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

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Feminists, Let’s Ditch Holi in 2019!

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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.

Is Feminism Too Focused on Women?

As a feminist on the internet, there is almost no escape from the wide variety of ‘girl power’ products, articles about women reclaiming makeup, and music videos with women gyrating to feminist anthems that are constantly targeted at me through social media algorithms.

As a result, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this article titled ‘More than a laptop sticker: ‘Trendy’ feminism undermines key issues central to cause’ with this thumbnail, on a seemingly small student-run magazine.

The article started by criticising virtue-signalling on social media and in real life, where people declared themselves feminists just because they had a sticker which said so or because they used the hashtag while sharing a video. I nodded in approval- feminism is a political movement for women’s liberation, not a simple label or identity, and it involves inconvenient changes in the way we live our lives and the way in which society is organised.

It then went on to criticise celebrity feminists such as Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence, their racism, and the fact that their identification with the movement that was such a good boost for publicity, was never followed by any action. So far, so good- celebrities like them who call themselves feminists uphold almost all patriarchal values and constantly reinforce regressive images, while getting excused for it because of calling themselves feminists. I kept reading.

“No matter how much you speak about something, it doesn’t make it true — talk is cheap.”… Agreed!

“Feminism is a complex issue that requires a deeper understanding and effort.”… Yeah!

“Empowered women empower women, but what about the feminists who are genderfluid, trans or male?”… Wait what?

“Feminism doesn’t only serve women, and when you narrow it down to that, you undermine its message.” … I was confused.

That mainstream liberal feminism has a problem, is clear. It promotes a version of empowerment that has absolutely nothing to do with any material changes in the organisation of power. It talks more about pornography than it does about sexual violence, more about identity than about oppression, more about reclamation than about liberation. No matter how much it talks about ‘girl power’, its analysis of patriarchy is limited to that of choice and all its solutions center male pleasure and validation through incremental change in representation. Liberal feminism has many problems, but ‘serving only women’ is surely not one of them. The author of this article, however, takes the rhetoric of this feminism at face value, and criticises the commercial aspect of it without realising that it goes hand in hand with the sort of dilution she suggests.

According to the author, feminism is about recognising how patriarchy affects all groups of people. “Because misogyny is so ingrained in our society, its traces become present on a daily basis in even the most subtlest ways and affects everyone”, she says. For her, the feminism that focuses only on women is fun and trendy as opposed to a feminism that would stand up for everyone. What she doesn’t understand is that the fun and ‘trendy feminism’ that we know today, may talk a lot about ‘dumping boys’ and ‘boss babes’ but it is no way focused on women. It is constantly defined in the mainstream as a movement for ‘equality for all’, it welcomes and applauds male feminists. Under the guise of intersectionality, it forces women to feel guilty for prioritising women’s needs.

By definition, misogyny is the hatred against women and patriarchy is the system where women are oppressed by men. That is why feminism as a social and political movement involves women organising together to fight for their common goals. Are there other forms of oppression? Of course. The author mentions some of them, including poverty, racism, homophobia. Here is where it is crucial to understand what intersectionality really means. It means that feminism must fight for poor women, women of colour, and lesbians. It means that there is a way to take into account other forms of oppression while at the same time pursuing the main political goal of women’s liberation. It means that one single movement cannot fight for everyone, and women deserve to prioritise their needs as the oppressed sex class in their own autonomous movement away from the influence of men. If one is concerned about the men who face the same sort of oppression, they would be happy to know about the existence of worker’s movements, black liberation movements, and gay liberation movements- all of which already deal with forms of oppression such as poverty, racism, and homophobia, and somehow don’t have to attend to demands of solving the problem of patriarchy all on their own.

But this dilution of the political goals of the feminist movement, and its rebranding as a lifestyle, an identity, a personality trait- it arises from the very neoliberal forces that lead to its commercialisation. How would one sell ‘feminism’ if everyone knew how threatening it is to the men in power? How would one sell ‘feminist’ t-shirts, lipsticks, and mascaras, if everyone knew that a movement for women’s liberation first and foremost rejects feminine beauty ideals? Of course, feminism is more than just a laptop sticker. But it is also more than some vague moral notion of ‘standing up for what’s right’. It is time we stop seeing a ‘focus on women’ as too narrow, too little, or too old fashioned, and start recognising in clear terms that this movement is and always has been for women’s liberation from gender, misogyny, and male domination in all forms- and that this, for us, will always be enough.

