Saturday, 27 May 2017

10 ways how Indian families fail their daughters

I am not even going to get into female feoticide, infanticide, honour killing or child marriage, because that may seem something that the 'others' do. To tell you the truth, I have first hand information of these too, from friends, colleagues, cousins and more.
But for now lets stick to the middle class and the rich families that do not indulge in any of these 'heinous crimes against women' that they wouldnt even think of. They also give their daughters nutritious food, an education, love, care and protection. So then how do Indian families fail their daughters? How do they slowly condition their daughters to dumb down, think less, speak less, have fewer ideas, ambitions, desires and the quest to live out their entire potential?
They do it everyday.

1. When they stop their daughters to go swimming because they would tan and then look 'ugly' or if they go swimming they would have to wear swimming costumes that reveal the shape of their body and they would rather not have people see the shape of their daughter's body than let her have the pleasure of a swim.

2. They do it when they encourage their daughters to aspire to be the next 'Aishwarya Rai' or 'Priyanka Chopra' or 'Miss Universe' instead of asking them to aspire to be the next Kalpana Chawla or the next Saina Nehwal.

3. They do it when they buy princess books and princess bags and princess tiffin boxes and princess dresses and take them to malls where there are 'princess makeovers' happening and allow their daughters to get that makeover done and then click photos and put them on facebook with tags that say 'my cutie princess'.

4. They do it when they bar their daughters from sports and extra curricular activities because some good-for-nothing neighbour wrote on their wall 'I love you 'daughter's name'. Or because some aunty ji came home and said that everyone is saying that their daughter is 'becoming really fast'.

5. They do it when they ask their daughter to keep fasts on Mondays to get a 'handsome husband' like Shiv ji (yes, my friends did that in school)

6. When they tell their daughters to hush-up about the uncle or neighbour or cousin who touched them inappropriately in a wedding function.

7. When they are so surprised that their daughter's boyfriend wants to marry her and doesnt have any demands! They think their daughter is so lucky that this person wants only her and not money or a car along.

8. When after marriage, the family serves the daughter's husband like he is God and ask her to 'let go' of her aspirations and dreams if it in any way hampers her 'successful married life'.

9. When they make sure to advice the girl time and again that she should hail her husband in high regard, never get angry with him, serve him food before daring to serve food for herself and always put his needs above hers, never get more successful than him and basically 'never hurt his ego because it may be fragile'.

10. When they start enquiring about when their married daughter is planning to have a baby, without bothering to ask her if she even wants one at all.

If you see an Indian woman living out her entire potential, most likely she is doing it inspite of her family, not because of it.

P.S. - the thoughts are purely personal and not based on any data or survey. 

Friday, 28 April 2017

Breaking the "Rich kids loiter freely" myth- Neha Singh

I was invited by a very rich, international, prestigious, with-it school to conduct a session on gender and public spaces with their seventh grade students this week. This school has been very active in sensitizing and working with their students on gender related issues and I gladly accepted the invitation.
Now, a lot of criticism that Why loiter? faces is usually "But what abt the poor girls? What are you doing for them? Rich and middle class women loiter all the time, they are privileged. What is the point of you middle class, educated women loitering? You should "help" the poor women loiter, because those poor women are the ones that never loiter. Rich kids dont need your activism, You should start Why loiter? in villages because THAT'S where it is really needed. "

NOT TRUE. Rich, middle class, educated, super educated, south Mumbai, so-called privileged women/girls DO NOT/CANNOT loiter. Public spaces are considered as UNSAFE by them as they are by anyone else.

Case in point, the extra ordinarily rich students of this extra-ordinarily rich school.

I designed an activity where I marked different public and private spaces in their library through the use of simple placards taped on walls. The spaces I marked were as follows


First I asked the boys to do the exercise. I asked the boys to roam around in these spaces and tell me how unsafe/uncomfortable they felt on a scale of 0 to 10. I kept changing the time of day. Sometimes it was morning, sometimes, afternoon and sometimes post midnight.

