October 06, 2014

The Appropriation of the Image of the Marginalised Indian Woman

(I began writing this post thinking of the portrayals of NE women by others... its scope unsurprisingly expanded in minutes.)

Take racial insensitivity. Add to it the entitlement of the upper class and, treatment in real life aside, you have all the makings of the image of the Hottentot Venus of contemporary times in far too many portrayals of the figure of the marginalised woman.

The Hottentot Venus was a person transformed into an object; she was born in South Africa in 1789, brought to England in 1810, and then exhibited on stage and in cages till her death in 1815. We know what she was turned into but we have no idea who she was. We often call her, when we deign to accord her any humanity, ‘Sarah Baartman’; of her given name, we can only guess. We believe ‘Ssehura’ may have been closest to it but can’t be sure. ‘Baartman’ or some variant may have been imposed on her upon being baptised in England in 1811. The appellation ‘Venus’ has never indicated anything but distorted nineteenth-century ideas of Black sexuality, and she is no longer believed to be a Hottentot by many. In fact, the word ‘Hottentot’ itself is now recognised as being deeply racist.

Turning women into objects of curiosity and entertainment is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. We see it, in India too, especially in the case of women who are poor, who are disadvantaged by caste, who belong to racial and religious minorities. They often have little control over their own stories which are appropriated (and distorted) more frequently than one would like to believe by the comparatively privileged to meet their own ends: to tell stories of supposed racial and caste integration (or friction) in ‘modern’ India, to bemoan violence amongst ‘the poor’ (or against marginalised women) primarily in rural India, blithely ignoring, for the most part, that caste and class are so closely related to each other that they can, for most practical purposes, almost be used interchangeably.

Of course, there can be no argument there is little violence worth mentioning in ‘upper’ caste India. Upper class women, who complain of domestic, violence and, God forbid, invoke laws against it lie abundantly. That is, lie, until they turn up dead at which point their corpses tell stories of violence which we’d much rather ignore and usually manage to. How many articles have been printed comparing the perception of cases under Sections 498A and 304B of the Indian Penal Code, the former of which applies when wives who claim to have been abused are still alive and the latter of which applies only when wives die? And how often do we see analyses of stilted sex ratios by class? Or of rape statistics, even allowing for the fact that there exists precious little reliable data?

But then again, studies of VAW and sexism amongst the ‘upper’ caste are hardly analyses which we need see: the only time when women of the urban upper class deal with VAW, it would seem, is when they deal with street harassment perpetrated by lower class men. That such street harassment sometimes escalates into rape is another issue. And talking about issues like the pay gap only reveals that one suffers from a post-colonial complex and is importing Western feminism. Because, of course, it is the stated aim of the working Indian woman to earn a fraction of what her male counterpart earns. And economic equity is entirely independent of violence.

What is left to the upper class, then, is the image of the marginalised woman, who rarely has the privilege of voice, and whose image is available for it to enact its desire to play saviour despite often suffering from abject cluelessness. And that’s on a good day when the upper class actually has or claims to have the desire to do right by the woman. Never mind that it may fail miserably in doing so, in extreme cases possibly by (illegally) circulating the images of the poor raped woman ‘for publicity to bring pressure for justice’. Never mind that such images may demonstrate what the term ‘the pornography of rape’ means. Never mind also that such images are forgotten as soon as the next sensation takes over. They arguably serve their purpose as props, for all of five minutes, to prove credentials against VAW. (Asking upper class women if they’d like having pictures of themselves in disarray upon having been raped be circulated to further justice is unacceptable, incidentally.)

It is only the image of the marginalised woman which is up for indiscriminate use. If it isn’t ostensibly for her own good, it’s in the furtherance of liberal values such as free speech. That there is no conclusive data on what the effects of pornography are is only half the story, for example. Discussions on pornography in India have consistently focussed on the free speech right (largely of men to consume pornography) and of the likelihood of pornography causing men to rape. The right to perform in porn hasn’t come up — after all, choosing to perform in porn isn’t at issue, it’s just what some people do, especially those marginalised. And as for porn being every bit as much a labour rights issue as being a free speech issue: perish the thought. They idea that porn could easily be filmed rape is somehow irrelevant, and mentioning it taints one as being against free speech itself.

