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

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வழி விடுங்கள்…!

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— சுடரொளி

‘எத்தனை மணிக்கு வேண்டுமானாலும் வெளியில் செல்லலாம்?!’ என்பதே ‘பெண்கள் மேம்பாடு’ (Women Empowerment) என்று பல பெண்கள் நினைக்கிறார்கள். அதுவல்ல, Women Empowerment என்பது நன்றாக படித்து, நல்ல பணியில் சேர்ந்து முன்னேறுவது தான்.”

“பார்த்தீங்களா, இப்போ பொண்ணுங்க எல்லாம் எப்படி dress பண்ணிக்கிறாங்கன்னு. பசங்க என்னங்க பண்ணுவாங்க, இதை பார்த்து, அவங்க ஹோர்மோன்ஸ் சுரந்ததுன்னா?! அவங்களை நாம எப்படி தப்பு சொல்ல முடியும்!”

“கல்யாணம் பண்ணிக்காம, ஒரு பெண்ணால எப்படி ஒழுக்கமா வாழ முடியும்? என்னோட பொண்ணுங்க எல்லாம் நல்ல படிச்சிருக்காங்க, நல்ல வேலையில இருக்காங்க. கல்யாணம் பண்ணி, குடும்பமா செட்டில் ஆகியிருக்காங்க.”

“என்ன மாப்பிள்ளைக்கு பைக் ஓட்ட தெரியாதா? ஸ்கூட்டர் தான் ஓட்டுவாரா? அது பொம்பளைங்க ஓட்டுறது ஆச்சே!”

“ஏம்மா இந்த கூட்டத்துல வந்து நின்னுக்கிட்டு இருக்க, பெண்களுக்குன்னு தனி coach தான் இருக்கே trainல?”

“பொம்பளைங்க தண்ணி அடிக்கிறதா? அதெல்லாம் எதுக்கு பண்ணனும்? பாரு, ஸ்ரீதேவி சாகும் போது fullஆ அடிசிருந்துச்சாம்!”

இன்னும் இன்னும், பல்வேறு விதமாய், பல்வேறு கருத்துக்கள், ஒவ்வொரு நாளும், ஒவ்வொரு விதமாய், பெண்களை சுற்றியே சுழல்கிறது! சில சமயங்களில் பெண்களிடமிருந்தே, சில சமயங்களில் இதை போன்ற கருத்துக்களை கேட்கும் போது, அதன் வேதனையை என்னவென்று சொல்லுவது! படித்திருந்தும், விரிவாய் எதை பற்றியும் யோசிக்க இயலாத, அவர்களின் அறிவின்மையை என்னவென்பது! எங்கு திரும்பினாலும், ஏதாவதொரு கேள்வி, அவளின் எதையாவது பற்றி.

நில்லுங்கள்! உங்கள் கவனத்தை எங்கள் மீதே வைக்காதீர்கள். உங்களின் புதிது புதிதான கேள்விகளுக்கு தினம் தினம் பதில் கூறி, எங்கள் ஆற்றலை நாங்கள்  வீணடிக்க விரும்பவில்லை.  கொஞ்சம் வழி விடுங்கள், எங்கள் வாழ்க்கையை நாங்கள் வாழ வேண்டும்!

Love song of Sati

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by Bharati Ramachandran

My little finger lies where the holy waters meet
The earth will be born when our fingertips touch
My tongue is aflame in hilly Jwalamukhi
Taste my sweetness mingled with the mist

You will find my broken heart in the darkness of Gujarat
Light yourself a light, and glue it together
My bleeding eyes see the true colour of hate
Take my sight and examine your own demons

My navel tantalises pilgrims in Utkal
Admit that you want me, first to yourself
My desire’s buried north-east in Kamakhya
Kiss me and bring me back to life

Daksha’s daughter lies strewn across the land
Here a toe, there a wrist, here a leg, there a hand
A throat, a temple, a thigh and a breast
If you can find it to love me, put me together first

My land’s torn apart, its people sundered
Lightning strikes, and the skies thunder
Armies rush at night to attack the enemy mind
By daylight they find they’ve killed their own kind

I’ve lost my power to change destiny
I am scattered, rent and stamped upon
Stop your dance of death, put out the flames
That I invoked but cannot quench

Go to Dantewada and dig out the root cause
My teeth have been buried there for kalpas
Piece me together, and love me like I loved you
Perhaps then, we can give birth to a people new

Bharati Ramachandran helps non-profits tell powerful stories, change attitudes, behaviour and policy, and raise funds. She is a consultant with Prajnya. 

A Women’s Day Toast to Samantha Jones

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By Chintan Girish Modi

Sex And The City is a wildly popular American television show. It ran on HBO from 1998 until 2004 but I got hooked to it only two years ago while watching midnight re-runs on AXN that beep out cuss words and slice off lovemaking scenes. Indian audiences are assumed to be not ready for this, though they clearly have all the stamina to copulate and populate.

My rants about censorship can wait for another day, for today is about celebrating Samantha Jones (played by Kim Cattrall). This successful, vivacious, feisty and unforgettable woman is one of the four main characters on the show. She owns a public relations company that is much sought after, much like her who is well-known among the famous and fashionable set in New York City.

Samantha is often dismissed for being a bimbo, overly concerned with physical appearance, desperate for sex, and seeking body-altering procedures such as chemical peels, cosmetic surgery, and botox treatments. While these aspects of her life are certainly worth discussing as part of a wider conversation around whether choices enabled by financial independence free women of patriarchy or bind them down to newer chains, I want to focus now on the many things I love about Samantha.

1. She is serious about the pursuit of pleasure.
2. She knows how to get what she wants.
3. She does not wait endlessly for THE ONE.
4. She recognizes ‘true love’ when she sees it.
5. She loves deeply but does not hold people back.
6. She is the best cheerleader a friend can have.
7. She cares a damn about what people think of her relationships.
8. She is aware of her weaknesses.
9. She does not play the victim card.
10. She is good at playing to her strengths.
11. She does not let breast cancer bring her life to a standstill.
12. She is politically incorrect.
13. She talks freely about sex.
14. She is a party gal.
15. She is open to challenging her boundaries.
16. She tips well.
17. She understands sexual needs.
18. She has few moral hang-ups.
19. She is an unabashed New Yorker.
20. She can risk looking like a fool but will always show up for her best buddies.
21. She needs no man to complete her.
About the author: Chintan Girish Modi works with Prajnya on our Education for Peace Initiative. He also writes widely on art, culture and gender for print as well as digital publications. He tweets @chintan_connect