How Breaking Free From Roles Changed My Life.

I do the wrong things, often and with relish, because after spending years working myself to death for validation I realised the patriarchal agenda had succeeded at reducing me, like many other women, to just one thing. Women are expected to find their identity within roles and justify their existence by excelling at them. This is how it transformed my life the day I decided the roles would have to find their place in my life without changing me.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Ever since I was a little girl I found it a bit strange when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s India’s favourite question to ask children, which is weird for a country whose favourite pass-time is ensuring no child is ever really allowed to grow up enough to make their own decisions. That’s not why I disliked being asked that question though, no, I disliked it because I was expected to give only one answer. I have never wanted only one thing from my life, and having to condense my entire worth into one role feels like I am being wrapped up in the unforgiving grips of an anaconda that’s about to consume me. As I grew up and realised the extent of the disparity women had been through in our country, as well as the world, I noticed what we have come to see as a common problem. Women are expected to define ourselves within an exhaustible set of roles.

You’re either a mother, a daughter, homemaker or a wife or if you’re “privileged” you’re given the option to define yourself by your job. The temptation is very strong there. When I was in my early twenties and just starting to work, I felt the overwhelming need to constantly overstate what I did for a living, and that I did something. I’d grown up watching most women be “housewives” and as much as I hate to admit that, I think I looked down on them when I was a teenager. I believed I was destined for a superior path, I wanted to do what men do:  Wake up in the morning, have coffee, put on a suit, get in a car and drive off to work. I wanted the stature that comes with having a job, much more than I wanted the money that comes with it. I thought all these women I saw they weren’t working by choice, and more importantly, I failed to recognise that all the work that did go into keeping a home, raising children and supporting a community deserves as much dignity as any other job. All of that came later, when I was younger, I just wanted everyone to know that I had a job, and my job was my entire identity.

I understand the temptation to call me an idiot for this, I think I was an idiot, especially because in my crusade to ensure women were no longer defined by singular roles, I defined myself by a singular role. Before you judge me too harshly please understand where I was coming from, I had seen women valued only for service, sacrifice, beauty and child-bearing most of my life, and I figured ensuring women were valued for their intelligence as well was a step forward. I know how hard I had to work to get the jobs I wanted and how much I had to put in to prove I could do them just as well as a man. The inordinate amount of pressure that is put on unmarried women to justify their unmarried and childless state by having a wildly successful career is hard to say the least, and it puts you in a state of blind ambition and constant competition. You work so hard at one thing that you cannot imagine defining yourself as anything else. All of your confidence and self-esteem comes from where you place your own value and I placed all of my value on my job. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I really truly love my work, and loving it created an additional layer of justification for my obsession with it. After all, we are taught to give everything we have to what we love, and that is what I was doing.

It was a hard day when I realised I had become just one thing. I had placed so much value on the one thing I was that being other things terrified me. I was scared of the idea of marriage because I believe it reduced me to a wife. I hated the idea of having children because if I had to be just mother, I would be giving up on what I considered made me brilliant. I was afraid of learning or doing something new because that meant I would have to redefine and rediscover my skills. On paper I always said that no matter what a woman chooses to do, she has value, but in my actions, I displayed something different. I displayed judgement for those that hadn’t taken the path in life that I had. I wondered why women placed so much emphasis on how wonderfully they kept their homes and how much attention they gave their children because I didn’t realise that we all have the same need for validation and self-esteem, and we take it where we find it. It wasn’t just my approach that was wrong, it was the entirety of this system. It pushes women to justify our existence by doing much more than one person should have to do, and much less than one person should be allowed to do. There are so many restrictions on being more than what you have been deemed to be, that at every step you are left fulfilling goals you didn’t even set for yourself.

If you’re working, you must work so much and so ardently just to be able to compete with an adequate male employee, because women are fired from jobs with so much more ease than men as society doesn’t view us as being “breadwinners” only suppliers of supplemental income. If you’re a wife you must clean, cook, report on your whereabouts, embrace a whole other family, dress like one, behave like one, sacrifice your wishes, be ever-present, never let your husband see you without make-up, wake up before everyone else in the house, the list is endless. If you are a mother just must conform to a sense of dignity afforded to motherhood, sacrifice yourself for your children, be there everyday to deal with every issue they have, feed them, clothe them, always be a ray of sunshine for them. We all may choose to embrace these roles differently, or not at all, but the societal expectations on all of us are the same, and we face the same condemnation for acting differently within these roles. Ultimately, it is all the same, we must embody a limited set of roles. We must be broken down to a set of nouns.

My life changed drastically the day I decided I wanted to be a set of adjectives instead. Nothing monumental happened. There wasn’t a big moment of realisation, nothing terrible or wonderful preceded it, I just realised there was so much I wasn’t doing because I was working so hard on justifying my right to exist. Like every other woman, I was doing too much within just one role, just so that I could feel like I had the right to the space I took up. I went back to the question I was so often asked as a child: What do I want to be when I grow up?

That list used to be so long, and the only part of it I had embraced was my job. I wanted to be a journalist and I was, but that’s all. That’s all I was. I also wanted to write, not the news, I wanted to write pain and emotion and stories of all the people in the world. I wanted to dance. I wanted to learn yoga and martial arts. I wanted to fall madly, insanely in love. I wanted a house full of animals. I wanted to speak five languages. I wanted to keep studying and rack up a wall full of degrees so intimidating they could speak for me. I wanted to take long walks and regularly get lost. I wanted to travel, not for work, but just because it’s Sunday. I wanted to contribute to local politics. I wanted to feed the hungry. I wanted to run a marathon. I wanted to really get to know people and learn to care about them. I wanted to win awards and give them back to the government because I don’t approve of their policies. I wanted to paint my walls black. I wanted to quote Anais Nin and lust after Victor Hugo. Heck, I want to be Victor Hugo, I want all the brothels in a city to be closed the day I die, that’s the fucking dream. I wanted to go to protests. I wanted to be arrested. I wanted to satyagraha. I wanted to indulge all the creepiness and macabre that I enjoy much more than one person should. That’s who I wanted to be.

That’s who I decided I would be.

I refused to govern my life in anticipation of the roles that I would have to one day embody and instead I designed a life where I did what I wanted and the roles would fit in. I wouldn’t change my life to be wife or worker or mother, I would be who I wanted, and those things would only happen if they fit into my life. The day I decided not to care about whether I fulfil my roles well-enough was the day I truly embraced freedom, and it worked marvellously. I did get married, but nothing in my life changed for it, I love my husband for who he is and he loves me for who I am. No one moved, no one changed their name, we kept living in the same house and having the same legal identities. I didn’t change how I dress, work or travel. We don’t limit one another, we marvel at each other’s adventures instead. Our house is often dirty and we just hope the other one remembered to throw together a salad for lunch. We travel without each other, and we love each other shamelessly with abandon. I work whatever jobs I feel like working, and I find ways to make more money than I ever could have working just one, I only do what I enjoy I refuse to define myself by what I do. I did go back to college in a weird place, and I love it. I did have a child, I didn’t birth him, he came from my husband’s first marriage, but I didn’t become mother. He stayed who he is and I stayed who I am, and we learnt to love each other. I learnt to parent, as I would, with swear-jars and walks on which we feed all the dogs in all the neighbourhoods. I never learnt to do the “right” things, but I learnt to be honest about everything I do. I learnt to respect everything anyone does, no matter what it is. I learnt to love my life, and not limit myself but what life is supposed to be. I refuse to be worn out by my child. I refuse to grow to hate my partner. I refuse to be exhausted and limited by my job. I refuse not to grow. I refuse not to join a karate class for children just because it’s too late for me now.

Nah.

I won’t take on roles, they are welcome in my life, but I will be who I am, and they will adjust around that. I will never be able to answer the question about who I am, because the answer is not a word, it’s an essay. I am vast, I contain multitudes.  So do you.

Why Do Men So Easily Sexually Harass “Open-Minded” Women?

While all women are subject to a certain degree of sexual harassment, some women are often treated to inappropriate behaviour from men they know at a much higher frequency. These men will often tell you that you are “open-minded” and therefore sending them signals, but what do they mean when they call you that? Why do men think they can be as inappropriate as they like with “open-minded” women? In our latest piece, I detail my personal experiences to figure out what an “open-minded” woman means to a man.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Shortly after I started working my first job as a journalist, a much-older (and married) producer in our office asked me to accompany him for coffee after work so that he we could discuss my “career plans”. I thought we were going to a cafe or the press club as colleagues but instead he took me to a rather secluded, completely shady establishment. The kind that has blackout curtains that reek of tobacco and round tables with white tablecloths that haven’t been washed since they were bought. I was immediately uncomfortable and told him I couldn’t stay long since I was meeting someone for dinner later. He brushed that off and began discussing my work with me, telling me that I was “different” and amazing but this field of work is so competitive that you can’t get ahead on brilliance alone.

