UNCSW side event: Fight to stop violence against women

The United Nation’s Commission on Status of Women (CSW) is currently meeting in its New York headquarters. This year the theme is on prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. The Commission, under the UN Economic and Social Council, is in its 57th year. Member countries participate during the ten days and at the end recommendations are made for governments to implement in their respective countries. Apart from the states, NGOs are also allowed to participate and hold side events.

A meeting such as this is extremely relevant to India, in the backdrop of increased reported cases of violence against women, the Delhi gangrape being a case in point. It was in this context that the Control Arms Foundation of India, The International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, and the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network organised a panel discussion on ‘Six Decades of United Nations Commission on Status of Women’.

Panelists at the CSW side event. Left to right: Vanessa Farr, Rashmi Singh, Jody Williams, Minou Tavarez Mirabal, Arvinn E Gadgil, Binalakshmi Nepram

Panelists at the CSW side event. Left to right: Vanessa Farr, Rashmi Singh, Jody Williams, Minou Tavarez Mirabal, Arvinn E Gadgil, Binalakshmi Nepram

Panelists included Minou Tavarez Mirabal, Chair-International Council, Parliamentarians for Global Action, Arvinn Eikeland Gadgil, Deputy Minister, International Development, Norway, Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Rashmi Singh, Executive Director, National Mission for Empowerment of Women, Govt of India, Vanessa Farr, Feminist Freedom Fighter, and Binalakshmi Nepram, Founder, Manipur Gun Survivors Network, and Secretary General, Control Arms Foundation of India.

The two-hour event focused on the need to prevent violence against women, the role that men need to play in strategies, and demilitarisation. Vanessa Farr emphasised on the direct link between violence against women and global militarisation. “The enemy is poverty. There are no weapon systems in the world to prevent poverty”, she explained. Saying no to arms and ending impoverishment are key in this process, Farr said.

The sole male voice on the panel, Arvinn Gadgil said that specific people need to be asked the question, ‘What makes you adamant on this issue?’ The need for political will and putting pressure on parliamentarians, echoed.

Binalakshmi Nepram, hailing from the northeast Indian state of Manipur spoke of her own personal experience. She pointed to the state rank of the Department of Women and Child Development in India, and reduction in budget allocated to the department.

The CSW meeting concludes on March 15th.

Vicky Donor’s got it all wrong

I recently watched the movie Vicky Donor, a movie that has received critical acclaim and box office success. I for one have some issues with some basic points made in the movie and probably also with the basic premise. The movie, no doubt, has opened up a discussion about sperm donation. However, the way it has approached this subject is quite abominable.
1. Sperm donation is generally known to be done anonymously. And one does not go to an infertility clinic seeking donor sperms. An infertility clinic offers options. One of them could be sperm donation. The infertility clinic wouldn’t have to manually go in search of these donors. They would ideally have to deal with a sperm bank. I’m not too sure how this was done or if this was even done before the concept of sperm banks came about. Vicky Donor seems to throw black paint on all of this and Dr Chaddha goes hunting for the best sperm ever.
2. Sperm donation cannot happen from just one person. There are rules and regulations about how many times you can donate. In the movie, we see the protagonist fathering 53 babies. I mean, come on, that is not only not possible but also illegal. If the same person donated sperms, it would mean seeing similar genes in a section of people which is not really a good thing.
3. A sperm donor never really comes in contact with the person/family that receives it. Here of course we see the lead character showing off his ‘prodigies’ to his wife.

But I guess what really misses the mark for me with this movie is the fact that the problem of infertility seems to be taken so lightly. Coming of age is one thing. Being plain immature about it is another. That too for entertainment.

A big thumbs down for me.

Oprah Winfrey’s India visit

Oprah Winfrey’s visit to a Mumbai slum and a contrasting visit to a rich family’s house, has received much criticism. Another firang who has come to coo about our slums, some may ask. Or talk about the unabashed luxury that exists on the other side.

