A poem on the occasion of Women’s Day, that, hopefully, does a good job of explaining why I won’t celebrate Women’s Day.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
They gave us free sanitary pads — winged and scented for our comfort — and taught us how to use them.
The room was coloured in hues of pink and power; the walls adorned with glittering prophecy.
Who runs the world? Girls!
In that room we sat, on red chairs, for corporate sponsors to teach us how it would be to be a woman one day.
We put our bags over our bare thighs, so the teachers wouldn’t measure us with two-fingers and punish us for the length of our skirts.
Two-fingers the judge of our modesty, forevermore.
A man in a brown coat stood just outside the door, explaining to the presenter, the salient features of being a woman she was allowed to share.
He wouldn’t enter the room, the door closed against his back, this talk was for the girls. Oh what a delightfully safe space!
She got on stage and performed the theatre of empowerment, with confetti and dance; one conceived no doubt in a boardroom where no tampons ever went.
Before us she brandished, a white pad wrapped in green-plastic, and explained how losing blood is what made us women.
Oh, it would hurt.
How could it not?
We were allowed not to run if it hurt too much, but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t; we could sit quietly and not complain, or we could run in pain and not complain.
Womanhood means having a choice!
My friend, she raised her hand, and asked what else she could use because the material of most sanitary pads made her vagina itch.
A panicked, underpaid teacher hurried onto the stage in her heels, whispered into the ear of the presenter and shot a haughty look at my friend as she retreated.
“We shouldn’t use such words in public!” The kind lady relayed, “They are your private parts and private parts should be kept private.“
No other answer to her question ever came, she turned her head to me and rolled her hazel eyes, as her attempt to make them acknowledge a menstrual product that you had to put inside you fell flat on its face.
The lady explained the science of the magic pads, failing to mention they would clog our rivers forever, as we stashed our little notes in our bras lest we be caught communicating with one another.
They reminded us to pay attention because later we would be tested on what we had learnt, and we wouldn’t make it to the scholar’s list because we had failed the test of being women.
We watched her demonstrate something most of us had already been doing for years, as the boys ran in the grounds and shot hoops outside the canteen.
But there was a big surprise! Our attendance wasn’t for nothing! A free pack of sanitary pads for each of us! What an incredible treat that was!
Perhaps I would have cared more if they had remembered to mention, that I’d be taxed on products I needed well into adulthood because not bleeding all over myself is a luxury.
An accident of fate and I could have been born in state where I would be relegated to a shed to bleed my uncleanness to death.
At the exit doors, stood yet another teacher, reminding us to put those little green packets into our bags before we left. This world is our little secret, we mustn’t let our empowerment be too loud!
I shoved my pads into my bag and rushed down the stairs. Past the exclamation-mark ridden posters of an exclusionary sisterhood.
Later I used one of those free pads to staunch the bleeding from having a man inside my private parts.
Sometimes rape bleeds, but at least we had the free pads!
I sat at my study-desk and began to do my homework, they’d taught us about womanhood, so we had to show our work.
“Women’s Day: A Day Of Empowerment“
I titled the page. With a red marker I drew two lines underneath the title.
The lies in my notes stared at me like a thousand little nooses hung haphazardly in a room full of stains. I’d lost so much blood to this womanhood game.
And I would celebrate your holiday, I swear, for celebration, i have a knack.
I was just wondering, if first, I could have my blood back?
Women’s bodies are the battleground where political agendas are explored and social values are determined. Various colleges in Karnataka are currently denying entry to female students in Hijabs in response to “Saffron Shawl” protests by male Hindu students. Our leaders say religion has no place in education, but why is that limited to just one religion?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
In an odd twist of fate, I had the unforseen opportunity to attend graduate school in a small district in Jammu and Kashmir. I wasn’t the “right” age for college at the time, I had been working a while and I hadn’t precedented that life could lead me out of a ‘metro-and-parliament‘ city. The college I attended is small, located in a district between Jammu and Kashmir where the population is largely Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, and most people are either transients or residential blue-collar workers. On my first day in class, I was surprised to learn that I had to wear a uniform: white shirts, black trousers. There were some official exceptions, of course, such as a salwaar-kameez option for those who didn’t want to wear trousers and a different colour of salwaar-kameez for married women. There were some unofficial exceptions as well. If you were Muslim, you could wear a hijab or a burqa over your uniform. If you were a Sikh woman, you could cover your head with a dupatta. If you were a Hindu woman who had just married, you could wear a chooda, in fact, in this case you could even wear dressy-suits that didn’t conform to any of the uniform guidelines for a month or two.
The unofficial exceptions were largely part of a constitutional freedom that we all apply on a daily basis without knowing it: The right to religious freedom. They weren’t part of the official (and deeply unnecessary) charter of uniform guidelines because whether you are a student, or not, you have constitutional rights as a citizen of this country that cannot be undermined. It doesn’t need to be said that you can practise your religion. While, personally, I have a lot of issues with the dress-codes of colleges as a concept, especially because they ubiquitously take more charge of women’s bodies than they do men’s, I thought the uniform guidelines of my college were reasonable. A component of rules with a side of sensibility, and a dash of awareness of the social context, seemed like an acceptable proposition even with the underlying issue of sexism. Theoretically, this worked for me, but in practice, something strange happened one day.
I had a classmate who wore a hijab and a burqa. She wasn’t the only Muslim student in our class, but she was the only one who wore a hijab. One day, during class, one of the teachers started demanding that she take off her hijab. Her reasoning was that she needed to make sure that the person on the ID card was the same person who was attending the classes, but a conveniently missed detail was that no one ever checked our ID cards anyway. The student protested, and asked the teacher whether she could do it in private, not in front of the entire class, but the teacher was adamant that all her classmates had the right to see her head. Ultimately, the student relented. Later, when speaking of the incident she expressed her desire to file a complaint, alongside fearful resistance that she would be singled-out if she did. Despite all of us offering to stand by her, she opted not to file a complaint.
I was horrified.
A lot of my horror has to do with privilege, I’ve been insulated from certain spaces in my life by virtue of my upbringing, and my classmates explained as much when they told me this kind of discrimination wasn’t a “big deal” and it happened all the time. They shared stories of being denied rental accomodation, threats by neighbours against Muslim-presenting women to stop wearing a hijab and warnings to Muslim students living in Paying Guest (PG) accomodations to “stay away” from the children of the landlords. Ultimately, the right to freedom of religion is a very nice thing in theory. We’re seeing a live-example of that play out in Karnataka right now.
After seven women in a college in Udipi district, Karnataka, were denied entry earlier this month, several other colleges have followed suit. Most recently, Government Pre-University College in Kundapur closed the gates on the faces of 27-female students for wearing a hijab. Kundapur MLA, Halady Srinivas Shetty, has spoken to the Education Minister B.C. Magesh and attempted to convinced the parents to allow the girls to attend class without a hijab without any resolution. Prior to this act, the students claim they have worn hijabs to college regularly for years and it has never been a problem. On Wednesday, prior to the gates being closed to these students, a group of male Hindu students staged a “Saffron Shawl” protest in deliberate violation of the dress-code to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the allowance of hijabs on campus.
Once again, India has made it clear, whether it is the politics of oppression or suppression, they will be played out on women’s bodies. The issue at hand has been phrased as one of uniforms and educational decorum, with authorities claiming that a violation of the uniform-code cannot be excused for members of one community and not the other. Based on my experience with college dress codes, exceptions are continuously made for members of all communities. Women are allowed to wear Chooda and Mangalsutras. Men are allowed to wear turbans. Not just Muslim, but Hindu, and Sikh women are allowed to cover their heads too. The false equivocation between saffron shawls and hijabs is a misdirection, they are not the same thing, one is an option and the other is part of the practice of a faith, to ban things at an equivalency would be to ban Kasi Tadu, or Mangalasutras, but those are symbols we cannot even discuss as possible forces of oppression without worrying about hurting religious sentiments.
The role of women, in Indian society, it would appear is to be both the victims of oppressive forces and the defenders of them. At home we must explain why our legs are not offensive, and at school we must defend the right to freely practise our religions, and on the internet we must explain how ghoonghats and hijabs are not the same thing, and how the non-consensual enforcement of either, can be oppressive. This issue is not one of uniforms, it is one of seeing just how far majoritarian sentiment can go to bully members of one faith into compliance to demonstrate that they can, and because women are often the representatives of faith in terms of attire, the attack is targetted at us, but it is an attack on religious freedom, underneath it all.
The Karnataka Home Minister, Aragav Dnyanendra, has said, “Schools are where children belonging to all religions should learn together. Schools and colleges are for education, not religion.”