The images appropriated and exploited by the upper class are rarely, if ever, those of urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu women: they are of poor women, of ethnically marginalised women, of rural women, of ‘lower’ caste women, of women belonging to minority communities — none of whom have control over their own stories as a matter of course. And as for the urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu woman: her complicity in such exploitation aside, her own story too is rarely hers to tell — the only VAW she faces is inflicted by men who are not ‘upper’ caste Hindus, urban or otherwise. And, oh, entrenched patriarchy and structural sexism, other than that which exists across class lines, are little more than figments of the imagination.

August 29, 2014

The Discourse Surrounding ‘Love Jihad’

‘Love Jihad’ is a curious creature by any measure. The central premise — and understanding of the term upon which this piece rests — is that it considered to be a process by which Muslims as a community or significant sections thereof (as opposed to as isolated individuals) dupe Hindu women into marriage through the pretence of love in order to convert them to Islam.

The discourse surrounding ‘Love Jihad’ though is, arguably, far more fascinating than the allegations of its occurrence. To begin with, there appears to be no discourse of ‘Love Jihad’ worth mentioning; there is discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ and there are rebuttals of the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ which usually seek to negate the existence of ‘Love Jihad’ itself.

The discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ assumes that Hindu women are susceptible to being duped and does not credit them with anything remotely resembling intelligence or individual choice, which isn’t entirely surprising given the prevalence of arranged marriages where family choices may take precedence over the choices which individuals, in particular women, may desire to make for themselves.

Leaving aside the issues of women’s agency which cut across both class and community in India though, it isn’t clear how the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ is anything more than a means, steeped in Islamophobia and patriarchy, for Hindu men to control Hindu women by attempting to keep them from marrying Muslim men. Unfortunately, the Hindu men who seek to do so — and it must be said that they appear to primarily be a section of upper caste Hindu men — choose to accomplish their aim not by making themselves more appealing to Hindu women but by demonising Muslim men.

There is no room in the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ where a Hindu woman may choose, entirely of her own free will and without the slightest coercion, to marry a Muslim man and then either choose to convert to Islam or choose to remain Hindu; if she marries a Muslim man, she's been duped into marriage by a man intent on converting her to Islam. There is, however, plenty of room for the possibility of a Hindu man marrying a Muslim woman without censure and with social legitimacy — this appears to rest not only on the notion of ‘shuddhi’ or, in this context, (re)conversion to Hinduism, but also on the notion that women as wives have no independent identities of their own.

The latter issue of women’s autonomy being limited is, of course, not restricted to any one community in India but in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ what it appears to amount to is: having no independent identities unamenable to being subsumed into their husbands’ identities, women’s pre-marital identities are automatically sacrificed in favour of the identities of the men they marry. With this being the basis on which women’s identities are determined, Hindu men marrying Muslim women is not an issue: the women become Hindu. But Hindu women marrying Muslim men do not remain Hindu: they become Muslim which accomplishes the alleged aim of ‘Love Jihad’. Women, Hindu or Muslim, it would seem, quite simply do not matter in and of themselves in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ — they are but their husbands’ accessories.

In practical terms, what the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ achieves though is to create a framework within which the only people who truly have freedom to choose whom to marry irrespective of their religion are Hindu men, specifically upper caste Hindu men, if one were to factor in the inequity within Hindu society: it is these Hindu men who have the freedom to marry women of whichever faith they choose including either Hindu women (often regardless of the women's caste) or Muslim women. Everyone else, it would seem, can only marry those whom  upper caste Hindu men (and their own social circles) do not object to.

It is far from clear whether ‘Love Jihad’ actually exists at all despite the amount of pushback there has been against it. There seems to be no evidence of any form of conspiracy or masterplan to commit ‘Love Jihad’ in the form in which allegations of its existence have been made, although the lines of argument that have been used to discredit the allegations have, at times, defied understanding. As have proposed ‘solutions’ like legislating a Uniform Civil Code and doing away with personal laws — given that religious conversion is not a condition of marriage under the Special Marriage Act, it appears disingenuous to argue that ‘Love Jihad’ has been either caused or facilitated by bad laws which necessitate conversion to marry. Quite apart from the fact that conversion into any religion, where is it voluntary, should not be problematic, the bottomline is that there is no legal necessity of conversion. If at all ‘Love Jihad’ exists, it is due to a socio-cultural problem and not a legal technicality.

This brings one back to the question of its existence. If ‘Love Jihad’ exists and involves Hindu women being duped by the pretence of love, the first question which springs to mind is: How would successful ‘Love Jihad’ ever be exposed as such? It defies belief that women in love and ostensibly being loved would feel deceived by the alleged pretence of love. The determination of ‘Love Jihad’ having occurred (or not), then, must be made by a third party.

