‘Persepolis’ Author Marjane Satrapi Speaks To Emma Watson On Feminism

This post first appeared on Women’s Web

Marjane Satrapi’s globally acclaimed graphic memoir, Persepolis was the recommended book for June in Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf. Combining unapologetic humor with brilliant insights, Persepolis describes Satrapi’s childhood and coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.

With the support of her loving family, Satrapi deals with the contradictions between private and public life in a country afflicted by political turmoil. During her adolescence she leaves for Vienna to attend high school and suffers from being caught between two disparate cultures and a feeling of not belonging anywhere. Satrapi again returns to Iran and despite the constraints tries to make her voice heard.

Recently, Emma Watson spoke to Satrapi in an interview exploring the various aspects of her memoir as well as her views on different issues concerning women, humanity, and religious fundamentalism.

Below, are Satrapi’s views on some of the issues concerning feminism.

On the importance of women’s economic independence

“…First you have to have economic independence of women, and then we can talk about the freedom of women. If women are educated, they will be economically independent and they will just accept less shit. That is the first step toward democracy. The enemy of democracy isn’t one person. The enemy of democracy is patriarchal culture….”

On media and how women themselves perpetrate sexist ideas

“…look at the female magazines, all the female magazines! I never read them because they really piss me off. “How am I going to lose 10 pounds before summertime?” What if I don’t want to lose 10 pounds? Because you know the little crease that I have—I really love it. And what if I don’t want to have perfect skin, because I’m 45 years old and of course I am aging?

But is that really the fault of men? I don’t think so. That is our responsibility, and when we blame it on men, we always put ourselves in the situation of the victim. And we are not victims. We are human beings. We have our brain. Nobody can stop us from being gorgeous, intelligent, thoughtful.”

On the freedom to choose under any circumstances

“The only person who stops you from being free is you. Nobody can take your freedom…I have lived in a dictatorship. You know, there was a ban on everything! Was I less free in my mind? No, I wasn’t. Did I become a stupid person? No, I didn’t. Because no matter how much they looked at me, they could not get into my mind. That belongs to me.”

On motherhood and women tearing each other down

“You know, I don’t want to be a mother. I don’t want anybody to call me “Mummy.” But as a woman I have to justify myself all the time. And if I want to say, “I want to dedicate my life to my work,” I am called a slut!….

And who asks me most of these questions? Women. F**k that, you know?

We are very, very hard on ourselves, on one another, and, you know, it’s time to consider each other simply as human beings.”

On her involvement with Feminism

“I am very involved with these women’s issues, because I wonder why we don’t believe in ourselves a little bit more. Why do we think that we have to get married to be happy? Why do we think that if we don’t have a boyfriend it’s the end of our world? It isn’t, believe me. It isn’t. Why do we have to always define ourselves by somebody else? Why can’t we just be us?”

Why Should Irom Sharmila’s Choice Of Partner Be Anyone Else’s Business?

This post first appeared on Women’s Web

Irom Chanu Sharmila, the Iron Lady of Manipur, broke her 16-year long fast on Tuesday, 9th August. Sharmila was 28 when she went on a fast after the Assam Riffles personnel gunned down ten civilians, including teenage students, at Malom near Imphal.

Sharmila wanted to be a doctor when she was young but after witnessing atrocities in her state, she chose to fight peacefully against the armed forces special powers act (AFSPA) that allegedly gives soldiers the ‘license to kill.’

For over one and a half decade, Sharmila had been kept alive by artificial feeding through surgical tubes. Not only had the government attempted to force feed her over the years but she had been arrested several times under Section 309 of the IPC under allegations of attempted suicide.

And yet after sacrificing her dreams, after living without tasting a morsel of food for 16 years, after being confined to a prison-turned-hospital during the prime of her life, what does she get in return? Harsh criticisms and abandonment for giving up on her hunger strike. Some radical groups have even threatened her with death for ending her fast.

Sharmila had been the recipient of several prestigious awards such as Gwangju Prize for Human Rights, a lifetime achievement award from the Asian Human Rights Commission, and the Rabindranath Tagore Peace Prize. In 2013, Amnesty International declared her a Prisoner of Conscience. However, her supporters including her own family tend to forget that she is also a woman with ‘ordinary desires.’

After 16 years of resistance and after being mostly in custody, Sharmila now wants to contest in Manipur’s election and run for the position of Chief Minister. She also wants to marry the Goan-born British national Desmond Coutinho.

But will our patriarchal society ‘allow’ her an ordinary life? When Sharmila started her fast, she had never asked anyone to join her in her protest, then why can’t she independently come out of the protest when she feels like? Hadn’t she already sacrificed enough?

Sharmila found herself without any supporters after she called off her protest on Tuesday. It seems that even her own family had forsaken her and she might have to continue living in the 8×12 hospital ward that served as her ‘home’ over the last 16 years. (Media reports reveal that she was not welcome in her own family’s homes either.)

