Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What is he?

Is he gay, is he bi, is he straight? Or is he just superman? How does one ask this question in this day of political correctness? Aren’t we supposed to be cool with whoever that person is and engage with the entire personality rather than one bit of the identity? Especially since that is what I am constantly telling people in all the workshops that I do. “Let people choose their own identities, do not foist one upon them. After all behavior is not indicative of what the person actually believes in” blah, blah and blah. But when it comes to the crunch, one should know.

So boy meets girl and both hang out together. They have fun and seem to have some common spaces they inhabit but lots of uncommon areas too. Girl is busy trying to figure this man out since it has not rained men in a long while and she is now getting a bit anxious about meeting “someone interesting”. Now that she has, she is racked with the lack of knowledge of the swing of this one person. She cannot ask around since that will surely get back to him and he would figure out she is interested. And how awful that would be if he was straight – she would appear to eager, if he was gay – she would appear foolish and if he was bi – that would be wishful thinking!

I know countless women who are searching for that “one” person they could engage with. The constant refrain I hear is that men today are gay, married, confused or all of the above. What is a woman to do then? Married men are easier to spot since they often have tell tale signs but in these days of metrosexual men, nothing is quite clear.

Men on the other hand are constantly cribbing about the lack of women. Their complaint is not that the women are lesbian, they just find them too competitive and independent. Why can’t women be just women and be happy with having doors opened for them and being taken out for meals. Occasionally, they want the intellectual discourse but for the rest of the time they are happy just having a “woman” around who is what she is meant to be – according to the male lexicon. None of this strident feminist stuff, makes the women look ugly; they should be sexy and smart and be available when the men are ready to engage. Ideally, there should be no talk of commitment, because that scares them so. But if the woman does not appear needy, then who knows commitment may follow!

So here we are in a world, where the available men are not the men we want since we do not know where their preferences lie and the women are not the women that men want since they are not women really! All operating at cross purposes and the search continues eternal!
May 29, 2011

Isn't it time men said No to violence

Where do all the men disappear to when women are attacked? The attacker is there and the woman or women, but the others who inhabit this earth – where do they all go off to? Has anyone heard of men who have got really angry with the current scenario of violence against women and have got together and said enough is enough – men say no to violence?

Violence has been part of my life in many different ways and public spaces are often the playing field of the violent. The occasional touch; the stare that could be appreciative or threatening depending on who is interpreting it; the following of the female pedestrian or the stopping by at bus stops where a lone woman stands; the passing of random comments which apparently is not targeting the woman passing by but is indicative of the Asperger syndrome that the man is occasionally afflicted by when women pass him by. And each time, the reaction of the woman is more or less the same – ignore the irritant as one does often with mosquitoes, if you cannot kill it, you move away from the spot that is mosquito infected. Or it could be defiance – a change in stance and aggressiveness pours out or else it is the age old mantra – we will not suffer violence anymore! I am a bit tired of the latter since I seem to have been saying this for over three decades now and the violence has continued unabated.

Obviously as a society we have not taught our men that they have to move beyond the roles of perpetrator, passer by, joiner in of protests and adopt a whole new radical stance. One of intolerance. Intolerance of violence that is meted out to women and anyone who does not pass. It does not matter what clothes you wear, what class you belong to, what city or village you come from, whether you are biological woman or not. The fact that you have a vagina or else you look like a woman and are dressed as one is reason enough for many men to be violent. They could desire you, they could revile you, they could feel that you needed to be taught a lesson or that you arouse passion in them – all of this results in violence and they get away scot free. We do not teach our women to stand up and fight. We do not tell them that they can and should retaliate wherever it is possible and that is not their lot in life to have to accept and move on.

So when do men get up and say that they do not believe in violence? When do they think their time will come to aggressively demand that killing someone in the street because they did not return your love, or did not serve you that drink post closing hours, or did not feel that they needed to go with you when you “innocently” offered them a lift, is not okay by them. When do we women get to join in protests organized by men as bystanders and supporters.

Not all men are violent and not all men want to grope women. Then why are those men not saying to violence against women? They can say no and get others to do so, but that means challenging what masculinity means to each one of them. It means that they need to understand and explain to others that violence is not their birthright, and they need to exercise and control their emotions and not aggressively covet everything. They need to grow up and take responsibility for themselves as well as for the others around them, so that when women do say no to violence, they understand that no means no and does not in any way include a loophole for them to wedge themselves in and wreak havoc.

May 29, 2011

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Too big, too small, too short, too dark

Too big, too small, too tall, too short, too dark, too fair – maybe that does not happen. Maybe no one can be too fair! But what is this obsession with the body? No one is comfortable with what they have, they all want something that no one really has and in the end there is dire sorrow all around.

