Life as a Petite Feminist

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by Hiya Harinandini

I can’t be the loudest voice in the room. I can’t boldly go where no woman has gone before. Doesn’t mean my feminist warrior spirit is any less bright than yours.

There was a time, ten years ago, when I used to sign off letters with “Yours, Tiny”; I also believed that you needed to be bigger (bigger than I was, certainly), to be taken seriously. Looking back now, the former feels like an infantile invite for protection and the latter, a loathsome lack of self-acceptance. Even over time, self-love is not a smooth sail and to add to that the raging societal opinion of the petite deserving protection before rights. For too long, I’ve constantly felt elbowed out on walks with groups of taller people (very literally) and it is only recently that I discovered what a metaphorical extension that phenomenon can be for “adorable and tiny” feminists like me who can’t be warriors, can’t be the loudest voice in the room and can’t be expected to find their way back home. As college swirls past and my politics of feminism becomes blurrier by the minute, most casual encounters end with offence taken, kept for a good while, and painfully discarded only when I realise that the promptness to dismiss my abilities is not underscored by any mean intention but only a hyperprotectionism that is sadly AND practically attached to appearance.  

A little less than a year ago, I was involved in month-long protest demonstrations for the Hindu College Girls’ Hostel. The hostel had been under the scanner because of unfair and sexist set of rules of admission and stay—a strictly policed curfew, an insensitive fee structure and a shady procedure of admission—to name a few. Once, after a whole day of the absolute callousness of the authorities to our demands, we had decided to spend the night in college post lockdown. It was going to be as an act of solidarity and resilience. There were roughly 20 of us—exhausted, angry but still singing. I remember being propped against a pillar, chaos all around me, because it was time to arrange for food. Just after I had confirmed that I was eating, a guy from the boys’ hostel who had been present day-long in the foyer area where we had staged the demonstration, placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder and remarked with what looked like guileless sympathy, “Please get her something to eat yaar, how has she even managed to stay on so far?”  

I don’t remember being surprised at all. And I remember feeling horrible that I don’t anymore. Speaking from experience, I know how often even those who honestly consider themselves allies will spout casually problematic statements, in the ignorant belief that these pronouncements are legitimately and genuinely on the other side of the offensive spectrum. My girlfriends, for instance, have pointedly talked about how I survived a whole day on the streets all by myself just because I’m petite and “look” like I can “get lost”. This, while making their feminist stance palpable in more explicitly demanding settings such as consuming contraband and not flinching as I do the same—but only in a safe space, with them. The inconsistencies of the movement, then, become glaring. And it gets tiring to confront every day. I have been asked on multiple occasions at multiple airports if I am travelling alone. Reactions to that are usually either a nod acknowledging extraordinary daring or a gentle gasp of concern. I always see it coming. These are strangers who conventionally attach muscular potential to vitality of existence. So, the fact that I don’t know them well enough to spot loopholes in their ideological demeanour makes things simpler and to an inevitable degree, acceptable. What stings is when feminist allies decide to selectively acknowledge agency and practically undermine ideals that they would shed blood for on paper. But maybe this is my reckless, killjoy feminist alter-ego talking. Maybe the fact that I have one in the first place suffices to say how conflicted I feel in the face of good intention politely barring my claim to public space. To know for a fact that a woman of my physique and being can be relatively ‘more unsafe’ in a lonely alleyway than say, a well-built woman, is of practical value and important to consider. I struggle, then, to distinguish casual body-shaming about my petiteness and its perceived restrictions, from well-intentioned but forbidding and disempowering advice that I need to accept beyond its moralising exterior.

Maybe it’s time we expanded the scope of what we consider a feminist perspective. Inconsistencies in the movement can be products of ignorance (inevitable or impermeable), or an easily misleading caution of the dangers which lurk on every street past midnight that we vow to reclaim. In the first case, silence is not acceptable and problems need to be tackled out loud, win or lose a few friends. In the case of the latter though, it’s a struggle every day, much like the one that presents itself at every juncture when textbook feminist theory demands application in real life. I don’t think we have yet reconciled the two equally relevant ideas of claiming safety and space at once. And I am not sure we will, anytime soon. But what we must live by, wholeheartedly, is our right to both, petite or not.

 

 

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Imran Khan & Women's Rights in Pakistan

 Image courtesy: Twitter.com

Image courtesy: Twitter.com

“I can’t believe there’s Indian liberals on the Internet celebrating the victory of Imran Khan in the Pakistan elections,” read a friend’s Facebook post. As a member of the Congress, he proceeded to talk about his politics, the politics of the BJP, etc. Our reasons for dampening the celebrations are more feministic.

by Tara* Kaushal & Hiya Harinandini

Dear well-intentioned liberals: if you think the suave, Jemima-Goldsmith-marrying playboy cricketer must surely be People Like Us, and he will surely bring some of his personal values to Pakistani politics, here’s a newsflash. He’s not the man you thought he was in the ’90. And the politics of his party reflect his current ultra-conservative avatar. 'He’ll improve women’s rights in Pakistan.' Er, no he won’t.

In Politics, the Personal is Professional

If the recently released book by his ex-wife, British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan is to be believed, Imran Khan has lived a life full of “sex, drugs and alcohol”, and has several illegitimate children. (He also believes in black magic, but that’s besides the point we’re making.)

This is in stark contrast with the ‘sadiq and amin’ (honest and righteous) image he has now donned in the Pakistani media, which can mean one of two things. One, that he is a closet liberal, conducting his life and sexual liaisons in a free love, Western way. Or that he is really a good ol’ conservative man, on whom patriarchy bestows the rights to rights and rebellion, as well as to hypocrisy—to have a white wife, to sow his wild oats, to have three wives, to perpetrate domestic abuse—that he has exercised. With his recent jibe at Western feminism, we struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt and are inclined to believe the latter.

“Feminism degrades motherhood”

In an explosive interview to Hum News (Pakistan) in June, Khan denounced feminism and painted a problematic picture of his idea of motherhood in one swell swoop.

 “A mother has (the) biggest influence on a person... a real mother, that is. I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement... it has degraded the role of a mother... when I was growing up, my mother had the most impact on me.”

Considering its not Imran Khan’s first utterly complacent and grossly ignorant take on anything factual or ideological, anger seems a little worn out to pursue. While he triumphed as the mouthpiece of the conservative lot with this comment, he is no different than others who have a patriarchal misunderstanding of what feminism stands for, that it is anti-motherhood.

Let’s first explore the outrageous things Western feminism says about motherhood, things that could have pissed off a conservative. Most important would be the feminist assertion that a woman’s identity doesn’t just lie in rearing a body other than her own. She’s also a person in her own right. Feminism has challenged notions of traditional motherhood because it has fought for the choice of motherhood. Perhaps it is the recognition of paid maternity leave. Or, maybe, it is the longstanding battle for legal relaxations and financial compensation for new and single mothers. Maybe it’s because feminists fight for the recognition of the woman’s unpaid labour at home as much as a man’s labour in a public space.

 Image by Missfitcomics

Image by Missfitcomics

Are these the reasons that have prompted Khan to state that some feminist movements have degraded motherhood? Perhaps. It does seem utterly ridiculous that women be given rights to their own lives. The pitting of feminists and mothers is an inherently patriarchal act and misses multiple nuances of feminism and its development.

Further, he asserted that teaching the children in their mother tongue is the mother’s job, “especially if she is a good mother”—making it very clear what he considers ‘right mothering’ while simultaneously absolving men of the responsibility toward their children. A feminist thought of motherhood is the understanding that the role of the mother—as it has been traditionally described—is a societal conditioning. What is the job of a ‘good mother’? And what about ‘good’ fathers? Oh wait, they do not exist in Khan’s limited worldview. A ‘good’ mother, then, is whatever a man such as Khan wants her to be, which includes the martyrdom of not demanding anything from the father. Because, god forbid, a mother think of herself as an individual first and then responsible for her offspring. Agency and identity are Western feminist concepts, after all. They poison the beatific, self-sacrificing Eastern mother’s instincts to put herself last.

Journalist and author of the blog, ‘The Married Feminist’, Kiran Manral’s take on the issue is two-pronged, “To begin with, I think we’ve put motherhood on a pedestal for too long. Point is, motherhood is sold to us as a package, which demands to be glorified, like any underpaid job. I believe that in this pursuit, the realities of motherhood shouldn’t be undermined by all the excessively rosy, sloppy morality that we smudge all over it. Having said that, the feminist movement is about equality among genders and embraces fluidity of agency and thought. In this scenario, declaring the institutions of motherhood and Western feminism as unpalatable is rather unfair on the part of Khan. Motherhood is not seen as a liability by the movement but as an empowering choice, as much as the choice of women to employment, marriage, property, etc. It recognises women as the sole agents of their own reproduction and is inconsistent with the patriarchal notion which deems the woman as simply a baby-making machine.”

