Friday, December 29, 2006

Blame games I like

A blog that I've been following with a great deal with relish, and which ought to be mandatory reading in my humble, starstruck opinion - I blame the Patriarchy.

From the FAQ section :

I Blame The Patriarchy exists to advance the radical feminist views of Twisty Faster. These views revolve around evidence that patriarchy is a violently tyrannical but nearly invisible social order based on an oppressive paradigm of class and status fetishizing dominance and submission. Patriarchy's benefits are accrued according to a rigid hierarchy at the top of which are rich honky males and at the bottom of which are poor women of color. The Twisty Revolution envisions a post-patriarchal order free of theocracy, gender, race, deity worship, marriage, prostitution, exploitation, reproduction, caste, pornography, rape, and government interference in private uteruses, domestic arrangements, drug habits, lives, and deaths.

I too, I too! Blame!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Skills and schooling

Recently, I saw a report in the papers about unemployment trends and how it may actually be rising in India (can't find the link), and the lack of relevant skills was one of the main reasons.

Which made me think about vocational training. Which usually makes me slightly angry, becausewhen it comes to young adults, training is often restricted to sewing/tailoring for girls and electrician's/mechanic's work for boys. It bothers me: this acute famine of the imagination. I mean, is this all we can think of? Is this all we want - tailors and electricians?

Then again, I was forced to do a rethink about skills, when I noticed that my bai's daughter wearing a frock with her back exposed. The frock was a rather pretty one; it was just that a few buttons had fallen off. I asked my bai (Raj) why she didn't mend the dress and discovered that she didn't know how!

I was surprised, because I'd assumed that everybody knew how to put a button on a shirt. Later, I discovered that the bai working in my mother's house didn't know either.

This is particularly hurtful, because not only can she not afford too many new clothes, but the ones she does get have to be discarded very quickly. One button or hook falls off and the clothes begin to look shabby. As things stand, Raj cannot imagine using her hands to do anything except cleaning, or at most, cooking. Not only does this limit her work options, she is actually spending more than is necessary, paying other people to get the edge of a saree done or loosening a kurta.

Now, I happily wear decade-old clothes. I even wear mom's clothes, at least thirty years old, if they're in reasonably good shape. (There was one pair of socks that I was especially loathe to throw away since my mom's darning is so exquisite). Which got me thinking about the way I acquired my (admittedly limited) skills.

I can replace buttons, create button-holes and hook-loops, hem, seam, make very basic clothes... (regretfully, can't darn or embroider). Despite being terrible at needlework, I was more or less forced to learn, thanks to my mother who headed the school and made this stuff compulsory - even for the boys (a favourite pink lehenga, cut out of an old chikan saree, was a self-made gift from the nieghbours' son).

Similarly, all students did gardening work - we hefted pickaxes, grew small patches of sugarcane and maize, handled manure and took turns to water potted plants.

The strange thing is, we never thought of it as acquisition of skills. We thought of it as an unnecessary pain, because we were sure that we weren't going to become tailors or gardeners. It is only now, when I see how frighteningly limited Raj's options are, that those lessons in Art&Craft and SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work) seem to be rather useful.

But the problem is, I don't know if they exist where they're needed. And if they do, then why have separate vocational schools? It would be much simpler to just introduce an extra class focussing entirely on one skill (ideally chosen by the students themselves), let's say, in secondary school. By the time a child clears his secondary level boards, he/she would have at least two sets of additional skills. No?

Friday, December 22, 2006

This business of beauty

This business of thin women... is an awkward business.
We could begin with the feminine shape itself, and how beauty has been interpreted differently in different cultures. All cultures recognize the difference between fat and thin, but traditionally, not all cultures have longed for thin, or fair, or blonde or tall.

We could talk about the statues of goddesses found at ancient excavation sites and point out that they do not look like Kate Moss. The feminine ideal (goddess) was fat/pregnant, sometimes depicted in positions of giving birth, or in the act of coitus, and at other times, simply being herself: thick-limbed, fertile.

