Dear Indian men, let’s talk

Have you ever heard someone scream when they are completely silent?

Like all of us, I also come from a country where women are one of the many oppressed(?) groups that face inequality of many types and who, like any other minority group, are working to constantly change the status quo in their respective societies. In India if someone has a baby girl, it can usually not be the happiest moment for the whole family and society. The reaction can range from “let’s kill the girl” or “Oh my god it’s a girl! Yes! Happy!” but in the head they already know that she is going to have a difficult life, not just for herself but also for her family. I am not ashamed to admit that India is the one of the most dangerous places to be born a girl. If you are a girl in India, you are treated as a liability among many other stereotypes that you will grow up fighting, if you got out alive when you were born. And even if you are born in a very supportive family and get a PhD you might give up on life sometimes, like this girl. Some say, the problem are men, some say it’s a problem of the mentality. In any case, you see men is a part of both. The outrageous part is that the father of this girl said, I wish I would have saved the money for her dowry, because one day her husband (and his family) will end up harassing and killing my daughter (paraphrasing). This makes you wonder if such men still exist in India and how many decades will it take to change that.

Please do not let an educated, city living Indian having international friends, living abroad tell you that this is not a real problem in India. It is just like extreme poverty, caste based inequality, racism, bigotry and we must be scoring high on all those fronts just because of the mere fact that we are one of the most populated countries in the world. We will always win by numbers. Most of the time, people get uncomfortable talking about such issues which bring a bad name to our society or we are trying to just be in denial and avoid feeling uncomfortable. But I can assure you, that even when the person is a city living, rich, educated and what not, it does not mean that the said man would not demand dowry, or let her wife practice her ambitions. Many a times you will find that such men are the most dangerous ones, who would make demands of dowry in indirect ways by saying “This is how things have been in our culture. Everyone does it.” We all know such men and we have heard stories of our friends. Even the most lovely couple I know, the man in the relationship’s constant advise to me in terms of women would be, “Ajay, you should know how to show a woman her place. Be a man!“. Sure there are people, both men and women, who accept the definition of certain roles that the society ascribes us and they call it values and culture. Good for them.

Looking at the article above, we can see that such men or families (the girl’s husband) are the ones that need to change. Whenever someone points out an age old problem, the common defense and assumption of people can be, “I am not like that” or “My family is not like that”. Sure. Maybe, But really? The educated brother enjoys a lot of freedom and is able to be out late, but when the sister is out and just doing her daily commute to work and home, a slight delay in the schedule sets panic in the whole family. It’s not safe for her to be out alone you say, but the safety is threatened by whom? Men or Aliens? When the girl breaks all the stereotypes and gets a PhD, even in the search of a mature partner, she might be constantly dealing with men who get intimidated by her being a high achiever. The male ego is so fragile it can not handle a strong woman who is just stable in all aspects, career, emotionally and has ambitions. I understand that all the role models that men are shown, are usually men in our societies and high achieving women are always referred to as the “first female prime minister” and not just the “prime minister”, creating a strong belief that such powerful positions are only destined for men and if someone else is getting to that position it’s an exception of sorts. The journey from being an exception to become a norm is a long one, and we can see it in any other country. That’s OK. I mean my country is probably never going to see the light of having more women in the parliament, because men in power don’t want to let go of the power and also patriarchy (more here and here).

When you are a believer of the fact that any human being has autonomy, agency, free will, dignity and is intellectually capable just like any other, you would find it hard to hear what I did. At the very least, I believe the comparison between men and women is that of apples and oranges, and maybe science backs me up on this too by saying all of us are just immutably different. For me the burning question is not just a simple binary one as “Why do men think women are inferior?” but, “Why are men entitled to have such a view, and where does this mentality come from?

