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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.

 

Watercolours: An Excerpt

The following are two excerpts from Watercolours: A Story from Auschwitz by Lidia Ostałowska, translated by Sean Gasper Bye. 'Céline Sings' is from pages 42-44. 'Watching a Performance' is from pages 51-55.


Watercolours

Translator's Note

It was Dina Gottliebová-Babbitt’s artistic skills that allowed her to survive Auschwitz. After her imprisonment in Auschwitz-Birkenau, she had painted a mural of Snow White in the children’s barrack of the so-called Familienlager, a section of the camp which held prisoners from the Theresienstadt ‘model’ ghetto. An SS officer saw the mural and recommended her to the camp doctor, Josef Mengele. Mengele was conducting horrific pseudo-scientific experiments on prisoners to ‘prove’ the Nazis’ theories of racial inferiority. Unsatisfied with the quality of colour film in the camp, Mengele engaged a team of artists to make medical illustrations for him. Dina’s job was to paint portraits of his Romani test subjects. So long as she did a good job, Mengele would keep her alive.

Both Dina and her portraits survived. Dina made her way to America, while the portraits, thought lost, re-emerged decades after the war. Enshrined in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum’s permanent exhibition on the Romani genocide, they became the subject of a long-running ownership dispute between Dina and the Museum. Were they works of art that belonged to their painter? Or were they documents, a major part of the very limited evidence of German war crimes against the Roma, which ought to stay in the museum? Over the decades, artists, Romani advocacy groups, and the Polish and American governments all took sides in this dispute. Dina died in 2009 – the paintings remain at Auschwitz.

Lidia Ostałowska’s telling of this powerful story interweaves Dina’s life with the history of the camp both during and after the war, tracking how cultural memory of the Holocaust has evolved over the last half-century in Europe, America and Israel. She also poses challenging questions about art and morality. If art is used in service of genocide, is it still art? What are the artist’s duties under such circumstances? And to whom does the artist’s work belong—to the artist? The victims? To humanity?

None of these questions have easy answers and Ostałowska explores them from every angle, drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, including many first-hand accounts from prisoners and other artists who survived the camp. This is a book of emotional depth, exploring the inner lives of Dina and her fellow inmates. But it is also a book of scope and breadth, exploring our changing relationship to this dark place. How did the camp come about? How was it preserved and then consecrated as a museum? How has it evolved as a cultural and political symbol in countries around the world? And what of the small Polish town of Oświęcim that borders the camp, and where everyday life must continue in the shadow of humanity’s greatest crime?

Ostałowska’s approach is sensitive and powerful. In simple prose, she lets this story speak for itself without sentiment or embellishment. She does not shy away from the complexity of these issues and does not allow us to rush to simple conclusions. Watercolours is a unique, probing history of the Holocaust and its long shadow: the effects it has had on survivors, their families, countries, cultures—and of course, on Dina Gottliebová-Babbitt herself. It is a powerful piece of literary journalism and a book sure to linger in the memory long after it has been read.

-- Sean Gasper Bye

 

Céline sings

Lidia Ostałowska

There was a small room in the sauna next to Mengele’s surgery. Dina: ‘I’d call it a studio. Mengele gave me watercolours, a brush and a drawing pad. I’d never painted with watercolours before, though – we’d only had oils and tempera paints in school. there was no easel – I got two chairs instead. I sat on one and propped the drawing board up on the other. and I got started.’

She began with finding a model, because the doctor hadn’t chosen one, he’d only said, ‘go and pick someone.’ Dina walked out of the barrack.

‘I chose the first person I saw – a girl wearing an elaborately tied, very colourful headscarf.’

The painting took two or three days. It was a left-facing three-quarter view, with a caption underneath: Zigeuner- Mischling aus Deutschland, ‘Gypsy Half-Breed from Germany’.

‘I instinctively signed it in pencil: “Dinah”. Mengele noticed, but didn’t order me to erase it. the portrait didn’t come out very well, but he was happy. Nowadays I think the first portrait was the worst. I hadn’t done separate sketches.’

The technique of watercolour painting is only simple on the surface. Dina knew how much skill and practice were required. the pigment (bonded together with gum arabic) is mixed with water, and this water is what alters the intensity of the color. There’s no white paint on the palette, the artist uses the white of the paper to give the effect of light. You can’t spoil the paper with pencil marks – a few coloured dots, and that’s your sketch. There’s no question of making corrections. Each stroke of the brush must be perfect, because it is final.

She must have been frightened, although she never admitted as much in her testimonies. All the while she was clinging to life. Had she been saved by the all-powerful Mengele, the scrawny Dr König or snow White? It didn’t matter, now she was totally dependent on her artistic talents.

After the success of the ‘Gypsy Half-Breed’, she went out among the stables with a new commission.

It was chaos, a jumble of Gypsies in ragged clothing. How can you do laundry with no water, how can you mend clothes without needles or thread? The ss officers would march men up and down the gravel lagerstrasse ‘for punishment’, bellowing orders. turn in a circle, do a squat, roll about on the ground, sing. Most often they would sing Das kann doch einen Seeman nicht erschüttern, ‘that can’t shake a seaman’. Hollow-cheeked children wrapped their arms round their instruments, and the violins and guitars seemed larger than the children themselves.

In this wretched throng, a young Gypsy girl with a blue scarf tied round her neck stood out.

‘I removed that scarf and draped it over her head. I asked her to smile a little. She told me her two-month-old daughter had just died because she couldn’t breastfeed. After that I stopped asking people to smile.’

(All the children born in the Zigeunerlager died. there were 378 of them.)

This girl, Céline, was suffering from diarrhoea.

‘She couldn’t digest swedes or black bread. So I asked for some white bread for her and, on Mengele’s orders, I actually got it. There was this tall, handsome man there, a czech in a white uniform. He worked as a waiter for Dr Mengele. Every day he brought me a little bread. It helped her.’

Dina whispered to Céline.

‘I tried to sing a French song, but I couldn’t remember it. she helped me along. She knew the words, so she must have been French. She looked like a porcelain doll or a prima donna. Gazing into her eyes was like gazing into her soul. You can see that in the painting.’

Now and again the doctor would check on her. Although he usually avoided physical contact with the prisoners, he himself pushed the blue scarf behind the Gypsy woman’s ear to reveal it: the ear was considered important in the study of race.

But it damaged the composition.

‘That ear makes the picture look odd.’

Mengele accepted the portrait of céline, but declared he would select the next subjects.

