#Metoo #Youtoo, Survivors Together by Sudha Umashankar: Campaign Edition of the Women’s History Roundtable

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Sudha Umashankar is a freelance journalist and storyteller

The December edition of the Women’s History Roundtable was a special edition of the WHRT series, designed to be a part of the  2018 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, and was presented by Sudha Umashankar.

 

This session of the WHRT series was based on storytelling and sharing in the era of the Me Too movement, which has sparked discussions about sexual harassment (particularly in the workplace) around the world.

 

Sudha Umashankar opened her session by narrating two stories. The first one was about 17 year old Sasirekha, one of four children. She had two sisters, and a trans brother, Naresh. Their mother was a cook. The family was ostracised because of Naresh. Sasirekha, a school dropout, worked in a garment factory. Her brother Naresh, who doted on her, did odd jobs, mainly associated with deity processions. The supervisor at  Sasirekha’s workplace was a married man named Devanaiyakam. He had the habit of constantly commenting on the girls and using nicknames for girls. He would come behind the girls while they are working in the pretext of checking their work and get uncomfortably physical with them. However, Sasirekha brushed off these incidents as demonstrations of sociability. One day he grabbed her bottom, but being a habitual offender he was able to talk himself out of it. One day he called her inside his room and forced himself on her. Confused, Sasirekha didn’t know if it was love or something else. He continued to force her to have sex with him, and Sasirekha soon found she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell her family. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she told Devanaiyakam about it and asked him to marry her. But he refused saying he was already married, and her pregnancy was not his problem. On top of that, he accused her of not being “careful”. Unable to bear the shame, Sasirekha consumed rat poison and took her life.

 

The second story was about Sharanya, a talented singer and veena player. She wasn’t popular or a playback singer but she was invited to perform in smaller events in her community. She was married with children. Though she had many professional engagements, Sharanya struggled with her high pitch. To improve her voice, she started looking out for advertisements for voice coaches and came across one in the paper. He was a young voice coach and she really liked his classes and paid in full for his workshop. One day at his class as her time was up and she was preparing to leave, he suggested he would give her the feedback over the phone in the evening. In the evening, while Sharanya sang her song, the coach gave her really good feedback, saying she needs to sing from her diaphragm and that he would show her how in their next class. She could sense that he was slightly inebriated in the phone. The next day, as Sharanya went to her class, the voice coach was alone at home and took her to a room upstairs where he made her lay on a table and started touching her middle to show where her voice should come from. This made Sharanya extremely uncomfortable and she soon grabbed her things and ran from there, forced to forego her dream of perfecting her high pitch.

 

Sudha then opened the floor for discussion, asking for comments on these stories from various perspectives. Dr. Sissira (a psychiatrist)commented on the trauma both the victims had faced. While one didn’t have the support system to fall back on, the other reacted based on her instinct. R.S.Akhila (a lawyer) was asked to comment on the legal recourses and if there was an increase in the number of women who approached for legal help post the metoo. Akhila noted that there has been an increase in the number of women who called to inquire about legal recourses since the spread of the metoo movement. However, not many women followed up these initial queries to seek legal redress.

 

Given these expert opinions, the discussion then moved on to the question of what justice entails when it comes to sexual harassment. By inquiring about legal redress or even trying to reach out to networks of support to deal with the emotional effects of such incidents, what are women looking for when they reveal incidents such as those described in the stories above, and the many similar disclosures on social media? Is it closure, justice, or perhaps revenge? While many agreed that they were indeed looking for justice, the form it takes is often hazy. What does justice constitute? It might mean different things for different people. Sudha’s stories raised important questions surrounding the Me Too movement, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of storytelling and sharing as a tool of analysis.

After a short reading from Roxanne Gay’s book, Not That Bad, participants concluded that women are more than just their body. However, in the eyes of the government and law, women have been infantilised. Social conditioning through childhood and adolescence lead most women to brush off such incidents, and many are encouraged to  “move on” from the bad experience. Of course, responses to sexual harassment can vary and the best course of action depends on an individual’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Many voiced the need for teaching the children at home and at school to break free of gender stereotypes in order to address how best to minimise sexual harassment. As a society, we fail to invest the social and money capital on women. The men have survived the metoo movement, whereas the women are still surviving.

