Woes of a
A White woman in this part of the world can often be at the receiving end of eve-teasing and even molestation, writes Evelyn Thornton
"DO you need a sex partner? Because I'd really like to sleep with you," asked the hip, well-dressed young Nepali man walking behind me at 9 am on the streets of Kathmandu. When I recovered from my astonishment at his brazenness, I thought cynically that in comparison with the aggressive grabs, leers and jeers I experience on a daily basis in Delhi, perhaps I should've been grateful that at least he had asked.
I was also taken aback by this 'proposition' because though my travels across south and east India, Pakistan and Nepal have been brief, they have nonetheless proved a welcome respite from the sexual aggressiveness I experience from men in the urban areas of north India. Ironically, the reason I was in Kathmandu was for a conference on gender and the media in South Asia, organised by the South Asia Free Media Association. This man's sexual 'request' to me was a resounding reminder that such deliberations as we had on the portrayal of women in the media are not abstract but important steps in coalescing an urgently required global movement against the objectification of women as sexual play toys.
After two years of living and working in Delhi and travelling in India, I will soon return to the US. Of all the difficult aspects of living in Delhi, I can wholeheartedly say that the only thing that I will truly be glad to leave - and am partly leaving because of - is the incessant verbal, visual and physical sexual harassment I receive from men on the streets. Certainly the abuse is not restricted to white women. However, it does seem that being young, fair-skinned and light-haired makes one a particularly marked target. From 12-year-old boys shouting 'boobies' to careening pairs of men on motorcycles promising to 'give it to me right' to men grabbing my breasts at the market in broad daylight, not a single day goes by without someone at least shouting "Hello sexy".
While walking, I instinctively keep my gaze low and avert my eyes from those of men. After particularly infuriating experiences, I have even toyed with the idea of hiding myself under a burqa.
In the light of this constant irritant - sometimes danger - I face in Delhi as a `western' woman, it makes my blood boil to walk into the office every day to see the bared breasts of blonde Hollywood celebrities printed next to the masthead of several national dailies. When I turn on the TV, I see countless images of stereotypical, `loose', usually American, women.
From music videos to `tele-friendship' agencies to 'cross-over' Hinglish films, the number of times that the woman featured in the ad, movie or video is fair skinned, big bosomed, blonde and very inviting is stultifying. A few months ago, I watched a Bollywood film, 'Out of Control', about a young Punjabi man in New York who falls for a former nightclub dancer (an American blonde). They immediately slip into a wild relationship only to fall apart with the arrival of papaji - the boy's father - who quickly arranges his wedding to an Indian girl. This Indian girl, naturally, is very submissive and very doting.
By watching films like `Out of Control', what perceptions do the majority of Indian viewers, who are not so familiar with America, glean? When layer upon layer of films and pop culture entertainment that reaches India (and the rest of the world) contains such slanted, skewed representation of American culture and American women - what are the effects? People ask why the occurrence of rape is increasing in Delhi. Why are more and more foreign women being assaulted? Does it not seem that the promiscuous images of western 'behaviours' in films, on TV, and even in the pages of newspapers, in this traditionally reserved sexual culture, are a contributing effect? A national daily that, ironically, has pages devoted to sexy images, did a story in March 2004 on how insecure foreign women feel in Delhi. It had several women tourists complaining about molestation and eve-teasing inpublic places.
My own experience with men on the street in northern India is direct. What I do know is that when I walk down streets pocketed with men, I am leered at, jeered at, and even grabbed at. What is my problem, they seem to wonder; aren't I, too, ready to take off my clothes and dance on the vegetable cart?
It seems that the men who harass me day and night do not see me - or for that matter even Indian women who choose to wear jeans and 'western' clothes - as 'normal'. I don't seem to have the same sort of problems, desires and feelings as the women they know and associate with. We seem to represent a fictitious world in which women don't have to cook, clean, fight discrimination and work all day. The image they seem to have is that of women who frolic about carefree, flaunt their sexuality and sleep with a different man every night.
I recently heard a very wise woman say, "The reason that it is so difficult to fight with stereotypes is that each one contains a kernel of truth." There are indeed western women - blonde, buxom women - who lead open, flirtatious and glamorous lives. However, these women represent a miniscule
fraction of western women. Besides, something like a mere two per cent of the entire population of the US has blonde hair!
My fear is that such disproportionate stereotyping of white women leads to incredible cultural misunderstanding that has political implications above and beyond the immediate repercussions on women like myself. — WFS
HEMA Bedi has not slept easy ever since she founded Stree to combat human trafficking in Andhra Pradesh. The organisation was born in 2000 as a response to the mounting atrocities against women and children in rural Andhra Pradesh, particularly the Anantpur-Kadpa-Chittur belt, notorious for trafficking of women and children.
She had no idea of the enormity of the challenge before her. It was an area where children were sold for as less as Rs 5000. The cost of a girl here depends on her sexual maturity. The one who has just attained puberty commands as much as Rs 1.5 lakh, so does a virgin. Between children and women, the balance is heavily titled in favour of the former, in the ratio of 60: 40.
