A Feminist Case to Ditch Raksha Bandhan

“Mera phool hain tu, talvaar hain tu
Meri laaj ka pehredaar hain tu
Main akeli kahaan iss duniya mein
Mera saara sansaar hain tu.”

In the 1974 film, Resham ki Dori, Kumud Chuggani devotedly sings this song as she goes around in circles, puja thali in hand, worshipping her brother, played by Dharmendra. 34 years of feminist consciousness later, imagine my frustration when I see that ‘woman-centric’ channels like Girliyapa are STILL trying to sell me ‘bro-sis code’ videos on Raksha Bandhan, and otherwise politically conscious women are still complacently participating in this exhibition of women’s oppression.

At its most basic level, Raksha Bandhan involves a woman tying a ‘rakhi’ or a string around a man’s wrist and praying for his prosperity, while he, in return, promises to protect her. In our retellings of this principle behind Raksha Bandhan, we often forget to point out what it is exactly that the woman must be protected from.

One of the most popular mythological stories of ‘raksha bandhan’ is that of Draupadi and Krishna. When Krishna cut his finger, Draupadi immediately tore off a strip of cloth from her sari and tied it around the wound. Later, Krishna is the one to protect her during her ‘disrobing’ by the Kauravas. Kavita Krishnan writes, “Brotherly protectiveness of sisters, invariably, involves avenging her sexual violation – a notion that stretches to include ‘protecting’ her from unwanted emotional and sexual entanglements.” The role of the brother, then, is to protect the woman from dishonour, from laaj, from the loss of her chastity. A woman in this world, full of men, must be protected from the dangers that present a risk to her virtue and her purity- and for all of this, she must look to another man.

Implicit in this notion is the unquestionable belief that the danger to her virtue must lie outside the house. The ‘world outside’ is a realm that must either be avoided by pure and chaste women altogether, or must be accessed with the mediation of a man, for a woman’s purity and chastity is where lies the community’s honour and lineage. This is the fundamental belief not just behind centuries of women’s oppression in South Asia, but also, the benign festival of Raksha bandhan. Perhaps the next time a young girl is assaulted by her uncle or her father right inside her own home, she should call upon her brother to save her. Perhaps the next time a young girl is assaulted by her brother, she should remind him of the rakhi she tied for him.

However, those who support this version of Raksha Bandhan at least deserve credit for honesty, over those who argue that it is simply an expression of love and respect. Anyone who has been exposed to Bollywood would remember those scenes of men trying to avoid getting a rakhi from women they are attracted to. What becomes clear then, is that all women except those who have pronounced themselves as sisters of men, are fair game, and can be seen as sexual objects. This, along with the concept of honour and protection that Raksha Bandhan also reinforces, gives rise to sexual exploitation by some men being legitimised while consensual relationships and women’s sexual freedom are demonized. This is why sentimental pictures of young girls tying rakhis on soldier’s hands are circulated, even while the army enjoys the power to rape women without consequences in various parts of the country, this is why the RSS can announce tying rakhis as a strategy against ‘love jihad’, this is why women can be harassed by Romeo-squads and be forced to tie rakhis on their partners- all while those in power continue to exploit women with the utmost impunity.

The more sentimental and liberal supporters of Raksha bandhan would perhaps go so far as to secularise Raksha Bandhan and argue that it is a practise that has been used to strengthen communal ties. A common example given is that of Rani Karnavati who sent a Rakhi to Humayun to ask for protection when her kingdom was about to be invaded by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. Besides the fact that she was still asking for ‘protection’- what is important to note here is that the tying of rakhis by women and men of different communities has been allowed to exist for exactly the same reason that inter-marriage has been a threat- control of women’s sexuality. Of course, a woman can seek out ‘brothers’ from a community that is lower to hers- because they are not a threat to her chastity, on which the property and purity of her community has historically depended on.

Of course, many women would rather knowingly participate in this ritual than have this conversation with the family that enforces it. However, even outside of this specific ritual, there exists amongst women an anxiety to designate familial bonds onto men they know. It is not completely uncommon for young women interacting with older men to say, ‘you are like my brother!’, or ‘you are like my father!’, depending on the age difference. The inability to have platonic relationships without a familial link is perhaps an expression of the constant and default sexualisation that women have to face and do so much to avoid.

It is dangerous to forget how the twin-concepts of ‘honour’ and ‘protection’ have been used again and again, to shame us into giving up our freedom, to blame us when we’re exploited, and to take over our fight and use it to target people by those in power. It is dangerous to be complicit in a tradition that forces us to be constantly seen as wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers, to avoid sexual exploitation. Some feminists may see reform as the solution. Sure, as a woman, giving a rakhi to your sister might be a great instagram moment- you may feel very subversive and empowered. We’d however argue that it is too weak, too counterproductive, too little, too late, too lazy an attempt at creating a truly feminist culture. Feminists must reject institutions that come with the history and ideological assumptions of women’s oppression- and we must reject them in their entirety. Here we rest our case, and urge you, in 2018, to ditch the patrirakhi.

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Why women must reject the ‘feminine’ to become free and equal

 

This article is a response to the buzzfeed video titled, “Why Do Women Need To Be Stripped Of Their Femininity To Be Taken Seriously As Leaders”

First of all, let us establish that femininity is not something inherent. As Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, ‘we are not born as women, we learn to behave like one’. This behavior is taught and learned from the moment a girl child starts making meaning of the world around her. It becomes internalized, and after years of conditioning, we start defining femininity as an inherent part of a woman’s identity.

So, what is the problem, and why can’t we embrace our femininity, whether learned or not?

