Of feminist circles and their eligibility criteria


In an interview I read a while ago, a quote stayed with me. C.S. Lakshmi, better known as ‘Ambai’, a feminist author, translator and historian, spoke of female friendships, literary ambitions and Tamil writing. On being asked about her willingness to accept the label of being a feminist, she said: I no longer have the time to explain what feminism means. This struck a chord. It illustrated just how important the movement is, just how tired we are defending it, justifying it and constantly countering post-feminist world claims and just how much work we have to do as the clock ticks away.

Someone once asked me why I am such an “angry feminist”. Someone else once lauded me for my “happy feminism” as a relief from a circle of “sad, depressed feminists” that they are surrounded with. Someone once said I am too privileged to truly claim a feminist identity. (huh?) This amuses me. But it also alarms me, because it belittles the very purpose of a movement set out to erase inequality, oppression and marginalisation.

feminazi

I was once in a gathering of young feminist activists from all over the world. We kickstarted the day by introducing ourselves, where we are from and how we began our feminist journeys. It was one of the most emotional experience of our lives. Because for so many of us, it began with anger.Anger at not being taken seriously despite repeated attempts. Anger at several helpless situations that we were confronted with and continue to do so. And this anger didn’t disappear. It channelized its way into a movement from which we gained much energy, peace and liberation.

Over the course of our journeys, we have all felt hopeful, happy, agonised, ecstatic, positive, eccentric, existentialist and so many other things. There are days when I wake up feeling burdened at the amount of work that still needs to be done to meet our feminist goals. There are days when I feel I couldn’t be happier to be a part of this collective. There are days when I feel I need to buck up and think of ways I can contribute better. And that’s the best part about being engaged in a movement that is so relevant, contemporary and contextual.


Of late, I have been witnessing a sense of competition in feminist circles and gatherings. Their feminism is more inclusive. Hers is more environmentally responsible. Yours isn’t intersectional enough. I have seen folks proclaim these out loud or present their viewpoints in a ‘mine-is-better-than-yours’ manner. I have also been seeing some of my feminist sisters openly denouncing particular people identifying with feminism. And that scares me a little. While it is important to be constantly evolving our politics and recognising where our privilege is blinding us, it is hurtful to be denying the identity to those who want it.

For so many of us, feminism is a tool we use to fight sexism, casteism, ableism, classicism, homophobia, misogyny and patriarchy every single day of our lives. It is a cushion we rest on to escape the inequalities that surround us. It is a powerful pen that we pick up to respond to oppression. It is the welcome respite of love from a world of hate and judgment. And for many of us, it began at different stages of our lives. Some of us discovered it after leaving an abusive husband. Some of us found it on the day we were introduced to it by a fellow feminist friend. Some of us read about it somewhere and got curious. Some of us held on to it as we embraced our queerness. Some of us relied on it as we broke caste and racial barriers. This gif somewhat explains beautifully how I see the movement growing as we support each other through the journey.


Once, my mother shared a personal story of standing up for her own right. It was the first time she had acted upon something that she had been silent about for the longest time in her life.

“I am scared I am turning into you,” she said.

“What do you mean?,” I asked.

“You know. Feminist.,” she said with a quiver in her voice, after having uttered the F word. “What if I have turned into one?,” she worried.

“Well, you are not alone,” I assured her.

Picture of a scene from the Hollywood film Hidden Figures.

Picture of a scene from the American film Hidden Figures.

There is no time and there’s so much to do. And the only thing that can catalyse the process is love and support. Let us embrace people into the movement. Let us be constructive in identifying where we are misguided in our politics. Let us acknowledge our mistakes and learn from them. But let us not deny people from the circle. Because feminism doesn’t need an eligibility criteria. And, really, we should all be feminists.


 

This post does not necessarily reflect the politics or views of any organisation, group or collective and is the viewpoint of the writer alone.

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Of learning to accept body hair status quo


I was in ninth grade when I experienced shame because of body hair for the first time. We were preparing for a dramatic recitation of poetry for an inter-school competition. I was an integral part of the group that was all set to perform and winning meant a big deal. While I fully understood that and gave my best in all my rehearsals, one of my teachers said that I couldn’t go for the performance “looking like this”, pointing at my hairy legs. We wore knee-length skirts in school till tenth grade and, clearly, the fact that I had hit puberty by then manifested itself with the sudden eruption and visibility of body hair. My teacher said that we were supposed to wear our school uniforms at the competition and “no way” could I wear my knee-length, navy blue skirt parading my hairy legs while I recite a classical poem. It puzzled me how people would even want to look at my legs and whether or not there was any hair on it when I was actually performing and all the focus should have been on my face, my expressions and the lyrics of the poem.

