Refusing to Live in Secret is the Most Powerful Thing A Woman Can Do.

As women become more aware of our rights, it becomes harder for society to control our behaviour through the law and so it is done socially. It’s okay if you have sex, it’s okay if you drink, it’s okay if you are divorced, it’s okay if you are ambitious but just don’t talk about it. The reason we can write about the “secret lives of women” is that we are actively discouraged from having open lives.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Cartoon by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I’ve been called a slut many times in my life. I mean, so what, right? Every woman under the sun has probably been called a slut. We deem women sluts for the things they wear, say, do or the places they go and who they go there with. It’s impossible, with this level of scrutiny, for women to not be sluts. In my case though, I’d say that on a socio-normative level their description was not entirely inaccurate (although it was not scientifically exact). I am the woman they describe when they say “loose character”. My mother often tells me, lovingly might I add, that it is fortunate I took on the business of finding love for myself because on the arranged marriage market I’m like a rotten egg. Well, she didn’t say rotten egg exactly. The essence is that my social and marital value is quite poor.

The problem is not that I drink or smoke. It’s not that I get in fights (and handcuffs) with cops. It’s not that I have had multiple partners in life (and with relish might I add). It’s not that I don’t have an “until marriage/children” approach to my career or that I will not only make it a goal to make more money than my husband, I’ll make it a production just to make a point. (Don’t worry, this comment doesn’t hurt my husband’s feelings, he knows who he married and I compensate by being really funny.) It’s not that I like to live alone or that I really take the fest out of festivity. It’s not that I go to bars alone and walk the streets in the middle of the night. It’s not that I date and will still occasionally flip through a dating app on a lazy Sunday. It’s not that I am all over feminism like I am over feta and sourdough bread.

It’s none of that.

It’s that I won’t shut up about it.

Freedom is an interesting concept when you are a woman. Freedom is not defined by law (which while restrictive, at least makes sense to the goal of coexisting as a species) but when you are a woman, it is presented as a conditional behaviour-based privilege. It’s that thing when your parents tell you they let you get your own apartment in another city because they trust you. What they are saying, perhaps even unbeknownst to them, is that they trust you to not drink, do drugs, have sex or start movements and therefore, they feel they can give you your right to education as a privilege that comes with some morsels of freedom. It’s the principle behind the unnecessarily restrictive rules in women’s hostels. It’s that thing they do when they insist on referring to your boyfriend as your “friend”. It’s the thing that makes millions of parents across the country threaten women living out of their homes with the following words: We’ll take you back home (if you step out of line). Freedom exists within a line and the most important tenet of that line is silence.

As the world progresses and women become more and more aware of our rights, it becomes harder for society to control our behaviour through the law and so it is done socially instead. It’s okay if you have sex, it’s okay if you drink, it’s okay if you are divorced, it’s okay if you are ambitious but just don’t talk about it. We can talk to our close friends or anonymously on the internet but socially the reason we can write about the “secret lives of women” is that we are actively discouraged from having open lives. I decided many years ago that I wasn’t going to have a secret life. The truth is that secrets terrify me because all I see in them is the power they have to control you. If I speak all my truths openly and at all times, no one can ever hold them over me. If I think of information without social connotation, I don’t have to weigh my words. Often it’s not that we hide things but we think about where and to whom we say can say what things. We measure our words so as to avoid startling or surprising anyone with too much truth, but the truth is a powerful thing.

I worry that with Gandhi getting a counter-cultural bad name, the truth is getting one as well. Speaking your truth out loud as a woman is a process akin to bloodshed. They make it hurt just as much. We like it when it’s done through poetry and pain, but when it’s deliberate and confident, we don’t like it at all. That’s what happens. College clerks tell you they don’t like your face. Neighbours tell their husbands to stay away from you (because that was all that was left for me to experience and now I have a fully-checked bucket list). Your peers sometimes feel alienated from you and as a result alienate you. Your parents are worried about taking you into their more conservative social circles. People call you names. Men put their hands on you without consent because they think you will just sleep with anyone. People slander you and assassinate you with morality. Partners abuse you to try and snuff the freedom out of you. Goons attack you for raising slogans in the street or holding a mic out for someone else to do it. People make faces at you when you say the word ‘uterus’ in their drawing room. The same people talk about loving Kamala Das frequently. People think you are always being difficult even though if they had a spoonful of empathy they would realise being the bone of contention everywhere all the time must be difficult for you too.

It’s difficult like yoga is difficult, because every pulled muscle is worth it. Every patch of soreness is worth it. I refuse to live without this pain. You know what’s really powerful about Kamala Das? It’s that she bared herself and she lived alongside her work (even though that may not have been the plan). The reason why we are so shocked and moved by her confessional poetry is because there is a real live woman behind it. There is a woman owning her truths and saying things women are supposed to say only in secret.

I have always wanted to live like that.

I don’t want to have a secret life.

Because as a woman I have done many things that were liberating. It was wonderfully fulfilling to file taxes for the first time, sign a lease, make the first move with a romantic interest and throw a punch. It was wonderful but none are comparable to the holistic practise of speaking my truth. I refuse to be afraid of it because no matter what it is, it’s a result of my choices. Choices that I made because I deserve the right to make them. There is nothing more freeing than taking your rights and using your voice. There is no fear when you stand beside who you are and accept all of it into a loudspeaker.

Then it’s not a scarlet letter.

Then it’s art.

Mighty Sensible, Somewhat Unpopular Unsanskari Sex Tips by a Morally-Compromised Woman.

If random people who last got laid a decade ago can write about sex, surely I should be allowed to write about it too? People keep saying women should have the space to express their sexuality and I feel like taking up that space today.

There has got to be a better way to write this than talking about kegels, light bondage or communication. I am absolutely unqualified to have a sex-column but my sanskar levels are so low I could probably qualify to have five.

Are you ready for my mighty sensible, somewhat unpopular, overly-explicit and hopefully funny sex tips?

1.Lasting longer (for men) is not the key to fucking longer.

WHY HAVE WE BEEN TEACHING THIS INSANITY? Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, really though, making your penis able to thrust more before it spews out some goo is alright but honestly I’ll take it or leave it. Don’t thrust longer, engage longer. Sex is a primal thing but we are intelligent creatures, we can paint a colourful route to the same destination over and over. We don’t have to be mere functions of biology, we can use brain and brawn at once. So, maybe we should?
Basically, don’t visit the mountain for the Instagram shot, go for the muscular fatigue and clean air. You’ll have more fun.

2. It’s NOT location, location, location unless the location is a bed.

I’ll have sex in a car or on a roof or behind a bush for the novelty of it every once in a while, sure, but unless exhibitionism and/or risky getting-caught stuff is the primary form of your sexuality, I can pretty much guarantee that the best sex you ever had was on (or around) a bed. Basically, if you want to explore your sexuality further, doing it in familiar surroundings makes it much easier to delve into unfamiliar acts and sexiness. It’s just.. it’s like eating at McDonald’s versus a hand-crafted homemade burger. One is good for every once in a while but the other is art. Fuck for art, not notches or tally marks

3. If it doesn’t stand up and/or get wet, maybe it doesn’t want to do this and you shouldn’t snap a rubber band on it and try to fuck with a thing that looks like it will burst like a bloody balloon?

Just sayin’. Just graphically saying

4. There is a reason you are having to work on your sex life with each other, is the reason that you were never compatible to begin with?