On one hand, there are those who seem to believe that any marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man must necessarily be proof of ‘Love Jihad’. On the other, there are those who have, inexplicably, turned to rape statistics to confirm or disprove the existence of ‘Love Jihad’, breaking down the available statistics to attempt to determine the propensity of Hindu and Muslim men respectively to commit rape by taking into consideration their religion and ignoring not only factors such as their socio-economic marginalisation, but also, it would seem, unbelievably, ignoring the fact that data and statistics relating to rape are notoriously unreliable (especially given the sheer number of rapes which are likely unreported), and that attempting to understand violence against women solely based on crime statistics is unlikely to be an especially successful endeavour. (As an aside, it’s also interesting that the sentiment ‘Consent obtained by deception is not rape’ often heard in relation to false promises to marry coexists in public discourse with ‘But if a Muslim man obtains consent by deception, it's entirely acceptable to talk of ‘Love Jihad’ and bring up rape statistics’ even if the two sentiments are not always expressed simultaneously by the same people — small mercies!)

Coming back to the use of rape statistics: although there are grounds to suspect that there is, in general, a tendency for parents of minor daughters in India to have rape charges filed against men whom their daughters elope with, it is entirely unclear how this could help establishing whether or not ‘Love Jihad’ exists. Apart from not really taking into account adult women, it completely ignores the fact that marital rape is generally not a criminal offence in India. Once-Hindu / Hindu wives who are raped by their Muslim husbands would not be able to file criminal complaints of rape against their husbands even if they were raped which makes the choice of studying rape statistics in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ particularly difficult to understand. Not to mention that abuse (including rape) does rather undermine the premise of ‘Love Jihad’ — one would imagine that abuse and the (continued) pretence of love are usually incompatible.

That said, there is no reason to believe that there do not exist Muslim men who become abusive towards their wives if their own religious practices are not followed in much the same way that there exist Hindu men who compel their wives to follow their own religious practices, in each case with the wives being required to give up their pre-marital practices in favour of their husbands’ practices. It is, however, only in the case of the Muslim man that such abuse becomes not the story of an individual abuser — or as in the case of an upper caste Hindu man, possibly the story of a man who upholds his traditions and heritage — but the story of a community engaging in ‘Love Jihad’. There appears to be, in the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’, absolutely no differentiation between individual Muslim men and Muslims in general. The result is that where a Muslim man abuses a Hindu woman whom he’s married, an entire community is implicated in the conduct of the individual abusive man.

And this, all of this, despite there seeming to be no proof that Muslims as a community are engaging in ‘Love Jihad’ in the first place.

(This post is primarily based on tweets over the last few days.)

July 24, 2014

Jamun and the Bharany Donation

Visited the exhibition (at the National Museum in Delhi) of the Bharany Donation which a friend kindly told me of. It comprises a selection of textiles, paintings and sculptures donated to the museum by C L Bharany in 1976 in memory of his father, and is supported by some items from the Bharany private collection.

Being entirely convinced that our textiles are art too often taken for granted, I particularly loved seeing a blouse on display in a niche in the same room which houses religious texts.

...the textiles really were the highlight for me. As one of the plaques at the exhibition said, ‘The designs embroidered on the phulkaris and kanthas on view are best explained in the words of Stella Kramrisch who passionately argues for the design repertoire of women across India. “The total stock of their designs is entrusted to the memory of the women. Stitch by stitch they realize the meaning of the ground which they cover even if they are unable to explain it. This ignorance of knowledge implies a correctness of doing this, an infallibility which is evident. It results in a display, in a manifestation where everything has its place in relation to the whole.”

The exhibition aside though, it seems to be that time of year when jamun is in season, and I was fascinated to see several men, some in large groups, climb trees to shake down jamun all along Rajpath. Not one woman did so which rather surprised me; I'd have imagined that even if women didn't climb trees, there'd be some collecting the fruit. But, no, this is a man's domain, it would seem. (I didn't take photos of the large groups of men simply because I didn't want to risk having them turn on me even though there was no indication that they would...) I'm quite flummoxed by having seen no women there.

July 11, 2014

Clueless Men Who Can't / Won't Shut Up

This is a twit-induced, 3 a.m. rant. And, yes, it is directed at a liberal twit who happens to be a man. Doesn’t really matter which one; there are plenty who could use having a rant like this directed at them.

