Weekly Roundup- 26th November to 2nd December

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“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence.”

– Abigail Adams

In today’s world of information overload, we might miss something worthwhile. Every week, I’ll be flagging some of the articles I have read, which I found interesting, for you. Here’s the roundup for the week:

  1. Shamolie Oberoi writes about the staggering lack of sanitation infrastructure for women in Mumbai, India. Besides the lack of toilets, the existing toilets are also unhygienic, and seem to be designed for able bodied, non pregnant, non lactating women only.
  2. Arabelle Sircadi writes a personal account of their journey with gender in public and non public spaces, and the importance of not making someone’s gender their introduction.
  3. Probashi writes a profile on Madhumala Chattopadhyay’s work with Andamanese Tribes as an anthropologist. She was one of the people who established the first ever friendly contact with the hostile Sentinelese Tribe. Madhumala is also the first woman to be accepted by another Andaman tribe, the Jarawas, with whom she established a friendly relationship. Unfortunately her accomplishments remain forgotten.
  4. In an Indian Express podcast, Tara Krishnaswamy, the co-convener of the India Women’s Caucus, speaks about the reasons behind the low number of women in state and national politics, as MLAs and MPs, despite there having been an increase in the number of women in local and Panchayat roles.
  5. Japan Times writes about the march in Syria by Kurdish women to call for an end to violence against women. The march took places on the streets of the Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli last Sunday.

An Interview with Priyanjali Mitra

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Priyanjali is a development sector professional based in New Delhi. Having completed her under graduation in sociology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women (University of Delhi) and masters from the University of Oxford, she went on to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) at the ECSAP Regional Office in Bangkok. Thereafter she was a CM’s Good Governance Associate in the Haryana Government posted in Panipat.

Presently, she is working with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Bharat – on microfinance, livelihoods and social welfare of women in the informal sector. Her key areas of interest are gender, education and labour and employment in South Asia.

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You worked with rural women in Haryana. What were the key issues they were facing?

The most pressing issue faced by women in rural Haryana is the adverse social norms and gender discrimination that is deeply entrenched in society. The second would be the discriminatory laws and lack of legal protection. The reason why I mentioned the former is because it is the main barrier to women having freedom of mobility, education and the ability to express themselves. To add to that- a collapsed public health system, lack of infrastructure/transport in the districts are other factors that are hindering the advancement of women in the state.

How can these issues be solved?

It is essential for a wide range of stakeholders including women themselves to come forward and do their bit to push the envelope on issues related to women empowerment. State and non-state institutions as well as every individual if you come to think of it, has a role to play. Without a sustained, collective effort we won’t be able to ensure equality in its truest sense. To me, the issue of gender is as much a personal issue as it is political. Often the toughest space to bring about any change, is within the confines of the home. Each of us should begin there.

Why is empowerment important?

Empowerment is a broad term that has multiple meanings and various definitions. Borrowing from a UNFPA definition of the same, if we consider empowerment to have five components:  women’s sense of self-worth; their right to have and to determine choices; their right to have access to opportunities and resources; their right to have the power to control their own lives, both within and outside the home; and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally, then the reasons informing the need to empower women are clear. To ensure the advancement of half the population of the world, it’s a moral imperative to empower them. Gender bias is still deeply embedded in cultures, economies, political and social institutions around the world. Women and girls face unacceptable levels of discrimination and abuse, which is not only wrong, but also prevents them from playing a full part in society and decision-making. This is the most crucial reason for furthering empowerment. Secondly, most of the work done by women today goes uncounted, unremunerated and unnoticed. In most societies and economies, women’s unpaid work and nature’s services are not accounted for and therefore not valued properly in our systems.

Why did you decide to work in the development sector?

I have always been inclined to work for people at the grassroots, workers who were more vulnerable and those who do not have the kind of access to social welfare we often do. I didn’t box this as a sector per se but through the work I do and hope to in the future, I want to keep the evidence based research and bridging the gap between policy and praxis at the core.

How important is it to consider gender concerns while working in development?

It goes without saying that it is not just a programmatic requirement or ‘good’ practice today to do so, but also the most pragmatic consideration to include gender in the entire policy cycle. The idea case is when a specific intervention/policy/programme seeks to transform gender relations in a community.

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is one of the guiding principles of my life. If I had to pin point at exactly what point the awakening occurred – it was during my under graduate years at LSR. We were taught gender as a paper by one of the stalwarts in the sociology department- Dr. Anjali Bhatia. It was through her tutorials and the debates in the classrooms that we developed a feminist lens. Stalwarts like Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, Nivedita Menon, Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem were introduced to us and we were encouraged to examine the ideals against our everyday lived experiences. This was the turning point for a lot of us – questioning patriarchy, thinking through how we could influence change in society and our own lives. Feminism in a nutshell is the idea of establishing radical equality between the sexes- whether that is political, social or economic. And no, humanism is not feminism. To be a feminist is to recognize that we stand on the shoulders of giants who came before us and it is a responsibility to make the world a better place for women. I find a lot of women our age hesitating to accept the word for the myriad often negative connotations it has. To make it easier – Do you believe that women should be paid the same for doing the same jobs? Do you think that women and men both deserve equal rights? Well if you do, then you’re a feminist.