Her former supporters such as members of the Sharmila Kanba Lup (Save Sharmila Campaign) showed their anger for ‘Breaking their trust.’

Even her plan to get married to Desmond Coutinho was criticized by many who feel that the ‘outsider’ has influenced her decision to end the fast. Many think that he was planted by the government to weaken Sharmila’s resolve to fight.

It is noteworthy that in 2011, when the media first wrote about Sharmila’s relationship with Coutinho, the civil society bodies in Manipur had termed it as ‘an insult to Manipuri people.’

It is indeed interesting to note how a woman’s decision about her personal life can come so easily under public scrutiny no matter how big her sacrifices for a greater cause. Even if people’s paranoia regarding Coutinho turns out to be true, what right does anyone have to dictate whom she will or will not marry? Also, why should we assume that she will abandon her cause just because she wants a normal life?

If her supporters are so concerned about continuing the protest against AFSPA, why can’t they start their own hunger strike and make all the subsequent sacrifices that she had made so far? Why is she being considered to be a property of the people without a say in her own life?

Irom Sharmila has been the face of the fight against AFSPA. She had brought Manipur’s terrible plight to the international limelight. In fact, in a landmark ruling in July 2016, the Supreme Court has agreed to investigate hundreds of alleged illegal killings in Manipur. And yet today, Sharmila stands all alone.

We hope that Sharmila’s erstwhile supporters and the larger community realizes that she has the right to choose her life and that doesn’t undermine her noble sacrifices and the efforts she made so far. We also hope that the rigid mindset of our patriarchal society starts changing for the better.

The Latest Dove Ad Wins Our Hearts With Its Takedown Of A Stereotyping Nursery Rhyme

This post first appeared on Women’s Web.

“Chubby cheeks, dimple chin
Rosy lips, teeth within
Curly hair, very fair
Eyes are blue, lovely too
Teacher’s pet, is that you?”
“Yes, yes, yes!”

A little girl with two pigtails would copy her teacher’s gestures and repeat these lines in her singsong voice. While she loved the doll like girl being described in the nursery rhyme, she’d also feel disappointed to think that she will never be as pretty as the girl in the poem.

She was underweight, so there was no question of chubby cheeks. She was an Indian, so neither was she very fair nor did she have blue eyes or curly hair. But she was only four and she didn’t have the means to know better. In fact, most girls in her class felt the same disappointment. They’d even discuss how one of them had curly hair while another one had dimples. All the time, those little girls were trying to fit into the definition of beauty chalked out to them before they even knew how to write alphabets properly!

That little girl was me. But I know I speak for a lot of little girls all over the world who learnt the nursery rhyme and felt inadequate about not ‘fitting in’ to the conditions of being beautiful. How unfair was it that we were made to feel uncomfortable in our skin ever since we were kids?

Fortunately, the little girls of today and those in the future might not be made to feel so left out in the ‘beauty race’. With companies like Dove, making a mockery of such misogynistic nursery rhymes and showing that beauty is all inclusive and can come in any form, I feel we have hope for a better future. The latest Dove ad shows that beauty can be tanned, scarred, muddied, scratched, short, tall, thin, fat, dark, fair and yet, Unapologetic.

In the advertisement, Indian female athletes are shown to be preparing for various sports and none of them look like the blue eyed, curly haired doll, described in the poem. Yet each and every one of them stands out with the sheer glow of their inner beauty–their strength, their determination, their perseverance, their resilience, and their hard work. The ‘Chubby Cheeks’ nursery rhyme keeps playing in the background on repeat with its tempo gradually increasing.

In the climax, a teacher’s voice asks ‘Is that you?’ to which the athletes shout out a defiant ‘No.’

It seems like girls all over the world are finally saying ‘No’ to rigid beauty standards, ‘No’ to body shaming, ‘No’ to the concept of a fair blue-eyed gal- the magazine version of beauty (which by the way is even genetically not possible for most Indian girls to attain, as the poem paints the picture of a typical Caucasian child!).

The key takeaway from the advertisement is that beauty is never restricted to the outer shell of a human being. Dove keeps giving us these all inclusive ads which wins our hearts and makes us fall in love with our unique selves a bit more. If you still haven’t watched this already viral ad then please do so and make sure, you show it to the young girls in your lives, as well.

 

 

 

Lady, Please Don’t Marry For These Reasons!

Marriage is arguably one of the most important milestone in an individual’s life. However, I feel that our society considers marriage (or bearing children) as the biggest achievements in a woman’s life. So much so, that without these achievements, an Indian woman is not considered ‘complete’ or ‘settled’. Times are surely changing and I believe so is the mindset of society, but we surely need a long way to go before a woman’s identity is defined solely by the virtue of herself and her achievements and not because she’s someone’s wife or mother or daughter-in-law. This kind of emphasis on marriage sometimes play tricks on our minds and we decide to get married for reasons which might not be solid enough! This article is not a rant against marriage but to make you aware that we need to really think deeply before deciding for or against taking the plunge. Below I list a few reasons for which many women decide to get married. However, I feel they might not be strong enough arguments for deciding to marry.