Spaces like home, nieghbourhood, mall and coffee shop got an average score of 0 or 1 from the boys. As the spaces became more and more 'public', and as the time of day turned to night, their scores had a gradual progression to 3-4-5. Public toilets at night time scored the highest with a boy scoring his level of fear and discomfort as 10.

Most of the boys said that the reason that they would be scared after dark in spaces like dhaba, chai tapri and BMC park is because "there would be people of DIFFERENT IDENTITIES" and that there was a fear of being "KIDNAPPED".
Some boys said that they had never been to a dhaba or a chai tapri so they dont know how they would feel if they were there.

"Fair enough!", I said to them. "Now sit down and lets see the girls take on this exercise."

While planning this exercise for a group of 12-13 year old students studying in a high-end institution, I wasnt sure the girls and boys would have different scores, but I still wanted it to be a boys-only and a girls-only exercise.

The girls entered the space. They were given the same instructions.
By the time the girls finished the exercise, I wanted to cry.

NONE of the girls gave a score of zero for ANY space, at any time of the day. NOT EVEN HOME.

Their scores hovered around 4 and 5 in so-called safe spaces like gated neighbourhood, malls, coffee shops and school and shot up to 8 and 9 in spaces like chai tapri, slum, BMC park and dhaba.

Their reasons were also more complex and articulate.

When one girl gave a score of '3' for home in the afternoon, I asked her why. She said "it depends, if there are relatives and servants around then I feel unsafe, but if its only immediate family then maybe zero."

When two girls gave a score of '2' to school at 10 a.m, the reason they gave was "because there are security gaurds and cleaners and people we dont know, so no space is completely safe."

When a girl said '8' for feeling unsafe in her OWN GATED NEIGHBOURHOOD at 7 p.m and I asked her why, she said "because there are gaurds and neighbours."

The same reasons for feeling unsafe at malls, coffee shops too. And none of the girls said that they would feel unsafe because of a fear of being kidnapped! 'Sexual abuse' was the most pertinent fear.

After the exercise, we all realised that even 7th grade girls who are extremely 'privileged' live in a state of constant fear EVEN AT HOME AND SCHOOL and their entire life experiences and personalities are based on the foundation of this fear.
For the boys it was sort of an eye opener, and I hope they would be more sensitive towards their classmates.

I told them about Why loiter? and reclamation of public spaces and why its important to not operate on the fear-principle but exercise our right to taking risks and enriching our life experiences through interactions that are not based on prejudice but an openness to engage and learn.

But I also came out of the session with a greater resolve to loiter INSPITE of being middle class- educated- privileged etc. etc. etc, because there is NO GREATER MYTH than the one that says "RICH KIDS LOITER FREELY AND DO NOT NEED MY ACTIVISM".

Thursday, 9 March 2017

When Kamathipura showed me the mirror- Neha Singh

Last night, to celebrate International Women's Day and to commemorate the many, many struggles and fights women have had to go through to get us some of the most basic rights, we decided to go to Kamathipura to loiter.
For those who arent aware, Kamathipura is the (in) famous "red light district" of Bombay, or the place where a majority of sex workers live and carry out their daily work.
The idea seemed simple and innocent. We planned to meet at 8.00 p.m at Merwan's bakery at Grant Road East, and then start walking towards Kamathipura, which is about a kilometre or two away from the bakery. We were ten of us, eight women and two men. Some of us were friends already, some of us meeting each other for the first time, some just acquaintances who wanted to be part of the session.

We began walking and slowly the landscape changed. From more well lit, families infested lanes and gullies, the streets became darker and narrower, with mostly men standing, working or walking around us. A few men walked by extremely dangerously, brushing their bodies against mine. But we were a group of ten and we were determined to visit this much-talked-about place called 'Kamathipura'.

Prior to our visit their had been discussions about buying red roses and handing them out to the sex workers, but the options were open to those that wanted to do it and others who didnt. I personally didnt feel I wanted to hand out red roses to sex workers, so I chose not to. Some of us bought chocolates instead.