Wannabe PM of an Islamist State

That Khan has promised to make Pakistan an Islamic state—that has, in the past meant heightened restrictions on women and a poor women’s rights track record—is also cause for concern. In the CNN article ‘An Imran Khan victory would bode poorly for Pakistani women’, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria asserts: “If Khan keeps his pro-military stance and wants to appease the militants within the country, his Pakistan will not be a progressive country committed to gender equality. Religious hardliners in Pakistan have, in the past, opposed legislation that criminalises domestic violence, saying that would ‘Westernise’ society. They are unlikely to change this stance.”

The enforcement of “authentically Islamic and doggedly anti-Western law…. will destroy the legal and political progress Pakistani women have made in recent years. When women’s progress is seen as a Western concept, the result is unending suffering and retrogression for all Pakistani women who want to move toward gender equality.”

Is there hope? Perhaps, if Khan chooses to sideline religious hardliners and panders instead to those seeking a more progressive Pakistan with women’s rights at par with international standards. We must wait and watch. Until then, though, as liberals, as feminists, Imran Khan’s victory is not cause for celebration. Please, think before you tweet.

 

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College timetable: Monday To Friday and my diet routine

by Megha Rao

i know the rumours about that boy and me, she says.
when his mouth wasn’t praying
it was all over me.
on monday i tell my professor
that boy touched me
and he spits, i know girls like you
you hate men so much you’ll say anything to get them in trouble
you’ll even say they raped you
‘cock tease. jail bait. feminist.’
and i whimper, you’re wrong
he did touch me and he
asks, where
and i tell him
asks, how?
and i tell him
and he licks his lips and
plunges his hand under my skirt
and says, ‘let’s do the two finger test’
and i run from the office room
'liar liar pants on fire
take them off before your
legs catch fire…’ 
and the next day i hear him joke about my other classmate
'she wears mulla flowers in her hair and braids it with coconut oil you wouldn’t tell she wears enamor double padded bras underneath her jaded clothes’
and he winks at me and i feel so sick i skip lunch that day because i want his head on a plate.
on wednesday
two boys slide up to me in history of english class and one of them pats my thigh and
the other one says
'you’re an ambitious bitch, which lecturer did you sleep with to get good grades?’ and i suddenly remember this story
my mother told about our neighbour rati
who ate her son because
she was ashamed of giving birth to him
so she cooked him for supper
when her husband was out
with his mistress
and when he came back she told him, 'i’d like it if you brought
something to the table
apart from your lewd comments’
and they never found him again
i hope he got what he deserved;
and they say there are only two ways to burn,
one in bed
and one in hell.
and there’s this man hovering outside the college gate just as i leave and when he sees me
his jaw is on the floor
and i can clean the ground with it and
i can smell from under his fingernails all the women he’s touched and he tells me 'i’d leave my wife for pussy like you’
we have barbecue that night and i don’t tell my mother how hungry i am
but i want to roast his balls and feed them to my dog.
the next day we have a debate on open defacation and on our way back home there’s a man pretending to piss near the wall but he’s actually just standing there and jerking off to us and he’s hissing at us
'harami,’ he says and pulls his zipper up and i try to tell my friend it’s not our fault that he wants us
but she goes back home shaken and her mother says, 'it’s that girl you hang out with, she needs to stop wearing skinny jeans’ 
and the week is almost over and it’s friday night and
i’m sitting inside my room
doing my homework
when my brother walks in and asks me to come for dinner
i don’t have an appetite for any more bullshit
but i get up anyway and he looks at me
and all he says is, 'is that a new shirt? you look good in it’
and i watch him suspiciously as he makes his way towards the dining room
and i wonder what he means by that
and then i realize he was just being nice
and i feel a little guilty
and by the time he comes back to call me for dinner again
it doesn’t matter anymore,
i’m on the floor
like spilt milk
and
i’m crying.

 Illustration by Maria Uve

Illustration by Maria Uve

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Anushka Sharma vs The Audacious Arhhan Singh

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On the ethics of littering, public filming, and social responsibility

by Shachi Mokashi

With the advent of personal devices and increased accessibility to social media platforms, the lines between the public and private realms are steadily disappearing. The confrontation—later evolving into a dispute—between the actress, Anushka Sharma, and the part-time actor and litterbug, Arhhan Singh, was splattered across different social media platforms after Sharma’s husband, Virat Kohli, posted a video of the confrontation on Twitter. The video features Anushka Sharma scolding Arhhan Singh for littering. Singh had an interesting response to Sharma’s confrontation: sending the couple a legal notice for defamation. He also clarified on Facebook: while he was “apologetic for [his] carelessness”, the garbage he threw out of his car window was “way less [than] the garbage that came out from your mouth... From ur luxury car's window... Or the trashy mind Virat Kohli to shoot [and] post this online”. It is difficult to ascertain Mr Singh’s legal case—is he serving a notice for impoliteness or for the display of the confrontation on social media? The public realm defines itself as a space and place where action and speech are public; thus, accessible to be perceived and judged by those present in such a realm. Therefore, what is the credibility of such a legal claim?

Singh seems to be interested in contesting the act of filming rather than defending his act of littering. Untangling the legalities of public photography and filming in India is a daunting task. While there is no explicit law stating the public filming is illegal; we can assume that the act of public filming can be legally contested if it endangers an individual and the individual is willing to prove so. Although it seems counter-intuitive, discussing the legalities of public filming take us away from this very particular incident which unraveled due to a highly unique set of circumstances (the celebrity status of some people involved, the uploading of the video and its subsequent virality). We can and should be able to agree that Mr Singh’s act of littering was in the wrong and in the public; an act negatively affecting his immediate surroundings and thus, susceptible to others’ judgment and possible repercussions.

Sharma’s act of immediate, unabashed confrontation is something that we must look up to. How many of us are able to use our words and courage to not only recognise a wrongdoing, but also, to articulate why such an act harms the people affected by it? If we are not able to work up the courage to point out such an act; how are we to stand against the much more repugnant and heinous injustices our society faces? Kohli’s post went viral due to his fan following, Sharma’s particular involvement, and Singh’s rebuttal (to name a few reasons). Kohli and Sharma’s privilege is repeatedly emphasised by the critics of their actions; that, this was a stunt and an easy act for them to do. While these arguments quickly slip into ad hominems and character attacks, we must attempt to revive and bring forward the question: was the posting of this video a cautionary note or an act of self-gratification of Sharma and Kohli’s part? Is Sharma’s responsibility to the cause of environmentalism and sustainability over now that she has acted this way? This is not something we must ask only of them. This is a question we must ask ourselves every time we are overcome with passion for a cause. How far are we willing to go? It is absolutely important to confront an injustice and the perpetrator; but, it is far more important to remind ourselves that voicing opinions is only the first step to taking a stand for a cause.

 

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The Red Bus

by Aekta Khubchandani


The red bus makes a stop
at one particular street.
It chooses its corner
like striking dates off a paper calendar.
It settles like oil on water,
it’s darker and thicker
but it races down like a fat rat
who ogles and gobbles a cube of cheese
thinking that this is his piece of meat
until he realises that this is a metal trap.

The red bus is like that metal trap,
it’s like that geometry box
where the protractor glides and slides
over the scale and compass.
Such a mess
of all organs at different angles.
And the noise it makes,
God! Shush…
But others can’t hear a thing
it’s all happening within.

It takes a 30 day tour
and then rushes and breaks
and stops and haunts and flows through all my body organs
tasting like stems of roses in my mouth.
A thicket of wild thorns
sounding like piercing horns.
Well, for some of us
this is as real
as real as reality can get.

When I found the red bus
between the pleats of my skirt
racing from my thighs
and sprouting from my insides,
I was in school.
I had forgotten the history of my existence,
the geography of my body was disfigured,
the mathematical conclusion to how long I’d live
was a big question.
I felt like I had committed an unknown sin
This was a grave situation
I saw my coffin open in broad daylight
in the form of a… hospital bed.
No one told me that this was normal.
The blood oozed out
like worms of my tummy dancing
to the demons under my bed.

This red bus stops at the signal
being loyal to push pain,
makes my body drag and drain.
It feels like 75% of the water of my body
got stained and contaminated.
Toxic, I feel anorexic.

I thought growing of organs
in pounds of flesh would make a girl a woman.
But this red bus pierced its flag
on my body like nails through the flesh of my skin.
And today, I’m still a victim.
And I say this as reflecting words of society
on the naked skin of my body.
The comments in school,
and the ones on street;
no one told me that this was normal.
And in the web of words:
I almost forgot what it meant to
be just human.

 

Menstrual Hygiene Day is an annual awareness day observed on May 28.

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Love in the Time of Regressive Attitudes

Dissecting the public and the private in India

by Priyanka Sutaria

 Affection; caged by the rules of societal expectations  Inspired by: Mar Il.lustració

Affection; caged by the rules of societal expectations

Inspired by: Mar Il.lustració

In my first year of college, I had just started dating my boyfriend and a friend asked me if we had kissed. When I replied in the affirmative, she was shocked. “What? But it’s only been three days!” This was not a surprising reaction because we have some pretty ridiculous dating “rules” in India which we are supposed to abide by if we want to remain “respectable” in a relationship. It was her next question which surprised me more — “How did you know how to kiss him? I mean, where did you learn?” I paused for a second. And then responded cautiously. “My parents kiss all the time, I know what kissing looks like…” Suffice to say that both our reactions to my answer were very, VERY different.