I am fat and it took me years to acknowledge that. I grew up in a home where there was no conversation around body size and I always knew I was beautiful. So when I did get out of the house and then had smart alecks on the street comment about my body or my weight, I was gob smacked! For heaven’s sake could they not see that lissome body trapped inside that outer shell and could they not see the intelligence flow out of me. How crass to expect more beauty?

Isn’t it strange how a set of rules set by a few impact many? Do we ever think about it? Do we ever wonder why there is this unholy obsession about the perfect body? I watch people today and am amazed at the self-control they seem to exhibit. All of them are clear that they do not want to become fat, they cite health reasons. No one ever seems to say that they are uncomfortable because peer pressure renders them unhappy, romance accords them the invisibility cloak and families strive to remind them everyday of their self indulgent self which has allowed them to become fat. So fat has now become the new mantra to stay away from.

What is it about our bodies that cause us so much angst? Is it because the set of rules that we have to abide by are set for us and we feel that we have to play along or else we lose out? Surely that cannot be the reason. There are so many ways in which we challenge many set ideologies because we do not ascribe to them and yet anything to do with the body causes us sleepless nights and we try to make some things more and other things less. Do we ever connect this with violence? Can we see the links between what we do to ourselves and our supposed aversion to violence? Why do we always assume that violence is done to us by someone else and not that we do it to ourselves quite easily and then have a million explanations to justify why we do not eat, why we use Fair and Lovely face cream, why we spend hours in the gym under duress, and why we focus incessantly on how much one has gained or lost in kilos and not in a metaphysical sense?

What is the point of saying my body is mine when actually we mean that my body is partially owned by me and the rest is a joint ownership between my parents; the gym; the people whom I desire and do not desire me; the media, society and the countless faceless people who feel that they can advise me and tell me what I should look like.

I look the same every day. Tall, big, dark woman. For others, what I am varies. Some days it’s a beautiful woman, at other times it is a fat woman. For some I am a man, for others my gender confuses them. Some people see me and think I am hot and others who feel that I should instantly go in for a 90 kg weight loss program.

I am all of this and I am not.

May 16, 2011

Friday, October 16, 2009

More random thoughts

The blog has to restart. For no reason other than the fact that the thoughts have been spiraling out of control and I have been imagining having the time to actually sit down and follow each thought as it happens. And  I know that it is an impossibility and merely a dream of mine to imagine that. I can barely get my act together to write what gets me my bread and butter and then to imagine that I will be able to produce more, makes me want to laugh.

Random thoughts cross the mind.

How much humiliation can one take before pride steps in and says no? Or is it that imagined love has far greater power than I know of? When someone says I love you or I want to have an affair with you, do you feel grateful because it is a past lover and he is married and he never did have the affair with you when you really wanted it and now he is available and you fall backwards accommodating his request. And then he moves on and does not acknowledge you or even those feeble attempts that you make at keeping in touch through SMS. He couldn’t care less! You care more and more and have a thousand reasons on hand for his not being in touch and you will not divulge his name to friends even when they ask since you want to protect his privacy and anyway he had asked you not to share any information about himself to anyone. So you hark back to the old days and what a great friend he is and what you both share when you know the score now – there is nothing there but an imagined love affair which has burnt out a long time ago and all it is now is a power game with the controls in his hand and you waiting for him to bestow a kindly look in your direction! What is the fucking great thing about love? Give me hate, at least one can understand it.


How many blind women do we see on the streets – walking alone and negotiating spaces that blind men are seen occupying and traveling in? It was brought to my notice a couple of weeks ago and I started really looking around and its truly difficult to see blind women anywhere. One sees the random blind man, walking his way through the streets with his cane, or battling the crowds to get into a bus or even selling his incense sticke. The silence of female blindness is stark. Women are not to be seen, they are nowhere. So where do these women go and what do they do and how do they negotiate their world? Are they always in protected spaces and do they always need somebody to lead them?

Where does all the pain from care giving go to? When does one say enough is enough and I cannot do it anymore? Or is there no escape route for anyone? I wonder about this. What happens when someone you love is diagnosed with Alzheimers? Nothing prepares you for this, since you never are able to figure it our initially. It just seems like the person is forgetful and then you realize that they are more than forgetful and then you realize that you have been really angry with them and have shouted a couple of times and maybe you have hurt them and maybe you have hurt yourself because you never meant to do all of this. But no one else is really around to help you with this. Some friends understand but many people don’t. Alzheimers, schizophrenia, manic depressive – all are understood as dementia by most people. Why would they know any different? We don’t talk about any of this and mental health just as sexuality is a taboo subject. Admitting that one is seeing at therapist is sometimes as close to saying that you are having sex with your best friend’s partner! Maybe that would be more forgiveable but dementia – madness is not forgiveable, its scary, it seems contagious, it makes people say and do things that do not appear “normal”.



Monday, May 26, 2008

Why doesn't gurgaon look like this? Would give an arm and a teeth to be in a place where the view from my front room was so romantic and lovely. 