By Carol Rossetti

By Carol Rossetti

It was the first time someone, whose opinions I valued, had pointed out something erroneous in me and/or my appearance. Interestingly enough, after this incident I began noticing hair all over my body and categorizing them as “unwanted”. Armpits, facial hair, pubic hair, hair on legs and arms—things that never made me think twice were suddenly all I could think about. I was 15 and lengths of cajoling did not help me get my mother’s permission to use the razor. Ma was worried I’d cut myself and it was reasonable for a mother of a teenaged daughter to be suspicious about my request of having a sharp-edged object.

When I was 17, I begged ma so I could go to the “beauty parlour” to get my “eyebrows done”. These were new phrases I was gradually picking up in school as I increasingly saw my female classmates coming to class with surprisingly perfect shaped eyebrows, leading to much male attention (I studied in a co-ed school). Up until then, I didn’t know what a beauty parlor was. My mother used to go to one (she still does) but I thought that’s a place only adult, married women go to because that is the age when beauty really mattered. Or so I thought. But I guess I was wrong. Beauty mattered a hell lot in school, as a teenager, who had begun feeling disgusted at her own hair everywhere on her body.

My mother tried to delay my foray into “adult womanhood” by claiming that she began her affair with beauty salons only after she got married. And that once I start, I’d never be able to stop. Well, she wasn’t lying! But I had an upcoming occasion to back me up. It was fresher’s in school: an event organised by the 12th graders for 11th graders (as a welcome to high school life) and it was a big social event for a 17-year-old me. Ma finally said yes and I went to my mother’s beauty parlour. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. The thread that was used to remove hair on my upper lip and shape my “hairy eyebrows” made be believe that they were thorns designed to kill me…one step at a time. I cried and wept, while the lady removed my facial hair. She also gave me a complimentary hair cut, just to cheer me up. But it did not. I looked at myself in the mirror. I couldn’t recognize the image of myself. When I came back home, my mother said: “You aren’t the same any more. And you never will be.”

It’s almost been a decade-long affair with beauty salons for me. I still go and, of course, have gotten used to seeing my eyebrows in a certain shape and look. In addition, I occasionally get hair on my arms and legs removed, especially during summers when I just can’t seem to get used to the idea of wearing a sleeveless tee or shorts/skirts without waxing my body hair off. I also feel that the nerves on my body that had feelings once-upon-a-time are now dead from being exposed to consistent and constant pain during hair removal. But what has changed over the years is my own confrontation with changing ideas, definitions and perceptions of beauty and how it gets associated with body hair.

I have grown from being least bothered to being most bothered, from can’t-wait-to-get-these-unwanted-thingies-out to what-is-this-excruciating-pain-somebody-rescue-me, from being embarrassed to strip in front of the salon lady to being proud of exposing the “real” me and from being a parlour regular to becoming my-body-hair-ain’t-that-bad satisfaction. It has taken me a long time to learn to accept my body and its hair, the way it is. It has taken me years to walk down the street wearing a knee-length skirt sporting waxed or unwaxed legs, with the same amount of confidence. It has taken me months to grow used to the idea that my eyebrows—regardless of their shape, size, thickness and girth—do not necessarily define my beauty. And it has certainly taken me a really long time to actually write about it all.

Of Serbia, staff meet and a supernatural connection


I double-check my e-ticket and passport. I count the number of baggage I am carrying. I chew some gum to calm myself down and avoid the restlessness and jitteriness I am feeling deep inside. As I take the cab from my home to the airport at midnight to catch a 4 am flight to Belgrade via Moscow, I wonder how uncanny all this sounds when I think about it in my head. A couple of weeks ago, I would not have even imagined such an event happening in my life. And today, here I was, travelling to Europe again. This time, for work. And that is exactly what made me wonder just how uncanny it all was.

As I arrive at the airport and collect my boarding pass, I realize I have a business class ticket. Since I could not take the flight on the day as was scheduled before (owing to visa troubles), my flight was rescheduled to the next day. Turns out there were no other tickets available except those in the business class section. It’s amazing how disappointment of not getting the visa on time turns to euphoria on discovering that I had been upgraded to first class. I collect my boarding pass as well as a coupon that apparently entitled me to first class lounge services. I sheepishly ask the lady who hands me the coupon: “Um…what exactly is that? Sorry, it’s my first time on business class!” She smiles and directs me to the lounge, where I discover comfortable recliners, massage centres, cyber café and, most importantly, free food. A buffet of assorted fruits, vegetables, dishes, snacks, juice and wine. As I pick and fill my plate, I wonder if this is for real.

