A Feminist Review of Delhi’s Free Transport Scheme for Women

Image source: NEWSWLD

Walking on the streets alone in the dark has been off limits to me ever since I can remember. Last week, however, I decided to make full use of my new found freedom from parents by taking a twenty minute walk to the closest metro station. It was around 8 in the evening, and everything felt normal until, at one point, I became suddenly and harrowingly aware of the lack of other women on the street. I saw two men walking behind me, and was convinced they were following me. I increased my pace, so did they. I panicked at not having carried pepper spray, called my friend up and began to use all the tactics people had armed me with before moving to Delhi. I then crossed to the other side of the road, slowed down and watched with relief as the two men passed. To think that this 5 minute experience is a daily reality for most women in the city is frightening. And to think that a fear of this, or something worse happening, keeps women from stepping out of their houses at night is even worse. Because by forgoing their right to access public space post a certain time of the day, without a certain kind of company or in a certain neighbourhood women forgo their rights to equal citizenship.

 

So, when Delhi’s CM, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party announced free travel for women in Delhi Metro trains and Delhi Transport Corporation and cluster buses, I was nothing but overjoyed. However, criticism soon started to pour in from all directions– the already over crowded metros and buses could not accommodate any more people; the scheme was unfair to men who cannot afford public transport; and most commonly, it was a ‘freebie’ given by the party to secure seats in the upcoming state elections, after having performed dismally at the national level. In a video posted by The Wire, it became evident that hardly any of this criticism was coming from the class of women that would benefit significantly from the scheme– women to whom even public transport is a privilege.

 

One of the most unsafe cities in the world, Delhi’s terrifying rape culture gained global attention in 2012 after the Nirbhaya rape case where a young woman was brutally gang raped while travelling in a bus at night. This was perhaps one of the most extreme instances of the abuse women have to face in public transport daily. According to a report in India Times, the first three and a half months of 2018 saw more than 5 rapes reported in the city everyday. In such a situation, it is imperative to understand that the government’s attempt to provide free transport to women is not merely a means of poverty alleviation that should be available to all, but a specific attempt to make public transport safer for women, who live in constant fear of being harassed, molested, or raped. The logic is simple: free transport will encourage more and more women to use these systems, making them female friendly spaces. To argue that men deserve these privileges too would be misguided simply because they do not share the same concern for safety that women do.

 

In a patriarchal society like ours, where women, whether earning or not, are almost always financially answerable to the men in their lives, the scheme also comes as an opportunity for providing some level of independence and freedom to women. Being able to use public transport free of cost would allow them to access public spaces and escape situations of abuse and violence without depending on other men. It is frightening to think of the number of women stuck in extremely difficult circumstances of domestic abuse or human trafficking, who are forced to stay there because they lack the finances to physically leave.

 

While women from lower classes have no option but to go out, walk long distances, or use the cheapest modes of transport to earn a living, there is now a sudden fear surrounding the fact that with the introduction of the scheme middle and upper middle class women are likely to leave their houses despite having no “real” work. We, however, herald the time when women will step out in hordes to do nothing in particular. As Shilpa Phadke says in Why Loiter,  “women or men, regardless of our differences, have the right to loiter. When society wants to keep a woman safe, it never chooses to make public spaces safe for her. Instead, it tries to lock her up at home or at school or college or in the home of a friend.” This scheme however, might just be the beginning of inviting more women into public spaces, to wander the streets aimlessly, to sit and chat with their friends, or just enjoy the beautiful day. Women have been locked up for far too long. It is high time they reclaim the outside.  

 

Most claims of metro trains and buses becoming overcrowded come from men and women already availing of these transport systems. While their concerns are valid to an extent, it is important to remember that they come at the cost of the continued harassment of women who cannot afford public transport. When we crib about having to stand all the way through our ride because more women can now access these facilities, let us remember that the alternative for them would either be walking long distances, sometimes at night surrounded by a frighteningly large male presence, or not leaving their homes at all. While it is imperative that the government review its public transport network and expand it so as to make it more accessible, it is also important that we don’t place our minor inconveniences over the health and safety of a large number of women who would benefit from the scheme. Ideally the government should subsidise public transport to make it affordable for everyone, however the scheme stems from the fact that the existing public transport system is already skewed in favour of men, with women forming only 33% of the commuters. Thus, it becomes imperative for the government to specifically tackle the socio-cultural and economic restraints faced by women that limit their mobility. The scheme thus comes with the hope of providing women from society’s lowest rungs access to public transport.

 

In this light, we must also reflect on what it means for something to be public or state sponsored, as opposed to what we have come to expect from the state. Concerns about the state’s ability to subsidise women’s travel, and about taxpayers’ money being used for providing benefits to ‘others’ have been expressed in large numbers. Moreover, the government was accused of introducing the scheme as a mere incentive to secure seats in the upcoming state elections. In a country that has come to see privatisation as the only viable solution to the nepotism and inefficiency of the state, we seem to have very low expectations from the government about what it can and should do for its citizens. Ensuring the safety of all women is the government’s duty, not a favour. What is called a ‘freebie’ is every citizen’s right; it is in direct opposition to the neoliberal idea gaining ground in the country that propagates the belief that services and spaces belong exclusively to that minority which can afford to pay for them. While it is true that perhaps the most heavily taxed or the richest section of society is not benefitting from the scheme, the scheme merely follows the logic of the progressive taxation method. This method is employed by the country at large to ensure social equity: taxes collected from the rich are used largely to subsidise services for the poor.  
This scheme by the Delhi government comes with a potential for women to break out of the patriarchal structures that have for long controlled and restricted their every movement. For a change we have something that is not asking women to hold back for the sake of their own safety, but encouraging them to step out and challenge those who pose a threat. While we recognise that making transport free alone cannot solve all problems– last mile connectivity remains a major issue and dimly lit, deserted streets at night continue to pose a threat– we acknowledge it as a first step to bringing about a change in attitude towards women’s mobility. We see it as having the potential to not only transform women’s lives, but also the landscape of the city, making it far more friendly and accepting of all women, at all times of the day.