‘The ones he picked were older and less attractive. they were men. I chose women.’

Now Dina took her time at her primitive easel.

‘When I was working in the Gypsy camp, I didn’t have to report for roll call, I didn’t have to do anything, just paint. When Mengele went for his mid-afternoon meal he’d bring something back for me to eat as well. It was the only time I felt human in auschwitz. I took my time.’

This was her new routine. Two weeks – one watercolour.

 

Watching a performance

Lidia Ostałowska

She observed everyday life in the barrack. ‘They maintained a peculiar kind of courtesy, which made it feel like you were in an animal testing facility. It never seemed as though Mengele thought of the Gypsies as people. Sometimes he’d offer them a friendly smile, sometimes tell a joke, usually to Zosia or me.’

He kept bringing people in for portraits. A grey-haired woman, a grown man, a boy... they don’t usually look the viewer in the eye in the paintings, so it’s impossible to return their gaze. there is no communication between us, we are not permitted into the mind of the sitter. And this is significant – in the renaissance, when portraiture was flourishing, its creators took the humanist stance that the face expressed the movements of the soul. The Gypsies’ faces are dead.

They sat on stools before Dina. She never mentioned stools for models in her testimonies, but today art critics can determine it from the pictures. The Gypsies are portrayed like suspects on an arrest warrant. Gunslingers in the Wild West looked the same on nineteenth century ‘Wanted’ posters, and so did al capone when he was arrested in 1931. This technique is called a ‘mug shot’. The well-known american private investigator allan Pinkerton invented it for his famous detective agency. Mug shots aid in police investigations and are employed to this day, including in europe. (That being said, nowadays human rights activists oppose their use. They make everyone, no matter how innocent, look like a criminal.)

Joseph Mengele was taking advantage of Dina’s artistic skill to attain photographic perfection.

This was a tried and tested approach, since watercolours were for more than misty, impressionistic landscapes. Before anyone had reproduced an image using a light-sensitive emulsion, naturalists, geographers and anthropologists on expeditions would pack a light wooden case in their trunk, containing watercolour paints, a sketchpad, badger-hair brushes, pencils, knives to cut the paper and sharpen the pencils, and a water dish. Oil paints dried too slowly to be of any documentary use. Watercolours were cheaper and simpler.

on the eve of the First World War, the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski brought a new invention on his voyage to New Guinea: a hand-held camera. But he also invited an artist, the famous painter and author stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. None of Witkiewicz’s paintings from that trip have survived, but we know of others, published in textbooks of zoology, botany and medicine, in atlases and monographs. Books the future Lagerarzt would have leafed through.

Mengele aspired to a professorship so he paid special attention to the illustrations for his thesis. He’d made Dina his private artist (and that’s how she was presented after the war), but he wouldn’t have entrusted his career to a single prisoner. He made the most of auschwitz’s mechanisms. Marianne Hermann, Ludwig Feld, Vladimír Zlamar and Janina Prażmowska all painted the Gypsies or parts of their bodies. Mengele personally photographed the stages of his experiments, as well as instructing others to do so.

One of those photographers was the young Pole Wilhelm Brasse (subject of the well-known film The Portraitist by Ireneusz Dobrowolski). Brasse had trained in a stylish studio in Katowice. In the Erkennungsdienst – the camp Gestapo’s photo studio in auschwitz I – he photographed naked Jewish children. He found it upsetting. He cobbled together a makeshift partition so they had somewhere to undress. This was a final gesture of humanity: when it was over, they were murdered with phenol. In one of the surviving photographs, Gypsy girls sent in by Mengele stand naked in a row: four small children’s faces, terrified, their hair cropped down to the skin.

There are also other interpretations: that these weren’t girls, but castrated Gypsy boys.

Dina painted the Gypsies as Mengele saw them – did she realize that? Or perhaps, as she moved her brush across the page, she decided to soften the portraits?

What does an artist feel under that sort of pressure? Art should not be in the service of genocide. What if it is, and is still a source of pleasure? Even when degraded to photography, to a craft, art makes life possible. How can a person accept that?

Dina had no memory of Mengele’s Gypsy experiments, that’s what she said. But she admitted to hearing of one in the women’s camp.

‘A forty-year-old woman from Berlin, who illustrated fashion magazines and sketched models, was subjected to electrical shocks of different intensities. He wanted to see how much she could withstand. So far as I know, she didn’t survive.’

The people she was painting in the Zigeunerlager were vanishing. Prisoners from the medical team secretly passed on information about the doctor’s experiments, making particular note of some.

Vera Aleksander was a Jew who worked in the twins’ barrack. After the war she recalled: ‘an ss man came and took two children away on Mengele’s orders. They were my two favourites, Guido and Nino, about four years old. Two or three days later he brought them back in a dreadful state. they’d been sewn together like Siamese twins. Their wounds were so filthy they were festering. I could smell the stench of gangrene. The children screamed all night. Somehow their mother managed to get her hands on some morphine and used it to put them out of their misery.’

Vera said the veins in their wrists had been sewn together.

Psychiatrists believe that to survive the camp it was necessary to find a way to distance yourself from it. Those who succeeded in this were present, but not with their whole selves. They were deaf, blind, not taking in the complete experience. They didn’t remember, because they’d banished some part of themselves, condemned it to oblivion. the so-called ‘Muslims’ – those who were completely destroyed, with no will to fight for their lives – truly saw Auschwitz. They perished because no one could survive such a thing. But the mad saw nothing. They retreated into fantasy.

Forty years after the war, the painter Mieczysław Kościelniak admitted on a radio programme: ‘I can’t understand this in myself or in others, but there you have it. Human nature commands you to pass into a fictional life. Fiction was how we survived in the camp. When an audience sits in a theatre and watches a performance, they lose themselves in the story. In the same way, we moved into fiction. although death was raging around us, we believed we’d make it out.’

Dina believes she preserved 10, perhaps 12 Gypsy faces in watercolour.

Where did these Gypsies come from?

What were their names?

Were they frightened?

What happened to them?

There are no details in her mind.

‘I don’t remember anything exceptional about my subjects. They never asked for anything and I wouldn’t have been in a position to answer anyway. Instead, they were stoic. They sat there and didn’t speak to me. The only one to complain was the girl in the headscarf.’


    A many-layered work of historical reportage, Watercolours draws on the real life story of Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt (1923-2009), a Czech-American artist of Jewish ancestry, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and whose story came to light in the late nineties. It was at this time that Gottliebova attempted once more to recover the art she had created in the concentration camp, and which had become the property of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The dispute escalated into an international scandal, with the American Department of State and the Polish government becoming involved.

