So, how Do We Fix The Issues Army Wives Face?

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.

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If you find that you often hear women who complain being referred to as problematic, and you are not sure why, read more about that phenomenon here.

How “Army Wives” Are Seen As Free Labour.

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.

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If you are interested in constructive solutions, I have written a follow-up post based on the immense feedback I got on this one here.

Can Women Ever Really Be Wrong?

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.

When Did I Stop Being Indian?

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?

Should I Feel Guilty For Not Reporting Sexual Harassment?

“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.

If You’re A Feminist, Why Do You Wear Lipstick?

In a time when gender is so political, can it also be personal? The feminist movement tells us our freedom is about choices, but how free are our choices? Can we make them without sending out the wrong messages? We discuss the political and personal aspects of gender in our latest piece.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I’m a woman and I’ve never identified as anything else. For a brief period in my early teenage years, I may have wanted to be a man but it was a longing based simply on an evaluation of the social settings around me. It seemed like things were easier for boys. It seemed like no one was talking to them about what it was okay to wear, when it was okay to speak, why you need to fear rape or how marriage was a compromise-laden inevitability. It wasn’t because I identified with a masculine spirit or felt that is what was inside me. It was just because I didn’t want to deal with all the social issues of being a woman but I’ve always felt like a woman. That’s easy enough to say.

It’s harder to explain, though.

In general terms, I have always believed that the role of gender is entirely social. It drives social expectations and prescribes social roles, and sometimes those are deeply oppressive things. On a personal level, identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth, or a different one, or none at all seem like perfectly acceptable things and it’s also perfectly acceptable for that experience to mean whatever you want it to mean. In that regard, I wish we could say things like “gender doesn’t matter” without sounding tone-deaf. Unfortunately, sexism doesn’t always care about what gender you identify as, it cares about what gender it identifies you as. So if you present as a woman, or something it doesn’t understand, or something it cannot identify, you will still be fair game to it. I could be a man, and have breasts, but all it will see is the breasts. I could be genderless and have a penis, but it may only see the penis. That’s why I cannot say gender doesn’t matter.

The truth is that in many ways gender is expressed in stereotypes and symbols, even a break from stereotypes is expressed using stereotypes. If you are a man who seeks to expand the definition of masculinity by wearing a dress or putting on make-up because that’s what feels right to you, you’re still using symbols associated with a particular gendered experience. We cannot entirely rid ourselves of that, and the best course of action, and what we usually do is to reclaim, redefine and expand the meaning of these things. And that’s great, it does actually weaken the hold of destructive and restrictive roles and gendered expectations, but it’s not always as “free” as we want it to be. It’s not free from scrutiny, it’s not free from inherent or internalised biases, it’s not free from society and its intervention. That’s one of the main reasons why I strongly identify with my birth-assigned gender. It’s because I define womanhood as a political and social struggle and if I am going to be part of it, and oppressed by it, I will bear its name while I fight. I do not see womanhood as a personal thing. When I say, I “feel” like a woman, it mostly means that I feel, resist and understand the socio-political connotations of that experience. After all, if gender is a social construct, my gender identity would be found in my social experience of womanhood, and that social experience has been rough, but it feels like mine.

But that’s womanhood.

There is also, at least to me, an undeniable part of the gender experience that is deeply personal. It is removed from society and politics, it is not defined by struggles or oppression. I call that femininity, but that’s only what it is for me. For another it could be fluidity or masculinity. Femininity is not political to me. It’s defined instead by the aesthetic and emotional pleasure of enjoying your gender, with or without symbols. For instance, having long, red nails makes me feel feminine. It’s a gender stereotype, but I enjoy it, I opt for it. The aesthetic pleasure of that, the understanding of the colour and its cultural connotations, the shiny tips, they all make me feel feminine. I struggled with that when I was younger, and I wondered often if any of the fight mattered at all if I found some identity is symbols of oppression, but eventually, I came to decide that the personal is not necessarily political. Sorry, Chinua Achebe. The personal is aesthetic, emotional, artistic, sometimes disturbing and sometimes a reflection of behaviours we should know are problematic.

