will deliver it. Schools shied away from it because they thought that parents will be against it. There is a huge communication gap, huge vocabulary gap.”

To tackle the problem of vocabulary, they turned to the oldest things, the forms that came first — nursery rhymes, fairy tales, stories. The programme uses stories and visual aids to talk to kids in standards 2 to 6 about staying safe. It avoids words like abuse or sex. It works with concepts like safe and unsafe touch, personal safety rules, the concept of trusting someone that they confide in, the concept of recognising actions that make them feel uncomfortable.

Here is another example of a session. The purpose of reproducing these sessions and this material here is to help parents who want to handle these issues themselves because they don’t have access to organisations that can help, or to spark ideas for other organisations / individuals / schools that want to start such sessions. Please get in touch with Childline India if you have questions.

This session takes 30 to 40 minutes and involves 9 to 11-year-olds. Volunteers conducting the session receive training on how to handle the session as well as questions and discussion after it. These include:


  • Speak clearly and slowly
  • Ask permission from the children at the beginning of the class to talk to them. It is their right to participation.
  • Tell them clearly how much time you will take, and what are the activities you will cover. (30 mins, story telling and a question answer session)
  • You may ask a disruptive child if he/she wishes to stand outside the classroom and listen
  • At the end of the session thank the children for listening
  • Never use the term “child sexual abuse”
  • Never use violence (verbal or physical) or force to get the children to listen or “behave”
  • If you feel a child asks a question you cannot answer, do not make up something or lie. Ask the child to speak to his/her Trusted Adult.
  • Do not react to every response, some children might laugh or giggle when you discuss private parts.



The Story (this is an unedited version reproduced as faithfully as possible from material provided by Childline India)


Flip to Chart 1






This story is about a girl named Pinky who was 10 years old. Pinky wanted me to come here today and share her story with you. She said “it is important that all children know my story.”


Pinky lived in a small colony in Dadar, walking distance from her school. Everyday she would walk home with her friend Bunty. When she got home her neighbour Aunty would be there. Aunty would take care of her for a few hours until her mother came home. Pinky liked playing with Aunty. She was kind and gentle. Mr. Uncle, Aunty’s husband, used to work in a factory but one day had to give up his job and so Aunty had to work more hours to earn more money. So now when she got home from school, Mr. Uncle would watch her instead of Aunty.


Flip to Chart 2



One day when she came back from school and was playing with her dolls in her room, Mr. Uncle asked her to come out to the hall. He said he had a present for her, a new box of colour pencils that she really wanted. He said “Pinky, if you want the present you have to do something for me.” Pinky asked Mr. Uncle what she had to do as she was eager for the new colour pencils. Mr. Uncle said he was having trouble undoing his belt buckle, and because of his big tummy he could not see it properly. So he asked Pinky to help remove his belt. Pinky thought this was very weird, but she also wanted the pencils, so she helped Mr. Uncle remove his belt. Mr. Uncle kept smiling at her. Once she had done this he gave her the pencils and said “This is our secret Pinky, you can’t tell anyone. Every time I come I will bring you something but you must keep it a secret. We are part of a secret club that exchanges presents, ok?” Pinky agreed and ran back into her room to draw. When her mother came home, Mr. Uncle had put his belt back on.


Everyday Mr. Uncle brought things for Pinky, like pencils, erasers, notebooks, marbles and a rubber ball. She kept them hidden under her bed in a box, so her parents wouldn’t find them. Mr. Uncle had made her do this because their secret was not to be shared with anyone. Every time Mr. Uncle brought her something he wanted a “present” from her too. He would make her take off his belt etc. Pinky felt uncomfortable with this. She felt her inner voice tell her this was not right. But because it was part of the secret club she did it.



Flip to Chart 3



A few days later when she got home from school, her neighbour Mr. Uncle was waiting for her. He had forgotten to take the keys from Pinky’s mother so told Pinky to come to his house instead. He gave her some chocolates and ice cream and told her she was a sweet girl. Usually Pinky’s Mother didn’t let her have sweets before dinner, but Mr Uncle said today was a very special day. It was his birthday, so he deserved a really BIG present. He said, “Pinky, your uniform has become dirty after school, let me give you a bath today.” Pinky didn’t want to take a bath, but Uncle told her that he would tell everyone including her parents about the secret club and all the presents and that she had hidden. This time Pinky’s inner voice was sending off alarms.