Femininity defines a set of traits only found in women, traits such as weakness of the body and mind, frailty, vanity, docility, and so on. Embracing femininity means accepting that women inherently have all these qualities. Some may say that to solve the problem, we should simply start associating femininity with strength and other “empowering” traits. To find strength in, and champion the very things that put us down is a lost goal. If strength is- striding in high heels while breaking our back and torturing our feet, and painting our faces to the point that we cannot recognize ourselves, I believe our idea of strength itself is problematic. We cannot simply repair a system built on male supremacy that is primarily engineered to keep us down, to make us a source of hate and contempt. The only way to defeat this system of ‘oppression’ (not strength, never strength) that femininity binds us in is by outright rejecting it. Do we really want to put up with the pressure of being feminine all the time? Contrary to what the video says, women are actually required to be their “feminine” selves in whichever field they participate! Femininity in its very nature is obstructive; it was never designed for women to be outdoors, to take leadership positions, and to play sports, among others. From corsets to putting make-up to wearing high heels, all these requirements of femininity are all supposed to keep women in their “place”.

Why is a woman even required to perform femininity at all times?

The buzzfeed video attempts to present to us a feminist position, and poses the question, “Why Do Women Need To Be Stripped Of Their Femininity To Be Taken Seriously As Leaders”. In other words, the video says that, women do not perform femininity when participating in spaces that are male dominated and taking up positions that were previously only taken up by men, for the sole sake of attaining acceptance. We got the answer to this decades ago when Simone de Beauvoir said in The Second Sex, “Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” So, if a woman enters into an important leadership position, and presents herself outside of the limiting feminine traits assigned to her, she is said to imitate a man. The question we should be asking here is, why should a woman make herself ‘visually appealing’ for a leadership position? Are men required to do that? Why should she spend time finding the “right” outfit, footwear or shade of lipstick in a job that requires only her intellect? Do men do that? Maybe a good way to find out whether what a woman is doing is really her choice, is to ask ourselves whether her male counterparts are in any way required to do the same and what the ramifications are of her choosing not to do it.

Women in sports such as tennis, badminton, still play wearing skirts. I am pretty sure that it does not in any way add to their game. Moreover, the flying skirts certainly don’t look comfortable. It is indeed the innate need to look appealing at all times planted in young girls, that women nourish throughout their lives. In a sense, this is what makes women acceptable in these positions where once only men ruled. As long as you look like a woman, behave like a woman, do everything that women are supposed to do, and as long as you compensate for being a woman by making yourself into an object, you may be allowed to infiltrate their space, since you insist.

Why are girls in school still made to wear skirts (below the knee!) while boys wear pants/shorts? Would we not be able to distinguish between girls and boys if they wear the same uniform? Skirts and tunics are uncomfortable, and are not at all suitable for a young child who does all kinds of physical activities, playing, jumping, running. Wait did I say child? I meant boys.

The buzzfeed video talks about female political leaders who have “shed” their femininity and taken up the roles of mothers and sisters to be accepted as leaders.

What it doesn’t understand, however, is that in this case, the women are actually doing the exact opposite, and strictly conforming to what it means to be a woman. They know that men can only have a soft corner for women related to them. In fact, for men, the imagination of a woman who is not their sister, mother, daughter, wife, or prostitute does not exist. They do not know where to place this woman in their head. A woman only becomes valuable when she can be viewed in relation to men or can be of use to them. Thus, most women politicians take up these roles, not to shed their femininity, but because they know that it is the only way men will be able to digest their position and not be threatened by them.

Do we want a world where women shed every ounce of their femininity?

Heck yeah! We want a world where the concept of femininity does not exist. I would love a world where I have no pressure to keep up with all the unrealistic expectations of femininity, a world where women are doing the same kind of work as men, and the only difference is in their anatomies.

The notion that “some women enjoy being feminine, and that it is nothing to be ashamed of”.

No one is denying that some women may enjoy femininity, but to argue merely on the basis of what we enjoy is perhaps a position too weak for feminists of the 21st century. Of course one can start enjoying a form of oppression when it brings a certain kind of validation. It feels good to put on makeup because we are so habituated to the validation we receive later that even the process becomes enjoyable. It stems from the idea that looking good somehow adds value to our being, and that we may possess other qualities, and have opinions- but only as long as we look pretty at the end of the day. The battle for us today is to fight our own internalized misogyny which tells us that we must look and behave like a woman in everything we do. I know it is difficult. I know how hard it can be to unlearn something that we are so rigorously made to believe for decades. It is work. It is a battle that we won’t win in a day. But it is the collective effort of all women to reject these norms of oppression and abolish them once and for all, that will someday, get us our freedom.

 

Note: The title of this article is a quote by Simone de Beauvoir from the book The Second Sex.

The Misogyny of Hindu Marriage

Ever since we were little girls, we have been made to believe that marriage is a beautiful thing that we must all aspire to achieve. That we must change the way we look and behave, because otherwise “tumse kaunsa ladka shaadi karega?”¹. From memes to Facebook posts like this one, even for ‘modern’ women, the general belief is that women are dying to get married since they’re little girls, because marriage is the only thing that will bring them solace and happiness, and help them bring their life ‘back on track’ as they dedicate their lives to serving their pati devs². However the truth is that the whole concept of the Hindu marriage and what it entails for a woman is layered with gendered inequality, and is meant to keep such inequality in place through unequal power relations i.e. male domination.

First of all, the very definition of marriage is far from beautiful, and is in fact a social contract, based on the policy of kanyadaan, which literally translates to maiden donation – where the bride is transferred as property from one man to another i.e. from the father to the groom. In fact the presence of men in this beautiful transaction is so important, that if the father is not present, then another male relative is called upon to carry out the ritual. Another concept that is of extreme importance is the fact that the woman must be a kanya i.e. a virgin, in order to preserve the status and honor of her family. If she is not a virgin, then she is a bad woman who is not worthy of respect and must therefore be disowned from society. It is this eagerness to preserve respect and honor, that leads to forced marriages and legitimizes child marriage, even if the girl is below the age of 18, the legal minimum marriageable age. Approximately 30% of girls in South Asia are married before or by the time they turn 18. Leaving aside the fact that the trajectory of their life completely goes for a toss and their freedom is completely restricted if they are married at such a young age, the emotional and physical trauma they go through is immense. In addition to the fact that 1 in 3 women face domestic violence in India, statistics show that teenage girls are 20 to 200 times more likely to die during pregnancy than women above the age of 20. They are also more susceptible to contracting sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HIV. But of course, a woman’s ‘modesty’ and ‘honour’ is put on a pedestal at the cost of her happiness and her own perspective on the kind of life she wants to live. Sure, she might get sexually and physically abused by her husband, she might have to give up an education and her career, she might be reduced to an object meant for male pleasure and ‘producing children’, she might contract multiple diseases because of poor sexual relations, she might even be raped by her husband- but at least she was married off as an ‘honorable’ virgin, right?