Her's was more a short-term observation, about how surprising it was that my parents expressed physical affection in front of their children. Mine is a more long-term inference, one which finds culmination in the incident which took place in Kolkata this past week, where a young couple was beaten up for “standing too close” at a metro station, but more on my observation later.

 Via Humans of Hindutva

Via Humans of Hindutva

What happened in Kolkata was compounded by the ignorant comment made by the official Facebook page of the Kolkata Metro, which railed against young people for ruining our culture with their "vulgarity" and told them to (more or less) expect violent retribution if they insisted on their newfangled ways. Also mentioned in the comment were statements like “good qualities are totally lacking in the young generation and morality a distant dream”. To break this down, this was not just about the sight of two people of different genders standing too close being irritating, but about it being perceived as morally BAD. At the same time, the passengers who carried out the violence were hailed for everything the youth allegedly does not have—decency, good manners, lack of arrogance (ironic, I know).

Essentially, the youth is bad and the baby boomers good. Got it. Sigh. The Metro has since retracted the comment and claimed that they are against moral policing of any kind (with many calling the comment fake news), but as they say, the damage is done. Whether or not the comment is real (multiple screenshots prove that it is), it surely does reflect real attitudes, and that brings me back to my observation… which goes hence—

We are so unused to seeing physical affection, that we see it as unnatural.

The Victorian history of this nation’s regressive sexual attitudes is well known; we were a fairly sexually liberated non-country until the British came with their strict unforgiving moral codes (which of course, find reflection in the aforementioned dating “rules” as well). After that, it was apparently downhill. The more terrifying result of the British repression of sexuality in pre-India was its eventual confluence with what we would now call our Nationalist Agenda. In this agenda, sexuality is something to be reined in (a la Gandhi) in order for us to succeed as a nation. And of course, if one reads between the lines, it is the woman’s body and sexuality which faces the most suppression.

In a state which both socially and legally sanctions heteronormativity, it is important to understand how this heteronormativity is carried out. By solidifying the family unit and placing the responsibility of the family’s honor on the woman, the state enforces the idea that sex only exists within the marriage of a man and a woman. Further, it socially (not legally, but it might as well be, considering how law and order perpetuate the same repression) regulates the myth of virginity, so if a woman appears to be engaging in seemingly sexual activity outside of wedlock, then it is seen as a crime. Not just that, it is the people who solidify this culture by assuming the role of judge and jury, as they did when they beat up that couple in Kolkata. Whether a hug actually constitutes the destruction of the family unit is debatable, but that is not the issue. The reality is, the couple could have been beaten up for simply talking to each other. Such is the state of the nation.

This is an extension of a dangerous and oppressive culture of rape, wherein marital rape in the bedroom is sanctioned and consensual displays of affection in public decried. But who are we to say; ghar ki baat hai, after all. What they don’t tell us is that the ghar is the nation and the woman is the flag bearer of nationality. My fear is that the threat of violence in exchange for friendship, or even romantic love, may just be far too much for young people to take. They will grow up believing such behaviour merits punishment, while remaining silent about the real acts of violence. And until we call it out, this society is going to keep playing gatekeeper to our individual sexualities while slamming the door on actual acts of sexual deviance like rape.

However, all is not lost, dear reader. In better news, Kolkata is fighting back. Free hugs are being offered across the city, and it might remind one of the delightful protest some years back in Kerala, where people kissed in public (yes, on the mouth!) to combat moral policing on displaying affection in public. Now to figure out why the “adults” don't understand that what we want is not the right to have sex in public, just the basic right to touch someone CONSENSUALLY without fearing retribution. Is that too much to ask?

 

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Why are Women Expected to Spread their Legs to Prove their Skills?

by Veena Bakshi

It was the year 2004.

I had just stepped out of advertising film production and decided to try my luck with directing feature films. One attempt in 2002 had gone horribly wrong. But I steeled myself and decided to try again – this time with a very old friend, someone my family treated as a family member, who had recently turned producer.

He agreed to produce it, but said the script needed certain changes because it wasn’t ‘Bollywood enough’. A writer (well-known today) was brought in to do so – and she ruined my story. I felt powerless and helpless. An inner voice kept telling me to run, but I didn’t. I wish now that I had had the guts then to listen to that inner voice. Coming from the fairly protected world of ad films, I wasn’t street smart enough to deal with Bollywood. I went along with whatever was happening.

One by one, the actors I wanted to work with were sidelined. I was told not to worry because this happened all the time. I lost friends. The technicians I wanted to work with were sidelined. Only the cameraman was my choice. He too turned later but that is another story.

I noticed that the producer would make me work late, sometimes alone with him in the office. He would make crude sexual jokes all the time. One day I even noticed him standing by his table gently rubbing himself on the corner of the table while we were discussing casting. I ignored it all, telling myself that all I had to do was concentrate on my film.

Soon, new actors were on board. The lead actor was a man who is soon going to be eulogised in an upcoming film in a few days despite being a gun runner.

The harassment didn't end. Another actor came on board – he was a B-grade actor then and is a nobody today. One day he was visiting the producer's office and was “resting” in another cabin, where I was asked to go and discuss his character with him. I found myself sitting in this room, trying to do just that. Obviously uninterested, he asked me if I was married, to which I said I wasn’t. Laughingly, he asked me if I minded ‘some fun’. I left the room and went back to the producer and found him, his two cronies and a production guy smiling, looking guilty. Did I tell you there were CCTV cameras all over the office with the display in the producer's cabin?

We went to Romania to shoot, even though I wanted to shoot in Pondicherry. It was a nightmare.

The writer and the producer colluded in not giving me scenes on time. They would change scenes at the last minute and interfere in everything that I planned. The choreographer was given more importance than the film! Song picturisation became a priority.

I didn't know, but stories were being printed in trade magazines in India, that I was a bad director who didn’t know direction and was quarreling with everyone in the unit. The only saving grace was that the Romanian crew stuck with me through thick and thin.

One day I was told to leave the film. The reason the producer gave me was that I hadn’t ‘entertained’ the actors, and if I had just done that, nothing of this sort would have happened.

The penny dropped. The character briefing in the cabin; the late night scene briefing meetings; the ‘why don’t you go to the main actor's hotel and discuss the work with him?’ had all been ruses to make me do just that.

I came back to India. They continued shooting. My Chief AD had been coerced into finishing the shoot. My DoP stayed on to shoot. I never felt more cheated in my life.

I lost five years of my life after that as nobody wanted to work with me thanks to all the bad publicity I had gotten. The only good part was that I learned who my true friends were – definitely not some of Bollywood's celebrated directors today! They ran the other way from me as they had their careers to secure.

So when I heard Saroj Khan say that ‘at least Bollywood gives you work after rape’, I thought it was a very sad statement on both the men and women of this industry. It becomes a bloody way of life. And when you refuse to become a part of it you are out! Why is it that women are expected to spread their legs to prove their skills?

I have often thought long and hard, is that what the writer of that film did? Slept her way through? This is the reality of Bollywood.

 

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Girls – They Seem Interrupted

Veere di performative feminism

by Sowmya BR

Three slim, conventionally-attractive women (the fourth is the token attractive-and-slightly-larger girl) drink, smoke, quarrel, dance, laugh, swear and discuss boys, marriage and relationships. Somewhere in there is the story of a hotly-anticipated film. Somewhere in there, unfortunately, are also the collective sighs of those of us who expected – oh I don’t know – a semblance of heft; an attempt at a real story about the power of female friendship. Somewhere in the just-released trailer of Veere Di Wedding lies – at least that’s what it seems at the moment – a wasted opportunity.

The good thing about the trailer is that it does not claim to be about the empowerment of women (unlike the hot mess that was Angry Indian Goddesses). The bad news though, is that from the trailer is seems that the power of the sisterhood is little more than an excuse to moon over boys while making token nods to empowerment.

Performative feminism : 1

Progress: 0

The leads seem to be little more than flimsy cutouts – one has eloped, another is getting a divorce, the third is in the midst negotiating an OTT wedding that conflicts with her desire for freedom (it would seem), and the fourth is yelling at her boyfriend for being a mama’s boy. All of them, boiled down to their relationships. With men. And they all look supremely good while doing all this, of course. Throw in gaalis (derogatory to women, just FYI) alcohol and cigarettes, and you have all the symbols of non-traditional, ‘modern’ women in Bollywood. Excuse us for thinking we were in 2018.

We’re thirsty for popular culture which does not erase – or worse – make archetypes out of women.

It is almost as thought the thought process behind it is was:

“Sir, how can we make this ladies-oriented?”

“The women like feminism, put in feminism.”

“So, alcohol, cigarettes and a plot which is driven entirely by the wedding of one of the characters?”

“Perfect!”

