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Author Archives: Karuna

Wonder Woman: Love, War, and Ideology

wonder woman

Wonder Woman’s journey to the big screen has been long and tedious—the process of creating a live action Wonder Woman film has been in the works since 1996, with several projects being initiated and then shelved over the years. It was only in 2015 that the project began to come to fruition. Patty Jenkins was confirmed as a director, and the production process began. It finally saw a worldwide release in early June.

The film combines elements of Greek mythology with modern history, and is set in the World War 1 era. It serves as a prequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman vs. Superman, and seeks to explain her origins and character evolution.

It’s an extremely multidimensional film that deals with a lot of thought provoking themes—here are some that really stood out to me:

Moral Ambiguities

The idyllic landscape of Themyscira, an island home to female warriors called the Amazons, is disturbed when American spy Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes onto the island. Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the island, rescues him. It is revealed that Steve has classified information with him regarding weapons that the Germans are using, information that he has to get back to his bosses in London. Steve’s description of the devastating war (World War 1) leads Diana to conclude that the god Ares is behind it—Ares is the enemy of the Amazons. Her solution is to seek out and kill Ares, which she thinks will stop the war. Diana thus leaves Themyscira with Steve, without even giving the other side [in this case, the Germans] the benefit of the doubt. [spoiler] The fight scene between the Amazons and the Germans on Themyscira’s shores, where the Germans (they lose in the end) fight and kill many Amazons, including Diana’s aunt reinforces the idea that Germans are the evil enemy, both in the minds of the viewers and Diana, an idea that she doesn’t question at all [end spoiler]. Even when she reaches London, she doesn’t try to gather more facts about the war or try to gain a more holistic understanding of the war—she just assumes that the Americans are good and the Germans are bad.

When Steve reached the island, he was bound by Hestia’s lasso (one that makes its captive tell the truth), so it makes sense that she believed what he had to say about the war. However, there’s a difference between believing that someone is telling the truth and believing that what they’re saying is morally correct, or subscribing to their ideology. She automatically assumed that Ares had to be someone of German origin without trying to get both sides of the story.

Films always reflect the context they were created in, so either intentionally or unintentionally, they end up projecting a certain point of view. This is something that is evident in Wonder Woman, and something that got me thinking about how comics and films can be (and have been) used as tools of propaganda. Undoubtedly, the political landscape influences artistic expression. This article, for example, talks about how superheroes in comic books gained resurgence during the Cold War era due to their use of political symbolism, and how some characters that we see on screen today like Iron Man have extremely anti communist backgrounds in the comics. As far as Wonder Woman itself is concerned, people have pointed out how it touches upon topics like weaponization and American ideology. Further, her costume too contains American symbols—it has hints of red and blue, and looks like it has an eagle built into it (see below).

JL_Wonder_Woman

When Steve lands on the island, his perspective of the war is the only one that Diana hears, and she thus assumes that the Allies were in the right and the other side was wrong. When destruction is occurring at a massive scale, the lines between good and bad, objective and subjective get increasingly blurred. Based on the beginning, I assumed that Wonder Woman would go the propaganda route. However, the movie addresses the ambiguity of concepts like ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’ really well through the reveal of Ares’ identity. It drives home the point that it’s hard to see concepts in binaries. This idea is further reinforced by Diana’s declaration that all humans have both good and bad in them, but it’s the power of love that overcomes all.

Love

Like most superhero movies, this one contained a romantic connection between Diana and Steve. They worked really well as a team and had a really good relationship otherwise, so this something that I thought was an unnecessary addition to the plot. Her romance with Steve was definitely a secondary part of the story, but the entire exchange with Ares (interspersed with a few flashbacks) made it seem like it was (specifically) her relationship with Steve that gave her strength and helped her understand the potency of love. There was no mention of the love that she’d received from her family, the Amazons or even from other members of her team. While it definitely felt like romantic love was her driving force, considering the fact that Diana and Steve were teammates before lovers, we can give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that the love she felt for him could’ve stemmed from camaraderie and teamwork as well. However, should love have played a role at all?