Before a married woman can even get accustomed to this burdensome lifestyle, she is put to test as soon as she enters her new house. After a typical Hindu wedding in Bihar, the bride is made to go through a ritual of pot balancing, in which a pot is placed on her head and a new one added every five minutes, with which she is expected to touch the feet of all the elderly members of the house. Her ability to balance the pots WHILE touching everyone’s feet indicates whether she will be able to maintain balance and peace in the family. If she is unable to balance the pots, she is likely to face the wrath of her in laws and other members of the house. Thus the Hindu marriage makes it a point to put all the onus of maintaining a good and balanced family and marriage solely on the woman, and demands that she be tested at every step of the way to prove her worth. It’s as if the Hindu marriage is always on a lookout for excuses to ensure that a woman is shown her ‘true’ place, by blaming her for all troubles that arise, even if it’s through customs as ridiculous and nearly impossible as pot balancing.

The traditional Hindu marriage also looks down upon women who are born with the Mangal Dosha or are Manglik, because they are believed to be more hot tempered, dangerous, increase the chance of their husband dying, and bring upon several other miseries to the husband’s family. To get ‘rid’ of these sins the woman is made to marry a tree or a dog before she can become eligible to marry her groom! How much can a society hate women to be able to have a custom that makes them marry an inanimate object or an animal? Needless to say that none of these baseless assumptions or customs apply to a Manglik man. Yet again through the concept of the Mangal Dosha, Hindu marriage customs have found a way to insult women, make them feel ashamed of something they have no control over, and make them feel as if they are a curse and a cause of destruction – in other words, belittle them to the extent that ensures they remain unequal and at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

It is not just the bride who is belittled through Hindu marriage customs, but other women as well. The most important wedding ritual of the Rabha tribes in Assam is the grand feast that follows the wedding ceremony, in which of course, the new bride is made to cook the minute they are declared a married couple. This grand feast is only made for the male, elderly members of the family, and cannot be eaten by females. The meal for the females is made by other cooks and helpers, which too is served only after the male members have eaten. Another custom practiced during Assamese as well as Bengali weddings, is not allowing the groom’s mother and bride’s mother respectively, to see the wedding because her presence is believed to bring upon bad luck on the bride and groom. Such practices perpetuate hate against women, and condition society, including women themselves, into viewing the female sex as inferior.

After getting married, a woman is required to wear the mangalsutra and sindoor, and in some cases toe rings and bangles, everyday for the rest of her life until the death of her husband. This is to indicate that she is now a married woman. The need to have these ornaments on her, once married, comes from the inherent belief of viewing women as property. Once these ornaments are worn, it is a signal to other men that she is taken, and they must therefore look elsewhere for ‘property’ of their own. Had it simply been for ‘good fortune’ and ‘prosperity’ of the marriage as it is sugarcoated in Hindu tradition, then both the bride and groom would have been made to wear ornaments – two people wearing it would bring double the fortune! Moreover, evidence suggests that many of these traditions originate from practises of sexual violence. For instance, male members of the ‘gotra’ i.e. ancient Hindu clans, would kidnap women of other ‘gotras’ for marriage, and forcibly tie their hands up with iron chains, which led to the practice of requiring women to wear iron bangles on their wrists after marriage. During the battles in ancient times, these men would sometimes strike the women with an axe causing blood to flow, which is how the practice of applying sindoor could have originated. The need to wear ornaments also stems from the fact that they accentuate a woman’s beauty, which in turn comes from the belief that women are objects that are meant to look beautiful to appeal to the male gaze. Needless to say, the discomfort caused from wearing heavy mangalsutras and bangles everyday is never taken into consideration, because society believes that women are property first, and human beings second.

Such rooted hindu customs have also ensured that the subsequent laws formed around marriage ensure that unequal power relations are maintained, and women can never rise above from where they are. The law on child marriage ensures that the woman is always younger than the man. This increases the likelihood of her not being able to pursue an education and being forced into doing domestic work since she is the younger one, and must therefore listen to her ‘elders’. She therefore remains poor and powerless, and the cycle continues. Moreover, even though the legal age to get married is 18, marital rape is considered an offence only if the wife is below 15 years of age. This is not only a contradiction, but also a clear indication of how the law has been twisted to practically pardon marital rape as well as child marriage, thus perpetuating violence and hate against women. The Goan Civil Code allows Hindu men to indulge in bigamy if a woman has not delivered a child by the time she’s 25, or if she hasn’t delivered a male child by the time she is 30.

Marriage is believed to be the focal point of a woman’s life – an occasion that must be celebrated with joy and happiness. However, in reality, marriage is nothing but a legal contract that robs a woman of her autonomy, and legitimises women’s oppression and slavery. We are being raised in a society where we are being trained to get used to our own oppression, and worse, enjoy it. So the next time someone tells you to be a ‘good girl’ or to change how you look or to sacrifice your dreams to be ‘marriageable’ – say no. The next time you see a little girl being taught a story of a ‘happily ever after’ with a ‘Prince Charming’ – resist. Sheila Cronin rightly said, “Since marriage constitutes slavery for women, it is clear that the women’s movement must concentrate on attacking this institution. Freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.” True freedom will never come from giving in to our own oppression, or seeing our fellow sisters give in to theirs.

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1 – translates as “Which boy will want to marry you?”

2 – a common term used in India to show that husbands are equal to God, so they must be worshipped

It’s Time To Break The Silence on Female Genital Mutilation

Imagine being offered a chocolate and being taken to a room in a dark decrepit building. Imagine being pinned down on the floor. Imagine your underwear being taken off without you knowing what is happening. Imagine seeing a knife being heated on the gas stove. Imagine the same hot knife slicing your clitoris. Imagine young girls shrieking in pain. Unfortunately, this isn’t a mere creation of our imagination, it is reality.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice stemmed from African communities, but exists in India as well, in the Bohra Community. Girls around the age of 7 are taken into dark rooms where without their knowledge or consent, their clitoris is cut off. FGM was declared as a Human Rights Violation by the United Nations long ago, however India is still in the crossroads of deciding whether the practice should be banned or not.