  • Finding Life’s Purpose

If you think that you’ve not yet found your life’s calling and marriage will give you a purpose, you’re mistaken. By life’s purpose, I mean what you want to do with your life. What are your dreams and aspirations? I’m not saying that your future husband and children should not feature in this picture but you need a reason solely for yourself. You need an identity. Even if you want to be a homemaker, you need to think about what drives you. Do you love preparing yummy dishes or is it music or art that gets you going? In other words, you need something to hold on to, something that gives meaning to your life instead of just being defined by a husband or children. If you’ve been drifting through life not particularly interested in anything and just following the herd per se, trust me, marriage will not get you out of your boredom. Well, initially you might find it exciting. But we humans have a great tendency to get adapted to our surroundings. Once you’re well settled into married life, you’ll sadly discover that you still find no meaning in this day to day existence.

  • Your husband is not Aladdin’s Genie!

Please don’t treat marriage as a means to escape studying further or doing a job. I’ve known people who refused to study further post their marriage even after they got the opportunity or still others who refused to do a job. All this would be okay, if their ever increasing demands from their husbands didn’t prove that they only wanted to marry to get things they desired without working for it. Please don’t take it the other way. There are lots of couples I know who’ve taken the mutual decision where the wife stays back to look after the house or children while the husband works. However, what I’m talking about is not quite that. I’ve also known people where the wife forces the husband to work harder to fulfill her demands for expensive things or foreign trips. Sometimes these demands are way beyond what the husband can afford. Remember, you’re marrying a human being and not Aladdin’s Genie that you’ll have all your wishes fulfilled by twisting his metaphorical arm. If you really want to buy things that he cannot afford, then you should also be prepared to work for it.

  • Because family said so

This is one of the most important reason why you should not marry. Please don’t tie the knot because your grandmother or your cousin’s aunt tells you to do so! Marriage as a process should be undertaken only when you’re ready for it. How will you know? You just do. It’s something like any other big decision in life. If your heart truly doesn’t want to get married, please do not do so out of family pressure. Always remember that it is your life and only you yourself will have to live with the consequences of your life choices. So, please be prudent.

  • Everyone else is doing it

Marriage is not a fashion trend like crop tops or palazzo pants that you buy a pair for yourself just because your friends are doing so. As mentioned in the previous point, no one else will have to bear the aftermath of your choice of getting married, except you.

  • Sexual needs

This one is tricky especially for a society like ours. A lot of Indian women still want to remain virgin till marriage because we’ve been taught that that’s the definition of a ‘good Indian girl’.Please don’t marry to get a ticket to lose your virginity. Yes, by all means wait until marriage if that’s what you want, but don’t marry just for the sex! As uncomfortable as this might make you, we women also have sexual desires like our male counterparts. We too get horny! But marrying for sex? The silliest idea ever! Marriage should take place between two compatible individuals who will support each other in life’s journey. If you feel you are happy being single, then please satisfy your sexual needs through some other means than getting a husband solely for that reason.

  • To avoid loneliness

This is something you need to think about. Marriage will not cure you out of your loneliness. I agree that having a companion is fun and fulfilling but not always. Consider this. You are back from a long day at work and just want to relax with some wine and books. Instead, you have to think about what to make for the evening’s dinner (at least what to ask the cook to make). Then, you might have to be a sympathetic listener while your husband shares the nitty gritties of his day. If you have children, you have to think about their homework or other needs. Sometimes during weekends you might want to sleep till noon but your husband might want to go for a run at the crack of dawn! Even if you have similar likes and dislikes then too you have got to make small compromises for each other in a marriage. Besides, married women also feel lonely because a cure for loneliness is not just a house filled with people. Many people, irrespective of their marital status, go through their lives without being truly understood at the deepest level by anyone. I’ve known couples who rarely have a deep, meaningful conversations. They’ve simply resigned to the fact that they have nothing interesting to talk about. Marriage is not a guarantee that you’ll always be understood by your partner.

  • To find happiness

A lot of spiritual teachers emphasize how true happiness lies within us and though we might hate to admit it, that is the basic fact. I’m sure most of us have experienced how no amount of shopping or eating out or indulging in sex ever makes us truly happy. These are fleeting moments of pleasure which we keep acquiring to gain that evasive thing called ‘happiness’ when all along it was lying within us, waiting to be discovered. You are either happy with your life or you aren’t. A change in marital status may change your state of mind temporarily but you’ll be back to your original state soon unless you make an honest effort from within. Nothing external can bring you eternal joy. Not even marriage. And yes, it is also possible that instead of things changing for the better, they might actually turn worse post marriage. Our childhood perceptions about marriage might be a ‘happily ever after’ being fed with a good dose of fairy tales and romantic comedies but with age we sadly come to terms with reality. Just like we tend to find faults in some of those misogynistic fairy tales, we also tend to realize that a ‘happily ever after’ requires honest efforts from both the parties. And sometimes that blissful state might be achieved through other means as well, like going for a solo trip across the globe!