For instance, I find my femininity in being aesthetically pleasing to my partner. I know! Clutch yo feminist pearls which are..anal beads? I like that. Here’s the thing, I love the concept of dress for yourself, put on make up for yourself, be beautiful for yourself, and I would love to participate, but I can’t. I have no desire to look pretty for myself, I just don’t see the point. I’m not looking at myself. I don’t enjoy feeling the odd texture of lipstick on my skin. I don’t see the point of walking on conical structures. I don’t like bright, pretty colours or how lace feels on my skin. I like black pants and black shirts, and I always look exactly the same. I do however enjoy how my partner looks at me and feels when I dress for him. It makes me feel feminine in a way that is visceral and enjoyable. It’s always been hard to adopt symbols of femininity for myself, but it’s much easier, and more enjoyable, to do it for the pleasure of someone else. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t see it as being an object for the pleasure of a man. I see it as being decorated for the pleasure of the person I love. It’s personal and between two people, it does not represent me socially. I will never say that women should make themselves pretty for men, nor do it as a general social expectation, I’ll do it as part of a personal exploration.

Because, as much as we may say that feminism is about choice and you can do anything you want with that choice, our choices are not always free. Recognising that means that you become afraid of being a certain person, representing a certain way and sometimes even identifying with a gendered symbol in any way. I was scared of lipstick, dresses and showing any emotion for the longest time, and it was mainly because I was worried if I could do those things and still be feminist enough. To be clear, no feminist ever told me I couldn’t do those things, but based on what I was seeing, it seemed like those things sent louder messages than I wanted to send. I couldn’t keep my gender behind closed doors, and I couldn’t explore it without worrying what it said about the movement and that is why separating the political from the choice-based (but self-aware) personal was important to discovering my own gender identity and femininity.

For me, the way in was through my sexuality. When I have sex I feel like a woman and it’s not a PIV thing, because I feel like a woman regardless of the gender of the person I am engaging with sexually. It’s a feeling. It’s an aesthetic and emotional intimate feeling that cannot be explored socially. That’s where I ultimately found my feminity, it doesn’t always mean the same thing, but there’s a common feeling. It’s not fragility, though even when it is, it’s okay. It’s not smallness or fear, nor sensitivity, it’s a euphoria driven by something inherent. It’s a part of the self, and it’s the part that enables me to separate the struggle from the self. It enables me to put on lipstick and not feel like a fraud.

That doesn’t mean I’m free from the conflict inside me entirely, just that I’m willing to acknowledge there is a conflict, and I try to deal with it the only way I know how.

10 Ridiculous Things Gynaecologists Have Said To Me.

Despite the click-baitey title, I stand by the shock-value of this content. Gynaecologists in India say some stuff that is unbelievable, and with the right kind of morbid humour, it can be funny. Tragically so, but since I’ve been to every gynaecologist in the country, and I take notes on everything, here’s the cream of the nonsense.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

For whatever reason, I am almost proud of the fact that I have been to so many gynaecologists in my life that I am practically a catalogue. Part of that is just because I’m a “routine maintenance” kinda girl and I move a lot so there’s always a new doctor. I have also had enough gynaecoloical issues (and in a different piece we will discuss how they could have been avoided by vigilant diagnoses, better goals and less misogyny) to be an expert. Let me disclaim this by saying, I have had some great gynaecologists, ones who have been thoroughly professional, open-minded and informative, but in India the scope of gynaecological health is often limited to and equivocated with reproductive health and as a result many things are brushed under the carpet. Women are not prepared for their bodies (and okay, men aren’t either, but this is just, not about that, okay?) and gynaecologists aren’t prepared for their jobs. Many of them aren’t prepared for unmarried patients who have sexual health issues, contraceptive issues, patients who don’t want children, endometriosis patience whose pain is definitely not psychosomatic, and being unprepared is one thing, they also say some stupid shit.

This is an anthology of that stupid shit. If you detach from reality just enough, it’s funny, but when you get back, you’re going to feel sad.