Honestly, this reminds me of a similar (and disappointing) web series called The Trip, about four women of whom one is about to marry. The Trip, like Veere Di Wedding, stars three conventionally-attractive, able-bodied women and one slightly plump token laughter challenge as a ‘group of girls who have been friends forever’. In fact, the Fat One in Veere Di Wedding is so much of a plot point as opposed to a character, she doesn’t even show up with the main cast when you google the film. Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms, which produced the nuanced Lipstick Under My Burkha, seems to have made a commercial bargain by bringing us this star-studded turn. It is not, however, one must note, the first time Balaji has tried to turn women into plot points to sell empowerment (remember Balaji Alt’s Dev DD?). It really does break one’s heart, because Lipstick Under My Burkha was an empathetic, exciting portrayal of women and their sexualities, creating non-stereotypical characters based on age and religion, giving them flaws and real emotions.

In fact, just from the Veere Di Wedding trailer, it seems even Sonam Kapoor’s character in 2014’s Bewakoofiyaan was a far more nuanced portrayal of a non-traditional woman, at least up until the climax. She has a job, earns more than her boyfriend and goes on vacations which she pays for. She also supports her father and even chooses to leave the country for her dream job. Of course she comes running back for love, but at least there is some semblance of a character in there.

Veere Di Wedding also seems to reinforce casual sexist microaggressions. Take the jibes at male shopkeepers in saree shops – a regressive trope that makes fun of them for being ‘effeminate’ because they show sarees by draping them on their own bodies. This use of a man’s body to drive home what is obviously a hatred of femininity, goes against the very message that the film is ostensibly trying to sell. The industry needs to stop using femininity as the butt of jokes, and women on screen need to stop being made the agents of these jokes. Other gags includes a man with the Oedipus Complex who calls Sonam Kapoor ‘crazy’. What? It’s funny, right? Wrong.

It’s disappointing, especially since Rhea Kapoor set a heartening (and very feminist) precedent by waiting for marquee actor Kareena Kapoor Khan for a year after she announced her pregnancy, instead of dropping her (like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan was from Heroine in 2012) in a similar situation some years ago. That, and the fact that this very sexist industry is looking forward to a big-ticket film starring a real-life mother in the lead role, give us hope. But only just.

We are all for movies which revolve around women’s friendships and sisterhood, but they need to do little more than tick off saleable-at-the-box-office checkpoints. A good start would be to have them written by women for women and not by women for men. You know how most movies are made for men, and women movie-goers are incidental to the scheme, but it works out because everyone sees those movies because our worldview is male? To change that, we need to change the lens through which we view women on screen. We can have women with plotlines only when women are not the plotline themselves.

Hopefully, we’ll find something of that to celebrate when the movie releases. We live in hope.

 

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Not Your Average Pin-up Girl

How Lara Croft got her groove back

by Sowmya BR & Priyanka Sutaria

 Alicia Vikander gears up to smash the patriarchy (via The Playlist)

Alicia Vikander gears up to smash the patriarchy (via The Playlist)

Alicia Vikander plays Lara Croft in the recent reboot of the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (itself based on the video game Tomb Raider), and sure enough, the internet trolls have already begun their protest against the fact that Vikander does not have a… cleavage. Yes, indeed — the My Childhood Is Ruined™ squad is back! After harassing Leslie Jones for, well, being a black woman, the manchild brigade is here to rue that a film can exist without a woman having to flash a breast (or two). A heroic endeavour.

The story of Lara Croft’s buxom bosom begins with the video game itself, created in 1996. The story goes that the heavy proportions were not intended, but a coding error resulted in a creation that was — predictably — lapped up by the men. And so Lara Croft went from intrepid explorer to Intrepid Explorer With Big Breasts. The success of the game prompted a movie series with Angelina Jolie and her padding in starring roles. Because this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the character’s male fan base (who cares about the women, right?) to see their favourite top-heavy explorer as a real woman on screen with the requisite big boobs. Boo hoo.

So it was not unexpected that there would be a hullabaloo when the video game reboot turned their beloved eye candy into a woman who was “ tough, petite and clever… an inexperienced researcher could turn into a brave fighter and master of survival”, as described in the culture section of Deutsche Welle’s website . Also getting the boys’ boxers in a twist is the fact that in this version, Croft wears a tank top and — hold your breath — pants. Not a cropped tank and shorts, which was the previous getup. (Gasp!) That the decision was rooted in pragmatism (Colleen Atwood, who conceptualised the wardrobe for the 2018 reboot has said that there was “...an emphasis on practicality over sexuality”) is of no consequence. Vikander's pants, for instance, have stretchy seams for mobility and are far more suited to an explorer on a mission. Jolie’s outfit, frankly, was more suited to the exaggerated fantasies of hormonal teenage boys — and clearly, they feel left out this time round. There, there, boys. We know it’s hard to see your woman as a wholesome character, and not just boobs and butt.

The reboot shows us what we miss out when creators forcefully sexualise women — the possibility of collaboration and partnership.  In one scene in the reboot, Croft and her partner (Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu) are both seen in tank tops and pants. While he has an open shirt over his tank, she wears a hoodie. At PtM, we love this equitable visual framing, something we rarely see on film.

Think about it — with the exception of perhaps Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, played by Jennifer Lawrence, or Wonder Woman played by Gal Gadot (who was criticised for her lack of ample bosom as well), the clothing given to female characters is inversely proportional to their male counterparts, and hardly realistic or practical. It is no secret that female comic book characters — particularly those in action-themed Young Adult adult fiction — whether superheroes, spies or explorers, are barely dressed, and in ways that accentuate their generous curves for their audience of men. Men are conditioned into desiring powerful male characters, but the women need be little more than sexy. Of course, badassery is a plus, because women have got to be hot and kick butt, or they’re incomplete.

It’s troubling when entertainment actively uses visual metaphors to empower men, while simultaneously disempowering and sexualising women. No wonder children have these messages coded into their everyday behaviour. It makes boys want to be brave and strong, and girls want to be pretty and sexy. I remember the desperation I felt as a 14-year-old late bloomer to look a certain way. It left an imprint on how I would look at myself for years. There is no telling how much of this negativity came from my classmates’ taunts, and how much from my own imbibing of this toxic idea of gender roles.

But not all is lost. Take My So-Called Secret Identity, which, when launched in 2013, created waves for challenging the sexist trope of female characters in comics. In an interview with Femina in 2013, creator Will Brooker talks about how he consciously created a character that was the exact opposite of these sexualised tropes. From costume to characteristics to personality, the character of Cat challenges the norm — actively so, because the character was created keeping in mind the shallow objectification of women in the comic book industry. Taking it a step further, the team behind My So-Called Secret Identity is almost 80% femme, which does impact the character workshops and story arc in significant ways!

Heartening, in an industry which has long been an unwelcome and downright violent space for women. Girls deserve to play these games and watch these movies as much as boys, and the fact that both these industries have made a permanent demographic out of boys is no reason to not push against this ceiling. Girls and women deserve to look at a screen and see themselves as empowered, strong and intelligent (and even fully clothed!). Tomb Raider makes amply clear that it’s time to acknowledge this massive void in consumership. It’s time to speak up, and make our screens more equitable. Big boobs? We’d like more than that, thank you very much.


 

SOURCES:

Lara Croft: from big breasts to brains and brawn

'Less boobs, more fighting': Lara Croft is back and she's not here to be ogled

Lara Croft and Gaming: Feminism in a Hyper-Masculine Industry

 

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Taking the Commonwealth by Storm

Indian women have truly changed the game this time!

The XXI Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast, Australia were a successful endeavour for Team India, which is placed 3rd in the medal tally with 66 medals! The cherry on top? Most of these medals are gold. Here, Pass the Mic celebrates all the women athletes who have made a mark in their fields.

 

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Dipika Pallikal and Joshna Chinappa

Age: 26 and 31

Medal Tally: Pallikal and Chinappa won a silver in the squash doubles event. Pallikal also won a silver in the squash mixed doubles event with Saurav Ghosal.

 

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Saina Nehwal

Age: 28

Medal Tally: Nehwal won a gold for badminton, beating compatriot P.V. Sindhu.

 

 

 

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Tejaswini Sawant

Age: 37

Medal Tally: Sawant won a gold the 50m rifle position event and a silver in 50m prone shooting event

 

 

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Heena Sidhu

Age: 28

Medal Tally: Sidhu won a gold for the 25m pistol event and a silver for the 10m women's air pistol event

 

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Shreyasi Singh 

Age: 26

Medal Tally: Singh won a gold for the double trap shooting event

 

 

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Ashwini Ponnappa (with Satwik Rankireddy) 

Age: 25

Medal Tally: Ponappa and Rankireddy won a gold for the badminton mixed doubles event

 

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Indian (W) Table Tennis Team

Members: Manika Batra (22), Madhurika Patkar (unknown), Mouma Das (34)

Medal Tally: The team won India's first ever gold for table tennis at the Commonwealth Games. Manika also won a bronze in the mixed-doubles event.