I do have a view from my 8th floor. Its a little different. I see buildings and balconies and clothes hanging on those and in some there are some plants to be seen. Fortunately, I do not see into my neighbor's bedroom. It isn't romantic or lovely, but if I struggle with sleep in the early hours of the morning I can just about see the sun rising in the east. It rises and then floods my bedroom with lots of light. Don't complain too much about that, since that is something I have not had for a very long time.

What is that now makes me a social leper for people living in Delhi? Friends ask if I have lost my mind and is my move to Gurgaon a result of that. Acquaintances look sadly at me and wonder how I commute to Delhi and do I not find life very boring in the concrete city!!!! Rather tired of this. Did I not notice and has the centre of the world shifted to South Delhi? Was I asleep or was it just one of those coups that happened?

Anyway for those who really wish to know, yes Gurgaon is a concrete jungle. Yes there are too many buildings around, green spaces are few but we do have cinemas, malls, cultural events and surprisingly enough, most of us have friends who live this side and so going into Delhi is at an all time low. But I wish bookstores from Delhi would move here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

tigers and more

just come back after three days in sawai madhopore. lived in luxury at khem villas. did not understand the villas bit though - the tents and cottages did not resemble villas by any stretch of imagination. may be that is what they hope it will be sometime in the future... fantastic service, exellent food and altogether a great experience. the national park is nearby and that is why this visit.

went on jeep rides in search of the tiger, a bit like hunting for page 3 types. every jeep and canter driver picks a lot which indicates which zone one is meant to be in. zone one no one wants. its too woody and the tiger is rarely seen. other animals and birds and fauna can be seen. the leopard is sighted occasionally. zone four and five are hot favourites, as is zone three. lots of chances of sighting tigers, seeing wonderful birds and monkeys, deer and interesting trees. if one is truly lucky then an alarm call can be heard and may be even a tiger can be spotted. of course your karma has to be really good for that to happen.

so we did see a tiger. she walked past our jeep, ambled was more like it. she walked past and all the jeeps had crowded around, cameras whirred impatiently and people were stunned into silence and fear. a bit like wanting to see shahrukh khan or whoever one has the hots for and then not knowing what to do - all one can do is stare and take photos and hope that nothing else happens. she was beautiful and i think she knew that all of us were completely mesmerised.

my take on the tiger sightings is rather simple. i think the tigers meet periodically and discuss what they should do with the hordes of people who wander around in search of them. on some days they send out their house pussy cats with tiger paw block prints. the pussycats walk around the jungle all night and make paw prints in the mud, so that the guides and trackers wander around aimlessly while the tigers loll somewhere inside. on other days, lots are drawn and a tiger is selected to go out and show herself or himself to the world. if they feel particularly warm towards humans, they send more than one so that more people are happy. and then there are the off days when they do not want to be sighted at all. they chill in their different parts and do not meet at all. seems plausible, don't you think?

i would be like that. the town of sawai madhopore exists because of the tiger and ranthambhore. if the park did not exist, many people would have to move out and find other occupations. so it becomes crucial that tigers are sighted and that people respect the forest. tigers are important but not the forest , since all who come do not really want to see langurs, or nilgai or antelope or as some guides say - male deer horny, female deer not horny!

what is a fabulous experience is the dastkar ranthambhore kendra and the craft that one sees there. created locally, providing employment to local craftspeople and women and making sure that their livelihood is sustainable. i was last there a decade ago, i worked on the project and it was amazing to come back and see what all had been achieved in the intervening years. loved it and loved all the products - the tiger pillow, the bags, the clothes!!!!!

go to ranthambhore and see the tiger if you can, but see all else that the forest has to offer since most of our towns have only cars and architecturally unsound buildings on display.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A story I wrote long ago