10 Things Various Gynaecologists Have Said To Me Over The Years (that are too good not to share).

  1. When I was a young adult and going in for a routine examination: “Young girls should come with their mothers.”

(Lady, what if I didn’t have one? I mean I do, but what if I didn’t? What a mean thing to say in that case, and stupid in the rest of the cases)

9. A gynaecologist who inserted my friend’s IUD said to her: Why would you get this? What could you want out of your life that doesn’t include babies?

8. A gynaecologist who was explaining to me how people on birth control could get pregnant: “Condoms fail almost 90% of the time.”

(That would explain our population if I believed most of you idiots actually use them. Seriously, guys. They’re so easy).

7. After a doctor asked me how long I had been sexually active: “That’s not possible.”

(Say what. I think I might remember, good sir).

6. A male gynaecologist to my husband: “How can you let her decide she doesn’t want kids? She’s 28, it’s already past time for you guys.”

5. At a young age I decided that being a sexually active woman, I should have an STD panel so I went in unsolicited to request one, and the gynaecologist asked me: Are you a sex-worker?

(FYI, nothing wrong with being a sex worker, just with assuming the only women who request STD tests are sex-workers).

4. A gynaecologist who prescribed misoprostol (the abortion drug) said had the following conversation with me:
Me: This painkiller you have prescribed is very strong, does it really hurt that much?
Her: Well, don’t you think some things should hurt?

3. When I was lying down for a pelvic exam: “Take your underwear off from one leg only.”

(A lot of them do that, and it’s a thinker, why so reluctant to ask me to just take them off? I know what I came for and also what you do for a living. I’m not confusing this for a sexual thing, please don’t make it one by being unnecessarily awkward).

2. A gynaecologist with whom I was discussing pain during sexual intercourse said: “What else would there be? Women aren’t actually designed to enjoy sex.”

(Well, I must be sleeping with the wrong women then).

1. A gynaecologist with a modern practice that I took my sister to said: “Don’t worry if you have sex before marriage, when you do get married, I also perform hymenoplasties.

(Thank you for your service to the delusions of the men of our nation?)

Ugh.

The Danger Of The “Protective” Older Sibling.

We do many things in the name of protecting our young, but the most dangerous thing we do is disallowing them from growing up. In a country where the mechanisms of control and moral-policing as so vast and pervasive, the “protective” older sibling is sometimes an enforcement mechanism, but what do we lose when sibling-relationships are governed by that sentiment? We discuss, in our latest piece.

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

I used to say that my sisters are like my children but they’ve since grown up into adults and it feels a bit odd to refer to them as children now. Regardless, I am the oldest, and the two of them are four and ten years younger than I am, and as a result, our relationships when we were growing up were governed by that hierarchy. I took care of them. I helped them with homework and projects. I drove them to birthday parties and took them for ice cream. I spent hours of my life playing “fashion show” with the youngest and she still hasn’t stopped playing that game, she just plays it in real-life now. Being the older sibling automatically means you have to take more household and familial responsibility from a younger age. When your siblings are still children, it also means taking on the responsibility of protection. You know the song ‘Dumb Ways To Die”? My younger sister could actually be the subject of that song, and it takes more than just parents to stop a creature like her from accidentally killing herself. You have to protect your young.

However, there is a danger to that sentiment as well.

Let me tell you a different story. I know a woman. Well, I don’t know her, as much as we existed in the same social settings for a period of time. When she was twenty-three, her younger sister moved to the city she was living in for college. Her sister wanted to live in the hostel and then later move into a flat with the friends she would make there, but her parents (and sister) insisted that she live with her sister for her “safety”. This wasn’t a financial concern at all, these people are rich, they didn’t want their young out and too free. I met the younger sister several times and then one evening I was in my neighborhood cafe, getting coffee to take with me while I ran my errands, and I saw her sitting with a man at a table outside. I went up to her and said hello. She was a little awkward but I was only planning to stay a few seconds. I was just about to take my leave when she asked me to step aside with het for me moment.

“Please don’t tell didi that I was here,” she explained in a sorry tone of voice, “She won’t let me go out if she knows I am with..a guy.”

