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Friday, March 29, 2013

Drumroll please: Tweeps to follow and blogs to read

I recently wrote an article on experiences of ethnic minority women writing online. I started by sharing my own experiences, as an ethnic minority woman, of writing for the Guardian's Comment is Free. I discussed how I had felt dismissed and ignored based on both my sex and race. I wanted to find out if other ethnic minority women had had similar experiences when writing online.

In the process, I came across some excellent writers and blogs - sharing the list here!

Writer, critic, broadcaster and 2013 International Reporting Project New Media Fellow. 4th book, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine, out now.
Twitter: @bidisha_online
Blog: http://www.bidisha-online.blogspot.co.uk/

Huma Qureshi
Freelance journalist. Stuff in Guardian mostly but not always. Hear me on the BBC Asian Network every Thursday.
Twitter: @Huma_Qureshi
Blog: http://www.herlittleplace.com/

Huma Yusuf
Pakistani columnist, policy analyst and media researcher. Made it to @foreignpolicy's list of top 100 'Womerati'.
Twitter: @humayusuf

Ritu Mahendru
Sexual Health Researcher, Founder of SASH (@sash_forum), Activist, Feminist, Opinion Writer and Avid Cyclist
Twitter: @ritumahendru
Blog: http://mishtimli.wordpress.com/

Sam Ambreen
Empowerment. Tried to give peace a chance.. It was just a dream some of us had #FemBloc #OnlineWimminMobAndProud
Twitter: @SamAmbreen
Blog: http://samambreen.wordpress.com/

Soraya Chemaly
Writer of feministy things. Usually about gender absurdities in media, religion, pop culture & politics. Rather laugh than cry while doing it! HuffPo & others.
Twitter: @schemaly
Blog: http://sorayachemaly.tumblr.com/

Stephanie Phillips
Twitter: @Stephanopolus
Blog: http://dontdanceherdownboys.wordpress.com/

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Let's leave 'Indian culture' aside and focus on the real problem

One of the luxuries of maintaining a blog is being able to write when I fancy it - no filing deadlines, no pressure to publish before the issue becomes 'stale'. And in my view, the protests that took place in India following the gang rape of the 23 year old student should not be subject to the crassness of time-sensitivity in news anyway. So, this post that I started writing quite some time ago is being published today in the hope that the issue is still and remains very much alive.

I don't want to cite statistics since I don't find numbers to be the best indicators, but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to claim that sexual violence, including rape, is a daily occurence in India. The saddest part of the recent gang rape of the 23 year old in Delhi is that it's not an unusual case. What is unusual is that it's provoked such a response. I won't go into details of why I think it's caused such an uproar, I can only be exhilirated by the mass protests, a silver lining in the grim reality that women face everyday. Until now, rape was just something that happened, these protests have made rape something that we can all be legitimately and collectively outraged about. Probably for the first time, the issue of rape in India has been covered so prominently by international (and national) media. While a plethora of excellent articles have appeared in the national press discussing the issue, the debate has taken a slightly different turn in the UK with a question mark over whether India has a specific woman problem.

The question has of course been riddled with much use of the word 'culture' with 'Indian culture' getting the blame for continued and persistent violence against women in the country. The first I came across the debate was with Owen Jones' article in the Independent, in which he argues that rape and violence against women are endemic everywhere, not just in India, and with Sunny Hundal's subsequent response to Owen Jones which he posted on Liberal Conspiracy, entitled 'Yes, it IS right to point fingers at Indian culture for its rape epidemic'. I had a Twitter conversation about this with Sunny Hundal, but it is difficult to untangle the meaning of 'culture' in 140 characters. Following this, an article appeared in the Guardian, in which Emer O'Toole argues that the pervasiveness of rape in the West should not be minimised.

© Flickr user ramesh_jalwani
I have been struggling a bit with this debate - firstly, because it seems a bit detached from what's going on in India, a hugely significant wave of retaliation and resistance, and secondly, because it feels somewhat like a spray painting - a bit about this, a bit about that. So, I'm going to try and clear it up a bit.