We all sleep with people who have nothing in common with us right? Even when it doesn’t work we keep on trying because on paper it sounds like we should work together. It doesn’t work if it doesn’t work. Don’t have sex because it works on paper

5. Also, don’t have sex with a fantasy.

It’s very easy to become infatuated with someone’s persona. Ultimately you may realise you have been in a concept of a dynamic with a person’s fantasy just waiting for it to turn real. The pressure to keep up the charade is not conducive to good sex or a healthy relationship. Again, if you fuck for OnlyFans alone

6. Give head to get head is a lame principle.

I get that it’s lame to be with a person who is unwilling to go down on you. The people who think it is disgusting and shame you for the needs of your genitals and their scents, look, they are pathetic and I am not defending them here.
But honestly, sex is not the place to keep score. It’s not the place for quid pro quo (unlike international espionage for election tampering). It’s not an eye for an eye. It’s the place to do what you enjoy with people and discover what you enjoy doing most with them. There is a tendency, often undiscussed, where one begins to feel they owe orgasms to their partners in exchange for the ones they give them but in this we all fail to ask each other, “Do you want these orgasms I am giving you or am I doing it because I need to feel like a fair, giving partner?”
Don’t give your partner what you need for them. Don’t decide what they need.

7. You can “spice it up” but if it tastes like lumpy half-boiled potatoes before the spicing it might be just as unpalatable, albeit more elaborate, after.

It’s fun to do fun new things but that statement alone is not enough information. It’s no fun to do fun new things with people it is no fun to do old, routine things with. This is what I believe. I am open to being wrong but I don’t think I am open to changing my mind. It’s like over-salting food. Salt is nice but if you are just using it to mask the taste of what you are eating, why are you eating it? In that regard I find it quite disturbing that we tell people that doing it in the shower (this is how you break a leg or get a concussion) or “light spanking” is going to fix their sex life. It feels a little bit like dispensing false medicine.

8. Be chill with having no-sex phases. People get tired too.

Netflix and falafel are good things too.

Girl’s out of advice.

PSA: Please practise safe sex. This post is obviously not for the asexual, the impotent, the not-so-super sexual, the injured or those whose primary sexuality is having bad sex. Any heteronormativity is unintentional and a result of my internalized socio-normative brainwashing.

How The Nightmare of Dating in India Pushes Women to Arranged Marriage.

Arranged marriages still compromise over 90% of marriages in India, while this is often ascribed to women trusting their parents or just Indian culture, the truth is likely less rosy. Aggressive and sometimes violent socio-political conservatism and the online dating meat-market often create an environment that is so hostile to and unsafe for dating, that arranged marriage still remains the safest and most reliable choice.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

In early 2016 my sister had just moved to Mumbai to get a degree. Being somewhat inexperienced in matters of love, she was sceptical when she launched her foray into online dating. After a few days of complaining about how weird everyone she encountered seemed, she found a man she thought was interesting and kind. They arranged to have coffee. She called, terrified, right after the date. She said that after an uncomfortable date he had imposed upon her to walk her home and was still hanging out underneath her building. She said she felt too unsafe to sleep in her building and so I encouraged her to crash a friend’s house that night. She did not go back home for two days and she never tried online dating in India again. My sister’s experience is not an isolated incident but representative of the norms of dating in India.

As far as Indian culture goes we accept two forms of relationships: marriage, and to a much lesser but still prevalent extent, relationships that are heading to marriage. Even in families where the elders themselves have had “love” marriages, very few of them have had multiple relationships or dated around before they fell in love for the purposes of matrimony. Culturally, we do not encourage dating as much as a performa-based elimination system to deduce if the object of interest before you could be your forever-person. The goal of any relationship is marriage and the goal of marriage is to stay married (to preserve its sanctity). Additionally, we view the youth as a torrid force that must be shackled before it has had a chance to explore itself, and when we do give them leave to fall in love, it must be done within a set protocol and preferably only once. The leave to do it is dispensed as privilege to encourage compliance to the norms of falling in love within the confines of Indian society. To do it outside of those norms, if you are a woman, makes you a slut. They won’t call you that, perhaps, they will use terms like “spoilt”, “poor character” or “forward” but that is what they mean.

The result of this, in any case, is that women in India (and in a different way, also men) who want to date and fall in love, are unable to do so openly and socially, and must often secretly engage in online dating which in itself is perfectly fine but due to the environment in which it exists has become a toxic cesspool of misogyny and objectification. The men in India are taught to view modern forms of dating as a space to explore themselves sexually without commitment before they get married (and sometimes after). While it also creates a space for the women to be able to engage in their sexuality, it closes off the space to develop relationships to a large extent. In our country, men outnumber women three-to-one on dating apps. Women are also more likely to be inactive users and less likely to be actually willing to meet in person presumably because they don’t want to be murdered. All of this leads to the meat-market mentality of online dating which encourages playing the numbers to maximize the opportunity to touch boob. What could have otherwise been a wonderful alternative for free socialization for the youth is now turned into yet another space where objectification and victimization can prosper.

Of course, it’s not as bad as all that, it sounds worse because that is part of the strategy. There is an active and ongoing campaign to malign free-relations between the youth by making these relationships sound like a much dirtier, much more shallow and unsafe thing than they actually are. I have a professor, in a master’s classroom, who while teaching Francis Bacon tells the women in the classroom that “love” marriage is a dangerous thing for girls and they should stay away. Literature serves as caution to many things but I would have thought it was the greatest monument to love, instead we have professors of art telling women love is bad. I am sure we have all heard terrible things like that about love and how the youth conducts the business of love. I often wonder, have they actually consulted the youth? Until just a few days ago, I used to be youth, (and now I am buying orthopedic pillows on Amazon) and from what I remember and know, the number of people who were using online dating as the sex-in-a-button is much smaller than what society would have you believe.

Even if we ignore the fact that those that do use it to have casual sexual relations have the right to do so, we cannot ignore that the youth of India is discouraged from engaging freely in love. If it is not by direct social shaming, it is done politically. Whether those are the anti-romeo squads in Uttar Pradesh that allegedly keep men from eve-teasing but in reality have been caught harassing and beating couples or the Bajrang Dal and Rama Sena activists that who beat couples on Valentine’s day, we have created an environment where it can be dangerous to date. It’s even socially dangerous for women in the sense that if you get the reputation for having several “failed” relationships or if you have been divorced, your chance at socially-sanctioned love is effectively null. In this environment, putting yourself out there as a woman who just wants to find a partner is rife with potential disappointment.

I have a friend who has been dating, or trying to, for a few years now. She is a gorgeous, intelligent, funny and independent woman who has been rejected or ghosted by dozens of unemployed, immature and often not-very-bright men because she wants a long-term committed relationship (as well as sexual compatibility) and most men who date online can only guarantee their own orgasms and nothing else. When we were younger we had this idea that what we actually needed was the freedom to fall in love and the people to do it with would just be all around us. Now that we are older we know that the freedom has to be stolen or earned through Herculean labours, and even it is, these people we were going to fall in love with are just a sea of mannequins. If we give the women in our society on Earth the leave to fall in love on Mars, we aren’t really doing them any favours.

I have dated in India, I have watched my friends and sisters date, and each one of us could write a saga that would end in an ocean of disappointment and so when my friends tell me they are considering letting their parents find them partners, I am not surprised. The free-dating market has failed us all on delivering love or relationships and while some of us might prefer to remain single because that is how we are happy, there are a lot of us who feel the desire to be in a couple. In an ideal situation we could just be in a couple and there would be no need to be married, but when your options are so limited in terms of structure of relationships, you take the best choice. In many ways arranged marriage remains the best choice for women who want to have reliable partners with whom they may or may not want children.

