Not just Vishaka’s Problem, Sexual Harassment Starts at Schools

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As a male student who chose to study in the ‘Arts’ stream, as opposed to the male-dominated Commerce, Engineering, Science or MBA streams, I have had the opportunity to interact with and observe at close quarters some of the foremost feminist activists in the country, an opportunity, I am sure not even many of my male colleagues in the social sector have had.  I am also usually the only man or one of the few men in most conferences and seminars that I attend as a part of my work as a Counselling Psychologist. I am in fact the only male employee in my own organization. Given that most of my classmates in college, and coworkers over the past 3 years that I have worked in the social sector, have been women, people often look at me as someone who is trying to ‘fit-in’ when I try to speak about ‘feminist’ issues as a man. Female classmates of mine during my post-graduation would often say that I, as a man, can never be considered a feminist because of the male-privilege society affords me.

Most recently, an online feminist community denied admission to me citing a ‘women’s only’ policy. The incident, which was not a first for me, left me annoyed and amused in equal part.  I wondered why, even in the social sector there continues to be a distrust around well-intentioned men who want to be part of the fight against patriarchy. I didn’t really have an answer to it till the Tehelka controversy erupted a few days ago. The way things have played out in this incident have shocked most of us in the social sector to say the least. Tarun Tejpal emerging as a sexual offender, Shoma Chaudhary being as callous and boorish as can be in her interactions with senior journalists, Madhu Kishwar naming the victim and then saying ‘so what, so many others have done it before I did’ have all forced us to look at the people we would usually trust to be on the right side of most issues pertaining to Violence Against Women with a doubtful eye. It’s not surprising to me anymore that men are looked at with suspicion regardless of their purported stance on women’s issues.

As is the case with most media spectacles, certain terms become buzzwords. The buzzword this time around seems to be ‘The Vishaka Guidelines’. For the uninitiated, the Vishaka Guidelines come from a 1997 Supreme Court judgment in the aftermath of a brutal gangrape of a grassroots social activist in Rajasthan – Bhanwari Devi. The guidelines call upon employers to set up a Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CASH committees as they are usually known in office-culture) in order to protect female employees from sexual harassment. In the wake of the Tehelka controversy, most people today are of the opinion that having a Vishaka compliant CASH is the answer to the problem of sexual harassment, especially since the victim in the Tehelka incident herself asked for a committee as such to be instituted in her organization. While I completely stand for the fact that each organization should have a committee as such, I believe that such committees are not completely sufficient to deal with the issue. Committees against sexual harassment, come into the picture (or into existence as is the case usually) after an incident of  sexual harassment has taken place. Their preventive value, as such, is quite limited.  In reality however, girls start to face sexual harassment much before they’ve even thought of what they want to be when they grow up, and boys routinely harass women who are often older than their mothers.

Now for those of you who haven’t caught my drift, let me provide you with a bit of background.  I completed my schooling, right from kindergarten to SSC , at an overcrowded, all-boys school.  In case you aren’t familiar with how things work at an all-boys school, let’s just say that one would be shocked at the amount of sexual harassment female teachers have to face at the hands of a bunch of 12-year olds. Off the top of my head, I can remember an incident in standard seven where my science teacher approached my class-teacher teary-eyed with a complaint that some back-benchers had been eyeing her top-to-bottom in a most lecherous manner, and when she finally finally confronted them, she saw that the Leonardo DiCaprio inspired twelve year olds were working on a rather detailed nude sketch of her. That apart students ‘accidentally’ bumping into teachers during recess, brushing against them as they walked through the crowded rows of the classrooms, writing love-notes to teachers which put the ‘T’ in TMI were so routine that no one really registered that these were all forms of sexual harassment. The hooting, whistling and name-calling that would happen outside the gate of the all-girls school next to my school was a different matter altogether.