    Here, journalist Lidia Ostalowska reconstructs Gottliebova’s time in the camp, while looking also at broader issues of historical memory, trauma, racism and the relationship between the torturer and the victim. In Gottliebova’s case, SS Doctor Josef Mengele took a special interest in her talent, commissioning her to paint portraits (the watercolours of the title) of Roma prisoners. Mengele himself is one of the many characters in this narrative.

    Ostalowska draws on hundreds of studies and accounts of the hell of the camps, and tells the story of one woman’s incarceration and her battle for survival, bringing in many other supporting lives. Before she worked for Mengele, Gottliebova had decorated the children’s barracks at Auschwitz with of the Disney film, Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. After the war, she worked as an animator for Warner Brothers and married Walt Disney animator Art Babbitt, the man behind many of the world’s best-known cartoon characters including Goofy and Dumbo. Gottlibova (under the name Dina Babbitt) lived in the California until her death in 2009 at the age of 86.

    Rs. 495
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!

On Topic: Feminist Waves through Different Mediums

April has been my favourite month since I was in school: the excitement of new class, the fragrance of the new books, covering new notebooks and so on. Let us look at the events and and voices that created impact in our feminist world last month.

Things begun with the news that India got its first transgender sub-inspector K. Prithika Yashini from Chennai, and her struggle also raised several LGBTQ issues of gender identity and social acceptance.

Lucknow embarked on its first #Pride on April 9, where we got to see trademark queer quirky messages alongside the rainbow flags and glitter. The month also witnessed another memorable moment for same-sex marriage in Punjab on 22nd April 2017, with enthusiasm and love.

From celebrating sexuality, fighting for gender identities, prejudices against and within the LGBTQ community boxing in the social construct, we witnessed a revolution against the patriarchal social construct and applause to all those never-ending voices against the oppression and violence.

The end of this month beheld the Kerala Trans Sports Meet in Trivandam on 28th April, 2017.

‘Lipstick Under My Burkha' has been receiving worldwide recognition: the Hollywood Foreign Press picked the film, in early April, for the opening night screening at the International Film Festival, Los Angeles (making the movie eligible for the American Golden Globe awards), questioning the Censor Board for Film Certification's denying the film certification in India. Voices in support of the movie have led the censor board to reconsider their decision: the movie, certified 'A' with some voluntary cuts, will be released soon.

A charity from Argentina ‘MACMA’ came up with a clever way to avoid censorship: their video for breast cancer awareness called Everybody Loves Boobs sings the glories of breasts, with lips replacing nipples and with sarcasm towards censorship on social media.

Another crowd-funded documentary about arranged marriages in India ‘A Suitable Girl’ is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary took four years to complete and the women behind it organized and executed the project through an online fundraising campaign.

Since we are talking about the emerging voices against the oppression, we cannot miss the campaign Let’s Talk About Trolls by the Hindustan Times, fighting vicious misogyny and cyber violence on social media. HT published a series of articles featuring influential women who have been active on social media, in which they express their political views and talk about their experiences of online trolling. Meanwhile, this report via News Deeply states that the gender gap between women and men when it comes to using computers and the Internet is increasingly widening, an important issue when it comes to gender equality and basic rights.

In our last 'On Topic' post, we talked about how the tax on sanitary pads has been removed in Delhi. An online campaign by Youth ki Awaaz “#IAMNOTDOWN” talks about several issues surrounding menstruation, such as accessibility and affordability of sanitary napkins, as well as the social stigma around menstruation, which can have deadly consequences on young women's lives.

Reports say that India will have its first free condom stores for HIV prevention and awareness, brought about by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF). Although the government currently provides affordable contraception to citizens, it is reported to be of low quality.

April also witnessed elections for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (the MCD). The Bhartiya Janta Party, which has been in control of the MCD for the last two terms (10 years), won the elections. Of 270 seats, 124 seats were been secured by women.

The United Nations on the 22nd of April made a surprising announcement as they elected Saudi Arabia to the women's rights commission. The 45 member body works towards promoting gender equality and empowerment of women worldwide.  According to The Independent there are several political reasons behind this decision. Several countries were questioned about the vote counts and their stands on the declaration. Saudi Arabia was already in the news the month before for holding its first “Girls Council”, with photos showing zero girls on stage.

Here at Zubaan:

Amidst the chaos of the renovation at Zubaan office inside and political parties campaigning outside, we managed a quick book club meeting discussing the internet phenomenon Worm. Next meeting: our very own Kuzhali Manickavel's Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings.

Prisoner No. 100 is back in stock. We bade farewell to our intern Sarah and everybody misses her (and her zucchini bread); our office manager Elsy is back stronger and more relaxed after a brief surgical battle, and you could maybe manage to get some discounts from her. So don’t forget to visit us, and happy reading!

On Topic: The March Review

Having just crossed the threshold into April, let’s look back at what March had to offer this year.

 

Since the month marks international women’s day on the 8th of March, why not start this blog with some stories on the social achievements for women’s lives that we have seen of late – and yes, there are a few worth mentioning.

On March 9th, the Lok Sabha passed the Maternity Benefits Bill. An amendment of the 1961 Maternity Benefit Act, this has now extended the period of paid maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their first two children from 12 to 26 weeks. On top of that, work environments with more than fifty employees, must now provide work-site crèche facilities for working mothers. Of course, as articles by The Ladies Finger and Hindustan Times rightfully point out, shortcomings are found to remain among this amended bill. Thus, while the ILO-recommended maternity leave time suggests a minimum of 14 weeks, the Maternity Benefits Bill sticks to its previous 12-week maternity leave for mothers after the birth of their third child. And while maternity leave for commissioning mothers is addressed by the bill, mother surrogates remain excluded. Most significant of all, perhaps, is the structural premise of the bill, whose parameters exclude women from the unorganized work sector. This means that the majority of working mothers currently will not benefit from this bill at all. Nonetheless, its gender-neutral language to include fathers for some of the principles laid out does indicate a tentatively changing perception for the significance of creating structural support for parents in the first few months after their children’s births.