July 17, 2000

"It’s a bad idea". A smile. "A really bad idea. Don't even think of it".
"Why not? I have to be honest. I like you and I want to be with you. An affair? A relationship? Who knows?"
A laugh this time. The eyes crinkle up. Just a reiteration. "It’s a bad idea. Can't we be friends?"
"I guess we can," said rather reluctantly.
"Is that such a bad idea? We can still meet, go out, see movies and talk endlessly. Can't we?"
"Ofcourse. So tell me about yourself."
And so it began. This slow peeling of layers. Of friends meeting, of people with nothing in common untangling their lives. Explaining themselves. Words, endless words rolling into each other. Many silences., many gaps in the deconstruction of their lives. Yet somewhere a faint flicker of movement together, towards somewhere.
"I am empty, nothing to give you. Emotionally completely drained."
"I still want you. Any which way. And anyway, who decides what's empty, what's full?"
"Find someone else. It's better that way. I can't, I mean I won't get involved. Its too much heartbreak. You are resilient. You'll move on if this doesn't work. I can't take it anymore."
"I can't change what happened and I can't promise you forever. For me this moment is forever and I want you in my life. There is no certainty in anything I can give you. I know I am there now and hope to be there for you. If you believe, stay with me."
"What belief? No more learning processes. I want to be in a safe place, a space where I am comfortable and in control of my life. I am there now, I may not be there as a lover. I can't sustain relationships of love. Find yourself a real lover, someone who's there for you, will take and give in return. Its not me babe."
Endless whorls. More of the same conversations. The recurring theme being walk away, stay away, find someone else. And the other voice stating the opposite. Accompanying all of this is caring, endless laughter, infinite love and an unburdening of lives. Painting their earlier lives where nothing was in common.
Different worlds. Bridging is always difficult. That is if it is consciously thought of. It happens on its own most often. Because there is so much to tell each other, so much sharing that happens and spaces suddenly come together. What might have been emptiness fills with voices - the present, the past, all wildly mix and the canvas gets painted. Sometimes it is what was planned and sometimes a whole new pattern emerges.
So what were these lives that were apart? What brought them closer? Do they fit in with each other or are they together inspite of being apart? How much of their present is colored by their present? Is the touching of hands the same beginning each time? Do life stories repeat itself?
"Babe, we are back to where we started from. I want you in my life. I am happy with you. You make me smile. You make me glad that I am alive."
That gentle smile again.
"You make me happy too. I am glad that you are in my life and I never want to let you go. I like you. But it's still a bad idea to want anymore. Move on sweetheart and don't get caught in this. I will not be involved in a relationship. And don't smile. And don't ask me what this is?"
Once again it begins. This search for meaning. How many more hours, how many more words to explain lives spent apart - and at the end maybe togetherness or just a moving apart? For now too much is known.

July 21, 2000

You say I should write more often and I ask what?
You say more articles obviously.
I say that’s all? Why not letters to you. Letters that never get answered because you hate the written word - if it has to be written by you.
You smile your gentle smile. You say I remember what you said about love. About different concepts of love intersecting and not finding anything in common. Isn’t that true of most relationships? Does one ever see two people who are similar to each other emotionally, in thinking and feeling, get together?
No they don’t. Because if they did, the relationship is bound to end sooner or later.
Why, I wonder?
Hey, you don’t want to be involved with someone who is similar to you. After all the initial bits of getting to know each other, it can be tedious having the same reactions to everything.
So are we different?
I don’t quite know. Sometimes I think we are and then I think, give us time and we start modifying our behavior to suit each other and before we know it, we will be running away from each other, cursing all the common bits we exhibit.
But why would we do that? Surely we would want to retain our individuality. After all, that’s why we met and became friends.
Getting to know each other is different. We spend a lot of time talking about ourselves, our lives and we think we like each other because we are different. I don’t know when the whole equation changes. Because suddenly, all the dissimilar bits get erased out and before we know it, we become alike.
Yuck! Hey, lets avoid that bit. Can we continue being different and yet like each other?
Let’s try. There are so many firsts in what we are doing, why not try this one out too?
What do you mean by that? What firsts?
We talk of being friends and only that and yet we can’t bear the thought of not seeing each other or talking to each other every day.
Hey that’s normal. There is so much to talk about. So why shouldn’t we?
Its not what we should or should not be doing, it is happening to us. We enjoy it and yet we don’t talk love.
That smile again. Your eyes recede into your face. It’s that crinkly sort of smile.
I reach forward and hug you. It’s okay sweets. Let’s not try and analyze everything. Let’s just enjoy it. Atleast it’s making us happy.

July 21,2000

I've just got home and the phone rings. Its you asking me how the day was, that is the last two hours that we did not speak to each other. I ask the same. You reply. And the conversation continues.
"When do you think I will get to meet you?"
"I guess when you finish socializing. Your seemingly unending commitments." " I hate this irritation that I feel. Why do I have to do what I really don't want to do. Why don't friends understand and not give me grief."
"Obviously your friends expect more. They want to share your life. And anyway I am your friend too."
"Aren't you irritated because I changed the plan?"
"Should I be? Can I be demanding? Would it scare you if I were to say that I am irritated? I had looked forward to that coffee together, but you need your space and time with your life before I walked in." And what remained unsaid was that I am also grappling with this irritation at not seeing you everyday and I can't quite fathom why.
"Then why don't you say so?"And it begins all over again. This trying to understand what the hell is actually going on between us. Is this how a relationship begins? Or is this just a bonding that happens when people find someone they are comfortable with and mistake this for love? And even if it is so - what are we scared of? Ourselv

random thoughts on NGOs and sexuality

Empowerment, gender, women’s rights, sexuality, sexual harassment are much talked about terms within NGOs in India. Some of it has come about as a reaction to years of patriarchal functioning of these organisations and some as dictated terminology of the 90s. Most or all these terms have also taken root within the NGO discourse because of its popularity with donor agencies. What does this jargon mean? Does it have the potential to be translated into everyday lives of women who are dealing with issues of existence or does it remain at the realm of theory?

