Wednesday, September 27, 2006

why undeserved, why unearnt?

i decided to make the list in the previous post because i had some ideas. i found myself learning some more as i actually waded through the painful exercise.

one of the things that caught me by surprise and brought a wry smile to my face, was the fact that i could come up with more than 20 things for the list of undeserved, unearnt privileges of being well-off. it contrasts sharply with the mere 10 under the "upper caste" category!

being a brahmin is a relatively small issue in my urban, metropolitan world. i am more affected by the global caste system based on wealth, than by our traditional one based on ancestry.while the caste system of money is equally savage and brutal, i realise that im still privileged to be able to say that that is the main caste system that affects my life. because for so many people - dalits, the indigenous tribal groups - caste is a daily, life-threatening, livelihood- depriving, degrading reality still.

i, in my relatively well-to-do state, have no right to pass the judgement that traditional casteism has ended. very simply, because it has merely ended in my life. there are still many lives whose continuing suffering cannot be swept aside - their experiences are still valid and real and should not be denied.

i make this point so emphatically because it is this same sort of prosperous arrogance which prompts us to make several comfortable assumptions, like that sexism has ended. that discrimination against people of colour has ended, that violence against women isnt really such a problem any more.

so many of the things i listed as privileges actually seem so fundamental - after all that list was only about the right to live with dignity, with a sense of well-being. we all should have such lives. the point was not to go on a guilt trip.

why do i still call those privileges "undeserved" then?

the word "privilege" (in the context i used it in) is defined by the oed as:

• a special right, advantage, or immunity for a particular person or group.

somewhere, somebody is paying the price for my clean, decent, comfortable life. for my life of dignity. someone is living in such poverty that they are doomed to eating rats. in order for my city to be clean, for my health and welfare, there are people doing things like scavenging human excreta. [1, 2, 3]

there are so many such "someones" that their poverty has been institutionalised. the global and traditional caste systems combine to make them suffer in a way that almost baffles description. e m forster once remarked that a catalogue of horrors defeats its purpose. he was speaking of the holocaust. this particular catalogue of horrors is a way of life, and has been so for decades.

i worked briefly in a corporation school for girls. the children who came were mostly children of maidservants. many of them had dropped out of school at some time because their families need extra hands to work and bring home food. being girl children they were the first casualties. but they still had the courage to come back and try to learn - and it wasnt a romantic "Genius in Poverty" story either. it was a struggle on all fronts. the girls would commute by bus, rubbing shoulders with the occasional "english medium school" junta. listening wistfully to the fluent jabbering in english, wishing from their souls that they too could speak like that. for the younger ones, it was the pure thrill of being able to do something cool, for the older ones, it was the cliniching factor in getting a job. for heavens sake, a simple thing like well-shampooed hair was a Luxury to be longed for!

and after a childhood of unfulfilled wistful longing like that, they will be promoted to an adult life of continued deprivation. bonus: getting to see their children grow up in possibly worse circumstances.

what system of evaluation exists, according to which i "deserve" my life - and these people theirs? - none.

making that admission is a critical step forward. if i, as a privileged person deny that i am enjoying advantages that i havent earnt, or if i imply that somehow i have in some way earnt or merited these advantages, i am bullshitting myself to feel comfortable. and my persistent and cowardly denial is at the cost of several lives.

i am also lending my implicit or expressed support for the psuedo (not to mentioned absolutely ill-defined) standards that "elevate" me thus. i am ratifying the socio economic system which grinds other people down.



Friday, September 22, 2006

undeserved privileges

i've been coming across so much stuff on the issue of unearnt privileges and discrimination.

to put it very briefly, even if i personally do not subscribe to a derogatory caste system and the supremacy of the rich, i still benefit in some ways because these social systems exist. i have privileges that someone else is probably paying the cost of.

im starting this thread with the list of privileges that i see in my life which i have not earnt.

the unearnt privileges of being in the "upwardly mobile" section of society :

1. i've had a complete schooling. it's not expected of me to drop out of school to do the housework or take up a job.

2. it's a very normal, acceptable thing for me to do my masters, maybe even a phd.

3. though a woman, i can wear jeans if i want to, wear my salwars without always adding the dhupatta. and it wont be stomped on as hard by the other people in "my" world.

4. though a woman, i can go out on a social visit and return late in the evening or even in the night.

5. at my age, i dont have to do half the physical labour that a much older but poorer woman has to do.