Hearing a PIL seeking a ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) practiced within the Dawoodi Bohra Community in India, the Supreme Court on Monday remarked that “bodily integrity of a woman could not be infringed without her consent”. While the opposition makes a claim that the religious practice of ‘khafd’, ‘khatna’ or ‘FGM’ is prevalent in the Bohra community for thousands of years, and so must be protected by the Constitution under the fundamental right to religion, the proposition disagrees by claiming that such a religious practice is covered under “Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act“, which makes touching the genital of a girl less than 18 years an offence.

Amongst this chaos, what is surprisingly missing is public discussion and support against this issue. In order to oppose it, it’s first important to understand why FGM or Khatna happens in the first place. According to an award winning film – “A pinch of skin” by Priya Goswami, FGM is primarily practiced to “moderate the urges” of women. A female Clitoris has the most number of nerve endings in female bodies, making it extremely sensitive to both pain and pleasure. It is claimed by the Bohra Community that removing a woman’s clitoris would reduce a woman’s sex drive, thereby making her sexually satisfied by and available only to her husband. By extension, they claim that by this genital mutilation, a woman is ‘saved’ from having any extra marital affairs and/or intercourse before marriage.

The entire reasoning is based on religious belief and faiths. Older women, when asked if they knew why they were subjected to FGM, other than some vague reasons, emphasised that ‘His Holiness’ wanted it, thousands of years of tradition determined it, and that it was what their religion and faith asked to practice. The practice of FGM is hushed up to such an extent that most women, till the end of their lives, don’t understand what had happened to them, and most men are completely unaware of its existence in the first place. The blind faith and belief has manipulated women into believing that understanding why FGM happens is not as important as FGM happening in the first place. Which is why the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom claims that FGM it is just a ‘harmless’ practice executed to keep their religious beliefs and traditions intact.

However, ‘WeSpeakOut’ – a network and an intervener in the PIL in the SC that is seeking a ban on FGM, released a study titled ‘The Clitoral Hood a Contested Site’. The study said that 75% of girls in the study sample were subjected to FGM. It claimed that 97% of women who remembered their FGM experience from childhood recalled it as painful. Despite sex being a taboo topic, approximately 33% of women subjected to FGM in the study believed it had negatively impacted their sexual life. Moreover, FGM is carried out by untrained midwives or older women in the community. More often than not, girls end up getting unwanted infections, have to tolerate extreme pain, or just end up bleeding for days together, because of the lack of training of the women performing these procedures.

Masooma, a woman who belongs to the Bohra community, was cut 42 years ago but says the day is etched in her mind. She narrates her personal story haltingly but with clarity. “My mum told me come; I’ll take you out and buy you chocolates. I happily went with her. She took me to Bohri mohalla (in Mumbai), a cluster where 90% Bohras live. We went into this dark decrepit building. I remember being taken into a room. The curtains were drawn. She said lie down. Like an obedient child, I lay. My grandmother was holding my hands. An oldish woman pulled down my pants… I started crying. Grandmom said don’t worry, it will be over in a jiffy. I shrieked in pain… I experienced a sharp, shooting pain and she put some black powder there… I came home and cried and cried and cried…”

All of this mental and physical trauma is forced upon girls and women in this community in the name of faith and religion. However, it’s important to note that it is not the faith or the religion, but plain hatred and misogyny towards women. The same faith that tells women it’s unnatural to have a clitoris and alter a ‘god’s creation’, argues that abortion shouldn’t be legal because child-birth is a ‘god’s creation’. It’s plain and simple that faith, like everything else, bends and alters its traditions and beliefs to oppress women and take over the right to their bodies. The only comprehensible reason for FGM to take place is that women are viewed as sexual objects for men, created solely for male pleasure, and therefore shouldn’t have any pleasure for themselves.

Despite the obvious, the SC is unable to take a decision, some women of the Bohra Community are fighting for FGM, and most importantly, there is an absolute lack of a dialogue, discourse and fight against this from the general public. For the past few months, there have been several cases that have brought to light the widespread sexual violence against women. We’ve spoken about women in hollywood, about misogyny in comedy, about assaults and abductions, and through all of this, there has always been an increasing emphasis on discussing and spreading more awareness about rape culture. A lot of popular liberal media outlets have rightly attempted to push discussions about the different things that promote rape, such as ‘item songs’ in bollywood, women’s representation in art and media, as well as things like female objectification and choice. While talking about these issues is important, the real question is, why is feminist media silent when it has come to FGM? Female Genital Mutilation is one of the crudest and most obvious manifestations of rape culture. What then stops these media outlets from writing about it and discussing it, even now that it is up for debate in the parliament?

It is not that, if asked, any feminist opinion leader would go as far as to support this practise. Although absent from popular media, even for those on the fence, it does not leave a lot of room for negotiation. But perhaps, for a movement increasingly being led by the postmodernist predilections of upper middle class women and neoliberals- a practise so rooted in the obvious physical oppression of female bodies is easy to ignore, and dismiss as the religious fundamentalism of a minority group. If anything, female genital mutilation is a part of a much larger issue- simply put, the hatred against female bodies, that is present in the worlds of both the the Hindu and the Muslim, the East and the West, the traditional and the modern, the regressive and the liberal, the left and the right- and our current feminist discourse is not doing a lot to challenge that. A similar silence can be found even when it comes to so called ‘modern’ practises of mutilating female bodies through cosmetic procedures such as vaginoplasty.

Perhaps this is too obvious a discussion to have. Perhaps they have nothing new to say, and no clickbait articles to generate about something like this. But our movement threatens to become meaningless and vapid if the most obvious and violent forms of oppression start to become boring, or worse, unhip for our representatives. We must continue to be angry, and we must fight against a culture which forces us to become used to our oppression. “Never mind if it’s been said before. Speak up on your own behalf. Take it very personally”, says Arundhati Roy.