This is an interesting take, especially since it is completely false. My stepson’s school has a mandir right at the entrance, all students are encouraged to pay their tribute to Goddess Saraswati as they enter. All students are made to sing Hindu prayers each morning. That was also the case when I was in school. We were taken to field trips to temples for Holi and Janmashtami, but never to a Chruch for Christmas. My Christian College had a lot of Christian ritual built into the campus culture but even they started their events with an aarti. Textbooks, especially those of “moral sciences” teach religiosity as a virtue. So it is rather convenient, and misleading, that now, when Muslim students insist on their right to practise their religion, all of a sudden, religion has no place in schools.
I actually agree. Religion does have no place in schools, but it is rather short-sighted to think banning religious symbols is the answer to that, when fostering inclusivity, a thing we did entirely by accident for decades, is more likely to make religion a non-issue in the day-to-day functioning of life. I’ve been a student. I was never bothered by my friend’s hijab or my other friend’s turban. It wasn’t my place nor did it impede my ability to focus on my education, what did impede my ability, and the ability of my classmates to focus, was when one of us, just one, was called out for their religious practise and ostracised. At that point, it was clear it wasn’t about education, but communal intolerance.
The Delhi High Court has challenged the marital rape exception in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, and while the centre deliberates, the debate online is raging. The legal debate is complex, and warranted, but the social debate is horrifying in its purview. Understand the issue better here.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
This is the story of a woman I know. Let’s call her Anita. Anita has been married for 18-years and has two children. One day, in a state of delirium, Anita called to tell me that she needed to know if there were pills she could give her husband that would ensure he couldn’t get an erection. After some discussion she revealed that he was forcing himself on a her on a nightly basis, for years, and when she resisted he accused her of cheating on him and became violent. She couldn’t take it anymore. I informed her of her rights with regard to domestic violence, and divorce, she laughed at my South-Delhi naivety about the “real” world and asked me to focus on actual solutions that were really enforceable, like drugging her husband to keep him from raping her.
Anita is not the only woman dealing with this.
Down the street from where she works, there is another woman. Let’s call her Raya. Raya was married for three years but she found that she was unhappy in her marriage. She filed for divorce, as is her right to do so. Alongside the case for divorce, her lawyer advised her to file a 498(a) case, which is the infamous well-intentioned provision that now comes as a package deal when you hire a lawyer for divorce. It is the (previously) non-baliable offence that allows women to allege harassment or abuse, and orders an immediate arrest so as to safeguard the complainant from harm or intimidation. When the divorce case between her and her husband was settled, he filed a petition to quash the 498(a) case as part of the divorce agreement, and she withdrew her complaint, successfully using the tool that exists to protect vulnerable women as a bargaining chip.
Raya is not the only woman who has done this.
Now I know, almost half of you will be angry that I told the first story, and the almost other half of you will be angry that I told the second one, but listen, how about we confront the fact that it’s enraging that I had to tell either story?
The Centre is currently contemplating a challenge to the marital rape exception in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) by the Delhi Hight Court. Section 375 of the IPC deals with rape, it details the six circumstances in which rape will be determined to have occured, and one exception. The exception is the bone of contention. It states: “Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.]”
On the face of it, that makes me angry. Apparently Indian marriage allows the type of long-term implied consent even BDSM communities look down upon. That’s jarring, and hard to process. Just like it was jarring to process the fact that the Delhi HC chose to put that question in this format: “If a sex-worker can say no, why can’t a wife?” I get your point, but surely you know that if you put it across as a question that raises its own debate, the point is almost definitely getting missed? And it has. People are angry. Half the people are angry because it does appear as if our criminal law legitimises rape within a marriage, and the other half are angry because the removal of the exception will lead to the accusation of marital rape being misused for leverage in other cases. I understand both sides of the argument, and that depresses me.
Men feel an inalienable right over the bodies of the women they marry or even, love. I am sure many women have had that one boyfriend who absolutely wants you to take off your clothes for him, but gets upset when you wear a short skirt in public. I have had that boyfriend. He took no exception to sexual intercourse occuring between us, and removing my clothes for that purpose, but whenever I wore a low-cut top out in public of my own volition, it made him angry.
“Only I should have the right to see your body,” he would say, “I love you, and I have rights over it.”
You may not have heard that verbatim, but a variation of that story, sometimes even a romanticised variation, has been heard by a wide variety of women. That’s the heart of the right men feel over the bodies of women. They’re allowed to tell their wives what’s not appropriate to wear and many women I know, like Anita, face constant pushback from their husbands over their choices to wear anything that doesn’t fit their sensibility, even something as seemingly conservative as jeans or trousers. The argument against the criminalisation of marital rape falters for me here. The idea that it would lead to the failure of the institution of marriage and threaten the rights of men is unrealistic, marriage in India has already failed as an institution, and it has especially failed its women.
Marriage is used as a mechanism of enforcement of the social expectations placed on women. The ideas that a married woman be more focused on the household than their careers, that they dress in a way that they “look” married, they bear children and take the bulk of the responsibility to raise them, that they be emancipated from their “birth” families and put them second, that they compromise their needs and emotions to adjust to that of a man (really, this list is endless) are enforced through marriage on a large scale. Marriage has already been a disadvantagous deal for women, and saying now that the expectation that men not rape within it is so disadvantagous to men that they will go on strike against marriage is the kind of overreaction women are always being accused of. Add to that the fact that hundreds of men have openly made statements about their rights to the bodies of the women they have married, it does seem like some men would like, within a loophole, the right to rape.
Morally, this issue is very easy for me to take a stand on, just because a woman is married doesn’t mean she shouldn’t have the right to say no. That’s a horrible condition to put on marriage, and doing so makes it seem already like an institution so hollow that it shouldn’t even warrant protection.
There is law and its impact to consider here. Even if the absence of evidence fails to convict the accused (which shouldn’t be hard given that over 65% of sexual assault cases lead to an acquittal), being arrested and tried for a crime can itself damage the reputation, livelihood and mental health of a person. It is not a notion that this law could be exploited in divorce cases or property divorces, we have already seen that happen with 498(a), and it was that very exploitation that led to 489(a) being amended in recent years. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “women take advantage of the laws made for them” as is so popular to do nowadays, I will say, most lawyers I know who work on divorce cases will agree that it’s common to file and fight this case alongside a divorce case.
And therein lies the actual problem.
The women that these laws are made to protect aren’t able to access them, and the ones who can, don’t always use them with honour. I know my feminist card can be revoked for saying that, but I’m in the business of truth, not agenda politics, and both sides of this story are true, because the laws in India govern all people on its soil, but all people on its soil don’t actually live in one country. There is the country Anita lives in, where drugging her husband to avoid being raped is more plausible and sensible than pressing charges or getting divorced, and a vast majority of women live in this country. There is the country Raya lives in, where if an additional cases helps her chances of getting a higher settlement, why not file it? So the question really comes down to which side has more victims, and it’s the women’s side, that’s why 498(a) was instituted in the first place because the women who take “advantage” are few, and the women who need protection are many. I don’t believe the law will be deliberated in this light but the discussion surrounding it is really about this — Will more men be victimized by this or more women be saved by it?
I don’t know, and I hate that the heart of the discussion is found here, in weighing the value of people’s lives and trauma to see who warrants protection. I will say, though, that in my experience, the women who need such laws (like 498(a)) are held back by society from availing them and the men who are victimized by these laws are sometimes ones who did nothing wrong. Ultimately, I have no say over the law, and I can only hope that any law we institute places higher focus on diligent, judicious enforcement than anything else, but the discussion surrounding marital rape, which is louder now than ever before, seems dangerously polarized. The institution of marriage itself is apparently under threat, and to me it seems that it may be the institution of marriage that should be on trial in the first place.
The idea that a marriage be built on the inalienable right of one partner over the body of another is why this issue is so polarized, because there are real victims, women, who every day have to face a violent reality where they have no agency and no recourse. To stand in defence of an institution that upholds that seems dishonorable, to do it because some women may take advantage of it seems demeaning to the victims and completely ignorant of the fact that marriage has extended advantages to men at the cost of women for centuries. That Indian society treats marriage like the all-ecompassing rug under which it is accept to house all women’s trauma under the garb of marital duty is the notion that we should be challenging. Whether marital rape be criminalised is a question of law over which we as yet have little control, but if your only argument against it is that hypothetical men will be victimized in the future, one must ask, why don’t you have any compassion for the real victims who already exist? Are you saying we must continue to protect men under the garb of marriage at the cost of women? Could that be why we cannot make a single law and expect it to benefit all of society?
It may be time to put the social structure of India under trail, because it has created too many monsters for a single penal code to govern.