[Image source: Collegiate Times]

Legal Bias against Abused Women

In 2004, in Nashville, Cyntoia Brown, a 16 year old girl, had sex with a 43 year old man, killed him, stole two of his handguns, took 150 dollars, and fled in his truck. In a seven page letter that was sent to Governor Bill Haslam, Charles Robinson, a homicide detective at the Metropolitan Nashville Police, wrote that there is no justification for this murder, with the sole motivation being robbery. In 2006, Cyntoia’s prosecutors called this a slam dunk case of prostitution, robbery, and murder, and she was given a life sentence. However, what Robinson, the prosecutors, and other mainstream media failed to see was that Cyntoia was also a sex trafficking victim, who had been raped and exploited, was afraid for her life, and was trying to defend herself from from her rapist as well as her pimp. Despite her age, circumstance, and exploitation, she was found culpable and unable to escape the legal bias that prevails against women. However, Cyntoia Brown’s case in Nashville is not an exceptional one. In a world where law proves to be regularly insensitive towards violence against women, being a female victim and a survivor of abuse hardly ever leads to justice.  

In 2015, a national survey on ‘sexual violence, domestic violence, and policing’ was conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which collected over 900 responses from advocates, attorneys and organizations who work with sexual violence survivors. The findings of this study depicted that the intention of the criminal justice system did not align with that of the survivors. Many showed reluctance in lodging complaints as they believed that it would lead to the women “losing control over the process” and hence higher rate of trauma. This feeling of “losing control” is not only due to lengthy and complicated procedures associated with legal practices, but also due to the identified inaction, biases, and hostility against female survivors who were seeking criminal justice. 88% felt that the police (who is the first point person to initiate a legal procedure) either does not believe the survivors or blames them for the violence. Further, 80% felt that this hostility often increases with marginalised women who seek help against sexual abuse. It was also found that a strong bias exists against prostituted women who have been abused in the past.

Another study by the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project looked at convictions and sentences in Oakland, revealing discrimination against victims of domestic violence, who had a higher conviction rate of 78%, as well as longer sentences than people with criminal records. While a woman who committed murder would expect 10-30 years of prison time, a victim of domestic violence expects a life sentence. A similar study by ACLU documented the average prison sentence for women and men who have killed their partners. It was found that there existed a wide gender gap in convicting men and women for the same crime. Men were sentenced for 2-6 years for killing their female partner, where as women were sentenced for 15 years for killing their male partner. In addition to this, statistics cited by the Women’s March showed that 70-80% women who are sentenced for killing their partner state self defence as a factor. If women who are in prison for such a wide range of crimes ranging from prostitution to murder come from abusive backgrounds such as domestic violence, physical violence, and emotional abuse, it leads us to an urgent question: how many women are in prison for a crime that’s related to a history of abuse? Some people would argue probably most of them.

The bias in the role of the judiciary with respect to violence against women is seen in the laws of most countries, especially in the Indian context, where even the definition of prostitution has been condemned as a woman’s liability. While India has signed the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the constitution has advocated equality of women in article 15 and 16, the Supreme Courts manifestations of these concepts have been highly problematic. For instance, in the Indian law of Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Girls Act 1956, prostitution is defined as “the act of a female offering her body for promiscuous sexual intercourse for hire, whether in money or in kind.” What this definition fails to take into account is that the victims of prostitution are arrested and punished for crimes they are often coerced into, either by their own traffickers or for reasons of  self defence. Many of these survivors are below 18 years of age, and from marginalised sections of society. In 2016, approximately 3803 arrests were made for prostitution in India, which included victims of child sex trafficking. Yet, despite the alarming data, survivors of sex trafficking remain vulnerable as they continue to be arrested, punished, and given harsh sentences, leaving them with an even more exploited and helpless futures.

