On Gender & Society

An Intimate Wash That Exposes Our Dirty Psyche

(This article was first published on Mumbai Boss.)

My vagina isn't happy about what's been happening recently in Indian media.

In the age of Internet — if you value the freedom to roam around on the worldwide web, you really should sign this petition to protect internet freedom — it's easy to forget where we are. With almost every international publication at your fingertips, and a profusion of ironic T-shirts and curiosities like CrossFit programs, you could easily be lulled into believing we live in a country not unlike the progressive West (in spirit, if not in infrastructure). Walking around Bandra, for example, you'd think it is one of the stops on the F train that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan. Consequently, when I come across the news that there is now a foosball table that has all-female teams, I say a little "Yay!" In the most recent issue of Esquire, novelist and columnist Geoff Dyer reported that the blow job was dead. Not just that, going down on women was the new trend. This is the sort of cultural data of which my vagina approves. 

Then, a few days later, thanks to Rupa Subramanya, many of us were introduced to Clean and Dry, a product that promises the user a fairer vagina. The ad shows a woman wearing trousers, looking mournful because her vagina is dark, like the cup of coffee she's holding in her hands. The suggestion is that her depression is intensified by her partner's disinterest who would rather read drink coffee than, well, her. Cut to the depressed woman looking much happier as she goes for a shower. At this point we see an animation. It shows us a hairless, feminine crotch (with gravity-defying rose petals in the background, if you please). Those who have read or seen John Berger's Ways of Seeing will remember in classical European painting, nudes usually had no pubic hair because hair is associated with maturity, sexual power and passion. "The woman's sexual passion needs to be minimised so that the spectator feels like he has the monopoly over such passion," said Berger. Coming back to the advertisement, once the animated crotch is whitened courtesy Clean and Dry, the woman emerges in a pair of shorts and proceeds to jump on a sofa and stuff her partner's car keys into her shorts. This is, apparently, how women communicate they are available and have suitably tinted vaginas. Mine, incidentally, is thoroughly disapproving of such products and actions. (The only place that a car key should be stuffed is in the ignition.) 

There are a couple of curious aspects to this ad. First of all, when even Indian advertising is making oblique references to cunnilingus, Dyer may be on to something with his theory that the primacy of fellatio is finished. Secondly, it's interesting that according to the ads we see on tv, whitening is a problem that is increasingly faced by women who are modern and independent. Nowadays, the person who needs fair skin is the woman who wants a job, the athlete who wins a tournament, the consummate professional that stands on her own two feet. The woman in a sari appears in the advertisement for a moisturiser that promises softer skin. It's almost as though we're so uncomfortable with the idea of a liberated, independent woman that we feel the need to slip a few insecurities into her psyche. Preferably something that reminds a woman that no matter how short her shorts and her good she is at her job, she is ultimately an object, something that men and other women see and judge. While Fair and Lovely tapped in on our inherent racism with its early ad campaigns, the intent of products like whitening deodorants, moisturisers and "hygiene products" seems more insidious now. They show working women who are successful and tell the viewer that the critical component of their success is that their appearance is acceptable to men. How the women sees herself is entirely irrelevant. What matters is how she's viewed by others. After all, you've got to do some significant contortion to see for yourself if Clean and Dry is having the promised effect. It takes a lot more than just standing in front of a mirror.       

Of course, if you've read Tehelka's story on how the Delhi-NCR police understand the word "rape", you know that a vagina could be purple with turquoise polka dots and it wouldn't matter. Where your vagina belongs on an Asian Paints shade card wouldn't change how people like Sunil Kumar, SHO Ghazipur, Delhi NCR, view urbane women: "They’ll drink and also have sex with you. But the day someone uses force, it’s rape." Well, yes, Mr. Kumar, that's how these things work in a society where women actually have a say in the matter of whom they have sex with; using force is indeed a problem. Tehelka's report confirms all our worst fears about North Indian men but it's worth keeping in mind that many women across the country and demographics judge one another by criteria similar to those spouted by the policemen interviewed for the exposé. The contempt for women who chafe against convention or demand a little more than what our misogynist and patriarchal society is willing to concede, is a pan-Indian phenomenon. If you sat and chatted with a policeman in Mira Road, you may hear similar opinions from him as his Ghazipur counterpart. Worse still, the aunty who goes for an evening walk on Marine Drive, wearing sneakers and a salwar kameez, may well express the same sentiments. My vagina, like my other body parts, doesn't think this is fair. 


Why are the businessmen who were Shweta Basu Prasad's clients not being named?

(This article was first published on Firstpost.)

