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On Topic: The 2018 Review (January-April)

It's been a while since the last On Topic post, and a lot has happened. The #MeToo movement has spread to the world of literature, the Hindi film and music industries, university spaces, religious and cult figures, and, overseas, has resulted in the Time’s Up initiative, a means to provide legal recourse for victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood. Back home, the Kathua and Unnao rape cases shook the country, with protests being organised in multiple cities, and dialogue focussing on rape as a political tool of power, and State impunity. We review all of this (and more) beginning from the start of the year till April.

January began with many deliberating the future of the #MeToo movement (founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke after a conversation with a 13-year-old girl about the sexual violence she had experienced). In October 2017, the hashtag was picked up on Twitter, initially without knowledge of its origins, by the Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano who asked for survivors of sexual harassment or assault to reply to her tweet with '#MeToo'. From then, it became a global sensation with the movement’s slogan of “empowerment through empathy” extending from Hollywood to academic spaces, where a list of sexual predators in Indian academia was published by Raya Sarkar, a law student at University of California at Davis, creating a storm of debate within feminist circles in the country. Ever since Sarkar’s list, incidents of harassment have been reported, and heavily protested against, in university spaces. In March 2018 Atul Kumar Johri, a professor at the School of Life Sciences in Jawaharlal Nehru University, was accused of harassing eight female students who lodged an FIR against him. Johri denied the charges, arguing that the allegations emerged after he sent mails of compulsory attendance to these students who were not coming regularly to the department lab.

News reports on incidents of sexual assault against women have been pouring in, with some receiving a lot of public attention. The abduction, rape, and murder of an 8-year-old girl1 in a temple in Kathua, a district in Jammu and Kashmir, with the intention to threaten the Bakarwal community, a Muslim minority in a Hindu dominated Kathua region, brought up debates around rape as a political weapon. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when addressing the incidents, chose to flatten and depoliticise the narrative. The fact that this incident, which happened in January, only came to public eye in April reflected the communal tensions, initially ignored, which were at the heart of the incident. Also in April, the 18 year old woman who was raped by BJP MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar in his house in Unnao in 2017 (at which time she was a minor) tried to immolate herself, despairing at the lack of justice, in front of the UP’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s house. The two cases spurred protests all over the country over the State's support of the perpetrators and the consequent disinterest in meting out justice.

What counts as sexual harassment and assault is an issue that hovered over even the victims of the #MeToo movement, an example of which was observed in filmmaker Mahmood Farooqui’s case. Farooqui was convicted of rape and sentenced a seven-year jail term in August 2016. However, the Supreme Court, in January, rejected the Special Leave Petition (SLP) made by the victim and acquitted Farooqui, the reasons for which were that the accused and accuser were known to each other, and that the victim’s ‘feeble no’ might have meant a ‘yes’. Urvashi Butalia spoke to the victim, Christine Marrewa Karwoski2  about her struggles after the acquittal. In April, self-proclaimed godman Asaram Bapu was sentenced with life imprisonment till death by the Jodhpur Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe court for the rape of a 16-year-old Dalit girl. The other two accused received 20-year jail terms each.

The #MeToo movement brought out the rampant harassment in the world of literature too. Junot Diaz, a Pulitzer prize-winning author and creative writing professor at MIT, was recently accused of harassment by a community of women writers and has now been suspended from his position as a chairperson of the Pulitzer board. Diaz penned an article for the New Yorker, detailing his experience of sexual abuse as a child, days before the allegations against him made rounds. The Indian poetry community, in the wake of the movement and the list created by Sarkar, created a list of sexual predators in the community post allegations of harassment against Shamir Reuben, a renowned spoken word poet and head of content at Kommune, a Mumbai based arts collective.

The Time’s Up campaign, inspired by the #MeToo movement, and which marked the beginning of 2018, started as an initiative to provide a more concrete corollary to the social media movement. Hollywood actors like Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Emma Watson, and activists like Rosa Clemente, Calina Lawrence, and Saru Jayarama, who are all part of this campaign that provides legal recourse to victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood and blue-collar workplaces, wore black at the 75th Golden Globes Award this January as a way to spread awareness. Tarana Burke, who accompanied Michelle Williams at the award show, wrote during the same time about the consequences of a movement like #MeToo, and her concerns that the conversation generated shouldn't be limited to the hashtag, but also extend to what happens afterwards.

The usage of public platforms like the Golden Globes award function by the Time’s Up activists stands in contrast with Bollywood’s (non)treatment of the misogyny, sexism, nepotism, 'casting couch', or even the normalized ridiculing of gender identities through cross-dressing. The Malayalam film industry isn’t far off either, illustrated by the outrage received by the actress Parvathy for speaking about sexism in the industry.