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Why Manual Scavenging Should be a Core Feminist Issue?

manual scavenging

The term ‘manual scavenger’ refers to a person engaged or employed for manually cleaning, carrying and disposing off human excreta from insanitary latrines, open pits, drains, or railway tracks. Manual scavenging is an inhuman practice that takes away people’s right to dignified life and work, while exposing them to extreme levels of health hazards. It is a caste-based practice passed over generations, subjecting the same community and families who fall lowest in the caste hierarchy, to deep humiliation and social exclusion.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 that made all forms of manual scavenging illegal, prescribed penalties such as imprisonment up to one year and fine of Rs.2000 for those who perpetuate the practice. It also aimed to provide alternate livelihood options and other kinds of assistance to manual scavengers. Despite the prohibitions, the act failed to end the practice, mainly because of weak implementation and lack of accountability mechanisms. In 2013, due to continuous and significant efforts of former manual scavengers and Dalit rights activists such as SKA, ‘The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act’ was enacted. This law aimed at strengthening accountability mechanisms, widen the definition of manual scavenging, and took initiatives that not just viewed manual scavenging as an issue of sanitation, but a violation of dignity of life and work. (Read more at…)

According to Safai Karamchari Andalon, 98% of the people involved in manual scavenging are Dalits, and 95% of manual scavengers are Dalit women.Women are doubly marginalized here based on gender and caste. In accordance with the Jajmani system, women often “inherit” the practice after they get married. They are forced to join their mother-in-law in the daily rounds of collecting excrement and carrying it in baskets to the outskirts of the settlement. Women engaged as manual scavengers face pressure from the community and family to continue this practice because their households seldom have alternative options for livelihoods. These are often the poorest and most marginalized communities in India, where even food security is a serious challenge.

The Human Rights Watch Report, 2014 carried an account of Sona from Bharatpur city in Rajasthan who had to enter into the practice after marriage:

“The first day when I was cleaning the latrines and the drain, my foot slipped and my leg sank in the excrement up to my calf. I screamed and ran away. Then I came home and cried and cried. My husband went with me the next day and made me do it. I knew there was only this work for me.”

Women who clean dry toilets in rural areas sometimes receive little or no cash wages, but instead receive daily rations of leftover food, grain during harvest, old clothes during festival times, and access to community and upper caste land for grazing livestock and collecting firewood—all given at the discretion of the upper-caste households they serve. Rekhabai, from Devgarh village, Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, described her “wage” to Human Rights Watch:

“The homes I worked for would give me stale chapatis and leftovers, dropped into my hand from a distance. I was supposed to be paid Rs. 10 each month from each house. Sometimes, I was not paid for months”

Sevanti Fatrod, from Bhonrasa, in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, says that she, her mother-in-law, and her two sisters-in-laws cleaned toilets in 100 houses each day— allowing them only to collect leftover food from the houses they cleaned. She also talks about how the work of scavenging is glorified by calling it a ‘jagir’(area you own). Implying that the community “owns” the work and it is passed down to the women of the house like a family heirloom. The daughter-in-laws who are forced into the practice, especially, do not have a voice, because of the repressive family dynamics, and is not only forced into the work but also asked to take pride in it.

“I did not know that I would have to clean toilets. In Nepanagar, where I am from, my family did not do this work. My father told me that my husband’s family had a large jagir, with work that spanned 100 families—but he did not tell me what work this was. I learned my work when I came to Bhonrasa . . . A jagir, means the area that you own. I was called a maitarani [scavenging queen]—for what? My work was to clean people’s feces— for only one or two rupees a month. We were told we had to do it. There was no one to tell us we didn’t have to.”

It is notable how male manual scavengers are paid in cash and most female manual scavengers are paid in kind. Ashif Shaikh, founder of Jan Sahas says, “If women are paid in cash, they can bargain for their own empowerment with their families and also in the places they work for. Thus, they continue being paid in kind”. He also said that the practice has a lot to do with putting the onus on women to feed the family. One of the major reasons why the number of women cleaning dry toilets is higher is the ancient Jajmani system. ‘Inheritance of work’ is key to the system, thus the ‘ownership’ over the rights to clean a select number of dry toilets is ‘inherited’ by the women of the family. In every patriarchal system, the onus of keeping the traditions alive is on women. The system prevailed in select Dalit communities so that the right to clean a certain number of toilets remained in the family, passing on from one woman to another. Mother-in-laws transferred their jajmani to daughter-in-laws.

Health Hazards

According to the Human Rights Watch (1999), in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad district, Dalit women employed as manual scavengers are also responsible for removing dead cats and dogs for a mere sum of Rupees 5. Moreover, collecting and carrying human faeces on their head leads to many health hazards. Dalit women complained of falling sick with fever, headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. Often, they sprained their hands and feet. Many women looked considerably older and had contracted serious ailments like tuberculosis, respiratory infections and chronic bacterial conjunctivitis commonly resulting in blindness. Kiran said that she suffered a miscarriage because she had to carry heavy loads:

“I was three or four months pregnant. There was no one to help me carry the heavy baskets. We that had to collect the faeces, carry it on our head and our hip, and then go and throw it somewhere else. Because of that reason my baby miscarried.” .

Violence Faced by Female Manual Scavengers

The community faces direct violence when they try to leave the occupation, they are threatened through various means. One such example is of Gangashree and 12 other women of Uttar Pradesh’s Manipuri district who voluntarily stopped cleaning dry toilets. The men of the dominant Thakur caste threatened them to deny grazing right and expel them from the village if they did not continue the practice. When they refused to return, about 20 to 30 upper caste men confronted the men of their households and said, “If you don’t start sending your women to clean our toilets, we will beat them up. We will beat you up…We will not let you live in peace.” According to the Human Rights Watch Report 2014, interviews of women who left manual scavenging, conducted across Madhya Pradesh between 2002 and 2009, women reported daily visits of people at their home, harassing them and demanding that they resume work

The situation of Dalit women practising manual scavenging is the worst because they are marginalized by the society due to their caste, and discriminated against at every step on the basis of gender. Due to scarce sanitation facilities, they are often forced to use fields that belong to upper caste households, leaving them susceptible to physical and mental harassment. Therefore, among other forms of discrimination such as ‘untouchability’, health hazards, social exclusion, meagre income, attack on dignity; most Dalit women also face harassment and sexual exploitation when they go to clean up the toilets in different households.