“You’re ambitious,” he said to me touching my hand that was gripping the cup, “I can help you get ahead, you want to work at a news agency? I can help you.”

I was shocked. No matter how many times this happens to you, I think it always continues to be shocking. I wasn’t sure how to react either. In the past I had done all the things: complained, not complained, punched, reasoned, gotten the police involved, gotten the community involved, spoken up and not spoken up. I had done all of them and there is only one thing that all those methods had in common was that after the fact, I was always the one who was questioned/talked about/doubted.

“I don’t need help,” I told him, “And when I do, I know who to ask for it.”

“Don’t be like that,” he said coming closer to me and gripping my other hand, “You’re an open-minded woman, don’t take this the wrong way.”

I excused myself to the bathroom and asked a friend to call me pretending to have an emergency. I called a cab and left, even as he insisted that he would drop me off. As I began the hour-long journey home, I began to think about a word he had used to describe me: Open-minded. I am open-minded but to me that means that I am interested in information-based decision making that is open to change as and when more reliable information is added. That’s not what open-minded means to many, many people though. I’ve learnt that when most men say open-minded they mean a very specific thing and it’s not necessarily a compliment. To him, I was open-minded because I drank alcohol, I wore dresses and skirts, I swore, I lived alone, I spoke openly about dating, (even though we never had a conversation about it) I’d clearly had sex before, I smoked cigarettes, I advocated for women’s sexual liberty, I worked in a “cool” profession, I’m openly bisexual. To him those things meant that I was “immoral” and would therefore sleep with anyone.

I remember once a very long time ago, I could not have been over twelve, and my mother was fuming about something. I don’t remember what it was exactly but some man said or did something inappropriate with her. I asked her what was wrong and while she did not share the entirety of the incident, she did tell me something that stayed with forever.

“When men see a woman they called “bindass” (translation: wild, free) they cross limits,” she said to me, “Just because I like to have fun and I drink and make merry with everyone, doesn’t mean men should cross limits with me.”

My mother’s extremely astute observation is true even today. While there is no “one-type” of woman who is more prone to sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, predatory men of a certain kind tend to seek-out women of a particular nature. This is not at all to say that women should not persist in being whoever we want, but it does indicate that men have been taught certain behaviours are immoral for a woman (drinking, wearing revealing clothing, swearing, having sex) and if a woman engages in them, that must mean she’ll let you have sex with her. This is the story of my entire life (and I imagine the lives of women like me). Men take liberties with me and they have since I was very young. Men you would never think would do things like that. While dancing in a group of women, men who barely know me will touch me and no other woman there. Married men have touched and said the most inappropriate things you can imagine to me. Men have insinuated and outrightly assumed that a “woman like me” would definitely cheat on her partner because “one man cannot satisfy me”. Men have assumed they can kiss me just because I am in a room with them (and done it). Men who were my bosses and teachers have “wanted something more” and tried to leverage their position to get it. Men I’ve hired will still sometimes call me drunk in the middle of the night to tell me they “feel something special for me”. Men have hidden outside my window watching me as I sleep. To say nothing of the outright criminal offences that have been committed against my body. My autobiography would essentially be a chargesheet.

All these men, well not all because some of them would have preyed on literally any woman, but many of them took these liberties with me because they believed I am “open-minded”. I speak my mind. I advocate for and engage in causes like polyamory and homosexuality so that must mean I am a pervert who will let anyone have me. I will use the term ex-girlfriend with as much ease as ex-boyfriend so that just means I am a whore. I will ask a male colleague to step out for a smoke with me so that just means I am a slut. I will wear a low-cut dress and black lipstick to a party so that just means anyone can touch me. I will loudly and with confidence be who I am at all times so that means I am more “open to” sexual harassment than others. We tell women that what we wear is never the cause for rape, and it isn’t, the criminal intent in the mind of the rapist is always the cause, but predatory men do actually take cues about their chances of getting away with it from women’s behaviour. While that’s still on them, it does make for an interesting insight on how men choose their victims. In a country where you have the option to blame the skirt and vodka for your criminal behaviour, it’s best to pick someone drinking vodka in a skirt.

And that is often exactly what happens. When I talk about these incidents, especially when I spoke about them in the aftermath when the vulnerability was still fresh in my mind too, I have mostly gotten the same responses. The same questions. Questions like: What were you wearing? Why did you go there with him? Why are you always being so “pally” with men? What did you drink? Are you sure that’s actually what happened or are you misunderstanding? Maybe he was just being friendly? Did you touch him first? Maybe you sent him signals that you were open to it? Why do you have so many piercings? Why did you let yourself be alone with him? The same damn questions. Everytime. The questions too came mostly from people you wouldn’t expect, people who loved me and allegedly cared for me. People who were just “looking out for me”. People who thought it was their job to give me advice on how to “protect myself”. Ultimately though, it was only in rare instances that people shared my my outrage, and even in some of those incidents, there was a question that put the onus of responsibility on me.

Why didn’t you do anything?

Well, I used to. I used to rage each and every time. Complain. Take action. Call them out right there. I’m fucking tired now. I am not exaggerating when I say how permanant a fixture of my life being inappropriately hit on by men is, and if at this point you find youself wondering quietly that maybe it’s me, maybe I am actually asking for it, let me tell you, you are part of the reason why I am tired of bringing it up again and again. I know what happens when you bring it up, you get a reputation for being “difficult” and the men get to walk away having cast aspersions on you. Almost everyone leaves the situation wondering what it is that you did that made the man think he could fuck you. Even as you complain, even to the police, you are not allowed to be angry. People constantly tell you to “calm down” and reassess the situation when you are calm. As if sexual harassment becomes less sexually harassment the morning after. And that is just what happens socially, what happens emotionally is much bigger and much more invisible problem.

When people tell you to “let it go and be careful next time” what they are saying is that you should just erase your trauma and clad yourself in body armour against it for the future but trauma is a serious thing. Due to certain incidents in my life, I already carry a lot of trauma borne out of sexual violence and abuse, when you add all of this (and it’s a lifetime of it, mind you) to that it contributes to re-traumatizing the victim. I’m just telling my story here, but the number of women who suffer from this is extraordinary. Trauma has a way of showing itself in all factions of your life, and when you already know what it is like to have your consent violated and your body breached, every single incident that follows feels like it may lead to the same path. You live with fear. You re-live the most fearful parts of your life with regularity. Then one day when you’re running on the sidewalk and someone walks too close behind you, you panic and punch them before they can do something terrible to you even though they were just stopping to cross the road. Your reflexes learn a very different world than the one that exists out there. That’s the impact of trauma. That’s the real impact of men thinking they can get away with harassing “open-minded” women.

Will I stop being open-minded?

That’s extremely unlikely, I am who I am and I intend to never let anything get in the way of that, but that didn’t come without a steep cost. And everyday there are young girls and older women being subject to casual sexual harassment that is causing them to re-evaluate their behaviour and choices. We’re destroying women’s liberty and authenticity by allowing men to be creeps around them based on how the women behave. We’re convincing women high neck sweaters and seven-layers of clothing are better. Speaking softly is better. Never letting themselves be free is better. Drinking in secret is better. We’re telling women not to be the “open-minded” girl because open-minded girls get raped, and the worst part of that is that there’s some fucking truth to that. Not because of the “open-minded” girls, but the way we are seen in society. We’re never going to fix rape culture by reacting to the incidents after the fact, we’re never going to fix it at all unless we start here, at what happens every day.

Disclaimer: Please understand this piece is about a certain type of sexual harassment and does not mean at all to insinuate that only “open-minded” women are victimized by men. I do not in any way wish to minimize the experiences of other women, only to discuss the esoteric and niche factions of the rape culture.

How The Army Uses Sarees To Devalue Women.

Women’s lives are governed by dress-codes but in the Indian Army, wives are obligated to dress in sarees for various events. Many people argue that this affinity for aestheticism shouldn’t be a big deal, but what if it’s not just an aesthetic choice? What if it’s not a choice at all? In this piece we discuss how forcing a woman to dress “beautifully” devalues us, and how the army dabbles in this casual oppression.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

“It’s just a saree,” she said to me, “Why do you have so much of a problem with wearing it?”