Slowly, the lanes became narrower and stuffy. There emerged small and gaudily lit old cinema halls that were playing Bollywood films from the eighties and ninetees. We seemed a bit lost, not having managed to reach our destination yet. We checked google maps for Kamathipura while some of us just asked the men working on the streets for it. Somehow, it took a lot more effort to ask, "Bhaiyya, kamathipura kahaan hai?" than the amount of effort it would have taken to ask for any other destination in the city. We subconsciously even judged the men who did know where Kamathipura was.

Finally, I saw a sign that said 'Kamathipura, Lane 3' on an inconspicuous small blue board. My smartphone carrying self immediately clicked a photo. It would definitely bring a lot of 'likes' on facebook. We were finally in Kamathipura. Another discussion ensued, about whether we should divide ourselves into smaller groups and just roam around and meet at a fixed point at a given time, or stick together. The majority voted for sticking together. So we did.

The place was a let down for us since it looked so 'normal', it didnt seem at all like the red light districts I had seen in films, I couldnt hear any titillating music, or spot vendors of gajras, paan and itar. No drunken men eyeing women, no pimps looking evil, no little children running around getting business for their unfortunate mothers. In fact, I couldnt spot a single sex worker! Then one of the loiterers whispered in my ears to look above. And thats when I saw the three to four storeyed dilapidated buildings with tiny, iron barred windows. And from behind those windows and balconies, women staring out on the streets.
I felt excited. I stared at them, they stared at me. It was getting real now.
We walked some more and I saw a bunch of women dressed in bright saris sitting on the steps of closed shops. They sat there waiting to get some work. I began talking with them. Some of us joined me. We asked them their names, where they came from, where they lived and how business is these days. They didnt mind talking to us. They told us their names, where they came from, how business was and where they lived. Some of us gave them chocolates to take home to their children. They accepted it gracefully and smiled at us. Some of the men that were inhabiting the streets gathered around us, wondering what we were doing and why we were talking to the women.
The crowd around us was growing and we kept talking to the women. And they were kind enough to entertain our questions and attempts at small talk.
Some of us bought some more chocolates and gave them to other women that thronged the streets.
To some of the women I said , "Aapko pata hai aaj antarrashtriya mahila divas hai?', they were clueless and laughed when one of us said, 'Aaj humara din hai, aapka bhi aur mera bhi'. They told us how demonetisation had hit their business severely. They told us, 'jab aadmi kaam karega tabhi toh yahaan aayega, jab aadmi kaam hi nahi karega, paisa nahi kamaayega toh yahaan kaise aayega?'.
As the crowd of men and women around us grew bigger, we decided to begin walking to the end of the street. It was around 10.00 p.m.

The crowd dissipated. We spotted a small casino. A tiny space with some screens and numbers that you needed to press to try your luck. I was curious. I entered the casino and saw a lot of men inside, playing. But they werent scary. They were just playing. The man at the counter asked me to give him some money for the entry charge and try my luck, but I didnt go ahead. I just saw for a while and then came out.
We walked some more. We spotted a video parlour that was playing films. We saw posters of old Bollywood films but some of us thought that that was probably a guise for the pornographic films that actually play inside. There were also some bars and eateries on the way that looked inviting, but we decided to walk to the end of the street. No untoward incident happened and we all felt very safe. We spotted a small restaurant at the end of the lane and decided to eat a small dinner, sitting on the small plastic stools outside the restaurant. We ordered nalli niharis, noodles, chicken tikka, caramel custard and some cold drinks. We sat and chatted and laughed and had a good time. And then slowly, one by one, we called it a night and went home.
Overall, it seemed like a good session. We had clicked photos which I shared on the Why loiter? group. We had met new people. Visited a new area.
But something didnt feel right. After I reached home, I began to question myself.