If you’re going to open your mouth about anything, pick up a bloody book and figure out what the hell you’re talking about first. And, no, books aren’t going to have all the answers, but they might, just might, keep you from sounding like an ignoramus. And, that’s the politest term around to describe how profoundly stupid you sound when you shoot your mouth off whilst completely clueless and refuse to shut the fuck up.

Short of actually doing any homework before you blab crap to the world at large, endlessly, maybe at least try to listen to the people affected by what you’re talking about. I get that it’s really, really, really hard for a lot of men to realise that they are, in fact, not the repository of all knowledge even when it pertains to things they’ve never studied or things they’ve never experienced. Try listening anyway. Unless the aim is to actually look as ignorant as you possibly can. In which case, don’t read and don’t listen — go right on blabbing...

And, no, applause from other men as ignorant as you doesn’t make you smart. And, no, it isn’t validation worth a ha’penny. Bummer, eh? Who knew the world wasn’t entirely composed of a tiny little club of men cheering each other on? Or is that what your fantasies are made of... ‘coz, God knows, more often than not your words belong to the wrong century.

Here’s a highlight for you: ‘Do your homework’ is not an instruction to ‘Run a 5 minute Google search’ and then shoot your mouth off. Yeah, Google searches are tremendously useful, but no one, absolutely no one, learns enough of anything in 5 minutes to start lecturing anyone else. Particularly not enough to begin lecturing other people about their own lives.

And here’s another: Your experience as a man is not comparable to a woman’s. Someone having physically ragged you in college is sad, yes. It needs addressing, yes. It is fucking not the same thing as a woman feeling unsafe every time she steps out on to the street. Coz you know what, as incredibly surprising as this undoubtedly is you, you cannot compare two incomparable things and have a hope in hell of still sounding mildly intelligible. But what would you know of that? You can’t sound anything but wise, right? Right. Not to mention objective. And neutral. Never mind that it’s because you’re either too silly to be able to understand what you’re talking about, or even worse, to realise that it might be a good idea to make an attempt to figure it out.

And, guess what, telling you that you sound daft, or that it’d likely be a good idea for you to shut up isn’t censoring you. It’s just telling you that you’re a twit. And, yeah, feel free to display how much of a twit you are, as often as you want... it really is no skin off anyone else’s back apart from the fact that it’s often annoying and sometimes triggering. Just don’t expect to be able to blab nonsense and have no one ever challenge you — that’s not what free speech was ever meant to be. And for fuck’s sake, stop pouting like a petulant toddler every time someone calls you out for being a twit. If you’ve chosen to be twit, you have absolutely no business to expect not to be informed that you're a twit.

Yeah, so, I used the word 'triggering'. That’s a free speech flag, for you, right? This is where you chime in with how you’re being censored? And sob. And rage. And, gee, talk about the wonders of the First Amendment of the US constitution even if you’re not in the US. Here’s the thing: ...God, this one really deserves its own post. And I don’t have the energy for it. Except to say, no one is censoring you. You are, however, demonstrating precisely how much of an insensitive jackass you are / are willing to be if you choose to intentionally trigger people. And that doesn’t say a hell of a lot about you. So exercise free speech, be an ass. Be scorned by some for it and quit whining about being scorned. Not, of course, your dudebros; they won’t scorn you for being just like themselves — is that how the word ‘dudebro’ is used, incidentally? I have so little interest in trying to get it right that I’ve never bothered to figure it out. Coz, you know, in the overall scheme, a 15 minute rant aside, both you and they, to the extent that you’re not actively abusive, are largely irrelevant.

July 07, 2014

Women and Work (Outside Home)

June 24, 2014

Verbal Abuse, Upper Class Women, and Domestic Violence


Abuse is never an easy subject to speak of whether because one has experienced it and finds it difficult to speak of, or because it can be an extremely complex subject, or both. And the rationale underlying one’s own opinions can be extremely difficult to grasp.

There is, of course, always the temptation, often subconscious, to assume that one can draw universal conclusions from one’s own experiences. There is also the desire to believe that specific ways of being or doing might enable one to escape abuse; an understandable desire that except for the fact that it can easily lead to drawing conclusions about how women who are abused ‘brought it on themselves’ by being different or doing things differently.

Amongst the clearest indications of this are myths which surround domestic violence, particularly in the case of upper class women — the most popular image of domestic violence appears to be that of a drunken slob who comes home late, slaps his wife, and then promptly (and conveniently!) passes out. Although the image certainly isn’t beyond the realm of the possible, not one part of it isn’t deeply problematic.

