Genies, gender and Pots of Gold

A genie sprouted on the other blog a day or two ago, and whaddaya know – today there’s a news report that says it’s scientifically proven that genies can give you pots of gold!

Let’s start with the genie. I did a little link-following, and found that the Gender Genie is based on this.

we find significant differences between male- and female-authored documents in the use of pronouns and certain types of noun modifiers: although the total number of nominals used by male and female authors is virtually identical, females use many more pronouns and males use many more noun specifiers…

…female writing exhibits greater usage of features identified by previous researchers as “involved” while male writing exhibits greater usage of features which have been identified as “informational”.

So far, so good. There’s a lot of ‘scientific’ data about gender differences in communication, but I like what the Genie’s author says:

Although I think you really can’t figure out whether a writer is male or female based on writing, I still believe that the linguists’ algorithm has useful applications.

Very fair.

Now let’s look at today’s little news report.

To carry out the study, to be published in the Journal of Human Resources, Figlio calculated a linguistic ‘femininity’ score for each name. It was arrived at by using 1,700 letter and sound combinations that could be associated as either female or male and matching them against the names on 1.4 million birth certificates.

So, the letter-and-sound-combination of a name decides whether it is masculine or feminine?

Wait, it gets better.

He also showed how harmful giving your child a ‘chav’ or lower-status name can be. In a study of 55,000 children, the exam marks of those with ‘lower-status’ names – often spelled in an unusual way or including punctuation – were on average 3 to 5 percentage points lower than siblings with more traditional names. One of the reasons was that teachers had lower expectations of them.

So, he finally gets to the meat of it: teachers have lower expectations of those they mark as ‘different’ or ‘unusual’, and it reflects in their exam marks. A covert bias, that needed to be identified, and now needs to be addressed.

But wait! That’s not his point.

Figlio argued that people should be more aware of the power of names. ‘In ways we are only beginning to understand, children with different names but the exact same upbringing grow up to have remarkably different life outcomes,’ he said.

‘If you want to give your child a name that connotes low status, then you need to be aware of the consequences.’

“Ways that we are only beginning to understand” my foot! Marginalising the unfamiliar ‘other’ is not new; it’s been going on forever, hasn’t it?! And blaming parents for the names they choose to give their children, rather than identifying this marginalisation and attacking it, is rather stupid, to say the least!

My point? That gender difference is a delicate and complicated subject. That ham-handed ‘science’ masks its incompetence in the rhetoric of gender difference often enough. And while genies can be useful, if they’re offering you a pot of gold for nothing (or just a change of name), you should read the small print.


I’ve been rather lax with this post: I practically promised Thinking Girl I’d answer her questions in a separate post, and that was two weeks ago! Never mind, better late than never. I hope.

So, here are the questions:

how much does the caste system play a part in a lack of Indian feminist scholarship? what do you think of western feminists who study Indian women and then theorize about what they observe? how much do you think westernization and development has played a part in the close tie between feminist activism and economic development? what I’m wondering is how much feminist activism, which does often seem so tied to economic concerns for women, is motivated by a more general interest in improving the Indian economy – and how much by actually improving women’s lives? does this distinction matter if the end result is that women’s lives are improved by improving their economic situation?

I am going to start with the last bit: about the connection between feminist activism and westernisation and development. It’s not something I’ve read a lot about, so be warned, this post is going to be a bit long and rambly. Continue reading

Shut up, Mr. Police Officer

Gautam (formerly known as Blr Bytes) points me to the mind-numbingly-misogynistic Police Statement of The Day:

For a typical rape case the judgment is fine but in cases like this the accused should be given a chance to repent provided the victim also wants to give him the chance,” says T S Chakraborty, Additional IG, Prisons, Orissa

He’s talking about the SC judgement in which the court said that proposing marriage to the victim wasn’t a reason to condone rape. You know why? Because rape is not a compoundable offence. You know what it means? It means the injury of rape is not that of leaving the woman ‘tarnished’ and ‘unfit for use’, but that of sexual assault. The Supreme Court recognised that.

And much as Mr. Chakraborty would like to think otherwise, non-compoundable means non-compoundable, not “non-compoundable except where the prison officer, in all his misogynistic ignorance of the law, thinks it ought to be compoundable”.

“influenced by some western culture”

Today’s paper carried, on the front page, news of a student killed in a campus shooting, right here in my very own city. Investigation details were in the local news on an inside page. And guess what the Assistant Commissioner of Police has to say?