Notes taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy.

Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

#NNNU A Women’s Charter Demanding Civic Rights

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On August 14, 2018, 12 women from six NGOs in and around Chennai (Centre for Women’s Development and Research; Forum for Women’s Rights and Development; Penn Thozhilalar Sangam; Positive Women’s Network; Roshni; Working Women’s Forum) joined us for a Namathu Nagaram Namathu Urimai consultation on civic rights–that is, what we can expect to enjoy as a matter of right in any community where we reside. The idea was to share our concerns with a view to arriving at a short list, which in turn would serve as a charter of demands for candidates in the upcoming local elections.

This is what we came up with.

பெண்கள் கூட்டமைப்பு (PENNGAL KOOTTAMAIPPU)

August 14, 2018

Our cities and towns are unliveable. Together, we identify the following problems as most urgent:

  • Our cities are filthy with uncollected garbage; unsegregated waste; poor disposal practices; solid waste disposal in sewage; unsafe disposal of plastic and medical waste; congested pavements with vendor and consumer waste; contaminated and worm-infested water supply; collapsed water and sewage lines; unsecured electrical junctions and cables; dirty, unsanitary and unused public toilets, and open defecation; and a lack of municipal oversight.
  • Our cities are unsafe, and women are at risk at home, in public spaces and at work.
  • Our cities are at risk because of substance abuse which results from the presence everywhere of TASMAC outlets and is a cause of domestic and sexual violence and insecure streets.
  • Government services and grievance redressal are inaccessible, whether we try to collect the widows’ pension, avail primary health care and we are not made aware of e-services.
  • Women are under-represented and lack voice, so that decisions about policy and services are made without taking our needs and experiences into account.

From those who seek our vote, we demand:

  • A Clean City
    • Provide dustbins on every street to facilitate segregation of bio and other waste;
    • Ensure regular and timely garbage collection;
    • Distribute usable and potable water equally and fairly;
    • Remove illegal street encroachments;
    • Assure sanitary street food stalls;
    • Improve and maintain drainage and sewage systems;
    • Maintain clean and functional public toilets;
    • Inspect sanitation systems and services on a regular schedule.
  • A Safe City
    • Resolve and commit to protecting girl children in local government bodies, from the municipal corporation to the zilla parishad to the gram sabha;
    • Maintain efficient and effective women and children’s helplines;
    • Set up and ensure proper functioning of the Local Complaints Committees;
    • Position and regularly review surveillance cameras in sensitive and secluded areas;
    • Appoint more women administrators and police officers;
    • Sensitise parents, media and government workers to gender issues;
    • Commit to introducing sex education and self-defence training in schools and the promotion of girls’ and women’s sports opportunities.
  • A City Secure from Alcohol Abuse and its Effects
    • Relocate TASMAC outlets away from residential areas, school and college neighbourhoods and public transportation hubs;
    • Regulate TASMAC hours and insist on identity card checking to prevent underage drinking;
    • Install CCTVs and police patrol vigilance around TASMAC outlets in the evening;
    • Establish and fund deaddiction centres and helplines and family support services.
  • Accessible and Accountable Local Government Officials and Services
    • Assure smooth benefits delivery;
    • Streamline grievance redressal systems;
    • Create awareness about e-services.
  • An Equal Voice for Women in Government and Decision-making
    • Appoint women officials
    • Nominate 50% women candidates
    • Take seriously elected women officials and not as proxies
    • Vest decision-making power in women
    • Respect women’s freedom of speech and listen to their perspectives.

(The raw version of this draft was endorsed by all participants, and a Tamil version will be added shortly.)

A one-page image for sharing:

NNNU Penngal Koottamaippu Charter-1

Women’s History Roundtable July 2018: Gulika Reddy on Gender and Activism in Schools and Beyond

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Our WHRT speaker on July 14th was Gulika Reddy. Gulika Reddy is a human rights lawyer and also the founder of Schools of Equality, a nonprofit which runs programmes in schools, encouraging students to think about equality and diversity.

 

Gulika began by tracing her own interest in human rights law, particularly women’s rights. In her early years in the profession, she often heard certain lawyers justify domestic abuse and ask victims to let it go, in order to “save the institution of marriage”. This discourse brought home the importance of women’s rights and discrimination and violence against women. After regular interaction in the social justice sector, she started Schools of Equality to provide experiential and activity based learning to help increase awareness on gender based discrimination and violence.

