On Feminism in India

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On my most recent trip to New Delhi in December/January, the whole city was shut down due to the Gang Rape Protests. On a personal level, it allowed me to engage with my family on some of the toughest issues about the status of women in India, through a lens that didn’t hit so close to home. I remember on Christmas day, my family and I started to talk about the protests, and it was so wonderful and emotional for me to be able to see the men of our family analyze the problems behind how women are viewed and treated in India. My grandfather, nana, whom I love deeply, felt that many of the protestors were insincere – that they were simply “hooligans” piggybacking on the uproar in order to just trouble the police and cause havoc. While this may or may not be true, I didn’t agree with him that this was the large majority. How could it be? Here I was witnessing first-hand one of the largest, most heavily populated cities in the world barricade main roads and occupy huge public spaces. They demanded that the Prime Minister addressed them.

I believe that conversations held by the elite or the educated about rape culture usually conclude by declaring that rape mostly exists in the villages. I think that is why this particular case made so many people angry. Men felt that their daughters were not protected, women felt that even if they are “respectable, educated, hardworking” women, they can still be under attack at any time. I think also the problem here was that it felt sporting, it felt like it was a game to the men who committed the crime. These two specificities of the case struck a chord with India’s citizens. I do find that so many of India’s father encourage their young women to work hard, to find a job, to study hard. Even though marriage is still an enormous part of a woman’s economic security, the kinds of educational discipline that is encouraged at a young age remains genderless in the large cities.

Excerpt: “…I am saying this because I feel that the word ‘safety’ with regard to women has been used far too much — all us women know what this ‘safety’ refers to, we have heard our parents use it, we have heard our communities, our principals, our wardens use it. Women know what ‘safety’ refers to. It means – You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don’t dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom, and this means that you are safe. A whole range of patriarchal laws and institutions tell us what to do in the guise of keeping us ‘safe’. We reject this entire notion. We don’t want it.”

The Economist talked about many social factors affect the status of women in India. The article I read talked about how, for example, wife-beating in Bollywood films is portrayed as heroic and permissible. I have written about this often, and it is one of the very reasons I work in the entertainment industry. I believe this sentiment very much.

Film, media and music are so subliminal in their influence, so seemingly harmful, that we don’t realize how much of how our actions and thoughts are shaped by these stimuli. I believe that creating sex-positive media, empowering film, songs by women for women, can change a generation, and can change the world. I wonder how many of those young men that committed the rape crime in December had ever been intimate with a woman before? How many of them had had a real life girlfriend? How many ever they might’ve had, I bet the number of times they had seen a woman beaten, “put in her place” or even raped in mainstream bollywood film or subversive pornography was way higher. These kind of influencers and drivers are hugely problematic, because they are young people’s first exposure to sex. I have no problem with pornography, I just have a problem with it when young people who do not know that this is fantasy mistake it for reality. I am not talking about hyper censorship either. I am talking about putting out sex-positive media as frequently as offensive media, so that there is a balance of perceptions and perspectives, and that young people have access to all of it.

I know that my purpose on this earth, in my life time, is clear. I will promote sex-positive, healthy music and music media for women, that shapes, at the very least, Western culture to be a little more loving and empowering for women. Music that is still gritty, that is still subversive, that still pushes the needle on pop culture, but does so not at the expense of women. My brother sent me this:

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I wrote back:

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Kabir also wrote a really beautiful essay on what feminism means to him. He won the essay contest – every single Harrow student had submitted an essay and HE WON!! Click on the photo of us above to read the essay.

When I was in India that winter, I felt discouraged, but I also felt uplifted. I felt uplifted that the whole country came together in this woman’s honor, and that they cheered her on. I felt uplifted that my own family talked about these issues. I felt uplifted that I could talk to my brother about these issues. I felt uplifted that I still did meet so many young, funky, empowered women on that trip, specifically at St. Michael’s and at Khelshala. These are two organizations that my parents’ foundation, The Giving Back Foundation, are working closely with.

I volunteered with Khelshala that winter, an organization that empowers a Chandigarh village’s youth to play squash and study after school. I observed closely that the young women were happy, outgoing, strong and very capable of holding their own against the boys. I loved this.

The play at St. Michael’s school for girls in New Delhi was funky, cheeky, outlandish and empowering. The girls put on a play that really questioned all elements of gender disenfranchisement in India. The play was about a father who didn’t want his daughter, and who loved the son way more. BUT, the son was far more disobedient and lazier, while his daughter was hardworking and disciplined. The story ends happily with the father realizing his own mistakes, and hugging his daughter apologetically. The highlight for me was reconnected with Mamta Suresh after a year, who had played drums in last year’s Christmas ceremony.