  • What about children?

Again this one is similar to the point about sex. Don’t marry solely because you want children. If you really crave for motherhood then there are other ways to satisfy that. Adopt a child. Give an unfortunate kid, a chance to a better life. Procreation is just one of the aspects of marriage and should never be considered as the sole aspect.

What Does The Honour Killing Of Qandeel Baloch Signify?

Recently, the world was shocked by the news of Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch being killed by her brother in the name of ‘honor killing’. Amidst news of people being killed in the name of religion and politics everywhere, this one was yet another blow to make me feel hopeless about our world right now. This lady’s brother killed her because her family didn’t approve of her lifestyle or her dressing choices!
I didn’t know who Baloch was prior to this, but the news compelled me to look into what could make a brother kill his own sister. Qandeel Baloch was known in Pakistan for posting pictures and videos that were considered ‘bold’. Baloch was the center of controversy for posting pictures of herself in revealing clothes on social media including a picture where she appears alongside a Muslim cleric.

According to her parents, her brother strangled her to death on Friday July 15th, after an argument. Her body was only discovered the following morning. Apparently, her brother had asked her to give up on modeling and had also threatened her earlier.

Please Let Us Live Our Lives Our Way

Baloch was dubbed as the ‘Kim Kardashian of Pakistan’ because of her controversial rise to fame. However, unlike Kardashian who is from the West, what is different for Baloch was that coming from a Islamic country, she risked her life doing this. And that brings us to the question? When do we get rid of the moral policing in this part of the world? I’m not saying everything is perfect for the women in the West but things are much worse for women in the Indian subcontinent.

From our birth, we women fight for some of our basic rights. Starting from what we wear, to our relationship status, to the fact whether we are virgins before marriage, to what profession we choose, to whether or not we opt for marriage or motherhood–at every stage we are tired of this incessant questioning and moral policing. Some people might say that Baloch was craving for attention, but so what? It was her life! Couldn’t she have the basic right of leading it the way she deemed fit? Why can’t we just let women make their own choices??

Women Bringing Down Other Women Is One Of The Biggest Problems That Feminism Faces

I was curious to know more about Baloch and hence visited her profile on Facebook. What saddened me was that it was not only men who were slut shaming her. There were women who thought that she was bringing down the honour of other women by wearing revealing clothes and that she was a stain in the name of a good woman. How sad is it that even her own gender wanted to demean her for what she chose to do with her life?
I was reminded of an incident that a friend had recently witnessed in her office. One of the women in her office wore capris to work on a Friday which is the day for casual dressing. One of the men in my friend’s team commented, “How does one focus on work when women dress so attractively and come to office?” To which another female colleague replied, “Yeah, how can I blame you, when I as a woman can’t keep myself in control.” I think this is one of the biggest problem that feminism is trying to combat. In our society, there are so many women who seem perpetrate the ideas of ‘male entitlement’ and ‘slut shaming’. When such women make these comments to appear cool in front of their male colleagues, do they forget that someone might objectify them someday and how would they like it, if another woman condones it? Also, it makes me wonder whether such women are jealous of their counterparts or insecure about their level confidence, that they try their best to pull them down?

The Hypocrisy Of The Moral Police

Despite sharp criticisms, Baloch’s videos went viral in Pakistan. What does this signify? That though people criticized her openly, they were still curious enough to go through the videos– maybe to satisfy that repressed desire to watch a woman do things that are ‘prohibited’ in their culture? A woman who is confident in her skin always inspires fear in the minds of cowards and so what happens next is that she should be silenced.
Baloch had openly criticized Pakistan’s patriarchal society and has called herself a symbol of girl power. Though she had a fan following among the masses who considered her an agent for change, she was frequently subjected to misogynistic remarks and threats. She had even requested for better security from the government which the latter didn’t pay any heed.

The Internet And Badly Behaved Women

In this video, Pakistani Rock band, Bumbu Sauce’s leadsinger Masterjee Bumbu explains the phenomenon prevalent in the country, aptly. “1. She is a badly behaved woman 2. She is using the internet to communicate her bad behavior and oddly enough those are two things that Pakistan doesn’t deal with well as a society, the Internet and badly behaved women.”

The choice to decide upon what we do with our lives as individuals should be entirely ours. It is indeed tragic that even in the twenty first century we are still seeking that freedom and incidents such as these remind us how far we are from achieving that freedom.

Yes, I keep changing with age and so should you!

 

There is a certain way we greet people whom we meet (either in real life or online) after a considerable length of time. “Oh my God! You’ve changed so much!” I used to make such exclamations too but now I’ve realized how silly that might sound. As human beings, we are supposed to be constantly evolving and with our physiological and emotional growth comes the scope of gradually transforming to a better version of ourselves. Just like the quote goes, “Try to be better than what you were yesterday.” So how can we as humans not expect each other to change over the course of time?

