Tuesday, 19 February 2019


Grandmother isn’t friends with English.
Yet she said while growing up she had heard
That when women study too much
They get “hysteria.”
She was worried for me.
Sometime between her limited, till-grade-five, formal education
And her infinite informal education
They had made sure to teach her, in more than one language,
The terms for illnesses women can contract
If they seek to expand.

First published in The Sunlight Press, 20 Feb 2019.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Five ways to do gender sensitive reporting

1. Use of respectful visuals: Pictures of survivors in torn clothes or hiding their tear stained faces while predatory silhouettes loom over them add to the shame society already imposes on sexual violence survivors. Stock representational images commonly found in media reporting of sexual violence take all power and agency away from survivors, adding to their objectification and, ultimately, to rape culture. Media should instead use empowering images, like those focusing on the culprits, or photographs of protests against such violence, so that survivors feel that their narratives would be told with sensitivity, and more of them come out to report sexual violence.

2. Avoiding victim blaming language: Media trials that declare people as guilty even as investigations or court cases are under way are unethical. At the same time, reporting should not be such that it casts aspersions on the survivor’s account. Instead of writing “the person who allegedly raped”, one can say “the accused”.

3. Maintaining a clear distinction between sex and sexual assault: Terms that describe consensual sexual intimacy between people should not be used when talking about sexual assault. Rape is not sex, groping is not caressing, and so on. When this difference is erased, it dilutes the extremity of the crime and makes it appear as if the survivor were complicit in the violence done to them.

4. Setting the right context: Reports that talk of the victim’s clothes, whether they had sexual relationships in the past . . . all amount to what the Chicago Taskforce Media Toolkit calls “superfluous descriptions”. What deserves to be under the lens is the perpetrator’s action, a deeper study of their history and motivations, pointers that could help a better understanding of rape culture so the approach makes one think of ways of prevention. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma also calls for framing of news stories in a way that they are “thematic rather than episodic”.

5. Resources for survivors: The incident of violence and the pursuit of legal justice is one aspect of the story. But what are the options available for survivors who are in need of not only legal and financial but also emotional help? What kind of resources are available for them that would help them not only secure justice but also heal from the trauma? This would provide some much needed information as well as remind the state and society about their responsibility towards survivors.

First published in The Assam Tribune, 17 February 2019.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

An avalanche of shame: How social media went from becoming a site of abuse of women to a platform where women outed their abusers

How it all began

I remember about a decade ago I had chanced upon Orkut, which now seems Facebook’s pre-historic ancestor. I started basking in the azure Orkut skies with considerable glee because it was a chance to reconnect with friends I had lost to their IT jobs and their consequent dread of sending emails after doing it at work all day, even if to a long lost friend. A few days into the e-socialising I was warned by well wishers against putting up my photographs online. They had chosen to replace their own display pictures with white cherubs, celebs and tulips. Their unsolicited, solicitous advice came from what they had heard about the misuse of data and pictures online, especially when it came to women. Their was talk of morphed pictures, theft and blackmail in the cyberspace.

What they feared was not baseless but I still chose to live my life, online and otherwise, on my terms, rather than let unknown villainous forces determine my choices. I took the stand to fight those who stole and misused others’ data. It was the same as believing in asserting my claim over the physical public space and going out prepared to confront those who challenged this right of mine, instead of giving in to them and shrinking my world to my home.

I got a chance to put theory into practice soon enough when, not through Orkut but through Yahoo messenger, an anonymous blackmailer sent me messages threatening to tell my family I was dating someone. I was young and taken aback for a moment but was immediately seeing red hot rage in the presumptuous texts. I was outraged to think that a stranger could make so bold as to believe that he would have so much power over me because as a woman I was flouting a societal norm by dating. I had no intention of handing over my self-respect to him. I refused him what he was looking for – attention – and did not respond to the message. If my family received some malicious letter some day from a stranger, they certainly did not apprise me of it.

“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life/The world would split open”

Cut to the present day, many years later, and I find that the above lines from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem resonate with our reality. Looking at the #metoo movement in India, we would find many women outing their sexual abusers online, through Twitter but also through Facebook and Instagram. It is also a slap in the face of that annoying expression about women being women’s enemies. Women at the front of the movement have formed a protective wall around those who could bring themselves to share their horror stories only because they were promised anonymity in the online public space. This has been one of the most heartening examples of the women’s solidarity network that always existed but was not adequately acknowledged in the misogynist discourse. Women are trying to ensure that survivors, many having to relive their trauma in the retelling, get what they need: therapy, legal help, a patient ear. This one hashtag on social media has brought women together across the globe.

