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 Perils of a Two-Child Policy

Underlying the BJP’s concern about a ‘population explosion’ is a false belief that one community, Muslims, are reproducing at a faster rate than others.

Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of India’s ‘population explosion’ in his Independence Day speech, an RSS-backed organisation declared that there was no need for sex education in schools.

It’s an astonishing stand in a country where 240 million girls are married before 18 and only 7.1% of married women between the ages 15-19 use contraception. Awareness of birth control (along with sex education) is a key driver to fulfilling the PM’s assertion that keeping family size small is an act of patriotism.

At 1.37 billion people, projected to swell to two billion by the end of the century, concerns about India’s burgeoning numbers are not new. In 2016, a BJP MP introduced a bill under which couples opting for a third child would need government permission. That bill never came up for vote and in July, Rakesh Sinha, a nominated BJP MP introduced another bill that singles out couples with more than two children for punitive action, including disqualification of elected legislators, as well as incentives (cheaper health care, subsidised loans) for those who stick with two.

Election 2019: Where on earth are the women candidates?

An announcement by two political parties, the TMC and BJD to earmark a significant number of seats for the 2019 general election to women has not been an example for other political parties. Despite talk of ‘women’s empowerment’ both the BJP and the Congress continue to be miserly when it comes to fielding women candidates. 

When Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) announced they would be fielding an unprecedented number of women for the 2019 parliamentary elections, there was a general sense of euphoria at a historic imbalance being set right.

Would other parties be inspired? The answer wasn’t long in coming. It was no. For both the BJP and Congress, it’s business as usual.

An analysis of the initial lists of both parties by Gilles Verniers, who teaches politics at Ashoka University, shows just 23 of the BJP’s 184 candidates are women. That’s a paltry 12.5%. The Congress is only marginally worse with just 17 women of 143 candidates analysed so far. That’s 11.9% — a long way from the 41% women candidates of the TMC and the 33% promised by the BJD.

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Understanding the gender confidence gap

Men tend to over-estimate their ability and performance, while women tend to downplay both (from a Cornell University study). Men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise (Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask). Why do so many really smart, talented women come across as diffident at the workplace? Understanding the gender confidence gap:

I often attend gender conferences where women outnumber men roughly 20 to one. The gender world’s like that, I guess. Yet, even amongst us, there will always be the one who begins apologetically, “I didn’t come prepared,” and then go on to astound the room with her brilliance.

Women struggle to talk about themselves positively, says Aparna Jain, diversity and leadership coach and author of Own It and, more recently, Like a Girl. At her leadership workshops, she says, “There’s so much self-doubt. Women just want to be perfect.”

We talk of the gender pay gap readily enough. Perhaps we need to talk a bit more of the gender confidence gap.

Research bears testimony to it. Men tend to over-estimate their abilities and performance while women downplay both, finds a Cornell University study. “The ‘gender confidence gap’ is real and closing it is as much a lynchpin to addressing gender inequity as the many other forces that have contributed to it,” writes Margie Warrell in Forbes. Continue reading “Understanding the gender confidence gap”

The long march to justice

The world’s longest and largest march by survivors of rape and sexual assault covering 24 states over 10,000 km in India seeks to break the silence and stigma around rape. My Hindustan Times  column. 

Y’s husband beat her senseless when he found out that she had been raped by three men in the fields where she had been working. Then he threw her out of the house and told her to go back to her parents. “I had done nothing wrong. I was just trying to earn a living,” she says.

When M managed to escape from three male captors, who told her they had bought her for Rs 2 lakh, her family barred her from seeing her kids. That was in 2016.

Just two out of an estimated 15,000 women and men who have taken part in what is perhaps the world’s largest and longest march of rape survivors, Y and M are finally at the end of a two-month, 10,000 km journey covering 200 districts in 24 states. Along the way, they have met police, judges, doctors, administrators, students, lawyers, teachers. They want to change the way you see them. They want to end the silence that continues to shroud survivors of sexual assault.

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Whitewashing women out of public memory

In Hindustan Times, I argue for the need to commemorate the memory of more women, whether by building their statues or naming roads or institutions after them. Why? Because it’s crucial to remember who we are as a people and that our legacy includes not just powerful men in public life but also women who, despite the odds they faced, still surged ahead.  

The conference room at the National Commission for Women (NCW), a statutory body that advises government on policies for women, is remarkable for one feature: The absence of women on its walls.

There are standard-issue portraits of the prime minister and president, yet when I recently pointed out that a few additional portraits of inspirational women might not be out of place, the suggestion was brushed off.