Let’s start taking this personally.

Why “Playing Like a Girl” Is Not Enough

Girliyapa’, a so-called women-centric media house, in their most recent attempt to co-opt feminism, released a video called ‘Play like a Girl’, featuring four young female football players who were made to sit down and interviewed like they were some kind of novelty. Obviously, it was supposed to be a powerful, feminist, empowering-young-girls-into-playing-football kind of video. Today, girls playing sports is seen as a radical stride for feminism. In an era where women are raped, sexually harassed, violated, beaten, murdered and disrespected on a daily basis, being a woman in the sports industry could very well be revolutionary. But simply existing in a male dominated space as an exception is perhaps not the answer to the problem. Girliyapa’s video, just like most mainstream feminist pieces talking about this (like this one), was unsuccessful in understanding WHY women do not play sports as much as men do. Sports, as an industry, has harmed more women than it has awarded. The notion that simply ‘breaking stereotypes’ or ‘going against gender roles’ by becoming a sportsperson is in any way liberatory, is part of our eagerness, as a patriarchal society, to reward a certain kind of empowerment, while avoiding other more difficult conversations. Redefining what it means to “run like a girl” or “throw like a girl” is fine, but it is not enough to solve the structural problems that lead to the struggle that  women in the sports industry, like any other, actually continue to face.

Contrary to popular belief, adhering to femininity is in fact, necessary in order to exist as a woman in the sports industry. To be respected in this  ‘man’s world’ of sports, women are forced to conform to accepted standards of femininity, especially through media portrayal of sports women , which has made the matter worse. Female athletes are either viewed as objects of sexual pleasure, on the basis of their appearance, or according to the role they play in their domestic lives. For instance,  Jessica Ennis Hill, the world’s leading heptathlete of all time is described by the media as the golden girl only on the basis of her domestic relationships- either as a daughter or as the mother of two children. None of the media companies focus on the hard work these women put in, or the awards they win, or the struggles they face. The compulsion to conform to society’s standards of beauty in order to remain relevant has ruined the possibility for a woman to make a career in sports. For instance, the apparel for the International Women’s Beach Volleyball Competition states that “the bikini bottoms must not be deeper than six cm.” This event is evidence of the constant objectification of women’s bodies and completely disregard for comfort in the sport . The need to create a hyper-objectified sexy image in an industry like sports, where success depends so much on bodily freedom, means that women’s objectification is a major reason for their noninvolvement in sports.

Recently, countless female gymnasts spoke out against disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar. An American gymnast Aly Raisman, who was one of the victims of Nassars sexual harassment, went to court to fight a case against him. She was asked if she thought ‘leotards were the problem’ and if they should be banned from gymnastics to prevent sexual assault. She replied,

“Leotards are not the problem. The problem is the many pedophiles out there and the adults who enable them. By saying clothing is part of the issue, you are victim shaming/implying survivors should feel it’s their fault.”

Over and over, it has been women who have been asked to change their behaviour despite of being the victims. Even the so called empowered women who have achieved new horizons in sports, unsurprisingly, are not immune.

What we fail to understand is that these problems do not arise from a woman’s state of mind, which liberal feminism keeps trying to change. A culture of toxic masculinity means that adhering to rules, following orders without questioning authority, idolizing the coach, rejecting weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and spending most of the day in the gym getting extensive training are musts for being in this industry. The environment in the sports industry is altered in a way that constantly makes women feel uncomfortable and allows men to be able to cross boundaries conveniently. Sports is authoritarian and competitive in nature, thus making it suitable for the emergence of violence. The toxic masculinity prevalent in this industry ties in to the larger need for sexual dominance in men. This culture of female sexual submission makes it easier for men to maintain their power over women by ridiculing their outfits, harassing them over their bodies and not paying them equally, despite their rewarding strides in the industry. So dealing with marginalisation, sexualisation and bigotry on a regular basis becomes a part of a sportswoman’s job. Her performance in sports as well as her talents and leadership skills continue to be neglected by the world.

So when people write articles on ‘10 reasons why men are better than women in sports’ or ‘Why women will never beat men in sports’, I get filled with rage, but I agree. I agree not because these men with their baseless arguments are right, but because women are robbed of their place in this industry right from when they are in school. While growing up, girls are never taken seriously when it comes to sports. This means that the coaches in schools prioritise the boys team even if the girls team has the power and skills to perform better. It is a fact that girls are not given as many instructions as boys regarding sports in their adolescence. This lack of exposure in their childhood makes it tougher for female athletes to prove themselves capable of having the same traction as male athletes in the industry. The girls who show interest in sports are not given attention to in schools and clubs, which is often the entry point for making sports their career. Similarly now, in the larger picture, institutions put money only in sports played by men and pay no attention to achievements made by sportswomen. The reason not being that men are better than women, but that sports has been altered into a male dominated space where men only want to see  the prowess of male athletes and the objectification of female ones. The gender pay gap is a result of the same structural problem. In the World Twenty20 competitions, the prize money set by the International Cricket Council for men was $5.6m, which was 16 times that set for the women’s tournament. The latest BCCI annual contract (2015-16) states that the highest fund given to the most accomplished male cricketer is one crore rupees each, whereas the money paid to the most accomplished female cricketer is only fifteen lakh rupees, which is even lower than the lowest amount paid to men who have accomplished the least in that year ( 25 lakh). The prize reward for male winners of the FIFA world cup is between 35-50 million dollars whereas that for female winners is 2 million dollars, which is about one/twentieth of that for men. Lack of equal financial rewards and economic aid for women leads to their premature retirement. Erica True, the head coach of the women’s soccer team at Indiana State University states, “There are an absolute ton of heartbreaking stories that I hear day in and day out about females that are being forced out.” The number of female coaches has drastically decreased today. Why? Simply because it does not match the philosophy of certain colleges. Women are systematically stopped from participating in sports by universities practicing such chauvinist philosophies, linking back to the effects of toxic masculinity and male dominance prevalent in this field.

