The fear of fundamentalisms

Open Democracy has set up a blog for women’s voices to be represented at the G8 summit, called ‘Open Summit: Women talk to the G8‘. They invited contributions (and are continuing to do so, for those who want to share); this was mine, cross-posted here.

Image courtesy Screen Sifar.


My day (and sometimes night) job is working with police officers in India on issues of violence against women and children; I coordinate a UNICEF partnership with the Karnataka State Police. One of the most critical aspects of this work is, as Anindita so succinctly described elsewhere on this blog, analysing the impact of our socially entrenched gender-based norms. The lack of value for our girl children – and if they’re lucky, for the women they grow up to be – has meant that we have lost, in our female population, the size of a small to middling European country.

But this post is not about genderocide. It is about that and more. It is about asking our governments – particularly the all powerful G8 – that in this context of ‘terrorism’, of an almost universal culture of production and consumption around ‘fear’ and ‘mistrust’, they analyse honestly and courageously their own contributions to a growing set of fundamentalisms: economic, religious, cultural, social and sexual. Women (and children) are often hit hardest by these fundamentalisms.

Identities are complex; we acknowledge that readily but seem willing to sacrifice that complexity for simplified categorisations and easy classification. More than ever, our language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ divides us over and over again, in the conversations we have, the advertisements we watch, the TV series we devour. And our politicians, our priests, our ulemas, our leaders – those who claim to represent us in all our complexity – speak the language of divisions, of fissures, best of all.

A young Muslim friend of mine lives in Gujarat, India. She explores, every day, what it means to be a woman, a Muslim, a young person, an artist, in the maelstrom of fundamentalism that is the Gujarat of today. She struggles with what it means to be a citizen: either of this country or of the globalised world. What does citizenship mean if you live constantly in the shadow of fear? Not just the fear of physical abuse, but worse still, the violence attached to labels? For her, wearing the hijaab is both an act of courage and an unintended performance: she is just never quite sure of her audience or its response.

There is complexity in hate-mongering too. In India, as possibly elsewhere, it seems as though the language of ‘empowerment’ for women has been claimed and reconstructed to mean ‘power’ rather than ‘dignity’ or ‘equality’ or ‘pluralism’. Not all our women politicians are feminist, and not all our fundamentalists are male.

These are not only issues of government. But they are issues for governments; our states are contributing, in no small measure, to these voices of fundamentalisms, of alienation. And worse still: sometimes it is they who create the vocabulary.

Another Women’s Day offering…


In the continuing spirit of Women (and Men who Care about Women)’s Day, an announcement. The Gender Sensitisation and People-friendly Police Project – a joint partnership of the Karnataka State Police and UNICEF – has now got a web log of its own:

The site is still very much under construction, but please do drop by, give us your suggestions, and pass the message on. We hope that it will be a comprehensive resource on violence against women and children, as well as a platform for sharing opinions on the experiences that women, young people and children – in particular – have, when dealing with the police. The police need to be continually challenged as well as supported in their efforts to become more ‘people friendly’: we encourage you to share your positive as well as not-so-positive stories, as the experiences of pro-active, sensitive policing (they do exist) rarely make it to the front pages of our newspapers.

Beyond saying no: how to fight sexual harassment

So it’s been over a month and a half of silence. Online. A whole lot of words and work and wrath offline. Beyond the holidays and the happy happy, there were the days of listening to stories of women raging, of women exhausted of raging, the nights of waking up thinking about them. Of P who spoke to me only two days ago, from a tiny village a few hours from Bangalore, at the end of her taut and stretched tether, because her husband and his family, not content with abusing her for a mere 2 lakh rupees in dowry, had pushed her into sex work. She is now safe at home with her parents, and a case has been registered against her husband and his family. Of M, who had to suffer being married at 14, beaten and bruised by her husband for the next 14 years, and then finally had the courage to walk out of the marriage, taking her children with her. M is also a poet and a police woman. Hers is a story worth writing about, but not today.

Today’s post is for N. For being the right kind of strong. P, M and N – and all the other women whose stories I hear on an almost daily basis – made me ashamed of my awkwardness around writing about what I know and do most: working with the police (and women’s and children’s organisations) trying to make the system as responsive to violence against women and children as possible. In an earlier post, I spoke about this strange awkwardness, but enough is ’nuff. Diffidence is sometimes stupid, and sometimes it can be downright dangerous. ‘Changing the system’ is as much about changes within, as it is about making us – those without – responsive to, and informed by, these changes.

N’s story is not unusual: she worked in a multi-national corporate, well-known in its sphere. She became progressively more unhappy at work, considering that the General Manager (GM) – and therefore, but naturally, many of the staff – seemed to think that work satisfaction equated with an environment of ‘humour’, of sexual or racist jokes, not even generally directed, but specifically targeted against colleagues. Finally, when the jokes were directed against her, with the GM repeatedly offending and upsetting her, she had enough; she didn’t want to return to the office, she didn’t want to see her GM’s face ever again, she went home in a tumult of rage and disbelief at what was happening to her. What she did next is unusual: she protested.

Continue reading “Beyond saying no: how to fight sexual harassment”

And then there was silence…?

My apologies. Between bouts of flu and flying (well, a euphemism for travel that included slow buses, never-available autos, cockroach-flicked trains and a couple of cloud-jumping flights), I’ve been off-line. Some of the travel was for pleasure – like my news de-addiction drive, austerely followed in Goa (visual proof attached), and abandoned immediately on return to Bangalore – but most of it on work. Fulfilling, but not necessarily pleasurable.

Ashwin was saying the other day that it was interesting that I hardly – if ever – write about my work. I think my fear is that if I begin, I will never stop… the moving finger writes and what if, having writ, none of my tears will wash out a word of it (despite WordPress’ excellent editing tools)?

Why the awkwardness? Because the work I do is not necessarily seen in the feminist/social justice world as being radical enough; it might even be called – brace yourselves – co-option. And yet I do it: because real life is hard to classify, and allies and enemies so often merge into one another, that it seems more honest to dare to dance on the margins, in the interstices of spaces and communities, searching for allies in an enemy or watchful for enemies in an ally.

Continue reading “And then there was silence…?”