Musings on Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

It was our class’ industrial visit. We were travelling by train. At night a few of us had gathered in a coach to share ghost stories. There were 8-10 girls and just one other boy besides me in the group. Somehow the discussion shifted from ghost stories to stories of sexual harassment. It was dark, the train was moving at a steady pace and the girls were surprisingly candid that night; probably because the group had developed a feeling of warmth and cosiness towards each other and there was an unspoken assurance of secrecy. We were talking all through the night and there wasn’t a single girl who didn’t have a story to tell. Actually, almost all of them had multiple stories.

I was shocked, truly shocked. These were girls raised in normal circumstances and protective environments, and in the space that I cohabited. And I still had no idea sexual harassment/abuse was so pervasive, so all around me. That night was a momentous event in my life. It changed the way I started looking at the world. I guess it was the night I became a feminist.

Yesterday I finished Roxane Gay’s most recent book, Bad Feminist. In the book, Gay successfully interweaves personal experiences with critical viewpoints to present an eloquent rhetoric. The book is not strictly about feminism. Gay touches upon diverse topics such as racism, her college life as a student and professor, Scrabble and well, feminism. But the underlying theme of all the essays is women’s issues.

The book did not offer me much as far as original ideas were concerned. But it gave the words to everything that I have been thinking about for the past couple of years as far as women’s issues are concerned. It also gave me the assurance that people who criticize feminism (not certain aspects of feminism but feminism as a whole) are so wrong.

Feminism_Def

I do not have first hand experience of all the problems that women face, because after all, I am not a woman. I do not know how it feels like to be constantly under gaze, to face sexual harassment and domestic abuse, constantly being told to perform the gender role, to be portrayed as sexual objects in media, so on and so forth. But I have seen, heard and read so many first hand stories I cannot help but feel deep concern for these issues.

Yesterday two young women in Rohtak committed suicide because they were being stalked and harassed. Their suicide notes are troubling. In the notes “the girls speak of fear and shame, of disrepute, of tongues wagging simply because young men had been following and harassing them” (Indian Express, August 27, 2014).

Everyday a new man would come and chase us. They would pass lewd remarks and offer us phone numbers. The people around us would stare as if we had done something wrong. You know how bad our colony is… how people will say we encouraged these men to follow us… even though we are innocent.

I guess it is only in the sexual crimes that a victim is scrutinized more than the accused. Men, on the other hand, enjoy the privilege of their gender, not just when they are perpetrators of crime but otherwise too. I understand my privilege as a man. Acknowledging one’s privilege doesn’t mean feeling guilty about it. I didn’t choose to be a man. I was simply born as one. It isn’t either my fault or achievement. But acknowledging the privilege that comes with it helps me develop empathy towards the ones who do not share the same privilege. It helps me understand their problems. I know if I came late at night, my parents would not be as concerned as, say, if my sister was late. If I were walking down a dark alley, alone, I would be far less scared than a woman would be. If I had a one night stand and people found out, I would not be stigmatized. I would not be called a slut. That’s privilege. I don’t have to act on my privilege but simply acknowledge it. Acknowledging one’s privilege, in whatever respect, goes a long way in understanding the injustice in the world.

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Now imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer…to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations. Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialization exaggerates the differences and then it becomes a self-fulfilling process. — Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The feminist movement has gained momentum since the Delhi gang rape of December 2012. And a few tangible results can already be seen. Sexist and misogynist jokes are no longer cool. Politicians and other public figures can no more get away with their sexist comments. There is now a lot more scrutiny of media for its unflattering portrayal of women (see this and this, for example). It is heartening to see feminism get the attention it deserves, especially among the youngsters.

I would like to leave you with this brilliant talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which she urges us all to be feminists.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc

A Faraway Land

I once rode in the sky
on the wings of an angel
she took me to a land which
was quite unlike ours
where cars didn’t honk
for an inch or two of space
or dogs bark at each other
for no reason whatsoever
or rats play hide and seek
in the dead of the night
on the pavements
the filthy pavements
garbaged with people’s half-eaten food

No, no
it was a beautiful land
oh so beautiful
with high hills and wide lakes
flowered gardens and breezy wind

A land of plenty, truly
where no one starved
nor for food, or love
where no one felt the need to
invent swords,
guns, or bombs
where there were no concepts
of rich and poor
or distant and dear

My angel
who took me to a faraway land
a land of plenty
and a land of beauty
I wonder which child
she is carrying on her wings now

Reading and the Distractions of Hyperlinked Web

I am an avid reader. But I need a perfect setting, quiet ambience to read. I cannot read if I am famished. I cannot read if there is noise. I avoid reading in a moving bus or train (it’s not good for your eyes). On weekends, I pull the card out of the set top box and hide it somewhere so that no one can switch on the TV at home. So many potential distractions I need to take care of. But guess what: internet is not one of them.