But why blame the NCW? Across India, how many women do we honour by naming streets after them or building their statues and hanging their portraits? Indira Gandhi gets an international airport. Rani of Jhansi is valourised in statues. Savitribai Phule’s portrait very often hangs along side that of her husband. Anyone else?

In New Delhi, women barely get more than a half dozen roads. There’s the artist Amrita Shergill, Gandhiji’s wife, Kasturba Gandhi, freedom fighter, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Mother Teresa.

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Home is the most dangerous place for many women

We can’t seem to stop talking about sexual violence from strangers, but cannot seem to start talking about it (or even acknowledge), about the violence many women face from within their own homes.

If a picture says a thousand words, then a graphic illustration of 137 figures — the number of women killed every day around the world by a partner or family member — doesn’t even begin to tell you the horror.

The statistics are part of a study released on November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. It finds that 58% of the 87,000 women killed around the world in 2017 died at the hands of an intimate partner or a family member. Every hour, somewhere in the world, six women are killed by people they know.

There’s the 16-year-old, legally a child, in rural Bangalore district, who rejects the amorous advances of a 28-year-old relative who’s been stalking her. On the day she confronts him near her school, he takes out a sickle and slashes her throat.

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The courage to speak up

Can we even begin to understand the courage and grit it takes for a woman to speak up against her sexual assault? In a climate that is changing, we still continue to shine a spotlight on the victim, not her predator. My column in Hindustan Times:

The complainant in one of India’s most high profile sexual harassment cases is telling me about the price of speaking up. A hostile work environment, mental stress, failing health, long and costly litigation and, despite it all, loss of a job, says the woman researcher who filed a complaint against RK Pachauri in February 2015 when he was still boss at TERI.

“Even today I worry about entering an office room and am scared to open my email,” she says.

Three years later, trial is yet to begin. But, says the researcher, “Sexual harassment by powerful bosses continues because we have a culture that turns a blind eye to it.”

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Beyond #MeToo, there’s #WeCount

In Hindustan Times, I argue that the goal of India’s #MeToo movement is not the taking down of a few predatory bosses but a new deal for women at work. 

The resignation of minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, might seem like a victory for the #MeToo movement, but it’s far too premature for any celebration.

The former editor is accused by at least 20 women of a range of inappropriate behaviour from interviewing potential new recruits in his hotel room to sexual assault. He has denied the accusations and sent a criminal defamation notice to the first of his accusers, journalist Priya Ramani.

Akbar is not the only one to have been stung by India’s October Outing, which has, so far, been organic, volatile and apparently unstoppable.

In contrast to the government’s silence over its minister, the private sector has scrambled to act. A film company has folded up, comedy videos by offenders have been scrubbed from websites and media houses have launched inquiries, sent the editors who’ve been accused on leave and mandated sexual harassment workshops for employees.

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What made India’s #MeToo possible

In Foreign Policy, I write on workplace sexual harassment from Bhanwari Devi to the resignation of M.J. Akbar, what’s changed over the years and which way India’s  #MeToo movement is likely to go. 

For close to two weeks now, many of India’s women, particularly in the English-language media and entertainment businesses, have taken to social media to call out sexual predators: bosses who had demanded sexual favors, men who had sent unsolicited explicit photographs, and stars who had interacted inappropriately with underage fans. Among those caught up in the torrent of accusations have been editors, directors, actors, writers, stand-up comedians, an image consultant, and a minister in the current government.

In some ways, the groundwork for this movement was laid in the 1990s. Early that decade, the state government of Rajasthan hired Bhanwari Devi, a social activist, to join an ongoing campaign against child marriage. Some locals, however, were not happy. In 1992, as “punishment” for her vocal condemnation of the marriage of a 9-month-old girl to a child from the same village, Devi says that she was raped by two men while three others held her down. The men denied the charges.

When the case came up for trial in a lower court in 1995, a judge ruled that “since the offenders were upper-caste men and included a Brahmin, the rape could not have taken place.” Devi, you see, was from a lower caste. The judge’s implication was that no upper caste man would “defile” himself by touching a lower-caste woman.

Weeks of marches and protests followed. And soon, a group of nonprofits came together under the name Vishakha. They petitioned the Supreme Court to create a legal framework for justice for women who had been sexually assaulted in the course of their work. In 1997, India’s highest court set specific guidelines that, for the first time, defined sexual harassment. The definition included not just physical contact but also sexually loaded remarks and comments.

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