We must first however understand that Oprah’s Next Chapter is a show that is primarily meant for the western audiences. It is a show that airs in the  United States of America on Oprah’s television network OWN. And therefore, the India episode must be viewed from the perspective of an American watching it. It wasn’t meant to be made for us Indians.

That said, okay, so she came and decided to take a tour of one of the country’s largest slums. I don’t particularly see anything wrong with that simply because she chose a topic of her choice and went ahead with that. Now, why take Gregory David Roberts to show you around, is the next obvious question. Again, may I say that if the show was primarily meant for an Indian audience, I would have though Shabana Azmi would have been the ideal person to take Oprah around. But how many people in America would be able to connect with Shabana as much as they would with Gregory? And he anyways did not have too much of a role to play in the episode that appeared on TV. he didn’t act like a mediator between Oprah and the families she met there. He was merely present there and was quite negligible. He did, however, make a very important and honest point to Oprah after she met with the case study family. He spoke tolerance. And it is so true that we as a country are so tolerant and therefore don’t mind the stench from the storm water drain, or the unscheduled power cuts, or the water that does not come out of the tap. We may complain a couple of times but we have lived with these problems for almost always. And it is most certainly because we have tolerated all of this. We have put up with all of this. Gregory David Roberts was bang on.

Now coming to the criticism about the meeting with the family in the Dharavi slum and some of Oprah’s questions. At the outset, I would like to say, that we couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador than the little girl Aanchal. She was simply amazing. She was so real and true and it came through beautifully through the television screens. Aanchal explained to Oprah about how they live in their little home, her father’s dreams and her own of course.

Oprah was very direct with her questions. As she always is. You would know if you have followed her previous show on TV that ran 25 seasons.

How could she make Aanchal’s father cry on TV, some may ask. I don’t think she did. What is wrong if a man cries? She didn’t probe him. She didn’t coax him. She didn’t question him till he had a meltdown. She asked him one question and it was an emotional one. Him crying, showed the reality of his life. His daughters were happy. He wasn’t. He wanted better for them. And he said it. Oprah was simply there, asking questions.

And it isn’t like there aren’t any poor people in America. So before we shout from our rooftops telling Oprah to get over the fact that we have slums in our country, that we have people who are utterly poor, we must also understand that she is well aware of that and has covered it extensively in her previous show.

I remember a show where she showcased a lady living in a really tiny house with some ten children from her extended family, as she was the only one left to take care of them. It was a touching and moving story. And at the end of it, Oprah surprised the family by gifting them a house of their choice.

So for all those criticising her for showcasing how small Aanchal’s house is, please stop and breathe. It’s her show and it isn’t like she did or said something incorrect.


Oprah Winfrey then travelled to meet a more upmarket family in Mumbai. A family that has a priest over to do their daily pujas. A family that writes their kitchen menu on a white board with a marker. And a family that eats on silver plates. That entire portion seemed quite ridiculous to me, not for its programming, but for how that family seemed to me! But it was also the point Oprah was trying to make in her show though she did not say it. The brazen contrast between these families. One, content in their hole of a home. The other, living a luxurious life but claim and that being together is what matters.

And why is Oprah surprised about eating with your hands? Especially when burgers and pizzas are eaten with your hands as well? It is a question that she seemed to genuinely have and the gentleman very rightly responded saying that a large part of India still eats using their hands.

The part that surprised me the most from Oprah’s questions throughout the show were about arranged marriage and love. She asked Aanchal’s parents and also the rich family. And later A R Rahman.

This is what I think Oprah tried to keep as a common thread through her meetings with people. It’s probably a subject that she is trying to understand and even when she was interviewed at the Jaipur Literature Festival, she spoke about this. I doubt, coming from the west, she can still comprehend the concept of an arranged marriage. Again, catering to her audience back home.

