Wednesday, 22 October 2008

On The Status Of Women In Today's "Liberated" World

“Its such a pity, women are still subjugated,” I said in a rather off-hand manner.

“What? But your generation has not seen subjugation of women. They are completely liberated!” my cousin, whose generation is easily a little more than ten years more than mine, exclaimed.

I was (and I do not exaggerate) aghast.

It seemed such an outlandish idea to me that women, even of my generation, are said to be liberated. Really, I had missed that? That’s a shame, at the very least.

People argue with me, with a tone and expression of utmost surprise, that today a woman is educated, married off at a mature age, given the chance to earn a living and so on. I agree.

I would just like the reader to imagine a little girl of perhaps nine or ten years of age and her then liberal parents, living about a 100-150 years back, in India. The parents, impressed by the modern thoughts, decide to give their daughter a basic education and send her to a school. Like a boy. However, when the girl turns ten, they (unlike a boy) decide to stop her education (afterall, now she can read and write) and is married away to man of twenty (who, by the way, is in college). The girl is scared of leaving her parents forever and living with unknown people, all alone, and in an unknown village far, far away from the one she’s grown up in. She cries and begs her mother not to send her away. The mother knows this cannot be done and tells her husband that heir daughter is pleading. The father tells his wife, “But we are still better than the rest. We are liberal enough to give the girl an education. Look at the rest! Our daughter has been sent to a school. Like a boy. Now, marriage has to be done. She is ten years old already. Social customs must be followed.”

Compare this with a widow’s situation (again a 100-150 years back in time, in India) who is not allowed to wear colorful clothes or ornaments of any sorts and is made to live the remaining of her life thinking she’s a damned soul and who’s mother & father & sisters-in-laws tell her they are liberal: “In our times, such women practiced sati. Now we give you an equal status.”
I am sure, being an even slightly intellectual person, you must have seen the underlying irony in the two cases I have constructed. Women are being subjugated in both the cases, but this subjugation is not identified and is even promoted as a liberal outlook because things were even worse five years back.

People a 100-150 years down the line might just have brains enough to say that about us. That women today (2008) are educated, yes, married off at a mature age, yes, earn, yes, but still do not have the same status in the mind of people that men by default, of having a Y-chromosome, have.

A bad driver on the road must be a drunk guy or a woman. A gossip must have spread from female agency. A woman must be in a higher position because of reservation and quotas. Two male best friends must have had that fight because of a woman. Families break because of women. That dumb question must have been asked by a woman.

If you claim to have never have heard even a single question out of this list, or a similar one in the league, you are either not from planet Earth or are among one of those men who make those allegations about fifty times a day.

Do you call this equality? A woman--a sane, rational, sober woman driver-- being compare to a guy in a drunken hue. That women must still be “protected” and incidentally, by men, from men. That when a crime against a woman takes place, the first questions that pop’s into the majority of the population’s minds is how was she dressed? (I mean, if a guy is dressed up in hideous bright orange pants and has the Tere Naam hair-do, will it justify me slapping him? No!! Then why does it justify crime against women?).

Is this liberation? Or just the Patriarchal order still telling us women that its okay, we’re liberal, look at how women were treated ten years back?

The Happy and Gay Bumblebee

“Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!”
--Albus Dumbledore
(in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

Half-moon spectacles. Purple cloak. High-heeled, buckled boots. Blue eyes. Long and crooked nose. Sherbet Lemon. Long silver hair and beard.

The Harry Potter series is, undoubtedly, one of the finest tales a human mind so spun so far. Albus Dumbledore, the silver haired headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is one of the most wisest characters one can fancy.

Almost in every tale of magic, adventure and fantasy brewing from the rater ancient tradition of story telling, even the ones written in present day, there is present a character of the “Wise Old Man”. This culture could have emerged from the druid culture of ancient Ireland, but I’m in no mood to map out the family tree, so we’ll pass that for now. Astrix has Getafix, Lord Of The Rings has Gandalf and so on. Following this league, Albus Dumbledore is the one in the Harry Potter series. Like most of them, e is tall, thin, with ridiculously long silver hair & beard, and an unmatchable wit and sense of humour.