Let's start with this overused word 'culture', a word almost inextricably tied with the 'Orient'. When a rape takes place in the UK, nobody so much as mentions 'culture' because culture, in common understanding, is something alien, implying that Western societies are 'culture-less'. This is why I find it problematic when somebody claims that India's culture is responsible for sexual violence against women in the country. If 'culture' was to be used in the widest sense possible - to mean attitudes, media, education etc. - and not just traditions, ritual, practices and conservatism (maybe even backwardness), it would be much more acceptable. However, that is not the case, hence, the ubiquitous use of the word in dicussions about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and such like, and its absence in the discourse on the West.

When I asked Sunny Hundal if he'd use the word 'culture' in a similar discussion about the UK, he responded in the affirmative and cited the oft-used term 'rape culture'. But surely, he must realise that the connotations of 'rape culture' and 'Indian culture is to be blamed for rape' are completely different.

This brings me to the second aspect of this debate - does India particularly have a 'woman problem', to put it in Foreign Policy's words. Rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment are, sadly, common occurences all over the world. The protests in India have given us an opportunity to discuss these issues worldwide. To then miss this opportunity and instead focus on whether India is especially demonic to its women, is to miss the wood for the trees.

This is not to deny that there may be particularities specific to such issues in India. For example, I can't think of a lot of countries where police officers and politicians can openly suggest marriage between the rape survivor and the rapist or where rape survivors are subject to the 'two fingers test'. Then again, in India it would be extremely rare to come across a school football team gang raping a drunk teenage girl carrying her from party to party, as happened in Steubenville. The point being that some responses to rape or sexual violence may be particular to India and yes, they are indicative of a problem (rather, many problems). But on what scale would we measure this against specific problems in other countries, including, as many would like to believe, the 'liberated' West.

The reality is that sexual violence is prevalent all over the world. Statistics may indicate more cases in country X than in country Y. Or that there are more convictions in country A than in country B. But no statistics can lessen the impact of the fear of sexual violence most women live with all over the world. At least in India it's finally causing outrage - it's much preferred to the deafening silence we have been used to so far. It's time to join in without deflecting what the protests in India stand for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Even royal pregnancy can bring out the perpetually lurking racism

© Flickr user Ian Kershaw
So, Kate Middleton is pregnant. Not interested, you say? Never mind, because the media is still going to shove it down your throat. Every news website you go on to will have it as the top news story - let's forget that Israel has said it will not backtrack on a settlement expansion plan or that Starbucks is planning to cut paid lunch breaks, sickness leave and maternity leave for its workers or that hospitals in the UK are 'close to bursting'. The BBC has a series of features and videos lined up, including an article on what 'acute morning sickness' is (when was the last time they were so concerned about pregnant women's health?) The Guardian has joined in too with its live blog - it's not entirely clear whether they intend to live blog for the next nine months or so (I'm still hoping it's more of a 24 hours hysteria).

The question over why monarchy still exists in a democratic nation is not a new one. Neither is the sentiment that 'if you don't like it, why don't you leave the country'. But it hits me every time - the racism that's always just lurking underneath the surface looking for the first opportunity to rear its head. As the BBC and the Guardian posted news about Middleton's pregnancy, a huge number of comments, as expected, flew in. Those who (quite rightly) protested against the blanket coverage of the 'royal pregnancy' should have known they had it coming to them. 

It's not uncommon for people who criticise Britain, especially those who look or whose names sound 'immigrant', to be told to 'go back to where they came from'. This racist rhetoric is so common that I hardly sit up and take notice now. Yet thinking about it now, it's slightly surprising to realise that racism is just there perpetually. Take this comment under the BBC news story about the pregnancy - 

"Let all the misery guts go and live in a convenient republic, I would suggest North Korea or possibly Iran..."

Or this one from the news posted on Facebook by the Guardian - 

"Why are you hideous people even on this site, you are seriously unpleasant, how can you possibly call yourselves British????!...None of you deserve to live in this country, with all the benefits and privileges we all have."

And another one that went Guardian's way - 

"Just think, if all the nasty, cruel, mean-spirited people, who made horrible remarks about this happy announcement, just cleared off out of Britain, what a nice place it would be! The country would then be home to people who are happy to live here. Probably most of the ignorant scumbags are unemployed "doley" chavs who we'd be better without anyway!"