I assured her I wouldn’t say anything but I was very disturbed by the event. A nineteen year old girl in college in a big city shouldn’t be disallowed from leaving a house because she was seen with a boy. No one should. And therein lies the problem with the protective older sibling. Before you know it, they become agents for control and moral policing. Protection morphs into control and suddenly the girl who used to take you for ice cream and sneak you candy becomes an object of fear. Protection doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t allow our young to grow up.

And I acknowledge the struggle.

When my sisters were younger, our relationship was different. I had to take care of them and sometimes that involved telling them what to do. However when they started to grow up, two clear yet divergent paths appeared before me: I could start controlling them (by telling them not to go out, see boys, have sex, drink alcohol) or I could be there for their growth and participate in their lives. I remember the first time I realised my younger sister was growing up. She was sixteen, I was home from college for winter break, I had just arrived with my luggage and I was going upstairs to my room to put it away, and when I opened my door, she was inside with her boyfriend and they were kissing. They were freaked out, and they jumped apart, and I immediately told them it was okay, but they were still a little uncomfortable. Honestly, I was a little uncomfortable too. It’s not that I have an issue with sexual expression, at all, it’s that when you have known someone as the tiny creature with the terrible haircut who only cares about chocolate and playtime, it’s a little bit jarring when you see them embody a grown woman’s body for the first time. It’s not even that we hadn’t talked about it. In my family we rally the responsibility of having “the talk”. My mom talked to me about sex and sexuality, I talked to my younger sister about it, and my younger sister talked to the youngest one about it, but it’s different when you talk about it, and when you see them/know of them acting on the talk.

However, that’s not what was important. What was important was what came after that. For a moment I may have been surprised, but once it passed, I realised she was growing up and it was okay. That’s what kids do, they grow up, and they change. Their needs change, their priorities change, their emotions change and their bodies change. My sister and I talked about how our relationship would change as a result of that as well. One of the first changes was that instead of being the presence in her life that always asked about her and took care of her needs, I needed to become a presence in her life that was equally communicative about herself. She demanded it. She demanded that I share my life with her as well and that was fair, because when she was younger there may have been things I couldn’t talk to her about just yet, but once she became an adult, the adult world was as much her purview as it was mine. She demanded that I share my life, my stresses, my feelings and my thoughts with her as well. Once I started to do that, we became equals, and that process was extremely important.

That didn’t mean that she wouldn’t come to me for help or advice, she still does that, but it meant that I could go to her as well. It didn’t mean that when shit hit the fan I wouldn’t take care of it for her, it meant that I recognised that her journey was not mine and I could not dictate actions to her. I could not condemn her. I could not use “protection” as an excuse to stop her from doing things that made me uncomfortable. Instead, I was just there for her life. I was there for her first drink, and shortly afterwards her first thorough projectile vomiting. I was there for her first kiss, her first heartbreak, her first cigarette, her first interview, her first move, her first apartment, the first time she had sex. I wasn’t there to tell her what to do, I wasn’t even there to clean up the mess when it inevitably all went wrong (because it didn’t and it doesn’t), I was just there to do it with her. And the alarmingly positive consequence of that was that I rediscovered her as complete person. An amazing person. A person whose presence in my life is vital, entertaining, positive, inspiring and loving. Between the five years from when she was sixteen to twenty-one, our relationship changed completely and it was a great thing that it did. She is no longer my child, she is my peer and that’s a wonderful thing.

Because of that experience, it was much easier when the youngest one started to grow up. Given that she is ten-years younger than I am, it should have been harder but by then I had learnt that there is a time for protection, and a time to take a backseat and allow them to grow up. With her it started the day she stopped calling me “didi” (a respectful title for an older sister). I told her very early on that she didn’t need to call her that, but respect titles are a deep part of Indian culture and she continued to do it for many years. One day, on her own, she addressed me by my name. She was fourteen. I remember it quite clearly, she said my name, she watched my face to see if I would say something, and when I didn’t, she just went on with her day. She never called me “didi” again. It was her way of telling me that she was ready to grow up a little, and start a new relationship with me. We did. A relationship where she could discuss her accomplishments, her growth, her relationships and her budding interest in boys with judgement, condemnation or disapproval. I had to let her do that, because the alternative would be to not have her be honest with me about her life and the things that excite her, and that is unacceptable to me.

