Sep 262014
 
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.

Finally,

A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Jun 122014
 

An edited version of this appeared in today’s dna

Until a few weeks ago, most of us had a barely passing familiarity with Baduan in Uttar Pradesh.  Around 200 kms and less than a 4 hour drive from the national capital, Delhi – the area hit the headlines after a particularly brutal rape and murder of two teenaged girls.  It is an old story, told again with callous violence and viciousness. Two cousins – some accounts put them at 12 and 15, others at 14 and 15 – had to attend to nature’s call. They had no toilet in their house and they went into the fields to relieve themselves. They never returned home. Their bodies were found hanging, with their own dupattas, from a mango tree. They had been raped, strangled and strung up like the spoils from a shikaar. 2 young men from a neighbouring village, and two police officers are believed to be the culprits.

This is not the first rape in India, and it is unlikely to be the last.  A report by PRS Legislative in 2011, looked at the abysmal state of women’s safety in India. According to the report there were 23,582 rapes in India – almost 65 rapes on a daily basis and around 3 every hour. But, most experts believe that the number of rapes is underreported. There are a number of reasons for this – the starting point of which is the social stigma assigned to the victim of the rape, and the perception of her having lost her honour.  Rather than being seen as a survivor of a heinous crime, she is seen as the provoker of the crime. And, her gender is enough to stigmatise her for life. Different views are put forward – maybe she was dressed provocatively, maybe she led the boys on, maybe she had ‘loose’ morals, maybe she said no but meant yes. We have all heard these comments from people who should know better – politicians, policemen, ‘elders’ of the community and the like.

At the core of the debate on women’s safety lie 3 main issues. The first is the availability of safe spaces – sanitation within the house or rather the lack of it or street lighting or the lack of it, both indicate the lack of safe spaces. The second is the lack of spaces where the two sexes can meet socially on an equal footing – schools, colleges, employment, and social occasions. And the third problem is a age old problem of the distinctions in social hierarchies and the social acceptance of the rapist and the social boycott of the victim.

The one thing your realise when you travel the length and breadth of India – visiting small hamlets and villages, is the lack of sanitation. There are few public toilets that are usable, even on state or national highways. Those that do exist make you fear attack from scorpions and snakes, not to mention the fact that they have doors that don’t shut and windows that give your full view of the world, and the world a view of you –without any means of securing your privacy. Schools and colleges – public spaces where both genders congregate – show a similar problem.  Toilets, and the privacy to use them, are such an important facet of safety and we don’t discuss this problem enough. The norm is to use the world at large as a public toilet – apart from issues of health and hygiene that crop up – there is also the very grave issue of safety. The first thing to do is to address this. Young girls, even if they lived in the most secure state in the universe, should have the right to perform their bodily functions in relative privacy. This is factor that most of us, living in relative middle class comfort in cities, take for granted. Associated with this is the issue of darkness. Unless you have electricity our towns and villages are going to be in dark. And darkness encourages the breach of law.

Where boys and girls grow up together, studying together, sharing playtime – and understanding and respecting differences there tends to be a natural evolution of gender sensitisation. On the other hand when girls and boys are segregated and social intercourse is considered taboo, you have scenarios where stereotypes and older mindsets are perpetuated. The second important factor to help build a safer world for women is creation of spaces where they are not just considered to be equal, but also where their  individuality and personal preferences are respected.   The creation of these spaces needs to be backed by education not just of young boys and girls, but also their parents, teachers, elders in the community, and administration.  Police reforms and Judicial reforms would help, but unless society as a whole is in synch with the need for social reform that prevents young men from seeing young women as prey for the taking – no amount of police on the street or stringent punishment is going to help.

And lastly, there is a problem social hierarchies and what is considered acceptable behaviour. While caste is a factor as is class, there is a third problem, and that is the unwillingness of those who wield power to bring about change. Caste and class reform may take generations and women’s safety cannot be held in abeyance till that is achieved.  And, this is where the Indian State needs to step in. With the recent changes in law rape trials are speedier and more stringent. We have seen the effects of this in both the Nirbhaya and the Shakti Mills rape case – due process was followed and the guilty were punished. This needs to extend to the smallest hamlet in India. Women will be safer, if the system punished the guilty – without fear or favour of powerful local interests.  However,  as long as the guilty walk around with their heads held high and their chests puffed up with pride, and the victims cower in their houses in shame – nothing will change.