Imagine a sportsman and a sportswoman playing the same sport. The man focuses all his energy only on his sport, gets the best coaches, more media attention, financial support from bigger industries, and wins huge price rewards. Whereas the woman gets neglected right from the school level, her sport is treated as a hobby, she gets a mediocre coach with poor equipment, almost no financial aid, half the prize that her fellow male athlete is rewarded with, media attention only on objectifying her body, comments about how she did not have “appropriate clothing”, gets sexually harassed by other employees, constantly buried under the male gaze, and left with no appreciation for her real talent in sports. Even if women work twice as hard as men, the sexist comments, sexual objectification, derogatory insults, rape threats and the sexual abuse that they go through, drags them down and leaves them with psychological trauma. In the first national level study on sexual harassment and abuse in sport, a survey was collected amongst 266 retired Canadian athletes. 9 percent of the total respondents had been raped and 23 of these respondents were under 16 years, hence making it child sexual assault. In another investigation, 25 female athletes were interviewed and each of them showed emotions of fear, anger, disgust and irritation when asked about their sexual harassment experience. All of them had symptoms of psychological trauma. The gap in the gender ratio, the sexualised environment and the male power prevalent in sport organisations makes it inevitable for the sports industry to be characterised as an area of sexual harassment.

Sports is designed to make women feel inferior to men. ‘Women’s sports’ are being managed by a majority of men today, and while we patronisingly applaud women who have made it in the sports industry, it would perhaps do us good to remember the price they have had to pay for occupying a seat at the table. Perhaps ‘smashing stereotypes’ is not possible until women start outnumbering men in sports. Perhaps, under the current structure, it will be impossible for women to do so. What we need is not benevolent attempts at spreading awareness,  but concrete affirmative action. Of course, that perhaps requires a stronger commitment to women’s rights than the government or any corporate sponsor is capable of. Liberal feminist media keeps us from seeing this bigger picture, and is bent upon convincing us that everything will change if we just make sure to ‘change our mindsets’.

Let us not fool ourselves.
The Iranian female fans who were detained for buying tickets to their favourite match deserve better. The female athletes who are sexualised on magazine covers deserve better. Jessica Ennis Hill, the world’s leading heptathlete who is acknowledged by the media only for her looks, deserves better. Female surfers of Australia who are being paid half of what their fellow male surfers get deserve better. And 12 year-old Maddy Baxter from Georgia who was kicked out of her football team for being a girl, deserves better.  

Our Liberation, Not Your Porn – Shattering myths about pro-porn feminism

“We need another perspective in pornography; we definitely need the female gaze.” said liberal feminist and pro-porn activist Erika Lust. Pro-porn feminism started when a group of women distanced themselves from radical anti-porn feminists in the second wave and soon led to what is now called ‘sex positive’ feminism. Such views have now become mainstream, and unfortunately, often, the only kind of feminism many women get to know of. Where pornography is freedom, radical feminists are said to be moralistic prudes. This article will bust such myths, and explain how pornography is oppression, and radical feminists are the only ones on the side of women.

 

MYTH #1 – Pornography as a means of sexual expression and liberation

One of the central arguments liberal feminists make in support of pornography is that pornography is a means for women to sexually express themselves. So they argue that by banning pornography, we are restricting women from their freedom of sexual expression, making the movement counterproductive and anti-feminist. However, it is well-known that the porn industry is male dominated and therefore has a predominantly male perspective. The directors are usually men, and most of it is made for men. What this means is that a woman is simply forced to fit into this narrative as the object that delivers male pleasure, and she is portrayed as if her own sexual desire is also to be subordinated. Where then, is the ‘female expression’ and ‘female sexual freedom’ in this? In fact, women rarely have a choice in the situations they are placed in and are forced to perform acts they otherwise wouldn’t want to. Pornography is the last place where a woman’s sexual freedom or preference is given a priority.

 

MYTH #2 – Pornography as a means of Sex Education

In her TED talk, Olivia Tarplin argues that almost all individuals today haven’t learnt about sex and received ‘sex education’ from their schools or parents, but rather from explicit magazines and “hardcore” porn. She proclaims therefore that as pornography helps people explore their sexuality and navigate people throughout their sexual experiences, porn should be looked at, and considered as a medium of sex education. While exposure to pornography is widespread among young people with no exposure to other information about sex, the real question is, what kind of education does it really provide? Pornography doesn’t give an accurate picture of what healthy sex is like; they cut out things like their use of condoms and other means of protection. Therefore, it doesn’t convey any understanding about what ‘safe sex’ is and how to practice healthy sex. In fact, it’s claimed that porn watchers tend to engage in riskier kinds of sex that put them at greater risk of getting sexually transmitted infections and diseases.  Porn gives men an unrealistic view of women and the sexual act; most pornographic videos do not practice consent, which makes men end up believing that all women enjoy giving oral sex, like rough intercourse, enjoy being hit, and achieve orgasm without the slightest bit of foreplay, and emotional connection. Additionally, a team of researchers studied the most popular porn films that year and analyzed them. It was found that 88% contained physical violence, almost always toward the woman. On top of that, 49% contained verbal aggression. This teaches men that it is not only completely okay and normal to practice violence, but in a lot of ways this violence is also ‘sexy’. Moreover, when women watch the same things, they end up believing that if they don’t perform like a porn star there is something wrong with them. It teacher her that it doesn’t matter if a woman doesn’t want him to orgasm on her face, or be taken forcefully, or perhaps smacked around in bed due to “passion”, all that matters is that their male counterpart is satisfied. Porn also instills in women an unrealistic idea that ALL sex is always enjoyable, and that if they don’t enjoy it, something is wrong with them. With the absence of right information and presence of the wrong one, porn is nothing but the most counterproductive means of sex education.