Are cultures and traditions changing in India?

This is a tough one. It needs to be understood that norms and traditions are deeply entrenched in society and to bring about change it often takes generations. If you take an example of marriage – a cursory glance at the matrimonial sections of the newspapers will tell you where we stand even today. If you think about honour killing in parts of north India, ‘love jihad’, incidence of rape and molestation – it is hard to conclude that we are changing as a nation.

Do you think India has made progress towards gender equality?

We surely have made some progress when it comes to gender equality. This itself is a vast and complex term. What does equality mean? Are women more empowered to take their own decisions today? In some spheres, they are and in a great many there remains much to be done. More women are getting educated today, compared to a few decades ago there is greater mobility due to development of infrastructure, more women hold positions of power in politics and in the higher rungs of the corporate world, women are pursuing off beat careers. But having said that, the scenario is far from ideal.

An Interview with Ashe Vernon

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Ashe Vernon is a queer poet and playwright from Austin, Texas. Author of four full length collections of poetry, Ashe is a very tiny person with very tiny hands and a whole lot to say about it.

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1. How do you think your gender identity and sexual orientation has impacted your work as a poet and artist?

I started writing poetry before I fully understood (or even had started to understand) my gender. Poetry was a place where I could explore questions without having to have an answer. I’ve always used poetry as a way to know myself better, and most of my poems are self reflective: examining feelings and events with greater detail and a broader understanding. It would be impossible for me to turn inward without addressing my gender and my sexuality. Queerness has shaped every part of my life, and every part of who I am. I think my best poems are about the queer experience. Some of the most profound moments of my life have been when someone I care about talks to me about their gender. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by other people with similar experiences to me, but many people aren’t. For this reason, I feel poetry is vital–it shows people that they are not alone, even when they feel like it, and gives you that intense feeling of catharsis in knowing that you are seen and you are understood.

2. In your poem “QUESTIONS FOR GOD, OR JUST ANYONE WHO’S LISTENING “, there’s one line that really stuck with me – “my gender is language i cannot speak, yet.”  – Could you explain your thoughts when you wrote this line, and the poem?

I wrote that poem during an uncertain time in my life. I knew that “girl” felt wrong on me–an ill-fitting hand-me-down that I had never been allowed to grow out of. I knew what my gender wasn’t, but I didn’t know what it was. It was very isolating. I often worried I wasn’t “trans enough” for the trans community, but I certainly didn’t relate to the cis gender experience. Of the many gender related metaphors in that poem, “a language I cannot speak yet” was the most honest. In a way, it’s still the most honest. Gender as a concept never made sense to me. I couldn’t relate. It was something forced on me, not something I experienced for myself. As a teenager who was just starting to learn about things like feminism, I assumed that my various gender issues were just a combination of internalized misogyny and self loathing. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I saw the early signs for what they were, and myself for who I really am.

3. How have the people around you reacted to your gender and sexual orientation? Has it been, or is it still, hard for people to accept you the way you are?

I’m lucky in that the poetry community has given me access to lots of like-minded and open-minded people. I’m also lucky that, while my family didn’t completely understand it at first, they’ve never rejected me or made me feel less than. The day to day of it, however, is still very difficult. I’m not out about my gender at work out of worry that I would not be respected. I like wearing makeup and wearing “girl” clothes, so am typically misgendered. I didn’t figure out my gender or sexuality until I was already an adult, so I was able to avoid being terrorized in school settings for it, but I saw people who were and I’m sure it kept me from letting myself think too hard about the things I was feeling. And the U.S. is becoming increasingly unsafe for queer people.
I think it’s easier for me to be out about my sexuality than my gender. Because gender education is so lacking, and so many people have never even heard of being agender, I run into people who think my gender does not exist. I’ve been called some pretty awful things, and the theme that connects all of them is that I am some kind of liar. Some days, it’s easy to ignore them. Other days, it feels earth shattering.

4. Do you think your poetry is political? Why/why not?

 I think all art is political, even when it doesn’t seem like it. Art is often either the creation of the kind of world we want to live in, or an exploration of the kind of world that we don’t. I rarely write poems that directly address things like legislation. However, every time I talk about the space between queer bodies, I’m talking about what I believe in. The things I value. The world I want.

5.  A lot of your poems talk about religion, your family and where you grew up. How do you think your location, family and religion impacted the way you viewed your gender identity and sexual orientation?