Further on the note of births and motherhood, Telenaga’s new budget, announced on March 13th, now includes money-provision schemes for new mothers of Rs. 12,000 for the birth of a baby boy and Rs. 13,000 for the birth of a baby girl, provided that mothers give birth in government hospitals. In addition, so-called ‘KCR Kits’ have now been implemented, named after Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao. Drawing inspiration from other such incentives across Europe and India, including Tamil Nadu’s ‘Amma Kit’, the KCR Kit will provide sixteen vital items to new mothers and their new-born babies, including a cradle, diapers, mosquito nets and hygiene products for mother and child. Both can be seen as a structural incentive to increase birth-rates in institutional settings, in an attempt to further reduce the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) and infant mortality ratio (IMR).

Finally! The tax on sanitary pads has been removed in Delhi – at least for those sanitary napkins that cost below Rs. 20. All those priced higher will see a tax cut from 12.5 to 5 per cent. So although there has been an ongoing and important debate in India surrounding the hygienic and environmental consequences of using sanitary pads, this at least, demonstrates that women’s health and sanitation is regarded a necessity rather than a luxury in Delhi.

Some might argue that this can be seen also in the recent ‘toilet for all’ order, called for by the South Delhi Municipal Council (SDMC). Implemented on April 1st of this year, the policy has called upon all restaurants and hotels in South Delhi to open their washrooms to the public, in the hope that this will facilitate circumstances particularly for women. That the latter are indeed among the most vulnerable when it comes to lack of toiletry access is hardly surprising and was recently demonstrated by the Rohini rape case in Delhi. Two children girls were raped, while urinating in an open space, given that the washrooms in their area – even after continuous complaints by the community – were out of order.

However, the question remains whether this target group is indeed best served by the new sanitary policy; even beyond its obvious geographically isolated response. Thus, while the policy was met with much positive feedback from the South Delhi community, social exclusion does not surpass its implementation. In theory, of course, the toiletry facilities are open ‘for all’, where a maximum charge of Rs. 5 has been imposed in the assumption that people from all economic backgrounds can afford to make use of them. In reality, however, it is feared that many will be denied entry due to hotel and restaurant dress code policies and social-class shaming. This is not unwarranted, given that many restaurant owners are unhappy about these changes, citing increased security problems and chaos as a main reason for their stance against the policy. We are yet to see, therefore, how effective the ‘toilet for all’ order will play out in practice.

Gender and toiletry policies appear to be a popular topic among politicians at the start of this year. Embedded in these, we find Donald Trump’s attempted move in late February, to exclude transgender students from schools’ locker-rooms and bathrooms on the basis of their gender identification. Although this was met with vehement rejection by several courts, on the premise of being unconstitutional, this policy marked only the beginning in a series of discriminatory stances  towards LGBTQ people and their rights in the current US administration this month. One was the US Department of Health and Human Services’ elimination of questions about LGBT people on two recent health surveys. Another was Trump’s revocation of the Fair Pay and Safe Workplace Order, introduced by the Obama administration, and concerned with a series of anti-discrimination policies in workplaces. Now this has been trumped by the administration’s announcement that the 2020 Census would no longer include options of sexual orientation, thus numerically excluding transgender Americans from public spaces and policy evaluations. At least hope sweeps over from Pakistan, where the country is currently preparing for its 6th census, the first to take count of transgender people, albeit as a separate category.

Less hope comes from the current discussion and implementation of so-called ‘anti-Romeo squads’ in Uttar Pradesh. A central part of the BJP’s campaign in the lead-up to recent state elections, Yogi Adiyanath’s stepping into CM office, was soon followed by his dedication to actualize his campaign promises. Particularly prominent in Ghaziabad, these police-formed ‘anti-Romeo squads’ have taken to rounding up young men, particularly outside school and college campuses, under the guise of protecting women from unwanted harassment. In actuality, it is argued, the targeted youngsters are ordinarily partners of these very women, and ‘anti-Romeo squads’, as their name suggests, are more concerned with the moral policing of public spaces, than the protection of women. At a time, when young women living in PG’s are required to stay indoors during the festival of Holi, and are continuously faced with curfews, often exposing them to more rather than less dangers, one cannot help but sigh in frustration at the age-old narrative that women’s ‘beautiful souls’ must be protected at any cost, even, or rather especially, when this serves to infantilize them.

Indeed, this appears particularly curious, given the opposing narrative currently found in legislative politics, where women, sometimes feminazis are dedicated the role of schemers who are seeking revenge from men and former partners, by falsely accusing them of rape. At least this seems to be the metanarrative which underpins the ‘Challenge to Unconstitutional Provisions of Anti-Rape Law’, recently issued as a petition to the Delhi High Court by women’s activist Madhu Kishwar. It’s purpose: to challenge the rape law amendments of 2013, including the persecution of non-penal-vaginal offences and victim testimony as sufficient evidence under the premise that this lends itself to mis- and abuses. Co-signed by a man and a woman currently convicted under these very rape law amendments and argued for by Kapil Sibal – defence lawyer in the Mahmood Farooqi rape case, currently waiting for its appeal – it is difficult not to see the petition as political back-door scheming. One can only hope that the Delhi High Court recognizes this and leaves the case to rest – an outspoken stance against it might be too much to ask…?!

 

Indian-Pakistani, and other, conflicts

March has been marked by an increasing sense of instability with regards to Indian-Pakistani conflicts in several spheres. One of the most obvious spaces where this is played out remains, of course, Kashmir. Following on from previous months, March too has seen a number of deaths among civilians, where notably those among children and minors, continue to cause most protesting response. Two such cases, supposedly caused by stray bullets though this remains contested, have made the headlines this month: that of fifteen-year-old Amir Nazir, killed during a protest in southern Padgampora; and six- or seven-year-old Kaneeza, who was shot in her home in northern Kupwara.

Analysts argue that such incidents continue to be linked to what they regard to have been the ‘tipping point’ in the contemporary conflict between militant rebels and civilian protestors, and army officers in Indian-administered Kashmir: the killing of Burhan Wani, former leader of the Hizbul Mujahideen, in July 2016. Indeed a recent video  released by Wani’s successor, Zakir Rashid Bhat, which calls upon Kashmiri youth to fight for Islam can be seen as a rollover from Wani’s previous recruitment policies. Thus, known for his skilled use of social media, Wani – sometimes referred to as the ‘poster-boy’ of militancy in Kashmir – gained reputation for his ability to recruit youngsters. That this will only fuel fire in ongoing tensions between militants and the Indian army officials can be seen in the latest killing of two militants  and the arrest of twelve youths for their alleged involvement in stone-throwing protests, both occurring in Pulwama district last week.