Mar 092014
 

And, my column last week for the DNA – on the UPA retrospective 

Ever been to a theatre to watch a film that on paper sounded fabulous — great director, good casting, top-of-the-line banner, great promos? But when you get inside the theatre the film simply won’t get over.
Every moment drags; every dialogue in the film has the monotony of something you have heard before, and no matter what you do, you cannot escape from the highly intrusive soundtrack. Worst of all, you cannot get out of the movie hall.  Most of us have at least watched one such film, trapped inside the theatre for, what seems like, days, unable to get out, unable to move our eyes from the screen while asking the question “what  on earth were they thinking about, when they put this together”. And, when the end credits start rolling, you clap out of the sheer relief that the film is over, and you can get into the bright lights and fresh air outside, and scrub all memory of the movie from your subconscious. Think Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag or Kites. Know the feeling? It is pretty much the way that most felt while watching the last two years of UPA II — it just dragged on, and on, and on.

As the credits roll, this column takes a look at some of the characters and scenes from UPA II:

A for Anthony: The Minister for Defence. A man who confused inaction with integrity and took the old adage ‘if you don’t get out of bed and get on the road, you won’t get run over’ seriously. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee for the ceiling falling on your bed.

B for Bills: The trouble with leaving most of your key bills to the last minute of a five-year Parliament is that nothing is thought through, the sense of dissonance is high and like a bad film, certain elements are put in just to give a sense of faux completion.

C for CWG: The Commonwealth Games that really marked the begging of the end.

D for DMK: The key ally then, fence sitter now and the hands behind the 2G scam.

E for Elections: #Elections2014 and the UPA hoping for a sequel, ie. UPA III. But when a film is such a box office dud, will you really buy a ticket for the sequel?

F for Food Security: Nobody, with a conscience, will disagree with the concept of Food Security — the principle that no individual should go hungry, but as with all concepts, the devil is in the implementation. And, implementation in this particular case is fraught with internal opposition.

G is for Gandhi: The name that ruled the Congress for the best part of the last 45 years. And, it seems that the aura is finally waning, though Sonia Gandhi still has some of that aura. But for all his earnestness, it does not seem that Rahul Gandhi has that aura — the aura of wanting to handle power.

H is for High Command: See Gandhi above. All organisations need hierarchies, and a chain of command. But, if all power is concentrated in one set of hands , then currying favour rather than competence becomes the order of the day, leading to poor decision-making

I for Indian National Congress: The grand old party. It seriously needs to introspect and reinvent itself for the new millennium.

J for Janata: That is us, the people. The voters. Just get this over with seems to be the general sentiment all around.

K for Kaajneeti: That is on hoardings across the country, with voters looking at each other and asking “what is that”?

L for Leadership: Conspicuous by its absence through the five years, especially towards the end.

M for Mani Shankar Iyer: The architect of the Chai pe Charcha campaign. Enough said. M is also for Manmohan Singh, who didn’t say enough.

N for Narendra Modi: If politicians  in the Congress spent as much time in talking about what they did right, as they did about why Modi is wrong, they may have fared better in both  perception and the ballot box.

O for Ordinance: When bills aren’t passed, the route is ordinance. But, in Parliamentary democracy, bills are meant to be debated, deliberated on and passed. It is a good job that the last few bills were not passed via an ordinance, because…

…P for Pranab Mukherjee: He put his foot down and said ‘no’. A leading character in UPA I and in the first part of UPA II, his political skills would be sorely missed, even if his economic skills were not.
Q for Questions: That the people had, for which there were no answers. In fact, part of the UPA’s problem was the fact that it rarely spoke to the people or the press, and when it did it was either so stage-managed or so full of wordplay that it alienated.

R for Robert Vadra: The son-in-law. The man who could get away with everything, or so it seemed.

S for Sheila Dikshit: The Empress of Delhi, who is now the Governor of Kerala after losing her seat to Arvind Kejriwal.

T for Telangana: The disaster of the last five years. While smaller states are not a bad idea, pandering is.

U for UPA II: Coming to an end in a few months from now

V for Voter: That is us. Are you even registered?

W for Win: Winning seat by seat, state by state, to take the nation. From all accounts that is a tough one.

X for X: Marks the spot where we vote, and UPA II hopes that it is for their constituents.

Y for Gen Y: The first and second-time voter who cares less for the ‘isms’ of yesterday and more for how good their tomorrow will be.

Z for Zero Loss: Made famous by Kapil Sibal when confronted with allegations of misallocation of spectrum. If only humility was in action instead of hubris, this government may not have ended up in this state of being generally disliked.