I mean, she had a point, right? Our social lives are governed by dress-codes. No matter where you work, whether it is a high-strung corporate office or a “cool” financially-troubled community-workspace rental company, there are some guidelines that exist to govern how you can dress. However unlike those organisations whose guidelines extend only to their employees, the army seeks to control not just its employees but their families as well. The army does not employ the wives of the people who work there, and therein lies my problem with it. It is customary in India to tell women who are newly married that they are about to begin a “new life” but when a woman marries a man in the army, they are immediately told they are marrying an organisation, and its traditions as well. I am awfully fond of my human-husband, but my organisation-husband and I, are definitely in a dysfunctional and abusive relationship.

For me, the abuse began, shortly after I married my partner when one of his bosses invited us home to welcome us “into the family”. During this evening, his wife, who knew well-enough that I am an atheist (and definitely not Hindu before then either) and that I we had had a non-religious marital union solemnised only by a judge and no fires whatsoever, presented me with a red saree, sindoor and some red bangles. While I accepted her present due to uncharacteristic politeness, I also told her that giving me (or anyone) something that doesn’t align with their religious affiliation might not be very sensitive, and she said to me a phrase that I would hear repeatedly over the years,

“But this is our tradition,” she said, “You’re an army wife now, you will learn these things.”

Learn religious insensitivity? I think not. Regardless, I let that incident go, at least insofar as I didn’t base my entire opinion on the social structure of the army on that incident. I mean, it was only a gift, it was only a saree. The issues really began when I didn’t wear a saree to an event where I was supposed to, I wore trousers and a coat because I came from work and also because that is what I own in terms of clothing. I’ve always said that it’s perfectly fine for institutions to have traditions, traditions can be a wonderful and positive thing, but it’s how institutions behave when some doesn’t follow their traditions that determines where they really stand. The army stands at complete intolerance. When I didn’t wear the saree, the backlash was immediate and severe. It didn’t impact me or force me to change my behaviour, because you develop an extremely thick skin when you’re a liberal journalist working field in India, but it was directed at me for refusing to conform, and that matters.

It matters because the saree is not just an article of clothing when it comes to the army. As an article of clothing, sarees are great. Sarees are a method of indoctrination in the army though. You wear one so that the people around you can identify you as “army wife”, it’s akin to putting on a uniform. That would be fine if I worked for the army and maybe even if the determination of my status as “army wife” didn’t govern the treatment meted out to me socially, but it does. People in the army treat army wives like airheaded objects of beauty. Women are expected to sacrifice their time to the goal of teaching other equally unhappy women to make jewellery out of vegetables and parade around making presentations on panchtatv that could be summarised in a 60-second YouTube clip (prospectively titled: Stuff no one really needs to know). Women are expected to mingle socially only with each other and any conversation we may have with the “officers” has them politely nodding while trying to guide us to the other nearest saree-clad creature. I’ve had men explain my job to me. I’ve had them tell me what my interests. I’ve had them explain that I love sarees, I just hate myself and that is why I resist them.

On the other hand when I do discuss things that I find fun with “officers” over a smoke or a drink, they think it’s okay to hit on me and it must mean that I am “open for business” to all men because well, I deign to behave like I have as many social privileges as they do. There’s only two categories for women here: household diva and complete whore, and in both categories we’re expected to dress in the same article of clothing. It epitomizes the stereotype we are expected to embody (and I don’t actually know a single woman who really does fit the stereotype). I know what happens here. I’ve read this story before. You reduce a woman to aesthetic value and an article of clothing. You start seeing her as a chopper of vegetables and an object of beauty. You treat her like she doesn’t, or even couldn’t possibly, have knowledge or opinions. Let alone a “real” job. You tell her she cares about clothing and eventually she figures if she must find value in herself she must play your game to utter perfection. So she stops tying sarees on yoga pants and buys heels to replace her favourite sneakers. She starts talking about those sarees with other women. She cares about them. You tell her she has the power to tell other, younger women how to dress and check them if they don’t. You “elevate” her in the shackled ranks you created for her. Then you tell her that all women care about is sarees and shopping, even though you started the cycle that oppressed her into caring. You can imagine, and I can prove, that these people treat their female colleagues exactly as you would expect of them. Their idea of women is colourful creatures wrapped in 5-meters of silk that only talk to each other. As far as they are concerned, the mystery of womanhood continues.

Yet there are people who ask me: It’s only a saree, why can’t you just wear it? How does it really hurt you? Can’t you just do it for your husband? It’s only a few hours a month? What is the big deal?

And to these people, I’d like to offer some answers.

It’s not only a saree, just like it’s not just sindoor and it’s not just a chooda, it means something, and I don’t like what it means. I’m not going to pretend to like it. It hurts me because I have to buy them and I don’t want to spend money I work to earn on fabrics that only stress me, I should not be obligated to do that. You don’t know my financial situation, maybe I am poor, maybe I have a gambling problem, maybe I can’t stop buying every hot-sauce I see, and maybe I have the right to spend my money exactly as I fucking please. It hurts me because I am fucking uncomfortable and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be uncomfortable for a single second when no law in our country dictates that I should have to be and if it did, I would be in jail for fighting it. I also cannot do it for my husband. If that means to you that I don’t understand marriage or love, lol, but also that’s your problem. I deliberately abstained from putting myself in a marriage where my partner would even think to crush a fundamental part of my nature. He doesn’t tell me what to wear, I don’t tell him how to live, we don’t casually hate each other, and we don’t seek to control one another. That is not a healthy relationship, so maybe you should wonder why you would even ask that question. If my husband’s career depends on what I wear, there’s something wrong with this profession, not me. Also, a few hours a month add up. Even on a single day when I’ve spent half the day working, the other half in college, the rest of it writing, cooking, cleaning (and no, I don’t do it alone, but even half the work is work), it’s too much of an imposition on my time and comfort. If that makes me difficult, good, it’s about time women were difficult.

And finally: What is the big deal?

Well, my belief system. That’s the big deal to me. It’s not just a hobby this “women’s rights” thing. It’s not about candle-selfies at India Gate. If Gandhi had taken up freedom as a hobby, we’d still be sticking out our pinkies while sipping tea. I actively live to resist symbols of oppression. You can’t just expect me to take up a part-time cause. I can’t just be an advocate for women’s equality on weekdays and take the weekends off to dabble in casual oppression. That’s my tradition, and if your tradition was willing to accept someone like me, we wouldn’t have had a problem. Heck, I might have willingly put on a saree. But no, you decided that you had to devalue women through aesthetic responsibility, and so, fuck you very much. I’m not here for it and it is a big deal. It’s not just a saree. It’s a silk prision. I don’t do prison. Well, not yet, anyway.

Why Does It Feel Like The Feminists Hate Me?

There is a social trend that dictates women must hate each other: the tomboy must hate the makeup artist, the homemaker must hate the career women, the bookish must hate the party girls, but in my experience I have faced more dislike from the women most similar to me than the ones that were very different. Is this real? If it is, why? Why does it feel like the feminists hate other feminists?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Ruchita and I liked each other instantly. She was one of the students at a school of embroidery in a tiny village close to Varanasi and I was there doing a story that had to do with the social treatment of widowed women in India. Ruchita was only eighteen but she was a widow, she was only married for four months before her decades-older alcoholic husband passed from cirrhosis of the liver. She invited me to come home with her and we sat together on her bed watching make-up tutorials. As averse as I am to letting people touch my face, I let her replicate the tutorials on my face. For the week that I was there we met each morning for a walk, she liked to take walks outside the settlement, that was her mode of freedom. We talked a lot on our walks, I told her about my life and my new boyfriend, she told me about her life and how she wasn’t going to let her parents take it away a second time. During one of our walks she held my wrist and looked at the scars on my arm before rolling up her sleeve and showing me similar scars on her own arm. Self-harm transcends many boundaries.

“I know what happened,” she said to me, “You loved someone, didn’t you?”

“No, it’s not that,” I told her, “It’s more like I forgot to love myself for a while.”

It was a beautiful moment, two women acknowledging each other’s pain and struggle, without having to equivocate them or measure them against one another. She hugged me, and I hugged her back, and we just kept on walking. She told me about her brother who lived many states away, and I told her about my sister who moved continents away. When I left we were both openly expressive about being saddened by it, she gave me a lipstick that I lost almost immediately, and I gave her my eyeliner which I had almost definitely stolen from my other sister. I had found it so remarkably easy to talk to her, but more importantly I never felt like I was sitting there wondering whether she actually liked me or not. The same has not been true of my experience with many other women.

