Do you?

You know her. Or someone very like her.

She’s about 14, and maybe she’s your maid’s daughter.

Or maybe she lives in the flat next door, or the large house across the street.

She’s studying, your maid says proudly, she’s not going to be married off till she finishes her Intermediate, at least. Nowadays, even girls must study, no? she says.

Her mother chats with you sometimes, tells you she’s studying hard for her engineering entrance exams. If she gets into a good college, gets a good degree and a good job, she can ‘settle’ well, her mother says. Or maybe her parents are sure she’ll get into a good college for her B.Com. Or maybe her B.Ed. A basic degree is necessary for girls also, her mother says to you. Maybe her husband will want her to get a job, or even allow her to study more, who knows? That will be good, no, ma?

She talks to you, sometimes, telling you about her elder sister who wants to do a course in a beauty parlour; which one is good, akka? she asks. This Shahnaz Hussain is very popular, no? Her sister experiments on her, sometimes – she shows off her bright red nailpolish (on her toes only, where shoes and socks cover it at school, so PT ma’am can’t catch her), one day, magenta coloured lipstick, even.

Or maybe she experiments with a different haircut, now that she’s going to intermediate ‘college’. Or even tries on her mother’s cosmetics. She comes and chats for a while, on a Sunday evening, after her coaching class tests, hoping you’ll notice and comment before she has to point it out. She talks about Shahid and Kareena, maybe. Or her freshers’ party, and the <giggle> boy who had to give her a rose ‘for ragging’. 

One day, the talk is a little more serious. She talks about ‘boyfriends’. Is it wrong to want to have one? It isn’t? Men are usually older than their wives, aren’t they? What do men do with their wives, anyway? Don’t tell amma, akka, she’ll have my hide for asking this… do they… touch? And… ? Is it true that…?

The talk could be about older men. Creepy older men, but some are nice too. Who decides what age gap is ‘appropriate’ in a relationship, anyway? You smile inwardly at her talking about relationships – how seriously we take our crushes at that age! You know, everyone at school says they’re doing it, she says. Probably not true, but some of them are actually going around, do you know?

You refuse to be shocked. You want to be mature and informative and kind, and let her open up, don’t you? From here on, it could be one story.

It is some time later. She tells you she has a boyfriend.

And then one day, the boyfriend did something that scared her. Will I get pregnant, she asks. You ask her what happened. She tells you. It was all her fault, she says. She should have known that men can’t control themselves. But it hurt her, and she’s still scared and confused. Who was it, you ask. An older man. She knows him, and he’s been her ‘boyfriend’ for ‘so long, now’.

You call your friend at the Centre. Take the girl down there. They talk to her. Take her to the police, record her statement. Take her home, tell her parents. You’ve slipped away quietly – you don’t want to be involved, or maybe there’s just no more that you can do. It’s been six months, and you haven’t seen her. Your maid quit/her parents avoid you. You know that’s inevitable. The people at the Centre say it’s a foolproof case – DNA evidence, and she’s a minor – just 14, for chrissake, and he knew it. The b***** paedophile is going away for a long stretch in prison.

Except he isn’t. Suddenly, there’s a wedding. She’s getting married. At 15. To the man who raped her. Her parents are happy he will now have the protection of Section 375.

You know her. Or someone like her.


The politics of abortion – II

Part I of this piece reviewed the Indian law on the regulation of reproduction, and I ended up making the point that if the law were to be based on autonomy, it would decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs. While I agree with Rohit’s statement that the best way to reduce female foeticide is by educating and empowering women, I don’t think that the discussion is complete at that point.

At the end of the day, Rohit’s article is about why sex-determination should be legal, and he argues that any argument for abortion rights based on women’s autonomy cannot co-exist with an argument that the State must take measures to check female foeticide. This is, however, the typical liberal fallacy: an assumption that when we argue for a right, we are asking for mere liberty, or decriminalisation.

We argue that women should have the right to make a decision regarding whether or not to have an abortion, because they are autonomous individuals with rights over their own bodies. As autonomous individuals, they are entitled to full and complete information regarding their bodies and what the consequences of either choice could be. Women who are looking for options other than abortion should be given as many choices as possible, and full information about these choices too.

Thus, the State has a duty not only to recognise women’s autonomy and grant them the liberty to make reproduction decisions, but also to enable them to exercise that autonomy and realise the fruits of that liberty. Thus, the decriminalisation of abortion and PNDTs is not enough; it has to be accompanied by efforts to ensure that abortion decisions are made autonomously by women. Political will needs to be bent to the idea of empowering women to make these decisions, and that means making sex-selective abortion (which is based in a norm of women’s inferiority) unacceptable – socially, economically and politically. It requires the creation of a comprehensive publicly-funded reproductive healthcare system, which maintains confidentiality and provides counseling and advisory services. It needs the creation of a social security system that provides women who wish to defy their families with an alternative. The creation of a childcare system that gives women the option to give birth to female children whom they are unable to care for becomes essential.