Almost all NGOs have a programme for women and nowadays the focus has shifted to micro credit and livelihood strategies. The rationale for this has been the changing economic climate of India and the pressures it puts on women, most especially women headed households. These programmes are targetted towards the very poor in rural areas or urban slum dwellers and is meant to mobilise them to challenge existing norms of mobility, women’s role within the community and household, gain political power etc. The change makers are also inevitably women who work within these NGOs.

How well are these women equipped to deal with issues of social change? Quite a few of them have been attended gender workshops, a fortunate few have attended workshops on sexual violence and sexuality and almost all of them have attended trainings in organisational and skill development. Has any of it impacted on their own lives? Have they been able to assimilate what they have learnt to make changes within their own ife or has it been a “learning” only to “teach “ other people? This becomes a very pertinent question to ask when confronted with the reality that a lot of these women live away from home and family and are required to interact and work in close proximity with their male colleagues. Many of them would have male supervisors or bosses, who they would have to report to, but who are not necessarily sympathetic to or understand the issues involved.

A project in Rajasthan requires that its male and female workers spend days away from the project headquarters at one of the villages they work in. Although work areas maybe clearly defined, they form a support for each other so that they provide the best possible services to the area. Bonds are formed which go beyond the professional to encroach/include the personal. On return to the headquarters they return to their public life which does not allow any show of recognition other than that of colleagues.

Although the female colleagues may feel the need to bond on issues of family, husband, children, health etc. they do not seem to envisage the need for any structure that could address issues that go beyond familial relations to encompass self. provide any support in case of one of their colleagues having an affair with a male colleague.
(Instances of same sex relationships are almost always unrecorded because of shroud of silence that covers anything sexual and in this case is considered “abnormal”.)
Why is it that “legitimate” sex - sex between married partners - can be discussed in its entirety but not relationships outside the purview of marriage? Does the enforced secrecy increase the stress level of the woman and reduce efficiency at work? Why is it that organisations are able to discuss sexuality as a concept amongst their target groups - normally represented through discussions on birth control or reproductive tract infections - but are unable to provide a forum for their women workers? Why is that the women themselves are unable to share with each other? What happens to the sexuality of single, seperated or even married women living apart from their husbands in conditions where social contact as well as support is restricted to male and female colleagues? And most importantly what is the organisation’s position on relationships other than the socially sanctioned ones?
“One should always be drunk, that’s all there is to it, it’s the only way. Not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks you back and bends you to the earth. You should continually be drunk. Drunk with what? With passion. With anger, with outrage, or with justice, as you please, but get drunk. And if sometimes, you should happen to awake, on the stairs of a palace, on the grass of a ditch, in the dreary solitude of your room, and find that your drunkenness is aping, or has vanished, ask the wind, and the wave ask the star, bird or clock, ask anything that flies, everything that moans everything that flows, everything that sings, everything that speaks. Ask them the time, and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, and the clock will all reply it is time to get drunk. If you’re not prepared to be the modern slaves of time, be perpetually drunk. With passion, with anger, with outrage or with justice. As you please.”

as presented by a slyvia tamale at the AWID Forum in 2005

just thinking

have been reading all the stories of violence and in feeling disjointed and out of it..it can't be for real that we watched the adivasi women getting mauled...and that we continue to maul our women for no reason at all..was happy to see that the girl who was sexually attacked said that the struggle would go on and that all this only made her stronger. will there ever be a time that all of this will pass and that we can walk around and protest and do all that we want to without the fear of attack or slander.

SUDAN: personal reflections

My association with the word Sudan goes a long way back. I was in Dublin in 1990, my first trip abroad and the first “foreign” man to proposition me was James and he was from Sudan. A refugee, he had fled from Juba in the South and come to Dublin to study. That is another story that I won’t go in to here. Dublin was also the place that I had fellow students from other African countries Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zaire. And then I met Fahima Hashim in India, a Sudanese woman working with Jagori a women’s organization in India. We often spoke of working together and my coming to Khartoum to work with the organization she founded. Seemed like an impossible dream, until now. As I write this, I sit in the most expensive hotel in Khartoum, the Al Salam Rotana Hotel.

The years between 1990 and 2007 has seen Sudan in the news much more – famine, the civil unrest in the South and Darfur. The latter being one of the greatest human tragedies the world has witnessed and ignored. But that is all I heard about Sudan. And then an old school friend of mine came back into my life and she had many stories about Sudan. She had worked here as a doctor and had dire stories of being abducted by the rebels. But more importantly, she was the friend of Emma, the British aid worked who came to Sudan and married Riek Machar, the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) zonal commander for the Upper Nile province who then eventually broke away (you can read more about this in Emma’s War, written by Deborah Scroggins). She told me many stories about Southern Sudan and the work that she did here. And those stories also spoke about a war torn land beset with innumerable problems.

