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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dearly departed

Funerals may be difficult to negotiate, but that’s no reason to goof around at them

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, you must have seen pictures of that now-infamous ‘selfie’ that Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt clicked with US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron at the memorial of the late, great Nelson Mandela. The three world leaders, grinning cheesily into the camera, craned their necks together to get into the frame, oblivious to the thunder-faced Michelle Obama who looked pointedly away.

I am no mind reader, but I can pretty much guess what was going through Michelle Obama’s head as her husband grinned goofily for the camera. What on earth are you thinking, Barack? This is the memorial service of a remarkable man who inspired millions across the globe. Countries from across the world have sent their leaders to pay homage to his soul. This is a solemn occasion to mark the passing of a true hero. This is not the time to pose for a ‘selfie’.

But then, much of the world was thinking along the same lines. Memorial services and funerals are supposed to be about remembering those who have passed on and honouring their lives, not posing for cheesy pictures on the sidelines. You can just about forgive giddy teenagers for gaffes like these, but heads of state and government? Seriously, what is the world coming to?

Of course, there were those who said that we were making much ado about nothing. The Mandela memorial service was about celebrating his life and having a rollicking good time while at it. So, what was wrong if Obama and Cameron decided to flirt a little or even pose for a picture with Ms Thorning-Schmidt? It was all in good fun, and knowing Nelson Mandela, he would probably have chuckled along, or even leant in for a piece of the action.

As the debate raged on, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is the right funeral etiquette these days? There was a time when there was general agreement that funerals were solemn occasions, where grave faces and discreet tears were the order of the day. People came clad somberly in black (or white), sat quietly to pay their respects, and then left to allow the family to mourn in peace and privacy.

These days, however, all that seems to be changing. First off, in India at least, nobody seems to abide by the all-white dress code. People come wearing pretty much what they like, from jeans and kurtas, to saris and shorts, all in colours of their choosing. Many people don’t even bother to sit through all the bhajans, leaving as soon as they have marked their attendance with the family. Those who do, fiddle discreetly with their phones, answering mails and sending smses so that they don’t miss out on a single minute of a working day. And the close friends and family members who stay back for a cup of tea or coffee afterwards, shuffle awkwardly as they try and make conversation with the bereaved – and take off as soon as they can without violating the laws of common decency.

Part of the problem, of course, is that all of us are – at some level – rendered acutely uncomfortable by death. There is an element of ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I’ in our reactions to the news of someone’s passing. And in that maelstrom of emotions, we find it hard to negotiate the best way to communicate our sympathy to those who have lost a loved one. “I am so sorry about your loss,” sounds exactly like the cliché it is when we say it to someone who has lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or even worse, a child. But no matter how acutely we feel for them, we don’t seem to have the vocabulary to express the depth of our feelings. And so, it just seems easier to just avoid any meaningful conversation until the worst of their grief has passed.

But no matter how uncomfortable we feel, it behoves us to treat a funeral with proper respect. And that means turning up on time, instead of half way through the prayer service. It involves dressing in a manner that respects the memory of those that have passed (it doesn’t have to be funereal black or white so long as you stick to formal wear). It means no cracking silly jokes, just to break the tension.

And even if you can’t think of what to say, don’t avoid meeting those who have lost a loved one. Just hug them close, and give them the chance to weep on your shoulder, should they want to take it. Don’t make them embarrassed about their tears. Don’t tell them to cheer up. Never say, “Don’t cry”. Offer a tissue to wipe their tears, give them the space to share their feelings with you, and most of all, allow them to grieve in your presence.

It doesn’t matter if you are not good with spoken words. Find some other way to acknowledge their loss. Write a letter sharing anecdotes about those who have passed on. If you have some nice pictures of the departed soul, frame them and send them to the family as a remembrance. Share a book or a piece of music to help those grieving.

But whatever you do, don’t take your lead from the leader of the free world and goof around at a memorial service. And (I had hoped that this would go without saying, but clearly I was wrong), for God’s sake, don’t take a selfie.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

In defence of men

In a free and frank gender debate, men must be allowed to air their views – no matter how offensive we find them

First off, a confession. I find myself increasingly discomfited by the newly-minted feminist narrative in which a woman is always considered to be right and the man is always seen as being wrong. In which a woman’s word is regarded as being more reliable than a man’s, simply because she is a woman. In which a man is assumed to be guilty until he is proved innocent, turning the principles of natural justice on their head, if a woman were to level a rape or dowry charge against him. And in which men and women are depicted as antagonistic entities, engaged in pitched battles across the gender divide.