But there is not much point talking about ancient excavations. Civilizations change, people's aspirations change, goddesses change.

(Go to Durga Puja pandals in any given year and you will see what I mean. This year, at CR Park, I could have sworn that the statue of the goddesses were modelled on the picture of Aishwarya Rai in the nakshatra ads. They were very white, with long flowing hair, straight at the root and waved just so towards the end. Full bosoms, but narrow frames, slight arms, delicate wrists, colours all pastels.)

The point is that now, the feminine ideal is, unfortunately, firmly, unescapably, the screen goddess, who - sadly - is not fat, not pregnant, and definitely not doing anything as overtly sexual as actually having sex, or giving birth.

From a feminine perspective, I find this change fascinating. Not only has the shape of the ideal changed, the value system associated with her form has also changed. Therefore, the feminine ideal that beckons - lashes laden with a desire that is more yours than her own - from magazine covers, from music videos, from movies, is never completely naked. She will have a towel, a bodysuit, a bikini, a micro-mini, hotpants, etc. In the mainstream, (let us, for the moment, not discuss porn; that has never been mainstream) the new ideal feminine is not naked.

Consider this paradox. A body that looks lovely naked is never quite allowed to be naked. Even when there is not a stitch of fabric visible, the body itself is used as a drape of modesty: legs crossed, arms wrapped round herself, eyes half-closed, face half-averted.

Read the above para again, you will notice that I used the phrase 'a body'. Without meaning to, I used the word 'body' instead of woman, or even 'model' because that is how I thought of it. A body... Is this what they mean by objectification? Is this what it means to stop short of being a person, like all other persons, and turn into something desirable? Some-THING desirable. More importantly, do I have a problem with this sort of objectification?

But we could turn this around so easily.

Delhi is plastered with hoardings advertising a new health magazine. The cover has a picture of a boyish male model with a very flat, gym-hardened stomach; one hand is pulling up his vest to expose his crafted abs. It is a nice body. You cannot see the face. His face is thrown back, upwards, so you only see the man's jaw. This is not about men, or health; this is about the body.

The magazine is not targeted at me. I might have (if I had the inclination and money to spare) picked up a copy to look at the pictures. No nudes, but idealized, oiled, male bodies on show - perfect curls on the head, perfect white smiles, perfectly shadowed chins - tall, slim, young, alluring bodies.

Is this what you call objectification?

I don't know if it is such a terrible thing to look at a person as a thing. I don't know if this automatically translates into an assumption that this thing does not feel, does not speak, need not react, does not carry the threat of getting up and walk off and leave you with your empty desire.

But let us, for a minute, return to the original business. This business of thin women.
I have always been troubled by this question - if thin women are more desirable than fat ones, or like we now like to say 'real' ones, does that make the rest of society culpable for the unhappiness of all women who are not thin?

Are we (especially the media, who constantly generate and flood the public sphere with images of beauty) guilty of breeding a world of eternal physical dissatisfaction - where men are never male enough and women are never feminine enough?

Vijayeta says: '..."curvy" is just another veiled reference to being thin. Look at all the women who're popularly described as curvy. Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce etc. And while they are curvy indeed, they're also super thin. Not a milligram of extra fat, unsightly bulges or spare tyres thanks to an insane diet and workout regime. Be curvy, not skinny is the new mantra. But how?'

This too is a creation of the media. We describe Ms Lopez as curvy, though Ms Lopez is absolutely thin. The bits of her that are rounder - well, compared to Kate Moss - are genetic. If you don't have that kind of genetic shape, you're not going to acquire it through eating more or working out more.

We (the media) airbrush models' skins and shapes. We invest large amounts of money in photo shoots that make an ordinarily pretty woman look like a flawless goddess. We construct myths.

Does the average magazine reader know about airbrushing and money?
Well, thanks to reality shows, we can see how glamour tools transform a face. We know there is an almost 'real' woman out there behind the make-up, beyond the camera. But still, we get taken in by the myth.

