Rules of engagement

Netflix’s new show, Indian Matchmaking is regressive, but not more than the patriarchy that governs the rules of marriage.

Sima Aunty, everybody’s favourite matchmaker, in a still from the Netflix show.

One critic calls it “this year’s scariest horror show about arranged marriages”. And on social media, there is a raging storm over sexism, casteism, colourism and a range of other isms.

As Netflix’s eight-episode reality show, Indian Matchmaking kicks off, the conversation about the business of arranged marriages has gathered pace.

Indian Matchmaking doesn’t claim to wear a reformist cloak. Executive producer Smriti Mundhra calls it an “unscripted, fun, crazy, light look on the surface of the Indian marriage industrial complex.” It’s an industry that places a premium on women who are fair, tall, “slim-trim”, and, above all, “flexible”. Families must be “respectable”. After all, alliances are not between individuals, but families. One eager mum tells her son she’s looking for “someone to take care of you”. The son, no surprise, is looking for someone like mummy.

And yet, Indian Matchmaking underplays the seedier underbelly of the marriage market. Dowry, for instance, is excised from the show. And non-conforming clients include a single mom as well as a Catholic man who says he’s open to meeting women from other religions. In one case, the match-maker introduces a woman who is seven years older than her prospective groom.

As alleged rapists roam free, gang-rape survivor is sent to jail

A traumatised gang-rape survivor who raised her voice in a Bihar district court and asked for two social workers–they helped her complain to police–while recording her statement was arrested along with the two social workers. With the district under lockdown, it is anybody’s guess when she will be released.

Image courtesy: Aasawari Kulkarni/Feminism in India

Two weeks after a Karnataka High Court judge observed that falling asleep after rape was “unbecoming of an Indian woman”, a judge at the Araria District Court in Bihar has sent a gangrape survivor to jail.

“Sending to prison a woman who has been raped will have a chilling effect on women as a class. It impedes access to justice”, Supreme Court advocate Vrinda Grover said. “With the arrest and imprisonment, the rape survivor’s worst fears have come true and reinforce the hesitation and apprehension that women have in approaching the criminal justice system.”  

Recording a statement made by a 22-year-old woman four days after being gang-raped by four men–none of whom have as yet been arrested–district judge Mustafa Shahi sent the rape survivor along with two social workers who had accompanied her to jail. 

The three are at present lodged at Dalsinghsarai jail in Samastipur district, some 240 km from Araria where the rape is alleged to have taken place and where the survivor lives. 

Word play

Gendered language has its roots in sexism. It invisiblises women, reinforces bias and can cause real harm.

Last week, my friend Kanta Singh took issue with a retired bureaucrat for his tweet on how civil servants must “evolve in a manner that those who want to corrupt him aren’t able to muster the courage to do so. His conscience must be his firewall”.

Kanta’s objection wasn’t the content. “Will request you to write a more inclusive language,” she tweeted. The objection is not irrelevant. Of the 700 officers working in the central government at the joint secretary level and above as of June 2019, 134 (19.14%) were women.

The use of the male pronoun to describe a group ends up invisibilising women. God is a solid, upper case He. And he/him/his are default settings for all manner of truisms: “A man is the sum of his actions,” (Mahatma Gandhi) or, “Technology is the nature of modern man,” (Octavio Paz) — but “mankind” excludes half of humanity.

The Indian courts’ misogynistic handbook for rape survivors

The Karnataka High Court’s observation that falling asleep after rape is “unbecoming” of an Indian woman is only the latest in a line of misogynistic judgements that comment on the behaviour of women. Along with law student Anupriya Dhonchak, we sift through the cases.

Image courtesy: @penpencildraw

The Karnataka High Court’s observations on 22 June 2020 while granting bail in a rape case follow a judicial tradition of commenting on the behaviour of women, particularly in rape cases, according to an Article 14 review of recent Supreme Court and High Court judgements.

“The explanation offered by the complainant that after the perpetration of the act she was tired and fell asleep, is unbecoming of an Indian woman,” said Justice Krishna S. Dixit in the case of Rakesh B vs State of Karnataka. “That is not the way our women react when ravished.”

The judge appeared also to be swayed by the fact that she was at her office at 11 pm and did not object to “consuming drinks with the petitioner and allowing him to stay with her till morning.”

The remarks sparked a storm of criticism.

Labour pains

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an old problem of the mistreatment of women in the labour room

Pic: Ekam Foundationhttp://www.ekamoneness.org/poor-diet-strain-can-weigh-down-rural-pregnant-women/

Don’t touch me, the nurse yelled at the woman who was about to deliver her second child. On March 26, when the woman went into labour, fears of the coronavirus were high at the community health centre in Atraulia, Azamgarh. The Dalit wife of a daily wage labourer was made to wait outside until it was time to give birth. “Even then, the nurse refused to touch her, leaving the delivery to the dai (midwife),” says Sunita Singh, a social worker with Sahayog, an NGO that works on women’s health rights.

The mistreatment of women in the labour room is “fairly common, especially if you’re poor,” says Singh. The violence from midwives, cleaning staff, nurses and even doctors ranges from abusive language and sexualised comments to slapping and forcing women into birthing positions.