To begin with, domestic violence isn’t limited to relationship violence whether or not marital. Although Indian law and public discourse focus on abuse by husbands, in-laws, and (more recently) partners, the fact of the matter is that there is much violence which occurs within women’s natal homes. Some of this is recognised in terms of female infanticide but much of it (including infanticide) simply does not find its way into a larger discussion of domestic violence, particularly in the case of non-violent abuse such as the withholding of adequate food or education. Child abuse is often domestic abuse but the recognition that being the case is often non-existent, as is the abuse of, for example, unmarried women within their natal homes.

Where violence is recognised, it is rarely as ‘clean’ as the man who slaps his wife, does no exceptional damage to her body, and then disappears from the scene (for the time being). Violence is often exceptionally ugly and long drawn out. It isn’t necessarily a ‘30 second – no harm done/grievous injury caused’ episode, or even a series of such episodes, even if it isn’t described at any length. The term ‘violence’ or even ‘torture’ in themselves cover up all manner of acts, and can easily leave one with absolutely no understanding of what is involved.

Descriptions of domestic violence do often invoke the image of the man who was drunk or under the influence of drugs though. And, in some cases, abusers are drunk or drugged or both, but they may not be either. There is no shortage of testimonies from women who have been consistently abused by men who are ‘upstanding pillars of the community’ and ‘highly respected’. These are not necessarily the kind of men who are routinely drunken slobs, certainly not in public. In fact, they can be exactly the opposite: men who calculatedly use violence to control the women whom they abuse. Men who excel at projecting the image of not being amongst those who perpetrate violence. Men who just might, in some cases, be less dangerous if they were to drink and do drugs considering that substance abuse would likely dampen their cognitive abilities.

Abusers come in all forms. They may abuse substances or not. They may engage in physical violence or not. They may be visibly abusive or not.

That said, what is almost certain in the case of the upper class abuser is that he is likely to be able to easily isolate those whom he abuses. He doesn’t necessarily fit into the mould of the abuser in popular imagery. He is likely to have a coterie of sycophants desperate to exonerate him. And he will likely have the education and the ability to play to an audience, or a range of audiences, saying exactly what they need to hear — whether it’s ‘She didn’t cook’ or ‘She had an affair’ or ‘She insults my parents’ or, simply, ‘She’s crazy’ — to enable them to rationalise his abuse, if at all they believe in its existence. And the society of an upper class man generally has no reason to choose to believe that one of their own is abusive — they are likely to have less to lose by believing an abuser than the person he has abused. If nothing else, the good graces of the abuser especially if he is better placed than the abused woman.

That is probably what lies at the crux of abuse within the upper class; the woman abused could easily be educated and wealthy in her own right but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the imbalance of power between her and her abuser, and the fact that if he is better placed than her as an individual (which is often the case, especially since notions of family ‘honour’ could come in leaving her without support), it could quite simply wipe out any benefits she has such as those of education or her own money. (And that doesn't even factor in the enhanced desire some abusers may have to control seemingly independent women.)

When it comes to education, it is unlikely that there would be a way in which a degree would help a victim during an actual episode of violence. And as for money, apart from the fact that it can become inconsequential if the abuser has more, there’s also the question of whether an abused woman has beneficial access to her money — without beneficial access, all the ostensible wealth in the world (even if it were in her name) would be entirely worthless.

The most often ignored aspect of domestic violence though isn’t physical or sexual or financial violence in itself but emotional abuse which exists both by itself (most easily expressed through verbal abuse) and as a component of other forms of violence. It can destroy an abused woman’s sense of self, and her ability to act as an autonomous being. And, ultimately, that is what abuse is about: crushing the spirit of another, destroying their voice. The various forms of abuse are often little more than the means to an end.

Nonetheless, verbal and emotional abuse is often viewed as not being that big a deal. And, perhaps, if restricted to the linguistically lazy spouting the occasional expletive, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Verbal abuse though is very rarely restricted to nothing but the occasional expletive in complete isolation; it is invariably a structure of manipulation intended to break a person.

As a general rule, verbal abuse tends to ‘escalate’ into other forms of abuse which are less socially acceptable — a man losing his temper and shouting, or simply saying unkind things, is so much more ‘excusable’ than a man breaking a woman’s arm. That said, verbal abuse too, like other forms of abuse, is a means to an end. And it is possible to argue that different forms of violence are merely different roads intended to reach the same destination at which the person being abused is broken in spirit (and possibly, if verbal abuse alone doesn’t ‘work’, in body), and under the control of the abuser.