A lot of our thought processes in childhood are influenced by our parents and teachers. The thing is, as we grow and read more, interact with more people, and use our own logical reasoning, we might find that our earlier thoughts needed improvement and hence we are willing to give ourselves a chance to change. Trust me, it is not being a hypocrite! It is called being open to learning new things, knowing that our set thought process about certain things might not be the absolute truth.

I grew up in an environment where my mother did not let me wear jeans or skirts (except for the school uniform) outside the house after I turned a teenager. And no, I’m not that old, I’m a 90’s child. I remember being so excited about wearing my first pair of jeans after I went to college. The elders in my family thought girls should dress modestly and shorts etc. were too ‘provocative and bold’. I was in an all girls’ convent school and in my school after assembly, the House Captains would check underneath our shirts to see whether we were wearing petticoats or not. Our skirts had to cover our knees, or else they’d just tear open the stitch at the hemline so that we were adequately covered, two ponytails were mandatory and no piercings allowed except for the ears. No boys were allowed during school hours inside our compound. How did this shape my mind as a child? It made me think that I am a ‘good girl’ only if I dress modestly and don’t cross ‘the line’ drawn by elders.

What if I hadn’t thought for myself, read a lot, and changed my perspectives since then? I’d be sitting here, ridiculing girls in short clothes and ‘unsuitable makeup’ and in short adding on to the slut shaming our society is so used to. Nowadays during summers, I hardly wear anything other than shorts. A while back, my husband posted a picture of mine on social media–it was my  back shot where I was wearing a bikini and sitting on the beach. To my amazement, some of the people closest to me felt offended. Apparently I had lost all my sense of ethics, moral values, and principles, I was a hypocrite who was doing exactly the things we’d consider ‘wrong’ in our childhood. I explained later to those people about the importance of freeing our minds with age and hopefully, those dear ones also realized how important it is to let people be.

My view was that “Yes, I have changed and so should you and your perspectives because that’s how society grows. That’s how we teach our younger generation of girls that no one, other than you, has a claim on your body or what you choose to do with it.”

Even if I’d not changed my own clothing habits, I’d still have said the same thing. We can truly empower each other by allowing everyone the freedom to CHOOSE, by not subjecting people to judgments and criticisms for their lifestyles. For just letting people be who they wish to be and change when they wish to change. If we do not put a restriction on our boys, then why on our girls? I was not allowed to go for tuitions by myself but my brother was allowed from a very young age. My brother could have friends of both the genders but for me if I had male friends my mother needed to know all about them.  In fact, I wanted to learn dancing as a kid but my mother thought singing is more appropriate an art form for a girl to learn as there was no unnecessary movement of the body parts, you see! In fact, now I learn Zumba to fulfill that childhood desire of learning to dance.

I think I had a stricter childhood even for the Indian 90’s standards but then again I don’t really blame my mother. It was her idea of protecting me as a single parent. She just didn’t know any better but what is stopping me from evolving my thought process? What was the point of my education if it did not teach me to question and think for myself?

And the funny thing is, I am still evolving. Almost on a continuous basis. Most people had this image of me being a nerdy bookworm but these days, even to my husband’s surprise, I frequently visit Beauty websites such as Nykaa and FabBag. It so happened that a few months ago, one of my school friends started a beauty channel and I got interested into trying a few things myself. One thing led to another and after digging Youtube for more videos, I now possess a foundation, a concealer, and a blush along with some lipsticks and eyeliners. I know it might sound silly to some of you but it was a new experience for me. Nowadays I enjoy putting on makeup sometimes. For a child who was taught that lipsticks made your lips darker and hence who refrained from all these even in her twenties, it does come as a joy to discover this whole new world of colors. And yes, now I also know that makeup doesn’t make me dumb. Being a voracious reader and beautifying yourself aren’t two mutually exclusive traits! The basic fact is that you can choose whatever you want and whenever you want in life, there’s no compulsion in conforming to a certain stereotype. We can all live the way we wish to and change when we want. Just make sure you also respect someone else’s choices and changes, as well.

If We Plan On Raising Good Children, We Need To Behave Ourselves First

Consider a scenario (true incident that happened to an acquaintance): A happy family going for a movie in their car. Papa is on the driver’s seat, the child beside him, the mother and grandma seated at the back. Now, papa is the aggressive type and so when a truck whooshes past the car, scratching his beloved car as a result, he cannot keep his temper under control. He breaks out into an abusive rant, using the choicest of slangs in his dictionary to metaphorically destroy the truck driver. The four-year-old child taking a cue from his dad, cranes his neck out of the car and copying him starts hurling abuses, as well. It was then that the elders were struck by the seriousness of the situation. But did the father have any solid logic to ask the child to not do something he himself was doing?