Dumbledore is one the characters I’ve always admired. He gives the sanest pieces of advice, in the most direct way possible. Here are some of my personal favorite things he‘s said:
1. To a well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
2. Vernon Dursley: I don’t mean to be rude--
Dumbledore: --yet sadly, accidental rudeness occurs alarmingly often.
But lets not go there…if I were to compile the quotes by Dumbledore that I like, the book thus formed would be almost as thick as the volume of Deathly Hallows.

My point is, that Dumbledore’s charm lies in his wisdom (and even though he isn’t exactly modest about the abundance of it, he isn’t vain either) and the simplicity with which he puts forth his points. Dumbledore hardly ever yells, scolds, shouts or even uses a cold tone. His voice is always its cheery best with elements of utmost truth and frankness, but, surprisingly, at the same time, without contempt (while telling Rita Skeeter in Goblet Of Fire that he had read the article where she had insulted him, he frankly told her in the happiest tone possible that he had found his description “enchantingly nasty”).’’

Dumbledore is the Wise Old Man, who knows everything, is undoubtedly the most respected person in the community, and incidentally, someone, people have trouble imagining as ever being young.

‘Albus’ means ‘white’ and ‘Dumbledore’ means ‘bumblebee’. I had read somewhere, long back, that Rowling wanted to name her genius a bumblebee because she could imagine him humming a tune whilst walking in the corridors of Hogwarts.

Last year, after the series ended and all the Harry Potter fans finally gave a sigh of relief, Rowling mentioned that this particular Wise Old Man was gay. She went on to say that when Dumbledore was a teenager, he had had a crush on--hold your breath--Gellert Grindelwald (yes, the same dark wizard Dumbledore defeated in 1945) and had a major hear break when Grindelwald became what he is known for.

People seem to have problem with this piece of Harry Potter update at three levels:
1. That the headmaster in a book read by small children is gay. Homosexuality, in itself, is (to a large extent) stereotyped, looked down upon and considered abnormal. And here is Harry’s headmaster--gay!
2. Dumbledore--the good guy--had a burning passion for Grindelwald--the bad guy. That is obviously very disturbing to most. How could he have loved Grindelwald? He’s evil! Harry now might aswell propose to Voldemort!
3. Nobody ever expected the traditional Wise Old man to have feeling of love and romance (even heterosexual). They are so old and so wise and so obsessed with guiding the hero to win the was of Good vs. Evil and hence, so beyond earthly needs of wanting to have a partner, that people automatically and even unconsciously thought of them as near asexual. (Imagine Getafix brewing up a Love Potion for his own interest!!).

Till that revelation about Dumbledore’s personal life, almost everyone had loved and respected that guy. After the declaration by Rowling, there’s been a general indignation. Even the people who are cool with this personal detail of Dumbledore, demand to know, why, in six books that he was alive, did he not tell people himself.

For my part. I DON’T CARE.
Did Snape tell us he had cherished an undying love for Lily Evans (and even in the end, its his memory that tells us)? Did McGonagall, Flitwick, Sprout or any other teacher reveal anything from their personal lives? Do we question that?

When in Philosopher’s Stone, Harry asks Dumbledore what he sees when he looks into the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore replies, “I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.” (Hands off to the great sense of humour!). Going on to explain to a startled Harry, “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist n giving me books.” This shows that people, even in the Muggle world, are always so busy choosing to look at Dumbledore as an intellect and nothing beyond, they turn a blind eye towards his personal desire.

Also, why in a series that is so obviously about the war between Harry and Voldemort and mainly Harry and his friends’ bildungsroman, should Dumbledore declare in the Start-of-Term feast that he’s gay. Its completely and utterly irrelevant.

I respect Dumbledore for his wit, wisdom and sense of humour. I still do. And I always will. And quoting Dumbledore himself, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Some Musings on the "Equality" of Men & Women

I would like to start today’s musing of mine by an excerpt from Jane Austen’s (one of my favorite authors) novel Persuasion where two friends, a Captain Harville and a Miss Anne Elliot are discussing love with reference to Captain Benwick, a common friend of theirs.
It goes like this:

“Well, Miss Elliot…we shall never agree, I suppose, upon this point. No man and woman would, probably. But let me observe that all histories are against you---all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconsistency. Songs and proverbs all talk of women’s fickleness. But, perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Jane Austen is among the very few women writers who have been canonised. Well, not in the sense Aristotle, Homer or Virgil have or even the way the honourable Shakespeare has but atleast she’s read and recommended when one suggests “Good books to be read”. Her books are often termed “classics”. And if Persuasion is a classic, it must be successful in transcending time and have an universal appeal. And if that is to be believed, the conversation between Harville and Anne is still relevant as it was way back in the 19th century when Jane Austen wrote it.