I board a 6.5 hour flight from New Delhi to Moscow, while absorbing all the exquisite facilities that are offered to me on business class—welcome drink, comfortable pillows and cushions and blankets, a fancy travel kit and a three-course meal served on my seat (pity I am a vegetarian). An hour’s wait in Moscow followed by yet another 3 hour flight to Belgrade, again on business class with almost all the aforementioned facilities. Covering 10 hours, two time zones and over 6000 miles, I finally land in the beautiful country of Serbia. A kind man stands on the exit of a crowded Belgrade airport holding a placard that screams my name. For a moment, I feel too insignificant to deserve that!

I introduce myself to the kind man, who welcomes me to Beograd and escorts me to his BMW taxi. No, this isn’t a luxury I am exclusively entitled to; this is a luxury all taxi users in the city get. Most of the taxis in the city are BMW’s and Mercedes. After a 20 minute smooth ride on wide roads and bridges that oversee river Danube, I reach my ‘boatel’—a hotel that rests on a gigantic boat, of sorts. Every time an actual boat comes anywhere close to the boatel, the waves cause the boatel to swing making you feel like you’re on a Kashmiri houseboat. Soaking in this incredibleness and still unable to believe that I am in a country I had barely any knowledge of, I take a quick shower and freshen up to reach the destination of the staff meeting—the purpose for which I have been invited oh-so-gracefully and travelled so far for. I look at my image in the mirror for the 89th time just to confirm if I don’t look too over-excited, under-confident or unprepared. I head towards the meeting venue.

Sunset on the boatel

Sunset on the boatel

A short taxi ride later, I arrive at a giant building. I am told that the staff meeting is happening on the 16th floor. I gasp in amazement and take the elevator. The door opens and there are six young, smiling and brightly coloured women who cheer and shout at my arrival. I almost feel like a celebrity who isn’t aware why she is popular. We do a group hug and I instantly feel a connection with these amazing souls, who, in fact, I am meeting for the first time in my life. I had known their names and had briefly interacted with them over e-mail but this is the first time I have got the rare opportunity to link their profile pictures to their real selves. It feels surreal—to actually be able to meet them within a couple of weeks of e-interaction. These are women from all around the globe: Turkey, Australia, Cambodia, Botswana, Poland and Serbia. And now, India joins this colourful mix of people. I feel proud, responsible and hopeful for the next few days.

Since I had joined the meeting late, I am briefed about all that I have missed. I am also given gifts by my fellow team members: a special something that they have carried for each one of us from their home countries. It is beautiful and I am touched! I myself gift them my own jhumkas (earrings) and I am elated to see them wear it instantly. It makes me feel closer to them already. Sometimes, it is hard to believe that these lovely ladies are soon to be my colleagues. It feels like they are people I have met. Somewhere, sometime in some form or the other. Perhaps in a coffee shop. Maybe in a bar. Or a park, a library, a supermarket or a rally. They may not be familiar faces but there are familiar interests, common and strong linkages in our activism and politics of feminism and equal rights for all. With each of them, hired for a specific purpose, I feel there is so much to learn and unlearn from. Throughout the meeting period, I am overwhelmed and excited to realize how much there is to know and understand deeply. The variety of ideas and possibilities that are brought together on the table with the collective brains of seven individuals is quite mind-blowing.

All-staff

FRIDA staff. Picture courtesy FRIDA website: http://youngfeministfund.org/about-frida/staff/

I take part in each of the team building exercises. I learn a bit of Tai Chi, do some traditional Botswanaian dance, and make them dance to a Bollywood number. It’s an amazing mix of colours, cultures and cuisines. I make a note of my specific roles and responsibilities in this new job that sounds less of work and more of having fun and making sure that everyone else does too. I am nervous, excited and thrilled all at the same time. I am filled with hope that feminist activism around the globe continues to grow and shall never end. I bid a teary goodbye to all the new people I met. I bow my head in front of the solidarity that is built in such a short span of time. I smile as I return to my home. I smile as I relive each of these moments while typing them down. 🙂

Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the views and opinions of FRIDA | The Young Feminist Fund

Of fearless feminism


I have been struggling to ooze out words. Words that best describe some dominant as well as dormant thoughts that have settled on my mind over the past couple of months. Thoughts that link my personal, political and professional experiences. As a feminist, I have always found it difficult to separate my personal from my political, which I believe, gives me the greatest satisfaction: the ability to link what seems personal to the larger politics of life and society. And to link what seems a political issue with deepest and most intense personal experiences.