State’s Approach to Manual Scavenging

While Manual scavenging is deemed illegal by the State, public institution such as the Indian Railways is the biggest defaulter when it comes to manual scavenging. In Indian Railways, dry latrines exist in great number, thus, a large number of individuals are employed on contractual basis in manual scavenging. Despite the fact that 95% manual scavengers are women, most of the provisions for rehabilitation under the government schemes are not gender sensitive, and largely address an imaginary male breadwinner. Wilson points out, “The community never had any kind of a business skill for their livelihood except scavenging. When you are thinking about the rehabilitation of a woman, you can’t offer a tractor to her if they are not willing to work with it. So, the government has to develop a clear mechanism to offer rehabilitation and promote it.”

Conclusion

It is important to theorize manual scavenging in terms of caste and gender-based discrimination in India to understand its persistence despite repeated legislative, executive, and civil society initiatives to put an end to the practice. The State has repeatedly attempted to delink caste, gender, and sanitation practices in India, and has blatantly denied the existence of manual scavenging. There have been multiple cases of under-reporting of the number of manual scavengers in different states and the country. The government believes that sanitation practices will improve if the people develop “civic sense”. The lack of “civic sense” in India is because people know that their shit will be cleaned up after them by lower caste people, mainly women. It refuses to address the root causes of the practice, that is the issue of caste and gender. This is evident in all government sanitation programs, for instance, Swachha Bharat Abhiyan that only focuses on building toilets, and ignores the aspect of caste.

If a majority of manual scavengers are Dalit women, then in order to eradicate manual scavenging, the intersectionality of caste and gender as the root cause of the practise must be acknowledged, and Dalit women must be identified by lawmakers to be the primary group who face the brunt of the violence and indignity of the profession. For the feminist movement in India, then, manual scavenging can no longer be a question of allyship with caste movements, but should instead be identified as a core feminist issue.

Does the Indian healthcare system treat all women equally?

During the 2000’s, India had a maternal mortality rate of 540 deaths per 100,000 deaths which is amongst the highest in the world. Under the United Nations Millennium Development Goal, India was asked to reduce it to 109 deaths per 100,000 deaths. In response to this task, on April 12, 2005, the prime minister of India launched the ‘Janani Suraksha Yojana’ with the aim of promoting institutionalised child birth amongst ‘poor pregnant women’ as specified in the National Health Mission website. The source of attraction of this scheme is the “integrated cash assistance with delivery and post-delivery care” provided to all women admitted in government hospitals, especially all BPL/SC/ST women getting institutionalised to deliver in these health centres.

At this time, in one of the most prestigious public hospitals in Calcutta, Santhal women who were institutionalised reported that they were thrown into wards, made to lay down on floors without beds, and denied the provision of water even during delivery as they pleaded for their lives.

While completely dismissing the pain that a woman goes through when she is in labor, in 2015, one of Uttar Pradesh’s public hospital experienced multiple infant deaths as the mothers were made to deliver on floors in order to avoid dealing with ‘soiled sheets’, sometimes even asked to ‘clean up their own mess’ by the hospital attendees.

Recently, in another government hospital in Delhi, a woman was slapped as she cried and screamed during labor and was threatened in order to make her stop. The body of her child, still unwashed, was then handed to her in a polyethene bag.

These are three of the many instances that lead to low maternal mortality rates in our country. This ‘labor room problem’ is not new. While women continue to be paid in order to institutionalise delivery, they also continue to face psychological and physical violence in the same space. The accounts of many women who have been beaten, mistreated, abused, and discriminated under the name of  improving institutionalised child birth still remain untold. Varun Patel, an intern in the Sassoon hospital in Pune writes, “in an Indian government hospital, giving birth to a child is not a unit less than suffering third degree torture in jails”. While pregnant women receive varying degrees of violence in the labor room, the doctors and the hospitals find a way to justify it. Adding to this, institutionalised child birth continues to be promoted and justified by government schemes and programs such as the Janani Suraksha Yojna, while placing the blame of maternal mortality on individual women rather than the treatment of these women. In an already violent and inaccessible healthcare system, the funding that is used to attract women of all sections, may not always be enough if it leads to compromises in the treatment provided to these women. While safe healthcare continues to get privatised, public health systems continue to inflict violence on the women who do not have access to the private hospital space. Hence, institutionalising child birth can not be the solution to reducing maternal mortality rates when the flawed public health-care system only treats these women with apathy.

Women are vulnerable to obstetric violence across the globe, however, in India there seems to be a pattern in which certain women are most likely to be at the receiving end of this torture. Government hospitals attract the poor and more vulnerable women through faulty schemes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojna where they are paid to get institutionalized. A large section of women who are abused in government made labor rooms, belong to a lower socio economic background. As they agree to get institutionalised expecting basic medical facilities during the process of their delivery, they are not only denied sanitation and other facilities, but are also treated unethically. This has now become a normalised reality for those belonging to the lower castes, who often refuse to get institutionalised due to their anxiety of being treated inhumanely. Since information regarding the entitlements of women of the lower castes are not conveyed to them, women are unable to claim their rights or report any kind of abuse. This culture of impunity that is perpetuated by government hospitals who think they can get away with mistreatment, is a depiction of not only the medical abuse against women but also of caste based discrimination in India.

A distinct bias is often observed in cases where the same doctor runs a private practice but also makes visits at the government hospitals in the same city. The disempowerment of certain sections of women is highlighted when these doctors carry an ethical, legal, and respectful attitude towards women belonging to higher castes and classes who visit private hospitals, and their ethicality, legality, and basic human decency of being respectful is lost when it comes to speaking to women from lower castes being admitted in government hospitals. The ‘respectful’ attitude of doctors towards women belonging to upper castes changes when the women belong to lower castes, with the usage of crude language, exerting  physical threats, dismissing the human pain, and trivializing the importance of asking for consent. An instance of medical violence against marginalised groups was seen in 2015 when women from the Santhal tribe admitted in the gynaecology department at a Kolkata hospital were screamed at for expressing their pain. Following this, they were asked insensitive questions such as Why are you screaming now, weren’t you screaming in pleasure when you were getting fucked?”, while dismissing any requests for provision of drinking water during delivery. Without any prior consent, unwanted episiotomies were also conducted on these women.