It is not that social media has ceased to be the abusive arena it has been for women, same as any other public space in which women first make their foray. Sudipti, who writes regularly for Hindi publications online and in print, and is a schoolteacher, says, “As a woman as long as you are writing on gender and other social issues, you may still be fine. Expand further into religion and politics and be prepared to witness the backlash. After writing continuously on these issues, I got exhausted handling the constant whataboutery and prejudice, and stopped.”

But digital footprints are easier to track than physical ones and women have also given back as good as they got by taking action against abuse through solid proofs like emails and screenshots, which the social media makes easier to save and reproduce. Having practised theatre in Paris, Delhi and Dharamshala, Niranjani Iyer was one of those who make their Facebook profiles due to exhortations by friends and then their digital presence gets relegated to the background. In the context of women speaking out online, she exclaims: “I never thought I would say this but I am so glad that social media exists. I would still say Twitter can be noisy but with Instagaram you can reach so many.” Theatre needs its practitioners to take on different roles and personas, and those in power take advantage of these grey areas to abuse their colleagues. “This movement has not exploded in theatre yet. But it has made people rethink power equations. The kind of things people in power have got away with . . . the impunity . . . I don’t think it’s possible now. The potential for women to come out with their stories is huge.” She talks of the notion of shame imposed on women, which led to guilt in women about what had been done to them. “Now women are speaking up and saying, ‘You did this’.”

In journalism, theatre, writing, music, films, different kinds of art spaces, in some ways it can become easier to gaslight victims because the abusers often have politically correct, progressive, masks. The wordplay they employ to defend themselves can also be that much more brazen and preposterous. Take the case of accused poet CP Surendran trying to defend himself in his statement (Firstpost, 16 October 2018): “I believe sexism is an intellectual and physical reality . . . I choose not to think in given categories.”

Social media has enabled abusers as well, by giving men an easy space for their sanctimonious declamations that contradict their acts of violations, so that victims in the beginning end up questioning themselves and potential supporters of survivors are full of doubts. On the basis of an image formation that they achieve on this fluid medium, announcing book deals and getting themselves photographed with well known faces seen in the mainstream media, their stream of “friends” and “followers” who believe in that image also grows.

When such a personality, a well known poet, was called out on Facebook by another poet, the survivor was met with both support and disbelief. Poet and scholar Semeen Ali was one of those to come out in the survivor’s support and, with other poets, sent a letter to Sahitya Akademi. The letter demanded that the accused step down from the editorship of a prestigious anthology in the making, which many of the signatory poets had been selected to be part of.

Semeen recalls the series of events to have unfolded after that: “There were people who signed the letter and backed out. They did not want to ruin their equation with him [the accused]. The Indian poetry scene is really small and many do not speak up as they are afraid they won’t be published in anthologies.” Of these, many were later invited to readings organised by the accused, while some places that used to earlier invite Semeen’s poetry distanced themselves from her. Semeen is also a book reviewer and, after this incident, refused to review books written by the accused, knowing that possible consequences could include her being “blacklisted” as a reviewer as well by some renowned publications. “And that’s ok”, she says, “I could not keep silent knowing what had happened, also considering my personal experience and those of other poets as well when it came to the behaviour of the accused on several occasions.”

The loss of conditional friendships and spaces for career advancement have not deterred other women. Like Niranjani, who started her own theatre company and did physical theatre in India at a time of dialogue based plays, believes, “What are spaces, after all? Spaces can be created.” In cases where an accused has been first named on social media, many other women have come out with their stories of him. Others came out to support the survivor and her case. There have also been women who started putting out their stories anonymously, sharing their identity details only to one or more of the women who were ready to listen and to share these stories further with permission. Some of these anonymous tellers later revealed their identities, which gave their narratives even greater credibility but also added to their vulnerability.

Their life on social media was scrutinised by naysayers. Women with a “low” follower count online were accused of sharing their stories of abuse to gain more followers; they were asked again and again to repeat lurid details of the harassment, blamed for “harming” the reputation and career of the men who had ruined the women’s reputation and career, and left them with enduring trauma. Actor Tanushree Datta’s account of harassment by co-actor Nana Patekar when she refused to enact certain scenes for a film was mocked by trolls who circulated video clips showing her kissing on screen in other films.

It was the usual scene of trolling and abuse that women face when they speak up. Only this time they were not alone. They were standing up for each other; they were educating, agitating, organising, through letters demanding investigations to organisations the accused were a part of, to the police, the court and the National Commission for Women. The Network for Women in Media in India kept taking regular cognisance of these accounts and pushed for action, along with providing support to survivors.