It’s interesting how many of my poems talk about religion, when religion has so little impact on my daily life, however I grew up with a pastor for a father and it was deeply ingrained in my upbringing. I am not a religious person, but I was raised by one. And I was raised in Texas, which is a militantly Christian state. There’s no getting around the impact that growing up in a deeply conservative state has on a young queer person–how it suppresses you in a way that can feel impossible to get out from under. I think, had I grown up somewhere else, I might have discovered these things about myself a lot sooner. Especially since all it took for me to realize my sexuality was to hear a pansexual person explain what pansexuality meant.

I don’t think my upbringing changed how I viewed my gender and sexuality once I KNEW them, but I think it had a profound effect on how long it took me to know them. I wasn’t exposed to queerness except in the simplest of terms, and it prevented me from forming a vocabulary to express my experiences.

You can find Ashe Vernon at:

Website: http://latenightcornerstore.com/

Instagram: @lackadazed

Twitter: @lackadazed

The Problem with Reactionary Legislation by Pranjal Pande

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In the backdrop of the protests over the violent abduction, rape, and murder of Asifa Bano, an eight-year-old girl from the Rasana village of Kathua, Jammu and Kashmir, the government released fresh guidelines regarding the rape of minors. The case, popularly known as the “Kathua rape case”, touched a nerve- leading to widespread protests from the public, along with multiple discussions about the prevalent yet sensitive issue of rape in the country.

On April 22nd, 2018, the Union Cabinet assented to an ordinance- a temporary law signed by the President when Parliament is not session- which would allow the courts to sentence any person(s) to death in the case of rape of a minor below the age of 12. When taken at face value this seems like a perfectly valid, even justified, action to take against perpetrators of such heinous acts. But dig a little deeper and one can see the action was not only taken in haste, but may also have adverse effects.

The ordinance came amid shock, outrage and protests all over the country. People were furious with the mishandling, politicization, and communalization of a brutal crime and demanded justice. The government needed a strong response to such a crime and this response came in the form of the ordinance, which serves as a prime example of “reactionary legislation”- when a government enacts laws hastily in response to a pressing issue. While reactionary legislation looks great on paper (who would ever argue that the rape of a child below the age of 12 shouldn’t be punished by death?) it has many detrimental effects, seen only in the future, that may be more harmful than the event which caused the legislation itself.

If we examine the ordinance in detail, we come across many fallacies. Under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, anyone who commits murder is punishable by the death penalty meaning that the Kathua rapists were always eligible for the death penalty, regardless of this ordinance. This subtlety proves to us that the legislation is definitely reactionary, because it makes no difference to the sentence tied to the specific crimes committed in Kathua, as that included murder.

However, what’s nevertheless important to focus on is that this ordinance means that now, the crime of rape of a minor below 12 carries the death sentence, regardless of anything else. This means that any perpetrator of such a rape would have no incentive to leave his victim alive, knowing that they would eligible for death. This takes away significant evidence from the case as the perpetrator may now hide or destroy the body, taking away forensic evidence and more importantly, the testimony of the victim.

While the ordinance opens the door to the death penalty, it is still the judges who decide the sentence. In any case of the rape of a minor below 12, the public will demand the harshest possible sentence, regardless of case facts, placing the judges under extraordinary pressure. This may lead judges to decide against conviction, knowing that convicting the person(s) will lead to immediate, and strong, calls for the death penalty, leading to them to even possibly acquitting the accused.

Looking beyond the legal aspects of this ordinance and instead at its social ramifications, it is seen that the ordinance, in the long run, remains detrimental and ineffective as a tool of meting justice. This is because many rapes of this nature take place within the family, perpetrated by close relatives. It is already considered common practice to hush-up abuse of any kind, including rape, and to never report it to the authorities. This is because reporting abuse is seen as threat to the family name and its honour, and also leads to the victim’s family becoming party to protracted legal battles. The idea of turning a family member in when they could be sentenced to death, effectively killing them, is incomprehensible to most families in Indian and this ordinance will only guarantee that the number of cases that already go underreported will only rise.

This is the problem with reactionary legislation. This is not the kind of article we will see in the headlines, this is not the writing we will read in the papers and this is not what the government wants to promote. But this is the truth. This ordinance is a response to heinous crime, one which should have never occurred, but it’s not remotely enough. It’s the equivalent of fixing a bullet hole with a band-aid. Rapes are a prevalent and pressing issue in this country and one we are constantly linked to in international circles. The problem of rape is an underlying one, and until the government addresses that issue, instead of reacting to the problem at hand, and starts taking proactive measures, we will see more of these rapes and more outrage and in turn, more reaction from the government. It’s a vicious cycle, where ultimately, we all lose.

Credits to Shraddha Chaudhary, whose Facebook post provided vast legal backing to this article.

By Pranjal Pande