 

MYTH #3 – Feminist Porn

Despite the harsh truths about how the current pornographic industry violates and oppresses women, liberal feminists continue to staunchly believe that to erase and get rid of all these issues, the porn industry merely needs to be ‘tweaked’ a little, and abolishing the porn industry altogether is ‘too extreme’. The solution to this misogyny according to them is – Feminist Porn. According to Alison Lee, manager of Good for Her in Toronto, any porn qualifies as ‘feminist’ porn when “a woman has been involved in the production, writing, or direction of the work; or the work must convey genuine female pleasure; or the piece must expand the boundaries of sexual representation and challenge mainstream porn stereotypes”. Does merely following these guidelines make the porn ‘feminist’? A few liberal feminists, headed by Lee and her foundation have recently begun with Feminist Porn Awards . It is considered as the ultimate standard of feminist porn and most liberal feminists and pro-porn activists are in agreement with its functioning. Surprisingly (or not), this award show consists of categories like “Best BDSM (Bondade, dominanation/discipline, submission/sadisim and masochism) act” which is essentially deep rooted in subordination, objectification and therefore misogyny. A few screenshots from their website, highlighting the winning porno movies are as follows:

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 12.21.41 PMScreen Shot 2018-07-03 at 12.30.58 PM

Everything that this points to is that so-called feminist porn ALSO has its roots in objectification of women. Not only does this kind of porn not challenge the ‘male gaze’ and abuse of women, but by its own propaganda, furthers it.

Raffaëla Anderson, a former pornography performer, who has now become a nonfiction writer gave the readers an insightful look into her experience in her book, ‘Hard’. Here is an excerpt:

“Imagine a girl with no experience, not speaking the [same] language, far away from her home, sleeping at a hotel or on the set. She’s got to do a double penetration, a vaginal fisting, along with an anal fisting, sometimes both at the same time, a hand up her ass, sometimes two. At the end, you’ve got a girl in tears who’s pissing blood because of lesions, and who generally shits herself because nobody explained to her that she needed to have an enema.[…] After the scene which they are not allowed to interrupt, and anyway nobody listens to them, the girls get two hours to rest. They get back on the set […]. The director and the producer encourage those practices […] because the consumer asks for them.”

 

An extremely important connection that liberal feminism fails to recognise and understand is this link between Feminist pornography and mainstream pornography. Despite all the different criterias that feminists claim ‘differentiates’ their porn from the rest, it is undeniable that they still essentially function under the exact same industry that encourages this level of trauma and female oppression. Feminist porn and mainstream porn are posted on the same websites, they are more or less viewed by the exact same people, they have the same actors, they are funded by the exact same industry, and they feed into the SAME demands of the same market. The same demands that lead to such horrific experiences in the first place. Consider, as an example, that the “BDSM Winner” of the feminist porn awards becomes really popular, that not only women but men also somehow really enjoy it. What this would then do is generate more demand for similar kind of porn. And since mainstream and feminist porn exist in the same industry, ‘feminists’ wouldn’t be the only ones to recreate that porn. The demand could also very well be met by other mainstream porn directors and producers who are in it to make profit (yes, capitalism!). It is clear and obvious that these men would refuse to follow the same ‘guidelines’ and ‘ethics’, since at the end of the day, all they really care about, is that similar porn is present in the market for consumption. The consumers who create the demand too, couldn’t care less about how the porn was made. What role is feminist porn playing then? Isn’t it making the situation 100 times worse for women by creating more demand for porn? Does such feminism fail to realise that once women are brought into this industry, even if it is for feminist porn, they become a part of it and then aren’t limited to just feminist porn but are made available to be abused by mainstream pornography? By making something as brutal and absolutely horrific as pornography ‘feminist’, liberal feminism has done an excellent job of giving pornography an ‘ethical’ stamp. It has given the world, and most importantly men, a glorious excuse to continue to not critically evaluate their actions. It has given men a sexual liberation of women that serves their interests. It has given men a method of oppression that cannot be criticised in the name of freedom anymore.

 

More importantly, liberal feminism fails to understand that the core issue with pornography is the objectification of women- not how badly they are objectified. The essence of the porn industry is the commodification of sex, which happens no matter how ‘soft’ or ‘ethical’ or ‘feminist’ the pornographers claim that commodification to be. Liberal feminism refuses to understand and acknowledge the fact that there is no binary between feminist and non-feminist porn. The very act of ‘filming’ pornography for consumption and profit emphasises that ALL porn is a pretence. That all porn, no matter its contents, is faked, filmed, and distributed for profit. The very fact that each actress is ‘paid’ for her pretence and for the act she puts up in both ‘feminist’ and non-feminist pornographic films, clearly outlines lack of consent. The sole reason behind her putting up with this pretence is not her willingness to explore her sexual being on camera for thousands of people, but rather primarily because she is being paid for it. The lack of consent then means that ALL pornography, by its nature of being a pretense being paid for, is nothing but filmed prostitution – a global, multi billion dollar industry, based on the commodification of filmed rape. For instance, the truth of this gruesome industry is well explained by the recent case in Jharkhand, where 5 women representing an NGO were kidnapped, and gangraped by men who then forced them to drink urine. ALL of this, while being done to them was also filmed by these men. Why would they feel the need to film this, where do you think they got the idea to film such a horrific act in the first place? Where would they post it if not on these pornography websites? This does nothing but reveal and emphasises how closely pornography is linked to the filming of actual crimes. No porn can ever be ‘feminist’ simply and solely by its virtue of being porn in the first place.

As feminists, should our goal be to take what men have in the pornographic industry, to break off a corner piece, and try to mould it into something marginally less male-centric? Must we exploit other women the way men have exploited us? Are we so unwilling to imagine something different than simply “more porn!”? Perhaps the unnecessary stress on creating feminist porn reveals the anxiety of liberal feminists to find for themselves a liberation that does not alienate male approval, or go against the larger liberal agenda. As Jindi Mehat writes in her article, “There are real and dangerous consequences when women do misogyny while thinking they’re doing feminism.” It is time they realise that “liberal feminism demands nothing of women. Instead, it replaces painful self-reflection and bold action with mantras and buzzwords that allow women to avoid the sanctions. Women who choose liberal feminism aren’t choosing to fight patriarchy and break all women out of oppression’s cage ALL they’re  doing is choosing to make that cage more comfortable for themselves.”