I know how that sounds and let me say staight-away, I love women so much I date them. I adore women and I love having conversations with women. My closest friends are women. My deepest connections are with women. All my role-models are women. This isn’t an “I’ve always gotten along easier with men” piece, it’s more nuanced than that. There is, however, some truth to fact that I have been disliked by a lot of women in my life. There was a time in my life when I had a flawed approach to other women. There is no excuse for it, but since I’m constantly being accused of finding a way to the blame the patriarchy for everything let me give that a shot, because my approach to other women was heavily informed by the way society pits women against one another. I was into books and black-lipstick, so I figured that meant I had to dislike anyone who was into dresses and pink lipstick. Society also makes women believe that they can only be on one of those sides when in truth you can be a woman who likes football, tattoos, sarees and romantic poetry all at once. You know, like a human. There’s also an element of competition which is intensified by the fact that there is so little room for women in the professional world and inadvertently we are laid out to measure against one another. However it wasn’t all patriarchy.

This doesn’t make me look good but when I was a teenager I believed I was special, unique if you will, because I was always talking about women’s rights and a liberal outlook and politics, I thought that meant I, alone, was brilliant. This is just ego and has nothing to do with sexism, I think for a lot of us when we grown-up as the “outsider”, the one who is always being told (not even as a compliment) that they are different, we find our identity within that and perhaps it is a human flaw that we gatekeep our identities. As if someone else being like us will dilute our essence and take from us our individuality. Fortunately, as soon as I moved out of my home and opened myself to the world, I grew out of my tendency. I realised that brilliance in others is the most enjoyable thing in the world, and brilliance in women, is something that as a feminist, I had to wholeheartedly celebrate. There was some unlearning involved and there were moment when faced with a brilliant woman I had to resist the urge to dislike them for no reason just because they threatened me. I believe, today, that I no longer approach brilliant women in the same way, and I believe, as a result, I am able to not only locate but celebrate the individuality of all people. However, I still face a lot of dislike and hostility, sometimes outright and sometimes underhanded, from other women.

One would think that this hostility would come from women who are very different than I am, but most often I get along with women who are different really well, it’s women who are very similar to me in personality, ideology, life experience and most importantly, goals, with whom I face these problems. Feminists seem to dislike me the most. It’s not just me though, there are other women who feel this way and some of them, often the younger ones, are left wondering whether they are feminist enough to be accepted within the ranks. It’s not that though, the degrees of feminism isn’t the problem, at least I don’t think it is. I think the problem lies on two levels, one of them I discussed earlier. The other one is that we are all very dishonest people and we communicate terribly. We tell people we dislike, that we like them, while using our behaviour to insinuate our dislike at the same time. We pretend. We lie. We feel like as feminists we have to support other women and in that we barter our authentic emotions for a pretence that makes us look, but not feel, good.

I have two cats and I just got a puppy. They are in the stage where they are still adjusting to each other so while they will exist with one another within the same space and tolerate one another’s presence, they don’t approach each other wanting to know more just yet. They are threatened by each other so instead of probing they’re stewing in a tolerant but wary state of silent aggression. Often I feel like this is the problem with the interpersonal relationships of feminists, we exist in the same space, we have to tolerate each other on principle, but we do not approach one another because we’re so similar, maybe if we stand too close, we’ll dim each other’s shine. However, this problem also contains the solution. My best friends today, are people who instantly and intensely disliked me for a while, and the only way to break that barrier was to ask questions. Whenever I am faced with someone who threatens me, or makes me worry about being less, I talk to them until I discover how wonderful they really are. It’s simple and it works, all it takes is putting aside ego and forgetting to measure our experiences on a scale to see who wins. Ruchita and I didn’t do that, because we knew that we were fundamentally from different worlds, but when the worlds are too similar we worry about guarding and declaring them as ours. Like my cats.

However, the cats will grow out of it, will we?

Financial Independence In Women Does Not Cause Divorce.

Every other person will tell you that marriage in India has changed because women don’t adjust the way they used to as they are now financially independent. While this statement could not be more fantastical on many levels, the worst of it is that it still blames women for the untoward behaviour men are allowed to exhibit within a marriage. So if financial independence in women does not cause divorce, what does? We discuss, in our latest piece.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

“Divorce cases in India are rising so much these days,” she said as we had lunch at a swanky, uptown cafe that charges an obnoxious amount of money for a pretty crappy burger, “Every second person is divorced.”

Even though that number is grossly misrepresented and comprehensible only in a specific pincode in South Delhi, I was interested in what she had to say for the purpose of discourse.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked the woman I have known for decades, and respected for a few years of naive youth.

“You won’t like the answer,” she said, “You will take it the wrong way.”

I knew what was coming, I am accustomed to having the gut-wrenching discussion that destroys your idols and makes you feel like everyone has lost it, or you have.

“It’s the women that are to blame, I feel,” she said in one fell swoop of misplaced confidence, “Women are not adjusting anymore and financial independence makes them feel like they shouldn’t adjust, every decision is made from that place of ego.”

“I feel like there isn’t a right way to take that,” I told her, “Why don’t you tell me what the right way to take that might be?”

“See this is India, beta,” she said in that condescending tone that older women reserve for people who make rational arguments untainted by the demon of time and the art of compromise, “And women are women, no one is stopping women from having projects, but when women stop being adjusting, marriages stop working, is this what your feminism wants? That everyone should be alone? No companionship?”

I mean, cats are pretty good company (and they too maul you in the middle of the night to ask for something you’re too tired to give them just then). Dogs are cool too. Maybe even a highly-engaged rabbit. I hear some creepy people like birds too. I didn’t say that to her though, I tried to have a reasoned discussion which led to nothing except us never having lunch together again. You could say we went through a mutually-consensual friendship divorce, and it was a good decision too, we just weren’t compatible. I wonder if she thought my newfound financial independence was the cause for my lack of adjustment to her views. I like to think that she does, at least that way I get to believe she is consistent in her poorly-reasoned stances, and I like consistency in people. Just to be clear though, I do not agree with her, I do not believe financial independence causes divorce. I think that’s one of the stupidest things ever said to me and a priest once told me that coming to his ashram to interview him could lead to me being raped because asking a man questions so freely is immoral (am I hurting religious sentiments by reporting that extremely accurate fact? Good.).

I think financial independence empowers women to be able to avail the privilege (yes, divorce is not a right in India, it’s a legal privilege) of divorce. Claiming that the lack of “adjustment” from women is what causes divorce is just victim blaming. What causes divorce is that the normalised shitty marital behaviours that men have been allowed to demonstrate for generations are starting to seem less normal, and a small percentage (yes, it is a miniscule percentage) of women mostly in urban clusters won’t put up with that anymore. Before we go any further, let me just state for the record, I do not believe 100% of broken marriages are the fault of the man, there are many relationships that end because of women. There, I’ve said it and I hope no MRAs will feel the need to bark at me now (a girl can hope). However, there is a general trend in marriage and how it goes, and there is an accepted code of behaviours for both genders and a tendency to place the responsibility of a marriage working (and the blame for it failing) on the woman.

First, we must understand that this idea that “marriages are breaking like biscuits” in India these days is preposterous. In fact, whatever biscuits this person is eating are preposterous too, why are your biscuits breaking so easily, bake better! While the rate of divorce has doubled in the past two decades, our current divorce rate is 1.1% which is amongst the lowest rate of divorce anywhere in the world. Additionally, divorce in India is still largely prevalent mostly in large cities, and amongst the higher socioeconomic stratas of society. Availing divorce is India is still one of the hardest legal processes to conclude, you’d have an easier time settling a contested will that completing divorce proceedings, and the steps built into the process are deeply biased towards encouraging reconciliation (in the interest of the sanctity of marriage). This idea of divorce that your neighborhood aunty has created over her extended broken biscuit and chai sessions is as imaginary as the level of terrorists the current Indian government thinks exist in the country (so far we have muslims, students, journalists, anyone shot by an army bullet, everyone in J&K and farmers.. am I missing anyone?).

The real situation is that most people still opt for a lifetime of unhappiness over divorce. Most women still accept the archaic morays of traditional Indian marriage and carve out niche spaces of freedom for themselves. In many ways, Indian marriages are a deeply flawed institution. Just think about how marriage in India is supposed to function, suspend all idea of “this is Indian culture” and think about it without social context for a moment. A woman is often expected to marry someone she didn’t choose, retain her “virginity” for this person, quit her job to spend months shopping and preparing for the wedding, spend her life ensuring she doesn’t become too fat or too “dark” or too mouthy to be considered marriageable. Then she is expected to parade herself before people who analyse her every move, objectify her and grade her. Then the wedding itself is littered in sexist procedures like father’s “giving away” their daughters and the garb women are expected to adorn at the wedding, and many will say that they liked doing that (and that’s fine), but what would have happened if they said they didn’t want to do it? That’s the real test of tolerance. All of this is just about the wedding.