No matter what we teach our children, we can never forget that most of the lessons they’ll truly retain are the ones they learn from looking at OUR ACTIONS. You might as well ask your child to not lie but when she sees her mother asking her father to lie to someone over the phone and say she’s not home, it is that behavior that will stay with the child. Sad but true. When we expect our children to grow into kind, considerate, and responsible adults we need to walk the talk first.

Consider another scenario which is quite a popular trend in the urban Indian cities, these days. A family of one or two young children accompanied by their parents has gone to a restaurant, along with a maid in tow. So, this domestic help will mostly be a teenage girl (sometimes even younger) following the family like a shadow. Firstly, I feel quite concerned about the fact that this is child labor. But then again, if we don’t consider that for a while and accept that the mothers of young children do need full time help and these young maids wouldn’t have anyway had an access to a good life in their hometown, even then I find something quite jarring in the scenario. I mostly observe these girls trying to merge into the background of the restaurant, while the family enjoys their meal. Occasionally, when the little child throws a tantrum she will emerge to take it outside and pacify it. Sometimes, I also notice these helps sitting at the table feeding the young child while the rest of the family has their meal without hassle. I am not saying everyone keeping a full time help does this but I’ve seen a LOT of such cases before my eyes to be bothered enough to write about this.

I see so many things wrong with this picture. Firstly, this girl is a child herself and she is being made to just stand in a corner other than the times she has to help. Secondly, what about her meal? Doesn’t she feel hungry or doesn’t she too feel like having something nice that these people are enjoying at the restaurant?

Finally, what is it that you’re teaching your children? Another human being can be used as a machine for the sake of convenience. That human doesn’t have any choices or desires; she can be treated as almost a non-human because she is poor? Sigh!

We talk about the importance of kindness and compassion. We like statuses on Facebook where kindness or humanity had been displayed, we write comments on these posts like, ‘faith in humanity, restored’, we teach our children moral science out of their text books and yet when it comes to emulating a  kind and considerate behavior close to home, we choose to conveniently ignore the same. Would you really blame it on your child when they grow up to treat less fortunate people than them as merely objects to be used and not fellow human beings to be treated with respect and kindness?

Next, comes the way parents engage with people at the malls or with servers at restaurants. Irrespective of who you are, you have no right to treat people with disrespect. Have you seen people downright insulting a server at a restaurant because the food came in late or treating a salesperson at the mall with rudeness? Treating less fortunate people with arrogance and rudeness only goes on to show your character. As J.K. Rowling has brilliantly written, If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” Your children are learning the same kind of behavior from you. They might also start judging people on the basis of their social strata and treat them rudely. What ensues from this class consciousness is not a healthy, kind and compassionate child but a child who cannot think beyond his own interest. One who thinks that the entire Universe revolves around him. In an age obsessed with narcissism, are we not perpetrating such ideas even further into our children’s minds with such actions?

A few months back, a group of teenagers in a Mercedes ran over a young professional who was on his way to work. The car was going at a very high speed than is warranted in Indian roads. Not only that, the car came from the wrong direction. The offender turned 18 after the incident which means he was not even within the legal age to drive. He had previous records of reckless driving as well. Can we only blame this teenager for this callous behavior? What about his rich parents who didn’t hesitate in handing over the keys of an expensive car to an underage driver?

I’d like to end with a beautiful post I read on Facebook sometime back– how a mother taught her children to be polite to people serving them. Seeing that her three children didn’t bother thanking the server at an ice cream parlor, the mother promptly threw away their ice creams. Yes, tough love. But sometimes it is necessary to etch a lesson into the child’s mind.

Children learn a great deal through our actions. So, let us first live a life of kindness and compassion in order to teach our children to tread upon the same path. Our only hope for a better world is sympathetic and considerate future citizens, so let us prioritize on making our children good human beings first.

The Choices We Make

“When I first started to teach in this school, I was told that I should not worry about my past…”

I was repeating the script several times in front of the mirror. I had the ‘all important’ TED talk that day. To be honest, my organizers and students were more excited about it than I was. At my age and after everything, impressing people didn’t seem important to me. But yes, if my talk helped in spreading awareness about our work and some contribution came in because of that, then I was game.

It was almost 7am. After making two cups of tea, I gently nudged Deep awake. He held me close by my waist and took a deep breath of my body. This was his morning ritual. He said my scent charged him up for the day. Looking at my face he smiled.

“Nervous?”

“A bit.” I handed him the cup and sat beside him.

“You know what you have to say and I know you are fearless.”

I laughed. “Yes, I’m not easily scared but when it comes to delivering a speech because my famous author husband has written a bestseller that is based on my life, I do feel a bit concerned whether I’d be able to live up to the expectations.”

“You know how I regard you, Naina. I am just an author but you’re a superhero. My book doesn’t even begin to justice to the person that you are.”

“You don’t need to put me on a pedestal.” I hugged him.