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Manu Bhaker

Age: 16

Medal Tally: Bhaker won a gold for the 10m air pistol event

 

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Punam Yadav

Age: 22

Medal Tally: Yadav won a gold for the weightlifting event in the 69kg category

 

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Sanjita Chanu

Age: 24

Medal Tally: Chanu won a gold for the weightlifting event in the 53kg category

 

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Mirabai Chanu 

Age: 23

Medal Tally: Chanu won a gold for the weightlifting event in the 48kg category

 

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Seema Punia 

Age: 34

Medal Tally: Punia won a silver for the discuss throw event

 

 

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Mehuli Ghosh 

Age: 17

Medal Tally: Ghosh won a silver for the 10m women's air rifle event

 

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Babita Kumari

Age: 28

Medal Tally: Kumari won a silver for the wrestling event in the 53kg category

 

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Apurvi Chandela 

Age: 25

Medal Tally: Yadav won a bronze for the 10m women's air rifle event

 

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Kiran 

Age: unknown

Medal Tally: Yadav won a bronze for the freestyle wrestling event in the 76kg category

 

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Navjeet Dhillon 

Age: 23

Medal Tally: Dhillon won a bronze for the discuss throw event

 

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Opinion: Unfortunately, She was Female

The insensitive speculation around Sridevi’s death had everything to with the fact that she was a woman

By Sowmya BR

 Sridevi in  Chaalbaaz  (1989) via  LightsCameraBollywood.com

Sridevi in Chaalbaaz (1989) via LightsCameraBollywood.com

Botox. Weight-loss surgery. Drugs. Alcohol. The allegations flew thick and fast; the speculation in the aftermath of Sridevi’s death had all the ingredients of a seedy pulp fiction novel. This was after all, a woman in the public eye. And while celebrities around the world routinely have their private lives ruthlessly excavated and squeezed for juice, when they happen to be female, that just makes it so much worse.

There were eulogies, no doubt. Some called her India’s first female superstar, others sang paeans to her acting; the lilt of her hips; the impact of her celebrityhood on impressionable young minds. And yet, ironically, in death, she wasn’t accorded the dignity of insensitive, sexist speculation.

Oh yes, it was sexist. Take Rajesh Khanna. The man who had treated his ex-wife—the lovely and too-young Dimple Kapadia—badly, was also known to have hit the bottle quite hard, especially in his later years. And yet, his death brought forth none of the breathless criticism of his lifestyle that Sridevi’s did, because—lets’ face it—he was a man. That she had traces of alcohol in her blood had to mean she was a careless drunk. Because that is the fate that befalls wanton women who drink. And if they’re rich, good looking and in the acting business, they must be doing unmentionable things that are ‘against Indian culture’. The fact she was the second wife of a man who has unwittingly participated in one of the film industry’s biggest scandals at the time—leaving his first wife for a vixen actress—only underscored her promiscuity even more, one would imagine.

Take one of the first forwards this writer received on WhatsApp the morning of Sridevi’s death. Secure in its own self-righteousness, it was about how we must introspect about the ‘pressure to look good’ that had certainly killed her; how she lacked self-love; how she had ‘patriarchal implants in her head’; how she was little but a clothes horse for designers who would make her as beautiful as she desired. That this very line of thinking was perpetuating the very same relentless pressure on female celebrities to look and act a certain way, had obviously not occurred to the writer of the message. But why would it? Sridevi is a female celebrity, she obviously asked for it. Duh.

Enfant terrible Ram Gopal Varma, a self-confessed fan of the actor, took it upon himself to discuss the troubles in Sridevi’s life. "More than the external peace, her internal mental state was of a high degree of concern and this forced her to look at her own self… The uncertainty of the future, the ugly turns and twists in her private life left deep scars in the superstar’s sensitive mind and thereafter she was never at peace," Varma said on social media. Oh, the insight!

If Varma’s philosophical ponderings are true, then in death, as in life, Sridevi found little solace. Ultimately, her unquestionable talent, her supreme impact on the film industry, her hefty body of work—all remained subservient to the fact of her gender. Her death only buttressed what we already know—women don’t deserve respect. After all, everything that happens to them is their fault. 

 

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Holi & The Unwilling Suspension of Consent

By Sowmya BR & Priyanka Sutaria

 ‘ Bura Na Mano Holi Hai ’ is the battle cry that establishes the festival as a space for all-male enjoyment, more so than other Indian festivals, and unapologetically so.

Bura Na Mano Holi Hai’ is the battle cry that establishes the festival as a space for all-male enjoyment, more so than other Indian festivals, and unapologetically so.

'Come on man, it's Holi! Lighten up! Loosen up!' Except that when you've been groped and molested under this garb of festival merriment,  you really don't want to lighten up. 

It seems that any excuse will do to intrude on women’s personal spaces and our right to consent, and Holi provides the perfect opportunity. ‘Bura Na Mano Holi Hai’ is the battle cry that establishes the festival as a space for all-male enjoyment, more so than other Indian festivals, and unapologetically so.

Those of a certain generation will remember the eventful scene in Damini, where the pivotal gang rape occurs against the backdrop of Holi merriment. With the bhaang flowing, the anonymity afforded by the milling mobs and coloured faces, and the ready excuse of colour, there is no escape for unwilling women. ‘Stay home’ is the only advice that works for women who do not want to be molested on Holi. Want to reclaim your space? Welcome to groping and semen-filled balloons.

Which is why for many women, Holi brings back terrible memories. Four women recount their experiences of being violated on this festival of colour:

TARA* KAUSHAL

When I was a kid, I really loved Holi. We would go to the Naval Club in Katari Bagh, Cochin, and play with my parents’ friends and children. This innocent love ended abruptly when I was about 11. A group of girls was playing among ourselves outside a building in Navy Nagar, Bombay, when three much older boys descended on us. “Bura Na Mano Holi Hai,” they said, as they grabbed our budding breasts and young vaginas as we squirmed and screamed. We scattered as we ran away; I hid behind a car where they found me. “Dekho, rang bhi nahi hai,” one said showing me his colour-free hands as they continued this violation for a few minutes, before they moved on to another girl.

For many years, I would lock myself up in my room in the days leading up to Holi, refusing to let anyone even put a tikka on me. I was convinced to resume playing only ten years later, at the insistence of a group of friends who were organising a party in the golden cage of a Delhi farmhouse, with reassurances of protection from my then-boyfriend. Since, I only play with friends, in safe environments, and manage to have a good enough time, despite the trauma. Big girl though I am, this fear of Holi in particular and mobs of men in general will never leave.

 

VIDYA

Growing up, I was lucky to be in an environment where no lines were ever crossed. Under the protective watch of my parents, we grew up hearing about how it happens to other people, but I only became one of these other people when I stepped out, went to college, started working — that is when the reality of how the festival had been twisted hit me with full force. It was really unsafe, and as a journalist, I had to work on Holi as well, which meant stepping out of the house and risking exposure. I am lucky, so far, to have not actually faced molestation in name of splashing colours, but I have been attacked by balloons — colleagues have had worse experiences. My mother, when she was pregnant with me, was not spared either; the same happened to a colleague as well. People have no concept of boundaries, or consent. There is a fear associated, perhaps with women more so, of being subjected to something one does not want. We should be able to go through life without thinking about this, but unfortunately, it isn’t so. You have to take precautions at your own end, because the other person is unable to take this seriously. I don’t like the festival anymore, the manner of celebration is of great importance, and this manipulation of what was supposed to be a fun festival has made s difficult for so many people. I don’t play Holi, but the fact is that people who enjoy playing Holi have to limit themselves to their societies, because the moment they step out, they have to to be wary. Films should also avoid romanticising such behaviours, and they have the responsibility to not promote a bad precedent for the youth. That’s where the problem lies, because what is fun for you is not always fun for the other. This portrayal must change.

 

ANUSHA

My incident is not gender-specific, but it is something where I was made to feel comfortable. When I was a child, Holi used to be a fun experience, but that changed for me as an adult. I was out of India for quite a while, and I had gotten out of touch with celebrating it by the time I returned. Last year, I was in my house minding my own business, when the bell rang and when I opened the door, I was ambushed with colours and my clothes were ruined. It was a huge invasion of my privacy, I was not asked if I wanted this and they did not take my consent. These were neighbours, people I knew but had not seen in a long time. I just felt like they should have wished me, and asked if it was okay to put some colour on me. Sometimes, we are pressured into feeling socially obligated to accept these things, even if we do not enjoy them. I had heard several stories about people who have been pulled in without their consent, but nothing overly violent. But these incidents definitely cross a line. I was never really fond of the festival, I found it excessive, but I would say that the more this kind of the stuff happens, the more wary I become. I don’t think I will be opening my door for the next two days if I didn’t know the person on the other side!