Women in India, especially those belonging to lower castes are vulnerable to varying degrees of obstetric violences and other such invasive procedures. One of the most common method of violation of a woman’s medical right is through episiotomies —

Episiotomy, the process of making a cut in the women’s vagina during childbirth in order to aid a difficult delivery, is not always beneficial and undoubtedly extremely painful. While doctors cannot legally perform an episiotomy without first explaining the procedure to the patient, informing them of the consequences, and then taking consent of the patient, in India, most episiotomies conducted in government hospitals take place without the knowledge of the expectant mother. They are often used as an illegal techniques to fasten the  process of delivery on women who belong to a lower caste and justified with medical jargon hence leaving the women in a helpless state of being unable to claim the abuse. Episiotomies in government hospitals are often conducted without anesthesia and are accompanied by fundal pressure manoeuvres, which involves the application of pressure towards the uterus for spontaneous vaginal birth. In 2005, ‘The Journal of The American Medical Association’ found that episiotomies are not beneficial at all as Friedman, the lead author stated how conducting episiotomies would lead to extremely high levels of postpartum pain and discomfort to the woman. Following this in 2006, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists declared that episiotomies must be prohibited in all cases. However, in many government hospitals in India, episiotomies are seen as standard procedure to speeden the delivery.

While medicalisation of women during childbirth is meant for ensuring a regular pregnancy with interventions in case of emergency, the healthcare industry in india has maintained the lack of any care for admitted women. With a rise in unnecessary  caesarean births, episiotomies and tubectomies conducted on women (most of the times without their consent) with justifications of increasing efficiency, the woman loses any control over her body and is depersonalized in the eyes of the practitioner/surgeon. This enables abuses of neglect, verbal dehumanisation, physical torture, and sexual violence against female patients, disregarding their right to life, health, and medical facilities.

While the ‘poor pregnant women’ who belong to lower castes are the victims of this maltreatment, the government’s reaction to improve their conditions is concerning and disgraceful for women across the world. One of the aims of the Janani Suraksha Yojana was to encourage institutionalisation in order to reduce sufferings caused by home births. However, this faulty scheme makes no effort to ensure the safety of women obtaining these services. Infact, it does the opposite. It enables violence against women in varying degrees. While the government was tasked to reduce maternal mortality rates, the usage of unwanted episiotomies has proved to be a major cause of maternal mortality. While the scheme may have partially succeeded quantitatively as the maternal mortality rates decreased to 168, it fully fails qualitatively as it disregards the pain, the assaults, the verbal threats, the unethical medical techniques, the psychological torture, and the inhumane treatment of women in government hospitals. These schemes further affect accessibility to medical care especially for women belonging to lower caste and class who may not be able to access private hospitals, hence remaining more vulnerable to this violence.

 

Picture credit: Time

Feminists, Let’s Ditch Holi in 2019!

holi .jpg

On 20th and 21st March, most of India will celebrate the festival of Holi. Parties will be thrown in streets and colleges, housing societies and offices. Entire markets will be set up to sell holi supplies- gulal, pichkaris, colour to mix with water, balloons and so on. Bollywood songs will blare from speakers, thandai and mithai will be spread out on tables. Women will retreat into houses out of fear as men carry out their drunken song and dance in public, taking over entire cities and villages. Women who want to be a part of the festivities will have to ward off constant unwanted touch, unwanted groping, unwanted hugs, and sometimes fail to ward them off. Women will pretend to be okay with gangs of men picking them up and putting them into ponds, throwing liquid-filled balloons at them, forcing their clothes into translucence, rubbing colour on their faces violently enough for it to go inside their eyes and noses. Women will be ridiculed for taking offence or refusing any of this.

In 2018, on the eve of Holi, large numbers of women in Delhi took to the streets, in order to protest what they called a culture of harassment that is prevalent during Holi. Besides the usual harassment, women had begun to be attacked by balloons filled with semen and egg yolks with almost no repercussions. They demanded that police and local authorities take an active effort to discourage the harassment against women that was encouraged and normalised during the festival, with cries of ‘bura na mano holi hain’ every time women protested. Other women have spoken up against the media representation of holi, with Bollywood songs saying constantly that women are sex objects and that harassment of women is a festive activity. In a song Ang se ang lagana, for instance, Sunny Deol’s character promises to touch every part of his lover’s body with his own, and says he’s undeterred by even her complaints to the police. In most practises, every aspect of women’s privacy and bodily autonomy is violated.

However, it is important to remember that the problem with Holi is not merely one of bad practise or faulty representation. It is not something that has been tarnished in modern times, but is a ritual of violence at its very core. The first day of Holi is celebrated with what is known as Holika dahan, or the killing of Holika. The Puranic origin myth says, according to K. Jamnadas, that “the powerful King Hiranyakashyapu sent his sister Holika to kill his ten year old only son Pralhad, as he was worshipping the Brahmanical god Vishnu against his wishes.” She sat with Prahlad on a pyre because she had a cloth which could resist burning. However, after Prahlad prays to Vishnu, the wind blows, wrapping Prahlad with the cloth while Holika burns to death. According to Jamnadas, the Puranas were the only holy texts which Bahujan people were allowed to listen to, and were written in order to create justification in their minds for the violence that was committed against them. In most of these myths, Bahujan people are demonised and referred to as ‘asuras’, and violence against them twisted into a ‘triumph of good over evil’. The myth of Holika then, can be seen as a mere justification of the murder of a Bahujan woman in terms of devotion to a Brahmanical god. This is not the only instance of violence that is associated with the festival. A practise called Garoba, which is carried out during Holi in Maharashtra, involves hanging pumpkins from poles and can be traced to a Hindu practise banned by the British government, which involved hanging lower caste men from poles. The Marathi poet Tukaram who spoke strongly against caste, is said to have “vanished” on the day of Holi as well. Another myth involves the Hindu god Krishna “playing” with the women of Vrindavana, which again, heavily implies harassment.

