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.

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.”

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’.”

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.”

Women show the way

It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic

Angela Merkel’s Germany witnessed a high infection but comparatively low death rate. Creative Commons/eugenbittner

Six days before Kerala recorded its first coronavirus case on January 30, health minister KK Shailaja made plans. She was following the news from Wuhan, China, where many students from the state were studying, and the minister knew there was no room for complacency.

The state’s international airports began screening, a control room was set up, and contact tracing and testing started. By early February, Kerala had shut down public events, movie halls, and schools. Children would get midday meals at home and community kitchens were set up in villages and municipal areas.

On March 24, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, Kerala had 104 confirmed cases, roughly a fifth of the 564 in India. By April 15, only 3.38% or 387 cases of 11,439 cases in India were from Kerala. There have been three deaths so far.

To give sole credit to Shailaja for the state’s containment of the virus would be an exaggeration. Kerala’s health care system and its high ranking on human development indices such as literacy and nutritional status give it an edge.

Women are bearing the brunt of the lockdown

Women are bearing a disproportionate cost of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – but there may be a silver lining yet.

Creative Commons/mgrhode1

Gauri, a lawyer in Mumbai, is grappling with a new problem — how to squeeze 25 hours into a day that already doesn’t have enough hours.

With a nationwide lockdown, her maid who helps with the housework has been unable to come to work. Her parents, who live separately, face a similar situation. And it is now Gauri’s job to juggle the two houses as she cooks, cleans, does the laundry, procures groceries, and takes care of an energetic child whose school remains shut. And, since she’s working from home, she’s also reading legal briefs on the side.

“In the last few weeks it has become increasingly difficult to run the home,” says Mahesh Vyas, managing director and CEO, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. “And it is women who are taking the hit.”

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.

Bringing men into the conversation

In the run-up to International Women’s Day, I argue that if men and women are to work as equal partners, then we need new rules of engagement that understand the centrality of mutual respect and consent.

Twenty years ago, Abhijit Das, the founder of Men Engage Alliance, attended a meeting on domestic violence. From the sidelines of the kitchen where he was working, Das noticed about 100 men had accompanied the 3,500-odd women and were listening keenly, but had no opportunity to participate. Apart from encouraging women, or accompanying them to meetings, what could these men do?

And so began a conversation with the men. They could help with the housework, take care of the children, fetch water. These were small but significant tasks that upended the idea of what is women’s work and what is her place in society.

That was the beginning of a campaign, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko (break the silence, stop the violence) where men resolved to: One, not commit violence; two, speak up when they see violence, and three, support women who have faced violence.