Why did we go to Kamathipura to loiter?
Why did I have a notion in my head about a red light area?
Why did I stop and talk to the women when I was clearly disrupting their work?
Why did I click a photo of the board that said 'Kamathipura Lane 3'?
Why did I ask those women if they knew today was International Women's Day?
Why did I subconsciously judge the men that told us the exact directions to Kamathipura?
Why do I remember what colour saris the women wore, or the fact that a lot of them were from Bangladesh, that they wore big nosepins and had put on bright lipstick?
What purpose did it serve us or them for us to loiter there?
Why did it not feel satisfying, joyous or good as it does after every loitering session?

Why do I feel that I am never going to choose Kamathipura as a space to loiter in again?

I realise now that I was loitering in Kamathipura with an extreme (although covered under layers of articulation) sense of middle-class-good-girl-entitlement. That reflected in all my actions and interactions in that space.
I realise that what for us was a 'unique experience' was maybe nothing more than a hindrance in someone's daily work.

I realise that we need to have discussions and rethink about what these loitering sessions mean to us.

The critics of Why loiter? often dismiss our movement as a 'frivolous', 'elitist' exercise and uptill now I have felt that none of our sessions fit the bill of being frivolous or elitist. But for last night's session, I have no defence. It did feel a bit 'frivolous' and 'elitist' simply because I dont think it managed to do what other sessions do. That is, bring about a change in the women loitering and in those that watch us walking. Last night, we were more like a bunch of tourists without any deeper engagement or reflections of the space we were in.

I am happy that this happened. It will help us rethink and revisit our reasons for loitering with a greater fervor than ever before.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The importance of being repetetive

Why loiter? the movement, is now in its third year of existence and the one thing (among many other things) that I have learnt from doing it for more than two years, repeatedly, is the importance of repetition.
Not to take away from events and mass protests or their importance in making people get up and take notice, expedite the judicial process or just to vent anger and frustration over incidents of gender based violence. Such large scale protests, events and walks are essential to keep reminding those in power that we care and we are not happy.
The sustainability of Why loiter?, however, is a miracle in this fast paced lives of ours. When Devina and I first took our tiny step of rebellion on a Sunday morning in May, 2014, we had absolutely no idea that we were onto something much bigger than ourselves or our ideas. We didnt even do it for something bigger, one day. We went to a park with our mats and our music, for just that pleasure of being in a park, on a Sunday morning, exercising our right to be there, and gleefully taking selfies, like any other regular person. What was irregular was, however, our politics. What was unique was, that we knew that our bodies on the grass that morning meant a lot more than our bodies on the grass that morning.
We continued loitering not because it was going to become bigger and we were going to be featured in newspapers and TV shows and we were going to become famous , but just because it was so much fun. We continued loitering because it came from a sense of pleasure, fun, being proactive and with a very political vision.
I cannot emphasize enough the value of sustainability, in not just changing the world, normalising things, but changing yourself, really. Doing something over a sustained period of time helps you discover your own fears, your own politics and your experiences lead to a braver, more articulate and assured individual. Mass protests that last a few hours dont do that.
A lot of women call me after incidents of sexual violence and ask me to participate in protests they are organising and my question to them, always is, yes sure, but do you have a plan for after that?
A lot of people feel bogged down by the largeness of the issue of gender inequality and feel that just a bunch of women loitering wont solve anything. I agree. But we didnt start loitering to change the world, we started loitering to change ourselves and to have fun. and look what all has happened in the last two and a half years.
There are loitering groups coming up in several cities across India, and Pakistan. There are people writing about it, making films, plays, talks, lectures, workshops, and more, across the world. Students are writing papers, making presentations and writing PhDs about it. The authors of the book, the people from the various chapters in cities, the people who do the play 'Loitering' have all become friends.
But most importantly, women are getting inspired to just loiter, to just have fun, and have stopped taking 'no' for an answer from families and guardians. This is a lot more than we could have ever imagined our first little loitering steps would do.
Sustainability, repetition, consistency has become of a much greater value to me than ever before, and is the key to normalizing a gender equal world.