This year she turned twenty and she told me I shouldn’t be at her “entire” party because I (and my 40-year old husband) would scare her friends (and I’m never letting her live it down) but deep inside that seemingly bitchy request (it’s not, they’re kids, they want to be sloppy drunk and I’m too old for that shit) was a comfort. She’s comfortable telling me when she needs space for her own life that doesn’t need to be chaperoned and it shouldn’t be. If we continue to chaperone and coddle adults, we end up with grown ups who cannot handle themselves, and we have a lot of those already. Adults who are codependent on their families and cannot make independent decisions, and it’s, sad. Ultimately seeing my sister’s flourish as independent and dependable members of society was far more important than controlling them in the name of protection. I am not responsible for their protection anymore and accepting that change in roles was necessary to sustaining our relationship. I will always be there for them, but not to tell them what to do, just to listen and share my life experience should it be relevant.

The result of that? My sisters and I have excellent relationships with each other. Unfiltered and open relationships in which we can say anything, and more importantly, we enjoy each other’s company tremendously. We love spending time with each other. We look forward to seeing each other. We help each other tear down our boundaries and develop further. It also means that they are wonderful human being who contribute to society and inspire other women around them, and they do it by being distinctive, authentic individuals. We are not all the same person, all three of us are very different from one another, but it doesn’t matter at all. We don’t have to have the same views or personalities to enjoy each other, and it’s very important to learn that in life. And all it took was for me to shed the connotations of being “older”. It doesn’t matter that I am older, all that really means now is that my knees will give out sooner than theirs (and that I am not allowed at the parties of 20-year olds who need me to roll for them still). It doesn’t matter because I am not their protector. I am an active spectator in their journey and that is a much better thing because it allows me to love my sisters without controlling them, and it’s glorious.

Sisters can be an amazing thing, but you have to let them grow up.

Promise Me, You Won’t Have Sex.

Often when we are young, we have an older sibling or a parent concerned about whether we might be having sex, and sometimes promises not to do it are extracted from us under the garb of deep concern about our well-being. I believe there is something sinister at the heart of these promises, and these concerns. In this week’s sex-column, we discuss the hypocrisy of the Indian attitude towards sex (and I make a few gynaecologist jokes).

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.

Be whoever you want to be,
Do whatever you want to do,
Get a car and drive it too fast,
Run a race and finish dead last.
Climb a mountain, I’ll pay for a guide,
Travel across the globe for a wild ride,
Bribe a cop on the way back from school,
Worship at the altar that makes you cool,
Pass around a bunch of bad cheques,
But promise me, you won’t have sex.’

We’ve all had a variation of this conversation. Sometimes it is with a friend or perhaps an older sibling or maybe it’s with a parent (or similar authority figure). I’ve had it several times in my life, admittedly a lot more frequently when I was younger, and somewhat differently after I grew up. The first time you have it is probably the most distinctive. Mine was a with a well-intentioned cousin who knew I was in a relationship with a young man, and I suppose she felt, being 10-years older than I am, that she should guide me. Inherently, there is no flaw in that. She was concerned, I was young, and she asked me to promise that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t go as far as to have sex with the boy.

I made the promise.

A very small incident of no consequence to the world, but when I made the promise, I had already broken it. I made the promise even though I had already had sex with the boy, and until that moment, it hadn’t occured to me to decide whether that was right or wrong. The moment I experienced concern on the part of someone who cared about me, I started to wonder whether what I had done was actually scary or wrong. Concern is one of the most common cautionary associations we make while participating in discourse designed to discourage young people from having sex. Man, that was a tedious sentence. It is, though. Concern is the primary reason we tell young people not to have sex. It’s multi-layered, so let’s slowly peel back this onion and cry a disproportionate amount of tears (as is fitting).

