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On Topic: The August Review

From protests by Anganwadi workers in Delhi over low wages, conversations around the draft surrogacy bill, celebrating #WomeninTranslation Month to PV Sindhu’s success at the 2017 BWF Championships, On Topic reviews major events and conversations around gender and women in India in August.

Activism and Advocacy

- August saw the continuation of protests by the Delhi State Anganwadi Workers and Helpers Union (DSAWHU) over demands of a pay hike and the implementation of an agreement which was signed between the workers and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal in July 2015 but has not yet been put into action. Surprisingly the incredible show of strength of thousands of workers drew little visibility. In Delhi alone, the union is a collective of twenty-two thousand women; growing numbers of women participating in the dharna led to the closure of increasing numbers of Anganwadi centres. The union called off the protest after fifty two days when a Gazette notification on the increase in honorarium was issued. Though they have achieved a victory, it is important to critically examine the government's stance that these workers are ‘voluntary’ workers and therefore they are paid only an honorarium, considering that they perform some of the most important services at the frontline level.

- The Supreme Court in its landmark verdict on 22nd August ruled that the practice of triple talaq is void and illegal, with the five-judge bench setting aside triple talaq by a 3-2 majority.  It has been a long haul for the campaigners: since it was first set up in 2007, the Muslim women’s rights group Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) have been fighting to get rid of triple talaq. Unfortunately, a close reading of the ruling reveals that the court has missed a historic opportunity to render an informed, clearly reasoned and potentially landmark decision on women’s rights. Instead, the 395-page rambling and unwieldy decision offers little sound jurisprudential grounds to advance women’s rights, and women remain framed within a protectionist discourse to be recuperated through male or state protection. The onus is now on Parliament to format a bill and see to it that a law comes into effect. The next six sessions of Parliament before the country goes in for the next General Election are ones to watch and pressure the government into acting in favour of gender equality.

- Students of Hindu College, University of Delhi organized a series of protests at the college's administrative block for over two weeks in August against the discriminatory hostel fees for the girls’ hostel, which was constructed 117 years after the college was founded. The matter was taken up by Pinjra Tod, an autonomous women’s movement operating at the university, who intimated the matter to the Delhi Commission for Women, which later summoned the principal and asked the college to address the discriminatory nature of regulations and fee structure that was made binding on women. A report from 29th August indicates that the University Grants Commission (UGC) has told the Delhi Commission for Women that Hindu College authorities have to resolve on their own the issue of charging of higher fee at the girls’ hostel.

Employment and Livelihood

- The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), a think tank, observed that in the first four months of 2017, while jobs for men in India increased by 0.9 million, 2.4 million women fell off the employment map. The trend for this year points to a continuing story of Indian women increasingly clocking out of the workplace. The logical link that education should lead to jobs is broken in India. Ongoing research suggests a complex web of constraints that keep women away from the workplace with the chief among these is the issue of women’s agency. Social norms about appropriate behaviour for women and the enforcement of these norms by parents, in-laws and husbands dictates their ability to seek employment.

Google’s Internet Saathi programme, in partnership with Tata Trust, has been present in over 100,000 Indian villages with the aim to help rural women go online. The programme will now be rolled out in Bihar and Haryana. Google’s own research has also shown that women who were exposed to the programme have seen improvements to their socio-economic conditions, compared to villages where the Internet Saathi programme was not launched. Sapna Chadha, the marketing head, in a previous interview clarified that it is Google's mission to reduce India' s digital gender gap, which is one of the worst digital gender gaps anywhere in the world—this in a country with the second largest internet population.

Gender, Sexuality and Reproductive Rights

- Calling the draft surrogacy bill ‘narrow’, the parliamentary committee has recommended allowing live-in couples, divorced women and widows to use surrogates, adding that a surrogate should not have to belong to the parent’s family. The original bill wanted to do away with commercial surrogacy and instead base it on ‘altruism’, with the surrogate having to be a close relative of the married couple in question. The committee has said in its report that this cannot work in a patriarchal structure. The surrogate is likely to be coerced and will get nothing out of this arrangement, while everyone else will benefit, reinforcing the idea that a woman’s body is not her own. However, the compensated surrogacy model offered as an alternative by the committee is not without problems. The report describes this compensation as the “the lost wages for the duration of pregnancy, medical screening and psychological counselling of surrogate; child care support or psychological counselling for surrogate mother’s own child/ children, dietary supplements and medication, maternity clothing and post delivery care”. Considering that surrogate mothers are mostly from socio-economically marginalised communities and are part of the informal labour force, the calculation of compensation based on loss of wages does not assure fair conditions of employment.

- This August, the Supreme Court ruled that Indians have a constitutional right to privacy, a verdict that could have wide-reaching implications on broader civil rights issues, including homosexuality. At least three of the five separate but concurring judgments that made up the Supreme Court’s privacy ruling—the four-judge judgment authored by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud on behalf of the Chief Justice, Justice R.K. Agarwal, himself and Justice Nazeer, and the judgment of Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul—explicitly tackled the implications of privacy as a fundamental right on Section 377, or the sexual orientation of a citizen. In dealing with the legal definition of ‘privacy’, it also delved rather extensively into how a flawed interpretation was applied to the Naz Foundation case in 2013. The Supreme Court in no uncertain words said: “The rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population cannot be construed as ‘so called’ rights. The expression ‘so called’ seems to suggest that the exercise of a liberty in the garb of a right that is illusory. This is an inappropriate construction of the privacy based on the claims of the LGBT population.”

The Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) held a national convention in August to discuss the significance and contributions of Women’s Studies centres over the last three decades and talk about how the attempts to dilute these centres could be stopped. This convention was prompted by a UGC notice expressing uncertainty about continued funding for 163 women’s studies centres and schools across the country. In 2003, there was an attempt to rename the centres in different universities as women and family studies centres which would have moved focus away from that of gender equality and the questioning of patriarchal gender roles. However, since the convention, in a recent PTI report, the UGC secretary stated that "There is no such proposal to cut or stop support to women study centres being funded by the UGC.”

Documentaries, Literature and Paintings

- Launched in 2014, the observation of August as Women in Translation Month or #WITMonth in online literary spaces is a response to the lesser attention received by works by women in translation. In 2016, The Guardian reported that only 26% of English translations in the US-UK market are female-authored books. Last year, we published a list of some of Zubaan’s translated books on our blog. This year we decided to go a bit further by highlighting some of the novels, short stories and memoirs recently translated from Indian languages to English, across publishers. We hope you find your next book to read from this list!

- Print and TV journalist Nupur Basu’s 2017 documentary Velvet Revolution produced by the International Association for Women in Radio and Television is a moving depiction of female journalists in conflict and war zones. The documentary goes beyond factual data and percentages to understand what ails and helps these journalists’ progress on the field through interviews with female journalists across geographies. After a recent screening, in a conversation with The Hindu, Nupur Basu detailed the different ways conflict plays out for a female journalist, from having to use spouses as unpaid male bodyguards, being trolled, caste discrimination to being attacked.

- Indian-origin UK artist Kanwal Dhaliwal has created a series of paintings in oils and acrylics, titled 'The Partition' to show the suffering of women who were victims of the Partition. Dhaliwal, who taught art at a school in Chamba for seven years before moving to the UK, says that his works have been influenced by the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ishtiaq Ahmed. Some of the paintings from this collection can be viewed here.

Sports

- In what was the longest match of the Badminton World Championships, which lasted for 110 minutes, PV Sindhu faced Japan’s Nozomi Okuhura to bag the silver medal. It is a historic occasion since for the first time India bags two medals at the championship with Saina Nehwal winning a bronze medal after losing her semifinal.

-Of the seventeen Arjuna Awards given this year, only five have been conferred on female sportspersons: Jyothi Surekha Vennam for archery, Khushbir Kaur for athletics, Prashanthi Singh for basketball, Harmanpreet Kaur for cricket and Oinam Bembem Devi for football. The award, however, has not been without controversies over the years, from Milkha Singh turning down a belated Arjuna Award for lifetime contribution,  to the controversial point system adopted in 2002 that was later dropped, and to Bobby Aloysius quitting after she was rejected thrice despite her sporting credentials. This year too, despite them being the federation and Tamil Nadu government’s official entry for the award, the Arjuna Award evades basketball player Anitha Pauldurai yet again. Vidya Pillai, a snooker player who has won numerous national and international titles is yet to win an Arjuna Award despite having filed applications for five years now.

August at Zubaan

Our e-Essays project has been making individual essays available in e-formats for a reasonable fee. This month, we released collections curated to the themes of religion & conflict, state crimes & impunity, and legislation.

Translations and bibliodiversity have been talked about much this last month, with LiveMint featuring a conversation between six publishing 'thought leaders' (including head-Zubaani Urvashi) on "the Indian translation story."

#ThrowbackThursdays on our blog this month brought back a 2015 title, our first graphic anthology of stories: Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back. We also have back in print this month: Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora? (Batool et al, 2016), Dear Mrs. Naidu (Mathangi Subramanian, 2015), Tales in Colour (Kunzang Choden, 2009).

Our monthly feminist book club will next be discussing Issa Rae's web-series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl on 17 September, 11 AM. If you’d like to join, shoot us  an email (contact@zubaanbooks.com).

That’s it for August, but On Topic will be back next month with more conversations, news and stories!

On Topic: literary fests, India's racism, Pinjra Tod and public apologies

News from home:

The controversy surrounding Vedanta’s sponsorship of the London edition of the Jaipur Literary Festival continues; the primary issue being the funding of a literary space (considered by many to be a free space) by a mining conglomerate with a chequered human rights record. Here is an open letter signed by writers, academics and others addressed to the speakers - to reconsider their participation and even consider a boycott. Several writers have expressed their reasons for participating in the event, despite knowledge of the sponsor, as have other public intellectuals who have emphasized the necessity to make visible the transgressions of Vedanta through a boycott, and to interrogate the public legitimacy the company has gained by sponsoring, endowing literary and cultural festivals.