It is sad that people from time past to time present have been unable to give women equal rights. In almost every society, Black or White, it seems, women are the last section of the society who are thought about as equals. The much celebrated French Revolution boasted of new thoughts of equality and so on along with emerging concepts “fraternity”, but what about the women? If fraternity ensures brotherhood between the men, what happens to the rest half of the population?

If many feminist writers are to be believed, then it never even occurred to the women themselves that there is a need for a change in the social order where all they were (and, please, let’s face it, still are) expected to do is attract a man by their feminine charm, sacrifice everything for the family (for children and the experience of motherhood is the ultimate high of being a woman) and if they have girl children, teach them to do the same in life that is theirs, but are made to live on the terms of others. Men, even though, are another section that have been unfairly targeted by the social norms (you know, the “man” earns and feeds the family and thus, must be a highly educated/skilled person otherwise no one will marry him which will result in no heir that will “carry on the family name”) have had an easier share from the lot.

Men are expected not to cry, earn a handsome amount, listen to family’s financial problems. Women today are supposed be educated (and if they are earning, okay, but please no late working hours like the man), raise the children, manage the household chores, fix up a fancy meal three times a day, help the children with their homework, look good, and when the husband comes from work, clear everything so that he can relax. I pity men, ye, for they are supposed to be the everlasting source of strength that everyone is dependant upon but puhleese!

Let go of Jane Austen times where men were given educational opportunities much higher than women were. Let us talk about now, today when apparently they are not. A woman (I talk in terms of averages, in the urban India) is allowed education, in fact, parents happily and willingly send their daughters to study, just like they send their sons. A woman is encouraged to complete her studies and have an occupation but is that it? First, a lot of occupations re “not good for girls”. When I was in twelfth grade, I heard a lot of guys say “I gonna do Hotel Management” but according to most of the people I talked to it was not a good course for girls. Same goes with Law, especially Criminal Law (“Ladki ko Law kara rahe ho?!?” is what, surprisingly a lot of people will say.), architecture, civil engineering and so on. When asked why, they either do not give an answer but adamantly stick to their jargon or they say that in these occupations, one meets “all sorts of people” or “have to stand out in the sun all day” and other rather flimsy excuses such as these.

Secondly, I really, most ardently wish that the education of the female sex is done with the intention of the girl having an awareness and equal knowledge that the men have access to, to have the right to have or not have a career (and not have one by force) and to gain economic & financial independence so that she does not have to depend on the Patriarchy to support her. I wish that the purpose of educating women is not that it will add on to her resume that she will present in the marriage market. Women, quite a lot of them, it seems, are educated and have jobs because these days, grooms demand an educated girl as brides. They want a padhi-likhi girl that they can go to parties with (and not be embarassed with a gawar at hand), can teach their future kids and so on. Is that really so? I would be very pleased if a single person tells me that a woman is educated for her sake, and has the right to refuse marriage and still not be mocked (even behind her back) at.

Being ambitious (or “over-ambitious” as some may argue) is seen to be a negative trait in women, whereas in men its is seen as an outright virtue. A man can go follow his career related dreams to any extent so long its ethical but a woman must draw the line where her family comes in. Her career can be sacrificed for the happiness of the family for it is that martyr’s duty to take care and nurture her family. It is seen as a positive feminine quality for women to be caring, submissive, docile, nurturing, forgiving and an all enduring person and what does she get for it? More work! Parents looking for brides for their hard working and high earning sons do not prefer a career ambitious girl as she wont be there to look after the guy when he’s back from work and will at most hand him a biscuit and a cup of tea.