An online movement? Really?

Online movements were scoffed at in the beginning as the best one could expect of lazy millennials. However, with time it became clear that not all online campaigns lack teeth. From protests in Iran and Egypt to #Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, all over the world people have successfully used social media to amplify their causes.

Concerns have been expressed about whether the Indian #metoo movement with a large online base can be truly inclusive, whether it can reach those much lower in the rung when it comes to caste, class and patriarchal oppression, many of whom have no access to digital spaces. It would be naive to believe that the number of social media users in India represent the whole country, or a balanced gender ratio among its users. Think tank LIRNEAsia’s study, reported by Karishma Mehrotra for The Indian Express on 8 August 2018, showed that 80 percent of Indian men are mobile users, and only 43 percent women have cellphones. The gender gap in users is higher in rural areas, 52 percent, and was recorded as 34 percent in urban India. 64 percent, of which 68 percent were women, did not know about the Internet. 27 percent of those who did know mostly used it for social media.

But there is clearly potential for more in a scenario where a person in a village recharge their phone with Rs 10 to watch an entire movie. India has the highest annual growth rate of Internet users. If mobiles and the world wide web did not offer spaces of expansion to women, khap panchayats and town councils would not have advised women against those things.

Rural women reporters of Khabar Lahariya joined the #metoo women to talk of the daily harassment done by their male counterparts, and shared how men had stopped sending them porn in the wake of the movement. Garment workers, bus conductors and street vendors in Karnataka met publicly and spoke about the harassment they are forced to face at their workplaces every day if they want to hold on to their jobs. These examples are not enough.

But it is also important to remember that women from non-urban spaces have not spoken up for the first time. In fact it was Bhanwari Devi, a rural, Dalit woman, whose fight against the sexual violence done to her led to the Vishakha Guidelines and a law against sexual harassment at workplace. So the notion that only urban women can “take” the movement to the unorganised and rural sectors is also flawed, though urban, digitally educated women can certainly work to spread it. Raya Sarkar, a bahujan feminist who started the movement online in 2017 says in a Livemint interview to Rituparna Chatterjee (who has been one of those at the forefront of the 2018 campaign), published on 15 October 2018, “A lot more can be done because dalit, adivasi and bahujan women’s voices are missing from the discourse right now . . . It should include the voices of trans women, homosexual men and women and non-binary folks.” But what the movement has done despite its limitations is to remind women themselves of the power of solidarity, of the responsibility each woman has of keeping it open and inclusive, working together to reclaim the online space as well as the public domain and ensuring more women have safe access to these spaces.

Where do women stand as social media users?

Women on social media were first targeted by companies as mere consumers. The Internet is rife with video advertisements celebrating gender equality, though on television this is still making slow progress. But as women started being attacked for being political and not just personal beings online, they demanded better regulations from platforms and a zero-tolerance approach to threats and hate speech. The end result is far from being achieved in entirety but the pressure forced platforms like Twitter and Facebook to take into account online sexual harassment done through their platforms. These groups have since come up with tools to provide a safer environment for women online and collaborated with women’s rights groups to work better in this direction. At the same time, there is sometimes great disparity in how these platforms take action: a person’s account gets suspended for their political opinions while another openly abusive person continues to retain their account. These practices would need to be remedied even if companies have no interests other than business ones are heart, and it might encourage more women, therefore more “consumers”, to start using these platforms.

There are groups studying the intersection of gender and technology, fighting for a safer and more equal space for women online, organising trainings for women on digital security and on dealing with trolling and cybercrimes. Tactical Tech Collective’s XYZ platform, Internet Democracy Project, Feminism in India, Access Now, Digital Empowerment Foundation are some of the various groups involved in doing and supporting similar work.

One way social media has offered a safe haven to women is by connecting them to support groups that they do not always find in their physical lives: there exist groups for domestic violence survivors to single mother groups. These are safe spaces for the women to share their experiences, seek out advice and be connected to experts, legal and health professionals as required.

“The meek shall inherit the earth”

What happens on social media does not necessarily remain on social media. The multiple accusations against ex-Union minister MJ Akbar have now turned into a defamation suit against one of the accusers, journalist Priya Ramani. When this made news, women on social media started pledging all sorts of support to Ramani. There were several who wanted to help with the legal expenses; others kept reassuring that all of them would back Ramani’s fight in whatever way possible. Most of these people were unknown to the journalist herself. Amidst everyday articles about social media leading to loneliness, there were hordes of women assuring each other of solidarity and support.