As for what the law can do about female foeticide, let us remember that the problem with female foeticide is not that it is foeticide (which, as Rohit reminds us, is necessary to abortion), but that it is directed against foetuses that are female as punishment for their ‘femaleness’: an embodiment of the sentiment that women don’t deserve to live. If making sex-selective abortion illegal is the only manner in which the law can act to influence its occurrence, the law can do nothing: it is hampered by the impossibility of administration. But none of the list of necessary preliminaries that I’ve managed to come up with can come into existence without law, either.

It is about time we stop looking at the issue of reproductive rights as one of the grant of a liberty, and start looking at it as a matter of putting power in the hands in which it belongs: a matter, in short, of politics.

The politics of birth control – I

Blr Bytes recently sent me this link, and it provided me with the impetus to write about something I’ve been meaning to address for a while: birth control. Rohit’s article is partly a response to Pamela Philipose’s piece in the Indian Express, but is also a well-argued case for legalising sex-determination, on the same grounds as are used to argue for women’s reproductive rights – primarily, in western discourse, the right to abortion.

The western (primarily American) debate on abortion rights has a number of themes: female reproductive health, reproductive autonomy, foetal ‘rights’, paternal rights. People who self-identify as feminists and ‘women activists’, as Rohit calls them, have taken positions on both sides of the debate. The legal right has been rooted in many things, from the right to privacy to women’s autonomy. In India, on the other hand, the law on abortion starts not with the Medical termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, but with the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The IPC makes it an offence to terminate a pregnancy, and the MTP Act, taking note of the fact that this merely led to unsafe terminations, made it legal for pregnancies to be terminated by registered medical practitioner(s) in certain circumstances. The MTP Act is, therefore, conferring the privilege of legality upon certain kinds of abortions. The Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act) is meant to regulate the use of pre-natal diagnostic techniques, and especially to criminalise their use for sex-determination. The privilege of legality of the use of prenatal diagnostic technology is again granted selectively, to ‘approved’ persons, for ‘approved’ reasons.

Thus the law in India quite shamelessly seeks to regulate reproduction – it takes a number of crucial decisions out of the hands of parents and puts them in the hands of the State, or of doctors. It takes the power to make decisions about reproduction away from women, and on the basis of their disempowerment, makes the use of certain kinds of technology unavailable to them as well. To give them back the power, and ensure that they have the autonomy to use it, the State would have to decriminalise both abortion and the use of PNDTs.

In Part II (which I don’t have time to write just now)

What then, of female foeticide? If abortion and PNDTs are decriminalised, there would be no way to ensure that sex-selective abortions didn’t take place, would there?

Of Myths

Some time ago, I blogged about Naomi Wolf’s essay, The Porn Myth, and I asked what was wrong with Wolf’s statements about Dworkin. Of course, Andrea Dworkin has been one of the most controversial feminist philosophers ever, and Naomi Wolf is herself a very popular and well-respected feminist, so let me caveat this post:


What one feminist says is not representative of what the ‘feminist standpoint’ on a particular issue is. In fact on most issues, there is no one feminist standpoint. This acceptance of the existence of multiple feminist points of view is one of the reasons I am proud to be a feminist. Porn, in particular, is one of the issues on which feminists do not agree. In fact, feminists may consider porn anything from oppressive to liberating. Of course, the response also depends on what you call ‘porn’.


That said, let me get down to Wolf’s essay. It’s called “The Porn Myth”, and revolves around how the ‘pornographisation’ of the world has affected sexual relationships. The myth she says she’s debunking is Andrea Dworkin’s ‘warning’ that


“if we did not limit pornography…before Internet technology made that prospect a technical impossibility—most men would come to objectify women as they objectified porn stars, and treat them accordingly. In a kind of domino theory, she predicted, rape and other kinds of sexual mayhem would surely follow.” Wolf says Dworkin was “right about the warning, wrong about the outcome”.

Wolf ‘agrees’ that young men and women are learning about sex, drawing their expectations of sex, from porn. However, she says,

“the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.””

Somehow, the essay didn’t ring true. I think it’s a misreading of Dworkin to say that she believed that the wide availability of pornography would lead to rape. Wolf implies that Dworkin said (i) that men are ‘raving beasts’ when they commit rape, or (ii) that rape is a product of the ‘male libido’. I think Dworkin would consider either statement sheer rot.


Dworkin has drawn parallels between pornography and rape, between pornography and prostitution. She didn’t suggest that pornography turns men on. She said pornography happens to women, in the same manner that all violence against women does. When she wrote of causes, she talked about how dehumanizing women is part of how boys become men. And how this dehumanization is part of the process of oppression, the process that includes pornography and rape and other sexualized violence against women.