Many people blame the internet for disrupting their reading, including scholars and journalists, whose livelihood depends on the very act. They cite social media and hyperlinks as two main distractions. Sure, the notification bar that sites like Facebook and Twitter have, can act as a constant source of agitation. Facebook’s red balloon demands instant attention, and when there is no new notification, we subconsciously await its appearance, causing mild anxiety and loss of concentration. On the other hand, hyperlinks lure us to go on a clicking frenzy and to hop from one page to another. And sometimes hopping is all we end up doing.

But there is a major difference between distractions such as your family members talking while you are reading and the distractions like social media and hyperlinks. The first is an external distraction, the latter is not. Social media and hyperlinks are psychological distractions; in other words they test your self-control. You can easily avoid these distractions if you train yourself to do so.

Here is what I do. When I open my browser, I first check all my social media feeds. Then I complete other tasks on my list, like mailing ebooks to a friend or paying phone bill or ordering pizza. After all this is done, I get on to the act of reading. Actually it’s social media sites like Facebook and Twitter which most of the times point me to interesting articles. But I keep their tabs closed when I am reading a long article. And while reading on my Kindle, I keep the internet on my mobile phone off. I end up reading a lot more on web than on paper, and as attentively. There is no loss in retention or comprehension, contrary to what the findings of umpteen surveys carried out in the US say.

I am not saying it’s entirely your fault that internet is making you a less efficient reader. But the web is not a newspaper or a book. It is not designed solely for passive reading. So it is grossly unfair to compare paper with screen without understanding their nature. If we understand what causes us to get distracted, it’s much easier to counter it — be it while reading on paper or screen.

Reservations and the Argument of Meritocracy

Maharashtra government recently approved 16 per cent reservation for Marathas and five per cent for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions. This decision has rekindled the debate around the polarizing issue of reservations. Whenever the issue of reservations comes up, many people raise the point of meritocracy. According to these people, reservations undermine meritocracy and therefore they are unjust. I find this argument grossly ignorant.

Frankly, I am ambivalent about caste-based reservations. (And I for sure do not approve of government’s recent decision to give quota to Maratha community. This Indian Express article has a strong argument against the decision.)
I somehow feel the current system of reservations perpetuates caste instead of making it irrelevant as a social construct. Very few people raise this point. But the point, that reservations are against the principle of meritocracy, is mentioned frequently; not by serious commentators, mind you, but mainly by people on social media.

It is very easy to identify these people. They are convent-educated, urbanites, speak English fluently, own smartphones and have broadband internet connections at home. Their main problem is, they do not understand the concept of “privilege”. They do not understand what role this privilege plays in them scoring 85 and 90 per cent marks in their board exams. They think it’s all their hard work or their talent or their brain’s superpowers. Well, that may be true but the thing you need to understand is, all this would have been irrelevant without your privilege.

There is a reason urban/ upper caste/ rich students score higher marks than rural/ lower caste/ poor students. That reason is privilege. The superior grey cells in your brain can take you only so far. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is very relevant here. He says

Success in the education system is facilitated by the possession of cultural capital and of higher class habitus. Lower class pupils do not in general possess these traits, so the failure of the majority of these pupils is inevitable.

Also, I do not understand why only high-scorers should be entitled to good colleges. Does an academically bright student need a good college more or a dull one? It is a no-brainer that a good college helps a pupil learn better. And all those who are relegated to bad colleges suffer enormously.

Reservations are a way to bridge the gap of inequality. They are a means to correct the historical injustice and oppression that certain communities had to face or are still facing. Reservations have not been very successful in achieving these goals but we still need them till a better alternative is found.

Guest Posts Series #3: Texting

This is the third installment of Guest Posts Series. You can read the posts from previous two installments here, here and here. This time I have decided to change the format a bit. Instead of publishing all the posts on the same page, I am going to publish each post separately. Thus the readers will be saved from the trouble of scrolling endlessly as well as each post will get equal prominence.

The topic that I have decided to explore this time is texting. I myself have written about this topic in the past (here and here). From letters to email to now instant messaging, the means to carry written word for interpersonal communication have only got better. The world is on the verge of achieving universal literacy and the adoption of mobile phones has been exponential too. As a result the use of written word for interpersonal communication is at its highest in human history. In this backdrop, three of my friends talk about their fascination (or not) with written word and their flings with texting.

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Texting and Me

“Then, there are people like me who are more comfortable in expressing feelings via written words. Putting them into words is easier when you get time to think, frame correct sentences and when certain situations do demand an impersonal touch.” Janhavi Kulkarni writes…

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Digitally Yours

“Texting as a communication facility has been kind to the human race, but it has taken away more than it has given. Texting has brought me closer to people whom I don’t see every day and made me indifferent to people who are around me. Ironic much?” Apoorva Nanjangud writes…

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Why I Started to Text and Other Stories

“Texting is not just a convenient way of conversing with people, it’s also the simplest and the most manipulative. I can choose how much I have to reveal over a text – a convenience not available while holding a face to face chat. I can lie through my teeth and the person I am having the conversation would have no clue. Conversely, I can form a deep bond and talk about my deepest secrets and bare my heart to a person while I text, knowing perfectly well that they can’t see my face turn a perfect shade of beetroot red or that I am anxious for a reply.” Utkarsha Kotian writes…