[spoiler] As was revealed during her altercation with Ares, the purpose of Diana’s very existence was to be a ‘god killer’, something she was training to become her entire life [end spoiler]. Adding the idea of love took away from her strengths and capabilities as a warrior. It also overshadowed the fact that Diana’s quest, since the very beginning, was always motivated by a sense of duty and justice. It was never about love in the first place, so why make that such an integral part of the plot in the end?

The addition of the love element, while making her seem more ‘human’ and relatable, has its downsides as it can lead to the essentialization and internalization of traditional gender roles that typify women as being ‘emotional’.

This article puts it perfectly- "In the end, Wonder Woman concludes that “only love can save the world.” While this may be true, I’ve never heard any other superhero say so. Why couldn’t Wonder Woman fight for justice and eliminate bad guys without having to in the end make it about love? Perhaps a more interesting question is: Why don’t male superheroes do the same? While people argue that women are “feminine” and naturally more inclined to love, this thinking quickly slides into dangerous assumptions like women are more cut out for caring for children and processing feelings.”

A Feminist Superhero?

Wonder Woman’s quest is to end war by ending the God of War himself. Her intentions are extremely noble--she wants to save the world and protect innocent human beings. However, she has no way but to achieve peace through means of violence. [spoiler] Diana herself is a literal weapon, the ‘god killer’ [end spoiler]. Waging wars to “secure peace” is something that’s common even in the real world, a contradictory concept that none of us are unfamiliar with. In some circumstances, violence may be necessary and may bring about peace, but the devastating impact it leaves behind on both sides cannot be ignored. While it is impossible to generalize feminism as a whole, most feminists are against violence and the hierarchies and devastation it creates, and are pro cooperation, peace and freedom. Thus, can there be a feminist superhero? Especially if that superhero uses violence to achieve her goals, as noble as they may be?

Of course, not all women call themselves feminists, and thus having a female lead doesn’t make a film feminist, but whether Wonder Woman can be called a feminist icon or not is definitely something to think about.

The film definitely does express its disdain for certain kinds of weapons (chemical weapons in particular) and maybe its way of trying to tone down the weaponization was by adding the ‘power of love’ aspect, but as discussed earlier, this has a tendency of reinforcing certain tropes. Clearly, there’s no easy way to comprehend and address such concepts.

As a whole though, I really did like Diana’s character. What makes her such a joy to watch is that when she wants to do something, she’ll do it without hesitation. She is independent, strong and an extremely skilled warrior (something that she is acutely aware of). It is the only way she knows how to be. The fact that she can just go ahead and actively work towards achieving her goals without second guessing herself or having a million obstacles holding her back is empowering. It’s something that we as women cannot relate to, but aspire towards.

Seeing a woman being able to do that feels special—especially when we get to see her from a ‘female gaze’. Patty Jenkins’ direction ensured that powerful shots took precedence over the more sexy and objectifying shots that we normally see women on screen through. As this post points out, there was no attempt to make Wonder Woman (or the Amazons) look sexy, or to make them seem more palatable to a male audience.

As a film, I would highly recommend it. The cinematography was beautiful, the themes it sought to address were intriguing, and it left me feeling (slightly) invincible.

 

Zubaan's Poster Women Archive and International Museum Day

CaptureInternational-Museum-Day-2017

In 2006, Zubaan embarked on a journey to visually map the trajectories of Indian women's movements. We collected over 1500 posters and various paintings from women’s groups all over the country, each representative of a different issue and perspective. The culmination of this journey is our thematically organized Poster Women archive.

Zubaan’s engagement with the idea of women’s museums grew out of its involvement with Poster Women. Over 200 posters from the archive were a part of an exhibition that travelled all over the country and beyond. This raised larger questions of whether creating a museum to house these and other artefacts from women’s movements was possible. In 2013, with the support of the Ford Foundation, Zubaan created a proposal that looked at the possibility of setting up a women’s museum in India, one that would showcase women's struggles, provide educational material, run workshops etc. While some may question the existence of a separate women’s museum, we think that it is important. Women’s histories and struggles have been left out of the dominant narrative, reinforcing the imbalances that patriarchy produces. Creating a space that acknowledges and appreciates the achievements of women thus becomes important.