 

GITANJALI

Growing up, I used to really enjoy Holi; we used to stay in a gated SBI officers' colony and we knew all the parents and kids in the locality, we all used to play Holi together. Even then, one year when I was returning home from playing Holi with my friends, a group of watchmen tried to put colour on me. This was back in the early 90s, before we knew about good touch/bad touch. I felt wronged. That still stands out, the feeling of wanting to push someone away. They asked if they did something wrong, because for them perhaps I was just a child. Growing up, boundaries increased — you’re not with the same people, you’re not in that colony any more. Now as an adult, it makes me uncomfortable, because I don’t want anyone to put colour on me. I remember how in a couple of offices I have worked at, people have wanted to put colour on my face — even as a friendly gesture— but I don’t like the idea of someone touching my face. When you step out, there is a sense of fear because in Mumbai, people don’t buy balloons in some areas; they use plastic bags which hurt a lot more on impact. The closer Holi comes, the more you are worried about having to dodge these missiles, because I have had these thrown into my rickshaw. I would rather not step out. It is self-preservation to do so. The last time I played was 2007, but it was because I went with friends and it was safe.

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Film Review: Pad Man

Flimsy feminism. Period.

By Priyanka Sutaria

  "Ek aurat ki hifazat mein nakamiyab aadmi apne aap ko mard kaise keh sakta hai?"

"Ek aurat ki hifazat mein nakamiyab aadmi apne aap ko mard kaise keh sakta hai?"

The promotions for the film had scores of celebs taking up leading man Akshay Kumar’s ‘Pad Man Challenge’, holding up a pad on social media and saying it was nothing to  be ashamed about since it was normal. So far, so-so. That we think holding up a pad on social media is worthy of being deemed a ‘challenge’ is problematic enough to begin with, but that was just the beginning.

The film offered up a whole other set of problems. For starters, This movie is about only about Lakshmikant, and by extension, Kumar’s brand of nationalism-driven films.

There seems to be a strange Gandhi-esque shade to Kumar’s character; celibate by choice (having left wife and village for a “greater good”). All the dialogue builds the character of Lakshmikant—intelligent, skilled, generous, crazy, driven, victorious—and the few words about menstrual stigma are wrapped up in a brief five-line speech which emerges from the vacuum that is Akshay Kumar’s performative feminism, a shorter special appearance than even Amitabh Bachchan’s three minute cameo.

You’d think a movie whose entire marketing vehicle has been the collective uterus of Indian women would be a positive step for menstruation awareness. Umm, not so much. If there were no women in the movie and menstruation existed as a platonic form simply manifesting itself in depthless female characters, it would make no difference to the plot whatsoever.

The menstruating women in the movie only talk about Kumar's character. Thus the movie succeeds in divorcing menstruation from those who experience it in order to lionise a man who spends his time taking entrepreneurial advice about a menstrual product enterprise from a grease mechanic, and a thoroughly pointless Sonam Kapoor.

Kapoor is literally there to be a plot device who perpetuates negative notions of womanhood and is present simply to be (metaphorically) written off when the virtuous Lakshmikant returns to his wife. A love triangle for those who come to theatres leaving their brains behind.

Pad Man cannot pretend to create any kind of awareness. It lacks necessary nuance which comes from lived experience. A photo of him waving an ABVP flag while promoting the movie in DU, and an ignorant attempt at a social justice-themed poem are further proof of his blind approach to this issue.

So thank you for sticking up a stray pad for us, Akshay Kumar—really, thanks for giving this discourse the celebrity photo-op that grabs eyeballs. Now, it’s time to go beyond and actually consider the cost of having a period; the cultural and social norms that deem a natural biological process shameful; the gender violence and inequality that informs this entire discourse. And that is about much more than Bollywood holding up a pad as a ‘challenge’.

 

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There Will Be Blood

Is publicity about periods an end in itself? What does this do beyond promoting the upcoming film Pad Man?

By Sowmya BR & Priyanka Sutaria

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At the directive of Bollywood star Akshay Kumar (in a strategic and successful PR campaign for his movie, Pad Man), hoards of celebrities populated social media with pictures of themselves holding pads which have been removed from their packaging and held wide open… for all the germs to settle in.

We get it—this was a PR stunt for a movie. And it was well-intentioned (as well-intentioned as a movie promotion can be). Our movie stars have hardly been known for their gumption when it comes to speaking up on the issues that matter (just look at what happened to Swara Bhaskar, who dared speak up while the rest stayed silent on the Padmavat controversy). Still, many said ‘Yay!’, because when Deepika Padukone holds up a sanitary napkin, it means she might make a fan who follows her on Instagram learn a little about menstruation, and bring it out of the shame-soaked realm it’s been cloistered in. Just maybe.

Hold on, though. There’s more to this conversation than just a flimsy photo-op for a movie. It’s also about the millions of women across the world who do not have access to these pads, or for that matter, social media, to follow Kumar’s hashtag ‘challenge’. It’s about people and communities which come together to create biodegradable menstrual hygiene products and offer basic human dignity to all those who menstruate. The prime example, of course, is the entrepreneurial venture by so-called original Pad Man, Arunachalam Muruganantham himself. Or ventures such as Anandi, which has spearheaded compostable pad production across India. It’s about the tax on sanitary napkins, which in India are classified as ‘miscellaneous’ and not ‘necessary’ items. It’s about fighting the stigma around a natural, biological process; one that leads to 23% of girls in rural India dropping out of school, and keeping 28% of these girls away from school during their period because they lack clean and affordable protection. It’s about finding ways to make managing your period environmentally and economically sustainable, because pads contain plastic that doesn’t degrade.

From Muruganantham’s biodegradable pads (a system which has unique forms scattered across the world, an example being Uganda’s AfriPads) to silicon menstrual cups, there is much more to menstrual hygiene than pads that promise fragrances and leak lock channels.

Which is why many are circumspect about the push for sanitary napkins and the campaign to make them tax-free on social media; this so-called sanitary napkin revolution that even Pad Man pushes. Yes, some women do use unsanitary methods, but the reality is that statistics (such as one that goes ‘only 12% women in India have access to sanitary napkins’, used in Pad Man as well) is incorrect, say social workers who have seen the ground reality of menstrual health in India. According to an article in Swarajya Magazine, this statistic is the result of a study with a sample size of 1033 women, which is smaller than some villages in country. For these women, natural methods such as rags and cloth are, simply, the easiest and most convenient method, one they may not want to give up for industries that have been painting the sanitary napkin as a panacea for all evils.

Not everyone agrees, though. Take Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia, a menstrual health awareness organisation which 'aims at delivering informative and entertaining content through different media…', who created the comic in 2014, to make awareness about periods fun. Apart from the book which is available in multiple languages, Menstrupedia is also developing grassroots awareness about menstruation, and sharing information about puberty and bodily changes through their blog and social media.

Gupta believes that in a country where women often have little or no access to menstrual hygiene products, what product they choose should be left up to them. She says, “I have used rags, so I will not say that rags are a good alternative for managing periods.” Not everyone can use cloth pads (take for example, women who work in fields and do not have the liberty to wash, dry and reuse their products constantly) or even menstrual cups (she says many women find the idea of insertable menstrual wear uncomfortable and abhorrent).

“We cannot demand of those who bleed that they be environmentally conscious when all so-called sustainable products are unavailable or unsuitable. Is it really for their betterment if everyone has to abide by monolithic standards of how they might menstruate, that is be the ‘ideal’ period-having person? Is that not an unfair standard?” she asks. She believes that it is exploitation of the menstruating when these products are heavily taxed as luxuries in an unequal society, especially when good-quality products are not always readily available to people who menstruate. “At the end of the day, if products like sanitary napkins were available for a cheaper cost, it would make the lives of many better,” she says.

Urmila Chanam, founder of ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign which seeks women's right to dignity and good health when menstruating, is circumspect. She believes that more than a simplistic sanitary napkin revolution, India needs to facilitate real awareness about menstruation and break the myths, taboos, and traditions which govern it. Chanam finds that while there isn’t any problem with big pharma creating an awareness about periods, it is a shallow kind of awareness which tackles only one aspect of the issue. “Everybody is thinking about pads, but no one is thinking about the gender inequality in our homes! What if men had periods? Women and girls are treated like second-rate citizens, and it reflects in our attitudes towards them when they bleed.” The wave of awareness, then, is not intersectional, it does not cross class,caste, or location lines.

Chanam also questions the urban stronghold of this ‘menstruation-awareness’ movement. At the end of the day, these products are created with the desire to increases sales. Big pharma is likely to find a sustainable market for this, and only urban locations suit their economic interests. “What about rural India?”, Chanam asks. “ My personal experience in the grassroots is that women and girls do not have access to this knowledge. And it is often because they are women.” Still, like Gupta, Chanam believes that it is the right of the menstruating individual to choose what is suitable for them; whether that is cloth, plastic pads, or menstrual cups.

So here’s the thing. The cost of menstruating in this world is far more expensive than many know or understand. It isn’t just the hygiene products (pads, tampons, menstrual cups) we invest in. We also pay the cost of pain medication, hormone supplements, and birth control pills to regulate and survive our period. We pay the price when doctors refuse to diagnose us when we complain of acute pain, simply because they do not believe it could be that painful. We bear the burden of the emotional labour which goes into explaining menstruation to those who do not menstruate; in exchange for bleeding three to seven days a month, we receive ignorance.