At the core of Holi, then is violence which is reinforced by the idea that it is a day when there are no moral repercussions for any actions and repressed desires can be fulfilled. In a profoundly casteist and misogynist society, these desires often involve the infliction of violence against the oppressed, and the lack of moral repercussions is most useful for those in power, as can be clearly seen in the events of even just the last few years. For instance, in 2016, on the day of Holi an 80 year old woman was dragged out of her own house by three men she knew, who were in an inebriated state, and took turns to rape her. The woman died soon. In 2017, on the day of Holi, a 6 year old girl was raped by a stranger that couldn’t be found or recognised by the police for weeks. In 2018, in Rajasthan, a 26 year old Dalit man was beaten to death while his house was set on fire. In Uttar Pradesh, a Dalit family’s shop was set ablaze, while they managed to flee from a mob trying to push the family, including two children, into the fire. In the same year, Hariom Yadav, a UP MLA was accused of abducting a Dalit woman in order to ‘celebrate Holi’. When the oppressed celebrate the festival too, they are made the targets of violence. In 2017, for instance, in Madhya Pradesh, an upper caste couple pushed a Dalit man into a Holi bonfire that he had lit himself. In 2018, in Jharkhand, a 52 year old Dalit man was beaten to death by the police for applying colour on an upper caste man. This the oppressive reality of Holi, a festival which is constantly portrayed in mainstream media as a festival of Hindu-Muslim unity, conveniently sugarcoating its brahmanical and patriarchal nature.

Clearly then, what happens on Holi are not transgressions, but merely expressive of what our society is at large. What does it mean then, for us to continue to celebrate this festival that justifies this kind of violence? It is not merely a matter of myth and tradition but reflects strongly in the very real instances of violence that are carried out in society even today- as recently as four months ago, a 15 year old Dalit girl burned to death as she was set ablaze by two men in Agra. We as feminists, then, must reject such a tradition, and all versions of it, in all capacities possible.

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Image credits: Neetisha Xaixo 

Why International Women’s Day Isn’t For Women At All

With International Women’s Day around the corner, my social media and inbox is flooded with advertisements and flashy pictures about upcoming Women’s Day sales and ideas of what I can do to surprise the other “special women” in my life.

On Women’s Day this year, just like every year, expect to be bombarded with wishes from all over the place – your friends (especially male friends), colleagues, family members, newspapers, companies, huge hoardings on buses and roads, and the list can go on. International Women’s Day, which began as a radical political movement by women protesting for better working conditions, better pay, and the political right to vote in 1807 and again in 1908, is now celebrated on March 8 of every year after it was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1975. In this increasingly neoliberal world however, we see that the radical spirit of the movement is completely lost, and has been reduced to a holiday where, amongst many pointless things, women receive chocolates and cards as gifts, and businesses come out in token support for ‘gender equality’, all under the label of ‘women empowerment’.

In an era of modernisation and supposed ‘progress’, Women’s Day has become an instrument used by capitalists to commodify a woman’s body and further perpetuate consumerist culture. Brands selling women’s clothes are the first to detach Women’s Day from its true spirit and turn it into an event that portrays women empowerment to mean wearing pieces of garment that make you look ‘sexy’, and make you a ‘feminist’ simply because those garments have phrases like “Girl Gang” and “#empowerment” printed on them. A clothing brand for women, called PrettyLittleThing (what a great name for a ‘feminist’ brand!), did just that, and are now being applauded for empowering strong, opinionated women “in style”.

In 2014, after the Fawcett Society, a group advocating for gender equality, got politicians to wear ‘pro-feminism’ t-shirts with the slogan “This is what a feminist looks like” in an attempt to gain public support, it was found that the women involved in making these t-shirts were ironically subject to terrible working conditions and were only paid 62 pence per hour. This shows the high likelihood of the prevalence of such conditions for the workers involved behind making garments for International Women’s Day as well, as high end fashion brands wanting to make a ‘pro-woman’ statement, push for high production to maximize their profit. The hypocrisy of such brands then is shocking, but a culture of consumerism fuelled by capitalist patriarchal forces renders such behaviour to go unnoticed, and allows companies to walk away scot-free.

Makeup brands are the next to jump on the bandwagon. With mainstream feminism portraying makeup as an agent through which women ‘express themselves’ and ‘feel powerful’, Women’s Day sees a surge of advertisements of free makeup tutorials, makeovers, “pamper yourself” pamphlets, and discounts on cosmetic products being shoved into women’s faces. As if telling women that they are imperfect and socially unacceptable unless they look a certain way on the other 364 days of the year wasn’t enough, women are told the same thing on the one day that is supposedly dedicated to them as well, only this time, it is under the garb of empowerment.

Makeup brands don’t stop just there however, but go on to sell their products by pitching the idea that makeup will help women look more like the ‘good looking’ female celebrities, and less like themselves, which once again conditions women to dislike themselves and their bodies, and in turn spend ample time, effort and money, trying to look more ‘feminine’ and appealing to the male gaze. In addition to makeup, women are bombarded with advertisements for commodities of luxury, ranging from jewellery and accessories to spas and perfumes, to feel “beautiful” because “she’s worth it”.

International Women’s Day also plays out to be the perfect opportunity for corporates and businesses around the world to make ‘pro-woman’ statements, which is not only beneficial for them as customers now view them in a good light, but also convenient as they only have to display their ‘support for women’ for 24 hours. Even better, they can make such statements regardless of whether they even remotely contribute to the liberation of women in any way.

Last year, McDonald’s turned its logo upside down to look like a “W” for ‘women’, as a symbol of support on Women’s Day. This is the same company, that faced complaints of sexual harassment from ten women employees across Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and six other cities, who said that the members of the board usually do not listen to their complaints or retaliate against them for complaining in the first place. This is one of the first companies to have seen a cross-city mobilization of its employees against them. This is also the same company that faced rallies from their workers amidst Times Square in 2016 against the extremely low wages. McDonald’s FAQ section claims that 52% of its employees are female, proving the well known fact that huge multinational companies, like McDonalds reap large sums of profits off of the exploitation of cheap labour i.e. women. Although McDonald’s faced significant backlash for their “empty gesture” of merely turning their logo upside down, the sheer ease and convenience with which they could do it is representative of how International Women’s Day is used by exploitative capitalists to merely serve their interests of further profit maximization, without having to be accountable to anyone in any way.