The International Association of Women's Museums (IAWM) was founded in 2008 to bring women's museums all over the world together, and to work towards providing them with more visibility and public acceptance. May 18th is celebrated around the world as International Museum Day, and since this year's theme was “Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums”, we collaborated with the IAWM and participated in a global social media campaign to show that by speaking the unspeakable, women’s museums make women’s histories visible.

Traditionally, a museum is an entity that occupies a physical space. However, the existence of technology has now made it possible for historical objects to be displayed in the digital space, a space that transcends borders and boundaries. Physically, no such space dedicated to women’s histories exists in India, but in cyberspace, the Poster Women archive serves that purpose. Indian women’s movements have grappled with several issues since their inceptions, and the archive thus acts as a resource that people can access to see what topics these movements have engaged with over the years, and how the movements have perpetuated and represented themselves through the images they produce.

The following posters have been selected from the archive, and the asterisked (*) posts were published on our social media pages for the IAWM campaign. To view more posters and paintings, visit here.

 1. Domestic Violence: Swayam, Kolkata*

Titled 'In Our Community', this poster highlights the need to combat domestic violence collectively and through communities. These campaigns use the recurring image of the home not as a haven or shelter, but a silencing prison faced regularly by women. This reveals violence within the house as not a personal or family matter, but a systemic problem demanding public attention and policy intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 2. Religion: ‘Do Not Speak’ & ‘Stranglehold of Religion’ by Sheba Chhachhi and Jogi Panghaal, Lifetools, for Saheli*

collage

Indian family law, or personal law, is codified separately for four communities – Hindus (including Sikhs and Jains), Muslims, Christians and Parsis. Taken once to be a symbol of the Indian state’s commitment to minority rights, personal law nonetheless continues to be incredibly discriminatory towards women and their rights. This has been an important point around which Indian women’s movements have organized.

 

 

3. Environment: UBING, Dhaka (Created during a workshop in India with Kamla Bhasin)

‘We sow seeds, so there is life’-Women have always been an intrinsic part of the ecological movement due to the larger threat environmental degradation poses to their habitats and source of livelihood. This poster is reflective of how women come together as a driving force against various state and non state actors to protect their means of survival—the environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Dowry Deaths: Roopa, Bihar*

 "Could This Be Your Daughter?"-This emotive poster depicts a young bride, blindfolded and muzzled by news headlines of dowry-related deaths. In the 1980s, the women’s movement in Delhi led protests and campaigns to reform the anti-dowry law (amended in 1984 and 1986).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Sexuality: Vikalp, Gujarat

3 sexuality

Same sex couples in India have had to grapple with being called ‘abnormal’ and ‘unusual’. Their sexuality is seen as a deviance from traditional Indian culture as well as a result of the ‘bad’ influence of Western culture. This poster asserts that being Indian and being homosexual are not mutually exclusive. Further, by virtue of being human, homosexuals deserve certain human rights.

 

 

 

 

6. Labour: Kamla Bhasin, Kali For Women*

This poster says ‘My wife does not work’ and then goes on to name the many tasks that ‘housewives’ traditionally juggle: cleaning, cooking food, washing clothes, giving birth and raising children, taking care of the sick and elderly, and more. Domestic work and care giving remains unrecognized and undervalued as labour, and, consequently, often goes unpaid. The many-armed working woman, in this image, is reminiscent of traditional images of the goddess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Reproduction: Voluntary Health Association, Orissa

health

 

When it comes to the sex of a baby, many Indian families prefer sons. Thus, women who bear daughters are often subjected to taunting, social boycott, battering, desertion and even murder. This poster which says ‘Men determine the sex of the child’ is an example of one of many posters that were created by groups to dispel myths about reproduction and reduce harassment against women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 8. Education: Akshara Vijaya, Karnataka

‘Education for every house, a light for every home’: In 1974, a report released by the Committee on the Status of Women in India revealed that in spheres like education, employment and legal access, the condition of women had worsened. The report both shocked and inspired—women’s groups all over the country conducted campaigns, seminars and workshops to address this gap. This Telugu poster shows a woman from the Lambadi nomadic tribe learning how to write. It was originally made for the Sampurna Saksharta Andolan (Total Literacy Campaign).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Text for all the captions posted above has been adapted from 'Our Pictures, Our Words', eds. Laxmi Murthy & Rajashri Dasgupta]

 

On Topic: May with Menstruation, Masturbation, & Mental Health

Events

-May is observed as International Masturbation Month and sex- positive website Agents of Ishq helped people celebrate it. Through the posts on their website and by using the hashtag #masturbationmay on social media platforms, they initiated conversations about female masturbation (something that isn’t talked about often) and talked about the different words people use to refer to masturbation. They even published a series of videos that addressed and dispelled various myths surrounding the topic!