Another sphere in which Indian-Pakistani relations have been tense, has been with regards to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Following a series of terrorist attacks on India in the summer of 2016, in which the latter accused Pakistan of providing support to ‘infiltrators’, PM Modi had declared that ‘blood and water cannot flow together’ and suspended Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) talks, mandatorily held once in a fiscal, as laid out by the treaty. Together with India’s disputed building of hydroelectric power plants among Pakistani administered Western rivers, including the Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric plants, which Pakistan claims violate provisions of the treaty, water relations among the neighbouring states began to deteriorate. The PIC meeting last week, the first since 2015, can therefore be seen as a vital step in reopening dialogue on these issues and a symbolic attempt to smoothen grievances. Nonetheless, India’s pre-emptive declaration that there would be “no compromise” with regards to its full exploitation of treaty terms, and Pakistan’s continuous insistence that India’s planned projects deprive Pakistan of its due water rights under the treaty, may prove to make this difficult in practice. Given that it was World Water day on March 22nd, one can only hope that the two parties of the world’s most successful water treaty translate symbolic gestures into practice swiftly, as ‘water insecurity’ remains to be a dire reality for the daily lives of about 800 million people across the globe, including many of their respective citizens.

However, it should not go unacknowledged that there have been a number of voices, who have called for peaceful resolutions. Not only was it Pakistan, who initiated the current PIC talks earlier this month; Maulana Syed Athar Hussain Dehlavi, chairman of the Islamic body Anjumana Minhaj-e-Rasool, has also urged the Centre in Pakistan to reiterate the latter’s recognition that Jammu and Kashmir are integral parts of India, by passing a resolution and thereby reaffirming the government’s 1994 declaration. So far this has seen little reaction from the latter. However, on a cultural-legislative note, the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in Pakistan on March 11th can be seen as a tentative step towards a reconciliatory gesture.

Meanwhile, such incentives have, unfortunately, not seen much reciprocated attempts by India. Indeed, the recent appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister, for example, is feared to ignite Muslim-Hindu political and cultural conflict within the region. A Hindutva hardliner, Adityanath had previously declared that he was in favour of Trump’s highly controversial Musilm immigration ban, a stance he believes India should also take in its fight against terrorism. In the context of such exclusionary narratives, it is perhaps rather unsurprising that March 27th, for example, was marked by the killing of a suspected Pakistani ‘intruder’ who was shot dead by the BSF after crossing the Indian-Pakistani border at Punjab’s Gurdaspur. The identity of the deceased remains unknown, as eventual finding of his body revealed that the 21-year-old male, dressed in a pathani suit, carried no belongings, including an ID card or weapons. While it is not useful to conflate this incident with Adityanath’s earlier remarks or, of course, Trump’s policies in the US, it does illustrate that Indian, like other contemporary politics, appears to find itself amidst a sentiment of national(ist) nervousness, both embedded in, and fostering of, a perceived threat of ‘otherness’.

 

This was clearly illustrated also in Greater Noida last week. Following the incident of a missing 17-year-old boy, who was later found in a drug haze near his house, and who died due to a drug overdose on Monday, racial violence broke out in Greater Noida and continued well into the week. Accused of cannibalism and drug trafficking, Nigerian inhabitants in Greater Noida, most of them students at Sharad University, were attacked last Sunday and Monday night, as large mobs – as many as 1200 other Noida residents on Monday night – blamed them for the death of young Manish. Currently, six FIRs have been filed against suspected persecuters. However, the communal sphere remains tense, as Nigerian students are cautioned not to leave their house, unless escorted by police and the Office of the Dean of the African Group Head of Missions continues to stress that not enough was done by the New Delhi municipality and police to prevent and deter these xenophobic and racial attacks. In particular, the lack of response by PM Modi and UP’s CM Adityanath have caused much disappointment. That the current situation is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of racialized and nationalist profiling and prejudice in the area, was also demonstrated by mass protests that broke out in Noida last Tuesday, following the tearing and binning of the Indian flag by a Chinese national, employed by the Oppo mobile phone company. Police registered a case against a Chinese employee, Kevin Suhahu, under Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act, 1971, while the company reacted by firing one of its employees, though name and nationality have not been made public.

 

March at Zubaan

March has also been a busy month at Zubaan, much of which was dedicated to internship applications and interviews, and we are excited to welcome eight new interns to the team throughout the year, starting this week! Further, Zubaan’s current e-pub project, which is to release individual essays from some of Zubaan’s published books online, is now well under way. Thank you to all those taking the time to answer our survey! Your responses have now been analysed and the first online releases are set to appear during the summer later this year. Big thanks also go to the anonymous donator in support of our translations project! Last but certainly not least, March at Zubaan was filled with a series of new releases. And here they are: For academics, we have New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times (eds. Oishik Sircar and Dipika Jain), as well as A Passionate Life: Writings By and On Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (eds. Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lal), coming fresh off the printing press. For non-fiction, the new edition of From Cork to Calcutta: My Mother’s Story (by Milty Bose) and Watercolours: A Story from Auschwitz (by Lidia Ostałowska), were both released at the beginning of the month. Enjoy!

ON TOPIC: We're Back!

While most parts of the world – with the exception of Pakistan  – are indulging in the whirl of capitalist expenditure on lavish romance during the month of February, members of India’s government have taken up deliberation about a socialist venture into the Indian marriage tradition. The proposed marriage bill, introduced by MP Ranjeet Ranjan, and currently under discussion by the Lok Sabha, states that families spending over Rs 5 lakh on a wedding, should contribute 10 per cent to a government welfare fund to facilitate marriages of girls from families of lower income.  Read here for a discussion of the pros and cons.

 

While this debate may appear merely to scrape at the surface of many women’s continuous social threats when entering into this sacred of bonds, it is not alone in its contribution to the debate on the intersection between economic and social security in women’s lives. An article  by Sharanya Gopinathan, on The Ladies Finger, has recently revealed that helplines in Bhopal, operated by the One Stop Crisis Centre and the Madhya Pradesh Public Health and Family Welfare Department, reported a spike in domestic violence calls after demonetisation policies were implemented by the Indian government in November. Accordingly, the number of calls received following the weeks of the government’s decision more than doubled compared to previous average numbers, as increasing women faced violence at the hands of their partners in money-related disputes.