Mainstream coverage on this subject tries to boil down this phenomenon to women trusting and loving their parents but that is just feel-good eyewash. The truth is that dating and falling in love in india is almost a nightmarish proposition. You are likely to encounter unsafe situations, be unable to find a man who is willing to commit and likely to viewed by the ones you do find as someone who has too “loose” a character to consider marrying. If you do find a partner you actually like and want to spend the rest of your life with, tawdry differences over culture, religion and caste make convincing your parents a nightmarish proposition as well.

So what is left, then?

You spend the rest of your life alone or you settle for what society chooses for you. Sometimes that works out well, and others, well, others adjust and compromise.

Does My Feminism Hate The Woman in Me?

Although the ideology of feminism does not prescribe any rules for how a feminist should behave, often when you exist in an environment of constant-focus on the politics of womanhood, you start to question whether you are allowed to be feminine. However, feminism and femininity aren’t two sides of the same coin, they are allies.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I’ve been scared of lipstick my entire life. The first time I put it on, I must have been twelve or thirteen-years old, and what I saw in the mirror was horrifying to me. Not only did it seem like I was trying to paint a heinous, forced identity onto my face, but also like I was competing for an idea of beauty that wasn’t mine for the taking. I am not part of the community of beautiful people and that has always been okay with me because I derive much more joy from watching beauty than I do from wearing it. I derive much more joy from understanding and taking apart the psychosexual aspiration to and cultural obsession with beauty than I do from applying its principles to myself. We all have our place in the world, and that is mine. 

I am the person who will question the environmental impact and sexist nature of the pants I have to buy because all the rest of mine are torn. I am the person who would rather blindly cut off their hair just to avoid having to comb it than do them neatly. I am the person who cannot enjoy any festivals because I cannot find it in my heart to relate to the joy of culture that is rooted in stories that I find problematic in one way or the other. I am the person who will tirelessly and constantly talk about how everything in the world is related to women being oppressed in this or that way even when I can hear people getting annoyed and bored. I am the person who has a crisis of identity because she cannot decide how she feels about lipstick.

Lipstick is not so simple. Even as I feel an aesthetic-draw to it, I feel the pressure to condemn it, and I know that seems like it’s a feminist thing. Our understanding of feminism has been corrupted and co-opted by the loudest and most damaging voices that tell us feminism is about castrating men and sterilizing women.

The truth is that feminism never told me to hate anything. It never told me I cannot put on a skirt nor that I couldn’t get married or have children. It never told me to hate men. It never told me I couldn’t paint my lips or that I had to burn a bra. It didn’t tell me to hate Diwali or other women who fast for their husbands. No. Feminism taught me to question things. It taught me to care about other women like they were soldiers in my platoon. It taught me to consider society, with its norms and laws, in an analytical and solution-oriented manner. Feminism showed me that in this world where I was always being told what I couldn’t do because I had a vagina, I had power. I had the power to speak and affect change. It taught me that I matter. That I didn’t have to reduce my voice to being a daughter, sister, wife or mother. Feminism made me believe I could be a giant, if I wanted to. However the unintended impact of giving yourself so fully to a cause is that it begins to permeate everything you are and everything you do. In that being a woman is much less a part of my identity than being a feminist is. Feminism turned womanhood into an entirely political experience for me. 

Issues of gender are complex but if gender is defined by social identification and experience, then my experience of womanhood is entirely political. Womanhood is about the struggle to me. It’s about rape and restricted access to medical services, it is about being forced to wear beautiful colours and to care about fabrics. It’s about having roles enforced on us and having our rights violently taken from us. It’s about being asked about my reproductive plans at job interviews. There is no room for aesthetics in this experience of womanhood. There is no room for complacency. There are no days off. There is no moment when I can allow myself to forget that being a woman is going to war. That ideology, and the fervour with which it exists in many of us, has us regard a thing like lipstick as a grenade we are throwing at ourselves, but every once in a while, I stand before a mirror, grenade in hand, and I paint my face in colours of beauty. 

I don’t do this because I must. I don’t do it because it is necessary for the social situation at hand (though I must admit when I was younger I would apply make-up to look older so that people at work would take me more seriously). I don’t do it because I like the feeling of having a sticky mouth. I suppose somewhere deep inside I feel a yearning to explore my femininity. Femininity, unlike womanhood, does not feel political. It seems like an artistic expression of hormones and a reappropriation of social norms to create something authentically beautiful. I like to believe that is at the heart of fashion as well. That is what I see when I look at beautiful people around me, I see the aesthetic expression of who they are. Femininity seems like the artful side of womanhood (and my version of womanhood requires it be optional) but I do, feel like many women around me, a desire to engage in a female aestheticism. 

In concept, I believe I could be beautiful in lipstick. I feel a desire to connect with an innate sense of beauty that I believe all of us find inside ourselves but I am unable to do it for myself. I know women are told routinely, as a means to empower ourselves, to dress beautiful for us, to put on make-up because it makes us happy, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I smell a rat. I smell a rat because tying a shoelace around my neck seems pretty to me but it seems to bother everyone who is looking for pretty in me. It just seems to me like we are being convinced we are acting of our own accord and even if we aren’t and that is the bias of my feminism, if I engaged in lipstick for my own image of myself, I would be betraying my own image of myself. I would feel like a defector. Feminism didn’t tell me to feel this way, but it taught me that if I looked hard enough I could find a great reason for feeling this way. Yet somehow it also taught me that I could love freely and in love I was exempt from the norms of both feminism and womanhood. In love, I can be whoever I want. 

So when I hold the lipstick up to my face in search of my femininity, I don’t do it for myself. I don’t do it in my name. I do it in the name of the person I love because I cannot unlearn that to me decorating myself is a form of objectification but I can love in a way that delights me to be even an object for the person I love. I can revel in femininity only in the name of love because feminism taught me to seek love in a way that fulfils me instead of fulfilling my obligations as a socially conscious woman and so I can have a relationship where I am truly free to honestly explore myself in ways I find comfortable. Feminism taught me I can make my own choices in love and empowered me to do so with authority.

Ultimately feminism isn’t at odds with my femininity because without feminism I never would have found the space to explore my femininity. Without feminism I would have been a solider with no one to write home to and that sounds worse to me than every part of the experience of womanhood. Without feminism I would have died in battle, but with it I can write beautiful tales of war in lipstick.

The Abortion Judgement in Poland Says Everything About Women’s Rights in this Decade.

The Constitutional Tribunal in Poland has ruled to ban abortions in cases of foetal deformity, which constitute the majority of the small number of legal abortions in the country. This judgement is in keeping with the deterioration of abortion rights and access to abortion that has plagued the world in this decade.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Cartoon by The Bad Cartoonist, Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Yestersay, the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland ruled to disallow abortion in cases of a foetal deformity leading to the women of Poland rising up in protest. As it stood prior to this ruling, Poland already had among the harshest abortion laws in Europe with only a 1000 legal abortions occurring last year and many women having to travel outside the country to have abortions. Of these 1000 legal abortions, 98% were cases of foetal deformity which means that rape, incest or the health of the mother which comprise the extent of the grounds for legal abortion in Poland made up only 2 out of 1000 cases. The Council of Europe for Human Rights has called it a sad day for Women’s Rights, but it’s not just a sad day, it’s been a sad decade for women’s rights all over the world (except in Australia where I believe they have made some strides this decade in some states after striking down a 119-year old law).