Then there’s marriage.

A woman is expected to leave her home and move in with another family where she taught to expect strife with the older female figures (and many times this strife is real). A woman is expected to care less about her own family, and visit them less, or be careful about having them over in her “new home”. It’s rarely so bad anymore that a father won’t even have water in the home of his daughter’s in-laws, but I am only 29 and I have met such people in my lifetime. A different set of people give her a different set of rules to live by. In some situations, women are “allowed” to work after marriage, but are expected also to be the ones responsible for all household work and cooking meals. Women are actively shamed in households where the men do the cooking or the cleaning, and those men are shamed too for not being “manly enough” to be able to demand domestic servitude from women. I’ve personally known a woman who was slapped by her husband before she divorced him, and everyone around her told her that it’s only one slap, she shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.

Women are expected to make less money than their husbands, and if they don’t, to pretend that they do. Men are celebrated for doing the bare minimum when it comes to parenting while women are left to deal with the daily issues that come with parenting as well as the emotional development of the children. Women are taught not to “create issues” or “steal the son” of the family by expressing their views or demanding more time from their husbands. Women are taught to adjust even to criminal behaviour and I am as insulated in a modern privileged world as the next pretentious Walt Whitman toting slicker and I still am not immune to advice of this kind. Women are taught to have sex because their husbands need it, we are taught not to speak when the “men of the family” are talking, we are taught not to assert ourselves in ways that hurt the egos of our husbands. Women are invariably blamed for any issues of childbirth or fertility, to the point where even asking a man to get tested is akin to insulting him. Despite the fact that testing men is a lot less invasive, doctors still always test women first and more extensively when it comes to fertility issues. Women are blamed for not bearing sons or bearing too many daughters.

And those are the big things.

There are little things in marriages that deeply favour and enable poor behaviour on behalf of men. If a man goes out at night, he’s working hard and deserves the break, if a women does, she’s immoral and need to be reined in. If a man works an inordinate number of hours, he is doing it to provide for the family, if a woman does it, she’s shirking her family. If a man has to travel for work, it’s no big thing, if a woman does, how will the men eat? If a man buckles a woman’s shoes, it’s unsightly, but women are just expected to do if their husbands demand. If a man wears a gaudy silver shirt to dinner, that’s just his taste, if a woman wears a low-cut top, she doesn’t “look” married. If a man takes issue with a woman having a relationship with another man, and often even women who are considered “bad influences” (hi! Proudly bearing that title since 2008), she is expected to end the relationship. If a man is stressed, everyone is worried, if a woman in stress, she’s disrupting the peace of the family. The list is truly endless.

It’s not financial independence that is responsible for rising cases of divorce, it’s the nature of marriage in India that’s responsible. At its best it’s compromised happiness and at its worst its slavery in shackles of gold. Women being able to rent an apartment by themselves (and if you are woman who has ever rented apartment by herself you know how hard this is even when you do have the money) only enables them to leave, the cause for them leaving is all of this. It’s the shittiness of what marriage is allowed to be, and that we still hold the “lack of adjustment” of women responsible for the end of marriages is only further proof of that. When in doubt, blame the woman.

Well, fuck you.

We are done taking the blame, thank you very much. If you want to “fix” marriage, teach men less entitled behaviours when it comes to love, or they can get a cat too. That’ll teach them to expect love from a creature just because you took it into your home.

Do Girls Really “Grow Up Faster” Than Boys?

We often tell young girls they are fated to “grow up faster” than their male peers, and to enforce this lesson a disproportionate amount of household responsibility is put on girls. From cooking to learning sacrifice, we deem that this enforced precocious behaviour is “maturity”. In this we discuss whether this “maturity” is inherent or just another enforced code of gendered behaviour?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Many years ago I was at the home of a distant relative. Their son had just started his first job in a distant city and was visiting home for the first time since leaving. He was complaining about the hours, the fact that he had to provide his own food as well as having to do laundry while his mother fussed over him for being subject to this ordeal of self-reliance. Alongside, his sister, who is a decade younger than him, served tea and folded clothes that had just come out of the laundry before rushing off to finish her homework. When it was time for dinner, she came back and set the table, while the men sat and watched television, and as we sat down to eat, I noticed that she was going back-and-forth from the kitchen, bringing rotis and filling glasses as needed.

When it came time for her to eat, her brother was taking the last piece of meat in the bowl just as she was sitting down at the table.

“Don’t you want that piece of meat?” I asked her.

“It’s okay,” her aunt said from across the table, “Let your brother take it.”

“It’s okay, didi,” the young girl said to me, “Bhaiya doesn’t get to eat homemade food so often anymore, I’ll just have vegetables.”

Her mother beamed at her sacrifice.

“You know how nice it is to have daughters,” she said to me, “So mature even when they are so young. Girls grow up so much faster than boys!”

We say this often about girls. I learnt this too when I was a young girl. I was told, as were many of us, that girls are more mature than boys at younger ages. Girls “develop” faster than boys. I remember one time even being told that girls should always marry slightly older boys because their “mental age” would then be equal. I remember being told that “traditional Indian culture” was biologically driven to marry teenaged girls to men decades older than them because girls are already mature at that age, but for boys it takes a lot longer, and “scientifically” young girls made the best baby buckets for financially-secure older men. When I was younger I didn’t question this so much and that was largely because I grew up in a house of women. We didn’t have any brothers, and my father’s job had him away for large portions of time, so we were essentially a house of girls, and in a house of girls, you can’t tell if there is disparity because there is no other gender to compare yourself to. At least at home, I couldn’t tell if girls were growing up faster than boys.

However, I didn’t grow up in a vacuum, and in all other social environments I was often told I was “mature” and “sensible” and it was only when I started to take note of what incidents were causing people to say this, that I realised what the problem was. Maturity is defined as sacrifice in women. Girls who are willing to compromise on their needs, wants and desires are “mature”. Girls who are at peace with the idea that life comes with pain are sensible. Girls who are available to shoulder the emotional, mental and financial burdens of their family, by sacrificing themselves and their carefree childhoods are mature. Girls who take on domestic responsibility and the role of tending to the men in the house on themselves at a young age are sensible. If you are willing to understand what you should and should not do in the name of the “honour” of your family, you’re a mature girl then. If you’ve been taught exactly how to behave within acceptable boundaries and no one has to worry about you “rebelling”, you’re done “growing up faster” than your brother.

And I know, there is a biological argument to me made here, and many have made it. Females do hit puberty sooner than males. However, is puberty the definition of growing up? If we are defining female maturity by their endometrial lining and whether it sheds every month, what exactly do we use to define the maturity of males? Equivocation of sexual group to mental or emotional growth is dangerous. Children of all genders, whether they identify with the one assigned at birth or not, go through various stages of sexual development at various ages and while precocious sexual growth is more likely to me observed in girls than boys, it does not in any way indicate that young girls who have a better understanding of sexuality have an adequate understanding of it. After all, just because a girl is able to bear children as early as fourteen doesn’t mean that she should, and we all agree on that front (except certain MLAs in Madhya Pradesh but I suspect attacking the opposition is more important than weighing your words nowadays). Puberty is not an adequate measures of “growing up”, responsibility is and the reality is that we put responsibility on girls much sooner than we do on boys.

I don’t mean this terms of financial responsibility, not directly anyway, but young girls are certainly expected to be more mindful of the expenditure of the family. When it comes to cutting expenses, we start with the women first (whether that is more clothes for the girl in a household or more funding for HR in a corporate). We teach girls to say no to their wants and desires at a young age, and sacrifice them in the interest of other members of a household. We also teach girls that they are expected to be a large expenditure when they are older and to be married and thus must compromise while they are younger. That’s not the only way in which we teach girls “responsibility” in terms of marriage, from a very young age women are taught they must learn to cook, clean, pick up after themselves (and others), help out in the household (do laundry, wash dishes) instead of going out to play because these skills are vital to Indian “wifehood”.

Every single thing that is given to a girl, whether that is good schooling or a beautiful dress, is presented as a privilege extended in exchange for a form of compliance. Statements like — *we let you move out for college now you have to get married, we let you go out with your friends now you cannot have boyfriends, we let you get that dress now you must not ask for anything else — are commonly heard by most women in the country. The reinforcement of behaviours that are considered “mature and sensible” begins very young, girls are given more love (and less criticism) if thet display a form of martyrdom which involves being delicate, not voicing their opinions, cleaning up in the house, doing their own laundry. I remember, when I was only eight or ten, my grandmother telling me that I should wash my undergarments by hand and only hang them in the bathroom, while the underwear of men is thrown into the laundry by any man who visited your home. I also remember being told repeatedly that I would have to learn many things, like quiet endurance and diplomacy, to be able to be pleasing enough to my future in-laws.