Dec 232013
 

This column appeared in the DNA on the 28th of November

Over the last week, the media has been agog with allegations of sexual misconduct, and then rape, against Tarun Tejpal, the owner of Tehelka. The incident took place in Goa where Tejpal and one of his companies, Thinkworks, organised the annual jamboree Think. It was attended by international celebrities such as actor Robert de Niro, author Evgeny Morozov (To Save Everything Click Here: The folly of Technological Solutionism); former World Chess Champion Gary Kasparov, crusading journalist John Pilger and others. It also saw a bevy of India’s who’s who   MP Jay Panda, Amitabh Bachchan, Gopal Srinivasan. The sessions were interesting and had great panellists. One of its opening sessions was called The Beast in Our Midst a panel discussion with rape survivors moderated by the editor of Tehelka, and co-owner of Thinkworks, Shoma Chaudhury. Incidentally, Chaudhury also moderated two other sessions that are of interest Naked Rage on Occupied Territory: Women and the Body as a Weapon and Beauty and the Beast the Problem of the Global Media. Amidst all this intellectualism and a desire to articulate the issues facing the modern world and their possible solutions, Tejpal tried to use his charm to get a young colleague to have sex with him. When charm didn’t work, he tried force.

Tejpal stands accused of rape.

In a case of rape there are usually no witnesses. There are mostly only two main testimonies one of the violator and the other of the violated. But, in this case, given the chain of mails that are now in public domain, the answer may be simpler. The world at large came to know of the story when an internal Tehelka email from Chaudhury managing editor who had appended Tejpal’s ‘apology’ to the mail was leaked to the media. In the mail Chaudhury described the attempted rape as an ‘untoward incident’ and Tejpal calling it a ‘bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident’.The woman journalist at the receiving end of these ‘untoward’ ‘unfortunate incidents’ had different words to describe her predicament:  “The editor-in- chief of Tehelka, Tarun Tejpal, sexually assaulted me at Think on two occasions last week.” In another letter, from Tejpal to the young journalist, he writes: “I apologise unconditionally for the shameful lapse of judgement that led me to attempt a sexual liaison with you on two occasions on 7 November and 8 November 2013, despite your clear reluctance that you did not want such attention from me”.  ‘Attempting a sexual liaison’ when a woman is ‘clearly reluctant’ can only mean Force and Rape. These are words we shouldn’t hesitate to use in this context. Tejpal, however, thought otherwise, as he said in his anticipatory bail plea to the Delhi High Court “only light-hearted bantering which led to a moment of privacy between the two individuals”. It was a lot worse.

Tejpal is a powerful man with powerful friends and the public backlash has only begun. Shoma Chaudhury, a woman who has espoused women’s causes in the past, has suggested that the accuser is lying. And some other powerful men are casting aspersions on the woman in the guise of “fairness”. ‘Why did the woman get into the lift with him’ said one of the older men called in to defend Tejpal on a news channel. (He later retracted). Presumably, the same reason why anyone gets into a lift, to get to another floor. Another said something about two people kissing in a lift not being rape; a third asked why a lift, why not a private space. And, of course, there is Tejpal’s own bail application which states that this is a BJP plot to discredit him implying that the woman is a plant and, therefore, lying.

The vilification of the woman had begun. She must have asked for it, how could she have (gasp) got into a lift with a man. Never mind that the man in question was old enough to be her father; was her boss and had a duty to look out for her, protect her, nurture her talents and ensure she became a better professional;  never mind that he violated her trust, her body and then tried to brazen it out; that he  violated the faith of the readers and supporters who believed in Tehelka’s brand of fearless journalism.

There are those who will argue that sexual encounters in the workplace are unavoidable. While this may be the case with equals, the norms and the rules are quite different when it comes to people at different levels in the hierarchy, especially those in a direct reporting relationship.  The question is that when the ‘encounter’ is between a junior and a senior, how much of it is mutual attraction and how much of it is pressure. When an older charismatic achiever turns his (or her) attentions on a much younger person, seemingly mentoring, seemingly encouraging, and draws him/her into a sexual relationship, is it mutual consent or is it sexually predatory behaviour? At the risk of sounding dreadfully old-fashioned and terribly middle class, one would submit it is the latter.