Similarly, in 2017, Scotland’s national newspaper Scotsman decided to change its name to Scotswoman, but…wait for it…just for 24 hours! As if the historical, social, economic and cultural oppression of women is just worth 24 hours of everyone’s precious time. An interview quoted with a former assistant director of the newspaper said she was ‘astonished’ that at least half the men on the board agreed with the idea. Well as long as she wasn’t suggesting fighting for more female representation, presence of women in decision making roles, or for higher wages for women, of course they were going to agree! How will 24 hours of changing the title contribute in any way to reducing the rates of domestic violence, sexual objectification, human trafficking, prostitution, sexual abuse, harassment, and the million other problems women face on a daily basis? And yet, the newspaper could use International Women’s Day as a way to gain cultural currency and portray themselves as “progressive”, without having actually done anything to fight patriarchal power structures that oppress women. This argument holds equally true for men as well, for what harm would it do to an inherently patriarchal misogynist man, who otherwise may have made multiple women feel uncomfortable and taken advantage of his privilege, to buy a few gifts or send out a well crafted message on one day of the year, to show that he ‘respects’ women?

The kind of posters a woman is likely to see around ‘wishing’ her a happy Women’s Day also only serve to further perpetuate the idealized notion of a woman, who is ‘curvy’, has a thin waist, clear skin, beautiful eyes, a hairless body, and meets all the other criteria of being an ‘attractive’ woman. Sprinkling in few words like ‘empowerment’, ‘wonder woman’, ‘beautiful’, ‘special’ and ‘precious’, gives such displays a level legitimacy that usually goes unquestioned, and blinds people from seeing how they are still inherently patriarchal.

The rationale for celebrating Women’s Day is always positioned to show that a woman is someone’s “mother, sister, daughter and wife” and she must therefore be shown how “unique” and “special” she is. The ideal woman deserving of attention and celebration on Women’s Day is thus always defined in terms of her relationship with a man, or how effective she is at fulfilling her role of being a “good” family member, therefore robbing her of her individuality and forcing her into the traditional narrative of a socially acceptable woman. This reasoning itself, that is supposed to make men ‘respect’ women is inherently misogynistic because it implies that women must be respected because they are your mother, sister, daughter, and wife, and not because they are individuals and human beings worthy of love and dignity. Portraying her as “special” and “unique” fits in well with the idea of the delicate, pure, innocent woman, untouched by the things that make men crass and general, where every woman conforms to society in her own, special way. Not only does this infantilize her, but also ties her personhood to the well-being and honour of her family, society, and nation.

International Women’s Day has panned out as a holiday that is widely celebrated and actively taken up by all those searching for avenues to display their token support for women’s liberation, in an attempt to be conveniently woke. Capitalists have used this day to feed off of the historical oppression and marginalization of women in an attempt to meet their interests of commodification of the woman’s body and depoliticization of the true spirit of the day, which in turn stands to reproduce the very patriarchal capitalist structure that oppresses women. It is thus important that this year, on Women’s Day, we be alert and careful. We must be wary of what is being labelled as ‘empowerment’ and ‘women’s freedom’.

What women really need is to come together, educate themselves, mobilize, and stand against the social injustices that they have been historically subject to. It is quite blatantly apparent that the strong women who truly led our fight for liberation will never be celebrated by mainstream culture, and it is thus important that our celebration involve going back to the power and strength given to us by those women and the tactics they showed us to continue our movement. Andrea Dworkin said, “Part of what we have to do in this resistance I’m talking about is to refuse to collaborate with male power. Refuse to be used by it. Refuse to be its chick upfront.” So this Women’s Day, let’s refuse to give in to the culture of consumerism that stands to fit us into clothes, makeup, jewellery and heels that appeal to the male gaze, and take a step towards going back to our good old radical roots!

What Patriarchy Wants Women To Be Happy About

There are many stressful, frustrating, and saddening things about being a woman. There is no dearth of things an average woman could be worrying about at any given point of time- whether she looks fine, whether she smells nice, whether her bra strap is showing, whether her skirt is flying up, whether her pants are too tight, whether her heels are about to break, whether her lipstick is on her teeth, whether her concealer is peeling off, whether her body hair is noticeable, whether her voice is too loud, whether the graze of a man’s hand was intentional, whether he’ll be offended if she says something, whether that stranger is staring at her, whether she can take out her phone without him noticing and send her location to someone, whether she should send the number of her cab to her parents, and so on and so forth. So when Filtercopy, a prominent Indian digital media site, posted this video called ‘Little Things that Make Women Happy’, I had many things in mind. My imagination was running free, the possibilities were endless! But as usual, patriarchal media got a simple premise so twisted, that I could not help but laugh.

The very first thing they could think of, which would spark joy in a woman’s mind, was not as one would expect, more freedom, less labour, more comfort, or less regulation. It was… wait for it… no lipstick stains.

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The woman in the video is in the company of a group of people, and instead of talking or engaging with them, she’s deep in thought, carefully noticing how the other woman has left a lipstick mark on her cup, labouring under the worry that if she takes a sip of her drink, the same fate will befall her too.

How much does an average woman spend on lipsticks in her lifetime? Some estimates say as much as $I,780. That’s 1 lakh 26 thousand 1 hundred and 87 rupees. On the rest of her makeup, she spends a total of $15,000. Let us not even begin to calculate the time spent on applying each of these products.

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Imagine the number of books one could read with that amount of money and time, or the amount of education one could access. Imagine what such resources could mean for a woman’s financial independence, what it could mean for a woman trapped in a bad marriage, faced by a harasser at her workplace, or burdened with legal fees in a fight against her abuser. Alternatively, imagine how indispensible a woman’s need to wear lipstick becomes for multi-billion dollar companies to exist, and what effect this economic system has on thousands of people, especially women, across the world. Imagine one such company opening a small media business for itself. What kind of video would it make, say, if it had to target half of its consumer base and at the same time get points for being relatable and representative? But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the video.