6. when i'm seeking specialised help for a financial, legal or medical problem, i'm treated with courtesy. the people in charge don't treat me with scant respect because they're doing "Charity".

7. no matter how plainly dressed i am, i can enter virtually any restaurant, pub, hotel, office or shop without being stopped because i dont look like the "right crowd".

8. i can afford to think of taking vacations. of taking a break from work. of reporting sick for a week, without wondering how my children will eat.

9. i actually pay much less than a person living in a rural area for water, electricity, sanitation, medical care, food.

10. i live in a part of town from where hospitals, provision stores, restaurants, and my workplace or educational institution are not horribly far.

11. if i find it too harassing and unsafe, i can better protect my person by choosing to not use public transport.

12. i live in a house where i can turn on the tap to get water enough for my needs, without having to fetch it from miles away.

13. i dont have to stand for hours in a queue, forced to skip work that morning, in order to buy rice and dal for the family.

14. i am aware of my fundamental rights as a human being, and as a citizen of this country. at least in theory, im encouraged to also believe i have a right to demand that these not be violated.

15. if i am in trouble - i have an an asthma attack when im not at home, i know i can confidently approach anyone for help. they wont shun me because i look "dirty" or unkempt. shopkeepers and dhobi wallahs have come running up to check if im fine even before ive asked for help.

16. when i have an accident, the cop generally speaks to me with respect.

17. i studied in an english medium school. i will never be disqualified from getting a job because i dont know english.

18. i can afford to set apart some time and money for exercise if i want to. forget enrolling in a gym or learning yoga - i can set one hour aside to go for a walk.

19. people are quicker to help me when they see me carrying heavy loads.

20. fewer people question my spending on non-essentials to lecture me on my economic priorities.

the unearnt privileges of being an upper caste woman

1. sometimes my maid is upset seeing me do jobs she considers dirty or too strenuous, that however she thinks its ok for her to do.

2. my maid and i subscribe to the same religion. she will never have the access i have to our philosophical treatises or scriptures.

3. my religion as it exists today puts me down for being a woman. but it hails my caste. it belittles her for being a woman and for being from her caste.

4. dowry isnt as big a problem in my caste.

5. my caste encourages us to be educated. i can look at my culture and find backing for the pursuit of knowledge.

6. my culture believes in telling me the reasons for symbolism in my religion. it doesnt order me to blindly obey.

7. i will never be ordered to carry garbage, human wastes, dead bodies or do any such labour because of my caste. i probably wont even have to resort to physical labour of any kind for a living, however poor i am.

8. i can customise my religion to suit me, and gather enough knowledge to defend myself against being branded a heretic if i so wish to.

9. im automatically assumed to know more about some things, for no reason other than belonging to the caste i do.

10. i can trace back my lineage to men who were greatly respected and hailed as spiritually evolved people who contributed significantly to my culture. (but sadly, only men.)

privileges that i have as an upper caste, well-to-do woman:

1. a lot of the freedom that i am deprived of, i can at least dream of fighting for and achieving. my family is progressive, and has the luxury of being able to think about the world at large. to philosophise and choose its way of life for a large part.

2. i can choose to study a course for purely academic interest even though it may not be recognised in the job market. it will not be a severe blow to my parents, or considered a waste of their investing in my schooling.

3. i initiate the woman-to-woman bonding sessions with people from my maid's background. and i am at a definitely superior position right from the start without having done or said anything to earn it - even if the other woman happens to be telling me something i didnt know.

4. i can disagree with my menfolk on nearly any fundamental issue with less potential threat to my person.

5. its easier for me to leave an abusive relationship. i at least know vaguely where i can find help and support. and i really have much less to lose.

6. the concepts of privacy and sexuality exist in my life.

so. what does your list look like?

Related: why undeserved, why unearnt?

brownskinspeak, my life

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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

friends and freeing influences

talking to someone ive gotten to know in recent times has been a singularly life-changing experience. after another evening of absorbing conversation and friendly banter, i was just thinking that something felt different in the way i relate to him (as opposed to my interactions with everyone else). as i drove home, i was musing on why it was so. when i did spot what had changed, it took my breath away.

you see, i have always been an asexual being : non-male, non-female. but now, its the first time in my life that im learning to interact with a man, and allowing my femaleness to exist. you could say that it has been my standard procedure to remove the element of my being female from the arena of interaction. ive always made a very deliberate effort to be perceived as "one of the guys" - i'm sure i dont have to explain that the kind of acceptance that a woman gets like that is very different from when she is first perceived as being a woman.