Is the media really to blame, in that case? Assuming that airbrushing is a deception of sorts, and assuming that society has outlawed media deception of all kinds - would it be okay if the media continued to use pictures of thin women? Only of thin women?

What exactly is the media guilty of?
Of promoting, agressively, relentlessly, the idea of beauty as a thin body? Of not allowing for diversity of shape and size? Of giving in to the whims of fashion designers who want live, walking-talking clotheshorses, instead of women to show off their clothes?

Whose is the real deception, then?

Are fashion designers deceiving you by pretending that their clothes are fantastic? The clothes are just... what they are. They are meant for a buying public. The public comes in all shapes and sizes and, ideally, a designer should be catering to all of them. Or at least, to the majority, which is not as thin as ramp models. And yet, by using very thin bodies to show off the clothes, the designers imply that their clothes are desirable - if only the woman would lose some weight! The fact that, to most women, these clothes are actually not desirable is hushed up, buried under the hoo-haa-hoopla of just how lovely the models look.

Truth is - most models are rather ordinary. And about as real as the next woman, though possibly anaemic and deeply, psychologically stressed. Fashion designers decide that this woman/this shape/this length is the definition of beauty. Photographers - who get paid to do this - play along and create beauty from an image that is, at best, ordinary and at worst, pathetic. The media buys these pictures. And in doing so, subscribes to the view that this picture/this woman/this shape/this length is beautiful.

And we - ALL of us - buy this view... this woman/this shape/this length.
Why do we do this?
Why do we ALL do this?
Because we are all idiots without an opinion of our own?

Or because, beauty itself is a myth?

Or because, what is beautiful just is beautiful - and we cannot bear to accept it?

Or because, beauty is the sort of thing that has no intrinsic value, unless it is matched by an acknowledgment of desire from somewhere outside of us?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

I, object

I like my feminism as much as the next woman. However, I'm a little behind on feminist theory; for one, I do not buy many books on the subject - though I will gladly consume essays and articles on the web. Secondly, none of my friends or colleagues seems to want to instruct me. And perhaps, just perhaps, I like to discover my own feminism. The limits of it, the forms of it, the practical consequences of it. Slowly.

But for the last few days, I've been grappling with questions.

Who is a feminist?

Perhaps, I should modify this a little bit: Who is a woman? How do you define a woman?

As the female of the species? Does that mean an acknowledgment of womanhood as the fact of femaleness - in other words, that part of us which is different from the male?

If you remove the female parts from a woman's body, does it become a male body?

If you remove the trappings of what is usually associated with feminity - long nails, paint, cosmetics, styled hair, anklets, glass bangles, neatly crossed legs, swaying hips, skirts, off-shoulder tops, high heels, soft giggling laughter, sequins, feet pressed together - does that make you less feminine? Is a naked, silent woman in a forest not feminine? Would she be more 'feminine' if she acquired the trappings?

Sacred insanity, through a part-provocative, part-confessional essay 'The shape of things', nudged me closer to questions such as these:

Are feminists hairy, raucous harridans? (Are you not entitled to feminism if you're not?)
Are beautiful women/feminine women silk-smooth, fragile, thin?

But before globalisation, before cable television, just fifteen years ago, I can recall a time when a woman could be indeed 'too thin'. And the women we considered really beautiful then, seem almost ordinary in comparison to the airbrushed, made-up perfection of the photos in the new glossies.

There was a time when I had a poster of Madhubala up on my walls. When I was a child, she was still the epitome of beauty. By modern standards, she would be grossly overwieght.