Of clichés and stereotypes

So, could her show have been any different? Should it have? Probably not. Because it wasn’t meant for us anyway. It happened to be aired in our country. I assumed that they would air the entire series but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

When people like Oprah visit India, I always wonder why they end up going to a city like Mumbai or Delhi, and not to cities like say Bangalore or Madurai or Darjeeling or Korba. Well, it would have been nice if she did not go to Mumbai and went somewhere else and spoke about something else. But it’s her show. In her next episode, which I haven’t had a chance to watch, I think she visited Brindavan to talk to single women and widows, and later Rajasthan. So yes, she did showcase a different India.

One only hopes she comes back, visits more cities, and talks to more different people. Hey, who else can make A R Rahman as uncomfortable as we have ever seen him and make him speak an amount to last him a while!

Sonia Gandhi’s 15-minute ‘apolitical’ visit

She came. She saw. She left. The Congress may have termed Sonia Gandhi’s visit to Karnataka as apolitical, but the UPA Chairperson’s brief tour had politics written all over it. On the morning of April 28th, Gandhi was expected to arrive in Nagasamudra village in Mulkanmuru taluk of Chitradurga district, approximately 250 kilometres from Bangalore.

Massive security arrangements were put in place. As the Congress supremo enjoys Z+ security, the Special Protection Guards were there ahead to oversee all the arrangements. She was to arrive by chopper with some state Congress leaders.

I reached Chitradurga district the previous day itself. Finding Nagasamudra was a whole different task. One needs to take a deviation at Hiriyur towards Chelekere, go to Hanagal and then head to Nagasamudra. 50 kms more and I would have been in Bellary.

It was on the morning of the 28th that I saw the village. Hundreds of men in khakhi. Barricades. SPG. The village had been transformed into this high security zone. It had also rained the previous day, quite heavily, so many questioned the whole point of this ‘drought visit’.

Arranagements were made at the Nagasamudra lake, over a century old, which had almost dried up, except for the previous night’s downpour. The village is extremely backward. No proper water, electricity or cow sheds. It was a ‘sample village’ chosen by state Congress leaders to show heir chief about the drought condition in Karnataka. A group of farmers, weavers and women were to present a memorandum to Gandhi. The entire village waited with bated breath.

At about 9.30 AM we heard a helicopter hovering in the area. And there it was. The moment we were all waiting for.

About 15 minutes later the Congress leader walked to place near the lake where she would meet the villagers. Dressed in her trademark cotton saree, white with black checks, the first thing that struck me was how fair she is. Later when I told my sister this, she replied, ‘Obviously, she’s a foreigner!’

She rushed down the barricaded area, started shaking hands with the people, spoke to a few of them, accepted their gifts.

It all lasted 15 minutes. And she was gone.

I had spent the last 24 hours planning this trip for my office. The security personnel were arranging the place for the last two days. The villagers were up and about for even longer I guess. All for a blink-and-miss appearance by someone who is said to be heading the country, if not on paper.

What irks me is the point of the visit. Why visit at all if you are going to be doing it in a hurry? Can we expect any major changes in Nagasamudra?

But the bigger question that I feel requires an answer is the amount of money that was spent on visiting this place. Since Gandhi enjoys Z+ security, there’s nothing we can do about the SPG. Then there was the state police on duty.
Who paid for the chopper from Bangalore to Nagasamudra? Some say it is highly unlikely to be government money and that some businessman would have overseen the charges.

Whatever said and done, when there is so much talk about austerity, isn’t this visit taking it a bit too far? What assessment could Gandhi have made in those 15 minutes. More sadly, the people of Nagasamudra would have loved it if you heard them out patiently. Alas, none of that happened. It was a whirlwhind.

It’s therefore more than obvious that this was only poll tactic. I even asked Gandhi whether this was preparation for the elections next year. She was in such a hurry, I’m not sure she even understood my question. She nodded and kept walking.

Neha Afreen Banu – Bruised & battered

I first saw her on April 9th. A beautiful baby. Fair skinned. Healthy looking. Ironic that she had several tubes coming out of her. A machine nearby beeped. The numbers read her heart rate and pulse.

It makes me want to cry.