In the 1970s, legislative progress was made on the subject of abortion in many parts of the world. India passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act into law on the recommendation of the Shah Committee in 1971. The United States of America’s Supreme court delivered a landmark judgement in Roe v. Wade in 1973. The laws passed at the time had their problems but were important victories on the path to women having more legal control over our bodies, and if they had been developed over the years guided only by scientific input, legal precedent and the goal of expanding women’s rights we wouldn’t be where we are today. Instead in most countries around the world abortion law has been governed by morality-based and religion-influenced politics which is what has led to a law as draconian as Poland’s ban on abortion in cases of foetal deformity and the continuation of abortion laws as restrictive as those in Northern Ireland.

In 2019, the Alabama Supreme court in USA banned all abortions in the state and implemented into law that any physician performing abortions would be liable to spend up to 99-years in prison. Even as the governor of Alabama admitted that there was no way to enforce this bill given the federally applicable precedent of Roe v. Wade, she signed it into law. Five other states in the US have prohibited abortion after 6-weeks at which point most women don’t even know that they are pregnant. With the election looming in the United States, the Republicans are moving at a record pace to confirm conservative judge Amy Comey Barrett to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s empty seat on the Supreme Court after she passed earlier this year. This has led many around the country to speculate that the 6-3 conservative-majority on the bench would attempt to reverse the judgement on Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortion all over the country. To me this only begs to question whether a law about women’s health should be deliberated with a bias based in religious morality as opposed to a legally-evaluated standing of the arguments in favour and people in support of the law and whether a judge should even been allowed to retain their political affiliation once appointed to a court.

In India, the Chandigarh High Court ruled in 2017 to disallow the termination of pregnancy by a 10-year old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her uncle. They cited the aspect of the MTP Act that serves to enforce “safe and medically sound” abortions which was incorporated to curb the rampant maternal mortality in India in the 1960s and 70s. Abortion law is complex and governed by different political factors in each country. In India for instance, we have reasonably liberal laws when it comes to abortion. The MTP Act allows abortion up to 20-weeks, after 12-weeks abortion needs to be recommended by two doctors and it can be performed by a medial physician at any government hospital and all certified private hospitals. Medical abortion (which involves pills like mifepristone and misoprostol) is legal up to 9-weeks and surgical abortion (either through D&C or vaccum aspiration) up to 20 weeks. There is some ambiguity as to the grounds on which one can have an abortion, though. There are four grounds on which a woman may avail termination services: Grave risk to the mental and physical health of the mother, rape and incest, and contraceptive failure in the case of married women.

It is unclear under this law whether unmarried women can actually avail the right to abortion in case of contraceptive failure. It is also unclear how grave mental risk is evaluated. In effect, however, hospitals will rarely ask women (to prove) if they are married or refuse an abortion to a woman who was unable to or chose not to have a contraceptive plan. In effect these laws should work better however unsafe abortion practices continue in India as do unwanted pregnancies and that is because instituting law is not enough if the rights of a person are not accessible to them. Access to abortions is limited by factors much greater than just the law.

In India, for instance, it is limited by the lack of reproductive autonomy that is extended to women. A woman is more likely to be made to have an abortion because the second child is female than if she herself does not wish to have a third child. Even within a family the reproductive decisions are not made by the woman nor are the contraceptive ones. With outreach programmes more women are being provided safe contraception in India than ever but women often don’t have the agency to insist on their use or the disposable income to continue buying them once the free strips are over. While financially abortions are extremely accessible in India especially at government facilities, medical services themselves remain to be inaccessible to people who live outside big towns and cities. In the United States, the accessibility to abortion is cut off financially as well as socially. Most insurance companies will not cover abortions and even a medical abortion can cost over twenty-times what it does in India. Additionally, protests around medical facilities that perform abortions eventually do succeed to a small extent in dissuading women wanting to avail terminations from being able to do so.

In this environment all over the world, laws like Poland don’t come as a surprise anymore. We have started to walk backwards as a group and when we look around the world and see that many others are doing what we do, we are emboldened. We are in political state of being where the conservative, traditionalist mind-set is emboldened by its ability to get away with stepping on the necks of women and minorities. This precedent that we are setting serves as an example to the right-wing leaders of countries like Brazil that still criminalizes abortion in all forms except in cases of rape and grave physical harm to the woman. The law of one nation influences the law of another. That is how it works. How various civilizations around us at a given moment feel about an issue influences how we feel about it, and at this moment we feel like it is okay to start taking rights away from women again.

It’s a bad moment.

A sad day for women’s rights, indeed.

I wonder what condescending retronym future historians will give it. I hope they make it really nasty.

Read more of my coverage on abortion law in India for The Quint.

The Sanskari Girl Checklist.

Have you always wanted to be a good Sanskari girl but the Sanskar have evaded you? Fret not! Our ten-step guide on how to learn and embody the Sanskar is here for you. Apply at your own risk.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Cartoon by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Do you want to be a real sanskari girl who sets the proud example of an ever-suffering silent goddess for society? Have you been shunned, alienated from society and been made to feel like you don’t belong? Do you desperately crave the Sanskar that will validate your existence as an Indian woman?

Here’s how you can have it:

1. Oil your hair regularly, which will help it grow lush and long for when a man has to inevitably use it to climb up to rescue you from a trap of his making. Sanskari girls have long hair. Short hair are for lesbians, feminists, prostitutes and sluts. Those aren’t very sanskari things to be.

2. In case of rape, for the love of god, don’t take a nap or have an emotional crisis before you go to the police or every judge in the land is going to think you did not uphold your Indian morality well enough to be a real victim of rape. Sanskari girls don’t sleep after being raped. They miraculously change into white clothes, go to the police and then come home and sit fully clothed on the bathroom floor pouring buckets of water over their heads. Haven’t you ever watched a movie?

3. Dress in beautiful clothing which covers your legs, hips, stomach, back, chest, neck, arms, fingers, chin, ears, feet, nose, head but make sure it’s colourful and not black clothing. Black clothing like that might have you disqualified not only from sanskar but also from being a citizen of this country.

4. Lean in, sankari women lean in to the inevitability of marriage. Spend your whole life dreaming about the most perfect day of your life, be enthusiastic about potential social captivity. A great way to show your enthusiasm is to keep up on the colours that trend each year during wedding season and make a scrap-book, you can display the scrap book alongside your dissertation.

5. Remember! Sanskari girls always hush the fuck up about their education. Your degrees are not meant to get you jobs, money, stature or respect. Their purpose is to measure your value on the marital market and for that purpose you must get at least some degrees. You must never, however, use your education to display your intelligence and participate in discourse that might do so. Your intelligence, once measured by the grades of your last degree, is locked in. You can’t increase it by making rational, valid points in conversation or asking insightful questions, so just focus on bags and stuff.

6. Always get pregnant through immaculate conception. In India the process of immaculate conception involves three-minutes of top-half clothed sex in which the woman is to look to her left and think about god while reciting mantras comprised of the rate-list du jour of vegetables, while the man makes a pained face of concentration towards the right and thinks about the secret porn in his phone until he ejaculates and after it is over you go the rest of your life maintaining a physical distance from one another that is so intense the idea of the two of you having sex disgusts and baffles your children to the point where they just can’t believe sex could have occurred. It’s sort of immaculate in retrospect if you think about it.