By modern standards, Kate Moss or Aishwarya Rai (in her new, 'toned' avataar) are the ideal. I no longer have any posters on my walls. Kate Moss means nothing to me.
Why is this?
Is this because she is foreign and I have not seen too much of her in magazines or on TV?
Or is this because I am no longer a child and no longer given to gawking at beauty?
Or is this because Madhubala was Madhubala, a woman whose eyes held mischief, lashes held a dawning age, cheekbones lifted like the rising breath of a nation, and hair waved at the viewer like a million strands of lively abandon, while Kate Moss is.... well, a shape (on narcotics).

What happens to a woman when the quotient of her feminine attraction is based upon her BMI?
What happens when you are considered worthy (or worthier), only when your shape inches as close as possible to a shape transmited to us as the ideal, and the ideal is a fake photo?

Is this what feminists mean by 'objectification'? Why is objectification a problem? Why does it matter so much that the length of a woman's legs or the size of her breasts determine how attractive she is, or how womanly?

When we cry foul at such trends, are we really crying foul at our own inability to meet the modern ideal's criteria?
Or at our unwillingness to try and meet these criteria (and the pain this involves)?
Or, at our resentment at being reduced to legs, breasts, face?

Would the same person be as attractive, let's say, minus arms, minus neck, minus back?
Let us assume that we take each little physical bit into account - arms, fingers, back, backsides, everything - does that then mean that we have begun to treat a person as 'whole'?

What happens if we reduce a man similarly - legs, belly, face, butt?
What happens when we decide how attractive a man is, based solely on how flat his abdomen is, how thin his legs, how broad his shoulders and how chiselled his face? How much hair he has on his head?
What happens when we decide that a man is less worthy of our attention, our affection, our admiration, if he does not have a taut belly, a full shock of hair and long legs?

If a woman is naturally thin, naturally silk-smooth, naturally fragile, naturally quiet, is she less empowered than a woman who is plump, hairy, sturdy and raucous? Do thin-but-curvilicious women lose the right to call themselves feminists?

How much curviness is curvilicious? (I personally find thin women with obvious silicon implants somewhat repulsive, but then, I'm not the demographic they're catering to)

What if you're not thin, in a world that likes thinness? Do feminists lose the right to want to be desirable?

What is a 'real' woman? Are only un-thin, complexed women with flawed skins 'real'? Are thin women not real? Are anorexic women not real? Are obese women more real than anorexics?

What is a commodity? (Any thing? Any thing that can be bought and sold?)
What does it mean to commodify? (To convert from non-thing to a thing that can be bought and sold?)
Why is the commodification of women so important? (Because when you have beautiful women in advertisements, you are not selling a product, you are selling a woman, and everything that she represents? Because what the world of buyers really wants is a woman, and everything that she represents, and not your stupid product? [what does a woman represent?] Is that why there are more 'real' women in advertisements targeted at other women - washing machines, detergent, tea?)
Who is commodifying women? (Businesses that peddle products? Media houses that depend on these businesses? Photographers and filmmakers who depend on the media?)

Because you are viewed as a 'thing', will you be bought as a thing? Once you are an object, as the next logical step, will you be a commodity? Will there be attempts to put you in a nice package, in a box, on a shelf, to be handed over to whoever is willing to pay? What exactly are you being sold as, in that case?
A sexual object?
But what if you are not an overtly sexual object?
A covertly sexual object?
An object that is desirable, but without desire of her/his own?

Once you have commodified one person, does that pave the way for a whole gender, a whole race, a whole world to be commodified? If one woman is an object of desire, does it follow that other women - less desirable, perhaps - are objects, nevertheless, whether desired or not?

Who is the victim in this game of commodification? The thin woman? The fat woman? All women? All humanity? Do men suffer equally, when women are commodified? How?

To all these questions, I don't have answers. I just have more questions.
Any answers?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Children's stories

Children's stories are such perfectly choreographed dream sequences, aren't they? Despite the wolves, the witches, evil stepmothers, greedy kings, the eternal sleep, the eternal wait for one kiss of redemption... and it all comes right in the end.

But whenever I meet children who have lived dangerous fairytales, who have suffered the witch and the wolf and lived to tell the tale, I can't help wondering whether it has come right. Whether it can ever come right.