In this construction, there is no type of abuse whose infliction is worse than the other (although the experience of various forms of abuse could easily differ from woman to woman, with each woman seeing one form as being worse than the other). As far as infliction is concerned though, the various forms of abuse are not a hierarchy but a series of alternatives for abusers who typically simply begin by employing the one which would have ‘society’ judge them the least: verbal abuse. And there really are no prizes for guessing which abusers are likely to be most adept at appearing at their best: it is upper class abusers. Men of the world. Educated. Respected, of course. Used to telling their story, and even more used to being heard.

When it comes to domestic violence, it is upper class women who are most likely to be abused by upper class men. Being upper class themselves does not necessarily protect them from being abused or enable them to escape abuse without support. What it does do is enable ‘society’ to blame abused upper class women for staying in abusive situations and, sometimes, for being abused because of their supposedly having ‘chosen’ to stay. And, of course, even the fault-finding and victim blaming is only in those cases where ‘society’ deigns to accept the occurrence of abuse at all.

June 20, 2014


A loose collection of tweets about the issues which make me not identify as a feminist (or want to do so)

Supposedly rich women and abuse


Self defence

May 18, 2014

Getting Re-Acquainted with the National Museum

A fantastic fortnight (for me) in terms of art and learning.

A riveting talk by William Dalrymple on 'Princes and Painters In Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857' at the National Museum. (The princes and painters aside, I was most fascinated to learn that the so-called 'last flicker in the lamp of Mughal architecture' is, in many ways, not Safdarjung's tomb but the tomb of Nadir Shah; he had apparently taken Mughal artisans back along with what he looted from Delhi.)

Krishna and Putana
Krishna and Putana
Also at the National Museum, an exhibition of The Body in Indian Art; three hundred works —I'm told; I didn't count— well-curated & thematically-arranged, roughly: being and the temporal nature of the body, birth (the origin of man and individual human birth), the body ideal, the body heroic, the body supernatural, the body ascetic, and the body rapturous. A few odd lighting issues aside, the exhibition was a well-designed walk through with (much to my delight) magnifying glasses for use chained near some paintings.

Lajja Gauri
Lajja Gauri
My favourite pieces at the exhibition were a sculpture of Krishna and Putana, as well as a work depicting Lajja Gauri; the latter a name modern scholars have rather unsurprisingly bestowed on the explicit images of this Goddess who is apparently no longer worshipped and whose original name has been lost to history. (She is sometimes depicted with a lotus instead of a head, and I think that, now on, every time someone complains about how nudity in art is against 'Indian culture', and especially of nude goddesses, I'm going to send them a picture of Lajja Gauri.)

And, of course, walking down Rajpath next to the National Museum... One of the few joys of the Delhi summer, to my mind, has to be walking on wet, squishy grass and winding up soaked to the knees...

