Wednesday, November 23, 2005

the body political

I had a flaming argument in the morning about this, so this is not only what I think, im also hopping mad. and a little scared. the argument pulled me up and reminded me just how little women in India own their bodies. the issue was about clothes – the old dupatta story - but for me it stood for more.

clothes decide if youre worth a job, youre a trustworthy person, or if youve status (whatever the hell that is)? it becomes positively scary when clothes even dictate if you "deserve" to be harassed, raped, stoned to death or humiliated.

but im not particularly bothered about that.

it pales into insignificance when I realize that my body isnt mine in the first place. im taught that it belongs to my employers, it belongs to my colleagues, to my college, parents, relatives, peers - even to some vague unknown guy on the road (maybe him most of all).

but most. certainly. not. to. me.

and each of those people can exercise an absolutely arbitrary irrational control. example? the case of the erotic armpit.... thats right. did a double take didnt you? i dont blame you. how ridiculous does that sound?! yet, wearing a sleeveless garment - be it a sari blouse, salwar, t-shirt or gown - is irrefutable evidence of a continuum from hipness to sexual availability. all based on probably the least erotic part of the human body. (especially in our hot weather, i wonder what on earth people have running in their heads that makes them think of underarms lasciviously!!)

especially if youre way down there on the social ladder - a woman or child (and its worse if youre poor as well into the bargain), you have even lesser say on what you will do with you body. - the husband owns the right to the womb, parents own virginity, and patriarchy is notorious for exploiting womens bodies for every perverted sexual fantasy it can pander to whether by means of pornography, rape or sexual slavery.

so we don’t really have a say in reproductive healthcare, birth control options, sexual rights, or about having to undergo female or male genital mutilation - naturally sexuality is an alien concept. its irrelevant whether its by an obscure societal authority, or a formally chosen state authority, basically you dont have personhood when your body is hijacked. it’s the easiest way of denying your existence as an individual. you are no-body. literally.

now, the multinationals have joined the game too. they decide that you must have this shade of skin, this composition of chemicals, this body structure, this texture of hair.. or else youre to be kicked out as a pariah. if you are accepted in the system, its no big bonus either - youre merely a conforming unit, made in the same stereotype as billions of other molded specimens. that this often happens with a tagline like "be yourself" and “express your attitude” would be hilarious if it werent so grim.

the more I think about it the more convinced I am of the power of the nude. I suppose it has been possible to vilify, humiliate and degrade the body so badly only because we feel so defensive about its being covered up. to stand forth without shields takes much courage. (and you bet society will hate any effort to be that strong and independent of its suffocating clutches.)

look at the women of horsley*. that’s reclaiming the power of the nude. look at our own north eastern women - when the army was raping women and the government didn’t bother intervening, housewives gathered and stood before the army quarters stark naked challenging them “take our bodies if you dare”. the body can so easily be the supreme gesture of human power and dignity.

as a woman who has been privileged enough to get some kind of education, it infuriates me to be taught helplessness and insecurity. its maddening that im supposed to be responsible, independent, earn, support people - but quietly hand my brains in at the end of my work day at 4pm and chant conditioning lessons like a zombie. damned if I will!

* the photograph is from the horsley calendar. it was made to mark the anniversary of the rwanda genocide when so many women's bodies were treated with inhuman savagery. the women of horsley have framed a powerful message that womens bodies can be instruments of strength, power and resilience. do see that calendar! :)

Children and dress sense


Monday, November 21, 2005

WAD 2005

in my former workplace, we used to have this cynical, a tad trite, but very practical adage – every day is World AIDS Day!

however, since the whole world doesn’t talk, breathe and think HIV every waking moment, it may be a good idea to shout about it as much as you can at least on that one day so people get the general drift! : )

I know hiv is seriously hyped, and theres a lot of shady stuff happening, but I think its still important that we talk about it for these reasons (im looking only at the Indian scene)

  1. hiv now accounts for the largest disease burden in India – yeah, it outweighs even diarrhoea and tb (though tb is fuelled by higher hiv rates)

  1. for us to seriously check the spread of hiv in India, we would we have to look very honestly at the way we live. it calls for huge but fundamental socio-economic reforms.

if we pull if off, millions of people could lead better lives, not just because theyre at lower risk of hiv, but because so many societal factors working against them have been reduced or eradicated.

