Thursday, December 20, 2012

They can't rape it out of me.

There was this Sweet Valley book where one of the characters gets assaulted and the other raped. I don’t know if you are familiar with Sweet Valley, but in my teenage world, this was akin to Barbie getting raped. It just didn’t compute. But then, something wonderful happened. The book, called ‘Take Back the Night’, showed the main female characters pulling in all their strength, including a march on campus, and going to court and confronting their attacker. It was probably been 15 years since I read it, but it still swims in my head. It was the first time, I think, that I’d read an account of sexual assault and rape. But it also taught me to be strong and overcome the fear.

A lot has changed in those fifteen years. I’ve been to court with a rape victim, I’ve driven in Delhi at all odd hours alone, I’ve been around this country for work – with only men surrounding me – I’ve read so many more serious accounts of violence and rape, and I’ve also understood how to exist in a New Delhi bubble. This rape, like so many of the others I’ve heard about, struck a deep chord in me. It’s because I like to travel by myself, for myself. For an NGO project, I had a video editor who lived in Adarsh Nagar and I took the metro almost daily to sit with him. I’d come back when it was sundown, and the station was often lonely. I always sat in the womens compartment. I wasn’t very worried about my safety, to be truthful, but my father was quite upset. He really didn’t want me travelling on my own to such a distance. All's well that ends well, and I never had any trouble.

We are a society who thinks erring on the side of caution is the way to be – and who can blame us. Instead of looking at out Constitutional guarantees and saying that we will go/be because we are free to choose where/how/when we want to go, we think it’s safer if we avoid any “trouble”. To the level that I’ve had girlfriends sit me and down and tell me to never drive after 9pm. But I’ve always held that if I want to drive myself to dinner and back, why should I be too scared to do so. It seems silly now, doesn’t it? These little battles we have within our social constructs. I’ve been all over South India with a cameraman I barely knew, touring small villages and town for work. One afternoon, I was out on a fishing boat, getting shots for a video. I got off, and found a number of men had converged as I was the newbie, this fair skinned girl, seemingly alone, in the middle of this hectic beach. One of them was drunk and was close to groping (or perhaps pushing me) when a number of people intervened and took him away. I didn’t know who he was, I hadn’t even engaged with him. But because of that, my cameraman became quite protective. On the way to another small town in Tamil Nadu, he was upset that our tickets weren’t in the same compartment. I told him I was totally fine and would just pass out, but he came to check in on me as he was worried about my safety. I appreciate that even more now, as I think I was lulled into a false sense of safety because of my very genuine bravado.

Truth is, I rarely feel unsafe. Nervous, yes. But I always seem to think I can stop the men from misbehaving. I’ve had many, many unwarranted comments coming my way all my life, and I always look that man in the eye and get him to stop. Sometimes I laugh it off so that it doesn’t esclate. I don’t like to show I’m nervous because I fear that will help the situation spiral.

Of course, I’m an idiot. All these strategies should be okay, the same way sitting on a bus with a friend – and a man that too – should make you safer. That if my driver was driving the car instead of me, nothing would go wrong. Or better, if I never left my house, no harm would come to me.

I work, I read, I opine, I earn, I spend, I travel, I vacation. I’m really holding my end up as an urban young woman. But I am up against some huge challenges. Of course, this means I’m going to be told that I’m moving too fast. That if it’s not my ability to take trains to small towns (almost) by myself, then it’s that outfit I wore this weekend. If it’s not the fact that I dare drive my car – bought with my own money – then it is that I can be seen drinking in the company of men.

I don’t know much about this girl, but I do know she is a medical student that tells me she works much harder than me. Being a woman doctor, she was certainly upholding her end of urban-young-woman bargain. And for some men, this makes them insecure. They will pummel and rape this strength out of us.

My friend Christina and I were discussing this over an afternoon coffee. We wondered, at what point do these guys decide that they are going to GANG RAPE. I can imagine one starting to tease, the other crossing the line to physically touching. But is there a silent nod, a secret handshake, a longing desire, to one-by-one rape this trembling, bleeding, screaming girl? Because she took the bus. Because she sat with a guy who might not be her brother, father or husband. Because, maybe, she has a better deal in life than you.

I know rape is as mental an act as it is physical. When I was interning in DC I became obsessed with a book about rape called ‘Against our Will’ that I’d bought in one of those street book-sales. It talked about how rape was the final nail after soldiers won the war, how it was a way to mentally defeat your opponent by saying ‘here, I just raped YOUR woman, you have lost’. It’s the first time I learnt that concept and I was horrified. I feel like its extended to some version of – you are not as independent as you think you are, because I can rape you and finish you any time I feel. We don’t need to have names, or histories. We just need to have lives.