 

Meanwhile, New Delhi Police is striving towards an “image-makeover” by employing women public facilitation officers across twenty police stations. Dressed in civilian clothes and trained in communication skills, the aim of this new policy is to smoothen the grievance mechanism at New Delhi’s Police Stations, where it is claimed that Duty Officers often have their hands full with other duties, which delays such processes. That there is, indeed, a need for a more rapid grievance mechanism across the country, is illustrated time again. Most recently this was seen in the rape and murder case of a 17-Year-Old Dalit Girl in Tamil Nadu by her former boyfriend and his friends, after refusing to abort their six-week-old foetus. The family of the girl, who filed a complaint that their daughter had been kidnapped, was instead polished off with a missing-persons-complaint, and faced abuse by police officials, who claimed that her parents did not know how to raise a girl.

However, it is widely accepted that this incident – along with many others – was the result of an active act of discrimination  against the ‘lower’ caste girl and her family, rather than a failure of the grievance mechanism’s potential per se. As such, the New Delhi Police policy to employ women public facilitation officers is largely viewed a charade. In its public institutionalization of feminine gender stereotypes, it is argued, the police performs an image of care and empathy, which glosses over underlying social issues that currently inform the problematic grievance mechanism. These, in turn, remain unaddressed.

 

But maybe we should set the gloom aside for a moment, and allow some celebration at the opening for more women employees in Delhi’s police sector, perhaps one of the most traditionally male-dominated public spheres? The continuous debate in Nagaland on the 33 per cent reservation for women in the civic bodies’ election would certainly incline one to do so. After the outbreak of protest and violence  in its opposition, which led to the suspension of state elections on February 1st, this was followed by demands that the constitution be amended to avoid the implementation of the quota, which is seen as a threat to customary local laws. Many feminists, including Zubaan, have taken issue with the matter, by signing Kafila’s online petition in support of Naga Mother’s Association and other peace-seeking bodies. Nonetheless, it remains uncertain in which direction the dispute will move, particularly now that T. R. Zeliang has decided to resign  from office, following Nagaland Tribal Action Comittee and Naga People’s Front (NPF) demands to do so.

 

In a more positive light, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth arm of CPI-M, has adopted a resolution  demanding the right to education, jobs and social equality for the members of the LGBT community. Adopted during the tenth DYFI national conference in Kerala earlier this month, the group has called for an abolition of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, and a budgetary provision set aside for members of the LGBT community to finance their education. With more than half of registered transgender people illiterate, and almost a third of them belonging to scheduled castes and tribes, the DYFI’s petition demands that they be allocated equal rights and resources as other vulnerable groups in India’s society. At a time, where Manobi Bandhopadhyay is taking office as the principle of Krishnagar Women’s College, West Bengal, making her the first transgender college principle of India, this has caused some incentive for hope in the struggle for equal treatment of people from the LGBT community. However, more needs to be done, if this is to become a collective, rather than individual success story, say activists.

 

In Kashmir, a recent encounter  among security forces and militants in Frisal, a village in Kulgam district, south Kashmir, caused for much unrest, after one civilian was killed in the incident  on February 12th. A second civilian death followed due to violent protests which emerged in the valley as a result, and at least twenty-one others were injured as police forces used bullets, pellets and tear gas shells in their attempt to disperse the crowd. On Monday (13th), a third civilian was reported to have succumbed to his injuries, though this has been contested by officials, who filed an information report against alleged rumours of more civilian deaths and who have warned that ‘false updates’ on social media can intensify military action. After confrontations  had stalled during the winter months, the encounter in Frisal is only one among a rising number of similar encounters, which have gained momentum since the beginning of the year. Given the lack of dialogue among militants, civilians and security forces in the region, there is increasing fear that these encounters mark the beginning of a revival in the conflict’s escalation.

 

While little of the ongoing unrest in Kashmir is contemporarily sensed in Delhi, the recent ‘anti-nationalist witch-hunt’  at Jodhpur University - widely condemned across Delhi's academic landscape - was a reminder that this country is, at the very least culturally, at war with its neighbour to the West. As is seldom the case, neither side is a sole fighter in such battles, and so even the invitation of Indian authors and editors to Pakistan’s literature festivals is considered an ‘anti-national’ act according to Pakistan’s security forces, as Urvashi Butalia reports from her visit to the Karachi Literature Festival earlier this month.

 

On the note of literature, here is what we’ve been reading at Zubaan:

Caught between fiction and non-fiction, there is The Lonely City: Adventures into the Art of Being Alone, by Olivia Laing and A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. Related to the topic of crime, murder and thrill, Shweta is currently reading The Torment of Others by Val McDermid. “This book,” she says, “is about people with warped minds who commit the most bone-chilling crimes. It’s brutal, gory, suspenseful and engrossing. My first by the author but it is certainly not going to be my last.” In the meantime, some of us have revisited some classics – The Outsider by Albert Camus, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and, an all-time favourite, Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. We've also just discovered (along with everyone else on the internet) our new favourite tumblr, Custom Cuts. Aside from that, most of us are in the midst of reading Chinela Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, in preparation for Zubaan’s next book club meeting on March 5th, at 5pm in the Zubaan Office. Please come along and join us if you can!

 

 

Book launch for Lady Driver: Stories of Women Behind the Wheel

Lady Driver event invitation (Eng)

“Thousands of years ago, the invention of the wheel radically changed the lives of ordinary people.”

As the wheel of time rolls on into a new year, so too the wheels of the printing press keep turning as new tales are spun. Some of these are reproduced in Zubaan’s latest release, Lady Driver: Stories of Women Behind the Wheel. This book tells the story of twelve women who prove just how radically a reinvention of the wheel can change the lives of ordinary people even today.

Featuring slices of these stories, Lady Driver takes us on a journey through the various ups and downs of women’s lives on the margin of Indian society. In their tales of hope and desperation, freedom and oppression, dignity and empowerment, Poonam and her mother Savitri, Hemlata, Rabbunisha, Sakshi, Khushi, Prachi, Sunita, Suman, Shanno, Suneeta, Geeta and Lalita lead us through their struggles and transformative experiences as drivers-trainees of the ‘Women on Wheels’ programme by the Azad Foundation.

Once I got the opportunity to enrol for training, life took some major and beautiful turns. Here, I got a new perspective, new skills, new self-confidence and new friends. … Today I feel free, happy and empowered. All this has come my way due to the training I got from Azad. I learnt a lot there, especially self-defence techniques which gradually helped me overcome my fear. Now I can go anywhere, talk to anyone without any fear. My outlook on life has changed. I have come to know what a professional way of working is. I have realized the value of labour, income and rights. I take my own decisions regarding my life and profession. I do not look for someone to come to my help, neither do I care for anyone. I have acquired the skill of living life on my terms. – Prachi

Azad introduced me to my own strength. – Suman

The truth is that the fire within us was ignited by these trainings and turned into energy. Not everyone is lucky enough to have this kind of training and this kind of solidarity. – Rabbunisha

‘Women on Wheels’ was established in 2008. A collaborating institutional model which involves Azad Foundation, Jagori and Sakha Consulting Wings, the programme trains women across Delhi, Jaipur, Indore and Kolkata to become professional taxi and chauffeur drivers. Beyond that, it aims to provide women with mechanisms to gain control over their own lives. Including mediating and self-defence classes, legal advice and courses in financial literacy, ‘Women on Wheels’ has become an important project in offering resource-poor women a passage into a more sustainable livelihood in a rapidly modernizing urban space.