Flip to Chart 4




Pinky did not like this at all. She was very uncomfortable and uneasy. She began to cry. But Mr. Uncle kept telling her it was ok. That night Pinky could not sleep, she did not eat her dinner and was scared and sad. She worried about what she would do tomorrow when she got back from school. She thought about running away and never coming home. But she realized she would miss her home and her parents. She was scared to tell anybody what had happened, because it made her feel dirty and bad.


In school and on their way home everyday Bunty noticed that Pinky was very upset. She did not talk in class or play with him during break. When it was time to go home, she got even more upset. It was almost like she didn’t want to go home. So one day Bunty asked Pinky what was wrong. Pinky knew that she should not tell anyone about the secret club. But Bunty would not tell anyone about what had happened; Mr. Uncle would never know she had told anyone, so Pinky shared her secret. When she started crying Bunty gave her a hug and told her it was ok. He said he also had an uncle that used to do bad things. Now Uncle was no longer allowed in his house or anywhere near him. Pinky didn’t understand.


Flip to Chart 5




Bunty said that when he was eight years old an uncle of his used to show him pictures of grown up men and women which were not for children. He would show these pictures when no one else was at home. Bunty had felt uneasy and had told his mother. His mother had told him that what his uncle had done was wrong. Nobody is allowed to touch you in your private body parts, or make you touch them or show you things that are not for children. This is called unsafe touch or unsafe actions. When your mother or father hug you or touch your private parts it is to keep you clean and healthy and because they love you. That is safe touch. But what Mr. Uncle had done was very wrong. Bunty said that Pinky had to tell an adult she trusted about what had happened.


Pinky decided to talk to her mother. She told her everything that had happened. Her mother gave her a hug and said, Pinky whatever happened was not your fault. You have done the right thing by telling me about it.


A few days later Uncle moved to a different colony, because nobody wanted to stay near him. So, Pinky never had to see Mr. Uncle again, even by accident, as he had moved to a different city.


Flip to Chart 6




Pinky wanted to share this story and wanted to make sure that all children knew that when something bad like this happens it is important to do the following things: Shout STOP!! Run away and tell. Practice shouting no. Ask the children what are other ways to say no.




  • How to you think Pinky felt before she could talk to anyone?
  • How do you think she felt after she spoke with Aunty?
  • What if someone touched your private parts or made you touch them or yourself in front of them, what would you do? This is called unsafe touch.
  • What if someone made you watch adult pictures that made you uncomfortable or confused, what would you do? This is called unsafe action
  • What if someone you loved did something bad to you, and you were confused; what would you do? This is called confused touch. Even when confused you should tell a trusted adult.
  •  *If a child asks what are private parts? Answer with, parts of your body covered by your swimming costume are your private parts.
  • Hand each child a sheet of six labels. Ask them to remove a pencil or pen. Write on the blackboard “I trust ___________________ to keep me safe”. In the white spaces at the bottom of each label have them write “I trust ___________________ to keep me safe”. Explain why you are making them do this.
  • Remind the children: Always trust your inner voice. It will set off an alarm/siren when something wrong or bad is happening or going to happen. The minute that happens tell a trusted adult.
  • Lastly remind them: All children are unique and special and deserve to feel safe. If they want someone to talk to, a didi or bhaiya will listen to them if they dial 1098.



July 12, 2013

The Calvinists

[Editor’s note: Here is another one of Lavanya Karthik’s comic strips, as part of our ongoing Feminism & Humour series. We enjoy interacting with you and knowing what you found amusing, thought-provoking or otherwise. Please feel free to leave your comments! ~ Dilnavaz Bamboat]

The Calvinists



July 11, 2013

Rethinking Gender Equity in Transport Planning

I imagine every woman does this. Every time she enters a subway station, a bus or a bus-stop, a cab alone or with children, she looks around almost on autopilot; she is infinitely and finitely aware of her surroundings, the people around her, the density of the crowd she’s in; the instinctive need to protect herself is alive; to protect her body, her emotions, her physical space, her children. I know that I am constantly aware, not overtly but in a subtle but now almost inbuilt manner. If I am seated, I tend to relax but the game is on as soon as I have to exit the automobile. The vulnerabilities one feels are covered in a layer of toughness and constant awareness. And vulnerabilities abound.