Recently Masonda Ketada Olivier, a French tutor from Congo, was beaten to death in the capital, in what was obviously a racist attack. In a similar instance of violence in February, a Tanzanian girl was beaten, stripped and paraded naked by a mob in Bangalore. African envoys condemned these acts of racism and xenophobia by boycotting their participation in the government-organized Africa Day celebrations, as documented in this report. But they have taken back their objections after the Indian government was forced to do some damage control. Also, from the archives Joshua Muyiwa, a Nigerian-Indian journalist writes on experiencing racism in Bangalore.

Here is V Geetha’s response to Jayalalithaa’s victory in the recent assembly elections in Tamil Nadu:

Jayalalithaa’s victory is not as conclusive as it might appear. She has perfected a style of populism that is fundamentally cynical — and relies on what might win favour both in a political and “moral” sense. The cynicism is apparent in the much praised PDS handouts. The quality of the rice that is given free is invariably poor, there is a dearth of goods, especially cooking fuel, pulses, and it is never quite clear whether these are unavailable or have been diverted into the shadow economy. It is also evident in the freebies, which are procured at unbelievably low prices and are sold and resold by the recipients — the charmed circle of the party faithful affords an efficient patron-client setup that manages these transactions.

The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of criminal defamation in a recent ruling. Gautam Bhatia in his incisive response writes about why this sets a dangerous legal precedent for freedom of speech. Here is an excerpt:

In general, criminal defamation is disproportionate because it uses the criminal law to prosecute a wrong that is purely private in nature. A private wrong is one that is purely between the offender and her victim, and has no implications for the society at large. For example, if I fail to control my dog, and it bites you, then you may sue me for compensation in a civil court. Society, the state, and the criminal law have nothing to do with it. However, if I murder a person, then it is not just about one individual taking the life of another, but has ramifications for public peace, order and security. This is why murder is a criminal offence, involves a term in jail, and is prosecuted by the state.

 This article provides a feminist reading of the ruling, and looks at how criminalizing defamation would adversely impact women who want to speak up about sexual violence and harassment.

As a follow-up to Jisha’s story, here is an insightful commentary by J Devika about how the welfarist policies in Kerala have failed its marginal citizens. She writes of how the social exclusion faced by marginal subjects— lower caste, Dalit women, and the urban poor—is not assuaged by education or employment.

Finally, there's good news for the activists and supporters of the Pinjra Tod, a student activist group that has been contesting discriminatory rules faced by women in hostel accommodations provided by Delhi colleges. The Delhi commission for Women (DCW) has sent a notice to 23 registered universities in Delhi asking them to explain restrictions on mobility of female students. Members of Pinjra Tod react to the notice in this interview  on The Ladies Finger.

Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology in the Canadian parliament for the Komagata Maru incident that took place in 1914. Komagata Maru, a Japanese steamship carrying mostly Sikh immigrants was turned away from Canadian shores in 1914, due to fears of an impending “Hindu invasion”. Pramod Nayar, in this excellent article , looks at similar instances in the past, and delves into the ethics of formal, public apology, which is often used as a means to assuage collective guilt.

Revelation and recognition, therefore, are clearly the first stages in the offering of a public apology, as David Boyd has proposed. What is revealed, however, is what is already part of the historical record. But it is the admission of wrong-doing or culpability that characterises this particular revelation within the framework of the public apology. The country recognises its culpability in the act/event. However, we also recognise that such an admission must be read only as an admission of regret and not as either justification or defence. The public apology cannot, then, ever be offered in the sense of justifications or defence: it is assumed that a nation apologises because its actions which may have been justified or defensible then, are not so now. This is an interesting conundrum because a nation’s actions, which might be necessary or justified at their historical moment in that nation’s political views, may have to be apologised for at some point in the future. The public apology is therefore a communicative act that stretches from past to the future.

 

Meanwhile, away from home:

A saddening report on the death of a Pakistani transgender activist, caused by delay in treatment after being shot multiple times.

Elena Ferrante, probably the most famous and critically acclaimed of contemporary writers speaks about the Neapolitan quartet in this email interview with Nicola Lagioia, featured in The New Yorker. The entire correspondence will be published in Ferrante’s forthcoming book. And Elena Ferrante’s real identity remains a secret, still. Here is an except:

One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.

The word 'Dalit' will remain in Californian school textbooks, as will the history of caste discrimination, as per a recent verdict. This report provides us with a trajectory of the debate, and also tells us about what is at stake in these troubling efforts to whitewash certain unpalatable truths about India’s history. Here's a piece on why the verdict is a victory.

Thomas Pogge, a philosophy professor at Yale stands accused of sexually harassing a former student. Read this Buzzfeed essay on the ongoing investigation into Pogge’s behaviour.

 

Here’s news that should cheer you up:

This is a gem of a conversation among three leading Indian women poets, Meena Alexander, Priya Sarukkai Chabria (who has been published by Zubaan) and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Ranjani Pandit has a singular vocation— that of catching unfaithful partners. In this piece she writes about her experience as a private eye, and being called a ‘love detective’.

 

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