through school and college from the colours of my clothes to my speech and mannerisms, ive always been uncomfortable with anything that would overtly mark me as "female". without ever really analysing it (criminal of me!), ive subconsciously given men around me to understand that they neednt treat me as a woman. i used to send cues that said "please feel free to discuss gaming and gears, to lounge in faded t shirts, to not open doors for me, to not put on your "posh restaurant" voice for me". it was a not-too-consciously learnt impulse.

as a schoolgirl who was never very interested in mainstream music, bestsellers, movies, love or relationships in addition to being interested in the political, my ability to make small talk with girls who were brought up in the usual, traditionally cramping way was very limited. (though i daresay being a tomboy is just as much a stereotype in its way!) it was never a question of intelligence though, because quite a few of them were toppers and pretty common-sensical. though much better now, i can still feel lost with certain women - for instance ones who are passionate mainly about fashion. thats when i look around for the two girls are who are my best buddies * , one of whom used to regularly bail me out in school! they could do the difficult deal (participate in the general conversation) and the simple one (discuss things which interested me)! :)
*( waves to M. and D.!)

but since of the whole class, there were only these few specimens, i figured i wasnt really cut out for the "proper" girl stuff. plus on the other hand, there were the experiences of being able to listen raptly when dad talked about engines, forgetting time when grandad and i decided to do some handiwork at home (i still love pliers!), having absolutely brilliant memories of childhood from time spent with cousins, all of whom were male excepting my sister and myself.

so you see, i thought that for political conversation i would have to turn mostly to men and that the M.s and D.s were in the minority of women. the trouble with talking to men is that many of 'em clam up if they notice you're Female. many's the time when ive come away feeling cheated because the whole conversation was perfectly mundane when i could listen, but awesome when it was a "guys only" thing. i didnt (and dont) really see why discussing machines, logic, capitalism, economics, literary critiques or art should be impossible in the presence of a woman, but if that was so, i would be non-woman because i was dying for company to toss ideas with. (it went against the grain to try to imitate male behaviour because heck, i felt proud to be a woman.)

and then after the blog, i discovered that guys who started talking to me often either explicitly or implicitly expressed their surprise that a woman could have such strong views and produce some reasoning (how valid or invalid wasnt the question) for having them as well. i know by now that theres nothing exceptional about it; i know several highly intelligent women who are better informed and more well-read. (however we started out in school, we've grown up, thanks very much!) this friend never once expressed surprise at my knowledge or regarded my ignorance as a gender-based given. (S., you too are awesome in this regard!)

it makes a huge difference even in the small things - heck, especially in the small things! i pun a hell of a lot. i find it terrific fun when the other person latches on and comes up with something too. and i rarely run out of steam. of all things, this is evidently one that makes many men insecure : from a friendly exchange it becomes a question of chest thumping, and to be the first to be out of ideas is evidently a Loss Of Face. this friend of mine matches me pun for pun, and doesnt feel insecure if he cant think of another thing to say.

i've also often been grilled in psuedo-scientific spirit about my views, feminism and what feminism's take on something would be, what being brown-skinned means to me, about the issues i raise here, etc. and many times, the questioning takes on an interrogative tone: i seem to be expected to apologise for my existence and for having ever voiced any views! again, i've enjoyed hours of really nice, genuinely open-minded discussions with this friend.

i find that it's a freeing influence on our friendship and on us individually that he's so refreshingly non-stereotyped. that he does not suffer from a compulsive need to be the Macho Male. (he's about the only guy i know who *giggles*. and calls it so himself. that should tell you an awful lot! :D)

it's lovely to spend time with someone who isn't assessing you like you're a prize cucumber, who doesn't suffer from a programmed impulse to flirt with you or put you down because you're female, who can attack your reasoning with total detachment and judge you as a person, not as a gender role being played out. i find it awesome to have the freedom to be able to just say anything i think, no baggage attached. it's a great big gulp of fresh air!

i daresay there are many more folks like my friend out there : i've a handful of very good male friends like him, though sadly i've not met all of them as yet. may your tribe increase! - its been terrific knowing you :)

feminist issues, my life

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

between you and me - bloggers and gender politics

my earlier post was on the right to space. now id like to raise some issues with regard to bloggers and gender politics.