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Ah, my biggest worry in the world! Hairfall! I’m not surprised. With the amount of advertisements I’m bombarded with on an average day- for shampoo, conditioner, shampoo+conditioner, dry shampoo, hair oil, perfumed hair oil, non-sticky hair oil, hot hair oil, deep massage hair oil, hair serum, hair mask, hair spray, texture spray, hair colour, hair dye, hair mist, hair gel, hair bleach, heat protecting spray, hair straightener, hair curler, hair dryer, hair ties, hair clips, and hair brushes- it is of course a bit of a bummer when there’s nothing that can stop my hair from falling. I daresay it is a bummer for those selling the products too. But thinking about this makes up exactly two seconds of my day. You know what would make me much happier than a ‘no hair hairbrush’? If women around me were not constantly, instinctively, fixing their hair at all times. If like men, I didn’t need to spend a fortune to get a haircut. If my entire worth was not dependent on how feminine or pretty my hair looked. If I could spend the time I spend on combing my hair on doing something that added actual value to my life. If I didn’t have to buy a single hair product, and could get rid of the whole damn mane without fear of social consequence. But again, I’m digressing.

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I know that feeling. That feeling when I was a young girl and my mother started insisting that I wear an extra layer under my t-shirt so that people wouldn’t look, and eventually took me to a shop where a man stared me down to determine the size of my breasts and suggested a bra size. That feeling when I saw discounts by so-called women’s brands for the most complicated of strappy, lacey, contraptions on valentine’s day, so that women could ‘surprise’ their partners. That feeling when I fell asleep without taking it off one night and woke up with the most painful ache in my chest. That feeling when I spent at least 10 minutes trying to discreetly adjust it in public so that no one would get any sight of it. Why on earth are we still talking in terms of ‘removing’ our bras at the end of the day instead of doing away with them altogether? Why are we so comfortable with our pain? Why are we so anxious to not be one of the uncool, bra-burning feminists? They sure seemed to have a point.

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Have you ever been to a shopping mall and compared the women’s section to the men’s section? Mainstream feminist ideas today tell us to choose whatever we want to wear! In today’s day and age I can choose between shirt A and skirt B and dress C. But who said I have to choose between them? And who said that this choice adds anything at all to the quality of my life or my position in society? An easy look at the two sections of clothing will reveal a number of patterns- the average length of women’s shorts is disproportionately less than that of men’s, the average fit of pants disproportionately tighter. Whether it be short skirts or off shoulder dresses, crop tops or heels, ruffles or chokers- women’s fashion seems to be designed to restrict movement and make us appear smaller. What good does it do to speak up against sexualisation of women based on what we wear when the odds are that what we wear is in itself controlled by an industry run by men, which depends on the sexualisation of our bodies? Why is it absolutely ordinary to joke about not eating or to worry about how much I will have to hold my breath to fit into a pair of pants? Why should a significant moment of happiness in my everyday life involve fitting into jeans whose only purpose is to make my legs look thinner and my butt stick out? I’m sure even those feminists who argue for choice would not disagree with the fact that there is nothing inherent about being a woman that necessitates this difference in design in our clothing.

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In Mumbai, one of the major metropolitan cities in India, there are around 10,778 public toilets for men, and only 3909 for women. Even out of the ones that are present, many shut down at night, while men’s toilets remain open. What is made to look like individual women’s paranoia about cleanliness and men’s tendency to be careless with their bathrooms perhaps points to a much larger structural problem- that a much higher number of women with much more need for clean water and sanitation have to navigate public spaces with less than one-third of the resources available to men. What implication does that have on women’s mobility and access to public space? Perhaps, rather than a coincidental encounter with a clean toilet, infrastructural changes which lead to clean toilets becoming commonplace for women would be a ‘little thing’ that I’d much rather be happy about.

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A Hindu tradition called ‘Chaupadi’ followed in Nepal makes menstruating women and girls live in isolated huts for the duration of their period. In these huts, women die from snake bites and suffocation, and are vulnerable to rape. Numerous girls in Kenya engage in transactional sex in order to access period products because of the prevalent culture of shame and stigma. Films such as Pad Man make heroes out of men for teaching women how to manage their own periods. The most common products women use (sanitary napkins and tampons) create an immense amount of waste, can have fatal health impacts, and are too expensive for most women to be able to afford. However, the pressure to conceal our periods and all signs of it, ensures that we are unquestioning consumers of anything that makes our period as invisible and separate from our bodies as possible. This is why women are constantly targeted with ads for the new perfumed pad, the new triple layer extra thick pad, the extra long pad, and so on and so forth. Forget free-bleeding, even “practical” options such as cloth pads and menstrual cups, which are not only biodegradable but also reduce pain, infection, and discomfort, do not find nearly as many users. This is because wearing them means that we can’t immediately wrap our blood in plastic and discard of it, we can’t avoid touching our blood, we can’t avoid people finding out about our blood. When saviours (especially white, especially male) come bearing gifts of sanitary pads for naive, unknowing, poor, rural women thinking they will bring gender equality to them, what they do not consider is that the availability of pads has not particularly reduced the stigma of menstrual blood for anyone. It has only made it easier to hide. How dare someone suggest, then, that our happiness be born out of this shame?

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The last thing they say women feel happy about, is ‘feeling safe’. Here, they are not wrong. For, what other choice do we have than to be satisfied with little concessions in the constant threat of violence? Especially when media companies like this one do everything in their power to normalise our position as recipients of it? One thing is clear, that Filtercopy is not a villain. Sure, it wants us to stay in our place, but at least it wants us to be happy while we do it.

 

Youtube’s Beauty Guru Culture: Oppression in the Name of Empowerment

It is not uncommon to find one harping on about the many liberatory qualities of the internet: it opens itself equally to all, the internet does not discriminate. Perhaps, in theory, the online space can be seen as independent of the power structures of gender, race, class and caste. However, in practise, we know that is far from the truth. Racist slurs flood youtube videos, neo-nazi groups are unabashed in the propagation of their ideologies online, and women receive daily rape threats on twitter for not behaving a certain way. Especially in terms of gender, an often overlooked means of the reinforcement of the power structure of patriarchy in the online space can be seen in Youtube’s growing beauty and makeup culture.