So of course girls “grow up” faster than boys, when we start their lives off with stress, indebtedness, an inability to be childlike and responsibility much greater than a child should bear (especially when the responsibility borne is unequal). Of course girls grow up faster, but it’s not a natural occurence, it’s not inherent to womanhood to be “mature”, it’s socially engrained and taught. It’s a falsehood in many ways. After all, if girls grow up faster, then why do boys get all the rights? Surely, the more “mature” creature would be better equipped to handle them?

How Love Is Used To Suppress Women’s Freedom.

Women are theoretically free, at least as far as most of the law goes, but in practice women are controlled much more by the culture of “concern” dispensed by husbands and families. In this piece we discuss how love is used to turn relationships into prisons for women.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

A few months after we got engaged my ex-boyfriend’s mother had me over for lunch. She asked me to stay over but I told her that I had to go back to work.

“Your job will be a problem after marriage,” she said, “It’s better you do all this journalist-journalist for now, and then later stick to teaching.”

“Why would I do that?” I asked her, genuinely confused, “I am not qualified or interested in teaching.”

“Yes, but you can do B.Ed,” she said, “Teaching is best for women, you will be home by lunch time and take care of the house too. A woman has to keep a nice house along with her career.”

Of course, having grown up in this country, I was aware of how women’s career choices and work liberties are subject to the authority and “permission” of so-called elders, but I was appalled nonetheless. I was appalled because I never thought that applied to me, I was raised by parents who insisted on financial independence and career-mindedness as the primary goal for their children. I started working the moment I could and it has always brought me a tremendous amount of joy. Besides, I was supporting my boyfriend at the time, he didn’t have a job, and when he did have one, he would frequently either quit or be fired from it, so the fact that his mother wanted me to make compromises on my career when it was the only reliable source of income was shocking to say the least. I knew I had to get out of that relationship.

After I did get out I realised just how pervasive and vast the plot to control me as a woman in the relationship really was. It started in really strange and subtle ways. For instance when I was seventeen, I was attending a friend’s party. I was dresser in a white skirt and a black shirt, and this really cute tie with skulls on it, and during the party someone took a picture of me with my friends and posted it to social media. A casual and meaningless occurence, really, but later that night, my boyfriend called me enraged. He ranted and raved about how much of my thighs were visible in that skirt. I hadn’t given it a thought, I mean, they’re my thighs and I didn’t quite get the memo on having to keep them hidden.

“How does it matter?” I asked him, “They’re my legs.”

“It matters because I love you,” he said, “And I should be the only one who sees your legs.”

Love. Love is often used as the reasoning behind why women are being told to modify their self-chosen behaviours. Men expect, and women are taught, to find the idea of possession attractive. My ex certainly felt so. He felt that I should feel so lucky to be with a guy who cared so much about me he was willing to yell at me to keep other people from looking at my legs.

“I trust you,” he often said, “I just don’t trust other people.”

This statement, the idea that when women are told to cover up and avoid being out at night especially in clubs and bars, is because their “protectors” are concerned for them is the root of why victim shaming exists. Even before anything has happened, we ask the woman to ensure she isn’t doing anything, by way of clothes or behaviours that indicate a compromised “morality”, that could tempt criminal intent in another person. Part of that probably comes from the ego of being deemed a “protector” but a part of it is just desire to control women like objects that you own once you love them. My ex’s idea that he was entitled to my body, and no one else was, was indicative of how he viewed me. He viewed me as a thing he had the right to control. He expected my compliance as a given, and the lack of it was an unnecessary inconvenience to his larger and more important plot of getting his way with another person.

We do this in many ways and it is not only romantic love that is part of the framework that keeps women in check. Parental love, fraternal love and sometimes even platonic love between friends plays into exactly this. When girls are raised, they are often told by their parents that exhibiting certain behaviours will lead to the love of their parents diminishing. Girls are told they shouldn’t drink or get into arguments with people. Their brothers are given to right to spy on them to ensure they aren’t engaging in untoward behaviours like going out at night or hanging out with boys. Friends of parents feel like they are within their rights to contact parents with complaints about a girl’s behaviour. All of this because people are allegedly “concerned” about us. Aside from “concerned” control there is also compliance from women that is expected and love is used as the bargaining chip. Women are often coerced into marriage because their parents want them to do it for the love of them. Parents romanticize the idea of seeing their daughters as brides and deem the moment of marriage as the one in which they have finally grown up. Parents often tout marriage as this mythical land where women can finally be free and do everything they ever wanted, like take trips and wear dresses, if their husband allows them to do so. Every girl has heard this at some point, the statement that their dreams can come after marriage even though they know that through marriage they will be sending you to a place of more confinement. Marriage in India comes with a whole gamut of familial control from people who often are, essentially, strangers.

We are expected to let people we barely even know, the parents of our husbands, tell us how to live. They are allowed to determine when we wake up, whether we can go to work, who we can be friends with, how we must keep our houses, where we can love, when we should have children. I mean an excellent example of this can be found in the jarring Netflix show “Indian Matchmaking” where one of the mothers looking for a match for her son states at the dinner table that she intends for one of her sons to be married by the end of the year and the other to have a child the following year. Once you do that, then also in the name of love, you’re expectedly to let the “elders” in your life teach you how to parent. They tell you what compromises you have to make professionally in order to be a mother and they tell you how to behave with your child. They tell you when you should have another and in some cases they tell you when you should abort another. We might say that these things happen only with “uneducated” people but I’ve lived my whole life around educated, even affluent, people and I can state definitively that the social issues that govern how women are controlled ail the educated and uneducated alike. My former boyfriend’s mother was not uneducated, she was a central government employee. The woman on the “Indian Matchmaking” show wasn’t uneducated, she was from an extremely wealthy and affluent family.

Ultimately we are not asking women to marry because we want them to experience the joy of love, the joy of love doesn’t require marriage, you can have it in any form and at any time. We are telling women to marry because that is the gilded cage in which we can convince them that gold necklaces and sarees are worth allowing a man to dictate when you wake up and whether you can work. It’s telling women that love means something different for us. It means that we must let our “husbands” tell us what to wear and where to go. We must take any freedom we are given and be grateful for it. We must never allow our husbands to clean the house, wake up before us in the morning or make our coffee. That’s what we expected to see as the nature of love.

In that case, I say, fuck love.

If love means I have to let five people decide what I have to do with my life, I don’t fucking want it. If love means someone else knows more about my marriage plans than I do, then fuck it. If love means that I must marry before so-and-so dies or because so-and-so wishes it, love can fuck off. If love means I must smile when someone tells me rules I must follow because I married their son, fuck love to fucking hell. If love means I have to put on make-up and sweep floors before daylight has broken, love can fuck itself.

But I know that’s not what love is.

That’s the patriarchy. It doesn’t love us. Love is just a tool to it, but women aren’t. Women are not tools of the patriarchy. It can go love itself.

The Mumbai High Court Judgement Is Partly Our Fault.

The Mumbai High Court recently overturned the sexual assault judgement of a sessions court in Nagpur stating that under the POCSO Act sexual assault must entail skin-to-skin contact. Expectedly this has led to outrage across the nation, but how is this judgement any different from the lessons we teach our daughters about what sexual assault is “serious enough” to merit noise?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

After the Mumbai High court issued the judgement that deemed groping an underage girl through her clothes does not amount to sexual assault (but to the outrage of modesty) under the POCSO Act (Protection of Children From Sexual Offences, 2012), women all over the country led by feminist and child rights groups have been outraged. The Supreme Court has stepped in and stayed the order passed by the Mumbai Court for the time being. There have been calls for stricter punishments to sexual offenders as well as endless Facebook rants about how women are treated in this country. As always, this will die out, the case will continue to be deliberated for a while, but the outrage will die out (for instance, anyone still working on having Rekha Sharma sacked from the NCW? Thought so). Incidental outrage is unreliable (though sometimes effective) and part of the reason why justice is so hard to come by in our times, but there is a bigger reason why cases like this one lead to judgements that cause outrage or re-deliberation instead of clear answers. There is another reason why justice does not prevail: Ambiguity in the law.

In the case of the verdict by the Hight Court in Mumbai as pertaining to this incident, ambiguity has led to it passing through several rungs of the judicial order ending up in the Supreme Court. Originally the case, based on an incident from December 2016, was heard in the sessions court in Nagpur where the accused was sentenced under Section 7 of POCSO for sexual assault and Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) for outraging the modesty of a woman. He was to serve concurrent sentences of three-years and one-year respectively for both offences.