My feminism and the way it has grown in me (and it continues to spread its wings) has impacted the way I look at life and its (in)sanity. But the brunt I have borne and continue to bear on account of the fact that I am a feminist (and have no qualms about it) is incomparable to any of my other political or non political identities. People have unfriended and blocked me on social media (I have reciprocated in similar way on some occasions), some have created my image to be that of the “rebel without a cause”, some have questioned this particular ism and its irrelevance in, what they see as, a post-feminist world, some more have avoided eye contact and being in touch with me out of fear of yet another “rant” by me on women and their rights. On the other side of the spectrum are those who have engaged in constructive criticism, made me rethink my feminist politics, challenged my assumptions about rights and privileges that individuals are entitled to (regardless of their gender), some have friended and followed me owing to my political leanings and inclinations, while few have simply nodded along and built solidarity on common grounds.

My own desire to study and specialize in subjects had some link or the other to feminism and feminist politics. It’s hard to put a pin point on when exactly did my body and soul opened up to the liberating idea of feminism. But from whatever I do recall, I think it began with my first period. An unforgettable event in my life that confirmed my worst fear: that men and women, indeed, are different. That this monthly bleeding is something that only bodies with vaginas get to experience. Why so? How so? Is that really so? These are some of the questions I mulled over later which helped articulate my experiences better. The desire to question status quo. The curiosity of never stopping to wonder why. The itch to unpack the equality presented and the inequalities hidden. The eye to recognize the marginalized. The knack of identifying what privileges exist and what rights we still need to fight for to rightfully claim as ours.

I continue to engage in feminist activism. Though my work. Through my observations. Through my writings. Through my readings. Through my very existence. But I often pause and reflect on how exhausting it sometimes gets to defend my feminist politics to an ignorant and skeptical audience. An unaware audience wanting to know more is different from an ignorant audience wanting to belittle every little ounce of your efforts. I have fatigued myself trying to explain to folks what feminism is not. Debunking the myths. Eliminating the stereotypes. Making a sincere effort to clean its unnecessarily tarred image in popular media, belief and opinion.

Things are certainly changing on all fronts and one mustn’t give up hope. For all the right and/or wrong reasons, being a feminist and being a supporter of “women’s empowerment” has become ‘cool’. While it saddens me to see the overuse and misuse of such critical words without first making an attempt to understand and place them in their contextual realities, it does give me hope to see that people find it easier to adopt and accept the F-word. I do simultaneously hope that they also read a little and make an attempt to dig deeper into the history of the feminist movement that varies across the globe.

My feminism and its continued understanding has been the cushion to rest on particularly difficult and tiring days. When I lose hope or feel demotivated, I seek comfort in its arms. I write. About myself. My experiences. My friends and family and the kind of discrimination we all practice knowingly and unknowingly in our everyday lives. I read. About feminist struggles and battles that were fought and continue to exist to weed out the oldest forms of oppression our society has ever known: patriarchy. I observe. Things, people, objects and individuals that remind me to never let go of my consciousness. As a woman. As a citizen. And as an individual worthy of equal rights, dignity and respect.

आशा से गुफ़्तगू


आशा से मेरी मुलाक़ात मेरे दफ़्तर में दाखिल होने के दूसरे दिन हुई | उनसे मिलने से पहले उनके बारे में अपने साथियों से काफ़ी सुना था | इस वजह से मैं थोड़ी बहुत तैयार भी थी ऐसी हस्ती से मिलने जो, लोकप्रिय राय के अनुसार, मिलनसार और खुशमिजाज़ थी | किसी ने शायद सही कहा है: जनता कभी ग़लत नही होती | जैसा सुना था वैसा ही पाया | मिलने के आधे घंटे के अंदर मैं उनसे हँसने बोलने लग गयी | मुझ जैसे अंतर्मुखी इंसान के लिए यह एक परिवर्तन था | मिलने के कुछ घंटों में ही हम दोनो ने व्यक्तिगत और पेशेवर स्तर पर कई सारे चर्चे कर डाले | नारीवाद सोच से लेकर गैर संस्कारी संस्थाओं का योगदान, लिंग, जेंडर और लैंगिकता से लेकर काम के प्रति प्रतिबद्धता: इन सभी विषयों पर हमने ना सिर्फ़ चर्चा बल्कि आलोचना भी की | उनके साथ बातचीत करने में मुझे बहुत अच्छा लगा | जिस आसानी से मैं उनसे संवाद कर रही थी, ऐसा लगा मुझे एक ऐसी सहेली मिली है जिसे मैं बरसों से जानती हूँ |