So what am I going to do about this in my daily life? I’m GOING to continue to have one. I might carry mace and a few select numbers on speed dial, but I will not be scared into submission. And on YOUR part, I hope you do the same. And on OUR part, we have to demand better policies, better protection, better justice.

Where are the feminists? I see an election platform for 2014 coming up.

We are going to TAKE BACK THE NIGHT.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A Better Life for Delhi’s Dogs

Residents of Vasant Vihar in southwest Delhi might have spotted Sarita Paswan going about her rounds. For over a decade, she has been feeding street dogs in the neighborhood twice a day, every day.

She takes bowls and a bucket of food to give the dogs in their little pockets of the colony — behind guard boxes, inside the local club grounds, next to rows of parked cars. As she approaches Mohindra Taxi Stand next to D-block market, a portly gentleman calls out to Ramu, Kalu and Laliya, whose tails wag as he encourages them to eat their dinner.

Back at the home of her employer, Neelam Vaderah, Ms. Paswan reports on the dogs and their welfare. Ms. Vaderah has been a relentless champion of the cause of “desi dogs” for years. She has adopted seven that live inside her house and another 45 outside that she feeds and takes for regular medical checkups. The guards are the best source of information, she says, because they keep track of all the strays and tell her when something goes wrong. Often, people steal the winter coats she puts on the dogs, she says, adding that the only dogs that retain them are the ones sleeping under the watchful eye of the guards.

Ms. Vaderah, Ms. Devi, and the assortment of guards in Vasant Vihar are part of a larger network of people who constitute the “anti anti-desi dog brigade.” Stray dogs have long been a menace in Indian society. A 2009 Municipal Corporation of Delhi report put the number of stray dogs in the capital at over 260,000. Many resident welfare associations have complained about packs of dogs harassing and even attacking passersby, with some incidents of fatalities. According the World Health Organization, India has an estimated 20,000 cases of rabies deaths each year, mostly children who have come into contact with infected dogs.

But people like Ms. Vaderah, who spend their time and resources feeding these animals, believe that human interaction makes the dogs less aggressive, and easier to take in for sterilization. That thought is echoed by animal shelters in the city, where vets encourage residents to keep a watchful eye on any stray dogs that might be living on their streets.

Friendicoes is a clinic tucked away under the Jangpura flyover in south Delhi. Around 8-10 dogs are brought in daily following accidents, maggot wounds and also for regular checkups. Many are brought in by good Samaritans, while the Friendicoes van also picks up animals when called.

The shelter behind the clinic houses desi dogs, cats, monkeys, and even the occasional donkey. Many of these animals are seriously wounded with little hope of ever getting adopted. Some have been hit by big cars, only to be brought in by a poor rickshaw driver who can scarcely afford to pay for medical treatment. Others, older dogs of various pedigrees, have been abandoned because they got too old and families didn’t want pay for their medical treatment or take care of them.

Others are abandoned police dogs. Constable Ramkumar of the Delhi Police Dog Squad says individual dog squads could offer some help if they wanted, but there are no set guidelines. Geeta Seshamani, vice president of Friendicoes, feels it is much better for these dogs to be given to an animal shelter where they are taken care of instead of being auctioned off. New owners often work them as guard dogs, even in their old age, she says. The Friendicoes staff wants to give them a retirement befitting their service to the country.

Stray dogs are gaining acceptability as house pets. I found my own dog, Ally, abandoned in the grounds of St. Stephens College over a decade ago. She has since grown up to be a South Delhi memsahib. Some people were shocked that I had adopted her and not bought a pedigree from a breeder, but today there is a small, but palpable change.

Social media is filled with calls for adoptions. Premlata Chaudhary, who runs an animal clinic in Anand Niketan, feels the younger generation in India is becoming more open to taking in street dogs. She has also arranged over 900 adoptions of desi dogs overseas in countries like Canada, the U.K., Holland, Germany and Australia. She has to apply for a permit before sending the dogs to the country of adoption. Airlifting a puppy to Canada can cost up to $700, she says. While there is no quarantine period in Canada or in most European countries, a dog’s papers need to be in order. Places like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are stricter, with a one-month quarantine period only after the animal has stayed in a non-rabies country for six months.

A chance meeting with a Canadian lady, Barbara Gard, who wanted to take her desi dog home, led to the idea of encouraging desi dog adoptions abroad. Ms. Chaudhary’s website “Adopt a Desi Dog” has helped not just puppies, but older dogs and even accident victims with three legs find loving homes. She keeps the dogs with her when they arrive in Canada, and only hands them over the adoptive parents if she feels their personality matches the dogs. New owners also have to attend training school to understand how to deal with the demanding personalities of desi dogs.