If you are a little observant, its not that hard to see while growing up that how gender roles and stereotypes exist in your society. [Pick your favourite profession and see how many (straight) men v/s others come up in the statistics to start with, in case you feel like educating yourself.] Obviously, I grew up with a binary view on gender and knew only of men and women. And although I do not have my own sister, I grew up hanging out with a lot of girls (cousins and neighbours). We played all the games together, especially cricket, which is usually considered a boys only sport. Which meant to me that we were able to play every game together. But, I remember girls were always the different kind of players and upon team selection they would be considered to be split equally between both teams to keep the balance of not-so-good players. Probably that’s how kids grow up thinking that there is a difference of capability and performance between boys and girls. There was also a difference in how boys and girls would fight. Boys could get very violent or loud and will think of poking, bullying or showing physical power in some ways right early since childhood. Until the parents stepped in and would have to explicitly state that doing this to girls isn’t right. Slowly that would change to boys just fighting with boys, but resorting to subtle forms of expressing the fight like, shaming, pulling hair, belittling etc. That gradually changes in all of us as we grow up and subtle behaviours take different forms, either fading away or becoming extreme. The whole belief that since as kids we were able to overpower girls in fights or sports, they somehow become inferior to us, is a wrong one. And now when I speak to my female cousins or friends, who are working and they share their stories of what they have to deal with on a daily basis, I lose patience and my usual response is “Why don’t you speak up?” and then usually I get shouted back, “It’s not that easy!”. It’s usually the men in public space, in the bus or on the streets or in the private space like their supportive friend, boss or colleague who would judge their intellect whenever there has to be a salary raise, promotion or task assignment.

I feel like I grew up in a world where men are violent, and women are silent.

I keep going back to how boys and girls are raised in our society, and made to believe a lot of things by virtue of the conditioning from the environment. While there are a lot of people who tell girls and women on how to conduct their business since centuries, I would rather be interested in discussing how boys are raised and how men grow up to become and what they should and shouldn’t do. I understand privilege is a concept that is invisible to the privileged, just like a fish in a bowl isn’t able to see there’s water (privilege), it can’t be hard for men to see that. The easier way is to speak to the female who are close to you and listen to them and how they see and experience life. I would rather be interested in speaking as, and to, men so that the change happens in men and parenting. And we work towards creating safe spaces and environment that promotes change. Basically what I am saying to men is that change begins with you being supportive, accepting, listening and if not, by just not blocking the way for people who are making the change. It is a men’s issue.

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A conversation on dignity at a refugee home

Human dignity is a very simplistic term that appears in almost very often in discussions around humanity or in day-to-day life. However, when we look at the governments and how our nation states endorse it as an important value for our society, we see it appear as “Article 1 – Human dignity” or the well known Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). It is very clear that everyone understands the concept of worth of a human person naturally, however, we also make a very common mistake of assuming that the world revolves around us, and the “I” is very important. Somehow the “I” is so important that we are constantly fighting to keep the “I” very special, unique and most of the times “better” than the “other” person. It is very easy to give in to our emotional state and fall prey to discrimination, alienation and distance from what is different to us, i.e. the other. Emotions, Identity, Collective worth etc. all matter here.

citation
Forgas, J. P., & Fiedler, K. (1996). Us and them: Mood effects on intergroup discrimination. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 28–40. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.1.28

All of this probably makes us conduct a value assessment of “human worth” on the other person as less deserving than the “I”, because the “I” is special, unique, more deserving, more hard working (better, bigger, faster, stronger). As I continue to read on dignity, “Us v/s Them” (refer more academic readings: one, two, three), I am also trying to write on conversations with friends which I find having the same meaning and helps us understand these concepts.

I love my friends who have kids, as there is a lot of simple stuff going in their lives and so much to talk about. The incident involves two moms, each having a daughter (let’s assume they are both of the same age). The local citizen, city living mom (let’s call her Mom A) takes her daughter and visits the local refugee home to give away some of clothes, toys etc. which she does not need or can do away with. After giving away the stuff to the homes, while walking out she bumped into the second mom who was a resident of the refugee home (let’s call her Mom B). Mom B was with her daughter who looked at the other girl wearing a teddy bear school backpack. She (Mom B) asked Mom A if she can have the same backpack for her own daughter or if she can give the one her daughter was carrying to her.

tedd
The bag probably looked something like this.

Mom A, was very reluctant to give away the bag from her daughter and told Mom B that she just dropped off a lot of stuff and maybe there’s something she can use from there. Mom B was insisting that this is a very lovely bag and her daughter will be very happy to have the same one, now that she can see that another little girl like her as something pretty and shiny. Many assumptions can be made here as to what happened in the head of these moms but, our conversation went into the discussion on what is dignified and not, and the idea of “left overs” was a starting point.  Using this as an example of worthiness and humanity in general, simply put, the other person had enough already and it would not hurt much to just give away the bag. Mom B can go and buy a new one, and it would have made the Mom A and her daughter happy, at least for the moment. Maybe even made them feel like normal equally deserving humans for that short time. The question I asked was a simple one, Why do you think the other child wasn’t deserving enough to have been given that bag?