Incidents of harassment and assault against women are glossed over not just through humour or non-addressal in Bollywood but also by invoking damaging images of 'honorable' women, like in the case of the film Padmaavat, who would choose (a 'heroic') death over the spectre of sexual assault by the Muslim 'other'. The portrayal of this necessarily evil Muslim 'other' and the invisibilisation of caste (where are the Dalit women?) rings synonymous with the present state's treatment of these issues and the vision it carries for the 'nation'. Contrasting with the protests around the ‘incorrect’ representation of an honourable Rajput woman that preceded the release of the film, was the February release of Marvel’s Black Panther, whose strong female cast of characters smashed mainstream (white) stereotypes of black female characters. The film's screenwriters were also accused of straight-washing the character of Okoye  played by Danai Gurira, who in an early clip from the film was seen flirting with a queer character, Ayo played by Florence Kasumba. It is not just women characters but the increasing number of female directors and screenwriters who are changing the way sci-fi and comics, so often mistakenly considered and written solely for male interest (and gaze), are written.

The year so far has been littered with the loss of iconic people across the world who, through their lives and work, contributed immensely to the conversations around feminism and gender. In February Bollywood lost one such actor, Sridevi, who was considered a feminist trailblazer and inspired many for the kind of roles she did, for leading films without male co-stars, and demanding equal pay at a time when it was rare in Indian cinema. Naomi Parker Fraley, the woman that inspired the iconic 1940s image of Rosie the Riveter (but who for most of her life wasn’t regarded as the icon’s original inspiration) died in January, aged 97. Rajni Tilak, a Dalit rights activist and leading feminist academic who published path-breaking books like Padchaap (Marching Steps) and Hawa si Bechain Yuvtiya (Restless Women), and who advocated for the inclusion of Dalit women’s work in literary canon, died on 30th March, aged 59.

In the wake of awareness generated by social media movements and metro city pride walks comes an incident of homophobia from Kolkata, where ten students in the 9th standard at Kamala Girls High School were made to sign a written admission for allegedly "indulging in homosexuality", in March. The L in the LGBTQIA+ community is often misrepresented through hyper-sexualization and stigmatised through incidents like the above, but the #LforLove photo project is trying to bust myths by documenting the daily lives of lesbian couples, presenting the many sides of each relationship. If you want to read more about the community and are wondering where to go, the Agents of Ishq have you covered with these excellent book recommendations. Or you could check out what some of us have been reading: Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, the Binti series by Nnedi Okorafor, Caliban and the Witch: Virtual Work in a Real World by Ursula Huws and Colin Leys, Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science... and The World by Rachel Swaby, or Women Contesting Culture: Changing Frames of Gender Politics in India by Paromita Chakravarti and Kavita Panjabi (eds). The Zubaan book club recommends Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women by Balli Kaur Jaswal.

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1. Section 23 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) law lays down the procedure for the media to report cases of sexual offences against child victims and Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) deals with disclosure of identity of victims of such offences. The penal law provides for jail term of two years with a fine. The identity of the victim of the Kathua rape case was disclosed by media houses despite the law because of their ignorance and misconception that they could name her because she was dead. The Delhi High Court directed the media houses found guilty to pay a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to the Jammu and Kashmir Victim Compensation Fund.

2. In the interview with Urvashi Butalia Christine Marrewa Karwoski reveals her decision to make her identity public because she feels she hasn't done any wrong or shameful and so hiding her name is not an option for her.

 

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.

ON TOPIC: Dalit Protests in Gujarat, Trans Rights, Irom Sharmila, and Kashmir

Here’s what we have been reading while being subjected to loud, off-key singing by the devotees of Lord Shiva from the temple next-door (Why? Because it is the holy month of saawan! If you are still unaware of this annual national phenomenon and are curious, read this before going further).

In India:

Recently, a Dalit couple was hacked to death because they owed a shopkeeper Rs. 15. A few weeks ago in Una, Gujarat four Dalit men were flogged, tied to an SUV and paraded for skinning a dead cow. Moreover, the flogging was filmed as a warning to other Dalits. In response, the Dalit community has been protesting in the state like never before. The Sunday before last (31st July), they gathered in large numbers in a rally in Sabarmati. This is a report on the event by Scroll, largely comprised of accounts on social media pf the lack of relevant reporting in the mainstream media. Anandiben Patel has stepped down as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Here is a list of issues compiled by The Hindu faced by the Gujarat government during her two-year term. Kancha Illaiah writes in the Indian Express about how a cow democracy has come to mean the oppression of Dalits. The underlying ideology of these violent atrocities, he argues, seems to be “skin for skin” punishing Dalits for their very occupation of skinning carcasses.

Meanwhile, two Dalit women have been appointed as priests in this Mangalore temple, and here is an article on how a Maharashtrian village in Beed forced the elected Sarpanch, a Dalit woman who speaks her own mind, out and installed a pliable proxy instead. This is often how upper caste men manipulate mandatory reservations for women and Scheduled Castes.

Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society has started the Blindspot campaign in an attempt to raise internationl awareness about the violation of human rights by the Indian state. The use of pellets by the Indian Army has caused injuries to the eyes of more than 300 people in aftermath of Burhan Wani’s funeral.

The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016 was tabled in the Lok Sabha last week. While it was touted as a bill seeking empowerment of one of the most marginalized communities in India, here is a list of pros and cons you should know about the bill.