उनकी व्यक्तिगत ज़िंदगी इतनी कमाल की है की सुन कर मैं दंग रह गयी और उनके होसले को मैने मन ही मन दाद दिया | बी. सी .ए. (बाचुलर्स इन कंप्यूटर अप्लिकेशन ) में तीन साल विशेष रूप से पढ़ने के बावजूद, एक लड़की होने की हैसियत से, आशा को कंप्यूटर नाम के साधन से दूर रखा जाता था | अपनी खुद की आर्थिक स्थिति और सीमित विकल्प के कारण उनकी शिक्षा भी सीमित रूप से ही पूरी हो पाई | अपनी ही कक्षा में आशा अल्पसंख्यक थी | ऐसे माहौल में ना तो कंप्यूटर या तकनीक के प्रति रूचि हुई और ना ही इस ज्ञान को आगे बढ़ाने का ख्याल आया | कंप्यूटर में ग्रॅजुयेट लड़की ने अपनी ज़िंदगी का पहला ई-मैल फ़ैट (फेमिनिस्ट अप्रोच टू टेक्नालजी ) में आकर टाइप किया | इस सच्चाई को सुनकर मैं हैरान रह गयी | जिस लड़की ने इस विषय को अपने तीन साल दिए और जो सामाजिक पूर्व धारणाओं की वजह से अपने रूचि को कभी जगा ना सकी, आज एक गैर संस्कारी संस्था में ना ही कंप्यूटर से संबंधित काम करती है बल्कि टेक सेंटर में आने वाली किशोरियों को कंप्यूटर और तकनीक से संबंधित विषय सीखती भी है | आज ना ही उन्हे रूचि एवं दिलचस्पी है बल्कि टेक सेंटर को एक “वोमन फ्रेंदली” रूप उन्होने ही दिया है |

आशा फ़ैट की सबसे पुरानी सदस्य है और हमारे परिवार से तीन साल से जुड़ी हैं | वैसे तो उनका पद प्रोग्राम असोसीयेट का है लेकिन मूल रूप से वह एक शिक्षिका हैं | जो भी किशोरियाँ हमारे टेक सेंटर में कंप्यूटर और इंटरनेट सीखने आती हैं, उन्हे वो ही पढ़ती हैं | उन्होने खुद अपना ज्ञान अपरंपरागत तरीके से पाया है | फ़ैट से जुड़ने के बाद ही उनके अंदर कंप्यूटर आदि यंत्र के प्रति भय मिटा | आशा के पढ़ाने का ढंग किताबी नहीं है | वह बातचीत द्वारा लड़कियों को व्यस्त रखती हैं | भाषण देना उनकी आदत नहीं बल्कि लड़कियों को इस तरह प्रोत्साहित करती हैं की हर क्लास में वे ज़्यादा बोलें, ना कि वो | हर थियरी को प्रॅक्टीस से जोड़ना भी उनकी एक अदभुद कला है |

नारीवाद और नारीवाद सोच पर एक सेशन के दौरान उन्होने “फेमिनिसम” जैसे शब्दजाल को बहुत ही सरल रूप में समझाया: वह सोच जो हर मौजूदा अधिकार पर “क्यों?” का सवाल उठाए | मेरी सारी पढ़ाई एक तरफ़ और यह सरल परिभाषा एक तरफ़ | आख़िरकार, नारीवाद सोच तो यही है ना: उन सारे भेदभाव और सामाजिक अन्यायों के खिलाफ आवाज़ उठाना जो औरतों के सशक्तिकरण में बाधा बनती है | लड़कियों के उत्साह का शिकार मैं भी बनी | उस भरी कक्षा में आशा के एक नये विद्यार्थी का जन्म हुआ और अपने इस नये अवतार से मैं आज भी प्रसन्न एवं संतुष्ट हूँ |

मेरे लिए आशा एक ऐसी शिक्षिका हैं जो ना ही दूसरों को सिखाती हैं बल्कि दूसरों से वे खुद भी सीखती हैं | मेरा इस लेख को हिन्दी में लिखने का भी एक प्रमुख कारण है | वैसे तो मैं खुद को कोई लेखिका नहीं समझती परंतु जब भी लिखती हूँ, अँग्रेज़ी में ही लिखती हूँ | आदत कह लीजिए, या रूचि, या ज्ञान | यदि मैं आज हिन्दी में इतना कुछ लिख पा रही हूँ तो वो आशा की ही देन है | उनसे मिलने के पश्चात मेरे ज़ंग लगे हिन्दी को एक नयी जान मिली और मैं इस भाषा से और रूबरू हुई | हिन्दी में अपने विचार प्रकट करने का कारण एक और भी है: आशा खुद अपने अँग्रेज़ी के ज्ञान से ज़रा शरमाती हैं | अँग्रेज़ी के अधिकतर माहौल में खुद को सीमित पाती हैं | आज उन्ही पर कहानी लिखना हिन्दी में ही मुनासिब लगा | आशा से आशा करती हूँ की मेरी इस प्रयास को वो सराहेंगी और इसी तरह अपने अदभुद ज्ञान और उत्साह को हर तरफ बाँटेंगी | आपको ढेर सारा प्यार और स्नेह xx