On the other hand, Wolf’s essay is all about men. How does porn affect men? Is it making them (and of course women too) lonely? Is it turning them into ‘raving beasts’? Is it making sex unexciting for them? Of course it’s about women too – young women are worried about “compet[ing] with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification” in their attempts to satisfy (guess who?) men!


Wolf is not talking about right and wrong here, but merely about what internet porn has done to sexual relationships. She says that

“The reason to turn off the porn might become, to thoughtful people, not a moral one but, in a way, a physical- and emotional-health one; you might want to rethink your constant access to porn in the same way that, if you want to be an athlete, you rethink your smoking.”


On the other hand, here’s Dworkin on why pornography matters to feminists:

 pornography gives us no future; pornography robs us of hope as well as dignity; pornography further lessens our human value in the society at large and our human potential in fact; pornography forbids sexual self-determination to women and to children; pornography uses us up and throws us away; pornography annihilates our chance for freedom.

Which, then, is the myth?


And a link

Blr Bytes sent me this quite a while ago, and I’ve been meaning to blog it and forgetting. So, who’s going to be the first to figure out what’s wrong with what Naomi Wolf’s saying about Andrea Dworkin?

For a change

I’m not ranting at the ToI for their ‘reporting’. I’m ranting at the Supreme Court for giving them this to report.

Let me clarify something. I don’t think anything deserves the death penalty. But the law, as it stands, says that the ‘rarest of rare cases’ do. And to make sure that the death penalty is rarely awarded, the law says the trial court can’t award it by itself, the High Court has to agree. So, in this case, the trial court found this chap guilty. Then the High Court confirmed his sentence. And the Supreme Court,

Though it agreed with the trial court and the HC on the guilt of Singh, it said this was not a fit case for awarding death penalty.

Fair enough, they aren’t bound to accept the sentence along with the finding of guilt. But let us see why the Hon’ble Justices S B Sinha and Markandey Katju disagree with the sentence (emphasis mine):

we reduce the sentence to life imprisonment since it appears to us that the crime was committed in a fit of passion and does not come within the category of ‘rarest of rare’ cases.

I’m quoting from the Times report here, of course, since the judgement isn’t yet online. But I don’ think that’s actually a misquote. This is a man who killed two women after raping one of them. The Supreme Court of India thinks those are crimes committed in a ‘fit of passion’? It thinks that such a ‘fit of passion’ extenuates the crime some extent?

I think the Hon’ble Supreme Court is very male.

Should we have a woman President?

It’s Friday, again, and a perfect chance to write about the campaing for “India’s first woman president”. 

My first reaction to Pratibha Patil’s nomination was, of course, “Oh, wow! A woman President, finally!” And over the past few weeks, I’ve read quite a bit about her in the papers: all her faux pas, all the reasons why she should not be our next President. There’s even a blog campaign demanding she provide some answers to all the allegations against her: it starts “Not for President!”, and says “India demands answers first.”

But I want to go back a bit further, to the initial announcement of her nomination. The Congress wanting to capitalise on her being a woman, accusing the NDA of being anti-woman because it didn’t support her, and liberal voices going “So what if she’s a woman? That shouldn’t be a consideration in choosing her for President!”

And so very few voices saying “But it should!”

First, because it takes strength and courage and hard work and sacrifice for a woman to make it in politics**, and the fact that she got this far is testimonial to all of that. As Vidya Subrahmaniam pointed out:

even the bare facts impress: a practising lawyer before she joined politics, five consecutive terms as MLA, a clutch of portfolios in the Maharashtra Government, member of the 10th Lok Sabha, deputy chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, and Governor of Rajasthan. All this topped by untrumpeted, constructive social work: engineering college for rural students, hostel for working women, development fund and cooperative bank for economically depressed women, schools for the poor and the disabled, and so on

Second, because having a woman president sends a message. Not the message that every Indian ‘respects women’, as the Congress would like to claim, but that collectively, as India, we don’t judge people by their gender alone.

Sounds like I’m contradicting myself? That’s because male privilege is mostly invisible. We don’t see our biases till we look for them, and so, the default men-as-public-leaders doesn’t seem to reek of discrimination. If we stop to think, we’d realise it can’t be ‘natural’ to have so few women in public life. So the ‘default’ is because of discrimination, because we are taught to value people according to their gender. Having a woman in the highest public office is a statement that we refuse to accept this default. That we see the discrimination in our society, and we appreciate and reward those who fight it.

Third, because the fact that she covers her head doesn’t stop her from speaking out against purdah. The office of President is a largely ceremonial one, that of the Government’s conscience, one might say. And a conscience that understands the difference between wearing a veil and requiring someone to wear it seems like a good start.

Pratibha Patil’s gender is one very good reason why she should become President; it shouldn’t be the only reason she doesn’t.  

**Yes, a lot more than it takes a man, do you even doubt it?