 

Gulika then introduced the audience to two activities that they used in schools.

 

In the first activity, the audience was asked to talk about what words came to their minds when they heard the words “masculinity” and “femininity”. The responses ranged from muscular, bold, strong, assertive to fragile, lucky and non vulnerable for the former; and dainty, shy, fragile, passive, hysterical, emotional and nurturing for the latter.

 

For the next activity, the audience was asked to get up and walk around and find a partner, and ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you actually like doing?
  2. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you dislike doing?
  3. What is one thing which is not ascribed to your gender, which you wish you could do without being judged?

 

The responses ranged from nurturing children, housework, dressing up and cooking (for the first two questions), and sitting in a particular way, having to justify things for the last question. The audience was then asked how such issues could be combated. Two members shared experiences of how they broke such stereotypes, by calling out rigid and sexist office rules, and by teaching their own children and family members about problematic mindsets.

 

Gulika continued the session by talking about her work at the schools they interacted with. Schools of Equality does sessions for children, parents and teachers; and she spoke about the different issues and situations that crop up while interacting with each target group. She noted that for children below a certain age, they mostly did sessions on bullying; while for older children they focused on sex education and gender identity awareness. SoE started off with two schools and did a baseline survey, after which they started taking workshops to different places; and now they operate in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Gulika went on to emphasise the importance of having conversations with people about issues of gender, regardless of how averse they may be to the topic. She talked about how sometimes in classrooms, when students open up about certain issues they’ve faced, their peers learn a lot more from the sharing of experiences rather than textbook material on awareness. She then opened the floor for questions, and had small discussions on issues of scaling, combining training teachers and teaching students, and the relevance and utility of law in the battle for social justice. The session ended with some informal discussions within the group.

 

This report was compiled by Malavika Ravi. 

Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”

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Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.

 

This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha

WOMEN, CITIZENSHIP AND THE DUTY OF AGENCY

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Swarna Rajagopalan

A talk written for Stella Maris College, Chennai,
on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

What is International Women’s Day? If you were to believe Panagal Park, it is a day to offer discounts and special prizes to women customers. If you were to believe corporates, it is a day for roses and special gifts and possibly some awards. For some clubs it is an occasion to have a cultural programme, maybe even with a stand-up comic or MC whose jokes centre on hapless husbands and ridiculously aggressive women in their life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with post-graduate students, asking them how they would observe the day, and one of them said, she would help her mother with housework. Very nice. But just think. That she can only associate her mother, the most important female figure in her life, with housework. That she does not know her mother beyond her service delivery role in the household. That she thinks this is a special, noble thing to do and that sharing work in a household is not just normal.

Clara Zetkin would have been shocked at how Indian patriarchy has subverted her idea that a single day should be adopted around the world for the advocacy and lobbying for women’s rights. This proposal was accepted at the International Conference on Working Women in 1910. At that time, women were active campaigners in their own countries and transnationally on issues as vital as the vote, citizenship, equal pay, better working conditions and world peace. They were citizens in fact, if not in law, and this observance date was to be a mirror and a rallying point for their work.

What is citizenship? Instead of spending all my 20 minutes on a review of the academic literature, I refer you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which defines citizenship as the “relationship between an individual and a state in which an individual owes allegiance to that state and in turn is entitled to its protection.” The second sentence of the definitional paragraph states that “Citizenship implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities.”

Citizens enjoy all the rights a state can offer, along with its protection. What does this mean?

This Women’s Day, let us do something like a quick rights survey for Indian women. I will just list the rights and ask you a question about each of them. I want you to scribble down your answers in your notebook or notes app.

The Right to Equality:  On a scale of 1-10 where ten is the maximum, what is the equality score you would give women in India?

The Right to Freedom includes

  • Freedom of speech and expression
  • Freedom of assembly without arms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement throughout India
  • Freedom to reside and settle in any part of India
  • Freedom to practice any profession

Which freedom is most available to Indian women, and which one most imperilled?

Right against Exploitation: In which spheres have we most successfully eradicated exploitation of women?

Right to Freedom of Religion What does freedom of religion mean in the context of gender justice in India?