Why Criticising Pop Culture is Pointless if We Can’t Criticise Pornography

One thing that ALL feminists agree on condemning, is the objectification of women in pop culture. We all know of the numerous ways in which women have been portrayed and treated as ‘tools’ for sexual satisfaction in the name of entertainment. But somehow when it comes to pornography, liberal feminism starts to view this very same objectification and normalization of inequality and rape, as empowering, and as a way to embrace sexuality for women. And with the concept of “feminist porn” coming into the picture, liberal feminists are in for a treat. The truth is, the argument made by pro-porn feminists that porn can be liberating, while they condemn Bollywood cinema and pop culture for objectifying women and perpetuating misogynist behaviour, is completely flawed. Porn does the exact same things, and worse, in a much more extreme and horrific way.

Liberal feminists agree to the fact that Bollywood cinema is sexist and a breeding ground for furthering gendered stereotypes and sexualising women. Women are often portrayed in movies as unintelligent and incapable of making their own decisions. They are more often than not, given roles that have no real purpose, except to serve as sex objects and be accessories for the male actors of the movie. For instance, in Dhoom 3, Katrina Kaif is given a 15 minute slot to prove her worth, wherein she performs an act stripping off her clothes to impress Aamir Khan. Grand Masti, which revolved around jokes about sex and women, and had dialogues like “I have two huge milk factories. If you want I can give you a tour of both tonight”, earned $16 million in the first three weeks of its release. While certain aspects of Bollywood involve sexualising women in this manner, pornography is an entire industry specifically meant to sexualise women for male pleasure! Personal accounts of former porn stars show that the porn industry is based on the pleasure men gain out of watching women being harmed and tortured. To say then, that porn is ‘liberating’ for women, is simply a convenient way to be complicit in the kind of misogyny that pornography promotes, while justifying it as morally acceptable under the guise of it being the woman’s choice. Never mind that choice cannot be seen in isolation from the larger context the woman is making it in. Factors that often force women to ‘choose’ the porn industry include extreme financial circumstances or a history of abuse.

Bollywood movies are also criticised for normalizing stalking and eve teasing in the name of ‘mad love’, and creating unrealistic ideas of love and relationships between men and women. The movie R…Rajkumar took it one step further by normalizing casual rape, by showing a scene of a police officer raping a woman in a jail cell when interrupted by a phone call, for ‘comic’ purposes, for which the movie and several other movies like it, have been highly criticized. If such scenes are being criticized, then why is it so difficult to see through the role of porn in perpetuating rape culture? Porn caters to the sexual desires of men and shows men in power, thus creating unrealistic ideas of the concept of sex and what women like, in the consumer’s head. Teenage girls and women are being coerced (i.e. raped) into painful methods of sexual intercourse in real life, as men want to do to women, what they see being done to women in porn.

How can we forget that Bollywood has been criticized multiple times for the fact that a big Khan film or any super hit Bollywood film for that matter, is never as much of a super hit without a “juicy item number”, in which female actors dance to songs with extremely degrading lyrics, in a manner meant to appeal to the male gaze. Years of evidence has shown, that the only female actors who manage to survive in the industry are those who have the ‘perfect’ bodies, as we have been conditioned into believing that these are the only kind of women who are worthy and ‘pleasant to look at’. Similarly porn does nothing but promotes in men, hatred and objectification towards women, and in women, hatred and objectification towards their own kind. Women and girls torture themselves physically and psychologically in the process of trying to be sexy and attractive enough to be likeable to the male gaze. Moreover, porn hampers relationships, as it promotes domestic violence and aggression towards women, and makes men incapable of seeing women as anything other than sex objects meant to serve their sexual desires. An industry that promotes such extreme hatred towards women can never be empowering.

Let’s not even get started on how pop culture, and specifically the music industry, is criticised for objectifying women and using degrading words like “bitch”, “whore”, “slut” and countless other unimaginable terms to describe women. There are songs like Craig Xen’s I Wonder If Bloods Watch Blue’s Clues, which has a line that says “Rape bitch that’s my fetish”, making the rounds, with young boys, and even girls rapping to it like there’s nothing wrong with it. With this being said, what makes the violence and abuse in pornography so apologetically excusable? A study that looked at the top 50 popular porn videos, showed that 88% of the scenes contained physical violence while 49% contained verbal aggression towards women. In fact, the 2012 nominees of the so called Feminist Porn Awards were titled Submissive Slut and Babes in Bondage 4. PornHub statistics of 2017 boasts an annual viewership of 28.5 billion, which is equivalent to an average of 81 million people getting aroused by watching women being raped and tortured everyday! How we can see porn to be a path to embrace our ‘sexual freedom’ then, certainly remains a mystery to me. A simple Google search will be sufficient to show how porn influences the brain, and in turn promotes misogynist attitudes, dehumanizes women, and promotes rape culture in society.

What the mainstream feminist analysis of pop culture is missing is that the driving force for the objectification of women is in fact, pornography. Easy availability of pornography and the demand for more and more sexualisation as the viewer becomes desensitized to sexual violence is leading to what many have called, ‘a pornified society’. This means that what was earlier mainstream porn becomes mainstream pop culture, while the porn industry moves on to newer forms of violence. For instance, the recently released ‘Lust Stories’ which has been hailed as a pathbreaking portrayal of female sexuality, shows clear influences of pornography. The women playfully help each other fit into standards of objectification, have orgasms in which their faces contort like they are in pain, are unnecessarily preoccupied with their own cleavage, and the camera is always looking at them. Almost like the sexual liberation of women is meant more for the men who are watching them. Without addressing pornography, therefore, a feminist criticism of objectification in pop culture is not just hypocritical, but also completely pointless.

There is no longer any time for us to be talking about this in theory and cultural discussions. The first step is to recognize that there is a problem with porn in the first place. With boys as young as 11 being exposed to, and sometimes even addicted to pornography, everyday living is becoming a matter of life and death for us women. Porn is a $100 billion industry that thrives on misogyny and legitimises inequality, rape and violence against women. There is not a single aspect of it that is liberating or empowering to women. Andrea Dworkin said,

“Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.”

If we are to work towards real liberation, mainstream feminism must end its silence on pornography, and it must do so before it is too late.