May 13, 2014

Discussing Domestic Violence

This listicle is inspired by concerns I’ve had about how we engage with DV, and the post is intended to be not so much about DV but a suggestion of the parameters within which one should engage with the subject if one chooses to.
    1. Study. Check what you're saying before making public proclamations. There’s no shortage of material online, and it’s irresponsible to shoot your mouth off whilst you're in a state of abject cluelessness. At the end of the day, talking about DV (given its prevalence) will likely impact real people and not be just an obscure academic exercise.
    2. If someone who has been in an abusive relationship tells you something about DV, listen to what they’re saying and don’t dismiss it out of hand. All the academic expertise in the world will not supersede the lived reality of a victim (or perpetrator, for that matter). Experiences vary considerably. There are few 'standards' and there are certainly no 'one size fits all' solutions.
    3. Don’t expect or try to force people who have been abused to elaborately elucidate their experience for your benefit if they don’t volunteer to do so. Quite apart from the fact that they have a right to their privacy, trying to force them to provide explanations could easily cause them trauma and nothing at all justifies further traumatising someone who has already been traumatised.
    4. If someone who has been abused tells you that they are being traumatised by something you’re saying, back off. That doesn’t mean that you need to change your opinion: it means that you need to refrain from shoving your opinion in their face. Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings, as they say, but that doesn’t mean that there’s anything which requires you to volunteer to be insensitive and knowingly become a trigger yourself.
    5. Recognise that if someone who is talking to you about DV has been abused, it may not all be smooth sailing — there could well be specific subjects they may not have the resilience to talk about, and, when they do talk, their testimonies may not always be coherent enough for you to immediately grasp their import. Respect that and the fact that they are talking to you at all, listen and learn as much as you can without pressing for endless explanation; talking about having been abused is incredibly difficult. Those who have been abused have no obligation to do so.
    6. Victim blaming is as unacceptable when it comes to DV as it is when it comes to rape. No one asks to be abused. People who stay in abusive relationships do not deserve to be abused. Educated women do not lend themselves to abuse; education does not provide immunity to abuse in any case. That really should be self-evident but, apparently, it isn’t.
    7. Women victims of domestic abuse do not fail all womankind by staying in abusive relationships. As much as one might hope that they would be able to leave, they have no responsibility to ‘their gender’ to leave — placing such an onerous responsibility on those possibly at their most vulnerable and disenfranchised is not an act which belongs to the world of the minimally compassionate. Particularly since abused women tend to be most unsafe upon leaving abusive relationships, and staying in an abusive relationship may be prudent.
    8. Talking about DV is not about winning or losing arguments. Everyone (at least occasionally) gets it wrong. And you are entirely irrelevant as a commenter — the only people who matter are those who are adversely affected by DV. The only thing that matters is the possible effect of your conversation on them.
    9. Once again, it’s not a competition. If you have some amount of academic expertise, don’t arbitrarily bring jargon to conversations. Don’t use jargon and ‘academic mystique’ to dismiss the experiences of those who have been abused. And don’t invoke academic knowledge to turn a conversation about DV into some perverted form of the ‘Mine is bigger than yours’ conversation — which participant in the conversation can quote the most texts or name the most theories is irrelevant. Not to mention that using jargon in conversations invariably excludes those without often obscure theoretical knowledge from discussions about what is, in this case, essentially a shared experience across classes and cultures.
    10. The bottom line: Get over yourself. It isn’t about you. It isn’t about proving your expertise. Those who are or have been abused don’t control the abuse they’ve been subjected to — don’t make life more difficult for them by placing unrealistic responsibilities on them or making insensitive demands. If you actually intend to help those who’ve been abused, focus on asking what can be done to facilitate those in abusive situations leaving and how they can be supported once they have left. Focussing on blaming victims and asking why they haven’t left is often invasive of their privacy. And, frankly, unless it’s to determine how you can help, it’s unproductive to ask “Why does she stay?” instead of asking “How can she be supported to leave?”

May 02, 2014

Dear Liberals: On Free Speech and Abuse

Unedited, obviously.

Dear Liberals:

I’m no particular fan of open letters, and this isn’t one except to the extent that using the form of an open letter —or any letter— is a waste of less of my time than the structuring a coherent article would be. And this letter —I might as well call it that— is obviously not addressed to all liberals, or ‘liberals’, or all the members of any particular group. It’s intended to be addressed to those who claim to be liberal and who use their version of liberal theory or liberalism or whatever the hell they choose to call it to be abusive or to support abuse. Simply because there is an (arguably legitimate) expectation that liberals would demonstrate some minimal degree of social progressiveness. It’s intended for those, especially, who invoke free speech to support various forms of abuse.

In my book, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that’s worse than invoking free speech to support abuse simply because I see abuse —pretty much all forms of abuse— as being a manner of violating the free speech rights of those being abused. I’ve said this before in considerable detail. And, so, to use free speech arguments to support abuse seems to me to be the worst form of the perversion of free speech rights it is humanly possible to come up with. There are, in particular, three issues which bother me (which I’m putting into next three paragraphs).

The first are claims that ‘mere’ verbal abuse targeted at an individual (including, for example, verbal street harassment) is an exercise of the free speech rights of the abuser which exercise should be acceptable. I don’t intend to get into refuting that argument here primarily because I’m not even certain it deserves to be refuted with anything beyond ‘LOLWUT’ — yes, I’m quite thrilled with the slang I’ve picked up, in case you’re wondering.

The second is the intolerance I’ve come across far too often which involves (usually) men getting (usually) women to shut up when they talk about violence. And, no, this isn’t men who are, at first glance, rabidly sexist or patriarchal. It’s often men who are liberal, free speech enthusiasts who, sadly, seem to define free speech as ‘Your right to say what I want to hear’. That quite simply isn’t the definition of free speech — there may be a world in which it is ok to tell someone complaining about abuse to shut up (as, incidentally, I have been told by a free speech enthusiast) but it is not the world I live in and it is not a world I want to live in. And the idea that it is ok to tell someone who has been abused to shut up should just DIAF.