To decide if a woman should be allowed to speak, we excavate her morality. If she says she was raped, we talk about her multiple sexual partners and how that makes her story implausible. When she says she was harassed, we talk about the fact that she drinks alcohol. When I spoke about the army, they asked how a “modern” bisexual woman could possibly be believed? But I ask, does the truth change when an “immoral” woman speaks it?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
A few years ago I wrote a series of pieces about abortions. While some of the pieces were about the laws and medical processes involved in choosing to undergo a medical or surgical termination of pregnancy, a few others were about my personal experience with abortion. I wrote the personal pieces because the doctor I had seen not only shamed me for my choices but refused to prescribe a pain-killer because they believed that “some things should hurt” and I wanted to draw attention to the fact that even when availing a right that our government not only provides but encourages, women will be shamed. We are the battle-ground for both population control and population expansion, and we’ll be damned for doing both.
Those pieces were published on several news platforms, and such is my writing-style that they contained a lot of information about me. I’m a storyteller first and a colourful one at that (which is ironic given that my closet is just a mass of black fabric), but more importantly, I believe it is important to never misrepresent yourself. I could have painted a tragic figure of myself, believably too, I could have represented myself as a poor, helpless woman who had no choice but to abort her child and who suffered greatly from the immorality of her decision. I cannot do that, because that is insulting to that woman. I was honest. I’m a deeply-privileged, independent, English-speaking Indian woman who can access healthcare with ease. My abortion was entirely my choice, safely-accessible and easily-affordable. I had no economic or biological reason for not being able to bear a child, I didn’t want one, especially one that resulted from contraceptive failure. And while it was both physically and emotionally substantial, I never regretted my decision, nor did i suffer any mental or emotional fallout from it. I wrote about it, using myself as the centre of the discussion, just so I could demonstrate the medio-social environment to which women are exposed.
But it made people angry.
They weren’t angry because I informed women of their rights, they weren’t angry because I explained what misoprostal does, they weren’t even angry because I questioned the unequal access women of different socio-economic strata have to gynaecologists, no, they were angry because I didn’t play the role of the tragic woman. I had the audacity to openly admit that I, a young woman, had sex and lived freely, nor did I have a grave moral struggle post termination, but I still wanted rights and dignity. They were angry because I was doing the “wrong” thing and still complaining We don’t like it when women do that. Women have to be socially and morally perfect in order to demand justice.
When women accuse powerful men of rape, we ask how a woman who has multiple sexual partners can even be raped. When women are victims of mass-molestations in big “safe” cities, we ask why parents let their daughters out so late at night in little skirts. When women demand that they have curfews as late as men in hostels, we accuse them of wanting to engage in immorality and put bars on the windows. We create a mire of social-shame that is so encompassing that it becomes shocking when a woman actually speaks out about real-life experiences without dressing them up in socially-acceptable womanliness. Women behave in accordance with the norms set for us not because we are not allowed to deviate, but because the deviation will be put under a scanner if something goes wrong, and we will be found lacking. You don’t get to complain about being called a slut, if you are sexually-active. You don’t get to complain about being raped, if you had a drink that night. You don’t get to complain about being harassed by a doctor, if you had the audacity to choose an abortion.
If i had written my abortion-pieces in a different voice, and drawn attention to the emotional turmoil I faced and the helpless lack of options to which I was subject, the response would have been different. I didn’t do that because if I had, I would be playing up their narrative and in the interest of making more women’s horror stories believable, we have to change the monolithic view of victims. Victims are not the chaste, statuesque bastions of morality that don’t really exist. You cannot turn us into pillars of salt because we looked back at Sodom. We cannot fix anything if we continue only to find fault in the complainant, especially when the fault we are looking for is a lapse in character, and literally anything less than ideal will be exposed, and punished.
Recently, I wrote a piece about the culture of sexism and labour-exploitation that has been allowed to foster within the unofficial ranks of spouses of army personnel. The backlash was swift and unrelenting, and still continuing, and you know what? That’s fine! I know people, even in real-life, who don’t agree with my view on this social environment. Just like I also know people who have experienced similar or worse situations. The essence of discourse is that all sides must be allowed their say. That’s great, but what’s not so great is personal attacks and holding my character as evidence against my allegations. Surely, you can draw attention to the great things your organisation does, and good on you for doing them, we could all stand to do more in a world so lacking in compassion, but how does it help to draw attention to the fact that I am bisexual or that i believe in the “live in” lifestyle?
It’s the same thing. The essence of all of this is the same, you do not believe that I am moral enough to be allowed a voice, and that is a sinister form of censorship that seeks to destroy the voice even before it has had the chance to speak. Everytime a woman speaks, we go digging for the skeletons in her closet. That realisation was enough to scare me into a life of truth-telling, think of me as a foul-mouthed Gandhi, I tell the complete truth about myself so that no one can ever attack me for it. The people who engaged with me believing that they could use the fact that I am bisexual, progressive or polyamorous to prove that I am wrong and lying, what did you hope to accomplish? You only know those things about me, because I told you. I refuse to be enslaved by the burden of a reputation. You know who else did that? Kamala Das. Ismat Chughtai. Rokeya Sultana, Amrita Pritam. Those women, the ones you quote on your Facebook profiles, you would have crucified them every day if they lived amongst you.
But your hatred of me doesn’t change facts.
Me, i am irrelevant. I am one person and that barely matters to the world in the grand scheme of things. Ignore me. Sully me. Scare me. It’s really all okay with me, I don’t take the world so seriously, levity is my religion.
For the sake of the day that your daughter may have some truth to tell and you find her life being excavated for immorality so she can be credibly disbelieved, learn to be more analytical. The bisexuality of a woman doesn’t mean that there is no wage-gap. The fact that a woman drinks alcohol, doesn’t mean she wasn’t really sexually-harassed. The fact that a woman lives alone, doesn’t mean she deserves to be attacked. The fact that I was once (actually, twice) an unmarried woman who lived with a man, does not mean an institution couldn’t possibly have issues of sexism it needs to deal with. Those things are unrelated.
Please, by all means, attack my ideas, but if you are attacking me, what are you hoping to accomplish? You cannot silence me by citing things I already know about myself. I’m a bit much, I get it. My writing was hard to digest for some, I get that too, because I know it somehow reads different in curated social context, and even if you witnessed some of those things, they don’t quite read the same, and that makes you angry. I get it. It’s okay. It’s not okay to think attacking me changes the truth. You’re at liberty to not believe me, but please don’t do it because I am bisexual. What does that have to do with it?
Outspoken women who call out the patriarchy, lodge frequent complaints and seem to have an endless repository of stories to demonstrate casual sexism are often referred to as “problematic” but have you ever wondered where problematic women are made? Where do we come from?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
When I was fourteen years old, I punched a man. I was in the park, minding my own business, when a man approached me. He put his arm around me and squeezed the side of my breast.
“Come,” he said, “Let’s have sex.”
I had been harassed in the street before, I had even been touched by men before, but this was the first time it had been so overt, and so proximal. I gestured to him to follow me, and took ten steps to the side where no one could see us before punching him in the face as hard as i could. He fell down. When he stood up, his nose was bleeding, and he was crying.
“Do you want to have sex now?” I asked him.
He ran away. I was extremely proud of myself that day, and I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my family what I had done, but as soon as I did, my mother got mad at me. She told me not to do that again, and not to leave the house by myself for a few days.
“Aarushi you don’t know what men are capable of when they are angry,” she explained to me, “What if he brings a bunch of guys and has you picked up? Please, if someone is bothering you, just walk away.”
I know my mother had good intentions, it was her duty to protect me and she did what she had to do to ensure I wasn’t raped and killed in the back of a van, but all I could think about was the timeline of events. A man touched me, asked me to have sex with him, I punched him to defend myself, and somehow, I was the one being admonished and punished? How come no one wanted to call the police and find the guy? The next day my mother discussed the incident with a woman who lived in our neighbourhood.
“You should keep a check on what she wears,” the woman said to my mom, “She wears that little pink top, and she is getting older, you know boys cant help but look at that…”
My mother drew the line at policing my clothes but I heard her friend make that comment. It made no sense to me. I was expecting to be feted, to have a little plaque made for me and to receive congratulatory flowers from at least a dozen admirers (i’ve always been a little more dramatic than necessary), instead, everyone seemed to think I had done something wrong! Little did I know that the responses I received to that incident were excellent training for being an adult woman.
Ask any half-woke, social media aficionado of any age, and they’ll tell you, with confidence, that “victim-blaming” is wrong. It’s easy to say that because those words are impersonal and conceptual, it’s easy to condemn a theory, but everything is murkier when details and real-people are involved. Victim-blaming is rampant and most people who engage in it, don’t believe that is what they are doing. They’ll tell you that they agree that you have the right to wear what you want but you have to aware of the reality, and the reality is that your skirt could get you raped. They’re not entirely wrong, it is not the fault of what you wear, it’s still the fault of the person who believes your skirt means that you are easy but the fact that there are people who believe your morality resides in your modesty is still rooted in this culture of victim-blaming.