“There’s a clear power asymmetry that involves money, caste and class,” says Jashodhara Dasgupta, senior advisor, Sahayog.

School, interrupted

The coronavirus pandemic presents a very real risk of girls dropping out of school in large numbers, setting back years of progress. If we are to stop the slide, we need to act now.

Creative Commons/United Nations Photo

Her family has always “believed in education,” Vidhi Kumari, 18, tells me on the phone from her home in Mangolpuri, Delhi. So even though her mother never went to school and her father, a driver, studied only up to the 10th grade, four of her five sisters are graduates, one is in the 12th grade and the youngest, a brother, is in the eighth.

Even in these extraordinary times, Vidhi tries to keep up with her online BA classes. It’s not easy. “My sister and I share a phone so when she attends her class, I miss mine, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”

With only half attendance, Vidhi is one of the lucky ones. Many girls in her neighbourhood have dropped out — someone doesn’t have a phone, another has no money for recharge and someone else had to take up paid work. “This is a slum area,” says Vidhi. “There’s a lot of financial hardship here.”

Ban ‘conversion therapy’

Demonising doctors and families who force individuals to undergo conversion therapy is the easy bit. The far harder part is the work that must go into building an affirmative society that is respectful of individual choice

Nothing to ‘cure’, the kids are alright. Pic courtesy: The Better India

K’s parents prided themselves on being educated and liberal and yet, when he told them he was gay, he remembers his mother saying: “You don’t have to flaunt it. After all we do live in society.”

K is one of the lucky ones, unlike the many who, when they come out to their families, are dragged off to psychiatrists, counselors, godmen and sundry quacks for a ‘cure’.

The suicide of a woman in Kerala has ignited conversation on this so-called ‘conversion therapy’. There is talk in some activist circles of legal options. An online petition wants mental health practitioners to pledge support to LGBTQI+ people. And four different professional organisations such as the Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy, have issued statements debunking it.

Conversion therapy has ‘absolutely no scientific basis’, says Vikram Patel, psychiatrist and professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. “It has been prohibited by every major psychiatric association in the world, including India.”

Talk to boys about consent

If sex education is too loaded a term for educators and policy-makers, call it something else — value education, life skills, consent education — but we can no longer ignore how desperately we need it in India’s school curriculums

Consent: as simple as a cup of tea. Watch the video here.

In 2018, Mini Saxena, a lawyer, moved back to India from the United Kingdom (UK) and learned for the first time just how tough it was to get schools to accept the idea of consent education.

Saxena had volunteered with a consent project in middle and high schools in the UK and wanted to bring the idea to India. It would teach kids why they needed to respect boundaries, and what their protections were under the law when these were crossed.

A 2007 Government of India survey had found that 53% of children, boys as well as girls, had been abused. Surely, such a project would be welcomed.

Not quite, she says: “I approached many schools. Nobody said ‘we can’t do this’ but they kept stalling under various excuses including, ‘we need parental approval’.”

#BoysLockerRoom: old story, new outrage

There is no piecemeal solution. If you want to get out of the boys locker room, you will have to burn it down, I write in FirstPost.

Take a good look at the locker room. It’s where we live. Here’s WhatsApp Uncle with his daily forward of sexist, offensive ‘jokes’ about wives under lockdown. There’s filmmaker-wala Uncle with his twitter meme from some years ago on what makes the Nano the safest car for women (because they can’t get gang-raped in it). A pregnant Safoora Zargar is arrested and sent to jail under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and Kapil Mishra, the Delhi BJP’s motor-mouth, comments: “Please don’t connect her pregnancy with my speech. It doesn’t work that way.”

If you are as outraged as I am over the leaked screenshots of #BoisLockerRoom – an Instagram handle where teenage boys (and a few girls) shared obscene messages and screenshots of underage girls — but found any of the other instances above ok, just harmless fun yaar, then, yes, you live in the locker room.

It’s an old concept that went global when Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, was caught on a hot mike bragging about his ability to grab women. Just locker room stuff he said and won the election.

Locker room ‘banter’ is a raging epidemic, except, unlike Covid-19, nobody really talks about it or seems interested in pushing for a cure.

Shut in/shut out

The lockdown that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic is especially hard on women with disability.

Nidhi Goyal. Pic courtesy: Rising Flame

As a girl of 15, Nidhi Goyal wanted to be a portrait artist. Then she became visually-challenged, and turned to activism. “I was 16,” she says about losing sight to a rare genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. “It was a struggle and I was slipping into depression until I looked at my own privilege.” She then decided to “do something about it”.

Now 34, the Mumbai-based founder and director of Rising Flame, a non-profit committed to changing the lives of people, especially women and girls with disabilities, finds herself on the UN Women executive director’s civil society advisory group and president of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development.

Before the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) upended the world, women with disabilities were undergoing their own lockdown, invisible and shut out from the rest of the world. Now, the walls are closing in.

“Women with disability have been fighting to get out of their houses as their families worry about letting them navigate alone,” says Goyal. “Now, we are under lockdown again.”