As I spoke on my phone-in about the death of an almost three-month-old infant, Neha Afreen Banu, I could feel my eyes well up. I was following the baby’s story for three days and the end seemed to have come too soon.

From the very first day, I believed that Baby Afreen just like Falak should not survive. What kind of a life is this where you are pinning on hopes that a three-month-old would survive severe brain damage with tubes inserted into her? You would rather let her go to a better place.

What sort of a world is this where one would even remotely want to hurt a newborn? Afreen’s father reportedly fed her poison-laced biscuits, bit her on her back, and even smothered her with a pillow. It just makes no sense to me. What sort of a man is Umar Farooq for even having the audacity to harm a child? His own child? His own blood and genes? All because he wanted a son? All because of her gender? Didn’t you have to firstly marry a girl to even be able to have that child? And the gender of a child is determined by the chromosome of the male partner. I’m sure all this may mean very little to the man behind all this. The man who killed Afreen.

As I write this, the image of Reshma Banu, Afreen’s mother flashes through my mind. I can’t get the entire ‘hospital experience’ out of my head. The first day I met Reshma, she seemed a little confused. She made conflicting statements. I understand that there was a lot of pressure on her especially under the glare of the media. A 19-year-old (she looks much younger to me) would never have imagined all this trauma.

The next day when I met Reshma, she seemed more composed. Filled with hope. There seemed to be a new strength in her, and a will to fight for her battered baby. I even spoke to Reshma on Wednesday morning. She was calm and spoke clearly. The baby had blood in her stools, she said. I could feel how much she wanted this baby. Especially having had an abortion of her first pregnancy when she was carrying twins.

I had spoken to the doctor a while ago and she had stated that Afreen’s condition hadn’t changed. She had convulsions early that morning.

It was around half past 11 when we feared the worst. A little later I confirmed with the Medical Superintendent of the hospital that Afreen had suffered a cardiac arrest and was no more. Her frail body had given up. She had barely even lived.

I saw Reshma Banu a little later. She was inconsolable. Her hopes shattered. Her only baby dead. All reportedly because her husband wanted a male heir.

As I wrapped up my day and went home, I could only think of the tragedy that had befallen the family. They had gone through so much the past week. Even in their poor financial condition, they were doing everything they could for the little one. As opposed to Farooq’s family who were said to be better off financially, who did not even bother visiting the baby. They are absconding now.

Now that the cameras aren’t there and mics not shoved in their faces, my prayers are with Reshma Banu and her family. No words can console her grief. No hugs can calm her down. After all she has lost her baby.

My only hope now is that the perpetrators are punished severely. And innocent lives like Afreen are allowed to live a life of dignity, or not be brought into this world at all.

The Dirty Picture – A misconstrued film

Vidya Balan has had her share of limelight now. She has arrived, they say. With her bold and sexy portrayal of Silk in The Dirty Picture, she is coming to be known as a feminist icon. But everyone seems to be getting it all wrong. Everyone seems to be celebrating, without realising that they actually don’t have much to celebrate about. At least not much for us women.

A little bit of cleavage, thunder thighs and smoking a few cigarettes, seems to have gotten Vidya a lot of praise. Embrace your sexuality, wear it on your sleeve, this is the new Indian woman, etc etc.

Well, for a country that has almost always made it clear that women are inferior to men, it is no wonder that Vidya is now receiving standing ovations. And that’s where it’s all wrong.

For starters, I did not think much of The Dirty Picture. Vidya Balan may have done some ‘bold’ scenes in her ‘bold’ character. I would give her a few points for that. But the movie says absolutely nothing new to me. When there was a real Silk Smitha, why will I as a viewer feel that a person who acts like Silk Smitha to be much better. And cleavage and thunder thighs are not new to Indian cinema. At least not to the Tamizh film industry. How many of you have heard of Ramya or Mumtaz or Disco Shanti. The bold Indian woman who embraces her sexuality has for long been depicted in films. It’s just that Bollywood seems to have gotten into a ‘Eureka’ moment, and Vidya seems to have been dubbed to be Archimedes. The Dirty Picture has been shot as aesthetically as possible. It’s not meant to be a sleaze movie. That said, it is a sleaze movie. I mean, how different is it?