When I started writing this piece, I was relatively ignorant of the imbalances in the manner that public transport systems are constructed around the world; and especially of the lack of sensitivity towards women that use them.  My immediate thought about women and public transport was that of the reserved bogies for women in Bombay’s locals…..and then I realized that talking about transport and gender can’t be that basic and segregation oriented. It has to be a broader and more encompassing discussion.  This led to some research and I was amazed at how much literature there is about how differently women and men use public transport and even think about it.  Unfortunately, very little of this research informs transport planning across the world. Traditionally, transport planning models do not consider women’s travel patterns, particularly differences in relation to trip purposes, frequency and distance of travel, mode of transportation used, and mobility constraints to access other services such as health.  We do however build remarkably cold, efficient, uncomfortable and purely utilitarian transportation systems across the world. And, we do that with remarkable consistency.

The World Bank estimates that the most predominant mode of travel for women in rural areas remains walking; in urban areas, women tend to rely more on public transportation than men[i]. A 2002-03 study of Brazil’s household expenditure showed that women (65%) used public buses, informal and intermediate modes of transport (such as taxis) more than men (42%).[ii] A survey in Nigeria showed that the decision to acquire a car is made solely by the husband in nearly 60% of households and in rural areas; men are three times more likely to use a car than women. Other findings include the fact that women spend a greater share of their disposable income on public transport than men and that high transport prices can make services particularly prohibitive for women when it comes to reaching their workplaces and as a result women tend to work closer to home beyond a fixed cost threshold.[iii]

In Pakistan, about 28% of women in villages with road access had prenatal consultations compared to only 14% in villages without road access; while 58% of all births in villages with road access were assisted by skilled attendants compared with 39% for women without road access. Additionally, it is estimated that 75% of maternal deaths could be prevented through timely access to essential health care.[iv] Transport and road infrastructure play a key role in accessing that care. Yet, in many cases, considerable time is spent by women and their families waiting for transportation and emergency travel to reach a health facility often has to be undertaken on foot or by local forms of ‘non-motorized transport’. I am still haunted by a National Geographic article on the death of a pregnant woman in childbirth in a remote part of Africa while she waited for a doctor to travel six hours to reach her. India is no stranger to maternal mortality. Latest figures indicate that 56,000 mothers die annually while 309,000 babies die within the first 24 hours of being born in India every year.[v] Not all the deaths are related to access to healthcare and transport but a significant number are.

More recently, Gendered Innovations, a Stanford University project devoted to gender analysis, in a new line of study called “Transportation: Reconceptualizing Data Collection[vi] looked at the bias in public transport systems against women. The researchers argue that regular transit surveys obscure the quality of the data they collect, that trips by caregivers, serial trips (which women make more often than men) aren’t sufficiently defined; and that aggregated ridership figures, particularly by race, create incomplete pictures of the riding public.

Traditional public transportation surveys of transit fail to properly represent the significance of women riders who bear the bulk of the “care” load. If data were reorganized to emphasize this “mobility of care,” a different picture would emerge. These ‘gendered’ numbers, the researchers conclude, should encourage metro transit systems to redesign facilities to accommodate the transport needs of women and older people.

Countries like Sweden have incorporated findings like this into their transport planning systems for over a decade now.  These include prioritizing routes, including more women decision makers in the development of the transit routes as well as new design features to make transportation safer. These include designated waiting areas, transparent bus shelters, emergency intercoms and surveillance mechanisms, and alternative services and routes, such as request-stop programs that allow nighttime users to disembark from the bus at locations closer to their final destination.

I am not aware of detailed Gendered Transport Studies available in India. The closest that I got to a gendered or nuanced response is a design response guideline to transport by the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure Planning and Engineering Center (UTTIPEC ).[vii]  It is a little more humane than traditional transport plans that currently populate town planner’s offices in India today but is still just a guideline. Coincidentally, it was developed by a woman planner. Perhaps, that’s what we need to start making changes in the way we build transport infrastructure across the country- change the leadership of transportation boards — positions that tend to be held typically by men. The unbalanced hierarchy almost certainly perpetuates gender disparities in transport policy and practice. The recent violence against women on our transportation systems is reason enough to ask for changes transportation policy, especially for more nuanced and gendered plans.


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