So thank you for sticking up a stray pad for us, Akshay Kumar—really, thanks for the publicity. Thank you for giving this discourse the celebrity photo-op that grabs eyeballs. Now, it’s time to go beyond and actually consider the nuances and cost of a period. And that, my friends, is about much more than a sanitary napkin.

 

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Sex Ed is Not Dead

Priyanka Sutaria speaks to parents who weigh in on why it is necessary to normalise The Conversation Around Sex

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In India, we've talked a lot about sexual violence over the last few years. What hasn't become a full-fledged discourse, however, is sex-positive talk. Surprising, when all the logic in the world screams at you that in a country haunted by Victorian values of sexual suppression, understanding negative sexual behaviours can only happen when we normalise the idea of sex. Whether for reproduction or for enjoyment, sex is an important aspect in an individual’s life, and everything associated with it—if and when it happens, how it happens, who it happens with—impacts us deeply.

And yet, why don’t we talk about sex? What ghost of sexuality past prevents us from creating a discourse about sex that is both educational and positive, the kind that makes children safe and self-aware?

From gender norms to the introduction to arousal and all that follows; everything plays into how we view sex as adults. And parents have a huge role to play in this. 

BD works a corporate job, and is the mother of a six-year-old girl. Sharmila Sutaria makes gourmet desserts on order, and is the mother of two daughters, aged 20 and 22. Smriti Lamech is a published writer, editor, journalist and social media consultant. She is the mother of a girl and a boy, ages 11 and 13 respectively.

All of these women—mothers—think it’s important to discuss the birds and the bees, and change the conversation for their children.

PS: Have you/will you talk to your kids about menstruation, bodily changes, sexuality, sex, and everything that falls under the umbrella of sex education?

BD: Of course. I'm already having conversations with her about bodily changes. The rest, I will introduce her to when she is older, maybe seven or eight . I'd rather she hear the right things from me than some other source. It also makes her aware about her 'private parts', like she would be of any other body part.

Sharmila: I have spoken to both my daughters about this, and I believe every parent must have this conversation with their children so that they do not grow up with misconstrued ideas of sex, sexuality, and so on, on the basis of what their peers discuss, or even just hearsay.

Smriti: I have spoken to my kids about all of this already. I speak to my son and daughter about everything. This is one among hundreds of conversations we have had about birth, death, abortions, miscarriages, and so on.

PS: Do you think sex education is an important building block in a child’s life? At what age do you believe children ought to learn about sex (and more)?

BD: Sex education is a must. Absolutely. But it shouldn't be given undue importance and focus. It should be treated as you would any other biological impulse, and the conversation should follow in that tone. Sex Ed starts when children are as young as one, when you start using correct words to describe body parts. By the age of three-four you start talking about good touch-bad touch, and by the age of five-six, bodily changes. You talk to them about where the baby is born from and how a baby cell is made (mamma and papa cells come together and form the baby cell). Finally, at the age of seven or eight, the actual act of how the mamma-papa cells come together can be discussed.

Sharmila: Sex ed is definitely important as it clears any doubts and queries children may have at an age when curiosity reigns. These conversations ought to start as soon as they are capable of understanding these issues—maybe close to puberty. My daughters were made aware of menstruation by the age of six, and of sex by the time they were eight or nine.

Smriti: We have had these conversations since they were born. The moment my son was old enough, I spoke to him about menstruation, but even prior to that, pads and menstrual products were never hidden in our home. We have books about where babies come from lying around the house, and my daughter's friends have even come to me to ask questions because they know I will answer them honestly.

PS: Did your parents discuss sex (and more) with you? If not, how did you learn about it?

BD: No, my parents did not speak to me about this. I learnt it from books.

Sharmila: My parents never discussed it because they did not find such conversations to be comfortable, even when it came to something as basic as menstruation. I learnt through reading.

Smriti: My situation is unusual, because my parents were working in remote jobs, so I was brought up by my grandparents. So I had these conversations with my grandmother, who was very open to them. I was 10 when my grandmother first gave me Sunday school books, which provided a very clinical understanding of sex. My liberal outlook towards parenthood is entirely the result of her upbringing.

PS: Do you believe girls and boys ought to be given sex education in different ways? 

BD: I'm not sure about this. Logically it seems that they should be taught together, but girls and boys do need separate classes for sexual abuse and sexual politics.

Sharmila: Boys and girls should be taught together but emphasis on certain things needs to be gender-based. For example, boys need to be taught that the gender dynamic will entitle them to certain privileges which they need to recognise and fight. Girls will have to be taught that they too are entitled to things girls and women have been denied previously.

Smriti: Is this a trick question? Ha. I don’t think so. If you don’t teach them together, and tell them that they will be growing into this stuff together, then it will create a environment of shame right from the start. I was actually horrified when my daughter’s co-ed school took the girls to learn about puberty separately. It has to be a collaborative activity.

PS: If your child came to you with a question about sex (and more), how would/did you respond?

BD: I would answer the question as I would any other.

Sharmila: As openly as possible so that there is no ambiguity at all.

Smriti: If you start the conversation early enough, there will be no awkwardness. In our family, no conversation is taboo, and no question 'too much'. My children are aware that not all their peers have liberal parents, and they take advantage of the fact that they can learn about this stuff from me.

PS: What do you think of the concept of virginity? How much importance does it carry in your children’s lives?

BD: Virginity is an outdated concept.

Sharmila: I grew up with the thought that virginity was an all-important virtue, to be conserved till one is married. But today, I know (and I’ve learnt it from my daughters!) that pre-marital sex is not a taboo, so long as it is safe and consensual.

Smriti: My son has always told me he will have children so that I can have grandkids, but the other day he told me he didn’t want to get married, which would mean that his child wouldn’t be legitimate. So I told him these ideas are archaic, and that a child is legitimate whether or not it is borne of a marriage. Hopefully, by the time he is older, these ideas will have long disappeared!

 

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It Takes All Kinds of Feminists (To Change the World)

No, you’re not a better feminist than your friend/ sister/ boss. Feminism is about a sisterhood, so let’s build each other up instead of pulling each other down.

By Priyanka Sutaria Sowmya BR

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Who is a feminist?

Is it the woman who rejects marriage as a patriarchal institution?

Is it the woman to keeps her surname after marriage?

Is it the woman who works to support her family?

Is it the woman who puts her maid’s daughter through college?

News flash: They all are.

 

Here’s the thing.

Feminism isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Many of our mothers took their husband’s names -- cue, gasp! -- and were financially dependent on them, but they also lived their lives in a manner that took the movement ahead. We all know mothers who studied after marriage and were probably the first women in their families to become financially independent. We know colleagues who live with their in-laws while living full, independent lives.

My mom is one such mother. Despite the usual ‘trappings’ of patriarchy -- has her husband’s surname, doesn’t work outside the home -- she supports my long-term (and openly sexual) relationship publicly in a conservative small town. That makes her a feminist.

My maid works five houses a day, but tells her husband she works at three so that she can save up the surplus money for her children’s education. She is a feminist.

My friend had a religious wedding ceremony to please the family despite understanding its sexist implications, but is in a happy, deeply egalitarian marriage. She is a feminist.

And yet, often, their decisions are labelled patriarchal bargains.

They are not. A patriarchal bargain is climbing on other women’s backs to obtain power in a man’s world. These women are NOT by any stretch of the imagination, ‘lesser’ feminists. Freedom of expression and CHOICE is as much necessary within the feminist community as it is in the larger world.

Increasingly, it seems like women in the movement are dedicating time criticising each other and deriding one another’s choices, instead of building each other up.

For instance, Savarna feminists persistently condemn avarna feminists for choosing to wear mangalsutras and burkhas.

It’s myopic to see a mangalsutra and deride a woman as a lost cause, without context. Yes, she may be wearing one. But she may also be waging (and winning) a battle with her family to train as a pilot. Isn’t that a feminist victory?

Understand this: Oppression has many forms. As women, we know this all too well. But then, so does rebellion, equality, freedom and happiness -- all that feminism is about. Every woman is fighting her own battle. And if she has to make adjustments while she does so be it. Wearing sindoor doesn’t make one woman a bad feminist just as much as fighting for equal pay doesn’t make another a great feminist. This is real life, and we’re all looking for a way to stay happy while we demand equality and freedom. And you know what? That’s ok.

What we must do, is discuss. Read up. Encourage each other to think. Question EVERYTHING. The mangalsutra. The curfew we have that our brothers don’t. The morality that supposedly resides in our vagina that doesn’t, in our boyfriend’s. The mangalsutra. The new surname. The emphasis should be on understanding that sometimes, we will get co-opted into these patriarchal projects for reasons beyond our control. But that doesn’t mean we endorse them. In fact, we’re fighting them every step of the way. Expecting yourself (or anyone else) to do battle all at once is neither practical nor possible. Rome wasn’t born in a day, after all.

Our feminist friends at Genderlog India understand this, and asked women to share their struggles of being feminists while doing decidedly un-feminist things, because, well, that’s life.