7. A sanskari girl never has sex out of marriage and she never initiates sex with her husband. She must always display reluctance when propositioned by her husband even if she wants it, so that we can continue to call that the sanctity of marriage and use it as an excuse not to outlaw marital rape. A sanskari girl must never ever enjoy sex. That’s for boys.

8. If a sanskari girl has to live out of her house for studies or a job (which contrary to popular belief about the sect of sanskaris, women can have until they are married because they do need pocket money to buy sarees and stuff), make sure you live in a more-expensive women’s hostel that has all of the following rules (which you should be following even if you don’t live in a hostel):

  • Curfew before sundown lest you get raped.
  • Conservative clothing because men cannot be trusted so you must cover your body and take responsibility for all of their actions.
  • High-level monitoring of visitors so you don’t miss the neighbourhood-aunty feeling when you are away from home.

9. If anyone says the words “pinjara tod” around you, run. Run away. Run fast. Find a pinjara asap or we’ll put you in jail, which is a less figurative representation of the not-that-different jail you were in before but with even less agency.

10. Sanskari girls stay away from feminists. Follow the example of the chairwoman of our great National Council for Women (NCW) and just say no to feminism. She’s the head of the women’s council, if she says she doesn’t like this word “feminist” surely that is a good enough reason to believe? Do you think we would put a misogynistic woman in-charge of a national women’s organisation because we just don’t want to give women rights and problematic figureheads are a great way to stall real change? Of course not.

So what are you waiting for? Go get that sanskar girl!

It’s Not Enough For A Woman To Get Married in India, You Also Have To Look It.

Women in India are often told that they don’t look married when they don’t wear bangles, vermillion or gold jewellery. This practise not only undermines the aesthetic agency of women but also limits the representation of marital symbolism to only Hindu culture. The married “look” encourages both conservatism and the objectification of women as showpieces on a mantle.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I was standing amongst a group of people, most of whom I did not know, discussing a bridge that had collapsed near our homes recently and why it would inevitably take months to fix it. My husband was standing across the group and I happened to reference him in my comment about the bridge. Immediately, a middle-aged man cut me off and interjected with the following,

“You’re married? You don’t look married!”

Despite being accustomed to hearing things like that all the time, I still asked him to explain what that meant.

“It’s a compliment, ” he said, “You don’t talk that way or look that way.”

While I enjoy invoking Socrates and playing dumb in my questioning of the problematic things I hear around me, I am aware of the social systems that encourage people to think a married woman looks a certain way. I still ask this question often, just so I can take those fragments of information and put together a collage of what a married woman actually looks like someday. The answers I get are predictable but usually dishonest. Some say that it is an allusion to youth, others say it is because I project a solitary stance and most will just call it a compliment as if looking married is like wearing a scarlet letter across your chest. The truth is that in India it is not enough for a woman to get married, she also has to look the part and this married appearance is multi-faceted hot bed of not only oppression but also religious intolerance. In many ways we see the act of committing a wedding as a commitment to a brand new life for women and with new life, she is expected to commit to a new appearance.

India being a country where the majority of the population is Hindu and secular only when reciting the preamble, we have reduced the nature of marital symbolism to only Hinduism based signifiers so if you are a woman who is Christian or god forbid, an atheist, you are immediately clubbed into a category of women who do not look married. Hindu marital symbolism involves applying vermillion, or sindoor, to the parting of one’s hair in order to invoke goddess Parvati to protect your husband. It also involves wearing bangles on your wrists at all times after you have removed the chooda that you would have put on at the time of your wedding. It also involves wearing a mangalsutra which symbolises the auspicious nature of the unity between two souls but is to be worn only by the woman. If you discuss these aspects of the tradition with new age thinkers most of them will tell you that all of these things have a “scientific” basis but what they mean, I think, is that they are historically rooted in tradition that may not have been designed specifically to oppress women but to decorate them as symbols of matrimony.

However being decorated by protocol in a prescribed manner is a burden that only married women face and not a compulsion that is put on men. Whether that is having to keep your head covered, compulsorily wearing bangles around your wrists at all times or having to weigh your neck down with heavy necklaces, it is all a form of objectification when it is made mandatory to look that way to qualify as married. The truth that no one has ever told me to my face is that I don’t “look married” because I don’t decorate myself in golden symbols of Hindu matrimony. I refuse to accept that jewellery is simply an expression of beauty because as far as I am concerned those bangles may as well be shackles. The fundamental ideal of oppression is to prescribe behaviour to the oppressed class, whether that behaviour is related to how one conducts their bodies in social spaces or how one is expected to dress, it is a layer of the same beast. The manner of enforcement is sometimes blatant and sometimes nuanced.

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

A young recently-widowed girl I met in a village near Varanasi once told me about her wedding. She said she didn’t want to wear the huge nose ring because it was hurting her and making her cry, twenty- minutes prior to her appearance at her own wedding her mother slapped her in the face and threatened to bring out her father with his gun to shoot her in the face. Her physical well-being was threatened because she didn’t want to wear some allegedly pretty jewellery. At my wedding, I didn’t want to participate in applying mehendi or wearing a chooda, I was not threatened. However various people accused me of being no fun when I wouldn’t let them put brown paste on my hands. Several people tried to reason with me about wearing a chooda as if women’s liberation, which is the singular purpose for my entire existence, is just a hobby to me that I would abandon for an evening of twinkling lights, and when I absolutely refused to let god intervene in my wedding, they told me they would just put a chooda in a river on my behalf. Doing things on my behalf without my consent, even when the audience for it is an unknowable entity or telling me I can’t “loosen up” enough to have fun in the manner that is told to me undermines my agency and is a form of the same pressure to conform that is sometimes enforced with a gun. Of course when you say that, no one will admit it.

No, they will use your lack of femininity to attack you instead. They will tell you, and themselves, that you don’t want to wear bangles because you were always a “tomboy” or a “very simple girl” or “one of those feminists” because accepting that a woman recognises a gilded cage for what it is and chooses not to step into it in the first place would mean we are admitting that we see it too.

This is not to attack women who choose to participate in religious symbols of matrimony by incorporating them into their attire, because that would assume I practice a form of feminist enlightenment where I am free of all influence and I know that is a lie. I am unable to find beauty or joy in tradition or religious culture, and I acknowledge that there are women who might, as they are entitled to do, but I am able to admit to sentimentality. For me sentimentality extends to broken locks and ratty old sweatshirts, and for someone who has had a more positive experience with religion and culture than I have, a mangalsutra might be of sentimental value and that is an expression of their authenticity that I would be loath to attack. Attacking a symbol, is not my attempt to attack individual women, but an institution that refuses to acknowledge and validate the existence of women that fall outside its norms.

Besides, my indictment of the married look is not limited to jewellery or religious symbolism, it extends to a social prescription of attire and behaviour as well. Married women tend to or are expected to dress more conservatively, the best way to observe this is to look through the photo albums of our mothers and take note of the distinct difference in their attire after they were married. In India married women are also expected to stop dressing in “western” clothing, and when we don’t stop them altogether we introduce them to the concept of “fusion” wear, comfort below and Indian beauty on top. In many cities across India women refuse to choose clothes with the ideal of looking married when they dress, but they are talked about. Even in our families, we’ve all been privy to snide discussions about that one married cousin whose dresses always shows too much boob. If you are that cousin, I am sure you have been told you don’t look married.