This idea that people come to live in Britain to enjoy the many privileges it offers is not a new one (there was a fantastic article in the Guardian some time ago about how British living abroad are 'expats' not 'immigrants' whereas the same doesn't hold true for Indians living in the UK). Neither is the resentment against those people. But there's somehow another aspect to this - the idea that people who have migrated to Britain should just shut up and be grateful for what they're being 'given', that is, immigrants shouldn't be entitled to the 'right to criticise' the country, so to speak. The word I'm looking for is probably 'jingoism' that seems to be fuelled by such resentment.

Being on online forums, there's no way to tell which individuals the comments I've mentioned above were directed at. But it's the language, not who the comments were addressed to, that depicts the ever lurking racism. It's the construction of 'you' and 'we' ("None of you deserve to live in this country, with all the benefits and privileges we all have."), the repeated emphasis on 'Britishness' ("...how can you possibly call yourselves British?") and the classist rhetoric ("Probably most of the ignorant scumbags are unemployed "doley" chavs who we'd be better without anyway") that says it all.

Such remarks are not uncommon - I was once told that I'm "not even supposed to be in this country" by a white girl when I refused to give up my seat for her in McDonald's. Of course, it's linked to the idea that immigrants are here only use up Britain's resources and don't/can't contribute to its economy. But the recent increase in onslaught on immigration by this government is further fuelling such resentment and hatred. What's scary is that it is now reaching the level where even the slightest criticism of Britain leads to anti-immigrant sentiments. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On dressing for sunny London: dilemmas of an ethnic minority feminist

Oh dear, it's that very short, very rare and very precious time of the year again when London is fully bathed in golden sunshine. Why the dread in my tone then? Because for us wimmin-folk it's also time to come to terms with our fuzzy legs from winter. The fact that London sunshine hits when least expected doesn't help - until a couple of days ago, I was quite cosy in opaque tights but today, if some are to be believed, I would have been scorching in them.

So after yesterday's 26 degrees and prediction of 29 degrees for today, I had to face up to the inevitability of shaving my legs if I wanted to go with a bit of skin show. As always, this put me in the dilemma of having to choose between my feminist sensibility of not buckling down to the pressure to be the hairless female body and my supposition that hairy legs and skirt won't go down well or would at least make me very self-conscious.

Unfortunately, I'm not as brave as this Vagenda lady who recently wrote about her experience of not shaving and baring it all as it was. It is also unfortunate that this nice sunny time of the year leads me to feeling guilty about my feminist self. It seems to be a circle of having thoughts about shaving, feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving, and feeling bad about feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving. It needs to be said that I don't mind hair removal as much as the pressure to do it - I want to be able to choose for myself whether and when I want to get rid of my body hair.

Of course, there are alternatives available to skirts, alternatives that can cover my legs. When in India, I never put on any leg show even when it was 50 degrees, so obviously I am absolutely capable of wearing leg-covering clothing on hot days. But when I considered doing that, the first thing that came to my mind was - would people judge me if I did that? And by that I mean would people judge me as a conservative Asian looking girl with a Muslim sounding name if I covered up on a sunny day.

Obviously, I never had that insecurity in India, but now that I've been thinking about it more, I have been wondering whether self-regulating 'migrant behaviour' is a common migrant experience. Do migrants monitor themselves (their clothing, accent, food eating habits etc.) to be able to 'blend in'? I suppose I was conscious that if a white girl wore jeans on a hot summer day, people wouldn't form perceptions about her on that basis whereas if I did the same, I would be profiled as 'ethnic minority'. It would be assumed that I'm not wearing a skirt (or shorts) because my 'culture' (yes, I needed to put that within inverted commas) does not approve of exposing legs. I first began drinking because I'd heard enough of 'oh-you're-Indian' or 'oh-you're-Muslim' and wanted to break that stereotype associated with me. I've just grown very weary of the whole culture argument that seems to be becoming almost too easy and too common to use.