 

Training with Azad, I have learnt not only to drive a car but also to steer my life. – Work: The Essence of Life, by Sunita Thakur

People ask me why I chose this vocation. Earlier, I did not know what to say. I could not find a way out. Something had to be done to survive. If I had not taken up driving I would not have been able to stand on my feet so quickly, and my troubles would have continued. That is why I learnt this skill. It brings me money and respect. And above all I have earned a name; I have my own identity. We women usually derive our identities from our fathers or husbands, as if we do not have a name or existence. Now I am identified as a driver, Shanno driver, a capable human being, a single mother who dreams of moving far ahead, for myself and for my children. That’s me, Shanno.

Delving into their stories, we encounter the tales of mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and daughters-in-law, who struggle to find their identities among conflicting social roles and fight for their freedom to choice. We are reminded, while reading, of the courage it takes to grab the wheel with both hands and tentatively navigate along the bumpy road of change, where tires slowly grind the rocks laid in their way.

 

Please join us for the book launch of Lady Driver at the Oxford Bookstore; we would love to see you there!

Lady Driver event invitation (Hin)

On Topic: War and Pieces

It’s nearly time to bring out your boots as October marks the beginning of autumn, with a slight chance of war on the horizon. Delhi is in high alert as a result of alleged surgical strikes on terrorist camps conducted by the Indian army across the Line of Control, while Pakistan’s government and media continue to deny that these surgical strikes even occurred.

Surprisingly, Indian political parties and media outlets have been united on the issue, nearly unanimously taking pro military-action stances – so much so that it appears that the country is in favour of an impending war against Pakistan. Some voices of reason, thankfully, still exist: prominent South Asian women journalists as well as people from both nations have spoken out against an outright war.

The threat of war has taken up so much screen time that it’s easy to forget that something is still rotten in the state of Kashmir. Parts of Kashmir are still under curfew, and the Kashmir Reader was forced to stop publication for disturbing the 'public tranquility'Kashmiri journalists are protesting this #mediagag.

The unlawful arrest and the subsequent detention of the human rights defender Khurram Parvez of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) has raised many concerns on the human rights narrative in Kashmir.

 

Meanwhile at Central University in Haryana, two teachers – Snehsata and Manoj Kumar – put together a play on ‘Draupadi’, the iconic short story by Bengali writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, which portrayed the injustices faced by Adivasi women. The two teachers are now facing backlash from the ABVP, who protested the performance, claiming that the play insulted the Indian Army.

In the national capital, the Delhi police are branching out and attempting to set up a proper cyber crime unit to help solve cases faster. Earlier this year, over 150 personnel from police stations across the city received a week long training on cybercrime and currently the cyber cell team of Delhi Police has 40 personnels.

The #PinjraTod (‘Break The Cage’) movement escalates in Delhi as LSR women recently face repeated instances of sexual harassment outside college gates and paying guest accommodations. In response to complaints made by the students at hostels and paying guest accommodations, PG owners and landlords have, rather than increasing security, resorted to imposing restrictions on women.

This is no recent phenomenon but merely the continuation of a long-standing tradition of victim blaming. In fact the call of ‘Pinjra Tod’ began in 2015 by a student’s collective (under the same name). Pinjra Tod have organised several marches for safety of women and the right to public space, demanded accountability from concerned universities, as well as safe, affordable and non gender discriminatory accommodation for women. The campaign has received support and sympathy from those across the border despite the turbulent times of the current political scenario.

Meanwhile, issues of gender inequality concerning college campuses persist across the country and the world. College-going girls in Tamil Nadu face regressive college rules that pose a threat to their mental health and career, while many universities in the US still fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the issue of campus safety and gender based violence. Emma Watson, the UN Women Ambassador, addressed the issue in her speech at the UN.

Nearly 6 million women all over Poland gathered to protest the Polish government’s plans to ban abortion and succeeded, a huge relief for women everywhere because you should never have to apologise for getting an abortion.

On the other side of the planet, Japanese politicians are heading in the right direction with the Kyushu Yamaguchi Work Life Promotion Campaign, where male governors wear ‘pregnancy’ vests to simulate the experience of a woman in the seventh month of her pregnancy. The campaign hopes to encourage Japanese men to help out at home (Japanese women do five times the housework that their husbands do) and engage men in the equal pay conversation.

 

During the PBST festival, Uma Tanuku and Anupama Chandra released their documentary The Books We Made, which attempts to trace the legacy of Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon’s work in feminist publishing. You can watch the trailer here.

This month’s On Topic would not be complete without mentioning the much talked about film Pink. Despite its relatively optimistic ending and Amitabh Bachchan’s male saviour complex (which is hard to ignore), Pink does an excellent job of portraying the modern working woman and nails the message that ‘No means No’. However, as a review on The Wire has mentioned, the film does not explore all the nuances of consent and the fact that while “men have to learn to take No”, “women also have to learn to say No.”

Parched arrived in Indian theatres a week after Pink, and has a similar focus on women. Yet unlike Pink, which was a courtroom drama, Parched is a female buddy film (that is reminiscent of Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses) and received mixed reviews.

In spite of the progress made on the big screen, behind the scenes the film and television industry holds some ugly truths. Sonam Kapoor, in a rather candid essay, opens up about her experiences with body shaming and unrealistic beauty standards in the Bollywood industry.

Meanwhile, Tannishtha Chatterjee, the star of Parched, spoke out against her experience of bullying based on her dark skin on prime time television. The repeated jokes at the cost of her skin is very telling of the pervasive reality of class and caste discrimination and marginalisation. Not only are they ridiculed for their status, they are routinely ignored. Read this interesting piece of on the erasure of Dalit wisdom and this piece on what it means to be a Dalit woman.