A cheerful Asha at the Tech Center

A cheerful Asha at the Tech Center

I met Asha on the second day of joining office. Before meeting her, I had heard a lot about her vibrant personality. This is why I was somewhat prepared to meet someone who, according to popular opinion, was an affable and positive person. Maybe they are right when they say that the public can never be wrong. She turned out to be exactly as I had heard. Within half an hour of meeting her, I began to laugh and talk with her. For an introvert person like me, this was a major exception to the rule. Within hours of meeting, we had already discussed so many things both at the personal and professional level. Ranging from feminist thought to their identity in the development sector, sex, gender, sexuality and work commitment: not only did we discuss but offered each other our very own critique on these topics. I really enjoyed striking a conversation with her. The ease with which I was interacting with her, it felt like this is a friend I have known for a long time.

Her own personal life journey is so incredible that I was stumped to hear about it. I appreciated her morale and self confidence as she unraveled her story. Despite enrolling in a Bachelors for Computer Applications and giving three years of her life to obtaining this degree, as a woman, Asha was categorically kept away from an instrument called the computer. Her own financial status only allowed for limited options as far as completing her basic education was concerned. A woman, and by extension, a minority in her own class, neither did she develop any specific interest towards computers and technology nor did she get an opportunity to expand her knowledge on the same. A graduate in computers, Asha typed her first e-mail in the office of FAT. I was surprised to hear about her reality. A woman who gave three years of her life to computers and disliked it majorly owing to societal assumptions about a woman’s capability in front of a technical instrument. Today, she was not only working in an NGO using a computer but also teaching computers and technology to adolescent girls at FAT’s Tech Center. Today, not only is she interested and zestful about it but is a major contributor towards making the Tech Center a “woman friendly” space.

Asha is the oldest family member of FAT who has been associated with us for the past three years now. Strictly speaking, she is a “Programme Associate”. However, I view her as a teacher as that is the identity I see her as. She teaches computer and Internet to the young girls who come to our Tech Center. She herself is a live example of having learned the unconventional way. It is only after joining FAT that her fear of machines like computers went away. Asha’s teaching style has never been bookish. She keeps the girls engaged through a healthy and friendly interaction. She is not the cliched lecturing woman. Instead, she encourages girls to speak more in each of her classes. She is incredibly talented in converting the theory that she has learned and understood into practice inside a live classroom.

During one of the sessions on feminism and feminist thought, Asha deconstructed the supposed jargon around feminism in the most simple and clear manner: that which questions authority and asks the question “why?”. My entire theoretical knowledge was one; her own understanding and definition was another. After all, isn’t feminism all about raising one’s voice against any discrimination and societal oppression that becomes a barrier in the path of woman’s empowerment? The enthusiasm among girls spread and infected me. A new student was born in that class and even today, I am extremely happy and satisfied with my new avatar as Asha’s student.

To me, Asha is the kind of teacher who not only teaches but also learns from what her students teach her. There is a reason why I chose to write this article in Hindi. While I do not consider myself to be a writer but whenever I do write (or have written), I have chosen to do so in the English language. Call it my habit, interest or sheer knowledge. But if I have mustered enough courage to actually pen my words in Hindi, it is Asha’s contribution. It is only after meeting and knowing her that my rusted Hindi got a new life and I met this wonderful language all over again. Expressing my thoughts in Hindi also has an ulterior motive. Asha is conscious of her Hindi. In a world where English is the norm, Asha finds her own knowledge and grasp over the language to be limited. But to write a story about her demanded that I write it in a language that she relates to. I hope that Asha would appreciate this effort of mine and would continue to inspire and encourage several people with her knowledge and enthusiasm. Lots of love and hugs xx

Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) is a a not-for-profit organization that believes in empowering women by enhancing their awareness, interest and participation in technology. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect that of the organization.

This article was originally published on Campus Diaries.