I was recently sitting in a room with other writers and poets, all men, when a poet was asked to recite something in particular. The poet refused, looked at me and said he would rather avoid it in this /#metoo phase. I quietly corrected him to say that it is not a phase, it is here to stay.

Twenty-years after her demonisation, in the US Monica Lewinsky is finally appearing in a docuseries (made by a team with women in majority) on The Clinton Affair. In a piece by her in Vanity Fair titled “Who Gets to Live in Victimville?” (13 November 2018), Lewinsky writes, “Bye-bye, Lewinsky scandal . . . I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle.” She remembers that when Clinton got quizzed about why he had had this inappropriate relationship, his answer was “Because I could”. Responding to questions about why Lewinsky would go through the trauma of participating in the series that demanded digging up of painful memories and unsavoury news articles, she states she participated because “I [she] could”, to ensure that what happened to her “never happens to another young person in our [her] country again”.

Herein also lies the reason why it has not been easy to dismiss the Indian #metoo movement as a social media “fad” or “trend”, though many used these frivolous terms to denigrate the movement. It is because women are speaking up not just for themselves but for those who fought before them and for the ones to come after. Statement after statement by survivors echoes this thought . . . that they are doing this for others who suffered and took the risk of speaking up, or so their sisters and daughters and any other woman does not end up believing that silence is their only recourse. These are women who have often and repeatedly been failed by due processes instituted by official committees and laws. In fact, their voicing themselves on social media has exposed the inefficacy of many of these systems and organisations and also shown that power does not lie in the hands of a few people at the heads of committees and institutions. Women have used social media to create spaces and platforms that had been consistently and unapologetically denied to them, and those who robbed women of these rights would now have to contend with their complicity. Those who have been holding their breath for the movement to “fizzle out” should instead take a deep breath and prepare for the long haul. The day of reckoning that they thought would never come is finally here.

First published in The Equator Line, Jan-Mar 2019.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Not seen, not heard: In slum evictions, children are some of the worst hit

The first time a bulldozer came to our place, I was scared and kept sitting near our belongings that had been thrown out,” says Roshni, a ten year old whose family migrated from Bihar to Delhi looking for employment. Roshni and her family have been living in a slum in Yamuna Khadar’s Belagaon in the capital’s eastern region. The settlement is right behind Rajghat, the memorial dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. Between 2011 and 2018, the houses and the small farms of the dwellers had to face frequent eviction drives by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).

Children in these fragile communities are amongst the worst hit by slum demolitions. They miss out on education, dropping out of school due to homelessness, uncertainty, and the stigma they face in schools as “slum children”. Caught in a cycle of poverty and growing up with the violence of forced displacement, their future is one of unemployment or poorly paid jobs, not to mention underage labour.

Lakshya Aakriti Foundation (LAF), a not-for-profit, runs informal schools for them in Belagaon because often having to shift from one place to another severely hampers schooling. Diptesh Singh of LAF explains, “We have been associated with this place since 2012. The area faces around four demolitions per year. One demolition takes place in a staggered manner over several days. So for the entire period the families, including the children, stay around their homes in case the bulldozers return. And it is not as if children’s school calendar is taken into consideration when homes are demolished. Children end up missing many days of school at a stretch or dropping out altogether.”

Children of Belagaon attending a school run by LAF

This year Roshni saw DDA officials in her area again. But this time she was quick to act: “I carefully dismantled our makeshift home, carried the lighter things outside the house with my younger brother, called up my older brother, and waited for him to come and take the heavy stuff out.”

Despite the trauma associated with demolitions, some children feel it is better to stay on and claim their rights to the land their ancestors have lived on since before Independence. Being close to the Yamuna river, the area is different from most urban slums in its greenery and fertility, and many residents depend on farming for their livelihood. Abdul and Rohit, both about 13 years old, are friends reluctant to shift to another locality. Abdul explains: “There is open space for us to play cricket. Neighbours share fresh vegetables they grow.” But he rues the fact that it takes months for families to get back to farming after bulldozers have run over their crops.

When the JCB machines come to raze the houses to the ground, Abbas, 14, feels like “hitting those people till they run away”. “It would be so good if we can retain this land. Anywhere else we will have to pay rent, and buy cooking gas, while here we can use the wood available around.”

Abbas’s father, Shafiq, has an elder son who works in another city as a shop assistant. With the family facing either homelessness or the threat of it, the son had given up on education years ago. Being illiterate himself, Shafiq wants that at least Abbas should study well. In answer to a question about the line of work he wants to pursue later in life, Abbas replies with a blank eyed stare, “I’ll become whatever is written in my destiny.” Constant displacement has made him lose faith in the surety of anything and he believes that fate would decide his future.