in fairness to them, most folks who uphold these politics dont really do so deliberately or consciously - i find most dont see these angles at all. but ignorance isnt much of an excuse, and whether we well-meaningly or misogynistically uphold the patriarchal structure, we are responsible in varying degrees for the damage it causes.

as i see it, these are some of the politics involved:

its part of pecking order privileges that the ones in a superior position may demand things of the ones beneath them. as far as i'm concerned, i can be requested to tell someone my name, my phone number, where i live or what i do; but i am not beholden in anyway to necessarily comply with that request. im not a subordinate in the army to jump to obey commands.

women are made to account for themselves all the time in our society. we are expected to justify our actions. not everyone needs, or merits, an explanation. we are entitled to independence without having to keep anxiously and pre-emptively patting egos to make sure that our bid for non-dependency doesnt wound some male who considers himself in authority. its part of the same mentality that demands an activity report from an adult woman who goes out in the evening, while not concerning itself with a teenage boy who stays out all night.

ive had both men and women write to me, and while there were some men who were very decent about respecting the space i politely asked for, the women were a much easier lot to deal with: only one has so far even asked me for personal details, let alone demanded it.

the deep need to defend my space like this is because i can often say and discuss things here that i cannot in real life. i also hate explaining obvious things like "feminism isn't about male bashing" ad nauseam; something i find i have to do all too often if i start these discussions with people in real life. there's a limit to which im ready to shake people around me from their conditioning. i respect their need to set their own pace to work on beliefs and ideas that they were raised with. but i need to give voice to some things that are important to me. since a lot of these are issues that concern me as a woman, doing that is very difficult in a strongly patriarchal society. look around you: how many seriously political indian blogs do you see? how many of these by women? a truly free political arena is hard to come by especially for women.

safety is another of my concerns. a very real one. as soon as i was abused, one of the threats used was that the abuser knew where i lived. i have a mother and sister who mean the world to me. those three months weren't exactly fun to live through.

the world of men told me that it could get this sick. ive written earlier about trust. no, i dont think every man i meet is that horrible, but rather than get defensive and feel hurt that i dont trust you implicitly like i should because you're decent, how about honestly admitting that its the other men who have been creeps who are to blame, and not the women who are suspicious with good reason! im not a schizophrenic or an amnesiac to walk away from my lived experience. i will use all my knowledge of the world to protect myself.

and finally, if you really want to know who i am, you learn more from what i write here or in my mails than by just knowing my name. when i call myself a feminist, anti-technocrat, or anti-establishmentarian, you know more about me than if i just said i were malavika. i could be one of a million malavikas. (and no that isnt my name!) possibly the only unique identification by name would be if i gave a whole name. even then, it doesnt tell you who i am, it just insists on information that would serve only to make me traceable. why wouldnt i be wary!

it may all seem very paranoid at first, but look at the statistics of the violence committed against women: we do live in that
unsafe a world.

im so glad that ive managed to stay angry for long enough to say all this! i'm happy that i've managed to keep the resolve to not be manipulated into feeling bad, into tripping over myself to be the pacifist and soothing hurt pride - its time we all grew up. i thought and read a lot about this subject before finding the resolution to be able to speak up: i mainly found clarity reading things that mr schwyzer and the happy feminist had to say. its terrific to come across people who are as clear and precise in word as in thought.

feminist issues, my life

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Friday, September 08, 2006

the game of the name

every now and then someone pops up in my inbox to say hi. to say "this is my take on what you've written". or maybe "thought this link was up your alley". or sometimes to find out where i am and what im upto, or maybe even something personal from their lives. (of course i get my share of hate mails as well for saying some things - typically like the wikipedia affair!)

for the most part, it warms my heart. i think its very sweet of them to take the effort. we start swapping mails arguing about something, bouncing ideas around, eventually just talking and becoming friends. im really glad to have met some of them : they make my world an infinitely more interesting, more alive place.

especially since instant messaging, and google hooking up all its services, the dynamics of interaction have changed so much - when we talk, we talk like we already know each other, not as the random strangers we are. its very nice that we dont have to do the initial polite conversation dance, and that we each (usually) have a reasonably good idea of the essence of the person after having read their blog.

recently i had a misunderstanding with someone who came to know my name, and was very hurt that it wasnt from me. so i got to thinking about this huge hang-up with names that so many people seem to have.

i've not met many of you. while i refuse to share the intelligence agency belief that all criminals use blogger, gtalk and gmail, i am a little wary about my privacy and how much information i disclose! that should be obvious from (if nothing else!) the fact that i post as "m.", that i dont ever put up a photograph of myself here.