And, finally, most women have faced some form of unwanted attention at least once in their professional and private lives. Most have learnt to bury the experience deep in their subconscious and move on with their lives. Others have given up their careers, often their passions, to escape from it. Yet others have not been believed. Maybe, this case is a wake-up call for women to fight back. Like the Nirbhaya case last year, this one is going to be a cause célèbre. The young woman in question has shown incredible courage in coming forward and making a case of it. It cannot be easy. The pressure on her must be phenomenal. It is also going to be the start of a series of claims of sexual harassment that companies across the board not just media have to deal with. The dam has broken, the flood will begin

Apr 042013
 

My Tehelka Column on the anti rape bill

And it comes to pass. The Anti-rape Bill aka the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013 was passed this evening in Parliament by a voice vote. A total of 168 Members of Parliament (out of house strength of 545 MPs), who bothered to be present, voted to give India a law that is tough on rape and sexual assault. It replaces the Ordinance that was promulgated by the President earlier this year. Stalking and voyeurism are crimes, longer jail sentences for convicted rapists (20 years to natural life, and in the rarest of rare cases, death), there are longer sentences for acid attacks (10 years), the age of consent has been raised to 18; disrobing a woman (against her will) is now a criminal offence; and policemen will be charged if they refuse to file FIRs.  All in all, while there are many areas that still need to be addressed, this is a start. At least the Government and Parliament have recognised that women’s safety is a major issue and that there needs to be deterrence against sexual violence that has become increasingly commonplace.

In January, when protestors took to the streets in Delhi to express their acute displeasure at the lack of basic safety for women, politicians of all hues and shades promised to do something. When the time came to do something – as basic as be present for a discussion and vote on this Bill – just under  a third of them turned up to debate and vote. Amongst those absent was the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi.

At times it is difficult to tell what is worse, Members of Parliament staying away from debate or those turning up to work. It is evident that unlike the first Parliament where there were towering giants, who exerted moral authority, this Parliament has political dwarves, who will not know morality if they tripped on it. Many justify the most absurd sexism by saying they represent the people’s biases. Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, in a serious debate to curtail rape,  pondered on the proximity of the sexes in big cities. He observed the culture of hugging members of the opposite sex, “Hum Bihar ke logon mein, hummein, himmat nahi hoti hai kisi mahila se haath milane ke liye” (we from Bihar, including me, don’t have the courage to shake a woman’s  hand). Obviously, neither rape nor sexual assault involves the shaking of hands and there are enough people, in Bihar, who may not shake hands – but definitely rape. And Lalu Yadav was not the only one attacking modernity. Putting the onus of rape on what is termed ‘modernity’ is the easiest thing to do. Flog modernity, insist ‘our’ culture has no rape, and blame clothes, mobiles and other things as encouraging violence against women.

Sharad Yadav of  JD (U) (again from Bihar) had various issues with certain provisions of the Bill, especially those that dealt with stalking and voyeurism. According to him, all men stalk and that stalking is a part and parcel of the courtship process. His fear was that a strong anti-stalking law would be at odds with romancing. And, while Mr Yadav was describing as “natural’ the process of stalking, our esteemed Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde was grinning from ear to ear in appreciation. Other Parliamentarians were guffawing their appreciation. It was like eavesdropping on boys’ hostel mess, where teenagers are cracking jokes about women and laughing about it. It makes one wonder, how the women in the House feel about this entirely sexist setup that they work in.

Women MP’s such as Meena Pal of JD (U) pointed out that ‘revealing’ women’s clothing is not the cause of rape, and women who are fully clothed are also subjected to rape. But, in a house dominated by dinosaurs dependent on vote banks, sensible voices get drowned out by the sheer silliness of grandstanding leaders. It is almost as though they are auditioning for Comedy Central, rather than debating in Parliament.

There is a problem in India. And that problem is in the way Indians see women. The best laws (and this is not the best law) are not going to help unless attitudes towards women start changing. That change begins at home, in how mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters are treated. It begins outside in how you treat classmates, strangers, other women. That change begins by not blaming Honey Singh or Item Numbers, clothing or television for the attitudes towards women. It begins by admitting that there is a problem. And the problem is that Indians, especially Indian leaders,  make too many excuses for rapists. ‘She was raped because adults hug each other; she was raped because of the clothes she wore; she was raped because children as young as 14 are dancing to item numbers’ – these were part of the dialogue in Parliament today.  There was not one person who stood up to say ‘She was raped because she was a woman. And, the man thought it was ok to rape her’. This casualness with which men rape needs to be broken, and that can only happen if apologists for rapists stop making excuses for criminals.