Most of us remember her wearing a schoolgirl's uniform; with her innocent, childish face scrunched up with curiosity. But Shweta Basu Prasad isn't a little girl anymore. She's a 23 year old young woman and, as we've learnt from the news reports, part of a prostitution ring.

On Sunday, the Hyderabad Police raided a hotel in the city's posh neighbourhood of Banjara Hills. Prasad was caught "red-handed". In the news reports that have been circulating since, we've learnt that the man who had effectively been Prasad's pimp was an assistant director named Anjaneyulu, who went by the alias Balu. How much money he charged for Prasad's services has also been written about (Rs 1 lakh).

The shock of realising that the girl in the Makdee poster has grown up and that the film industry does indeed have a seedy and grimy side that glossy tell-all celebrity talk shows never admit to has obscured one detail: Prasad and Balu weren't the only ones to be arrested on Sunday.

Prasad is allegedly part of a high-profile prostitution ring that included in its list of clients "well-known businessmen". While Prasad's name is in the headlines, the names of the men who paid for sex have been protected. The details of what happened to Prasad, from being arrested to now living in a rescue home, have been shared by "police sources". However, there's nothing to be gleaned from any of the news reports about the men who were Prasad's customers.

The sources have disclosed a wealth of detail about Prasad, including a statement by her in which she accepts the charge of prostitution. It's just the kind of salacious detail that is bound to grab our attention because it confirms the abiding popular belief that there's a grimly exploitative  side to the film industry that chews and spits up so many of the young hopefuls who enter the arena.

However, prostitution is not an individual sport and it thrives not just because the film industry is a cruel and competitive place, but because there are men -- many of whom have reputations of being moral and beyond reproach -- who make it possible for people like Balu to set up the alternative business that he ran.

The businessmen who were paying Balu for Prasad's company are as complicit as the pimp and the 'prostitute'. After all, their money and appetites keep the flesh trade alive and thriving. If Prasad was caught "red-handed", then there is at least one man who the police know for a fact to be her client. (It gets particularly unsettling when you realise that all the reports mention that "several" men being arrested that night.) Yet not a single report mentions the names or any other detail about these supposedly well-known businessmen.

The difference between Prasad and a successful businessman is the very thing that, according to her statement, forced Prasad into prostitution: money. The wealthy can afford to keep their name out of the papers and remain shadowy silhouettes who stay away from the sticky taint of criminal charges and disrepute. They may have charges pressed against them, they may be guilty, but no one beyond their chosen circle will know of their guilt. In the public domain, where these men deserve to be flayed by public opinion for being the linchpins that hold prostitution rackets together, Prasad is the face of the scandal.

Even though she is the victim in this racket and arrested alongside her were businessmen whose names would probably make for bigger headlines than Prasad's, it's as though Prasad was the only one in the hotel room.


Snap Shot

(This article was first published in ELLE.)

If legends and myths of Europe are any indication, spying on women has traditionally been dangerous business. In Greek mythology, the poet Tiresias was blinded when he stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she bathed. When the Anglo-Saxon Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry, the one who ogled at her was a tailor named Tom — thus giving birth to the term “peeping Tom” — and he was struck blind. In India, on the other hand, voyeurism has long been an accept- able pastime. When young Krishna watches gopinis bathe in the Yamuna and steals their clothes, it’s a harmless prank. A woman unaware of the male gaze upon her is almost always the beginning of a love story, whether the hero and heroine are mythical charac- ters like Arjun and Subhadra from the Mahabharat or Rajinikanth and Shriya Saran in Sivaji – The Boss (2007). What has changed in the 21st century is that voyeurism now has tech support: The camera phone.

Cameras began appearing in phones in the late 1990s, and by the 2000s, they were all the rage. Now, every model has a camera and some, like the iPhone, take photographs that are as high resolution as the images taken with a regular digital camera. The craze for phone photography isn’t unique to India. Even news companies, like the American media organisations National Public Radio and CNN, make use of such photographs and the increasingly sophisticated lenses on camera phones have inspired some people, like Kainaz Amaria, to create works of art.

Washington DC-based photographer Kainaz began taking photos on her iPhone in 2010, soon after she came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. The images became something of a “visual diary” of Kainaz’s time in India. “When I look at a particular image I can remember the day, time, they way I felt when I made the frame,” she says. “I can remember the smells and what feelings triggered me to make the frame.” The phone’s camera had its limitations but it also offered a certain degree of freedom. Sitting opposite the woman in a local train or driving past a girl in Varanasi who looked all set to time travel to the disco era, Kainaz was able to use the unobtrusive iPhone to capture the confidence, quirk and the natural grace in the people and places she saw around her. “When you approach most people, more often than not they don’t mind and in India in particular, they happily welcome the attention,” says Kainaz.