However, I used a simpler and more visible example of how crowded the refugee homes were to further the conversation. In this given society, you have a certain minimum standard of life that is considered as a basic human right. I mentioned that when I had to apply for a German residence permit here and provide proof of accommodation the officer told me that my address had too many people and not enough space for me to be living here, so I was told to find another apartment and re-apply.

Basically, every member of the family over six has to have twelve square meters of living space, members between two and six need ten square meters, members under two years old are exempt from the regulation. In addition they must be able to share kitchen, bathing and other facilities.

A quick search gave me this explanation as it being a “policy recommendation” and not a law. But I used it as an example to support my argument that, if there is a certain standard that is a given here in this society, then the same should be applied to refugee homes? Of course the answer is not simple when we talk about realities like, enough houses, money to build it, infrastructure etc. But we are talking on a moral level right now, and ignoring the realities. Things like justice, dignity etc are all moral concepts which our society constantly deliberates on shaping our realities.

In the example of the girl and the bag, it is very simple to assume that for some reason the refugee mom felt like she wanted to be treated as an equal and her daughter should have the same bag. While the other mom, was probably in a tricky situation to sacrifice her way of living, at the cost of her daughter’s emotional attachment to the bag. Both are very valid human responses and expectations. To which I posit, a little bit of naive idealism, that once everyone has enough of what they need, and we combine the sense of happiness and empathy to that equation, it is very easy for people to “give” away so that others can have the same. Also when we create the inevitable distinction of Us v/s Them, we dehumanise the other and distance ourselves as the better deserving or worthy. Which essentially means, the moment we are using labels like them, others, refugees and move away from our way of referring each other as just humans, we are going away from the concept of dignity at it’s core. What would it take to work towards a “One Of Us” definition rather than the “Us v/s Them” is something I am sure a lot of people think and work towards.

There are other questions, to be written at another time, on the approach to integration, aid in the context of refugees that come to my mind. If you remove the word “refugees” from its technical, legal definition, we are all migrants, immigrants of some form looking for “safe havens” and have a “better life”. Even an academic looking for that tenure position will have to move to a different city or country is looking for something better, stable and secure to have a good and meaningful life. The alienation and distancing here is real, and at times the refugee homes are mainly located outside of the normal civilisation even in regular cities. There are enough empathetic and willing local citizens and communities who are willing to help and support and work should be done in allowing the locals to accept and invite people into their localities to help integrate well. Most of the refugee aid work done by agencies is in “containment” mode and keeps them away as the “other” and a lot of integration efforts needs to be done right.

 

 

TEDxShekhavati – Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi – The Illiterate Entrepreneurs

One of the privileges I have had while working at GDS was working with these women farmers as part of our project in Rajasthan. So when Masarat and me met, and she told me about her plans to do another event in 2011, I was excited and was able to invite Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi (Founder/Directors) along with my dear friend and colleague Shivraj Vaishnav (CEO) of the company Grameen Aloe Vera Producer Company Ltd (GAPCL) to share their story.

Bhawri Devi and Mishri Devi belong to the Jawaja Block in Ajmer, Rajasthan. They own a company that makes aloe vera juice and accompanying them is Shivraj Vaishnav who is the CEO of their company. These women who can barely write their own name are an inspiration to everyone who think that lack of education is an obstacle to achieving their dreams. In this TEDxShekhavati 2011 talk, they share their story and inspire everyone else to follow their heart.

You can view their talk here (with English subtitles) on the official TEDx YouTube channel. The women also appear in the TEDx promo video by TED.

Other speakers at the event included Manpreet Kaur, Osama Manzar, Avika Gaur (Baalika Vadhu fame), Rajvardhan Rathore, Nusrat Naqwi, Omer Mewati and others. Pictures from my camera are here and the other official pictures from the event are here.

The event attracted a huge audience (5000+) and it was bigger than the last edition and it was organised against all odds. Read Masarat’s post on the event here and Chris Anderson’s (TED Founders) post on the story of the event here.

TEDxShekhavati, is an independently organised TEDx event curated by Masarat Daud-Jamadar which takes place in the Shekhavati region of Rajasthan. This event is attended by Shekhavati people: parents, children, school students and others who will be coming from different parts of Rajasthan and India. It’s the first TEDx in Rajasthan and also first TEDx in India for a largely-illiterate audience, which makes it even more interesting!