It really doesn’t have to be like that. Women’s rights are not just a feminist issue. They are a humanist issue. And we do the feminist cause a disservice when we try and shut men out of the discourse, or treat them as enemies of the movement. This is the good fight which all right-thinking human beings must fight; not just those with an extra X chromosome.

Because of our visceral reaction to such events as the Delhi gang rape last December, the gang rape of a photo-journalist in Mumbai, and more recently, the allegations of sexual assault leveled against Tarun Tejpal, we are finally talking about a woman’s right to a safe environment, at home, at the office, and on the streets. But because our rage and anger is so overwhelming, the pitch of the debate has been raised to such shrill levels that we are in danger of drowning out good sense.

The first sign of this is our absolute refusal to listen to what men are trying to say, if it doesn’t fit in with our narrative of woman=victim and man=predator. While there is no disputing that women are more at risk when it comes to sexual violence or harassment, we cannot dismiss out of hand the notion that some men may be victims too. Cases of the dowry and rape laws being misused may be rare, but they do exist. And we ignore them at our peril.

But what is also worrying is the new fashion of shouting down men who express opinions that we regard as sexist. Take Farooq Abdullah, for instance, who confessed that he was now scared of talking to women for fear of what would happen (“I don’t even want to keep a woman secretary. God forbid, there is a complaint against me and I end up in jail”). Or Naresh Aggarwal, who said that men would no longer hire women as personal assistants for fear of being accused of sexual harassment.

Whatever we may think about the mind-set that generated such sentiments, there is no denying that these sentiments do exist. These two men were just brave/foolish/foolhardy (take your pick) to say in public which many men were feeling (and expressing) in private. But given the viciousness with which they were greeted, I wouldn’t be surprised if men now run scared of even speaking out on gender issues, for fear of being shouted down, sneered at, abused, or dismissed as chauvinistic Neanderthals.

And, if you ask me, that is a real shame.

If we want to change people’s minds on issues such as women’s empowerment, sexual harassment, or even sexual assault, then it is important to engage with them in a meaningful way which facilitates dialogue and a free and frank exchange of ideas. Men may well have views that we regard as sexist but just screaming ‘pigs’ at them will not make them rethink their attitudes. It will just make them disengage from the debate and keep their views to themselves in the future. And those views will never change.
It is simply self-defeating to create an environment in which no man can express his true opinions on gender – however sexist we may find them – without being torn to bits by a lynch mob motivated by political correctness. Jumping down the throats of people who say things we don’t like will not result in their views being asphyxiated out of existence. These attitudes will continue to flourish in the dark, all the more potent for being unspoken and hence unchallenged. 

Also, I can’t help but feel that it is time that we injected some shades of grey into a discourse that has become too black and white to allow for a nuanced approach. The feminist movement will only benefit from acknowledging that all women don’t fit into one easy category of ‘downtrodden victim’ who must be protected at all costs. Women are human beings, and as such they have the same strengths and weaknesses, the same virtues and flaws as men. Some women are truthful; some are not. Some women are weak; some are strong. Some women are victims; some are oppressors.

To lump them all into a one-size-fits-all category smacks of intellectual laziness and a complete misunderstanding of how the real world operates. This kind of thinking doesn’t empower women; it belittles them by reducing them to easy stereotypes. True equality exists in having the same standards applied to women as they would to men, without conceding any special privilege or concession simply because they are women.

And it also means conceding the point that men have a right to their own views on the gender debate currently raging in the country – never mind how strongly we disagree with him. Feminists cannot become the Thought Police, no matter how grave the provocation.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

But what about...

No matter what the subject, social media wants to know why you haven’t outraged on that ‘other’ matter

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but there is a new malaise infecting the netherworld of social media. I like to call it ‘whataboutitis’. Others prefer the term ‘whataboutery’. But whatever you choose to term it, this is an insidious disease that is steadily infecting the universe of our social discourse. For the moment, it is restricted to the virtual world but like all things trite and less than wonderful it will soon be an IRL (that’s ‘In Real Life’ for all you newbies out there) phenomenon as well.