And the third thing which gets to me are the arguments I’ve had —so many that I’ve now stopped keeping count— about how porn should not be banned and that it is a free speech issue. I don’t think porn should be banned myself but here’s the problem with the free speech argument I’ve been hearing in India: its interaction with VAW is bloody half-baked. It says, each time I’ve heard it, that porn does not cause its consumers to rape and that consumers’ access to porn is a free speech right. The argument doing the rounds simply does not differentiate between ‘porn causing rape’ and ‘porn being rape’. Hell, it doesn’t acknowledge the latter, and in the process of telling only half the story, it effectively, to my mind, winds up invoking free speech to sanction the possible filming of rape for entertainment. Porn may not cause its consumers to rape —the jury’s still out on that one— but there’s very little doubt that rape itself has the potential to become porn. It isn’t even minimally clear to me how any honest argument about porn can refuse to recognise the possibility of ‘rape as porn’ (as opposed to ‘rape in porn’ which I don’t see as being especially problematic), stick to that part of the story convenient to the facilitation of porn promulgation (i.e. that porn apparently doesn’t cause rape), and completely ignore the manner in which porn is produced to the possible detriment to those appearing in porn. Porn isn’t only about free speech. It’s also about labour rights amongst other things. And the faster that’s recognised, the more credible arguments relating to porn would become.

Free speech and violence though aren’t the only concerns which arise in relation to vast swathes of liberal discourse in India — they’re just the ones which are most pertinent to me. And here’s my problem with airing any concerns about liberal discourse: left to myself, I am, as far as I can tell, irredeemably liberal. Even when I see supposedly liberal arguments being used to support abuse. Even when I want to be anything but liberal. God knows, there are times when the factions of the conservative right most strongly and violently opposed to women’s rights seem quite appealing. After all, if I had to choose between a bunch of people who said, “Let’s invoke free speech to justify being abusive,” and a bunch who simply said, “Let’s be abusive,” it isn’t the first bunch I would want to pick. Both would achieve the same result. And I could do without the moral and theoretical gymnastics, not to mention the accompanying smugness, the first bunch would provide.

So, here’s the deal: if you are liberal and a pain, and don’t want to be quite as off putting, just stop being quite as much of an ass. Or try to stop. Start listening to other people’s experiences before dismissing them. Recognise that if you’re talking about a subject and all your knowledge is supplied by either texts or your imagination, your opinions do not supersede those of people who have actually experienced what you’re talking about. Just maybe, given your cluelessness, when you are clueless, consider listening to those who aren’t instead of shooting your mouth off based on what you imagine is liberal theory.

And have the good sense to realise that opinions born of lived experience of abuse will not always be entirely coherent. It can be bloody difficult to find words to talk about trauma at all. Don’t expect explanations and elucidation from people who have been abused for your benefit; doing so is often likely to simply be inhuman. Just STFU, listen, and attempt to learn. Also, for God’s sake, develop the good sense to realise that opinions born of experience will often be strong and may not sound measured. They’re often born of pain and humiliation and rage, and are not formed to make sense to you. Deal with it.

And recognise that theories —liberal, yours, whatever— about people are entirely worthless if they bear no relationship whatsoever to, well, people and their experiences. So listen to people who do have some experience of what you’re talking about. You’re not being objective and neutral when you stick to what you think is academic knowledge and theory alone, and dismiss people’s experiences (often by mocking them). You’re simply being an ass.

Addendum 1 on rape jokes:

While it doesn't often directly involve the abuse of a specific individual, it's worth mentioning in this context that challenging the making of rape 'jokes' is not the same as challenging free speech itself.

Yes, freedom of expression may give you the right to make rape 'jokes' (depending on their content) but the fact that you are able to make such 'jokes' simply does not mean that no one can question your making them. Your having a free speech right does not mean that you must exercise that right especially given that rape 'jokes' can both trigger those who have been raped and validate rapists. The free speech right has certainly never meant the unfettered right to be an ass without challenge.

And this applies not just to rape 'jokes' but to every piece of speech, particularly speech which has the potential to trigger others. Freedom of expression may support you when you wound others but it does not, by any stretch of the imagination, give you the right to speak unkindly without being questioned. This isn't about the people questioning the making of rape 'jokes' being 'the joke police' or being 'against free speech'; it's about their questioning the choice to be unkind and insensitive especially where that choice is knowingly and avoidably made.

Addendum 2:

Free speech is about both the social and the legal. It's complex, and having slogans bandied about to the exclusion of all else is unhelpful. Also see: India's Free Speech Discourse: The Case for Nuance