What the above mentioned examples aim to highlight is the fact that boys learn at a very young age that they can get away with this kind of behavior, even when it is aimed at someone who is an authority figure. I am unsure whether there is any redressal mechanism for this kind of sexual harassment for teachers or female students. Worse still, nobody talks to the boys about how such behavior is not acceptable. These very boys, after school step into colleges, most of which are co-ed, most often without an iota of understanding of women are to be treated, and here once again, no one really tells them what is not acceptable. Slut-shaming on confession groups, nicknames based on physical appearance, and gossip about who slept with whom, continue unabated as a consequence.

Somewhere between all of this, we expect these young men to earn a professional degree, become ‘professional’ in their behavior and not harass a woman when they start working. A pretty tall order, if you ask me. I am not saying that it is in the nature of men to be like this. I myself have come from the same background and know several others who are genuine nice-guys despite growing up in such environments. The point I am trying to make is that for boys, there is never a reason to curb such behavior, nor is there an incentive to engage in the feminist conversation. In my opinion therefore, if we want to seriously to do something about sexual harassment, leaving the task to committees constituted as per Vishaka guidelines mean leaving it too late in the day, because by then, the idea that this is just ‘friendly banter’ is set in stone. 

Winning Ugly

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I can’t bear to look at this,

There’s no grace,
No composure,
No pointed toes,
Or upright back.

The T’s aren’t crossed,
The I’s aren’t dotted,
The entry is a messy splash,
The landing is shaky.

No finesse in the strokes,
No sweetness in the voice,
Nothing eye catching about the idea,
And the presentation is an eyesore,

It’s not much,
It’s far from your best,
In fact it’s barely there.

But a win,
Is a win.
Even at its ugliest.

Figure and Ground

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They consider it
An innate ability
To be able
To put things
In perspective,
And make sense
Of the sensations

One
out of many
Becomes the figure
The others
You pass up,
The ground

To your eyes, It may be
The most obvious thing there is

‘It stands over and above
Everything else,
It grabs my attention,
And never let’s go.
This is all I want
To look at
All the time’.

So long
as you don’t look around
And notice
That the ground
Stretches infinitely
Behind the figure
In all directions

Maybe that’s why
The picture makes sense
When I look
At myself
Through your eyes

Pleasure’s All Mine

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Go ahead! Do it!
Throw out the samosas I brought for you
On the first rainy day
After a muggy May
Straight out the window
 
Exchange that skirt – 
The one you used to love
The one I gave you,
After months of penny-pinching
For cheap steel utensils
 
Then give them away to the watchman
Who constantly tries to look down
Your top, whilst bending over 
That extra little bit
 
 
Tell the kids
I’m not their real father,
Just for kicks
And when they cry
Reassure them it was a lie
But not before mentioning
That I have a family history
Of rare cancers
 
 
Tell your girlfriends
I’m so terrible in bed
That the headaches
Feel orgasmic in comparison
 
Be a straight-up bitch
Pleasure’s all mine!
 
Something
ANYTHING!
Give a fuck about this again!

Gigapedia Goes Dark

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“A very special thanks to the wonderful people who created Gigapedia.com (whoever they are) – a website that saved me a few hundred trips to the library, and not to mention a small fortune. More power to such technology! “

These were words I excitedly typed in the acknowledgments section of my Master’s Thesis. At the end of a grueling year of research, when I thought of all the people who had made it possible for me to have completed a thesis, which I could well and truly say I was proud of, I only thought it appropriate to thank the nameless do-gooders who created Gigapedia – an online utility, so robust, so powerful and so generous, that I went from being a bibliophobe (at least when it came to research), to a hoarder bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. Gigapedia, to which I was introduced by my research guide, in no time became my one-stop shop for any idea that caught my fancy – be it counselling psychology, art therapy for recovering schizophrenics, the collected works of Sylvia Plath or the poems of Rumi in Arabic that made dear friends gasp ‘How on Earth did you manage to find this?’ Gigapedia for me was a gift that kept giving, a wild-card entry into a world of knowledge and high-culture that was hitherto inaccessible to me due to financial reasons; and each time a nagging query crept into my mind, I unfailingly headed straight to it.