 We’re yet to ascertain who is at fault but it seems the students are influenced by some western culture of sorts

Right. You see, we don’t have campus gangs here. Those scenes in our movies, from as far back as I can remember, the ones that go like the first couple of paragraphs of that news report, they are depictions of ‘western culture’. Western culture is bad, you see, bad bad bad.

Epiphany number 24136

When BikerGirl once said to me that I should start seeing epilepsy as a good part of my life, not just a bad thing that happened to me, I told her I’d realised I needed to do that. Of course I had. I’ve thought it often enough. Problem: how?

And today, I find this:

But do we really need all those needs?

Having just endured a profoundly anti-Twisty annus horribilis, a year notable here at the bungalow for the relentless tortures both physical and emotional visited upon my person, I am intimate with the radical notion that subsistence is entirely possible sans a veritable buttload of what are generally considered bare necessities: Estrogen. Food. Boobs. Eyelashes. Lymph nodes. Pooping. Sleep. A weight-bearing leg. A sane hypothalamus. A sunny disposition. An un-addled brain. A body that isn’t trying to kill you, etc.

Most of the aforementioned stuff falls into the category of homœostasis (the maintenance of constant bodily conditions), which stasis certain very prominent psychobabblians have declared, along with air and water, to be among the deepest of deep human needs. Yet here I am to tell the tale, homœostasis-less but bright and chipper all the same (it should be noted that throughout my assorted hair-raising surgeries and death-defying cancer treatments, I was never far from at least one dog. Draw your own conclusions). In other words, even dying hasn’t killed me yet. So one of the things I really have to find out — I’ve got a list — is how many of these “deep human needs” — such as the need to not be dying — are in fact just habits.

Isn’t that brilliant?! Blame on, Twisty!

“Why do you turn everything into a feminist issue?”

“Have you seen that ad? How sexist can you get?”
“Which one?”
“The Kamasutra personal care range one. ‘I let my daughter wear Kamasutra’.”
“I think parents should have some say in what their children wear…”
“That aside, why does it have to be daughter? Why not son?”
“That’s extreme – you see sexism everywhere!”

Um. Sexism is everywhere. And as someone says, “The first big privilege which … males … can work to alleviate is the privilege to be oblivious to privilege.”

Men have the comfort of being oblivious to patriarchy and sexism, because more often than not, it works in their favour. Women have to fight that very same patriarchy and sexism every single day.

That’s why.

Here and now*

Well, I thought about what my first FF post should be about, and I really couldn’t decide, so I’d use a question from my classes: why do we read so much western literature when we study feminism; aren’t there any Indian feminists?

Of course there are: many of them. But feminism in India has been a lot about activism and very little about theorisation.There has indeed been feminist writing in India; a lot of it has been activist writing on specific issues rather than abstract writing on theoretical concepts. (Not to say that we don’t have our Spivaks, Mohantys and Baxis, famous for abstraction in thought and expression!)

In spite of this, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in India, feminism is not as much a school of thought as a series of movements, not so much a branch of jurisprudence as a struggle to enable women in various ways. The word ‘feminist’ is not a ‘bad word’ in India, because it is not a word at all. I can’t think of a vernacular term for ‘feminist’ – is there one? Most people have no idea what feminism is, and assume that a feminist is necessarily a ‘social worker’ who is crusading to make women’s lives better, by campaigning on her pet peeve.**

Since feminism in India is so minimally theoretical, it is difficult to explain the common threads that run through the Blank Noise Project (for instance) and, say, SEWA. Or, to be more lawyerly, a discussion on Section 377 of the IPC and one on Equal Remuneration.  The link between economic and sexual empowerment, and how they are equally important to feminism, is something that has been written about by Western authors, but not, to my knowledge, by Indian ones.

So, while it may seem like we read a lot of a-contextual Western literature in FemJur, it is usually a pleasant surprise to see how well we can identify with Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Faludi; and how Andrea Dworkin’s rage at pornography is eerily similar to our rage at Bhanwari Devi’s rape. The ‘Western’ literature is definitely seems like an alien voice, but one that echoes concerns we face too: concerns about how we treat women as less than human, women’s bodies as objects, women’s work as ‘natural’ and therefore not work at all.

It is when we read the seemingly a-contextual theory, and then try to apply it to our own context, that we realise that the one thing we have in common with the ‘West’ is the one that matters the most to us all: the patriarchy.

*A little early, because I’m away for a couple of days and can’t post tomorrow.

**Of course feminism is about making women’s lives better, but not all feminists are social workers. Most of them have a pet cause, but a lot of them just believe women deserve to be treated as human beings too.