i think we've each a right to that - a right to the degree of anonymity we are comfortable maintaining, the walls we operate from behind, the sort of details to tell and to withhold. i dont mind being asked my name directly - several people have. i just mind their regarding it as their prerogative to be told even when ive explained that id rather not. its a comfort thing really, and is no reflection on the person's decency, manners or anything of the sort.

however this whole thing has started me thinking on the politics of the thing. another post follows shortly here.

my life


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

basement feelings

i use the expression "basement feelings" to refer to the emotions and feelings we have, which are the not-so-glorious ones. the ones we dont sing praises of people of for experiencing -like envy, murderous anger, depression, gloom...

it used to make me uneasy when people denied the existence of an emotion altogether, but i guess its an understandable reaction given the kind of baggage that we attach to some of them. there are so many implicit moral judgements passed on a person when they confess to experiencing something like jealousy, envy or sexual desire.

my personal take on it is that its futile, crippling and sometimes dangerous to deny the existence of what we feel. these basement feelings are as much a part of the human experience as happiness, love, idealism or altruism. its important to give them too space to exist. real maturity isnt in censoring them as much as in responding to them appropriately.

mind, im not saying we should glorify 'em the way ayn rand has made selfishness fashionable! but it is important to be able to admit to ourselves that we're feeling greedy without getting defensive - its the first step towards control or correction. denial only makes it another of the Things That Mustn't Be Talked About, and causes damage to the individual and society at large.

also, our ideas of "good" and "bad" are often as stereotyped as what's "progressive" or "cool". additionally, these often get reinforced or tangled with acquired cultural and religious beliefs, so reworking them becomes more challenging, and in the process can cause a spiritual or moral crisis. (for instance, as a kid i used to be very strong on the "sex is wrong" notion - and it certainly didnt help to hear politically loaded mainstream religion. i felt like a moral write-off when i was working my way to accepting sex.) however if we dont, we end up being pretty narrow minded and limited in our tolerance of people (which i certainly was). there's also a lot of unconstructive self flagellation.

in fact, the most mature and most compassionate people i know are all ones who are in touch with their "basement feelings". they are honest about having felt whatever it was and as a result, rarely morally crucify other people.

i know some folks regard dealing with basement feelings with the same distaste as they would dabbling in ditch water. sure it can turn out that dirty a job, but its critical to do it: for one thing, its gives one a fair idea of what one really is. and for another, if we didnt have bathroom cleaners the world would be a bloody filthy place, so i wouldnt ever look down on someone digging into their muck heap! its as much a part of personal hygiene as anything else.

an afterthought:

i was chewing over this subject some more today, and was reminded of something that used to bother me when i was working as a counsellor. its merely something i observed in my limited environment:

as counsellors, in training we we're all told that we shouldnt have any biases, shouldnt let our personal attitudes carry over to the counselling sessions etc. impeccable in theory i suppose, but it just isnt realistic an expectation in practice.

for one thing, we worked with terminally ill people. often, they wanted to talk about religion, death, the soul, god, karma, forgiveness, and other philosophical issues - things that really had no textbook answers. we each tended to naturally draw on our own belief systems and culture to share those ideas which we found comfort and solace in.

at times we also broke the "ideal practice" guideline of never bringing up personal experience - sometimes it helps to know what another person in that situation did. it could be for a simple thing like how you managed to make spinach more edible for yourself when you loathed it but had to eat it, or for something like coping with the loss of a loved one.

i noticed that many of us used to actually believe that because we were so earnest about doing our jobs properly, we also had managed to overcome all our prejudices and hang-ups. in my opinion, its not possible without the person also becoming a doormat of sorts!

its critical for counsellors to be able to honestly acknowledge an emotion or prejudice without getting defensive. as long as these do not greatly hamper the counsellors ability to deal with people in that particular field, the counsellor may still be fit for the job. (eg. being anti-allopathy when counselling primarily for sexuality issues.)

it takes a great deal of personal strength to say "i'm afraid i'm not comfortable dealing with this particular issue, but i'll try and find another person who is". a counsellor faces a special kind of pressure as a person who has to live upto a stereotype of whom infinite patience, tolerance and acceptance is both demanded and taken for granted. the counselling would be valuable and more sincere if on a personal level we did some regular basement checking and spring cleaning.

my life


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