Married women are expected also to be better attired at all times. The standards for dress at weddings or festivals are different for married and unmarried women. My sister can wear junk earrings she bought on the side of the street (or to be more exact, I bought and she stole) but I might be asked to wear nice jewellery set in precious metal. Before a woman in India gets married, she is expected compulsory to participate in a shopping spree whether she wants to or not. This practice transcends socio-economic class and religion, it is carried out at varying levels of expense in every section of society. I still have 20 untouched sarees in a closet in my house because when I insisted that I would never need them, I was given a list is “scientific” reasons why women need expensive sarees after they get married. It was given many names — love, culture, need, tradition — but to me it was and will always be, a cheque we may as well have set on fire. A forced imposition of material joy to achieve the goal of transforming a woman into married woman is not love, it’s an inability to listen to what a woman really wants and to tell her what love and relationships look like instead because relationships are expected to change us in predictable ways.

Marriage is meant to ground people, make them stable, and if you are an outspoken, always half-outraged sort of woman, it is expected to calm you down, and that calm is part of the appearance of the married woman that I and other women like me, don’t project. We don’t speak softly, we express our opinions in conversation, we don’t glance at our husbands to validate our opinions when standing together in a group, we participate in social interactions with people of all genders, and when they stand around a woman like that and communicate with her, they are unable to view her as married. They jump up in surprise and exclaim their horror at the idea.

“You don’t look married,” they tell you.

I wish they would tell me honestly what they mean by that because to me it sounds like they are saying something much more sinister. It sounds to me that they are telling me that I am not tagged as property. That I am not decorated as per my product description. That I am not representing as Hindu and therefore not real enough to be an Indian woman. That I am not being properly woman. That I seem to have retained the curse of an individual identity despite having had the ceremony to rob me of it.

That is insulting to me, and to the women who do “look” married, because it is not a look, it’s a legal status of being. If your legal status of being husband doesn’t come with a look, as a wife, why does mine?

How To Talk To Your Kids About Rape and Sexual Violence.

News about rape and sexual violence is more easily thrust in the faces of children now more than ever, and as guardians we may not always know what the best way to address that with them might be. We suggest specific, sensitive and well-researched tips on how to address rape and sexual violence with kids.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

A few years ago while conducting a seminar for young girls on sexual violence, I asked them to share what they feared most about the environment in which they existed. Several of the young women shared that they feared they would be raped someday. One of them said specifically that thinking about the fact that the juvenile accused in the Nirbhaya gangrape case had been released made her feel anxious to walk the streets of Delhi because she felt like he might be anywhere around her, watching her, and she could be his next victim. A part of the seminar was to ask the young women what they thought rape was and based on their answers it became increasingly clear that they were unaware of what even (heteronormative, penetrative) sex actually entails.

Think about that for a moment.

In our country, right now, there are young girls (and boys) who have learnt about rape before we have even had the chance to give them a sexual education. The first information they have received about sex is evidence of rape around them and warnings that it might happen to them. There are adolescents walking around in fear of being raped, without even knowing what rape might actually entail. There are young girls whose lives are governed by the rules that are extended to them in the name of safety and they don’t even know who it is that might attack them, for what or why. It gives me pause each time I consider this.

I understand how this happens, I am a parent, and I know that these issues may be difficult to discuss with our children. While part of the problem is that we have been told repeatedly by various layers of social messaging that sex and all allied subjects should be shameful and difficult to discuss, the problem is actually bigger than that. In many ways in the past five years, rape culture has been forced onto our dinner tables whether we like it or not. We have had to say something to our children as silence becomes less and less of an option, but what do we say? That is the bigger problem. Many of us would love to have the discussion with our children, but how do we do it?

How do we discuss rape and sexual violence with our kids?

Here are some tips on how to talk to your kids about rape and sexual violence:

Talk about sex before you talk about violence. A child’s formative sexual education should not contain ideas of violence because that will become associated with their understanding of their own sexuality. Don’t tell them, as many of our parents did, that this is a difficult discussion to have and as much as you can try to work past your own discomfort on the subject to keep it from passing on. Often children learn to understand situations by body language and tone, and if they pick up on your discomfort they will memorize sex as an uncomfortable subject. Try to end the cycle of shame.

Introduce rape and sexual violence as a subject that is a valuable part of discourse as opposed to a subject they need to understand only to keep themselves safe. Introduce it like you would any other criminal activity like theft or murder, and not as something that “just happens” in society. Teach them to be wary, not terrified of the world. The semantics of gendered violence necessitate that you must discuss the patriarchy, misogyny and sexism with your children and ultimately it is better for them if you have these discussions than if you tell them not to wear short skirts.

Don’t limit the subject to a single discussion. Don’t sit your kids down for one monumental discussion, instead open up a discourse on the subject which allows them to internalize things, develop ideas and come back to you with questions.

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Don’t let their first information about rape come from the news, and if it does, address it more regularly at home from that point onwards than they might encounter in the news. Rape is a difficult topic and to a child who may not have a physical measure of sexuality yet, it can be difficult to understand the impetus for this crime and the nature of this violence. It is even more difficult for them to understand how politics might be connected to various highly publicized cases of rape, delink these things so the child may comprehend these issues without bias.

Be careful as to how you explain the why of rape. Any child is bound to wonder, but why does this happen? This is an important question and it is vital to teach them how to place the onus of responsibility for a crime. Rape happens because the criminal intent exists to commit sexual violence fuelled by the mostly-male entitlement to the female body. This is the why of rape.

Represent the victims of rape more thoroughly and as fairly as you do aspects of violence, law, safety or the media. Don’t tell children that victims of rape are “broken” or won’t ever be “whole again”. Victims of rape have undergone trauma and a confiscation of their physical autonomy, they are not broken. They might be dealing with trauma but they are not un-whole. It might have severe effects on their mental health and may cause PTSD that lasts for years. It is important to use the correct terms so your children learn to have empathy for victims, careful and measured language and how to formulatw their own opinions, as opposed to learning only fear of predators.

Don’t teach your kids to blame victims. Even in subtle ways, this can be dangerous. Statistically, rape victims are just as likely as society to blame themselves or the circumstances of rape for what happened as opposed to the predator.

Teach your kids how to identify predatory behaviour and red flags. Instead of teaching them karate (though of course, teach them karate too, just because it’s awesome and cool), teach them how to know when someone is making them uncomfortable and that they have the power to speak up and remove themselves from the situation. Sexual predators tend to prey on women and children who seem not to have an open outlet for discussion or a stable home life. They will make their victims feel special, try to alienate them from friends, take an active interest in their lives and test them by asking them to hide things or keep small secrets. Teach them to speak openly the moment they feel uncomfortable in a situation and believe them when they tell you about it. If you are in a position to do so, take action against this behaviour towards your child immediately so that your child knows that they can speak up anytime there is cause to do so and the situation will be rectified. Make sure your children know they are supported.

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Learn together. There are many gaps in our knowledge of sexual violence. There is a tendency amongst adults to only study subjects when they are fed to us by the news or pop culture, and while we may know major cases of rape that have occurred around us, we are often without real resources. Find out more about rape culture, misogyny, rape law, victim services and redressal process alongside your child. Introduce them to women’s organisations that have worked in this field for years and learn alongside them. Centre for Social Research, Delhi, has been working for 50-years in the field of gendered violence and has a vast repository of information on their website.

Know the law. Teach the law. Empower your children, not with pepper spray, but with rights. Cover everything from age of consent to the process for medical examination to the Rape Bill 2014.

Teach consent actively and routinely. A great way to do this is with tickling (if you are the kind of family where you play tickling games, that is). Ask your kid permission before you tickle them, each time you do it, and encourage them to ask your permission to do it before they do it to you. Explain to them that they are entitled to rights over who touches their body and that those rights extend to everyone.