There was also the advantage of being able to take photos of people without them being aware of it. For example, the candour and unaffected quality of the images she took while on Mumbai’s local trains make them particularly eye-catching. One shows a woman listening to her iPod while travelling. Kainaz was drawn to this unknown woman’s confident body language. This commuter was an everyday Mumbai girl but completely contrary to the stereotype of the submissive Indian woman. The camera phone was discreet. Unlike the camera, it didn’t alert Kainaz’s subject or make her self-conscious.

The images in photographer Fabien Charuau’s series, Send Some Candidson the other hand, reveal a very different angle of the camera phone’s potential. Send Some Candids is made up of photographs Fabien procured from the internet, from dubious websites and message boards. All of them are of women and all of them have been taken on camera phones. Fabien has 10,000 photographs in his collection and it is barely the tip of India’s candid photography iceberg.

“It started when I saw a guy take a photograph of my wife on the street with his phone, and there was nothing I could do about it because he was quite far away,” says Fabien, who is a well-known fashion photographer and making his first forays into art. He noticed men were clicking everywhere. “On my shoots, on the road, in buses, there is always a mobile phone, like the light boy’s phone, taking pictures. I started wondering what they did with these photographs.”

Fabien’s hunt led him to pornography sites, many of which are devoted to this brand of candid photography. The women in the photographs were almost always unaware of how they were being shot. “Most often, men take photos of family members or women they don’t dare approach,” says Fabien. Many of the photographs are blurred. Sometimes, faces are removed so that the woman is turned into an anonymous and eroticised body. “There’s so much frustration. It really shows you the imbalance between the sexes at the street level. More than the results, it’s the fact that they can click and invade the privacy that is important to these men. That’s their sense of power. Taking the photo, it’s like a visual rape.” It’s interesting to note that in the course of his research, Fabien didn’t find similar websites dedicated to women taking photos of men.

On the message boards, along with lewd comments, Fabien found detailed tutorials, teaching members how to take such photographs. “Some of them are very technically sound and in many, you see a lot of the techniques from street photography,” says Fabien. For example, much like photographer interested in capturing a public space without artful poses, the candid photographer finds a vantage point and waits for the right moment. “The intention is completely different but the way it’s shot, the tactics are disturbingly similar,” Fabien admitted.

With Send Some Candids, which was part of an exhibition in Mumbai last year and can be seen on Fabien’s website, Fabien turned the tables on candid photographers. Just as they insidiously invade the woman’s privacy, Fabien infiltrated into their space and exposed them to scrutiny by effectively stealing their photographs, appropriating them to create his work of art and putting them up for public display. With camera phones clicking in abandon and people developing apps like X-ray – point it at a photo of a model in a catalogue and the app reveals her in her underwear – Fabien’s artistic response is the only possible retaliation. There is nothing one can do to prevent photographs being taken or being shared online. “The only comfort, if you can call it that, is that if someone has taken a photo of you, you’re among hundreds and thousands of photos,” says Fabien. “You can’t control photography. The only thing you can do is try to stare them down.”


Death over eve-teasing: What Rohtak girls' suicides tell us about how we raise our girls

(This article was first published on Firstpost.)


On August 25th, Madhu and Nikita went to the coaching class they go to, but they didn’t come home. At the coaching institute, they both downed drinks that they had poisoned and even though the staff rushed them to the hospital, the girls died. They’d left behind letters explaining why they’d killed themselves.

Both suicide notes explained they were being ‘eve teased’ and they feared that the harassment would bring dishonour to their families. “I have no option left except die,” wrote Nikita. She was 17. Madhu was 16.

There was more. Nikita’s suicide note doubled up as a will:

“I had planned to buy a T-shirt for Chhoti... for which I have saved Rs 200. I have kept that money in a bangle box in the first drawer. Please buy her the T-shirt she likes. I know she will look very smart... I am also leaving my wrist watch for Bhai. Please ask him to wear it each time he goes for an exam or interview.”

Madhu’s letter contained the name of a man who had harassed the now dead girl and his bike’s registration number – information that would be required to file a police complaint.

Had the girls actually opted to take their harassers to task legally, the men would probably have been charged with Section 294 of the Indian Penal Code, which says those found guilty would be "punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both."

Whether or not you think that’s harsh punishment for following a girl around and making lewd comments, there’s no arguing that a fine and possibly three months’ imprisonment is trivial in comparison to death, which is what the girls sentenced themselves to for being the target of the men’s attention.