The legal mandate that criminalises prostituted women is in many ways, a product of the shortcomings of the way in which consent is defined. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code defines consent as “an unequivocal voluntary agreement when the woman by words, gestures or any form of verbal or non-verbal communication, communicates willingness to participate in the specific sexual act”. What this definition fails to consider is the social context of the woman who has been abused.  For instance, the rape laws in India may accept the fact that forced consent is not valid, however, in the case of the prostituted woman, the desperate need for money in order to survive is somehow equated with ‘unequivocal voluntary agreement’. The legal system meant to protect women from abuse, then, does not attend to consent or safety of the woman at all, but rather, is concerned with protecting her honor. As a result, neither is buying women for sex outside the public eye nor is raping one’s wife, punishable by law. The legitimacy of consent is non-applicable to women who are either prostituted or married- one, where she is already fallen and hence without honour, and the other, where her primary male relative is still in control of her and hence preserves her honour. Thus when the honour of women is not under threat, their sexual exploitation is not seen as a breach of consent.

At the same time, the Indian laws regarding prostitution criminalize ‘public soliciting’ and loitering, punishing women for not being ‘respectable’, and for being raped by a stranger instead of a husband, while the real offenders- the male client and the pimps conveniently escape through law. Taking into account the definition of prostitution, granting sexual access on the basis of a ‘payment’ enables typecasting of a certain woman, while validating the actions of the other, creating a dichotomy between the prostituted woman and the wife. However, at its core, the law is concerned with controlling both and separating them from each other, without questioning the underlying assumption of male sexual aggression in both cases. Be it in terms of their reproductive ‘duty’ to their husbands or to provide sexual pleasure to other men, the law proves that women are mere sex objects.

This distinction between respectable woman and fallen women becomes especially important when one considers that most prostituted women are also from marginalised sectors in India, implying that they are coerced under varying economic conditions and exclusion from mainstream jobs to enter this industry. The idea of consent then excludes not only an abstract notion of the fallen woman, but all women we see as undesirables- Dalit women, Muslim women, tribal women, DNT women, poor women, and so on. While law may present consent as a woman’s means to exercise choice in intercourse, MacKinnon argues that the idea of consent is legitimate only if both sides involved in sexual relationship have equal power. Ignoring this inequality in our conception of consent itself is what leads to the laws that make it unlikely not only for prostituted women, but also married women in the case of marital rape, young girls in the case of child trafficking, and Dalit women in the case of caste based violence, to ever succeed in proving the absence of consent.

Aside from problems at the fundamental level of definition, the implementation of the law too has failed to change the condition of sexually abused female victims. While some women are still challenging the biased culture of silence by seeking justice, survivors of sexual violence continue to be seen with suspicion and skepticism at every level, starting from police stations to courtrooms. Even today, judges in the trial court look for visible injuries on the bodies of victims as evidence of non-consensual intercourse. It is still extremely rare to get conviction in a date rape case where the survivor’s attitude is seen as non-conforming. For instance, during a training session when a group of legal aid lawyers (almost all men) were asked for their analysis on the increase in number of rape cases, a unanimous reply was “False cases are a way of making money and harassing men”.

The blaming of women at all levels of the legal procedure means that conviction is a possibility only when it is convenient to see the female survivor as a victim. If the female survivor either kills her batterer, conspires against her abuser, or flees the crime place to protect herself from her pimp, then her pleas are ‘conveniently’ ignored by the police, she is not allowed a trial, and finally convicted of a crime that she committed under duress. In other cases, judges ask the rape survivor to forgive and marry the accused criminal. Many police stations in India continue to first counsel the victim into dropping the case as it would cause a lot of inconvenience, rather than lawfully arresting the abuser. Clearly then, punishing or rehabilitating a woman survivor of sexual assault in India is not governed by reasons of age, coercion, or self defence, but rather by the idea of honour and respectability.

In 2018, when finally granting Cytonia clemency is seen as an accomplishment, one must not forget the immediate imposition of a life sentence on a 16 year old sex trafficking victim that would have required her to serve at least 51 years before even being eligible for parole consideration. In America, the most common crimes for which girls are arrested, including running away, substance abuse, and truancy, also happen to be the most common symptoms of abuse. Cytonia’s case not only shows us the law’s hatred for prostituted women in one particular country, but is representative of the shortcomings of justice for women across the world. With the already low rate in reported cases of crimes against women, a legal bias that doubts women’s lived realities, many of whom are survivors of sexual abuse, domestic abuse, marital rape and child trafficking, serve only to make the victims more vulnerable.

 

[Image source: Mona Chalabi]