There’s concern that’s rooted in physical harm that may come to your ward if they have sex. Part of it is medical and part of it is social. Let’s say medical fears are totally justified, but easily allayed if you teach and promote safe-sex practises (and portray a teenaged girl who accidentally got pregnant on a TV show having a termination instead of life-changing baby every once in a while). There’s the social fear of someone you care about having sex. Sex is viewed as a dangerous thing, especially for women. The guy you are with may take advantage of you and not respect your boundaries. He may take pictures of you. People will find out and think you are a slut. You might get raped. The list is endless, and perhaps the validity of these fears is evident but we send our loved ones out into a dangerous world everyday. How do we know they won’t just walk into traffic? How do we know they won’t stick their fork in a socket? How do we know they won’t lick a toilet to prove they won’t get covid? Either we teach them to navigate the world, or trust they know how to do it (based on how old they are and what your relationship with them is). It’s the same with sexual relationships, if we teach people to navigate them safely, they will know how to judge a situation, and if we trust them to do it, they will learn better.

That being said, ideologically, I do think that the onus of responsibility for raping, revenge porn and consent violation is on the people doing these things, but I realise an ideology doesn’t keep you safe. There’s also the concern of pregnancy and on this front I can absolutely confirm that if my foremothers had spent more time learning about contraception, and more research had been conducted into safe methods of contraception, I wouldn’t be here today, almost 30, and still trying to figure out a method that works and doesn’t try to kill me (or is slimy latex). You don’t eat prawns with the vein still in, and teaching a lot more about taking the vein out would benefit everyone. Contraception should be taught as a rigorous discipline akin to physics and tested more severely than IIT aspirants. There have been enough “it just happened” babies. Physical concerns, as I said, are easily allayed.

But I don’t believe that is the primary concern anyway. For one thing, if people were so concerned about the physical welfare of the havers of sex, arranged marriages would include STD panels but they don’t, instead we live in a country where 9 out of 10 gynaecologists judge you for opting to have an STD panel (and I am not pulling this statistic out of my ass, I have been to a lot of gynaecologists, in a lot of different cities, you’d think it was a hobby for me to have my insides peered into). From where I am standing, there is no sexual behaviour more risky than an arranged marriage. Maybe the modern set-up allows for more communication between the parties involved but ultimately it involves having sex with someone you don’t know well, and certainly don’t know well medically-speaking.

So physical safety, then, is not as much of a concern as they would like us to believe, so perhaps it is emotional concern? The one I hear most often, especially when the conversation is focused on young people, is that they are not emotionally ready or mature enough to have sex. Sex is a big deal, not just in India, but in many of the world, but does it need to be? Indian parents except children to display maturity on a vast array of subject’s from a very young age. You are supposed to display financial maturity and take into account your family’s income before you desire things. If you are a girl, you are quickly taught the concepts of sacrifice and compromise, and groomed for a life spent in service of the patriarchy. You are expected to participate in religious ritualism, with children as young as ten fasting for Lent or Ramadan or Navratras. We do not see our children as too emotionally immature when we expect them to understand familial circumstances, sexism or spiritualism. We do not think they need to be protected from the “realities” of the world like powerlessness, bribery, rape or other crimes, we think they should have a realistic view of the world when it comes to these things, but when it comes to sex, the same children are suddenly too young to understand pleasure, or be able to handle it. I smell a rat.

So it’s not emotional concern then, it’s just a dead rat, which leaves only one thing, and it’s the one thing that unfortunately determines everything in India: Social Concern. After all, what will people think if my child has sex and then talks about it? What will people think if everyone found out? What will happen if my daughter sleeps with a man and they don’t get married to each other? There is an equivocation between morality and sexuality that encompasses perhaps all of time and most of religion. Sex is dirty and unclean, and acceptable only when done in service of the propagation of the species. Fundamentally, India is a country that is suspicious of pleasure, and there is only one reason to have sex outside of wedlock when not trying to have a baby, and that reason is that it feels good. We do not want our wards to feel good in this way. So we teach a horrific style of mythology associated with sex: If you have sex before marriage no one will marry you, if you do it god will punish you for the sin, if you do it you will fall sick and get pregnant, if you do it everyone will talk about your character, if you even so much as hold the hand of a person of the opposite gender you will get pregnant. My favourite one was when someone told me that oral sex would get me pregnant (and as an adult I wish I could find this person and inform them that for decades even the strongest hormones couldn’t get me pregnant). We spread this misinformation and we believe that we are doing the youth a favour, but we are not, because we are not trained to think analytically or determine the consequences of our actions. So let me lay them out for you.