-May is also Mental Health Awareness Month, and Canada-based desi duo Chuski Pop, who host monthly podcasts on desi culture, women’s issues and society at large, dedicated their May podcast to talking about women’s mental health and addressing their own struggles with depression and anxiety. Catch them on Soundcloud here for more.

Governance and Politics

-Besides masturbation and mental health, the month was also dedicated to discussions on menstruation, owing to the fact that the new Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime has taxed sanitary napkins at 12%, but has made items like sindoor, bindis and bangles tax free. Although the 12% figure is a reduction from the earlier figure of 14.5%, this decision has angered many as it prioritizes the affordability of symbols of marriage and beauty over items that are of essential use to women.

In India, only 12% of the female population has access to sanitary products. Women who don’t enjoy access to these products use alternatives like rags, ashes and even old sand, leading to long term health complications and sometimes death. Government programmes do exist to promote menstrual health, however in states like Hyderabad and Telangana, they have suffered from bad implementation. A survey done in the two states reveals that while there are provisions that provide girls with supplies, disposal still remains an issue.

The public’s response to the new tax regime was swift—many took to social media to express their disappointment, and petitions and campaigns like #lahukalagaan were launched.

-Social media was also used by Chhattisgarh police officer Varsha Dongre to expose the (alleged) human rights violations being carried out by the Indian state. In a Facebook post, she talked about how young Adivasi girls in Bastar were subjected to extreme torture like electric shocks. She also went on to state that tribal women suspected of being Naxalites were being raped and assaulted. She was subsequently suspended for violation of conduct.

-While some girls are being denied their human rights, others are being denied their right to education. Schoolgirls from Rewari in Haryana sat on an 8 day hunger strike to demand the upgradation of their local school from Class 10 to 12. A similar protest also took place in Rajgarh. These strikes took place because schools that offered higher classes are located far away from the villages where the schoolgirls live, and they would consistently face sexual harassment during their long journey to school.

- Undoubtedly, education is an integral aspect of everyone’s lives, and how it is structured can shape worldviews and opinions. However, Indian education may soon witness the erasure of identities. The Central Board of Secondary Education in its course review meeting suggested that it may replace the term ‘Anti-Muslim Riots’ with ‘Gujarat Riots’ to refer to the 2002 communal riots. This definitely isn’t the first time that (potential) syllabus changes have reflected ideological considerations—in 2014, former HRD minister Smriti Irani announced that Kendriya Vidyalayas would discontinue teaching German as a third language as an alternative to Sanskrit, a decision she said was taken in view of "national interest".

Many BJP leaders have also been demanding the removal of Mughal emperors from textbooks to make more space for Hindu kings. Earlier this year, an RSS-organized workshop called Gyan Sangam was held in Delhi, and academics and vice chancellors of various central and state universities were on the list of attendees. The aim of the workshop was to discuss how to “Indianise” the educational system of the country and bring a “real nationalist narrative” to higher education.

-In representing all shades of opinion in governance, Mexico is making important strides. Mexico’s National Indigenous Governing Council appointed María de Jesús Patricio Martínez as their spokesperson. Backed by the leftist political group Zapatista Army of National Liberation, this decision will pave the way for her to run as an independent candidate in the upcoming presidential elections in 2018. As an indigenous woman who will now work towards securing representation for her historically underrepresented community, her appointment is extremely symbolic.

-Speaking of representation and recognition of identities—Taiwan made history this month when it became the first Asian country to decriminalize gay marriage. Its constitutional court declared that a new legal framework accommodative of gay marriage must be implemented within two years.