It’s because the culture exists even in the absence of a victim. As a society, we reserve the right to perform an autopsy on the morality of a woman before we decide whether she is upstanding enough to be believed. The amount of “sympathy” you get is directly linked to how chaste, virtuous and pure you are, and you may think this doesn’t matter, but in a society where this thought-process is pervasive, the predators are aware of it too. They know that they can touch certain women, stalk certain women, make inappropriate comments because they know that no one will believe us, and if they do believe us, they will put our characters under the scanner before they decide whether we deserved it. The idea that when a women tells a story of harassment, you should approach with caution and probably only believe half of it, is part of that culture. I realised that when I was fourteen, and the other thing I realised was that I would never get anywhere by punching predators. I had to learn to make noise, and I had to do that even when no incident had just occured.
I became a noisy woman.
I educated myself on the issues that women face, and on the work that they had done before my time. I learnt big words and I began talking to every woman I met about their lives, their social environments, their relationships, the restrictions placed on them, their dreams and their issues. Essentially, it was in my teenage years that I really became a journalist, when I developed the habit of asking more questions than I answered. I realised that people trusted me with their stories, and the main reason for that was I wasn’t going to tell them they were wrong, I wasn’t going to judge them and I wasn’t going to shame them for what they experienced. I discovered the great burden of guilt and shame that women, all women, carry within ourselves for the things that have happened to us through our lives, and while it is very easy to tell women to “report it” providing an environment where it is safe and possible to do so is much harder.
That’s why we need noisy women.
I am not delusional, I face a lot of criticism for the noise I make, and I see all the other women who face the same criticism. We’re dubbed “problematic.” However before you turn around and call the woman who just made a sexual harassment complaint at your workplace “problematic,” let’s explore that word and why it exists. Who, exactly, is a problematic woman? Why does this term exist?
It exists because, socially, you except women to do things quietly. Did you know that the majority of women don’t scream when they’re accosted or assaulted? A study found that if teenage girls were taught to scream, the incidence of sexual assault would actually decrease. That’s how deeply engrained the silence really is. I complained about a gynaecologist who aggressively shamed me for having an abortion, and when I told someone that I had written a letter to the head of the hospital, they asked me, “Why couldn’t you have just brought this issue to me? We could have resolved it privately.” We encourage women to handle their issues discretely, and we are able to do that because the promise that raising a stink will only lead to the assassination of your character holds water.
So the term problematic woman exists to describe the women who wont adhere to that social condition.
It exists because you weigh the woman’s character to estimate the weight her words should carry. If she’s an independent, outspoken woman who drinks alcohol, swears, wears dresses, fraternises with men, then how can you believe anything she says? She’s fundamentally too immoral to protect from the vicissitudes of violent misogyny. I’ve always said India loves a dead victim, because a dead victim cannot speak, and has no personhood, and we can stand for that. You have to die to be virtuous enough to be believed.
So the term problematic woman exists because we’re alive, and we’re not indoctrinated into the dystopia of “Indian culture,” yet we speak as if women have rights and autonomy.
It exists because we’d rather skip past reparation and pretend we fixed women’s rights by celebrating Women’s day. People tell me all the time that things are better for women now even as women from “educated” families continue to tell me about being beaten at home, young girls continue to be told to adhere to gender norms right in front of me, ministers continue to ask why women were out at night if they didn’t want to be raped, the Supreme Court keeps offering rape victims in marriage to perpetrators but none of that is supposed to matter because, come on, we have Women’s Day!
So the term problematic woman exists because we won’t take what we’re given, and we insist that the actual issues be exposed and talked about.
It exists because you have taught women to examine their own behaviour and accept that of men as the way of the world. My ex-boyfriend used to violently assault me, and when I finally spoke out about it, I was asked a series on insane questions. A woman asked me if it was “real” abuse, or did he just like “shove me a little”. His mother suggested I meditate to stop invoking his ire. We’re taught to correct ourselves for the mistakes of men, much like driving in most Indian cities, you’re not looking out to avoid mistakes of your own, you’re looking out to ensure that you can predict the mistakes of other drivers on the road.
So the term problematic woman exists because we refuse to take responsibility for your actions, we refuse to admit that I must have done something to deserve it.
It exists because, fundamentally, we do not believe in a woman’s right to be anything less than perfectly accomodating. It exists because you know that one girl who took advantage of 489(a) and therefore you have concluded that women now take advantage, never mind the fact that you drive 20-kms out of Delhi and the ghoonghats get as long as the list of rules women have to follow. The term “problematic women” exists because the alternative would be to admit that we live in a fundamentally problematic society. One where after a fourteen-year old defends herself against an attack, she has to be hidden inside the house and covered from head to toe to avoid a second, more violent attack.
And I know what they say. I should find peace within myself. It’s all a matter of perspective. Things are getting better. I get it. People tell me all the time that I am critical and negative. Problematic women are negative and go looking for problems, and I admit it, I do go looking for problems, that’s on me, but the fact that I find them is on you.
I wrote a piece about the unfortunate harassment and exploitation, “army wives” face as a result of the structure of the organisation. That piece got a lot of attention, and a lot of people asked what we can do to make it better. This is what you can do.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
I wrote a piece about the Indian Army. More specifically, I wrote a piece about how women who are married to army officers and men are treated by the army, and how our labour is exploited in the interest of service to the organisation through arbitrary hierarchies and AWWA. I am not sure what caused it but the post blew up, I had over 20,000 views on my website on that one post alone. I don’t normally write follow-up posts, but I am writing this for one reason only, I called for action, and it would be rather useless to do so if I didn’t offer constructive solutions, and so I will do so in detail.
Before I do that, I want to thank all the women (and of course, the men) who have reached out to me to share their own stories, offer their support and validate my feelings. The ones who felt the need to apologise for not being able to support me publically, please don’t, if I didn’t understand how noxious this mire of promotions, ACRs and social backlash can be, i wouldn’t have needed to write that post. I stand for you today because I am able to do so, and you can stand for me someday when you are able to do so, and even if you are not, it doesn’t matter, we’re on the same team and we all fight in different ways. To all the men (and it was mostly men) who felt the need to attack me whether that was here, on Instagram, on Facebook or Twitter, thank you. Honestly, i wouldn’t have any content without you guys. I would encourage you, though, to take a moment and wonder exactly where you get the confidence to invalidate a woman’s life experience when you have exactly no experience at being a woman. Have you found it? That’s called male privilege. To the people who pointed out to me that while it is good to raise problems, i should also offer solutions, you are right, and I am here to do exactly that. To the people on WhatsApp groups, bitching at me and saying the kind of dirty, disgusting things you pretend you’re all above (yeah, people did send me those screenshots, oops), be better than this. Seriously, if something has the potential to make you feel sick at yourself a year later, don’t do it today, don’t sully your soul, that muck doesn’t wash off so easy.
Please understand that the intention behind sharing stories, especially personal narratives, is to bring to the fore issues that are silently faced by thousands, if not lakhs of people. I stand by everything I wrote, and every single thing I wrote was the truth too, and believe me, the stories I shared were tame compared to the true details because the point was not shock value, it was to draw attention to issues. If I were going for shock value, those stories would have been a lot more shocking.
Now, as i promised, because many people, and some of them rather accusatory, asked me to share my “great” ideas on how to do things better. I have no great ideas, no pompous ideological speeches, no whataboutism, I don’t have your tools, but I do have concrete, everyday suggestions on what you can do to make the lives of women, specifically those married to army officers, better. You can take them if you like, and you can ignore them if you prefer, but if you do actually agree that there is a problem, this is how you start to fix it.
I understand that referring to women as ma’am may be part of your culture, and honestly, it’s fine. It’s fine if you actually know and enquired my name. Don’t assume I am Mrs. Husband’s Name (not all women change their maiden names), don’t use ma’am as an excuse not to acknowledge me as a human being, don’t reduce my identity. That’s what it is about. It’s about identity. You may think who cares so much about a name, but the reduction of a woman’s identity to that of her husband or father is the beginning of a lifetime of reduction. Don’t participate in that. Does it hurt you to acknowledge a woman as a person and ask her what her name is? Does it hurt you to honour a woman’s request to be referred to by her name? It’s not exactly respectful to dishonour a person’s wishes to uphold your tradition. Where is the chivalry in that?
Notice and challenge the unnecessary hierarchy amongst women on a daily basis. See, marrying an army person is not joining the army. We are not subject to its hierarchy, and an alternate hierarchy is ultimately always detrimental to the organisation. Don’t foster it. Women don’t need to refer to one another as ma’am, pander to one another or act within a hierarchy. It’s not our job here. It may be in our offices, but we get paid for that.