We have created a nation that is so sexually frustrated, bound by the dichotomy of morality and desire, and focused on marriage as a solution to this problem, that people are now getting married (and have been for decades) just so that they can have sex. Given that our marital laws have no room for consent (basically you marry the man, you consent to letting him have sex with you forever, anytime he likes), we have created a hot-bed for sexual abuse within marriages and given that a majority of women do not have access to reproductive health or agency when it comes to reproductive decisions, they are forced into having an unhealthy number of children or unsupervised abortions. Treating sex like it’s a thing we need to actively keep people away from has also created an untenable amount of shame surrounding the subject, and a large number of issues with self-esteem stem from the alienation of oneself from their body, from blaming your body for its needs.

Aside from all of that there’s the way the image of sex itself leads to problems. When we discourage sex, we also define it as peno-vaginal, and like my cousin, who said it’s okay to do other things but not have a penis in my vagina, there are many people who believe that having sex has only to do with penises in vaginas and this heteronormative and (straight) male-pleasure centred view of sex is terrible for everyone else. Sex is about connection and pleasure, it’s not about the one act, and limiting it, and creating a fear-based mythology around just that one act makes it unlikely that others will ever discover their pleasure. Especially in a society where the bearer of the penis gets so much of a say in sexual matters (including whether you are consenting to them or not).

So when you build an entire generation’s foundation of sex on guilt-based, emotionally-extracted promises not to do it because it may impact the abstract and imagined concept of your honour or expresses the selfish nature of your concern (however well-intentioned that concern may be), what you’re really doing is raising a generation that is sexually stunted, and sexuality is an extremely fundamental part of human nature, it influences a lot of who you are in life. Medically and biologically-speaking, sex is good for you, it makes you a happier person (provided you’re not asexual). Emotionally speaking, sex teaches you a lot about yourself. Relationships do not need to be centred on sex, but it is only when you have a great sexual relationship with your partner that works for both of you, that you are able to focus on those other things that make you happy. Please, stop asking people to promise not have sex, instead, maybe start asking them to do it for themselves instead of the expectations of other people. That’s better advice.

Do Women Sleep Their Way To The Top?

If you are a successful and possibly intimidating woman, the chances are that at some point in your career someone has accused you (to your face or behind your back) of sleeping your way to the top. This reduction of a woman’s professional accumen to sexual privilege is just another male fantasy, why then do we never discuss the male behaviour that causes it to come up so often?

Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia

We’ve all worked in an office where someone seems to have defied the Peter Principle, right? The Peter Principle dictates that people rise through the ranks only to the level of their incompetence but there’s always a person, here and there, who seems to have risen way past their incompetence and is somehow placed in a role they seem completely unable to manage. A person who makes us wonder — How did you get that job? For me this happened in my very first job. There was a woman in-charge of production and while I wouldn’t say that she was not bright, I would say she was extremely indecisive and inefficient and those are traits that should not be found in someone heading production. She couldn’t make a decision to save her life and was constantly changing her mind, often when we had already started acting on her previous instructions. She was everyone’s favorite subject of exasperation and we often ended our rants wondering how she got the job.

One theory was suggested more often and with more relish than any other: She was sleeping her way to the top.