So given this background, I set forth for Khartoum a little scared and some what excited too. Not sure of what to expect, I scoured the net for information on Sudan, the tourist sites that I could look at, the hotels I could stay in and the handicrafts that I could buy. I must say that the net search was the most unrewarding. There were hotels mentioned but the ratings were terrible. The tourist sites were limited: the camel market in Omdurman, the old city; Jebel Marra – a volcano in Darfur which was now out of bounds and pyramids in the north. Of crafts there was no mention. In terms of hotels, there were a few mentioned and of all of them Rotana was new and rated a little higher than the others. Fahima had also suggested this place, so it seemed to be the place to be in. The net showed me a fabulous place, very plush and expensive.

I read upon Sudan and all I could find was stories of the conflict, testimonies of rape and violence, the embargo by the US, reports by UN personnel on the tragedy and so on. Nothing about people’s life in Sudan, the women’s movement or any thing else. And that got me thinking. Don’t countries with a history of armed conflict have anything else happening there? Are they no stories that talk of resilience and fighting back? Has there been no movement for rights in this country?

I land in Khartoum and am met at the airport by Fahima. The flight from Doha was full of Sudanese families and all the women were weighed down by gold of the likes that I have not seen before. It was even more than what I imagine Malayalis returning from the Gulf brought back into the country. There were Indians on the flight too – which flight does not have? The one Indian woman I met had been here with her husband for a year and she had nothing good to say about the country. She talked about how expensive everything was and how there was no social life. We drove down to the hotel and as the car passed through the city, all I could see was big buildings, a building that housed Oriflame, a billboard that screamed “Fair and Lovely” a whitening cream that I was familiar with in India, Afra- a large mall that catered to the expat population and then the hotel loomed large. Many, many cars on the road Mercedes, Daewoo, white land rovers with UN emblazoned on them. Women and men were driving these cars. And then the hotel loomed large. Very important looking and gigantic, comparing with the best five stars. Was kind of intimidated by the space and the people that I saw inside. Many suited men and women, all looking very important and hurrying about. All foreigners and the local people were the staff and the few others who seemed to be there to pick up the hotel guests. This hotel has all that other hotels have – swimming pool, fitness centre, food that can be had in any other part of the world, notices that point towards the gift shop that does not exist, mention of a book shop that has not begun as yet. Life in the hotel is like that of a kingdom. One could live here and never know of the world outside. It’s a bubble that covers you completely and nothing affects you – the heat, the stories of war, FGM – nothing! Why would it, everything is so antiseptic and perfect. A good way to forget all about real life!

Conversations with Fahima have been fascinating. There is so much that we have spoken about. The wars, Islamization of the country, the women’s movement, education systems, donors, the Sudanese diaspora who are now returning. All vignettes, but all interesting.

Khartoum has many buildings contributed by many different governments – the Friendship Hall built by the Chinese, a building for young people built by the Koreans (not sure whether North or South), a hideous space ship look alike hotel that is coming up kind courtesy the Libyan government – scheduled to open on September I, to commemorate the Libyan revolution ( the other side to this story is the fact that the Sudanese government owes money to Libya and so has allowed them to build this hotel); investments by the Saudis, Omanis, and other countries from the Middle East, and of course Indians.

Shariah law was imposed in 1983 and Islamization began. Red light districts closed at this time, driving prostitution underground. Many of the women in jail at this moment have been arrested on grounds of prostitution, adultery and for being drug carriers. Men are also in jail for adultery. Many women arrested for brewing alcohol. These women are from the South and for them the brewing of alcohol is not “haraam”. They brew and sell since that is their only form of income generation. Interestingly, the English newspaper Khartoum Monitor had an advertisement for Alcoholics Anonymous – if Khartoum is a dry state then where would the alcoholics be, if there are alcoholics who was selling the liquor ,many questions…

1991 a Public Order Act was passed that defined appropriate Islamic conduct at the public level and addressed appearance and public interaction. Meant to guard against immorality. Islamization of public spaces. Incidents very similar to what happened in Iran happened here with the police dragging women off to the courts and lashing them for exposing their hair or not being dressed properly. Women of Afhad University, a private University, found the police waiting outside the gates since the University did not insist on them “dressing appropriately” in University! And now in 2007, one of the Universities in Khartoum has a woman leading the students union. Apparently, it has been difficult for her, but she is there.

The government also wanted a law enacted that would have ensured that women could not work in public places, which included gas stations, hotels, etc. There was a huge mobilization amongst ordinary women not just NGOs and the government was forced to change the law. Education for women has also ensured that they are questioning customary law.