So, what is ‘whataboutitis’? Well, this is basically how it plays out. You express an opinion about a political party/current event/celebrity/politician. And no matter what the merit of the opinion itself, you are instantly called out because you omitted to express an opinion about that other political party/current event/celebrity/politician. That omission, apparently, makes the opinion you did voice completely and utterly invalid – pretty much useless, in fact. (Never mind if you did, in fact, have your say about that ‘other’ matter; if people don’t remember it, it doesn’t really count. Not on social media, anyway.)

The classic example is that of the 2002 Gujarat riots. You only have to mention them on social media and you will instantly have to do battle with an army of ‘whatabouters’. What about the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, then, eh? Weren’t they as much a case of genocide? Did anybody apologise for them? Did anyone go to jail? Isn’t Rajiv Gandhi as guilty as Narendra Modi? Why are you just picking on Namo, then? Are you ‘paid media’? Or just ‘sickular’?

And what about Godhra? Did you shed any tears for the people who were killed on that train? Did their deaths not count? Wasn’t that a pre-planned conspiracy? What about the Nellie massacre? Do you even know how many died in that? Do they not matter because they happened in faraway Assam? What about the Muzzafarnagar riots? Isn’t Akhilesh Yadav guilty for letting them happen?

The questions just pile on, as ‘whataboutitis’ flares into an virtual epidemic, with nobody stopping to think just how distasteful and vile it is to play partisan politics over the bodies of dead Indians, no matter what their religion (or political affiliation) may have been.

But this ‘whataboutitis’ is not restricted to riots, either. It extends to most discussions about feminism, sexism and women empowerment as well. It is impossible to stand up for any one woman without being harangued about how you didn’t stand up for that other woman. (The honest truth is that you did. But public memory is even shorter on social media.)

In my own experience, every single time I have tweeted against an instance of sexism against a woman in public life, the ‘whatabouters’ have struck back with nary a care for the truth. When I attacked Sanjay Nirupam for making sexist comments about Smriti Irani on television, the Congress brigade hit back at me with squeals of ‘whataboutery’. ‘What about Narendra Modi’s sexist comment about Sunanda Pushkar? How come you weren’t outraged about that as well?” (Well, actually I was, and I tweeted about that too, thanks for asking.) On the other hand, whenever I comment on Modi’s sexist remarks, the right wing brigade gets its knickers in a twist about the fact that I hadn’t defended Smriti Irani against the smarmy comments of Sanjay Nirupam. (Er, I wrote an entire column about it; you can Google search it once you’ve stopped frothing at the mouth.) And what about the fact that I hadn’t defended Sushma Swaraj when she was derided as a ‘nachaniya’ by such Congress leaders as Digvijay Singh. (Only, of course, I did.)

Call Tarun Tejpal out on his Alchemy Of A Liar and you are asked why you didn’t condemn Assaram Bapu in the same breath. Express your anguish about the Delhi gang rape victim and you will get ‘what about all the tribal women who get raped’. Comment on how long Sourav Ganguly took to finally retire and the ‘What about Sachin?’ question will inevitably follow. Stand up for Shah Rukh Khan’s right to air his views about what it means to be Muslim in India and the ‘whatabouters’ will bring up Salman Khan and his celebration of Ganesh Chathurti (now, isn’t that what ‘true secularism’ is about?).

Complain about right-wing trolls who call you names and threaten to rape you and you will be asked ‘What about the Congress trolls who do the same thing?’ (Answer: please name and shame them all; report spam; get their accounts blocked. I have zero tolerance for abusive people on social media, no matter what their political affiliation. The reason I outrage about the Sanghis is because they are the ones trolling me. The moment Congress handles do the same, I will call them out as well.) Say you like pizza and people will want to know what’s wrong with chaat. Talk about loving Delhi and people will want to know what’s wrong with Mumbai. Praise Peter and you will be asked ‘But what about Paul’?

I have to admit that despite my best efforts to Stay Calm and Carry On, this epidemic of ‘whataboutitis’ is beginning to get me down. I am seriously thinking of putting a disclaimer on my social media feed: Please feel free to assume that I am outraged about everything, unless I declare otherwise.