Learning about feminism: through the eyes of young girls’


I enter the Tech Center with a lot of inhibitions. About twenty girls who have never seen me before eyeing me from top to bottom. I adjust my dupatta. Maybe they are judging if it matches with the rest of my attire. My colleague, Shivani, who is about to take a session on “Feminism” with these young girls has repeatedly assured me how beautiful and wonderful these girls are. But I have my set of inhibitions. This is my first entry into a world of young girls coming from urban poor slums wanting to know about feminism and curious enough to come together and listen about it. I take out my notepad to make notes, if any.

Shivani introduces me to the class explaining my entry into the FAT team. All thirty pair of eyes on me. I am about to break into some more sweat when they all yell “Hi!” with the biggest smile on their faces. It’s amazing how a smile can break any ice. I smile back at them and get the confidence to reciprocate their friendliness. Things are not as half as bad as I thought. I sit with them to listen to the class keenly.

The session begins with a simple question—what do you think is the difference between a boy and a girl? Girls enthusiastically raise their hands to answer. Some say there is really no difference except their reproductive organs. Some point out the difference in their respective behaviours. Some vaguely mention the word ‘power’ and how its distribution varies among boys and girls. I am amazed at this response and wonder if I even knew what ‘power’ meant at that age except if used in the context of electricity.

Shivani explains the difference between sex and gender to the girls and there is a sneaky giggle at the s-word. I can’t hold back my smile and join them in their curious snickering. The word आज़ादी (freedom) comes up for discussion. Girls react differently. Some look at each other as if it sounds like something one should have but for some reason, one hasn’t got it yet. Some claim they have complete azaadi to do anything they want. When asked if they can go late at night alone on a street, they are shocked at such a demand. But why would we want to do that?, they ask. But what if you want to? You don’t want to today because you do not even have the option to consider it. There’s silence and a lot of musings.

Picture courtesy FAT

Picture courtesy FAT

Shivani throws in another situation. What if your brother comes late at night? That’s okay. He is a boy. That’s allowed, girls agree in unison. Why do you think that is? Girls realize that it’s a question always at the back of their head but they have never explored it further. Where does such a thought process come from? How does the presence or absence of a vagina and/or a penis decide things for people that affect their everyday lives? Girls whisper around and wait patiently for one magical word to answer this inequality. पितृसत्ता. Patriarchy. There’s silence. Girls are still absorbing the enormity of the answer and the weight of this heavy word.

So, how do we deal with this?, asks one curious girl. By fighting patriarchy. Girls voice their everyday patriarchal experiences in the session and these are linked to the idea and concept of feminism—not merely as a term to be understood but as an everyday need and a daily lived experience. Raising our voices against discrimination. Being stubborn about wanting to claim our rights. Constantly asking why and questioning authority. Changing people’s mindset. By dialogues, discussions and comparisons. By perseverance, persistence and patience. By understanding differences, respecting it and negotiating with it. And isn’t that what feminism is all about?

Girls gasp at the F-word. Some have vaguely heard of it before. Some are neutral to it. Some know it because it is the first word in the abbreviation FAT. As the term is unfolded in front of them, the girls notice how their association with the F-word is almost an everyday affair, without them realizing it. Some of them have fought or are still fighting for their right to study further. Some have raised their voices against parental pressure to get married the moment they turned 18. Some have supported their mothers and become their shields when their fathers have raised hands on them. Some have garnered the confidence to travel on their own in Delhi and wear what they want to and what they feel comfortable in. I have been told that girls from the Tech Center in the past have even screened movies on menstruation using community screening as a tool to keep the feminist struggle alive.

Shivani explains how the Tech Center, today, is a feminist space that provides young girls from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, with the much-needed freedom to come, learn not just about technology and new age communication tools but also foster a spirit of awareness and activism about women’s rights and girls’ issues. It’s a space where girls share stories about lived experiences and do some loud thinking on it, while they simultaneously learn how to lose inhibitions (if any) on using and working with technology. This is what we call a ‘Feminist Approach to Technology’. We are FAT and we love it! The girls laugh and spread cheer. At the end of the session, two of them give me goodbye hugs. My day feels worthwhile.

This post was originally published here.

Of reading erotica and extended debates


So, basically, you’re reading porn?” More often than not, the question is followed by judgmental chuckle or shocked horror. For someone who is researching on erotic literature, one must simply get used to the idea that an encounter with prudishness coupled with shrewd hypocrisy is an everyday reality in our beloved country. On one hand would be those who would pronounce my shamelessness on having voluntarily chosen this topic, while on the other hand would be the same lot highly curious to know if erotica is really being written and is available for purchase.