Ms. Chaudhary also set up a Facebook group called “Desi Furries Worldwide,” through which people can update about their desi dog adventures. Yes, that could be a Delhi street dog you just saw being taken for a walk in Vancouver or Berlin. If only that happened a little more in Delhi itself. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fatwa calls for ban on female receptionists

A recent fatwa issued by a leading Indian Islamic seminary advises women to refrain from working as receptionists, describing the job as un-Islamic and against Sharia law. The influential Darul Uloom Deoband offered the ruling in response to a question posed by a Pakistan-based company on 29 November on the seminary’s website, and states that Muslim women cannot work as receptionists because they are not allowed to appear before men without veil.

There are approximately 160 million Muslims in India, of whom 60 million are women. An overwhelming majority of them are illiterate.

Muslim journalist Bilal Zaidi told Index that although the Deoband is one of many schools of Islamic jurisprudence in India, it does have an impact on media and perception-building in general. The Deoband has a strong web presence, and as a result its fatwas are easily picked up and disseminated via mainstream media. Zaidi added that although the fatwa is just an opinion, “in practice, there are many who feel such fatwas are law… and then a large portion of the Muslim society tries to enforce them. Eventually, the opinion becomes identity.”

Some who support the logic of the fatwa, such as Saeed Hashmi, a columnist for the conservative Urdu newspaper Dainik Inqelab, point out that it is not mandatory. Hashmi told Index he feels this fatwa is a sensible warning to protect Muslim women from prying eyes, but understands it is difficult for everyone to follow such a directive in a big country like India.

In her paper analysing the effects of fatwas on Indian Muslim women, academic Shazia Shaikh feels that while the Darul Uloom Deoband has in the past brought about reforms in the Muslim communities, fatwas that seek to stop Muslim women from taking government jobs, becoming judges, and even working as receptionists, are nothing but misogynist, despite the fact the Koran is claimed to guarantee women’s rights.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Worried about girls marrying for love? Just ban them from using mobile phones

A village council in Northern India last week banned women from using mobile phones. The leaders of Sunderbari village, population 8000, hope that fining unmarried women (Rs 10,000, or 114 GBP) and married women (Rs 2000, or 23 GBP) will stop premarital and extramarital affairs.

The men’s logic is simple: these affairs that have led to elopements — at least six in the past year —  and humiliate the village. Manuwar Alam, council member, explains: “We had to hide our faces out of shame.” Local government officials took a serious view of this “unlawful diktat” and questioned the village council. In an about turn, the council now denies it announced fines.

While India has made efforts to work towards gender equality, ridiculous restrictions placed on women in the name of curbing chances of shame are still a problem. National debate focuses on how to empower women, be it through reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in parliament or the use of mobile phones. Yet on the ground in much of India, men are clearly threatened by any move toward’s increasing women’s independence.

This isn’t the first time a village council has tried to ban women from using mobile phones. In July, a village in Uttar Pradesh banned women from using them on the streets, mainly to stem the tide of “love marriages” in a culture that believes marriages should be arranged between families. The next month, a similar diktat in a village in Rajasthan ordered all girls below the age of 18 to stop using mobile phones, so that they would not get “distracted”.

This repressive instinct travels beyond village councils and right up to members of Parliament. In October, a former minister from Uttar Pradesh, Rajpal Singh Saini, cautioned his audience against giving girls mobile phones, saying: “What are the girls missing without mobiles? Did our mothers, sisters, did they die without mobiles during their time?”

The problem goes well beyond mobiles. Local khap panchayats (village councils) in India’s north regularly indulge in honour killings to send a message to young lovers who elope that inter-caste marriages are not allowed. So regressive is the thinking that a former chief minister of Haryana went as far as to suggest that the marriage age of girls be lowered to prevent the rising number of rapes in his state.

Beyond the joy of simple conversation, the mobile phone has become a powerful instrument to empower women in India. In Bihar itself, health workers have been given mobile phones so that they can connect with the local public health officers while out on their field, and also to facilitate mobile money transfers. In Uttar Pradesh, women have used them to learn the alphabet through the use of mobile phones. UN Women Singapore recently gave a grant to a Rajasthan-based project that helps women sell feminine hygiene products to others via mobile.

Even the government of India is moving forward to connect all 250,000 village councils with broadband connections to bridge the digital divide. Osama Manzar, director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation which is helping the government train village officials to become digitally proficient, told Index that for a village council to ban mobile usage is uncalled for. “I see this more as an issue of cultural change which the older generation is not used to and not aware of much and does not know how to comprehend. The sooner we make our society digitally literate, such issues will be a non-happening.”

Yet it seems that the by-product of having a phone — that women’s personal choices and confidence are increasing — is what has threatened the chauvinist Indian man. Manuwar Alam, of Bihar’s Sunderbari village has said:

[The] mobile phone is the cause of all evils in our society, including increasing love affairs and the incidents of elopement.

But mobiles do not cause these problems. Repression does.