With their right to housing taken away, children lose out on the right to education too

Sunayna Wadhwan has been an activist with organisations like Hazards Centre and Mobile Creches. In her experience of working with communities in slum clusters, she noticed many families don’t send children to schools so the kids can call and inform the parents if a demolition drive seems imminent: “When we conducted meetings, children would join and try to learn about what the future of their homes would be. Those who go to schools are often discriminated against. The school authorities feel these children won’t be able to stay in one area consistently and are reluctant to take them in. Once admitted, they have to face social stigma, like being made to sit on the last seats of the bus, because of living in slums. The proportion of students in higher education from such localities is low. A common trend for those who do study is to get enrolled for open or correspondence courses once they reach the college level. They realise that a college degree can be helpful in getting them jobs, especially through NGOs active in their area.”

Working with the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), Mukta Naik is an urban planner and architect. Remembering an incident of relocation of a community, she says, “The shifting took place close to children's board exams [considered a crucial test in an Indian child's school life]. Some children ended up losing the documents needed to appear for the examination.”

Resettlement also affects livelihood. Women working as domestic workers within the city are not able to find opportunities in the far flung areas where they are resettled. This affects the amount of spending on children's education, whether it’s about admission to a new school or traveling to attend the old one. The minute it becomes a question of a long commute, girls are made to drop out even quicker because of safety concerns. Sometimes they stay back to take care of the house or siblings, without being safe themselves in the cut-off areas they have been moved to.

Evictions also lead to absenteeism because there is so much damage to property that every member pitches in to put the household together. Children lose uniforms, bags and books. At a time when they have been rendered homeless, parents find it difficult to buy these things.

Rights groups say slum evictions make children vulnerable to violence, trauma and neglect

For the teacher in the school run by LAF in Belagaon, absenteeism is a regular concern. Once evictions/demolitions start occurring at regular intervals, children start dropping out. He says, “These children have to live in the constant fear of getting uprooted.” Shivani Chaudhry of Housing and Land Rights' Network, an NGO, recalls meeting a boy who broke down and started crying each time he saw a bulldozer. Demolition drives in Delhi’s slums have led to some children getting injured and others getting killed.

“The city sees adolescents in slums as potential abusers. But what about the tacit violence these children live with?” asks Enakshi Ganguly of HAQ Centre for Child Rights. “They grow up seeing their parents getting beaten up for fighting for their rights. The threat of children getting abused increases when resettlement takes place in remote areas and the jobs parents get closer to the city keep them out all day. Children are left to fend for themselves.”

Nazdeek is an NGO fighting for the rights of communities in slums. Jayshree Satpute, Nazdeek’s co-founder and lawyer, talks about litigation’s role in helping eviction affected people, “When the court comes up with a favourable order, like ordering authorities to make anganwadis (day care centres) for children, it happens after a year or so but also with results like two centres being close to each other, rather than in different localities.” 

The staff of these anganwadis are also not motivated. They have been fighting for better wages and recognition as government employees, and not volunteers. Working in slums is not lucrative because they get incentives if children have regular attendance. “In an area facing forced migration, this regularity takes a toll,” Jayshree adds.

Bipin Rai is a member of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), a government body in charge of looking after slum clusters and their resettlement. He says, “Evictions are not legal. That is why we resettle and rehabilitate. But DDA and the Central Public Works Department do not cooperate or partner with us when it comes to land under them.”

However, like Rai admits, DUSIB too is not directly engaged with looking after the social aspects but is involved more in the infrastructure of resettlement colonies. Sudeshna Chhatterjee is the CEO of a trust called Action for Children’s Environments. In her paper ‘Children’s Role in Humanizing Forced Evictions and Resettlements in Delhi’, she describes the active participation of children in resisting the Gautampuri evictions in the year 2000. It had brought to attention children’s problems and gained them greater participatory space. But to look after the complete social, educational and psychological well being of children facing displacement, special focus on children in city planning for changes to be made at the policy level is something urban planners, researchers and activists continue to advocate for.

India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. But in the current Draft National Child Protection Policy framed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the mention of children in vulnerable circumstances, like those exposed to evictions or forced migration, remains missing. This gap reaffirms lawyer-activist Jayshree Satpute’s statement, “The elite classes want every opportunity for their children. But they don’t extend the same principles to other classes.” CPR’s Mukta Naik has something similar to say, The Delhi Development Authority's perception of the city is elitist . . . and slum children have no place in this vision.”

(Names of children have been changed to protect identities.)

Firs published in Beyond Headlines, 31 Jan 2019.

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