Legal Judgements

-The highly brutal and highly publicised Nirbhaya gang rape case came to a close on May 5th, when the Supreme Court upheld capital punishment for the accused. The court’s decision was met with mixed responses—many celebrated the decision and thought it was fitting, but some questioned the role of the death penalty as a deterrent. These concerns were further exacerbated when only a few days later, a woman was brutally gang raped in Rohtak.

-On May 11, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court convened a special summer session to deliberate upon the constitutionality of triple talaq. Six days later, it decided to reserve its verdict. However, the bench did ask the All India Muslim Personal Law Board whether a clause could be inserted in the nikahnama (marriage contract) that would prevent a husband from being able to use triple talaq. Muslim marriage is contractual, so the addition of such a clause will specify the nature of a woman’s consent to a marriage and thus possibly curb the use of triple talaq in the future. However, as Flavia Agnes says

“In any case […] the bride and her family have little, if any, say in wedding-related decisions. The nikahnama is usually drawn up by qazis affiliated to the Muslim law board and they hardly ever inform the bride of her right to negotiate the terms of her marriage.”

Thus, only time will tell what sort of judgement will now emerge from the apex court and how it will impact Muslim women.

Sports

-The Indian women’s cricket team is breaking worldwide records—Deepti Sharma and Poonam Raut became the first ever pair to score 300 runs in a One-Day International. Jhulan Goswami also made history when she became the highest wicket taker in women’s ODIs.

Popular Culture

-May has been a good month for female directors. DC Comics’ first ever female led superhero movie Wonder Woman hits select theatres at the end of this month, and will see worldwide release in June. It also happens to be the first major studio superhero movie directed by a female director, Patty Jenkins. Gina Prince-Bythewood will soon make history as the first woman of colour to direct a superhero film with Marvel Comic’s Silver and Black. The film itself is centred around two women ‘antiheroes’. Further, this month at the Cannes Film Festival, Sophia Coppola became the second woman ever to win the Best Director title for her film The Beguiled. The first woman to win this title, Yuliya Solntseva, received it over 56 years ago.

Tech

-Intel Social Business Ltd. and a Bangladeshi not for profit have created the COEL, a smart bangle that gives pregnant women audio cues like reminders regarding diet, vaccinations, cramps, etc. Rural women lack access to maternal healthcare facilities, and the COEL seeks to address that issue. COEL can also detect toxic carbon fumes originating from the use of charcoal, which can be harmful to the child and alert the mother. It’s being used in Bangladesh and will be distributed in Indian markets this year at the price of Rs 1000.

In Memoriam

-Earlier this month, Justice (retd) Leila Seth passed away. She was the first woman judge in the Delhi High Court, and the first woman to become a Chief Justice of a state high court (Himachal Pradesh). She was also responsible for progressive amendments to the Hindu Succession Act.

May at Zubaan:

-Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora?, our book on the 1991 mass rape of women from the Kashmiri villages of Kunan and Poshpora, by the Indian army, was awarded the Laadli Media prize for best non-fiction book. Co-written by five Kashmiri women, the book highlights the continuing legal (non-)consequences of the Indian state’s human rights abuses under AFSPA in Kashmir.

-In celebration of International Museum Day and in collaboration with the International Association for Women’s Museums, Zubaan participated in a worldwide social media campaign to promote women’s museums. We shared several posters from our Poster Women archive on Facebook and Twitter, which addressed various issues like dowry death, religion and domestic violence.

-We also announced our next Young Zubaan project, a comic book promoting menstrual health among young readers called Spreading Your Wings. Created by Ariana Abadian-Heifetz and illustrated by Pia Alizé Hazarika, it will have both Hindi and English editions. The author is currently accepting donations so that the cost of the book can be subsidized, making it affordable and able to reach as many beneficiaries as possible!

-On the 28th, Zubaan’s feminist book club discussed Kuzhali Manickavel’s Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings. If you were unable to attend but are interested to read it, you can pick up the book here. The next meeting is on the 25th of June and we’re reading Amruta Patil’s Adi Parva – if you’d like to join us, shoot us an email (contact@zubaanbooks.com)!

Happy reading, and May the force be with you!

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