"Among the many factors that precipitate trafficking in this belt, nature is the mightiest," explains Hema Bedi who was a gender coordinator with an Agra-based NGO before she established Stree. Her job allowed her to interact with victims of trafficking in brothels of metros. Most of them hailed from Andhra Pradesh. Severely rain deficient as the Anantpur-Kadpa-Chittur belt is, with Anantpur being the second-most drought prone district in India, economic backwardness largely fuels the sale and purchase of girls. Andhra also has the dubious distinction of being the number one Indian state as far as trafficking for sexual exploitation is concerned. It also reports high HIV/AIDS incidence. Of the three million women and children trafficked annually within India’s borders, 70 per cent are trafficked from rural India. While southern states account for 50 per cent of this, the share of Andhra alone stands at 29 per cent. Many women from here are supplied to brothels in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune.
Hema began by establishing rapport with the community. "Initially we faced hostility, but then we began using their folk elements as tools for creating awareness about HIV/AIDS. We helped the gullible parents in tribal societies to see through the evil designs of gharwalis (madams) who paid them peanuts," she says.
To date, Stree has rehabilitated 100 and aided the recovery of 600 victims of trafficking. and the establishment of Anti-Trafficking Committees in the three drought-prone districts. Formed by victims, these committees help law enforcing agencies nab the culprits. Recently 25 trafficked women prevailed upon their clients in Pune to inform Kadpa police authorities about their suffering. The information led to the arrest of 32 traffickers from Kadpa, and 12 from Chittur.
As of today, Stree is running a sprawling shelter home in Kadpa – a place which traumatised victims can call their own. It is also facilitating vocational training of victims by helping them pick up crafts and training them in the art of making pickles. "We have a regular crafts bazaar at Kadpa. The products created here are sold in galleries at Bangalore. We also hold regular exhibitions. The profit is used to improve the quality of life of our inmates," says Hema, who also helps survivors of trafficking get cow/buffalo/sheep loan from the Andhra Pradesh government.
Recently Stree signed an agreement with the National Institute of Fashion Technology, International Organization for Migrants and District Collector, Kadpa, to train 30 trafficking survivors in garment making for three months. The NGO has also employed girls in fruit juice and ice cream parlours across the three sensitive districts of Andhra Pradesh. Hema adds, "We also run Tasty Bite cafes where girls easily earn about Rs 2000 a day."
Stree has provided transformative care to the survivors of trafficking. It also emphasises the rehabilitation of victims. To reduce the vulnerabilities of women in tribal societies, Stree has been strengthening its community outreach programmes. The Karnataka government recently sent its team to study the functioning of its care and support model. It is now planning to replicate the same.
Conceptualised by the celebrated and sometimes controversial dancer and actress Mallika Sarabhai and British-Pakistani writer and poet Samia Malik, "Colours of the Heart", an unusual stage production, was performed recently in New Delhi. The dance-theatre production has been written on the theme of women’s empowerment and highlights what is common to the struggle against gender injustice around the world. While Malik sings, five women dancers (including Sarabhai) enact and interpret her lyrics. In between, each dancer delivers two monologues, re-telling anecdotes and personal experiences of loss, shame and rejection.
At its best, the performance is raw and angry. As Malik sings "Ik Sheher" A Town), two screens on either side of the stage show newspaper clippings related to the Gujarat carnage of 2002. That was the time when Sarabhai spoke out against the complicit Modi government and was, in turn, accused of smuggling people out of the country. As the lyrics unfold and Malik sings "Kahan dhoondoon apna khuda/Kis zubaan mein main gaaoon" (Where do I find my god? What language do I sing in?), the images on-screen change to show photographs of a very young Sarabhai with her father, Vikram Sarabhai.
It is as if Sarabhai underwent the pain she felt at her father’s death once again when she was denounced by the government of Gujarat.
Sarabhai adds, "Until then, I never felt like I wanted to leave the country and go away."
Vikram Sarabhai appears again in Mallika’s first monologue. As a schoolgirl, she was once accused of inciting a fight between two boys. At that time, her father had told her that as long as she spoke only that which was commonly accepted, she would attract no notice. But, he said, if she spoke her own mind, she would invariably be blamed.
"Today" says Sarabhai during an interview following the performances in Delhi, "no one is willing to come to grips with reality."
‘Phir Milenge’ is being taken to the Cannes Film Festival as an entry in a category by UNAIDS. This announcement was made by the makers of the film at a press conference in Mumbai.
The director, Revathy, indicated that she made the film since she was already involved in a lot of social causes, and for a film like this it was enough that more and more people see it in the theatre.
The special aspect of the occasion was that the crew of the film, including the actors and director, who had agreed to do the film without remuneration were presented with cheques for their efforts.
Some of the star cast including Salman Khan have decided to donate Rs 1.5 crore from their fees for the treatment of AIDS patients across the country.
The film, which is the second directorial venture of actress-turned-director Revathy, may have not done very well at the box office but was critically acclaimed for the portrayal of the AIDS victims. It was reported that the cast of the film — Salman Khan, Shilpa Shetty and Abhishek Bachchan — did not charge any fee for the movie for the social cause.
Sources close to the movie-maker today said Salman along with the team of the film would donate the amount to ‘Ashray’, an NGO from Bandra which is working for the treatment of AIDS victims.
Taking the movie to Cannes is a matter of pride for director Revathy who has never believed in films merely as a source of pleasure and entertainment. She has used the medium to focus on social issues.