It is at every level, even literature. Just like Anne pointed out in Persuasion that the pen have been in the men’s hands. I have observed something very peculiar. A lot of girls I know read romances like Mills & Boon and chick-lit novels but most of them don’t admit to. When they do, they seem embarrassed and are openly made fun of (mostly by other candid readers!). When these girls are asked what they like reading, they will never name romances or chick-lits (even if they simply have to read one before going to bed) but anything else. Mean and women, however, openly read and admit to read and like lad-lits. Books by Chetan Bhagat and Anurag Mathur are very good examples of this. Books by Chetan Bhagat and others like him, most definitely follow a pattern unmistakably that of a lad-lit. It is the story of an invisible man, a loser, who in the end, atleast gets the girl of his dreams if nothing else. And the girl in most cases will be a beauty whereas the guy a…well, loser. But people proudly say they have read them. But when it comes to romances or chick-lits, why are they ridiculed by men especially and blamed of reading something silly? I mean, have you ever picked up a copy of Fleming’s James Bond? Bond is stupid, lazy, all his done by side-kicks, all he does is romances around with the finest of women. But that’s okay to read.

At first, I wanted to write a “serious” novel. A novel that would be respected. But now, I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to be canonised by a code that is so male-centric, I don’t want to be made a Dame when men get to be Knights (a term, automatically associated with gallantry). I don’t know as of now what my book will end up being, what genre it will be. But I do know that now I don’t quite mind if it’s a romance or a chick-lit so long as women read it and learn that their lives are for them to live.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The New Age Moors

I recall an incident that occurred when I must’ve been in the 9th grade. I was standing with two other girls, bless them, in the school corridor. I won't call them my “friends” as they are anything but that. Anyways, I was chatting with my acquaintances. One of them was eyeing, rather obviously, a guy standing in the corner, fancying himself to be looking like a Greek-god. The apparent Greek-god was murmuring something to a friend of his, who looked in our direction and demanded in shamelessly booming voice “Who? Who? Which one?” where his friend had to reply (very cleverly indicating the highly estimable Lady) replied, “Arrey yaar, jo sabse gori hain!”. Which is a fact. No arguments as she is the fairest among the three of us. But that statement resulted her to be in the finest of spirits for the next three weeks. She thought it was a compliment and the guy liked her. I wish I could say that they went out on a date the next day, but they never ever ended up dating.

My question: Are we still living in a time where we (women and men) have to persistently ask our mirrors “Who’s the fairest of them all?” and do we still have the colonised mindset of black & white?

I have a friend from school, Pri, who is obsessed with her complexion. Her skin is on the darker side, yes, but if you ask me, she is waaaaaaaayy prettier than the fair one I mentioned in the initial bit of my post. Pri, however, will go to any extent to make her skin lighter, if only by a few noches. Last year, I had gone back to my school for some function and my friends and I were looking for Pri when we saw a girl who looked liked like her entering the school. We were a little far away to see who it really was.
“Is that Pri?” Jiggy asked, squinting her eyes in the sun.
“Nah. Can’t be,” Reya said with a srt of insane surety that made us all stare at her.
“She wouldn’t have been walking so cooly, na” Reya explained. “She would have her hand over her head and running towards shade crying ‘Sun! My skin!’, right?”.
By the way, Reya was right. That girl was not our colour-conscious Pri.

All this makes me think, is it really that big a sin to be born dark in the Indian subcontinent even after more than 60 years of so-called independence? Why are people pro-fair skin in a piece of land where all the natives were once called the “White Man’s Burden”? Does a face look better when its fair than when the same face is dark? Are we really independent or have our minds simply refused to be decolonized with the European thought of colourama?

It is the year 2008 and people on the look out for prospective brides priorities these two things on an average:
1. How fair the girl is
And
2. Her academic performance.
Fairness creams still advertise that fair=beautiful and bleach cream ads show an invisible girl applying bleach which results in atleast a thousand men flocking towards her.

We are living in the 21st century with the mindset of 19th century Victorians where girls’ complexion should be the fairest of fair and should be protected by bonnets and all. Where poor Bertha Mason (and who cares if she is a “beauty”, a fact even Rochester agrees with?) is locked up in a window-less attic whereas a plain-Jane, but a White-plain-Jane gets the man of her dreams (but Jane Eyre was a nice person & sympathized with Bertha, so no major complaints there really).

In today’s apparent world of progress where a woman also has the right to be intellectual (if not intelligent), why must women (or even men?) measure their skin tones?

Do we need a Black feminism? Womanism? Or just decolonise our occidental outlook to respect our “oriental” selves?