Under Section 7 of POCSO, 2012, sexual assault is defined as an in which someone “with sexual intent touches the vagina, penis, anus or breast of the child or makes the child touch the vagina, penis, anus or breast of such person or any other person, or does any other act with sexual intent which involves physical contact without penetration.” It is important to note that clothing is not as much of a criteria as sexual intent, and sexual intent can exist with or without clothing. If a person intends to sexually assault another, the intention supercedes opportunity. For instance, men touch and grope women in buses, and many would if they could, undress the women, but due to the lack of opportunity or fear (perhaps) are unable to do so, but the lack of opportunity does not diminish the intention behind the act. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the sessions court convicted the accused under Section 7 of POCSO. The accused did not touch the child without sexual intention, like an accidental graze or a medical examination, instead there was definitive sexual gratification and even conspiracy to isolate the child by calling her inside his house to give her food.

The other conviction, under Section 354 of the IPC pertains to outraging the modesty of a woman. Modesty has existed as a term defining sexual offences for over a century and was instituted into the IPC around the same time as the term rape (which was added in 1860), but it was not defined by the law until a supreme court order in 2007. Prior to that order, and the institution of POCSO, several child molesters were acquitted based on the technicality that a child is incapable of modesty, therefore incapable of having their modesty outraged. The law around modesty unlike sexual assault, assumes and necessitates a female victim, and does not require sexual intent to convict. The modesty of a woman does not necessarily constitute her body, as much as the virtue of modesty. Whether the accused garners sexual gratification is irrelevant so long as he is aware that the act committed will constitute an outrage of modesty. But, what is modesty? An undefined quality for many years, it gained a rather ambiguous definition in 2007 when the Supreme Court described it as “The essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex.” A nonsense definition that has no meaning, in my opinion. In a case pertaining to the judgement that led to this definition due to conflicting verdicts from various courts, the Supreme Court ruled that “pulling a woman, removing her saree and making a request for sexual intercourse” would constitute (but is not exhaustive in terms of) an outrage of modesty. By order of the sessions court in Nagpur, the accused (hereafter referred to by name, Satish), was convicted under both section 7 of POCSO and section 354 of the IPC.

Then the Mumbai High Court stepped in.

While the high court upheld the conviction under Section 354 of the IPC, it acquitted the accused under Section 7 of POCSO essentially saying that as a woman, the twelve-year old was sexually violated, but as a child, there was no crime committed against her. The High Court deems that “considering the stringent nature of punishment provided for the offence (under POCSO), in the opinion of this court, stricter proof and serious allegations are required. The act of pressing of the breast of the child aged 12 years, in the absence of any specific detail as to whether the top was removed or whether he inserted his hand inside the top and pressed her breast, would not fall in the definition of sexual assault.” The part of the definition they take issue with is not “sexual intent” but what constitutes “physical contact”. According to the bench, physical contact must be skin-to-skin in order to qualify as sexual assault which raises many follow up questions. For instance, what if a perpetrator touches the bare skin of a child with gloves on? Is that physical contact? What if the perpetrator has a fetish for ejaculating on the underwear of a minor? Is that sexual assault? What if the perpetrator has the victim dress up in lingerie and only touches them through it? Is that physical contact? What if the perpetrator wraps the victim in cling film before touching them? Have they contacted them physically? Perverts and predators are limited only by their imagination and the law, and seeing that there is a workaround when it comes to sexual assault, will only embolden their creativity.

And the Supreme Court agrees.

A bench constituting the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, has stayed the verdict after the Attorney General (AG) K.K. Venugopal mentioned the matter, calling the judgement of the High Court, “unprecedented and likely to set a dangerous precedent”. It would too, because the average person does not delve too deeply into the technicalities of the law, or its exact purview, focusing instead only on the headline. It’s not wise, but it is true, and the headline here insinuates that if you touch a minor over their clothes, you could get away with it. There might not even be a crime to speak of. That’s a dangerous precedent. The addition of the idea that clothes need to be removed or skin-to-skin contact ascertained for a crime to qualify as sexual assault will be used in future cases to exonerate men like Satish.

That being said, clarity in the law would require drawing up lines and classifying crimes by seriousness, nature and punishment. It is unfortunate, and uncomfortable, but not all sexual crimes are equal. In the past we have drawn some lines. Modesty now can be violated in children. Rape is now defined as penetration with or without ejaculation. We no longer stick two fingers in women and base the veracity of their rape claims on whether they flinch. Hoorah. Yet there is a question that lingers, and one that we do not ask because of what it may say about us as people: At what point does a sexual misdemeanor turn into sexual assault? Is cat-calling the same as groping? Is groping the same as licking? Is violent attention to genitals the same as manual stimulation? Do death sentences and longer imprisonments lead to lower rates of crime? Are there distinctions in sexual crimes that should be instituted into how they are treated by the law? As uncomfortable as it may be to determine or even ask to determine this point, if we do not do so, judges get to apply it on a case-by-case basis leading to bizarre ideas like skin-on-skin contact is what constitutes assault.

Honestly, I am torn about these questions. On the one hand the culture of violent sexual entitlement by men in India is so rampant that I feel like all of it should be dealt a harsh hand. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone should spend 19-years in prison for a loaf of bread. Incarceration doesn’t always lead to a life of rescuing prostitutes and moral turnarounds. It’s true that the nature of the crime does not necessarily dictate the extent of the trauma suffered by the victim and in that regard all sexual offences are as serious as the other. It’s also true that the harsher the penalities for sexual crimes, the more creative the defences employed against them. In fact, after instituting the death penalty for cases of gruesome rape that result in death, violent gang-rape has increased by 30%. Longer prison sentences do ensure that predators are put away from society (and it ties to the rationale that the more predators we put away, the safer we make the world outside prisons) but they do not ensure that when these people rejoin society they will have experienced a change in morals or lost criminal intent. To make the world a safer place for women, we have to make the law clearer, that’s for sure, but we also have to ensure that the judgements of the law have the intended impact.

We have to acknowledge that for every case like Nirbhaya and every judgement like the Mumbai High Court that shocks us into outrage either by the nature of the violence or the audacity of the verdict, there are hundreds of cases that go unnoticed, undiscussed, unreported and dozens that result in dismissal or acquittal. We ourselves do not treat every case of sexual violence as equal and that is evidenced by our selective outrage. For every protestor that knocked down a barricade for Nirbhaya, there is a Mr. Negi who has spent years at Jantar Mantar waiting for a judgement on his daughter’s murder after she was raped, mutilated and bled to death over the course of three days in February 2012. For every outraged person calling out the high court right now, there is a woman who is silently dealing with the trauma of being touched by a relative or passer-by and told by their parents that this happens to everyone and it’s not so serious, which is essentially exactly what the court said.

If the law of a land reflects the ideology of its citizens then ours is saying something dire about us. It is saying we care, sometimes, depending on the situation. It is saying we want women to be respected and safe, but we don’t want to get into the details. It is saying that we cannot take the assault of every woman too seriously unless it is shocking enough to move us. It is saying we would rather make an example out of one person than address the reality of the culture of rape around us. Our courts speak for us, and it is important to check them when they say something fucking ridiculous, but what have we been saying? What do we say and feel when no one has been raped and nothing is making the headlines? That’s important too.

Are Men And Women Really Different?

Men and women are often told that they can be equal but they must acknowledge that they are fundamentally different. However human behaviour follows a predictable pattern and it leads to the question, is gender really a reliable indicator of behavioral differences between men and women?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

A while ago I had a discussion with a man who felt compelled to discuss with me how polyamory was a superior practice to monogamy. Let me be clear, I think polyamory is a wonderful practise (between consenting adults who are happier that way), because the ability to share love and feel joy at your partner receiving love from as many people as they want is extremely fulfilling in many ways. It also affords people the opportunity to really understand their own insecurities and jealousy. Poly is not, as many believe, a perversion or a method to sleep around or even a ploy to resuscitate a dying relationship. It is a system built on honesty, communication and vulnerability from all sides and it can absolutely work. However, my acquaintance did not exactly see it this way.

“I think women should understand that men are wired this way,” he said, “Women should allow their husbands to have sexual relationships with other women because it is healthy for men.”

“That’s problematic on many levels,” I told him, “Are you saying women shouldn’t be “allowed” to have other relationships and this is really just about men and sex?”

That is often how it is viewed, and I am aware of that. However I find employing the Socratic method often encourages people to dig within their own opinions and ideas and mine for reason instead of conceptual bullshit. It works about 50% of the time. This was not one of those times.