I know it is challenging to discuss these subjects with our children but ultimately nothing is more damaging on this subject than uncomfortable silence. End the uncomfortable silence.

A Comprehensive Guide To Body Hair Removal.

Step 1
Take a six week yoga course.

This should prepare you for the bending and stretching that is required to be able to reach every spot you wish to shave/epilate/wax. If you have stubborn hair growth, I recommend yin yoga as it will help you attain the muscle definition that allows you to hold impossible positions for a long period of time.

Step 2
(which if all goes according to plan should end in a little self loathing).

After your muscles are ready to assist you, crank up some Garbage, lose the clothing and stand in front of the mirror. At this point you will stop seeing the cute, pretty-in-the-right-light girl you think you are and instead start seeing a wild animal. You may also glance at a comb and wonder if you should just use that for hair maintenance instead of all the razors and wax and powders and creams.
Now you will want to take a short break to google: Is it possible that I am a human-bear hybrid?
It’s not. Just a hairy woman.

photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Step 3
The Motivational Song.

This may not be an actual song (not that it couldn’t actually be a song. If you’re a person who has an actual song that you sing to yourself, hopefully one you made up yourself, to motivate yourself to shave your legs, you’re awesome and you have won life and can now stop trying).
This is the step where you focus on the big reason.
Why are we doing this? The only way to make yourself start is to focus on this reason. Perhaps you want to wear a very cute tiny skirt? Or you just can’t go running in shorts with hairy legs? Maybe you want to go to the pool? Or it’s a sexual practice? Or you like running your fingers over smooth skin? Or you think body hair on women is offensive because an old lady once told you that at a water park? We’ve all met that same old-lady right?
Whatever your reason.

Step 4
Implementing The Yoga

After you have motivated yourself sufficiently, you may grab the implement of torture you have chosen. I suggest personally that you go for the hardest area first but honestly​ I imagine everyone has their deeply personal process of hair removal which they are entitled to and on that note you should probably check if the door is locked because you don’t want to have explain why you were in the wild child pose with one hand searching for lost treasure between your butt.

Step 5
Doing the math

At some point when you’ve somewhat settled into your routine and by the I mean made your peace with cutting yourself/burning yourself/pulling at your skin, you’ll start to wonder about how much money you have spent on removing hair from your body over the years. When I started, maybe I was 13, and I was sure, completely sure, that everyone was lying and there was no way I would have to do this for the rest of my life (or until I still cared). I am now jaded and my illusions of body hair just disappearing overnight lay shattered beneath the pile of hair I have been collecting for sixteen years. In those sixteen years I have spent so much money on this. How is this fair? Just how? Razors, creams, powders, epilators, wax, salons, therapy. This is way too much expense. How is this fair? I could have bought a house if I hadn’t spent this much money on hair removal. Oh wait I couldn’t have bought a house because I would have just spent the money on avocado toast.
Although I suppose this is ultimately my own decision and I should have to pay for it…

Step 6
The Awakening of The Feminist

…but is it my own decision really?

And then we’ll wonder.
As we should.
Why do we spend our energies on this? Why does it so often feel like it has to be done. Why don’t I see more women in movies with hairy legs (although, I see a lot of women on YouTube with hairy armpits and it makes me happy. I think we should start a “bare the armpit” movement. If one doesn’t already exist.
Body Hair Removal is so much harder than it should be. I feel like there shouldn’t be so much attached to it. It feels wrong everytime I do remove hair from​ my body. I have to tell myself, explain, that I only do it to promote self-interest. That I would happily wear a skirt without shaving my legs, because I should be able to do that. It shouldn’t​ be an agenda. And maybe someday we’ll get there. Maybe someday it won’t matter at all what we waxed and what you didn’t and what we wore and who saw what hair and how inappropriate it seemed and how women should be hairless for some insane reason.
But for now, we must get back to our hair removal process that we (okay, I) have undertaken to please a man.

Step 7
Checking for missed spots

While you’re dealing with all the emotional issues you have due to body hair (rolling my eyes at myself), you’ll fail to notice that you’re finally done. Once you lay yourself down from the shoulder stand, you will need to check whether you missed any spots.
To be honest I have never ever performed this step. You’re on your own on this one.

Step 8
Post Business Shower

After you’ve completing the ordeal you just undertook, you I’ll want to take a shower. Under the warm water you will feel so beautiful in all your glorious hairlessness. Your skin will feel so nice and soft and your heart will be full of warmth and achievement.
But don’t worry.
Your head will interject.
And we will wonder.
Why do we do this?
And what does it mean.
And then, thirteen minutes later when the hair starts to grow back, we’ll wonder and hope, maybe there won’t have to be a next time because something magical will happen?
Or maybe they’ll invent some kind of gadget where I can just push a button and make it all happen in one second? Or better yet a gadget that renders all this grooming unnecessary by changing all social norms associated with women overnight? Is anyone working on this? I know it’s not the NCW.

Deconstructing Outrage: Is Protesting Cases Like Hathras In The Streets Ultimately Defeating The Purpose of Battling Rape Culture?

Every few months we hear of a brutal case of gangrape that involves a gruesome level of violence and we leave our houses to protest the injustice of it. Ultimately the nature and timing of our outrage creates this monolithic image of a rape victim and abandons the majority of rape survivors. Ranjhana Kumari of CSR weighs in on how outrage might be part of the reason why we are losing the fight against rape culture.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

We sat together on the bleachers on a Sunday. The school was closed but some of the students had been called in for a self-defence seminar that we were there to film for a news feature.

“How do you think the Nirbhaya case changed your life?” I asked her.
“I think the main thing is that now we talk about it,” she said adjusting her white headband, “Before this we didn’t used to talk about rape and violence, even when it made us angry it was on the inside.”

I wondered how much a fourteen-year old could remember of rape cases before that one.
“What made you most angry about it then?” I asked her.
“The way they treated her… It makes me so scared to live in this city thinking about how much rape there is,” She said, clearly still traumatized like many of us by the details of the case even though it had been almost five years, “The violence and the cruelty, how can we allow women to be treated this way?”

It’s a good question. It’s one I have asked too ever since the first time someone told me not to do something because I was a girl. It’s one I have continued to ask in more nuanced forms as I grew older. It’s one I find harder and harder to answer, but the young girl I was talking to seemed convinced that the reason this treatment of women has continued to this day is because we hadn’t been talking about it until then. She is right to a certain degree, we overwhelmingly agreed as a country after December 16, 2012 that the events of that day were going to end the silence. The discussion of rape was going to be brought out to the dinner tables, intersections and drawing rooms of the country. The outrage was palpable, and more than justified, since after decades of telling each other to just adjust, we finally had the stage to scream our grievances and pain in response to eons of system violence.

The answer to the question of whether things have gotten better since then remains ambiguous. It would be foolish to deny that legislative change has taken place or that awareness of women’s rights and issues has been expanded. It would also be naïve to discount that a movement that openly and dedicatedly counters women’s liberty has also become more active in response to women’s voices taking the fore instead of our silent suffering. However it is not possible to say that rape has decreased

in our country nor that the possibility of a death penalty has made rapists less brazen in their use of violence. Since Nirbhaya, we’ve risen up in arms as a country a few more times. We did it with Mumbai, Badaun, Unnao, Kathua, Hyderabad and most recently we did it for Hathras. Each one of these cases has a few things in common — They are all cases of gangrape that got a tonne of media attention, unnatural levels of brutality and violence were applied in each case and in many of them the victims succumbed to their injuries.