After breakfast, we got ready for school. Other than his writing, Deep taught English in my school and I looked after the administration. This was the school where I started teaching almost twenty years ago after I was rescued from a red light area in Kolkata.

There was a commotion the moment I entered the school.

The supervisor came charging like a colourful ball of energy. I loved this girl–small and plump– looking at her no one would ever guess the years of abuse she received from her own father!

“Ma’am, there is a girl…escaped…crying…” She managed these few words in between catching up on her breath.

“Calm down, Pia.” I smiled.

“A girl had escaped from her house because they were selling her and she has reached the school.”

I went upstairs to my room where, like a scared kitten, she was huddled in the corner. I put my hand on her head.

She turned around surprised and then she held my hand and all her collective tears of fear and relief seemed to pour out. Her name was Reshma and they lived in a nearby slum. Despite their abject poverty, Reshma scored top marks in school. However, her alcoholic father was against her studies and as soon as her mother succumbed to tuberculosis, he had been planning to get rid of Reshma.

The night before, on her way to the common toilet, she heard her dad finalizing the transaction of her body in a quiet corner under the street light. She pretended to sleep when he returned, and then at 4 am she stole out of bed and just ran here as fast as her legs would carry her.

I sighed. Yet another girl to fight for. But how long can I keep doing it?

I asked my supervisor to take care of her. I suddenly had an idea about that day’s speech. Let me talk to Deep first.

###

“Hmm” Dip pushed his glasses up his nose as has been his endearing habit since the time we met at his book release fifteen years ago. “That is a good idea but you really seem intent on making this talk all fun and rainbows, huh…”

Dip’s voice choked midway.

I hugged him. “Don’t see it that way, please. You know how difficult it is to make most people sympathetic for a cause. I just want to show them how even a bit of help from their side can go a long way to continue what I’d started. How they can help to make a real difference to these lives that have survived from being trampled under boots of greed and exploitation.”

“I understand your intentions, Naina…but it is so difficult to come to terms with the fact that…”

“Darling, despite all the storms, you know how grateful I am to life for bringing me closer to you. We had more than our fair share of togetherness. Why do you keep doing this to yourself and to me? Come on, chin up.”

We smiled at each other before proceeding with the rest of the morning at the school.

###

The auditorium was jam packed that evening. I pulled my sari’s pallu tightly around my shoulders in order to stop the trembling. Little Reshma was already there with the makeup artists lightly powdering her face.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. I’m honoured to be able to stand on this wonderful and influential TED platform to deliver some of my thoughts. Heartfelt thanks to all of you for joining me.”

I gently closed my eyes to the applause in the background. Like a focused image, all I could see was that hospital bed where I opened my eyes after the nightmare and was assured that I didn’t have to spread my legs against my wishes anymore.

And then, I forgot my nervousness.

“When I first started to teach in this school, I was told that I should not worry about my past. They thought I was ashamed of my past and wanted to bury it under layers of unused memories. How little they understood me. Hello, I’m Naina.

“One day, when I was twenty and awaiting my graduation results, five men from a neighbouring construction site gang raped me. That’d still be a happy story if their leader, the supervisor of the site, hadn’t been a middleman in a human trafficking circle.

“So, he sold me to a pimp who ran a brothel. Day in day out they’d keep me drugged and there’d be men of various shapes, sizes, colours, and ages coming inside my room and raping me. Sometimes, when the effect of the drug ebbed off, I’d protest to which my pimp always had his sturdy leather belt handy.

“Ironically for them and luckily for me, my mother worked with an NGO that helped abused women. With the help of her contacts and influence they found me after a month and then they rescued me along with the other girls in that brothel.

“Lying on my hospital bed for almost a month, while undergoing treatments and mental counselling, I came to know that I had topped the state level Bachelor’s degree examination in English. My mother felt I should continue with my Masters but somehow this experience had awakened something within.

“I wanted to study further but alongside I wanted to help others like me. My life till the rapes had been like any other girl of my age where my prime concerns revolved around a pimple, a romantic crush, or some marks in an examination.

“Now, I knew I had three choices. To let this experience define the rest of my life and live a life full of grief and hatred. To avoid it, and go settle somewhere far where no one knew me. Or to wear my battle scars with pride and show other survivors like me that the rest of their lives could be brand new –just the way they wanted it to be. So, I opted for the third choice. And you know what? Once you stop worrying what the world will think of you, your life will become that much easier to live.

“I started work at my mother’s shelter. During the course of my work there, I realized that post their rescue, these women needed something more than to just get by. Why can’t they study like other girls? What can they not do once they’re truly empowered? So, along with the vocational school that was already in place, I started a school for educating them. I was the English teacher and with the improved infrastructure, I found more people willing to teach other subjects. A part of the funds that was raised from the handicrafts that these women made were spent on their education. But this was a question of a lot of money. So, I needed to expand our business beyond the local fairs and exhibitions.