“That’s not what equality is about,” he said, “Women are more hormonal and emotional, they don’t want to have multiple sexual partners and biologically they don’t need them like men do.”

I know for a fact that I am masochist because I know how often I get in discussions with people knowing full well that the outcome of it will be things that make my ears bleed and my brain explode. I do it anyway. There is no explanation other than masochism.

“What you are describing doesn’t sound like poly at all,” I told him, “It just sounds like men wanting to sleep around and using biology to convince women a two-way street isn’t equality.”

“But everything isn’t about feminism,” he said quite confident in his argument, “Men and women can be equal, but they are different.”

And there it was.

I am sure we have all heard this, and many of us have said it as well. Men and women are different. Men are rational and women are emotional. Men like the visual aspect of sex and women like the emotional aspect of sex. Men like guns and cars, women like silks and chocolate. Men are stricter “more effective” parents and women are soft, loving parents. Men are perverted and women are pure. Men are messy and women care about neatness and well-kept houses. Men are ambitious and women want positive feedback for everything to do it. Men want sex all the time and women just do it for the health of the marriage (and of course, no one does it outside of marriage and gay/trans/non-binary people just don’t exist). Men like numbers and women like human resources. There are numerous examples of these “differences” that we are just expected to take at face-value as fact. A lot of people will tell you that they are all for equal rights but they think they aren’t feminists because feminism is trying to erase gender or claim that men and women aren’t different and for some reason, a faction of individuals has a lot invested in women admitting that men and women are different.

Well, I call bullshit.

Let me explain.

The truth is more about the fact that men and women have different social experiences. Men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour like guns or fast cars because “risk” is something men have to seek out whereas women we live with it on a daily basis because of the extent of harassment and sexual violence that plagues society. Men are not stricter parents, society has normalised absenteeism on behalf of fathers, lauding them for every little thing they do like they should get an award for changing a diaper a month while women are tasked with being the ever-present parent who does everything. We aren’t supposed to say anything about this because, after all, in the majority of cases men are providing the money for the women “to be able to sit at home” and take care of the child because women’s labour as homemakers or mothers is disregarded and working women are actively penalised professionally (read: the motherhood penalty) for having children and so ultimately, financially, it makes a lot more sense for women to not pay for help, quit their low-paying job and let the men continue working because men are financially and professionally rewarded for having children (read: the fatherhood bonus).

Men are not more ambitious than women because by design of the system women have to be four-times as ambitious just to get to the places where men get with ease. Women are given more “feedback” because in professional spaces people are more likely to have a bias against women’s intelligence and feel the need to coddle or explain things to us. I’m a trained journalist with multiple degrees, and I have men (who are not at all in the field) explain the press to me on a daily basis. Any woman will tell you any number of stories like that, just ask. Men don’t want “more sex” than women, women just have very little agency when it comes to who they want to have sex with and when. Therefore women who do not wish to have a lot of sex within marriage or relationships, would be much more comfortable having a lot more sex if they were attracted to their partners and while arranged marriages can be healthy, it is rare to come across one where the attraction is at the same level as the affection and sex is about attraction. Not necessarily physical attraction but attraction nonetheless. I’ve been with men, women, gender-fluid people, non-binary people and trans people, everyone wants sex (except the asexuals but I have been with them as well and sometimes they do), they just want it with people who do something for them. If they don’t, they don’t want it. It’s really simple.

Men are not necessarily more messy, men are necessarily more likely to have been brought up in an environment where they were not responsible for the mess they made and someone else (likely a girl or woman) was tasked with cleaning it up and when these men live by themselves, they’re messy. Women who have been cleaning up after themselves since childhood, don’t see cleaning up as as much work as men do. Even then, some women are messy. I mean, my house on a Wednesday afternoon looks like an abandoned laundromat and women are shamed for that. Women are taught as girls that they can be ambitious and work but they also have to keep the house, that’s what makes a complete woman. Women care more about tidiness because not caring means being judged for it and that is okay with some of us, it shouldn’t have to be okay with any of us. And also men aren’t perverted and women aren’t pure. Men rape and take, due to entitlement, which we normalise as perversion and evidence of men’s sexual needs. Women aren’t organic coconut oil, purity is not a measurable thing in people, and are just shamed and attacked a lot more for displaying sexuality.

But those are all just the little arguments, the argument that is loudest and most often repeated is this: Men are rational and women are emotional.

Can I call bullshit twice?

The rationality argument is fundamentally flawed because human beings aren’t computers, emotions are not contradictory to what is rational behaviour for a human being (fear, for instance, is a rational evolutionary response in human beings and pretending not to feel and not acting upon it is inherently irrational) and perhaps most importantly, the word rational has been misappropriated to the point where it is has lost all meaning. Rationality would mean being able to take information in, analyse it for fact and draw the most effective conclusion. In practice, rationality would dictate always finding the most effective course of action in any given situation and applying it with minimum labour and maximum efficiency. Might I suggest that a very small number of people are actually rational? And men especially, by virtue of socially engrained behavorial morays, contain in multitudes something that is in direct contradiction to this.

Ego.

I am not suggesting that women cannot be egoistic but we aren’t allowed to be in the same way. We are not allowed to be arrogant, prideful or egoistic without being condemned for it whereas we are given to understand since girlhood that men are egoistic. We are taught not to cross the pride of our fathers. We are taught to appease the ego of men by never making more money than them. We are taught to be attracted to the arrogance of men. However, ego is fundamentally irrational by the current definition of male rationality. Ego is an impediment to efficiency. It adds layers and layers of emotionally charged bullshit to goal-oriented activities and recreational socialization. Or as men would put it if women engaged in the same behaviour, drama. Which is not to say women cannot be passive-aggressive, aggressive or manipulative, it just means we all are. Men are just also likely deluded about their own motivations when engaging in such behaviour because they have been allowed for centuries to pass egoistic pride off as acceptable masculine behaviour.

And that is what different.

Men, women and others, all the same. Our social experience, different. I know that is sometimes hard to hear because as human beings we seem to be wired to seek out our specialness and we all have things that are unique to us, but none of us are special. We go through the same life experiences. Birth, puberty, youth, middle-age, old-age, death. Birthdays, heartbreaks, sex, love and betrayal. We all act in predictable ways and no number of stories about your ski-trip or your mercedes will change the fact that none of us are special. Or different. We’re just creatures destined to die.

But we’re treated differently in the world.

That’s not on nature. That’s on systems we created.

Refugee.

A poem about the alienation of people in a country that claims to welcome them with open arms.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

From the window of the old storage room,

leaning over the broken handle of the broom,

in their red robes we watched them return,

our prying eyes hidden behind the fern.

From the blue bin beside the locked chest,

we stole unshelled pecans as a form of unrest,

as we wondered aloud with our tired jaws,

how they ended up there for their cause.

Oh but the endless questions we asked:

What is it with which they were tasked?

If we spoke to them would they understand?

Can they speak the tongue of our divided land?

Where did all the hair from their heads go?

Why do they speak in hushed tones so low?

Why didn’t they have a country of their own?

Who sent them here to our cold, quiet zone?

Why did they raise slogans in the street?

Why couldn’t their kids come and meet?

Why could we rent them part of our home,

but were forbidden from calling their phone?

And when our mother came looking for us,

to rescue us from the trappings of dusk,

we pretended the locked chest was our mission,

as if we weren’t just spying on living friction.

At dinner we listened to our parents talk,

and even in sympathy they would mock,

these people torn apart by a strange war,

hoping they wouldn’t steal our old car.

As we grew tall and bright, we learnt,

how their leaders had themselves burnt,

how they fought for justice and freedom,

while we stole forbidden nuts from a drum.

The years passed and away we went,

our world, for us, a big welcoming tent,

where we could roam our lands so free,

our skin no barrier to what we could be.

The people we once hid and watched,

in their lands continued to be torched,

as the ways of the world became clear,

we learnt everyone’s life wasn’t so dear.

Some were into our world so gently brought,

to be kept away from our children and thought,

and while we opened to them our doors,

we relegated to them only our dirty floors.

Decades later when back home we came,

from the storage room we looked at our shame,

the ferns and trees had all but disappeared,

as had the men we had once so feared.

Gone to live among their own kind,

in sight but never welcome in our mind.

Our mother pointed at the box with the locked lid,

and asked if we had ever learnt what inside it hid,

but all we knew was that we had killed the tree,

and sent away the man called refugee.

This land we owned we gave him only on rent,

and he understood what that affront meant,

by birth some were destined for painful history,

inside locked boxes doesn’t always lie the mystery.