The nature of each of these cases begs the question: Is it rape culture that makes us angry or individual instances of horrific violence?

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 32,033 cases of rape were registered in the year 2019 and while the exact number of cases that involved battery is unknown, only a handful of these cases gained national attention last year. In 2017, NCRB also reported that only 6.9% (of the 30299) cases reported that year were cases of stranger-rape and in 93.1% of the cases the rapist was known to the victim. In 10, 553 of these cases the victim and the rapist were friends, partners or living together. Only a small number of these cases led to hospitalizations and a miniscule fraction to death, and while the cases involving murder have risen over the past five years (by almost 30%), they are still, as the statistics go, “rare” cases. However these rare cases of rape are the ones that are more often discussed, protested and serve as the hook to into a discussion of rape culture.

From a certain standpoint, it makes sense. The cases of gangrape, which average roughly 16% of rape cases reported in 2019, tend to be more violent and have a higher tendency to result in death which certainly moves one more to action by the sheer act of shocking our sensibilities. In these cases of violent rape and murder, it is also harder for the victim to choose not to report the incident because they might have already been reported missing, died or in need of medical treatment. The press can report on all cases of rape, and sometimes do, but because of the trainwreck syndrome the ones that get more attention tend to be these cases where gruesome violence has been committed. It’s the ill of a news peg too, without it we wouldn’t be able to ask young schoolgirls about their feelings on rape. We are taught to use real-time incidents to strike up conversations about issues that may have persisted for a long time and with good reason, often in the absence of a news peg one wouldn’t be very interested in reading about rape and violence.

Photograph by Aarushi Ahluwalia

The problem with our response to these stories is multi-pronged. As a trigger reaction we protest to demand justice in the case at hand, something that absolutely should be delivered, and as a long-term reaction we internalize the fear of how unsafe our surroundings are and teach our girls more and more techniques of being safe sometimes even using these cased of brutal rape as the cautionary tales. Even when we understand that putting the onus of safety on the potential victims is counterproductive, we still do it because we are scared. We are scared for our friends, our daughters and our partners and we believe we can arm them with whistles and keys against a culture that objectifies them. While gangrape is certainly not a scare-tactic, it works well as one, and it paints a certain picture of rape in our minds.

I often ask people to try this: Paint a picture of what you think rape is, visually, in your head and then describe it. Overwhelmingly, the victim is female, there is more than one perpetrator and there is an escalated level of physical violence. Due to the nature and timing of coverage and outrage in response to rape in India, we have painted a monolithic narrative when it comes to rape. We have narrowed it to a specific image.
How does this happen?

There are organisations that work on these issues all year,” says Ranjhana Kumari of Centre for Social Research, a group dedicated since 1973 to creating a society free of gendered violence, “The cases that get attention are the ones that are picked up by the media or politicised by the local authorities, and those issues get the limelight either because of the extreme brutality or because politics takes over the issue. Everything else continues to get pushed into the background.”

Ultimately this image and this metered, timed outrage might be part of the reason why we are unable to tackle rape culture as a whole in this country. We have built an image of a rape victim which reduces them to only a helpless, broken creature that has been attacked or killed, an image we can both comfortably rally around and politicise, and because of that when we are confronted by victims who do not fit the narrative, we are not only less likely to believe them, we are also more likely to question aspects of their behaviour and personality to determine why or if they were raped. There are various forms and types of rape. A woman might be raped by a person she trusted and loved, but when confronted by this, we might question the veracity of her claim because after all, wasn’t she already seeing him and maybe this is just a lover’s spat? A young girl might be coerced by a boy she met online and grew to like, but if she is raped, will we outrage or decided we need to keep young girls away from computers? A woman may be raped by her own husband, something our law refuses to recognize as a crime. A woman might be raped by a man because she tried to end her relationship with him. A woman might be kept silent not by way of violence but by threat of exposure or fear of being disbelieved. A woman might be raped for years by the same man, and even end up married to him. In most of these instances, if they do come to light, we are less likely to believe victims, more likely to shame them and much, much less likely to lead a protests around town. Does that mean these forms of rape are less serious or more likely to be the woman’s fault?

The greatest disservice that we do to our women is to make it harder for them to be believed or speak up when they are faced with sexual assault, which almost 80% of the women in our country claim to have experienced in some form. The greatest impediment to speaking out when faced with sexual violence is the environment and we live in an environment where one’s experience must be measured, qualified and fact-checked by an archaic methodology before being ratified as the truth. There is base- level qualification, in that if something we consider “minor” happens, like an uncomfortable interaction with your boss or men calling out to you in the street, we tell the victims to ignore it. That is best and safest. If someone touches you or “outrages your modesty”, the most common advice is to cut off contact and increase the safety measure you apply everyday, and after a safe amount of time has passed, to examine your behaviour and see what you might have done to encourage it. If you claim to have been raped, and you choose to report it, you must prove that claim. That makes sense however unless you go have yourself examined immediately, which apparently is what any decent Indian woman would do right after being raped, there are fewer chances of evidence being found on or in your body. However one can be raped without their body or genitals showing signs of distress, it is medically proven that a woman might display clincal signs of arousal during rape and that is why a woman’s vagina is not where we should be looking for proof of consent. Also not all rape involves battery or confinement, in fact most rape doesn’t, and it is not necessary we will find signs of violence on the body of the victim. Legally, the deck is stacked against the victim in a manner reminiscent of the social environment.

“A medical examination of the victim is conducted as soon as the police are notified of rape however there no necessary psychological evaluation by a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist, a “reasoned” report must be prepared by the investigating officer who should give precedence to whether the victim was consenting or not, as well as an evaluation of the physical state,” says high court lawyer Sumit Chander, “Section 164(A) mandates that a note be taken of the mental condition of the victim but no psychological evaluation is mandated by law, it would be very hard to prove a case where there were only psychological signs of rape and no physical signifiers.”

Legally a conviction is more likely, but not guaranteed, in cases where there is physical proof of rape and that remains part of the reason why rape reporting as well as rape-convictions in our country have historically been abysmally low. Even legally, unless a rape victim is able to fit into the medico-socially drawn out narrative of being a rape victim, their chances at justice are slim. Convictions for crime against women stand at 19% according to the NCRB data in 2016. All of this is not a function of the small percentage of gangrape and murder cases that cause 90% of our outrage, it is part of a culture of minimising the value of a woman’s voice and ensuring the male-entitlement to female bodies continues unchecked when we are no longer feeling the urge to go down to India Gate and scream.

At the end of the day, outrage and protest have their purpose, and in this case the purpose has been determined to ensure swifter justice in cases of brutal, murderous rape and call out blatant violations of legal protocol. Outrage is not an efficient or complete method for tackling rape culture as a whole because outrage minimises the nature of rape, the narratives of victims and the socially sanctioned environment created by the patriarchy to allow gender based disparity to continue, utimately creating an environment that is socially and legally less trusting of victims and less likely to work in their favour if they do not meet the standard requirment of qualifying as a victim. Systemic legal and social change comes from constant effort, and not fits of anger that manifest in an outpouring of emotions every six- months that lay forgotten when your neighbour tells you she felt harassed by the grocer, and you secretly feel like she might have asked for it by being unnecessarily flirtatious.

Because the rapes don’t stop once our candles burn out and we return to our homes, they continue, quietly conducted without physical “harm” by people who often know us. The rape victims don’t stop screaming, then why do we?