At the time I didn’t realise the extent to which that was problematic as a suggestion, I just didn’t engage with it, but over the years I noticed a lot of women’s success being explained away as sexual prowess. In the case of my former colleague, she was incompetent, but a lot of the women I heard this about since then were quite brilliant. The accusation that they were there because they had gotten undressed in front of the right person was indiscriminate when it came to competence. You didn’t have to be good or bad at your job for people to begin suggesting that you had gotten it by sleeping around, you just had to be a woman. On the face of it, that seems like the disgruntled ravings of a person who is bitter about losing the competitive but there’s a lot more to it than that.

First of all, let me say that morally-speaking I take no issue with a person using their sexuality to get ahead in a world where they are solicited to do that and promised rewards for it. It may be a jaded position, but the truth is that the meek shall not inherit the earth, honesty doesn’t always win the day and integrity doesn’t mean shit to most people. A lot of times when people are competing for a position, and it comes to the final round, they are all equally qualified (on paper), and if the person handing out the job is basing their decision on whose pants they can get into, that’s on them (even legally-speaking, they are in a position of power and able to coerce the applicant), if I am willing to take my pants off to give myself an edge, I don’t see the lack of morality in that. That being said my position on morality comes from the cutthroat, brutally-ambitious girl that lives inside me, I tried to sedate her by running, doing yoga and drinking chamomile tea but it only made her stronger (and more expensive to sustain). However, I feel, all too often, we discuss this issue from the vantage point of the morality of the person who was willing to sleep their way to the top, and never from the place of the person who demanded it. We never discuss why we are so comfortable with believing that about any successful woman.

I mean, there is the obvious reason, the need to justify keeping women out of the workforce and paying us less by proving that we don’t compete on merit but on wiles and preference. Society is threatened by successfull women because they are unable to put them in a box and while a man must manage family and work as well, he is often lauded for giving more time to work, a woman who does that is judged by a different yardstick. The most threatening creature is a woman who actually manages to have a successful career, a thriving social life and a happy family, that creature is most often at the receiving end of allegations of using their sexuality to get ahead. The way many people see it is that a man’s desire for a woman is an unfair advantage given to women however there are plenty of unfair advantages given to men as well. When a man goes into an interview and talks about his children, the odds are skewed in their favour because we believe, still, that a man is the one supporting the family. It is not without reason that men’s careers experience growth after they have children (otherwise known as the Fatherhood Bonus) whereas women’s careers often tank after they have children (otherwise known as the motherhood penalty).

But all of that misses the key point. The heart of this issue is still that a woman in a position of power being viewed as an evil seductress plays into a male fantasy; a fantasy that enables them to ignore the skill and intelligence a woman may possess and reduce her to a sexual tool. That is the sinister plot that is actually at play here. A successful woman is decidedly immoral because most men still have a lot of difficulty letting women into the boy’s club of professionalism and acknowledging that they lost out to a woman because of her professional accumen is a lot harder to do than saying it was the unfair advantage of her sexuality that got her there. However, that approach still scrutinizes the women, and the fact that women can (whether they do or not is irrelevant to this point) get ahead by bartering sex means that most of the people making those decisions are still heterosexual men. The environment that enables sexual favours is created by the people at the top and when someone is fundamentally disadvantaged they can be compelled to take that path.

See, women are professionally disadvantaged in almost every field. While corporate set-ups have an even ratio of men and women at entry-level positions, the number of men in managerial positions is much higher. There are astoundingly few female surgeons. While many women go to law school, most litigating lawyers are men. And professions that are female-dominated like teaching and nursing are alarmingly unpaid. Add to the fact that asking a woman about her reproductive plans is common at interviews, and rejecting her based on that is acceptable. Women have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as men and even when we do get it, criticism of our character is muttered quietly behind our backs. Women are paid less than men for doing the same job and there still many professions like civil engineering and taxi-driving where women are just not welcome. There is a culture of disadvantage, and in that environment if a woman sees the opportunity to use her body to advance herself, what is so terrible about that? You left her no other way to do it.

And most importantly, the reason it works is not because of the women, the reason it works is because men are making professional decisions based on masturbatory fantasies. If you want to give me a job because you think I am hot, that’s on you, I came to this interview with a resume and a portfolio. If all you want to assess are my legs, don’t accuse me of sleeping my way to the top when I did it in your bed.