Do you think it would serve as an antidote to ‘whataboutitis’? Well, a girl can dream, but I kind of suspect that this nightmare has only just about started.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sex, lies, and lack of videotape

It’s all very well to outrage about the Tehelka case; but let’s also try and ensure that such cases don’t recur

Over the last fortnight, the media have been ‘larcerating’ themselves over the sexual assault allegations leveled against Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, by a (now former) staffer of the magazine. The account of the aggrieved journalist makes for sorry reading, but what was even more disturbing was the attempt by Tehelka to try and pass this off as an ‘internal matter’. When journalists dared ask questions of Tehelka managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, she shot back angrily: “Are you the aggrieved party?” (Presumably, Shoma, or to call her by what we now discover is her real name, Suparna, was an ‘aggrieved party’ in the Assaram case, or else why would she chose to cover it?)

Well, you know what, Ms Chaudhury? We are all aggrieved parties in this. Not just every woman who has ever had to fend off unwanted sexual advances in the workplace; but every young girl in school and college today, who one day hopes to step into the work force. Not to mention, every unborn child who deserves to enter into a world in which women are not preyed upon sexually – and then victim-shamed when they summon the courage to speak up.

But how do we create that world? Outraging on Twitter, fulminating on TV and in columns such as this one, is a good way of venting when our rage, frustration and despair threaten to overwhelm us. But it doesn’t really change things in the real world. And nor does the constitution of sexual harassment committees in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines.

So, what will? I have spent the last week or so trying to come up with some answers. This is what I have so far:

1)    Start work on the next generation. Much as it saddens me to say this, most of the men in my generation and the one above are beyond redeeming. It was telling that the only people who were willing to come on TV and defend Tejpal were men of a certain age who had grown up in an age of entitlement. In their world, junior staffers should be flattered when men in power show sexual interest in them; and shut up and put up with sexual harassment, or even sexual assault. A mentality like that is hard to change. So, while we shouldn’t let them get away with victim shaming, let’s not nourish any illusions that their Neanderthal thinking will change.

Instead, let’s try and get the young men of today and tomorrow to see women as something other than sexual objects. In this endeavor, the mothers – and indeed, fathers – of young boys have the biggest role to play. Teach your son that a woman’s right to her bodily integrity is inviolable. Make him understand that no means no. Upbraid him when he makes sexist comments. Respect his girlfriend/wife rather than undermine her. Teach him by example. Don’t refer to women in short dresses as ‘sluts’. Don’t act as if a girl who has premarital sex is a ‘whore’. Don’t sneer at women who frequent nightclubs as ‘easy’ or ‘fast’.

2)    But while the role of parents is crucial, schools, colleges and other educational institutions can also play a vital role. Alongside classes on sex education, we also need to teach lessons about sexual behavior. We need to tell young girls and boys what constitutes sexual harassment or even sexual assault. Young girls need to be taught that it is okay to speak out against any man who violates their body. Young boys need to be taught that consent is crucial when it comes to sex. I know it seems self-evident but it is frightening how many men grow up believing that a woman’s ‘no’ means ‘not yet’ and that if they persist it will change into a ‘yes’. It bears repeating. No means no.

3)    A policy of zero tolerance. I remember going on a TV programme on rapper Honey Singh and being asked if I was just picking on him because he was a ‘soft target’. There are no ‘soft targets’ when it comes to sexual violence against women. The man who pinches your bum in the bus, the guy who makes a sexual comment on the street, the singer who raps about violence against women, the boss who acts as if sexual favours are his God-given right, the man who molests or rapes a woman. All of them need to be punished with the full force of the law

4)    No sexualisation of the workplace. And this applies to both men and women. Just as we take it for granted that it is not okay for men to watch pornography at the office, or indeed, decorate their desks with pin-ups of naked women, it is also not okay for women to sexualize the workplace by dressing like wannabe porn stars. There is a time and a place to wear a mini-skirt or a camisole top. Your office is not that place. And while I am all for the right of women to dress as they please, we also need to understand that showing butt cracks or acres of cleavage sexualizes our workplace just as much as dirty jokes do. We wouldn’t stand for it if our male colleagues dressed like that. The same standards should apply to us.

For a truly equal, sexual harassment-free workplace, men and women need to work together. And that work needs to start now.