Anyway, to cut the long story short I decided to 'go Indian all the way' and put on a very light cotton kurta and churidar (see picture if you're not sure what that is). I might have got a few odd stares and a few 'culture-needs-to-cover-legs' understanding looks but I didn't mind it so much because I felt very comfortable in what I was wearing. Which is good but not good enough.

Why not good enough? Because I want my choice of clothing to be a simpler decision, because I want people to not categorise me based on what I wear, and because one day, I want to be able to show my legs as they are.

Just one last thing to be said - the choice of title for this post was deliberate. I bet many people would read that as fashion dilemmas of those whose (cruel) culture doesn't allow them to expose even on hot sunny days - I hope they won't think that again so quickly.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why Google's Women's Day Doodle irked me

Did you see Google's Women's Day Doodle or the Washington Post's list of ways to celebrate Women's Day? Neither represented my idea of Women's Day. Why is it that it is becoming attractive to celebrate Women's Day in a way that makes the majority of women invisible and subjects the rest to patriarchal denigration?

I apologise in advance for this post comes a bit too late. It was written on 8 March but has been published today because it was waiting for a few finishing touches!

Google Doodle for International Women's Day
8 March, 2012
Google's Women's Day Doodle irked me a bit. There was something wrong about its floral and colourful appearance. Not that I hate flowers or bright colours. I love them but how can they be representative of Women's Day?

I had an argument along these lines with a friend a couple of years ago. I noticed bright tulips on her desk on Women's Day. She told me a group of men had taken her and other women out for dinner and given them flowers because it was Women's Day. I found this celebration of Women's Day very bizarre. I mean, isn't this what happens everyday anyway - men take women out, give them flowers and pay the bill? How is that of any significance for Women's Day?

Nestled in its 'Lifestyle' pages, the Washington Post's list of 10 ways to celebrate Women's Day is equally odd. Though it does include protest as one of the way Women's Day could be celebrated, the list is unfortunately a bit lipstick-and-cupcakes heavy. Apparently, a marketing agency has initiated a 'Rock the Lips' campaign encouraging women to wear red lipstick to mark Women's Day. It's only as absurd as the Washington Post's suggestions 'Give flowers to women' and 'Eat a cupcake' to celebrate Women's Day.

Since when has feminism been about eating cupcakes and wearing lipstick? There's so much wrong with these suggestions and ideas at so many levels.

First of all, as a blogger points out, feminism is about 'power and politics and equal pay'. Lipsticks and cupcakes, as far as I understand, are not concerned with any of those. They are, instead, about having  'me-time' in a very consumerist and elitist way. Issues affecting women are much more significant (for lack of a better word) than deciding whether your clothes match your bag or if your lipstick goes with your skin tone.

For millions of women, issues of concern include scraping enough food for the day, getting to work without being sexually harassed and assaulted, ensuring they have a safe place to sleep in the night. In light of this, even the suggestion of celebrating Women's Day by wearing lipstick or eating a cupcake is, to use an extremely mild word, ridiculous, but also quite offensive for it trivialises the lived experiences of a vast majority of women, making them invisible. The majority of women, after all, do not have the choice to spend hours over choosing a bottle of pink champagne, the right shade of red lipstick and flowers that go with their home's decor.

Secondly, obsession over women's appearances (wear lipstick for Women's Day) and sentimentality/frivolity (give women flowers for Women's Day) takes us back at least a century. If ever there was an example of patriarchal celebration of Women's Day (as ironical as that sounds), this would be it.

Thirdly, such suggestions of celebration of Women's Day undermine the political significance and history of feminism. They deliberately gloss over issues that feminists have worked hard to bring to mainstream attention. They subscribe to a postfeminist propaganda that believes (or likes to believe) that women have achieved equality and can have it all. Further, putting women in corsets and high heels to celebrate Women's Day not only reduces women to their external appearances but also takes the focus away from their political projects. It is the market trying to hijack Women's Day from feminism.

Such a celebration of Women's Day is not only classist but also sexist. For me, Women's Day is an opportunity to revisit the relevance of feminism, to celebrate the achievements of women's movements and to assess how much progress (if any) has been made so far. It is also an opportunity for cross-cultural and international dialogue on women's issues, to learn from each other and to renew focus on action.