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 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.
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 coronavirus pandemic has highlighted an old problem of the mistreatment of women in the labour room
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.”
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
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’.”
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.
The lockdown that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic is especially hard on women with disability.
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.”
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.
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.
It cannot be a coincidence that countries headed by women are doing comparatively better at battling the Covid-19 pandemic
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.