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So there you have it. There is no ‘perfect’ feminist. The world is not unidimensional, and in a world where just being a woman is a disadvantage, the additional intersections of race, caste, class and sexuality further complicate matters for us. Often, to survive, we have to make sacrifices and concessions. We all need to tailor our own individual feminisms. And we need to support all our sisters while they do so too.

 

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10 Lessons 2017 Taught Us

... and how we can carry these feminist lessons into 2018.

by Priyanka Sutaria

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If we had to give 2017 an emoji, it would be the one with the pair of hands perpetually raised in celebration. Make no mistake -- it wasn’t an easy year for women. But it was also a year of empowerment, a moment in time where solidarity and social justice combined to create a seed of anger. For every Harvey Weinstein, there was a Salma Hayek. For every stalker, there was a Varnika Kundu, and her father. All these moments combined in a year whose most defining word (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) was feminism. Feminism definitely had a moment in 2017. And here are 10 ways to carry that momentum into 2018.

1. In 2017…

The first day of Donald Trump’s Presidency began with nearly 500 marches and 5 million taking to the streets for the Women’s March; a women-led movement aimed at highlighting both the power of women’s suffrage, as well as their ability to take control of issues that affect them. On the same day in India, across 20 small and large cities across the country, protests were held under the collective chant of #IWillGoOut in response to the mass molestation which took place in Bengaluru on new year’s eve. Both protests were aimed at reclaiming a woman’s agency to occupy space in a patriarchal world.

In 2018…

Regroup. Revise. Resist. Now that we have discovered that we have the power to speak up against the systematic suppression of our voices, we must persist. We must overcome our privilege, and open the movement up to all sections of women. Let’s empower the voices of those women who have less opportunity to amplify their voices.

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2. In 2017…

Sexual harassment at the workplace was finally taken seriously. From The Viral Fever’s terribly misguided response to the sexual harassment allegations against CEO Arunabh Kumar, to Phantom’s case with Vikas Bahl, to allegations made against the owner of High Spirits in Pune, this was one issue that rattled the public conscience. Women opened up -- whether anonymously or openly -- braved months of ridicule on the internet, battled everything from naysayers to threats of rape, and ensured that their voices were heard.

In 2018…

Women have been working in toxic work environments for centuries, and many have come to accept that sexual overtures and harassment are part and parcel of working as a woman. News flash: it isn’t. In your own life, make sure this movement includes the women who work in your house as help; women who perform manual labour and work for a daily wage; women with children and no monetary support; women from lower castes who scavenge manually; women who keep in function the very system which oppresses them. Strive to protect them from gender violence at their place of work.

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3. In 2017…

Women of sports did not take any misogyny lying down. First the Indian women’s cricket team made it to the World Cup finals, and then Mithali Raj - captain extraordinaire - slayed journalists who dared to ask her who her favourite male cricketer was. Following the lead of another badass brown sports-woman, Sania Mirza, who took down Rajdeep Sardesai’s sexism on national television, Mithali asked the journalist why they never asked male cricketers to pick a favorite female cricketer.

In 2018…

Offer in women in sports the same dignity offered to sportsmen. Offer them the same resources, television time, monetary funding, national support and basic dignity. Alternatively, if you’re a journalist, start asking female sportspersons better questions. After all, you’d never ask Virat Kohli if he would quit cricket after marriage, would you?

 

4. In 2017…

Culture Machine made the controversial and much-debated decision to introduce period leaves. In a country (nay, world) where less than half the people of menstruate and a negligible number of males who genuinely understand what a menstrual cycle is, period leave was a much-needed intervention. Almost every person who menstruates knows the range of discomfort to full-blown physical debilitation which comes on a monthly basis, and it’s about time that workspaces recognised this.

In 2018…

Have empathy. Recognise that privileged, middle-class, cis women are not the only ones who menstruate. Women who work in the unorganised sector, trans individuals, housewives, and others also deserve the benefits that a period leave entails. Let’s recognise their contribution to the economy and offer them the same options that the organised sector does.

5. In 2017…

Lipstick Under My Burkha took on the censor board and fought for their “lady-oriented” content. In a country where women carry the burden of shame, the movie truly galvanised women across the country to fight for representation in popular culture, and the movie turned out to be a success!

In 2018…

Make more space for women in popular media. Fight for women’s right to be shameless, to take see themselves where they have only ever seen macho man saving them. Support women who have known always that they are the ones doing to saving in everyday life.

 

6. In 2017…

Varnika Kundu did what almost every woman is afraid to do - legally chase the men who stalked her on a highway in Chandigarh. Not only did she highlight the insidious issue of Geri culture, she also demonstrated the amount of scrutiny a victim of gender violence faces from law and order, as well as media and society. Braving brickbats and fighting a corrupt system, she garnered incredible support for her fearless refusal to drop the case against the son of a BJP mainman.

In 2018...

Take inspiration from the Kundu family. Take a stand against sexism in your life and call it out when you can. Be more like Virender Kundu, fighting by his daughter’s side and refusing to allow his parenting to be questioned. Fight for the rights of the women in your life. Even if law and order become obstacles, keep persisting. In a world made by the examples others have set, women like Kundu (and their families) become a source of empowerment for women across the country. We need more of those.

7. In 2017…

Ram Rahim Insan, self-styled Godman of the Dera Sacha Sauda, was found guilty of rape by a special court. In a country plagued by such self-styled gurus and sadhvis, this case was an important victory for women in a unique intersection of our country -- those who are inducted into religious cults and either raped on grounds of “cleansing”, or coerced into sexual acts by charismatic, powerful men.

In 2018…

Make the law accountable. Amplify the voices of survivors and do not be afraid to criticise the law of the land if it is biased in favour of those who occupy positions of power. Men who take advantage of women and treat them as prey deserve to face the consequences of their actions.

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8. In 2017...

The King of Saudi Arabia lifted the long-standing and oppressive ban on women drivers. The fight for the right to drive has been an important symbol in women’s activism since the 1990s in Saudi Arabia, and the new law is a striking change for a new, egalitarian world -- a real victory in dark times.

In 2018...

The suppression of women manifests in different way across the world, but without a doubt nearly EVERY civilisation in the world is a patriarchal one, and each culture creates unique obstacles which women must overcome in order to “succeed”. From the right to abortion in Ireland to sexual harassment laws in India to misogynist presidents in the USA; each country has its own battle, and it is time to unite in sisterhood and fight the patriarchy instead of using one another as standards of women empowerment.

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9. In 2017…

#MeToo happened. Tamara Burke’s idea proposes to highlight the magnitude of sexual violence women undergo, and make it obvious to the privileged few who ignore it. The movement went viral when women in Hollywood found the courage to out producer Harvey Weinstein for the sexual predator he is. In an unprecedented, empowering act, more than 80 Hollywood actresses – from Salma Hayek to Gwyneth Paltrow – tore down the wall of silence and collusion that had allowed Weinstein to get away with his lechery and assault for so many years. It opened a floodgate of conversations, action (Weinstein’s wife left him, he was asked to step down from his company, he was expelled from the Producers Guild of America, and so on) and exposed the dirty underbelly of the film world.

In 2018…

Sexual violence exists. We know this. So why is it that we are unwilling to take women who come forward seriously? Learn from these courageous women and fearlessly call out sexual abuse when you see it. Be a part of a feminist sisterhood and support those who call it out too. Listen to survivors, and support them through their trauma. Change the conversation. End the shame that comes with victimhood in 2018.

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10. In 2017…

Iceland voted Katrin Jakobsdottir, a feminist woman prime minister into power. The impact of women in leadership in the 21st century is already making a difference! It is now illegal in Iceland to pay a woman less than a man for the same work; a law which will benefit both the gender dynamic and the economy positively in the long run. Although women with certain platforms such as actresses Diane Kruger and Robin Wright have demanded equal pay, it is the working-class woman who suffers most, earning about 70% of what a man makes for the same work. Race and caste further reduce this number.

In 2018…

Actively encourage and promote good work by women; appreciate women’s labour by investing in it. If you are in a position to hire, actively and consciously meet more female candidates, employ more women  make up for the imbalance in the gender dynamic. And PAY THEM AS MUCH AS YOU WOULD A MAN!

 

Above all, keep the conversation going. Discuss, discuss, discuss. Ask questions of people. Read feminist literature. Debate the consequences of important events -- the Triple Talaq ruling, the #MeToo movement -- with people around you. Always keep your privilege in mind while doing so and consider how each of these events impacts women across socio-economic, disabled and caste spectrums. Your individual actions matter. Choose to make a difference!

 

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FEMdamental

Not sure how to be a part of the resistance? FEMdamental is the platform for those who are confused about how to (f)empower themselves. Become a part of our online feminist community, where we will share advice, discuss and dissect happenings around us, and build a sisterhood that helps us be better, do better. All while we have some fun!

It's time we moved forward and grew, and FEMdamental is where we build our manifesto to do just that. Come, join the (re)sisterhood!

Want to contribute to FEMdamental? Reach out at contact@whyindianmenrape.com.

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