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.

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.”

#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.”

Singapore’s coronavirus success story hits a snag

I report from Singapore on new cases of Covid-19 exploded among migrant workers who live in the country’s far-flung dormitories. Human rights watchers say these developments should be no surprise.

A near-empty Changi airport greeted us as we arrived in Singapore on March 22 as the country was being hailed for its ‘gold standard’ response in battling Coronavirus. Taken by me on my iPhone.

Hailed as a model for its early success in containing the spread of coronavirus, Singapore is now having to explain an alarming surge in infections—more than 75 percent of which are among low-paid migrant workers who live in shared dormitories. The sudden rise in cases not only shines a spotlight on the difficult lives of Singapore’s often invisible foreign laborers but also foreshadows how difficult it will be for any country to eradicate a virus that has brought the world to a standstill.

From its first reported case on Jan. 23, Singapore had until March 21 recorded only 390 infections with zero deaths, earning praise from the World Health Organization. Then, over the past week, the numbers soared.

On April 18, the Ministry of Health (MOH)’s website announced the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day: There were 942 new recorded infections with 893 of these among migrant workers. Singapore now has the largest infected population in Southeast Asia with a total of 6,588 cases; 4,706, or about 71.4 percent of cases, are among the country’s foreign workers who work as cleaners, construction workers, and laborers.

Post lockdown spike in domestic violence

The lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking & voyeurism, according to online data from the National Commission for Women. With husbands at home, many women unlikely to complain.

Pic courtesy: Breakthrough India

The woman calling on the phone from Ghaziabad was distraught. Her husband, she told counsellor of the Delhi-based NGO Shakti Shalini, used to beat her occasionally. Now since the lockdown came into effect on March 24, she said, he has been home and beats her, brutally, every single day.

The woman’s parents live only 10 km away and the woman wanted them to come and take her away. But under the lockdown the parents could not make the journey. Finally, Shakti Shalini was able to convince the local police station to at least pay the woman’s husband a visit and provide her with security.

The spike in domestic violence following the nationwide lockdown that began on March 24 has left many NGOs in a bind. They simply do not have the manpower or resources to deal with the surge in cases.

“Not only have the number of cases gone up, the severity and brutality of the violence has increased too,” said Tiwari. There are other cases, she said, where women are being subjected to severe physical and emotional abuse. “How do we reach out and rescue them?” she asked. “Our hands are tied.”

Call her by her name

The December 16, 2012 gang-rape victim had a name. To honour her memory, we could start by reclaiming her identity.

Praying for the recovery of the rape victim who ignited a nationwide protest in 2012. Creative Commons

Indian law does not permit the naming of rape victims. Presumably, this is because the crime of rape is so terrible that, in society’s eyes, it stains not the rapist but his victim with shame; a shame so indelible that her honour and that of her family is irretrievably lost.

And, so, even though Badrinath Singh, the father of the 23-year-old gangraped so brutally that she died of her injuries, said he had no objection to her real name being used, media christened her the fearless one.

We made her the braveheart who accepted her martyrdom. A martyr is someone who embraces death, usually for a religious cause.