If you must organise women’s events, stop using them to patronize or infantalize women. Believe me, from a Jawan’s wife to a Colonel’s wife, I’ve offered my ear to everyone who wanted to complain about welfare meets and rangoli-making, and almost everyone hates these events because they are problematic. Women don’t need to learn to make rangoli, if they want to do that, they’ll find a way to do it at home. If you want welfare, have seminars on women’s rights, women’s policy, world politics, job skills, freelancing opportunities, healthcare. If you can’t hire professionals to teach those things, post open calls amongst army circles for people who have the professional skill to VOLUNTEER to teach them. I would do it, I have done it in the past, and it went well too. This idea that women are only interested in colour, beauty, clothes and decoration is dated, let it go.
Seriously, enough with the dress codes. We are adults. We know not to show up in pajamas at a dinner party. Imposing the saree culture on women is doing two horrible things: it’s making people hate sarees and it’s perpetuating a single-minded idea of beauty and femininity. We don’t need this. Women aren’t decor pieces. If they want to wear sarees, they will. If they don’t, why do they have to? Who does this really help?
Also, enough with the jokes. I went to this super formal event last year, and as part of it, a man did a stand up bit. All the jokes were about wives and army wives and their inane priorities. When I asked the man who performed later why all his jokes were so sexist, he said: Why do women have to take everything so seriously? Well, because you won’t stop pushing us into a corner and then making fun of us for being in a corner. If you hate your wife, why are you married? If women’s interests are so benign to you, why are you so invested in controlling us? It’s not okay to sterotype and typecast women, we’re all different. Besides, punching down is frowned upon.
It is not okay to threaten women and hold their husbands’ careers hostage to get them to behave how you want. You cannot even justify it, so instead we deny that this happens even though everybody knows. Just don’t do it. It’s a question of integrity, I cannot make you have it, but if you want to get on a high horse, get on a moral one.
Stop passing orders to women through their husbands. If you want something from me, talk to me. I am not your employee, and nor am I an employee of my husband. Ask me for what you need, give me a choice, and if I am able to help, I certainly will. Anyone would.
Stop assuming all women are free all the time. The truth is that no women are free. We’re all busy. If we’re not working, we’re running households, raising families and fostering communities. We’re not available to abandon that whenever it is expected. Ask. Just ask if people have the time to contribute in some way. You’ll be surprised at how many chores turn into pleasure when you have a choice in the matter.
Encourage and understand childcare responsibilities that may fall on the fathers. Don’t assume all the work is for the mothers to do and disallow your employees from being good and available fathers when they are physically able to do so.
Offer women drinks at parties. It’s not about alcohol, it’s about being acknowledged as having a choice. Agency is a big part of the feminist movement because the reduction of agency is where a woman’s crumbling autonomy begins.
Don’t engage in malice against women. Be brave, shut it down, refuse to engage. When a woman’s character is being questioned in front you, shut it down. When lady bosses are being maligned, refuse to participate. Check your own biases. Refuse to gossip about this guy’s wife and that woman’s clothes. You are better than this. I have never faced gossip as malicious as I have in the army and almost all of it for marrying a divorced man and being a step-mom. Is this who we want to be? I hear the same people tell their daughters to achieve their goals and shoot for the stars, as they judge wives for being outspoken. Men assume I will just sleep with anyone and cheat on my husband because I smoke cigarettes and make jokes with dudes, is this who we want to be? Have the courage to stop it when a woman is being maligned right it front of you. Don’t participate.
Open a channel of communication where people can come to you for help, no matter who you are. I value community more than anything in the world, which is why it is especially disheartening that the army which is designed to foster community is using it in such a dystopian fashion. I have made amazing connection through the army from jawans, to officers, to spouses, to the dogs being raised by the guards at every gate, and I was able to do this because i speak honestly and freely with people. They can come to me, and i will go to them, as a human being. I will help people, and I will listen to people, even when I don’t like them or when doing things for them will have no “benefit” for me. Help people, without the math of what the proper thing to do is. Watch people’s kids, help someone with a job application, tutor someone, talk to someone because they are worried about their family back home, invite those who live alone over so they feel like they have a support system, reach out to someone going through a divorce. All those wholesome things that the army loves to pretend they are about, do them. They are wonderful.
If you are a woman, refuse to hate on other women. It’s a choice. Make it.
These are not structural solutions so the argument that they cannot be implemented because of red tape does not apply. These are things you can actually do, on a daily basis.
The Indian Army is one of those untouchable bastions that cannot be criticized because, “Siachen me humare jawaan ladh rahe hai, but it has a long history of treating women like they’re entitled to our labour. AWWA, an NGO that officially is to have no bearing on the functioning of the army is used to pressure women into participating in norms and traditions like they’re law. How long as we expected to bear that with silence?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
When I married an officer of the Indian Army, I thought nothing of it. The way I saw it, I met a man I really liked, we had twelve beers together and promptly fell in love. A few months later, he told me that he would soon be posted out of Delhi, and would have to move to another part of the country. Given that my job involved a lot of travel and a lot of working from home/trains, and very little office time, I decided to move with him and just travel to Delhi a couple of times each month. We were not married at the time, so we rented an apartment outside the cantonement, got a cat and resolved to live happily ever after. I didn’t envision that we would ever need to get married, since we already had a lease, joint expenses, pets and even a child (his son from a previous marriage). Marriage seemed redundant at that point, nor was it something I had ever planned on doing in my life, but three years after we moved in together, we did get married.
We married for a purely administrative reason. My husband is employed by the Indian Armed Forces, and he was going to get a field posting, which meant that if I were to reside with him inside a cantonement, I had to be his wife. Notwithstanding the staggering amount of control the government can exert upon a person’s decision to marry, I was okay with doing it. I do love my partner dearly, and signing some papers didn’t really mean anything to me; it had no bearing on my life whatsoever, nothing was going to change. In some ways, I was right, nothing really changed in my relationship with my family, nor was my identity influenced by the fact that I took out an ad in two papers and went to court one day (and then again one month later because the Special Marriage Act will not be denied its theatre). In some other ways, though, I was wrong. Marriage may not have changed who I am to myself, and my people, but unbeknownst to me I became, overnight, an army wife.
That term in itself is so problematic, and I refuse to use it to refer to any women who are married to army officers, at least until my husband is also referred to a “journalist husband”, but people call me that all the time, and no matter how often I check them, they see it as a childish tantrum that I will grow out of eventually. It’s not a tantrum, and there is nothing childish about it, the army denies that it has a culture sexism and sexual harassment, but it exists, and it begins with erasure. The first thing I noticed in the social environment of the army is that I have no name. I’m either “ma’am” or Mrs. “Insert Husband’s Name”. I’m supposed to think this is not a big deal, but let me tell you what happened at a Father’s Day celebration that I helped the neighborhood kids to put on one March. The children had just finished their performance and one of their fathers came to thank me for helping them. He called me Mrs. “My Husband’s Name”. I corrected him, I hadn’t changed my name after I got married, nor is my first name expected to be my husband’s name. I explained as much.
“It doesn’t matter what you say,” he said, laughing, “I’ve been in this organisation for 25-years, this is our tradition.”
“Be that as it may,” I told him because I talk like a textbook, “It is my name and your traditions don’t get to decide my name.”
Past this point in the conversation, he only addressed my husband, explaining to him that “young wives” take time to learn the ways of the organisation, and soon I would understand that my name is just Ma’am. By that point, I had already been dubbed a “problematic” woman, and I was used to this kind of discourse. The attempts to bring me in line started almost as soon as we married and I was presented with a saree, some sindoor and red bangles as a present (with no concern to the fact that I am not Hindu), and the advice to read a manual called “Married To The Olive Greens” that contains within it “guidelines” on how to behave as an army wife. Unfortunately for them, I actually read it (and they could have used a proof-reader), and then the proceeded to do as much research as I could about AWWA.
AWWA, or the Army Wives Welfare Organisation, is often called “the invisible hand” of the army, a fitting moniker, given that women are invisible to the army unless employed by it, but it is not a part of the structure of the Indian Army. In fact, in 2009, the CIC (Central Information Commission) ruled that AWWA is an NGO, and has no bearing on the running, nor is any way a part of the Indian Army. Their headquarters were shifted out of the army headquarters in Delhi, and moved to an AWWA hostel, and they clarified that they function only at the Corps level, and at lower levels, an offshoot, the Family Welfare Organisation (FWO) takes rein. Participation in AWWA or welfare activities is, on paper, purely voluntary and also on paper, has no bearing on your partner’s career. When in doubt, I believe the papers over what human beings tell me any day.
Because in reality, I was told that participation in welfare activities was mandatory, and if I didn’t do it “it would impact my husband’s career”. Welfare is a charitable word to describe the actual ongoings, because in the past three years, in the name of welfare, all I have seen is women forced to dress up in sarees, perform dances and songs, play tambola, make jewellery out of vegetables as “skill building,” conduct various festival themed prayers and one bizarre fashion show meets presentation about panchtatva that I am still recovering from. To me, this is a very accurate portrait of what the army thinks women are — creatures that like to play dress up, drink tea over gossip and engage themselves with “womanly” subjects like god, jewellery, children and housework. Not to mention that the women this “welfare” is done for are easily as qualified as any of the officer’s wives, and are just as uninterested in this theatre as the rest of us. They just cannot say it. Hell, we are not supposed to say it either. Knuckle under and pretend the social environment of the army is amazing, that’s the order of the day.