Cultural and Educational Rights Do these rights even matter for gender equality, and how?

Right to Constitutional Remedies Do most Indian women have access to justice?

And let us also briefly think about political and civil rights. How do women fare in electoral politics? How many women are nominated? How do the women manage to fund their campaign? Who is going door to door for them?

During the last election, a gynaecologist contested from our Assembly constituency. She did not campaign in our neighbourhood, no one saw, no one knew anything about her, so we voted in a guy who ended up at that resort with the other Sasikala supporters. And there are marvellous women who have come up from the Panchayats where there is reservation but no one wants to give them a ticket and let them rise to the top leadership levels.

Being a citizen also comes with certain obligations. The ones that the state is interested in are loyalty, obedience, taxation and military service. But citizenship is a relationship and a relationship takes two parties at least, so what about citizens? What else comes with citizenship and what should be the bare minimum we expect from each other?

You have rights, you have duties, you have agency. Citizenship is maximum entitlement, but it is also maximum agency. If you emigrate to the US or Dubai or Australia, you will have all rights as a citizen, but for the first generation immigrant, there is always an invisible limit to agency, I think. In this country, where you were born, agency is your birthright. And I am not talking about personal choices or free enterprise, or even the charitable edition of social work—I am going to talk about political activism.

This is your country, and you get to write the script as you want. You have a right to shape this country and change it. You have the right to change the world.

You are one of the most privileged groups of citizens I will address this year—you study in English at one of Chennai’s elite institutions and forevermore, when you step out, people will say, “Oh, you are from Stella Maris?” But frankly what does that really mean? Your dress is more stylish? Your English accent is better? You come with a nice social network? What difference does it make to the world? And let me not mince words: Nothing, unless you make that commitment now.

What does citizenship mean today for educated, privileged Indian women? So remember your answers to the survey questions now, and think about what they mean for you.

  • The duty to learn: You have access to learning and to information. You carry smartphones which can be libraries in your purse. You are learning how to learn. So, stay informed. Read the newspaper. Learn more about issues you care about.
  • The duty to listen: You have access to a cross-section of people in college and your circles, starting from Stella Maris, will only grow. Listen carefully to both what people say and what they leave unsaid. Consider that what they choose not to say may be what they think you should already know (so look it up and learn) or, more important, what they are afraid to say in front of you. Education should be opening your mind; only you can open your heart.
  • The duty to communicate and teach: You have words, in more than one language, and wherever life takes you, there will be people who listen to you. Share what you know, where you can, while also listening to what others know.
  • The duty to think critically: This is actually the point of higher education, and if you have been lucky enough to get some, you should be asking questions all the time—to learn and to hold accountable.
  • The duty to vote: This is the bare minimum exercise of citizenship. If you do not vote, quite honestly, I think you should not complain. If you don’t like the options, do something about it.
  • The duty to speak up: Speak your truth. Speak up when others need support. Speak up with something wrong happens. Speak up when you see injustice.
  • The duty to take action: Around you, countless small problems need solutions. Garbage is not collected. Someone is not able to send their child to college. Someone is looking for a full-time care-giver. Someone is lonely. Someone is being gaslighted. Are you the person who says, “Damn tough, man?” and moves away, shaking their head with temporary sympathy? Or are you the person who calls EXNORA or sets up a crowd-funding appeal or looks up and calls service agencies? Who are you? Find the thing you can do and do it, without expectation of reward.
  • The duty to resist: Do you obey unconditionally? Or do you try to understand before you comply? And if the regulation makes no sense or its problems outweigh its purported solutions, do you resist? Or at least rail? Being a citizen is also to take turns at the sentry post, to protect our rights and everyone else’s.

If you speak about your rights without doing your duty to society, consider that you might be exercising your privilege and not your citizenship. You are consuming what citizenship entitles you to, and giving nothing back in return.

So as I close today I want to remind you that citizenship is like everything else in life: Use it or lose it. If you are not a pro-active, engaged, thoughtful, critical citizen and you are willing to leave the tedious, troublesome work of citizenship to others, then you are complicit in the erosion of your own rights, whether it is equality, freedom of speech or privacy.

On International Women’s Day 2018, sitting in the elite surroundings of Stella Maris College, the choice is yours. Will you be a consumer or a citizen?

March 8, 2018