In The Dirty Picture, Vidya Balan’s character starts off like a typical Tamizh girl wearing a half saree who suddenly in front of the camera, starts biting her lip and makes suggestive movements in a dance sequence. She then exudes this chemistry with Naseeruddin Shah, sleeps with him and gets mad at him when he is with his wife. See, the story is nothing new. And neither is Vidya’s character. I mean, if she won a national award, shouldn’t Silk Smitha when many more? You may say that today’s audience is more forward-thinking, more broad-minded. No doubt we are. But are we also an audience to believe that exposing your cleavage and biting your lip is going to add to women power?

The Dirty Picture may have been the kind of movie that an audience of today wanted to see. I mean, you may have looked at with wrinkled eyebrows if you went out to see such a movie say ten years ago. Today, it’s not that bad.

Vidya is being hailed for her portrayal of the character. A mainstream actress doing a film that many may not. That’s all there is to it. All the applause is for Vidya and her career. Nothing to do with feminism. Or little to do with feminism.

If women in Gurgaon are being told to finish work by 8 PM every night, is a movie like The Dirty Picture going to catapult us a few centuries ahead as far as how women are perceived? Well, the Gurgaon issue has come out well after the movie released.

I would give credit to The Dirty Picture for one thing. It’s done well without a ‘hero’ figure. And it’s nonsense to call Vidya the new Khan. Come one, she is a woman. Let her be one. And celebrate her as just that. Can’t we be better than men? Or do we need to be referred to as men when we do something just as well as them or maybe even better?

But coming back to my main point. In a nation where women are still suppressed, The Dirty Picture does very little to our advantage. When I am fighting for my rights, I don’t need the backing of cleavage and thunder thighs. I don’t need Vidya’s example. The fight is not entirely about the physical aspects of a woman. It’s the way women are viewed socially, domestically and professionally.

I’ll tell you what we need. We need daughters and sons to be treated equally. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Court: Once married, daughter is guest in parental home

It’s become a bit of a fad these days to denigrate women. There was Chetan Bhagat. Abhishek Bachchan. The Sri Ram Sene have been at it for a while. And now the courts too don’t want to be left behind. The Bombay High Court recently said that daughters, once married, are no longer legally permitted to live in their parents’ house without their consent; she cannot force herself on her parents because she becomes a guest as she is now a member of the husbands’ family.

I mean, excuse me?

That’s all women need in this country for development. Living with parents has become a question of the law?

How is this even relevant to our times? Have daughters become commodities?
You know, for years, many social thinkers and commentators have stated that those women whose ambition is to be treated equally to men, have no ambition at all. They are wrong. When we have someone from the judiciary making some reckless orders under the eye of the legal system, no wonder women in our country are the way we are.

Which brings me to my next argument.

What about the legal rights of sons after they get married? In our social system, the son continues to live with his parents along with his wife. The Bombay High Court also observed that adult children in general require the permission of their parents to live with them in the parents’ personal house.

So the court decides to make ‘extra’ observations about daughters and how they are guests in their parents’ house. But no such thing for sons.

Isn’t this typical?

A daughter is just like any human being. Whether she gets married and goes to another house, or not, she deserves to be recognized for who she is. Just because daughters are expected to go and live in another house, does not make her parents’ house any less hers. She has the right to live anywhere she wants.

This judgement seems to suggest that children are a burden on parents. If that’s the case, My Lord, why have children in the first place? To kick them out once they turn 18?

If you are going to bring in the law, it shouldn’t be for argument sake. The case that was before the Bombay High Court should have been treated individually and not to make a comment on the way we live as families. I don’t know if Justice J H Bhatia has a daughter. If he does, maybe he should have a little chat with her. If he doesn’t, well, we figured.