But I cannot.
When I first got married, I was asked to participate in one of these meets. They asked if there was a specific topic I would be interested in teaching, and being the eager community-builder that I am, I was happy to have a talk on women’s rights and raising children in a violent, misogynistic world. The day of the presentation I cane straight from a meeting, I was wearing a suit (as in trousers, a coat and a shirt), I thought nothing of it since the invitation said “formals” and I don’t own clothes more formal than that. I made my presentation, and it went well. The next day my husband was called into a meeting to discuss why I wasn’t in a saree. Let that sink in for a moment. The conclusion from a women’s rights seminar was that the presenter should have worn a specific garment that has been normatively mandated for women. So severe is this need to dress women as they should be dressed, that once when approached to teach yoga (because I have a long-standing practice), the question they felt really needed to be asked was: “But how will women do yoga in sarees?” That was the big concern, and the reason they decided they shouldn’t do this. They couldn’t fathom what else a woman could possibly wear.
The social backlash and conditioning is intense. Women aren’t supposed to go to the bar and ask for a drink, lest they be judged by the “senior” ladies. If they must drink, it must be brought to them by a man, and it best be wine because that is the only lady-approved drink. Men and women must socialize in separate circles, even when at the same party, and a woman engaging in conversation with a man immediately gets the reputation of being loose (and that will later be used in a case against her character should she raise complaints about someone else’s behaviour). I have personally been asked by a man twice my age who has no business in my social life, why I went out alone at night and came back at 2 AM and how my husband was okay with it. He then asked my husband when I told him his question was inappropriate.
Even if I ignore all of the social aspects of this, and chalk them up to “tradition” gone bad, there are two things I cannot ignore. Part of the worst of it is still the expectation of free labour on part of the women married to army officers and jawans. You are expected to participate in and arrange activities mandated by AWWA, and refusal to do so is met with orders being sent to you through your husband as if you are an employee of both, your partner, and the Indian Army. I am being asked to teach English lessons, and while I am perfectly capable of doing so and fairly inclined towards social service, I cannot do it for a photo-op nor can I do it for an organisation that makes a habit of soliciting free labour. This is not about me as a person, it is about the fact that if you have the money to build fountains, buy plaques six times a year, have regular fashion shows, you also have the money to hire actual teachers. The exploitation of women in the form of free labour is rampant across fields from domestic work to agriculture to labour, and yes, to the Indian army. The idea that I must possess a kindness and generosity that is lacking in men, that makes me more amenable to social work, that I must have the time to do because women don’t actually have jobs, is at its heart, a sinister notion perpetuated by people who on Facebook celebrate the strength and power of their daughters on Women’s Day. The just aren’t prepared for women to whom feminism and women’s liberty is not as much hobby or hashtag as it is a daily reality. They aren’t prepared for women who have jobs, and cannot be available to them as dolls who play dress-up in fluent English.
I suffer for it, and that’s okay, because when I decided to fight for my rights, I knew it was war and in war, you get hurt, but you don’t back down. So, i’m used to the idea that I am “modern” which means immoral, the idea that I am “problematic” which means I will call a spade a spade out loud, I’m used to the idea that I am “weird” which means that I refuse to let go of my childish ideas of equality and just while away my time on social media calling women goddesses. I’m used to all that, but the other thing I won’t get used to, is men in the army sexually harassing me. Of course the army would never agree with this, after all they are bastion of chivalry and respecting women, and they would rather draw attention to my drinking, smoking, friendships with men and low cut dresses. I have no problem admitting I do all of those things, that doesn’t change the fact that in three years I have accumulated a dozen stories of sexual harassment, and the bulk of them are about “senior” officers in the organisation. In fact, I only have two stories involving a jawan, and usually the argument they make for keeping women out of the troops is that the jawans cannot handle it. I call bullshit, it’s them, the men in ranks, who cannot handle a woman who takes charge so they use every tool available to them to keep us behaving in a way that is amenable to the organisation.
Well, no. I won’t. I won’t do it, and if I have to be the one to suffer backlash and only gain silent support from other women who are scared to speak out loud. It’s not their fault, you cannot survive speaking out against the army because “Siachen me humare jawan khade hain” and while I have nothing but respect for the martyrdom and work of our soldiers that cannot be a reason to hold others in silence. I will not rest in silence. I have no traditions, but what I do have, is an iron-clad armour of principles, and an understanding that in the wars you do not win, you die. I am fine with that. I know the intensity of the beast I am fighting, the army is just one part of the patriarchy.
Whenever I hear allegations of domestic violence or abuse, I immediately believe the woman. Some people call that a bias, and it may well be, but based on my experience of the culture of intimate partner violence my decision seems reasonable to me. However when the law applies the same benefit of the doubt and begins to aid entrapment, am I less of a feminist for wanting to discuss it? Even when I know it is true, why is it so hard to admit that women can be wrong too? We discuss in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
“So a woman can never be the one who is wrong?” He asked.
That’s not what I had said, but I could see why he would think it based on the discussion we had just had. He was telling me about some friends of his who are getting divorced, and the woman has alleged that she was abused by the man, and even though she claims she has evidence she will not present it to the court. He told me that he doesn’t believe her based on the fact that he knows them both well and he thinks she is more likely to lie than he is to beat her. I told him that I do believe her because she’s a woman. If both of our statements seem somewhat unconscionable, it’s because they are. If both our statements seem somewhat reasonable, that is also because they are.
In an ideal scenario, the fact that my friend knows these people, should mean that he be the expert on them in a conversation between the two of us. After all, I don’t even know their names, how could I possibly know what happened? On the other hand, I do know the magnitude of the prevalence of domestic violence, especially in India. Almost all my female friends have been in abusive relationships, most of the older women in my life have been abused, I have been abused, I’ve worked on women’s issues for a long time and I have met many women who were abused, yet I know almost no women who were believed. The conviction rate for domestic violence is abysmal and the reporting of it is almost non-existent, most often it only comes up legally in cases of divorce. I also know the culture of silence that surrounds this issue, and how it is aided by the normalisation of violent and abusive male behaviour in households. A lot of times men will tell me what they are being accused of, and they cannot fathom how they are wrong, even though it is quite clear to me, and the law. When you know dozens of other people who behave exactly as you do with impunity, it is hard to see how your behaviour could possibly be wrong, or worse, actionable.
And so, I believe women, and statistically, I think my decision makes sense. When there’s a 95% chance I am right to believe women, I am willing to risk the 5% chance that I may be wrong. However, this is the part where it gets a little murky and I begin to see my friend’s point. Does that mean women can never be wrong? Is that what I believe?
There are lesser known facts that we are less willing to discuss, and I admit that I try not discuss them either because I worry about my words coming off as a betrayal to feminism and the women’s movement, and more importantly, I worry that discussing these things will further in the minds of people the idea that “modern women” are the reason why more marriages than ever have started to end in India (but please, remember, it’s still just 1% of Indian marriages that end in divorce, and that is a whole other issue). If you belong to a certain socially-liberal section of society, I’m sure you have heard someone say in the past decade that women take advantage of the laws available for their protection to trap men. I don’t want to agree with that position at all, especially out of context like this, but the truth is, I’ve seen it happen.
If you are a woman anticipating a contentious divorce and you go to a divorce lawyer, they will immediately suggest that you file 498A (that is, the husband or any relative of the husband subjecting the woman to any cruelty including dowry harassment). For a while 498A was a non-bailable offense (it is not quite so anymore), and the mere allegation (without any evidence) could get you arrested. I understand why it existed, and it makes sense, because women are so unlikely to be believed, and endangered after they make allegations of abuse, it made sense to provide them with a tool that could ensure their safety as soon as they reported the abuse. However 498A has been abused by divorce lawyers, women are advised to file it immediately, regardless of whether anything happened (and again, this is not to say that in the majority of cases, it probably did). It’s not that, it’s the nature of use of this law. Once in conversation with a lawyer who was representing my husband during his divorce from his former wife, I asked him some questions about 498A, and whether those cases are ever heard to conclusion.
“Rarely,” he said, “This is a tool for negotiation, everyone files it now.”
It makes sense, from a legal point of view, if you wish to secure for your client a sizeable alimony (which, again, is something a lot of women need and should be able to avail to be able to leave bad marriages), you have to weaken the opponent into needing to negotiate to have the case against him dropped. The contrary is also true. Another friend of mine when attempting to get divorced was asked by her lawyer to file the same case, and tell emotional stories of abuse, she refused to do it because she didn’t want to lie, because even though there had been abandonment in that marriage, there had not been anything that met the stipulations of 498A according to her. Her lawyer told her that didn’t really matter, but she refused to budge, and so while she did get divorced, she got nothing (and to the extent that she didn’t even get her own stuff back). She had no bargaining chip.