  1. after Africa, weve the biggest hiv population in the world. most of the media speaks about the African scene and ignores the situation here. we could still avoid the disaster that the African scene has become, but the last seconds are ticking. I don’t see the point in waiting for the disaster to happen and then talking about it: if we could rope in our all powerful entertainment industry and so on, we may be able to work magic.

but it all starts small, so im going back to small campaigns: a poster on the office notice board, distributing pamphlets on infection modes, testing and protection at colleges, screening a documentary – stuff like that.

when I organised a campaign last year, I had hell finding materials, so this early post is for anyone who is enthusiastically trying to organise an awareness program (and please don’t break my heart saying you know no one like that!) but not knowing where to start. its also to beg you guys to pleeeease at least wear a red ribbon on December 1st. theres bound to be someone wholl ask why youre wearing the darn thing, and idle curiosity is a good enough opening! :d

ok. to business. last year’s theme was fabulous – “have you heard me today?”the focus was on women and their greater risk of HIV infection. the posters were absolutely stunning – they made their point very crisply and non - controversially. you could still use them. if you are planning a serious campaign, and need say, 100 or more posters, write to WAC and tell them your plan in detail.

this year’s theme is “make the promise”. it’s a gentle kick in the pants to remind countries of their pledge to stop the spread of hiv, so it seems to me a cause well worth supporting! ;) you can get the posters online and print them if youre only looking at A4 sizes - theyre available here.

you can get a country-wise break up of the statistics – prevalence rates, mortality and morbidity rates, deaths, new infections and blah – from the UNAIDS report. its available online for free, and you should be able to get it from any NGO that works with HIV as well.

that simple thing – the red ribbon. the best option would be to round up a team (feed ‘em well!) and make the ribbons yourselves, but if youre talking bulk again – like in 1000s of ribbons, these folks may help you out with free ribbons. they were very friendly when I approached them, and extremely generous. the beaded propositions require a very generous budget and an assurance of people willing to buy them! plus you need to give whoevers making it a lot of time, so I wouldn’t recommend them for last minute campaigns and student affairs!

vinyl posters are nice: if you get permission to hang them from somewhere, you can make some really decent ones at quite reasonable rates, with your own captions. these can be neutrally worded without the year on them anywhere, so you can recycle! (yesh, that’s experience talking! :D)

if youd like to start a discussion – and that is really fabulous stuff, you can find a whole lot of fabulous resources on the net, starting from the avert site. the documentary by mondofragilis is very light stuff, very easily understood, features women of different countries speaking (theres an Indian/Pakistani woman as well) about simple issues.IMHO, this documentary cannot be a stand alone feature: it needs a follow up chat. its good if you don’t want to get into the heavy stuff or don’t have that much time allocated for your discussions. I wrote to them and they even sent us free copies (yaay freebies!) so you may get equally lucky or get discounts if youre from a student body or something.

if you want testing information for India, please email me and ill try and unearth the lists to pass on to you. if you want intervention programs, a quick talk, or someone to support you when you talk about facts and issues involved with HIV, these people are in madras. i think in delhi you could try the Naz foundation.

finally, I had also written to benetton because I love toscani’s work on their ad campaign. I mentioned the condom series in particular and asked if they could let me have prints of their posters. would you believe they really did?! stunning people – long live!

the miscellaneous tidbits: saathii is a site that gives you hoards of organisations contacts as well as which area they primarily work in. unifem sometimes has posters in regional languages. UNAIDS has this list of resources as well. i dont know if this one will help, but its supposed to be mtv's effort.


Saturday, November 19, 2005

the story of his love

he smiled. It was the sort of smile that reminded you of a deep breath - the instant it slowly uncoiled across his face, you knew it was a harbinger. it would lead to something….she watched him, catching her breath in anticipation and wonder. what story would this be?

with a sigh like an opening quote, he started his story. it was to become His Story. The Story of His Life. and funnily enough, it was all about something he didn’t even have. he spoke long and lyrically of love that he had felt. of how he had martyred himself - sacrificed his career, his peace of mind, and generally strained every sinew of heart and mind to keep the love of his life happy. the listener heard his words with growing horror. a quiet shudder shook her and she crouched lower.

fortunately, he was too absorbed in His Story to notice the revulsion creeping into her face or the stiffening of her body. her unresponsive silence became the muted scream of the person that he had “loved”. she could identify with the suffocation of the object of his cloying affection.

he droned on about how he was finally betrayed by her – how she had jilted him and walked out of their relationship. the listener breathed easier and cheered her unmet sister – you had to feel relieved for anyone who had escaped such a loving, suffocating trap.

as she watched the woman leave his life with growing joy, he too slowly withdrew from the past and with ill grace limped into the present, glowering like a sulky child. “I did everything for her! What more could she expect of me?” he demanded querulously. a little spirit, fewer shackles, some breathing space? she wondered which her fellowmate would have chosen, the poor woman.

she supposed she should feel sorry for him – he did mean well…. and he certainly wasn’t the only one to reduce love from its powerful magnificence to a maudlin, snivelling sentiment that seeped into your body to weaken spine and spirit. but the concept horrified her too much right then for her to feel charitable. she removed herself to the opposite end of the crowded room as quickly as politeness would let her. and there, slowly recovering warmth and spirit, she saw another person go up to him and sit beside him.

turning to meet the newcomer, he smiled and sighed.


Friday, November 18, 2005

loafer speak

hi! the penny has indeed returned. and here's the last of my gems from SA - this i heard on a radio show and thought it priceless:

'tis the early worm that gets eaten.


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