“We opened our own website. We tied up with online retailers and our products started selling in different parts of India. We sold organic food, beauty products, clothing made of organic cotton, and decorative items. Earlier we were doing it all but the reach was so less. Slowly, our products gained an international reputation. I’m proud to say that our virgin coconut oil and our natural beauty treatments are bestsellers even in the West now.

“And while doing all this I realized why I was raped. I’d have been another girl aspiring for her future, living in her own cocoon of comfort and convenience. This incident taught me what I was capable of giving, what I was capable of doing, and most importantly, what I was capable of Being. This might come as a shock for you, but sometimes I thank the Universe for that dark phase of my life that acted as a turning point.

“My dear audience, never take any incident for granted. As the Buddha says, ‘Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within in a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.’ I found it and the rest, as they say, is history.

“However, today I am here to tell you about another such experience, too. Something which other than my husband, no one is aware of, till now. Just a week back, I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. The doctor says I have around a year left. I don’t tell this to you to gain your sympathy or praises. I want you all to understand that the Show must go on…and all of you together need to carry forth this legacy of giving the SAME opportunity to women who want to learn and who are no different than the rest of the privileged class. Promise me today, that together we will make a difference. I don’t only talk about contributions here. I’m talking about more teachers. Join our online portals to teach for even a couple of hours a week. Give these girls the opportunity to work in business, in science, in literature. Show them they can be whatever they choose to be. That they have not been stamped ‘rejected’ by the mainstream society but they are a living, breathing part of it.

“In this lifetime I have learnt an important lesson. Every action of ours has a much greater impact than we choose to believe. Make your living count. Today, when I am almost on the verge of saying “goodbye world”, I have no regrets. You wouldn’t too, if you choose to make your actions count. This morning, a little girl came to me. Come on the stage, Reshma.

“Reshma ran away because her father was selling her to prostitution. We have to start the legal battle for her and this is just the beginning. I had two choices. To think about my health condition and turn her away. Or, to tell myself, one more life can be changed if I fight a little more. I chose the latter.

“You choose your lives, dear friends. So, choose wisely. Thank you.”

As I descended the stage to be showered with hugs and tears, I took a moment to turn back and look at Reshma. Her smile once again reminded me something that I’ve been reflecting on lately, how my life had been a truly Blessed one.

Blame-A Poem Inspired By The Stanford Rape Incident

There is this news doing the rounds now that has broken my heart. In January 2015, a former Stanford swimmer was found sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster at the Stanford campus. He has been recently punished with just “six months of jail” because according to the judge, a longer sentence would impact him severely! The letter that the victim wrote to her attacker will move you to the core. Please do read it. According to the assaulter’s father however, his son has suffered enough for a mere ‘20 minutes of action‘.  After reading all these accounts I was just filled with despair as to how rape culture and victim blaming is still so pervasive in our world today. Below is a poem I wrote this morning, while feeling extremely restless and despondent about the entire incident, the aftermath, and the plight of women even in this age and time.

Blame

My body is not my own
It belongs to society
You can use it as you deem fit
And then crumple it and throw it in a pit

With thorns in my hair
And my dress hitched up
My bare bottom, an open invitation
for your ‘20 minutes of action‘.

“Why did you drink so much?” They asked.
“What were you doing outside so late?”
“Are you committed to your boyfriend?”
“Are you getting enough sex?”

“Maybe it was your outfit”
“Or the fact that being drunk equals to consent.”
“The poor rapist has suffered enough!
He cannot even have his favorite snack!”

Six months of prison is more than enough
To mend a man with a bright future ahead
“Why should he suffer any further?
It was just a momentary lapse of reason,” they said.

Never mind if the crime shocked the eye witnesses
Never mind that a girl’s life was forever changed
What’s more important is that he has learnt his lesson
Now leave him alone, he has to go ahead.

I can cry all I want
and I can stop being brave.
For all the other girls,
my story can act as a cautionary tale.

Your body doesn’t belong to you, girls
So make sure you ‘behave’
Better curl up in your cocoon of fear
And know that being a woman is always unsafe.

Because even justice favors the powerful assaulters
And all we can do is “try and stay safe”
However, despite all our efforts if we still get raped?
Well, we have none but ourselves to blame.

When you call me…

I am not really the person whom you call up
just to ask “what else is going on”.
No.
I’m the person who loves it
when you call me because that book last night
made your chest ache and you couldn’t sleep.
You call to make me listen
to the sound of rain falling on your courtyard.
To tell me about your dreams of traveling to Antarctica,
or how some art moved you inside,
or maybe to describe
that rare streak of colour across a grey sky.
You can talk to me about the time
when a human made you lose all hope
and yet you found it back in an animal’s eyes.
Tell me about the time when you bunked work
to roam around the city aimlessly,
or the time when you wanted to give it all up
to seek a higher truth.
These are some of the things I wish to hear from you
because I have some such stories to tell you, too… 