At 17 and 16, we expect children – boys and girls – to be at their angriest. We expect them to rebel and find ways to stick their tongues out at society’s notions of maturity. If they’re feeling suicidal, we expect them to listen to morbid songs or in the worst case scenario, make badly-thought out plans to end their lives. At ages 17 and 16, we don’t expect someone to be so full of despair that they will calmly, miserably and meticulously plan and execute a suicide successfully.

To many, Nikita and Madhu's decision to commit suicide may seem like too dramatic a reaction. You glimpse this in the news item that reported this tragic incident. The article says,

In their suicide notes — one runs into six pages, the other is four-page long — the girls speak of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging simply because young men had been following and harassing them. [emphasis: mine]

The word “simply” is telling of how normal we think sexual harassment of girls in public places is. It also suggests that suicide is an extreme reaction.

There are hundreds of cases from all over the country which show that the aggression glimpsed in the kind of harassment that’s euphemistically described as ‘eve teasing’, can easily escalate to take monstrous proportions. Women and girls who protest against public harassment often become targets of acid attacks and other violent crimes. (See here and here and here, for examples.)

However, in this particular case, matters hadn’t reached that stage. The girls were being pursued by men who made rude comments and loudly “offered” their phone numbers to the girls in public. The men were creating a spectacle that didn't just turn the girls into sex objects, but also branded them as ‘available’. In their suicide notes, the girls write that people stared at them on the street and the girls themselves were mortified. “You know how bad our colony is... how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us... even though we are innocent,” wrote Madhu.

The only recourse Nikita and Madhu could think of was suicide, which is a painfully glaring indicator of how differently sexual harassment is seen by victims, perpetrators and observers. The perspective of the observer is evident from the use of the word “simply” in the news report quoted earlier. We don’t know what the men thought of their behaviour, but chances are that they didn’t take it too seriously. They were ‘boys being boys’.

For Nikita and Madhu, there were serious consequences to the boys ‘having a bit of fun’. The girls didn’t see suicide as their only option because they felt personally victimized. It was the muck that the men's crassness spattered upon the girls' families that drove them to kill themselves.

Traditionally, the honour of an Indian family has rested upon its pedigree and its offspring, both boys and girls. While boys bring shame or pride by their actions, it’s a little different for girls. Of course what a daughter does adds to or takes away from a family’s reputation, but how she is seen by others is also critically important. From the fact that“family problems” is the most-cited cause of suicides in India, the institution that’s supposed to be the crown jewel of Indian culture is clearly not working very well for many of us.

Of the 1,41,283 women who died of unnatural causes last year, 44, 256 committed suicide, making suicide the number one cause of unnatural deaths in the country. Nikita and Madhu adding to this year’s statistics is particularly unsettling because there’s a fair amount of stigma attached to suicide. It means scandal that the family has to weather and both girls would have been aware of this. Yet the reaction to their deaths seemed less damaging to them than what they feared would come of the girls staying alive and perhaps continuing to be harassed. So they meticulously planned their last moments – from writing lengthy explanations to procuring toxic chemicals and finally, committing the tragic act in a place that wasn’t home. This was their way of protecting their families’ honour.

It begs the question of how we’re raising girls and why they don’t have better coping mechanisms. Why is suicide, the leading cause of death among women aged between 15 and 49, considered the only way out for so many? It’s easy to understand why going to the police didn’t seem like an option. Across the country, the police are notorious for being unwilling to take such complaints seriously. Even if the police had been sympathetic and charges were pressed, the worst that could have happened to the men is three months in jail. Then they’d be back on the streets, ready to attack Nikita and Madhu, and perhaps more viciously than before.

But is that reason enough to make suicide seem like a sensible option? Tackling gender issues is not simple, but neither is suicide. Why was there nothing around them that made Nikita and Madhu think living would the better way to respond to the problem they were facing? It’s tempting to consider Nikita and Madhu exceptions, but for the statistics that show suicide being the chosen option for so many in the country who face “family problems”.

In his book Raising Girls, child psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote,

Your daughter needs to know she is part of a bigger story; a fight that has been fought on her behalf, long before she was born, and that she needs to keep fighting.

Perhaps we’re just not telling enough stories of strength and survival, or maybe the heroines who inspired earlier generations seem defanged today. Perhaps we need new stories in which heroes and heroines recognize despair but don’t become its prey. Whatever is causing this toxic sadness to well within our daughters, we would be wise to recognise it's there and find ways to combat it.

The suicide statistics as well as Nikita and Madhu’s deaths show that our daughters don’t feel that they have what it takes to keep fighting. No matter how loudly we may outrage or how many candle marches we organize, that despair is the battle half lost.