As part of my research, I’m expected to do textual analysis of erotica and to do that, step one would be to read it. While my topic may sound exciting and interesting (it is, indeed), there are several challenges that I, as a [woman] researcher, face. Firstly, I can’t be reading erotica anywhere and everywhere, like any other piece of writing. It’s one thing to read Marquez’s Love in the time of cholera on a railway platform; it’s a whole other thing to read The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin in a local train, where people leer at the book cover that proudly flaunts the naked back of a lady. Much as we’d like to avoid saying it, we do judge people by what they are reading and books by their cover. It won’t be very “pleasant” and “decent” of me to be reading a book entitled that has the picture of a lady in a sari sans her blouse smoking away to glory, to begin with. Now, whether I read erotica for my own need for seeking pleasure or for a more “legitimate” purpose of researching extensively on it is, frankly, nobody’s business.

One of the many research questions that I’m looking at is the subtle line of difference between what gets constructed as erotica, and thus, by extension, aesthetically appealing and hence justified for consumption (at least by a certain section of society—the so-called “educated” ones) , and pornography casually and conveniently associated with something that is dirty, cheap and trash-worthy. Much has been written about feminist debates surrounding porn and how feminists stand completely divided on their stand, which itself has changed over a period of time. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon are one of the most obvious and vocal voices of anti-porn feminists who recognize porn as an exploitative industry and categorize it essentially as demeaning to women and something that should most definitely be banned. Most common arguments against porn includes glorification of rape and sexual assault, objectification of women, catering to the male fantasy, degradation of women in their representation, child sexual abuse and perpetuation of serious misogyny.

The other side of the spectrum has feminists who rationalize pornography as a celebration of women’s sexuality and depart from the aforementioned views. They see it as a platform for feminist expression and advocate for what they call feminist porn (and they insist that the word is not an oxymoron). Ellen Willis who is credited for having coined the term sex-positive or pro-sex feminism argues that [feminist] porn gives an opportunity for women to explore their sexuality and provides that rare space to articulate and achieve those hushed sexual desires and fantasies. This feminist revisiting of porn is linked to the feminist critique of censorship and borrows from the basic notion of freedom of expression that ought to be encouraged and not protested against.

In the light of these historical arguments that are primarily American in their location, let’s place the recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India that has proposed a ban on pornography from the Internet, the argument being that it is one of the chief facilitators of increasing violence against women. Going by past events, common sense would tell us banning something simply ends up increasing its sale or productivity. Ban a book? People would be more than curious to [illegally] download its e-version. Ban a movie? It’s all set to become a box office hit. As far as banning pornography goes, it’s hardly possible for that to happen given the fact that it’s a large scale industry in itself and there are several ways of accessing porn.

A ban is essentially a curb on the freedom of expression; in this case, that of art and content. Feminist porn, as claimed by feminists who support pornography, seeks to revisit porn and the things that it is accused of. One of the reasons why I decided to research on erotica is because it is a genre of literature that was never taught or, rather, brushed aside. Much like any other genre, erotica, too, has a lot of scope for women’s writing. A similar case may be made for porn that isn’t demeaning to women but seeks to revisit and reclaim it as a medium of feminist expression. What porn (much like media ads on beauty products and cosmetics for both men and women) has done today is create unrealistic standards of fantasy, promoting objectification and perpetuating gender violence in this process. Feminist porn and photography seeks to correct this by “challenging dominant conceptions of sexuality and power”.

Let’s look at the audience that consumes porn—openly and/or clandestinely. India is deemed as a country of sexually frustrated men (a generalization that is used by some to justify increasing cases of rape and molestation). We even have ministers watching porn during the proceedings in the Parliament. But porn is also consumed by women, whether or not they may be sexually frustrated. Those who watch/read porn have their own set of reasons for doing so.  India Today sex survey claimed that in 2006, a large percentage of women emerged as viewers and the figures are only increasing over the years. The survey that also sought to understand the lives and minds of women in small town India reveals that at least 30 per cent of them has watched a porn film at some point and at least half of those saw one at least once every couple of months.

That porn is a medium of women’s exploitation is still an acceptable and factually correct argument. But I’m yet to understand how its ban would reduce violence against women. Do those who rape and molest do so after having watched a couple of graphic pornography and learned the tricks of the trade? Isn’t the problem more in the mindset of the person who commits a crime that is essentially about power and not sex?

Now, if you will excuse me, I have three volumes of erotica to finish before I end my day. Thank you.

Picture courtesy Google Images

Picture courtesy Google Images

This post was published in The Alternative, an e-magazine that strives to make social good an everyday practice