Islam came to Sudan approximately 500 years ago and there was always Christianity in the country. Coptic churches existed. With the passing of the Shariah law, many of the Copts fled. There were also a large number of Greeks whose main business was alcohol. With Shariah law they fled, since alcohol became prohibited. Apparently, some of the best Greek food stuff was available in Khartoum earlier.

Politics in this country is shaped within the context of Arabization rather than Africanization.

US plays an important role here. Sudan is seen as the training ground for the jihadis and Osama had spent time there.

An amazing country and one wishes there had been more time to explore it. There is the war in the south, in Darfur and yet there are weddings, and dervishes dancing to Sufi music, young girls who wish to be film makers, incense to make the women more alluring to the men, perfume that is made from crocodile nails, the meeting place of the Blue Nile and the White Nile…a history that needs to be written about and talked about more. Inshallah, may be one day I will be able to do that!
Arrived back in New York and was pleasantly surprised to see that immigration was not all that tough. Sauntered through and went up to customs and was asked by woman whether we (Radhika and I) had any food items that we wanted to declare and what were we bringing back from Lima. Since neither of us had anything, we said so and were asked to move into another line. We did and were asked again whether we had any food items to declare and if that they did find anything in our luggage we would have to pay a fine. We said we did not have anything; the luggage went through without a problem. And then we were asked to move into a waiting room of sorts.

Through all of this, neither of us was told what was happening or what was to happen. Four of us were there in the waiting room. All non-white. And there were four counters. Man behind the counter asked me to give him my passport. He flicked through it. Asked me what I was doing in the US, why was I there and when was I there last. Told him I was there a week ago, he looked surprised then told him I was in transit to Peru. Where was I going to stay, was I meeting family, what I was doing in Lima, what did I do in India, did I have a business card? As I looked through my bag for the visiting card, he wanted to know how much money I had and did I have credit cards and would I show him my wallet. And through all of this, nothing about why he was doing this except for a random comment that this was a routine check. I finally found my visiting card case and pulled out the card. He wanted to know whether he could look through it. There was no way that I was going to say no, so I gave it him. He flips through it casually. Goes back to flipping through my passport and wants to know whether I have visited any Arab country. He could clearly see the visas and the fact that I had been to Sudan very recently. Wanted to know what I was doing there. Told him training on gender. Looks at my Canadian visa and remarks that I have been to Canada. It is obvious that I have, I have an entry date stamped on it. Wanted to know what my relationship to Radhika was since it was obvious that we were travelling together. Now wants me to bring my luggage to the table so that he can look through it.

Sifts through the luggage. Tells me that this part of his job is what he does not like. Sees a notebook, which says sexuality, sex, sexual rights on the cover. My notebook with details from meetings that I have attended on those subjects. Read through some of the pages and then asks me to pack up. I then put everything back on the trolley and he escorts me to the door to let me out. Informs me once again that this is just a random check and that I just got “selected” and I could go now. And I walk out and wait for Radhika to come.
So what do I make of all this? Ignore it as random, it probably was. But what did I feel: scared, disempowered, terrified that they would “discover” something. It doesn’t help that I have a passport, which has visas of all the places that I have visited which include Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Sudan, Canada, Bangkok and many other places. And many visas of the many times that I have come to the US and left and come back and left. I am someone who talks about leadership of women, the need to question and I found myself quiet, scared and desperately trying to remember the names of people I know in NY who could help me if I needed help. What if I could make only one phone call, who would I make it to? Thank god I knew English, I knew what they were asking yet could ask no questions. Still feel unsettled by it all, scared of going through those immigration counters. Was it a check by customs or was it a check by immigration, I still don’t know and did not dare ask. All I know is that I felt my privacy had been invaded; I was not read my rights and given the present climate was too scared of asking anything in case they thought I was showing attitude! Long live freedom and democracy and the right to question!
sometime last year
Queer Struggle
The queer struggle is meant to be a site for challenge, for radical solutions, a space where one questions caste, class, ethnicity and gender. And yet that is one space where we seem to reinforce gender stereotypes by casting the world within the binary construction of man and woman and any one who does not fall within that or has one or more of the attributes that we assign either category as transgender. So what we are not accounting for are other experiences and choices of gender non conformity or expressions of gender/sexuality that are not bound by man or woman or heterosexual or homosexual.
So the identity alphabet soup too is also constructed as LGBTI and everything else that is added on are regional variations – kothi, jogappa, panthi etc.
Are we also then buying into what is seen as man and woman and attributing to them certain characteristics that place them firmly within the terrain of this binary construct?
What is queer then? Should it be inclusive of all sexualities, identities, behaviours and anyone who transgresses all norms that have been laid down by society, tradition, law whatever or should we reduce to only those who subscribe to the classification that has been laid down by us – LGBT?