Just like today – on a rather sluggish Friday morning, when footfalls were scarce owing to a public holiday, I received a call from my Head of Department calling me immediately to ‘The Fourteenth Floor’. Now an urgent call from the floor in question usually means ‘Drop everything you are doing and get up here immediately’, and I did just that, wondering all the way what task awaited me. And then, as if in a dream, a very senior figure in the management briefed me in very precise words “Some of our patients whose hospital stay has been prolonged require not only medication but counselling too, in order to make a recovery”. And just like that my skills were called upon to deal with some of the most complicated cases in the hospital. As someone who has been struggling to make elbow-room in a landscape dominated by specialists and super-specialists, the faith shown in my skill was a validation of my efforts. At the same time, I was well aware of the fact that I had to carefully plan my modus operandi before I started speaking to any of the patients. So, as always, nagging query in mind, I hurried to my workstation and typed out ‘Library.nu’ (the current DBA name of Gigapedia). But it wouldn’t load. Probably another name-change I thought to myself as I googled to check what was Gigapedia’s latest name. But what I saw was as this poignant piece on Kafila.org mentions ‘…a visceral experience of loss’.

Gigapedia had been shut down, by a collective of major publishing houses the world over – much like MegaUpload and BTjunkie which were wiped out by SOPA-PIPA-ACTA wave earlier this year. But while the arguments made in favor of blacking out Gigapedia were the same as those made to pull the other two abovementioned sites viz. loss of revenue and violation of intellectual property rights, shutting down Gigapedia was meant to make a statement to people like, and several others the world over, who feel the sharing of knowledge should be free and democratic, that any attempts to change the status quo will be quashed. This was not about revenues at all; after all what money can one expect to make from individuals who neither have access nor the wherewithal to legally purchase obscenely expensive scholarly research. In other words, broke students from developing nations have never been the target audience of the Elsevier’s and the Wiley’s of the publishing world. They have neither made any attempts to make their publications accessible to every curious mind that wishes to access them, nor have they  ever wondered how a student like me who struggled to scratch together a fifteen thousand rupee term fee would afford to buy a text book priced at $ 39.99 plus shipping.

At the end of the day, the publishers consortium may have won this round, but their victory means that thousands like me who want to ‘know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the leading universities of the world do’ will now remain confined to the outdated, mildew-infested leather-bound tomes their local universities can afford. Makes me wonder how if Gigapedia was ‘illegal’ and ‘wrong’, is the world a poorer place without it?

Sone do…

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Aaj na kaam karenge, na dhanda
Na naukri, na mazdoori

Na autowalleh se bheek mangenge
‘Bhaiyya station chalo please,
Late ho jayega’
Na bus ke peeche
100 meter ki daud lagayenge

Na dive marke train mein chadhenge
Na bheed mein se baahar nikalne ki
Labour pain sahenge

Aaj stock market gir jaye
Toh catch karne nahi jayenge
Anna bhook hartal kare
Fir bhi tandoori chicken
Aur butter naan khayenge

Aaj duniya gayi bhaad mein
Jo hona hai hone do
Poore hafte ragdaayi hai
Aaj Sunday hai, sone do

Kaach Maanja

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Your love was like glasspowderkitestring,
You anchored me, yet let me fly,
Nothing could ever come in my way
Except for low hanging cable wires
And damn pigeons
Who can’t watch where they’re going

You were with me every inch of the way
Invisible but ever-present,
And when they’d try to pull us apart,
Your sharp replies left them bloodied

One day I flew too far from you
‘Wind up’ you said, I disagreed
You snapped
No dheel

At first I thought
It was your loss
What good is glasspowderkitestring
Without the kite?
Then I saw you flying
With that empty polythene scumbag

No one chases a vagabond kite these days
Even if one wants to, the threat of being ass-raped
By a bunch of bullies, cannot be overlooked
Either that…
Or I totally missed the point Kite Runner was trying to make