Mamata Banerjee, tired of being the last one to speak during inter-state council meetings, has decided to correct the logical fallacy that has led us all to call a state in the east of the country ‘West Bengal’. Rajyasree Sen writes here on why this makes complete sense.

In other, less amusing news, the parliament recently passed the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Act. Vijaylaxmi Balakrishnan examines the connections this has with other recent political developments and why this leaves children above 14 (who can now be legally employed in family businesses) vulnerable by stripping them of the Right to Education. Another example of state-sanctioned apathy faced by marginalized children comes from Assam. The chairperson of the Assam State Commission for Protection of Child Rights is reportedly being pressurized to change her report on the status of 31 tribal girls taken by RSS affiliated organizations to Gujarat and Punjab.

Mahasweta Devi, the Bengali activist and writer, passed away at the age of 90. Urvashi Butalia remembers what discovering her works meant during the early years of the women’s movement in India here.

In Assam, the state with the highest maternal mortality ratio in the country, communities are coming together to prevent maternal health violations. Here is an article by Sarita Santoshini where she writes, ‘The High Court of Delhi expanded right-to-life provisions to include the right to safe motherhood and recognised maternal death as a human rights violation. This landmark decision was the first of its kind globally. However, India spends only 1.4% of its GDP on public health, and the policies under its National Health Mission (NHM), which entitles pregnant women living below the poverty line to several free benefits, are poorly implemented.’

Late in July Irom Sharmila announced that she will end her fast today (9th August). Ita Mehrotra gives us a glimpse of the activist’s sixteen year long struggle here. Mehrotra has also written about how her meeting with Irom Sharmila not only changed her ideas of nationhood but also impacted her daily work as an activist in her contribution The Poet,  Sharmila for Drawing The Line (Zubaan Books, 2015).

Mahmood Farooqui has been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment for sexually assaulting an American research scholar at his home in Delhi. Last week, journalist Rama Lakshmi, acquainted with Farooqui and a friend of the victim, penned a Facebook post (later published on the DailyO, here), powerfully describing the victim’s struggle. She also censured the hypocrisies of the circle of ‘progressive’ friends who tried to convince the victim to withdraw the complaint. This has now become the first case after the 2013 amendment, which recognised forced oral sex as rape, to result in a conviction for this crime.

Over at The Wire, Prem Shankar Jha writes about Arvind Kejriwal’s continuing tussle with the Modi government, as the latter seeks to ‘incapacitate the AAP government in Delhi ever since its humiliating defeat in Delhi in December 2014.’ Jha comments on the BJP government’s increasingly ‘scant respect for the law and the Constitution’, making a case for taking Kejriwal’s warnings seriously.

Two Indians are on the list of the six winners of the 2016 Magsaysay Award. Bezwada Wilson who has been fighting for the abolition of the practice of manual scavenging (here's an extensive interview with the activist) and Carnatic musician TM Krishna a non-conformist who seeks to democratize Carnatic music.

In the world:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump officially accepted their Presidential nominations at the DNC and the RNC respectively. Notable speeches include two speeches by Michelle Obama. First, her moving speech at the DNC about the greatness of America, where she, a black woman, wakes up in a house built by slaves. The second, her speech from the 2008 election which was plagiarized this year by Melania Trump. Read here Ms Magazine’s take on why the glass-ceiling-shattering by Hillary Clinton is not enough for women in politics.

(On a side note: If you’ve been feeling out of touch with your sense of wonder for the world, check out Bill Clinton discovering balloons.)

While the interminable list of gross things said by Donald Trump now includes this gem on workplace sexual harassment, here’s Barack Obama reminding everyone of his feminist dad status. Here’s a response to this brand of feminism which focuses on familial relationships as the reason for men to be feminists.

Peter Pomerantsev explores here the reasons we ended up in a ‘post-fact’ world where the truth no longer matters. In a world with a digital cascade of information everyone can feel justified to cherry-pick ‘their own truth’— no facts, only interpretations. Perhaps this is how Donald Trump wins the presidential candidacy (even though 78% of the things he says are untrue) and Britain leaves the EU (because of a factually incorrect campaign run on the side of a bus later dismissed as a ‘mistake’).

Iran has put job tests on hold while investigations are carried out on the gender discriminatory vacancies for government jobs.

Nayyeema Ismat writes a genuine account of her frustrating experience of being queer in Pakistan. With the lack of a uniquely local LGBTQ narrative she finds herself shuttling between defending her Sunni Muslim spaces from the orientalising gaze of western feminists, and then using their language to explain female empowerment to her family.


In Culture:

Agents of Ishq conducted the Great Indian Penis Survey in an attempt to start a conversation about men and their very personal relationship with their penises. Here are the results of this first-of-its-kind, extremely non-heteronormative survey, presented in a very witty report.

Finally, if you have plans for a movie we would recommend that you skip Suicide Squad. Here’s a compilation of reviews for the movie. Apparently, ‘the film’s biggest laugh comes at the expense of Batman punching Harley Quinn’s face.’ You can definitely watch Ghostbusters though. As this review says, ‘There’s a thrill in seeing an action-movie team made up not only of women, but of women who fall blissfully outside the narrow definition of the Hollywood hottie.’

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