Queer struggle now is also being defined only as the struggle for the reading down or repeal of 377 as though once that is done all our troubles will be over. As the law stands and the way the law plays out, the people affected are the men who transgress existing norms of what is considered the “correct” desire for them to have. Therefore it is the men who are in public spaces – and now even the internet has acquired a geographical space- parks etc. who are penalized or preyed upon. They occupy this space by virtue of them having the necessary sexual organs to call themselves men but by virtue of behavior or practices or identity they immediately lose the superior position that has been accorded to them through that great institution Patriarchy! Women do not occupy any space – public or private; they are not meant to express desire; and they are not meant to act out any emotion that they may feel. So conversations around women and sexuality have always been severely limiting unless one talks about it in the context of rape or disease. The discussion around 377 has had the effect of silencing all discussion around the women and desire issue since we seem to have prioritized the legal issue before the others. 377 has not been used to threaten women in quite the mass scale that it has been used against men, mainly because the women are not in any of the spaces where they may be a recognition that there is a transgression. But the question of women loving women exists and is not being given much focus because it is more challenging in many aspects. They have to out themselves as sexual beings in the first place and at the same time out themselves as sexual beings that break out of the compulsory heterosexuality mode. That renders them doubly deviant and enhances the chances of violence against them.

Staying silent when the 377-debates rage on has been a political choice that has been reached. Why would one ask for attention and ask for penalization given that the government has such strong views on what is correct and incorrect and believes in policing people. Look what happened in Sri Lanka for instance: Sri Lanka has a similar provision to Sec 377 in its Penal Code. The changes to the Penal Code were recommended in the context of the need for amendments to the law to protect the victims of incest, marital rape, sexual harassment and the exploitation of children. Though gay rights groups and human rights activists such as the late Neelan Thiruchelvam clearly opposed the continued operation of Sec 365A of the Penal Code arguing that the provsion was archaic, the amendment broadened the ambit of acts considered criminal under the law. The term 'man' was changed to 'person' and 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature' became act of 'gross indecency with any person.' Thus, a provision, which did not apply to lesbians in its colonial avatar, was actually expanded to include lesbians in the wake of this reform rather than ceasing to apply to gay men. That is definitely not something that is desired in the context of India where homo sociality is the order of the day.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

saw lage raho munna bhai a couple of days ago and loved every moment of it. vidya balan had a huge part to play in my loving the film - who can resist that delightful smile- but other than her, i fell in love with Gandhi.

what a wonderful way to bring home a man who one has seen standing in parks and hung on walls! suddenly he comes alive and becomes relevant to our "modern" lives. satyagrah and non violence do not stay only as symbols of India's independence struggle but now become a living reality.. a possibility in our lives.

"gandhigiri" seems like something to aspire to.

" Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes"
Mahatma Gandhi
just returned from attending the 7th National Conference of Women's Movements, Affirming Diversities and Resisting Divisiveness in Kolkata.

have never attended any of the previous ones and have always heard of them. was an amazing experience. women from all over India, some women from Burma who are now living in India, women from Nepal and Bangladesh too. at any point there was a bable of different languages... hindi, assamese, english, nagamese,tamil, malayalam, kannada all grappling with each other and women getting themselves heard. dissonances- agreements, sorrow-happiness: all of this was a part of the daily lives there.

what struck me the most was that in this age of globalization and standardization of bodies, the Salt Lake Stadium represented diversity of shapes, sizes, identities.... small, large, big, fat, thin tiny, hairy, non hairy... everybody had a space and occupied it. completely contrary to what one could see represented on hoardings outside the stadium and in real life. thought a lot more about it on the way back.

was in a kingfisher airline flight and was amazed at the symmetry of the air hostesses. all of them seemed to have come out of the same factory that produces these bodies: fairly perfect figures, all fair and tallish. didn't anyone else apply or is it that kingfisher wanted to provide eye candy to diminish the boredom of the air journey ? and in complete contrast was the flight i took to kolkata. indian airlines and the air hostesses who appeared as they are. they did not fit any mould and therefore seemed more real. diversity was truly represented and in retrospect, i know that i was pleased to see them.

i know that a lot of people have a problem with the air hostesses on indian airlines...many complain of their rude behaviour, i agree with that. and many others complain of how they are not "smart" enough, or that they look like"aunties". and what is wrong with aunties? the "uncles" one sees on board are not tall, dark and handsome either! anyway, what one wants is good service.. not eye candy.. because there is not much that you can do with that on a flight but one can do a lot with good service!

we need to think more about the way that women are expected to conform to the new ideal of beauty which is all about being tall, fair, sexy ( in a conventional slim hipped, big breasts ( not too big),long legs kind of way) ! what happened to the days of just being who you are .. or am i going to be accused of promoting unhealthy ways of living or worse still be accused of being a feminist?????

on another note, what happened to the concept of dark men? fair and lovely for men seems to be doing good business........