While Youtube, like other cyberspaces, claims to be equally accessible by all, it is not hard to miss the gendered expectations and stereotypes from the offline world making space for themselves in the online world as well. Where most male Youtubers either rise to prominence by making gaming, or comedy videos, many female Youtubers find the path of beauty, fashion and lifestyle vlogging opening up to them most readily. However, this culture often escapes criticism from liberal feminism, and is sometimes even lauded by them on the grounds of its so-called empowering nature. Make-up, beauty and self care, are seen as tools to help ‘reclaim one’s femininity’, or ‘get in touch with one’s feminine side’. Moreover, today a sizeable number of young women aspire to be ‘beauty gurus’ or beauty vloggers, as the profession is seen as being able to create a career out of ‘doing something you love.’

Criticism for this culture of beauty vlogging earlier came in terms of its lack of representation of various social groups: black women, Asian women, Hispanic women, plus sized women and men, among others. However, just like all culture in the age of late capitalism, this culture too grew to incorporate everyone. Now that various Youtube channels make a special attempt to tick off the criteria of adequate representation, which of course includes the representation of men, people struggle to notice the flaws of this culture; because, how could makeup possibly be oppressive to women if men use it too, right? However, among the large number of beauty gurus active on Youtube, men feature as an exception. Moreover, they do not face any repercussions for not wearing makeup, rather, they are hailed as ‘queens’ for breaking gender norms when they do. On the other hand, women who chose to stray from the norm are faced by rape threats on a daily basis. A case in point would be Anita Sarkeesian, the host of the channel Feminist Frequency, who has received violent and graphic threats on Twitter, multiple times, after she began to criticise the sexism present in video games. That men are drawn to the image of feminine beauty but are restricted by the rules of masculinity, is not feminism’s problem. That they wear makeup and dress feminine might lead to a minor relaxation of the norms of masculinity, but it is not, in anyway, liberatory for women.

It is worth questioning why this ‘form of self expression’, a ‘one size fits all’ (as Youtuber PatrickStarrr, with 4.2M subscribers, calls it), always manifests in beauty gurus using tools of makeup to look hyper feminine. If makeup is as neutral and inclusive as it claims to be, why is it always used to look a particular way: long lashes, smooth skin, sharp cheekbones, and perfectly full and arched eyebrows, with some minor differences sometimes: nude lip shades, as opposed to bright red ones, and winged eyeliner as opposed to the smoky eye. Heavy makeup is constantly normalised with a feminist tinge, where women are asked not to feel insecure about looking too feminine, while the insecurity that comes with the inverse i.e., going without makeup, is never addressed. At the same time, there is also an emphasis on the ‘natural’ look- glossy face, bigger eyes blushing cheeks and nose- which is meant to make women look infantile and innocent. While it is natural for trends to alter over time, it is important to note the continued persistence of an ideal of beauty that dictates how women are supposed to look and how this ideal without fail takes the form of what men find desirable.

Like most other things hailed empowering by liberal feminists, this culture serves the interests of capital, that has for decades made profitable industries out of women’s oppression. Today, Youtube is strewn with haul videos, sponsored videos, and un-sponsored videos of people trying out bizarre products from the Internet. These videos, where youtubers essentially describe the outfits or products they purchased from a particular store, or during a specific period, promote a consumerist culture, that teaches its young audiences, comprised mainly of women, that a little bit of ‘retail therapy’ can help them cope with all their problems. It creates a culture where people are led to believe that to miss a sale would be their biggest mistakes, and that every piece of clothing bought at that sale is a ‘great steal’. There is little scope for other questions to arise: does one really need to restock their closet every thanksgiving or diwali? Is it really that blasphemous to wear the same outfit, without styling it a different way, more than once? Moreover, youtubers reviewing bizarre products off the internet simply reflect our constant search for convenience, for solutions to problems that do not exist, in these objects. Do we really need edible eyeshadow kits and lip colours? Is finding the right shade of foundation important enough for one to spend a considerable amount of time scanning different parts of their body with their phones? Probably not. It is through these Youtubers that industries find a way of capitalising on women’s insecurities, even creating them where they don’t exist. As the insecurities increase, one is led more and more to invest in things that they believe will mitigate these insecurities.

From this superfluity of outfits and pieces of clothing, has emerged the concept of specific ‘looks’ and makeovers. These looks range from ‘cute girl’ to ‘girl next door’ to ‘badass grunge’. Further, Shreya Jain, a Youtuber with 483k subscribers, who is popular for her ‘get ready with me’ videos, transforms into different cultural figures using specific kind of makeup and clothing. Some of these figures and looks from her channel include: traditional Indian bride, and modern Indian bride, Maharashtrian bride, Durga Puja look and the Eid look. Here, by reducing these cultural markers to mere aesthetics, she completely erases the politics behind them, normalising the oppression they symbolise. When she wears the hijab, for example, in her video about Eid outfits, does she not find it necessary to at least mention the circumstances that often force women to cover themselves up in a particular way? In her video about bridal outfits, does it not occur to her that the ritual of women covering their heads is linked specifically with ideas of modesty and decency?

Although often defended using arguments of personal choice and empowerment, the beauty culture of Youtube has larger implications on the way patriarchy continues to operate in society even today. The empowerment that neoliberal feminism attributes to the proponents of this culture comes from the fact that it allows some beauty gurus to become hyper successful, and thus they are looked at as independent and strong. However, one is led to wonder if making large amounts of profit is a necessary condition for empowerment. Moreover, it is important to question the conditions under which the choice to wear makeup and prioritise physical beauty over things comes into being and whose interests they ultimately serve. Why is it that so many women choose, all at once, to cover the blemishes on their skin with harmful chemicals, and painfully pluck out each hair that grows between their eyebrows? Why is it that they choose to devote so many hours and so much money on looking a certain way, and often feel embarrassed to even be seen otherwise? In cinema for example, there has been ample criticism of the sexualised way in which men represent women, however, it is often seen that even when women gain full control of the production of a film, they continue to depict themselves in a similar way. Thus, it is worth thinking about the nature of choice: can the mere act of giving choice to the oppressed after years of oppression, be an adequate means of dismantling the system of oppression itself?

With the increasing influence of Youtubers, especially on an audience of young women, we must be wary of the culture we are normalising in the name of empowerment, and instead, inspire them to break the shackles of putting our appearances above everything else. The Youtube space, like the rest of the internet, is not free of gender biases and stereotypes, and thus, it is important to notice how patriarchy co-opts that space in order to keep women to serving its interests.