A while ago, I had written of Bubli, of Sukku, Sohail, Budhiya; these children's stories exemplify why it was so important to ban child labour. Not necessarily because kids should be in school, not necessarily because kids have a right to food and education, but because kids are vulnerable. Because kids don't always know what to do to protect themselves, or indeed, if they have any right to seek protection against adults.

A few weeks ago, I met my own question in the shape of Kalu.

Kalu. Dark-skinned teenager with a genuinely shy, genuinely pleasant smile. An obvious wonder lurks just one layer deep in his eyes. He is very willing to talk.

We met entirely by accident. I had gone to the Bachpan Bachao Andolan office to meet the founder, the general secretary, the adults... but there was this team of excited teenaged boys in maroon sweaters (the kind I wore to school), hauling backpacks off a bus. They'd been on the road for days, driving around the countryside, staging plays and raising awareness about children's rights.

Kalu was introduced to me as the boy made famous by the Clinton visit; he was photographed with the former president of the US and subsequently splashed across many a newspaper and magazine. It made him blush - the teasing from the teacher about how famous his face was. But he recovered soon enough and began to tell his story with confidence. With such guileless, unflinching confidence that it made me flinch.

Kalu comes from village Murho in Madhepura, Bihar. When he was barely six or seven, he was kidnapped when he was out minding the goats (or were they sheep?). Two strangers showed up where he and another small boy sat, while the animals grazed. "You know how kids are, ma'am. They love sweets. These two men gave us sweets. They lured us away, making promises of more sweets, and saying that they would take us to the cinema. That was how we were kidnapped."

First, Kalu was taken to Allahabad, and for that first week, he was given good food. Next thing he knew, he was put to work on the carpets. Day and night. Day and night. For meals, he was given rice and water. Old sarees were used as blankets. And he was beaten.

Once, he feel asleep at the loom. The punishment was severe. The adults supervising him assaulted him with a knife. He received two wounds on the chest. "They did not take me to the hopsital. To prevent infection, they would burn the wounds. The wound was filled with the 'masala' that you see on the tip of a matchstick. This was set fire to.... the other boys stood on my arms and legs to prevent me from moving. Somebody used to clamp an arm down on my mouth. I was not even allowed to scream."

I stared with a stilling horror at this class ten student, smiling at me, genuinely smiling. The questions dried up suddenly, as I tried to imagine the boy at eight. The boy with fire on his chest, several pairs of feet pinning down his limbs. I did not want to see the scars.

Kalu extended his hands. There were more scars. "Every time I made a mistake while weaving the carpets, they would drive knives into the back of my hands. Again, they'd set fire to the wounds, never take us to a doctor."

There was not that much to say, was there?

Before I could recover from the searing numbness of one story, I met another.

Pradeep is younger, about 13. He's a student of class seven and a little less articulate. Or perhaps, just less willing to talk. He only answered the questions put to him.

He belonged to Agra's Kamlapur village. His dad was a driver. His mother was told by a sadhu that Pradeep would bring ill luck. Not just to the family, but to the whole village. The village had indeed had problems with water scarcity. The sadhu persuaded Pradeep's parents to sacrifice the child during durga-puja.

They blindfolded him and took an axe to him, at the local temple, but he was struggling so that the axe fell on his head rather than his chest. The sadhu decided at this point that the sacrifice ritual had been interrupted, and therefore, was rendered invalid. So, they left the boy there at the temple where devotees found him in the morning. He was taken to the hospital but the boy was so scared that he would be attacked again that he ran away to Agra. Once there, he began work at a dhaba, from where he was rescued by BBA activists.

The chairman himself went to the village, to persuade the parents to accept the boy, but they thought of him as a curse and did not want him back. So, he lives at the ashram in Rajasthan, with other boys. Studies. Travels.

When people like me come to ask questions, he tells them the story.

I tell you... children's stories!
Tweets by @anniezaidi