When my husband divorced his former wife, he had the same case on him. As part of the divorce settlement, it was agreed that he would pay her a certain amount of money, and she would drop the case against him. To me that’s an indication that the case was filed only to secure the divorce, and it being dropped as part of the legal (and ratified by the court) stipulations of the divorce indicates that by all measures, it is acceptable to use this as a means to other ends, and I find that problematic. I just don’t know how to phrase it without indicating that this is what all women do, because it’s not. By nature of my life, my friends all belong to the same “class” of people, they are socially-liberal, reasonably privileged, fairly independent, mostly well-employed, city-dwelling individuals, and often the voices from that circle are reflected most strongly in social discourse, even when they aren’t the norm. That’s also the reason why we are so eager to believe the patriarchy has been fixed now. We hear it loudly from some people, and even when it doesn’t reflect in our lives, we think maybe we are the exception. There is, however, a certain section of society that is more well-versed in the proceedings of divorce law, and those are the people who tend to use this tool the most, and they in no way reflect the majority.
And so I face this conundrum.
On the one hand there exist around me, silenced women who would benefit from this law to escape their marriages or have justice served. On the other hand there exist around me the men who have been victims of this law, and have been unfairly painted as predators just because they were accused by women. This doesn’t change the fact that I believe women, even when I am aware that I have a bias, because I am basing it on statistics and my life. It also doesn’t change the fact that women can be as wilfully wrong as men and take advantage of laws they shouldn’t. Ideally, everyone would act like my friend and refuse to lie, but the truth is that she suffered for her unwillingness to lie.
So all I can really hope is that our judges think about this as deeply as possible, because the ambiguity here doesn’t make for great law, and the reality here doesn’t make for great honesty.
While I was growing up, I was taught a national identity, I was taught what it means to be Indian. I learnt from the documents that founded our country that I was a secular, tolerant, humanist who respected the rights of all citizens and performed the duties of a member of a democracy. Somewhere along the way, the meaning of being Indian changed to something else, and somehow today a Caucasian woman with a Bindi who fasts on Karva Chauth is more Indian than I am. The distortion of the Indian identity is more prevalent and sinister than we realise, and the feedback mechanism to those that do not conform is violent and punitive. When did this happen? When did the term “Indian” become so exclusive? Do I still qualify? Do you?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
My mother is from a formerly small mountain town. It’s one of those places that was on the international hippies checklist of India and as a result when I was growing up, I met a lot of foreign tourists. Some of them stayed there for long periods of time, taking yoga or meditation courses or setting up their own small-scale niche businesses like dreadlock-repair, Indian motorcycle mechanics and reiki experts. They were interesting and I enjoyed asking them about their lives, but there was something that bothered me back then. A lot of them wore bindis, Indian clothes, observed fasts, celebrated festivals and spoke lovingly of scripture, and something about that bothered me. I was a kid, I couldn’t really figure it out even though I was sure I was wrong, nor did I really understand what question to ask the adults in my life to assuage whatever it was that was bothering me.
“Why are they dressing like that?” was the best I could muster.
“Inko bahut shauk hota hai Indian banne ka (these people are really fond of pretending to be Indian),” was the most frequent response I got.
There are so many issues with that including the “othering” of people, the gatekeeping of our nationality, the reduction of the Indian identity but none of those things are what was bothering me. The thing that bothered me is more sinister, and more complex.
See, first let me say that honestly, I don’t fully understand the rules of cultural appropriation. An American woman I know asked me if it is cultural appropriation that she named her American daughter after a Hindu goddess because all her American friends told her that it was, and she said that because I am Indian, I was the right person to ask. I don’t even know how to begin to answer this question. To be perfectly honest, most Indian people I know have no issue with that, and some of them think it’s great that the power of “Indian culture” is so strong, it compels people in other countries to want to participate. I’ve certainly read more than enough news pieces in the past decade about the ways in which various (often American) celebrities have adopted Indian (but we all know that means one specific religion, right?) rituals, and everyone here loves that. I have heard very few complaints of cultural appropriation, and I suppose I understand why, there seems to be a blurred grey area between cultural appropriation and soft power. Depending on whether you’re looking at it from the outside or the inside, it could be one or the other.
I would love to have that discussion with people, but we live in an environment that is fraught, and despite myself I have begun to feel scared. Every day our country becomes more and more intolerant of any perceived dissent or questioning. One may argue that criticism is the highest civic duty of the citizen of a democracy but one would not get very far into that discussion before being lynched. Culture in India has become the exclusive purview of just one religious community and criticism has become treason, yet we pretend that we cannot see the totalitarianism of the world around us. Social discourse — and this is true of the left, the liberal, the right, the majoritarian, of everyone —has entirely lost its nuance because the sole goal of the activity is to find a single culprit and condemn them. This is not the country I grew up in, or at least, this is not what was taught to me about my country. The education, that we say is paramount to Indian culture (we had such legendary Universities after all), taught me secularism, democracy, free speech, fundamental rights and judicial commitment to growth and adaptation, but India in books is not the same as India in real life. I was taught I could be an English-speaking atheist with a proclivity for protests who had the right to fair employment and bodily autonomy. I was taught that was Indian, because India is a democratic country with linguistic and cultural diversity under the rule of law.
But I discovered that the truth was and is that a caucasian woman who comes to this country, puts on a bindi, a saree and assimilates into our “culture” in the way of specific religious symbolism (temples, spiritualism, sindoor, yoga, all the symbols) has more claim today to the Indian identity than I do. This was at the heart of the problem I had with those tourists in my town growing up, I just didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand it either. The sinister plot of instituting this narrow definition of Indian identity has been brewing for much longer than we realise, and most of us were just pawns in it.
A few days ago I got in touch with a parent from my stepson’s class, and upon getting in touch with her I discovered that she is Canadian. She moved to India many years ago and is married to an Indian man. She practises many Hindu traditions, she wears many Hindu symbols of matrimony, she changed her name to a chosen Indian name, she lives in a joint family. All of this is her choice, I have no judgement for it, because I certainly believe that everyone should practice any form of religion/spirituality and live the lifestyle they choose. In course of our conversation she asked me if I was fasting for Karva Chauth. I told her that while I am in awe of those that have the willpower to fast, I am thoroughly areligious as a person, and I don’t observe any festivals or fasts. This is also fine. She can fast, I can not fast. I believed that’s what India is. She said something in response that I have heard more and more over the past fifteen years: “It’s not a religious thing, there is deep sacred meaning underneath all of these things.”
The way of life argument.
I believe that is where the reduction of the Indian identity began. It’s a complex argument. There are many parts of being Indian that could be derived from religion but are part of the culture of the country more than anything, and there are also occasions and symbols that are clearly religious (and belonging to the majority religion) that we have been told and taught to view as “a way of life” instead of religious practise. The truth is that Karva Chauth is a religious thing, and that’s okay, and as an Indian I believed that I had the right to practise or not practise any religion, but reducing my choice not to participate into a rejection of sacred Indian values as opposed to a choice to be areligious is a more accurate portrait of being Indian today.
We can see this all around us. From advertisements being pulled left, right and centre for portraying a more inclusive Indian society, to the endless lynchings of people of specific faiths about which we remain suspiciously silent. We have decided what it means to be Indian, and it’s nowhere near the secular, humanist message I was taught in an Indian classroom that instilled in me the value of education. Lakhs of people in our country no longer qualify as Indian, and we show this to them over and over again, in ways big and small. We are so touchy and sentimental about our culture now because we have minimized it to a small and exclusive thing, and our identity now lies there. I spent years trying to figure out why those tourists in my little town bothered me, and now I understand, it’s because their pooja, their bindis and their saffron-leaning spiritualism is more acceptably Indian than my taxes, my vote, my dissent and my fulfillment of civic duties. I understand now why cultural appropriation isn’t a bigger conversation in India, and it’s because it works on our favour, and we do practise it ourselves more than anyone else.
We do it all the time.
The way I see it, the essence of cultural appropriation is to focus only on two points of the segment of a particular tradition: The beginning and the end. You have the sacred, original story of where something comes from, and then you jump straight to the personal significance that makes you accept it as a way of life, and you ignore all of the middle part. The middle part is where the story of religious symbolism really lies. The real problem with appropriation is that you get to adopt symbols without experiencing or understanding the struggle. The truth is that women are beaten in our country for refusing to wear signs of ownership of men, like bangles and bindis, and women are killed for rejecting faith. Women are condemned for not participating in the propagation of ritualism. Women are even attacked (and fired from their jobs as professors) for simply discussing the oppressive aspects of certain religious symbols like a chooda or mangalasutra. Most women do not operate from a place of free choice when they adopt these symbols, they are just donned on us, and when someone says to you that you don’t “look married” they are making a much more loaded statement than it seems on the face of it. Women are oppressed every day by this “way of life”.