 

In the world of books, the much coveted identity of the Italian author Elena Ferrante (pen name) has been outed by Claudio Gatti on New York Review of Books’ website. The disclosure of her identity has been cause for much discussion, her anonymity some argue is part and parcel of her artistic endeavours, and fans of the author fear she may never write again. As Dayna Tortorici writes in n+1: "It’s difficult to read a man’s attempt to “out” a writer who has said she would stop writing if she were ever identified as anything but an attempt to make her stop writing."

On Topic: Recent Reads for Indian Feminists

It's September, with the days of perpetual rain behind us, and we are back with a round-up of recent reads and feminist news:

In the wake of Mahmood Farooqui’s conviction for rape, the internet has been rife with conversation about the 2013 amendments to rape laws in the IPC. The piece on Kafila which started it all, written by J. Devika and Nivedita Menon, explains why the conviction is a landmark verdict in the history of rape cases in India. Both the case and the article have led to several responses including this one by Manisha Sethi, this article in The Bangalore Mirror, and this interview with Flavia Agnes by Natasha Bhardwaj. Manisha Sethi argues that the evidence was not clinching enough to prove an assault without reasonable doubt. Dushyant, in The Bangalore Mirror, goes on to place those who accept the verdict as lying on the extreme end of a spectrum, the other end of which is held by self-proclaimed Men’s Rights Activists. Flavia Agnes says in her interview that forced oral sex is different from brutal gang-rape. All of these pieces shake their textual heads sadly over the ‘harsh’ punishment faced by Farooqui, a talented and popular man. On the other side, Shyamolie Singh's response to the Flavia Agnes interview takes apart the arguments raised one by one, arguing that it shouldn’t be difficult to understand that a lack of consent forms the core of a sexual assault case regardless of the grade of violence inflicted.

On a related note, Brock Turner, the Stanford rape accused, is out after serving only half of his six-month sentence to continue the bright shiny future he was being kept from. For those who forget, Brock Turner was arrested after he was found raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster near a frat house on campus. He was given a minimal sentence by the judge (a Stanford alumnus himself) because of a lack of previous offences and his ‘potential-filled’ future. In response to the lenient sentence, California passed a bill requiring mandatory prison time for raping an unconscious person. Emily McCarty explains how mandatory minimums disproportionately affect minority communities, while this satirical essay in The Guardian compares the Stanford sexual assault case to a white privilege cake with vanilla frosting on top.

Indian ministers, as always, have found ways to decide what’s best for women — Indian as well as foreign. Rajnath Singh has said that because of ‘social realities’, the law will continue to protect sex within marriage even when the woman is below 18 years of age. Section 375 of the IPC says that sexual activity with a girl below 18 years of age counts as rape except in the case where a girl above 15 years of age is married to the man. The Union Minister for Tourism and Culture Mahesh Sharma has advised foreign tourists visiting India to not wear skirts or venture out late at night for their own safety because “Indian culture is different from Western [culture].” Last year he had also said that “night outs for girls were not a part of Indian culture” and that he would defend India from “encroachment by western culture.” Here’s a Sanitary Panels strip on this.

(As far as sartorial recommendations for women are concerned, there’s no lack of them even in the West from which Mahesh Sharma wants to defend Indian culture. The mayors of many coastal resort-towns in France imposed a ban on the burkini, a full body swimsuit worn by Muslim women. The country’s highest administrative court has since then lifted the restrictions, saying the ban cannot be justified as there is no risk of disruption to public order. Musab Younis in the LRB (London Review of Books) blog writes about the history of France’s obsession with what Muslim women wear and how it is about nothing more than racism, pure and simple.)

Some men in India have been more generous than others. The Bombay High Court allowed women access to the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah. This article in The Indian Express will answers all your questions about this move. In response to the court’s decision, some women started the ReadyToWait campaign to discourage the judiciary from meddling in their personal relationship with Ayyapa of Sabarimala temple in Kerala. The temple does not allow women between the ages of 10 and 50 access to the core where the idol is placed. According to these women, the law should not interfere with what is written in the shastras. Here’s a response by Priya Menon where she writes that those who are willing to wait should not stop others who are not.

Sushma Swaraj has joined the bandwagon of politicians ‘protecting’ Indian culture by saying, “We do not recognize live-in and homosexual relationships… this is against our ethos” while unveiling a draft law to ban commercial surrogacy. The surrogacy bill, approved by the cabinet to be introduced in Parliament, limits access to surrogacy to couples who have been married for five years at least. Also, only a close relative can offer to be a surrogate. The bill excludes single people, unmarried couples, and homosexual couples. Members of SAMA, a resource group for women and health, offer a detailed analysis of the bill. They highlight the need to pay attention to genuine issues regarding health and compensation faced by surrogate mothers rather than moral policing of parenthood.

Last Friday the radiologists of Indian Radiological Imaging Association (IRIA) went on strike to protest against the Pre-natal Diagnostic Technique Act, which criminalises sex determination of the foetus through ultrasound. Women’s Rights activists organised a press conference where they denounced the protest on the grounds of widespread female foeticide. The protests are supposedly in reaction to the recent conviction of doctors for illegal sex determination in Maharashtra and Haryana.

Coming back to the issue of institutionalised misogyny, St Aloysius college of Mangalore is trending online after an ex-student blogged about a new list of irrational rules outlining a code of behaviour for the female students of the college. The rules forbid interaction with the opposite sex but places the onus on girls. The rules were communicated to them in a closed-doors meeting only for female students. Girls are barred from re-arranging their hair in front of boys and from going outside the campus for lunch among a host of other things. Here’s a blog post by Rashmi Shetty, another alumna of the college, digging up memories of the rampant sexism faced by the female students. Despite severe criticisms on social media, the college administration has defended the new rules.

The best of intentions without proper understanding can sometimes do more harm than good. Chetan Bhagat’s new book is his self-proclaimed attempt at feminism. In an interview for Livemint he betrays his superficial understanding of the term and his lack of research. He goes on to say “it’s not such a complex issue also.” Shinjini Bose in her article for Scroll says:

[Bhagat] is implying that we should be so grateful that a best-selling author of his stature is giving “publicity” to the cause that we should go along with whatever shape he twists it into. Bhagat understands the influence he has as a writer, and seems to feel a sense of responsibility about his role in public conversations. It’s a pity that he chooses to ignore his own limitations and explain them away rather than deal with them in any thoughtful manner.


If you're in Delhi this month, come to the Zubaan Mela for excellent discounts on all of our amazing books! From the 24th of September to the 1st of October, 10 AM to 8 PM daily at our office - for more details, take a look at our event page.

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