And to me, that is the part of the story that I must engage with as an Indian. I was taught that Indians fight for justice, freedom, choice and most importantly, one another. I don’t know when that changed, but I do know that I no longer qualify, and I am sure in response, someone will be tempted to tell me to go live elsewhere then, but why should I be the one to leave when you are the ones who distorted the Indian identity into something so insecure and hateful? Why should I be the one to leave when I never deviated from the plan to be a secular humanist? That is the way of life I was taught, and now you tell me, that’s no longer Indian. And if that’s no longer Indian, then who am I?
“Little things” happen to women everyday — someone touches you in a bus, follows you home, sends you dirty texts, undermines you at work — and women rarely report these things. I certainly don’t report everything and each time I don’t, I feel a infection of guilt take me over, but should I? Should I feel guilty for not reporting everything? I recount an incident to discuss the guilt of not complaining in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
We have recently moved to a new city, and while we wait to get a house, we’re staying in a guesthouse with one kid, one dog and two cats. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s temporary. There are two men who work here on upkeep and maintenance, and the one who was assigned to our rooms seemed nice at the beginning. He was kind, scared of our dog (she’s harmless but she’s exuberant) and somewhat chatty. Over the course of our first few days here, I started to notice that he would always come up to me when I was alone outside. I felt a creepy vibe, which women will tell you is a real thing, and (some) men will tell you is women’s insane imagination. Later, I saw him watching me through a gap in the boundary wall as I did yoga outside. They were little things so I bit my tongue. I continued to bite it even as I noticed that he would always find excuses to come inside our room the moment I was alone in it. The doorbell would ring literally the moment my partner and stepson stepped out to walk the dog or bring something from the market.
I continued to say nothing even though I was convinced this behaviour was not normal. Eventually, he touched me. Five times. They were what a court of law would call “accidental” touches, and any woman who has been on public transport can tell you that we are not idiots, and we know when you’re touching us accidentally on purpose. We’ve all met a lot of men in our lives. He was bringing food into our room. Something that he never does when my husband is home, he just leaves it outside, and we bring it in. As he brought in the food, he brushed against my breast. Then he did it again. Then as he found excuses to wander around the room (also something he never does when my partner is home), he touched my butt. To make a definitive determination of his intentions, I moved well out of his way (and that’s despite the fact that I was never in his way in the first place), and he still found a way to “accidentally” touch me two more times. I felt that clammy, uncomfortable feeling that you get when you know your personal space and body are being violated, followed by a hot, white rage. I asked him to leave the room immediately and not come back.
When my husband came back I told him about what had happened, and I spoke with the kid about it as well, because that is how awareness starts. We aren’t sheltering children by not discussing real things with them, or hiding that there are situations that are complicated to deal with. My husband was livid but he knows to not take over the “handling” of a situation from the person suffering through it, so he asked me what I wanted to do. At that moment, I was extremely angry, I wanted to complain to his boss and everyone in my family agreed that it was the right thing to do.
I didn’t complain to his boss.
An hour later, when my anger had subsided and I felt a little ill in my heart, I started asking myself that question we’re not supposed to ask: Are you sure that’s what really happened?
The amazing thing is that people constantly allege that women make accusations against people too easily, and without considering the situation, but in my experience women don’t make accusations easily at all. I am completely convinced that I was right about this entire situation, and I know exactly what I experienced, but I still had a shadow of doubt creep up on me that kept me from saying anything. I handled in on some level, I spoke to the guy he works with and told him to ensure he doesn’t come into my room again, and he hasn’t bothered me since, but that’s not the point, the point is that I feel guilty because I am convinced that I was supposed to do more. I am convinced that I have more responsibility in this situation.
And that’s the catch.
Responsibility. The truth is that this man, nor any of the others who have done things like this, ever think about responsibility. Ultimately, it’s always the woman who ruined the man’s life by complaining, and never the man himself who did anything wrong. A while ago an army officer in Pune committed suicide after sexual harassment allegations against him came into official light and what followed was a bilious attack on the woman for ruining his life and family. Not one person, and I spoke to many, felt like he ruined his own life by doing the things he did. Men are exempt from this responsibility, as if allegations of sexual misconduct are divorced from their behaviour. It’s always the woman misunderstanding, being unnecessarily triggered, lying or ruining their lives. The proportion of women who say they have been harassed and men who admit to harassing women is so skewed you’d think these women were role-playing harassment with one another. It’s because, for all our talk of “empowering” women, we don’t want to believe what they say. Apparently it’s gone on “long enough”, a few decades of men being pulled up for their actions and suddenly it holds a candle to millennia of suppressing women. No one wants to hear it.
No one wants to hear it especially from a certain type of woman. Hi, I’m Certain Type. My entire life revolves around women, women’s rights, women’s policy, law, feminism, women’s journalism and the women’s movement. It’s what I do for a living and for my soul. It’s almost all of who I am and I never shut up about it (and you know, I’d love to, but the fucking content is endless in this country and that’s sad). There was a time when we used to think that maybe our misgivings about certain types of women being believed were not as severe as we thought, but the after the judge in Goa in the Tarun Tejpal case stated outright that a woman’s involvement in feminism and knowledge of the law is a reason to disbelieve her, we’re starting to feel like our misgivings are confirmed. We think that women who are Feminists™ have an “agenda” and we make allegations as part of that agenda, and that is the most misguided idea I have ever heard. Do feminists have an agenda? Of course, that agenda is equality. Is making allegations making us more equal? No, justice does that.
And that’s the other reason.
Justice is not something I expect to ever accomplish when I complain. I’ve complained many times in my early life and I always heard a set of things: Are you sure that’s what happened? It happens to everyone, let it go. What were you wearing? Why were you being so friendly with him? How come this only happens to you? Don’t say anything, what if he does something worse to you? Think about his livelihood! It’s a gamut of counter-accusations and an endless trial of your story and character to qualify if this could happen to you and if it did and whether it really warrants any action. You know, because if it’s through the clothes, is it even inappropriate? So when you aren’t going to get any kind of justice, why complain?
Well, there is still a reason to complain. The mere act of bringing to the attention of the perpetrator that his behaviour is liable to be checked can deter them from doing it again. That’s the ideal situation, though. Here’s the thing, justice is a wonderful and complex thing. It means something specific, in legal terms, but in practise, if its purpose is to deter delinquents from repeating their behaviour, it doesn’t always work. I want to say that every complaint yields something positive but it doesn’t. Most of them don’t. Ideally, in this situation, I would like for someone scary-enough to him to have a serious talk with him about his behaviour, where it came from and why he thought he could get away with it. I don’t think there should be no punishment but I think it’s more important that a regular schedule be followed in checking on his behaviour and ensuring he is changing it, and understanding why. It’s idealistic but it’s the only thing that works. That being said it’s not the right route for all sexual misconduct. However, I am not convinced that complaining will achieve this at all. I know that it’s not my responsibility to ensure he continue to be employed, but at the same time, I am unable to look past that, and I admit that it’s partly because that is what I was taught and I am prey to the same patriarchy I constantly criticise, but patriarchy is not the only problematic thing that plagues society.
And so I haven’t complained.
I don’t feel good about it. I feel like I let women down every single time I let something go, and when I feel like that I also feel that I’m letting feminism down by believing that it would hold me accountable for something that was done to me. And overall, I feel bad because I think past this point, I am responsible for every careless assault he launched on any woman, because I didn’t shut it entirely down right now. I realise that overestimates both my responsibility as well as my power in this situation. Even if I did everything I can, what would I accomplish? I know exactly how any public forum discussion of this incident would end. This entire issue of when and whether to say something is mind-numbing because whether you do or don’t, it always seems like you are doing something wrong. You feel guilty. I feel guilty when I say something and guilty when I don’t, because guilt is what was taught to me.
So is it okay to feel it?
Of course. The complexity of our emotions and their experience is our strength, it’s indicative of a multi-faceted mind. It’s okay to feel, but it’s important to remember we were taught to feel this way. Compassion is taught as compulsion to women and sometimes it seeps into places where it doesn’t belong and infects everything. It clouds our judgement and mine is clouded right now. I don’t see myself, and my role here clearly. I blame myself for things that aren’t my fault. I am afraid to stand up for what I believe in and sometimes that happens. Sometimes our judgement is clouded by who we have been taught to be, and we don’t do the things we think we should, because it’s not an ideal world, and you cannot predict the consequences of your decisions on other people, and that’s scary. I’m scared and that’s what I really don’t want to say. Comparatively, admitting to guilt, is easy.