Archive for the ‘The Paradox of Religion’ Category

With the majority of Indian men.

Jugni, by Rabbi Shergill (aka the only Indian male voice that I can bear right now)

This is an angry rant. A very, very angry rant. I’ve been nursing a headache all evening and sleeping, occasionally waking up and trying to understand what’s really bothering me to persistently cause my brain to hurt like this. Today was not an overtly tiring or busy day. I had a presentation in Tsim Sha Tsui, checked out progress on a suit I’m getting tailored, ran some errands and came home just as my head started to ache. But somewhere in the night I realized the same thoughts are running through my head and the same images, and the culmination of all of it has been so overwhelming that I’ve had to wake up to write this post and get it all out.

I realized that I’m pissed off because something that I never thought really got to me that much has finally gotten to me, and justifiably so. I am sick and tired of being leered at. I am sick of being stared at by every freaking South Asian man as I make my way through Tsim Sha Tsui. I’m sick of lecherous, creepy looks and of stares that make me afraid. I’m sick of ‘hello madams’ and ‘can i have your number’ and smiles that make my skin crawl, smiles from men who are clearly thinking at that very moment that they are the hottest stuff to grace the earth and this woman should be grateful they’re flashing this horrible smile at her.

I’m sick, disgusted and exhausted with it.

Let me make something clear for all the arguments that not-rape is all about (though I shouldn’t have to). For all those idiots who think that its about the way a woman dresses, let me tell you that I am a very conservative dresser by any standard. On most days I walk around the city in business clothes, full sleeve shirts and business cut pants and skirts. I don’t usually wear make up. I don’t walk around suggestively or smile at random strangers. Almost every time I’m in TST I’m running from a meeting or to a meeting, and I always have my headphones on to block the world around me. I’m not a gorgeous woman. By most standards, I’m quite plain in my looks, and my figure is very Indian in its curves.

None of that matters. South Asian men will spot me from a mile and give me a look, a wink, a smile, try to talk to me as I pass by. I may as well have transported myself to any town in Punjab, UP, or Bihar, or some village in south India.

And that bothers me even more. What do I worry about the most when I go back to my motherland? These men. These stares. The leering. The eve teasing and the smart ass comments as you simply walk down the streets. A big part of what made my trip back home uncomfortable last April (and in December) was this same thing. My brother would walk with me, fuming and bursting with anger at all these men, ready to kick the balls of each of these idiots, muttering in anger, until I made him stop telling me. Stop talking to me about it. Stop telling me how low this is, because I know. I could feel the eyes, I could feel the thoughts behind them, and it left me feeling abused. It left me feeling dirty and troubled and unhappy in my own birthland.

And the same thing happens here, when that same class of people get lifted and trans located, and the same mindset and thinking prevails. Its okay to stare at women like this, as long as they’re not your mother or sister. Its okay to behave this way. Who gives a damn what they’re feeling like? Its a consequence of a sexually repressed culture, and of much more that’s wrong with the country and the culture today, that I just can’t begin to explain and understand.

I am so amazed at the women who live like this day in and day out. What I value most about my life in the States is my relatively higher level of comfort in this aspect. Sure, these men exist there too, but as long as you steer clear of certain areas, you could walk out in a bikini and not be assaulted by a million eyes. And yes, the same problems exist there, but I don’t associate it with my culture directly. I don’t go to Little India in Houston or the Indian areas anywhere in the States and expect to be leered at or stared at or whistled at. For some reason, it just doesn’t happen. Is it the fear of repurcussion that’s greater? Is it the fact that in general the culture isn’t so sexually repressed? I don’t know. But I feel safe in the States. And I can’t imagine how women deal with this on a daily basis throughout the year and their entire lives.

They do, and then shit like this happens. The Mangalore pub incident is a perfect example of the hypocrisy of the country. Men are free to do whatever they like and behave in any rotten manner, but women must follow this ridiculous moral policing. Jug Suraiya discusses it in his column:

“Both radical Islamists and what might be called radical Hinduists, share one thing in common: their deep-rooted fear and antipathy to anything that smacks of the empowerment of women. Women going to schools, women getting jobs and becoming economically independent, women joining politics and become politically independent, women going to pubs and showing that they are – or at least, want to be – socially independent.”

It makes me so angry. My blood boils when I think of the different moral codes a**holes have set up in India for the genders, and how these incidents show a very low, absolutely illiterate, disgusting side of India to the world. Quit complaining and whining about Slumdog and whatever underbelly it shows the world. How about we first see just a simple day when a woman can walk in the street in six yards of cloth and not be raped in the mind of almost every man she passes? Men can treat women as objects of lust wherever whenever, but as soon as a woman steps into a bar she’s verbally and physically abused? Or the policing gets far enough to control who she talks to?

What kind of messed up, deranged world is this?

Every Indian woman I am friends with has stories to tell. We have stories to tell of childhoods marred by incidents of eve-teasing, molesting, behaviors that would make any father’s and brother’s blood boil. We have stories to tell of teenage years whose innocence was destroyed by men who made sleazy comments, committed lewd acts, who stalked and whistled and winked and leered at every corner. They vary in their extremity, but we all have a story to tell of how we were routinely made to feel low and dirty in our own country, by our own countrymen.

I know that in my anger I am generalizing and stereotyping all men. I wish I could be more rational about it, but unless you’ve been in the sandals of an Indian women, you could never understand. You can’t understand how it feels. After finishing a meal with a group of American friends I left a restaurant and as I was leaving a middle aged South Indian man gave me a lecherous stare I will never forget. I quickly averted my eyes and started talking frantically with a friend ahead of me. She’d noticed, however. She asked me if I had and when I nodded with frustration she said “you should have stared back at him girl! Shown him how it feels!”

Would that have helped? I don’t think so. I think in the sick, deranged mind of this man, my bold stare would have just added to his feelings of self confidence. It would have fed his ego so he could continue to taunt other girls in this way. Whenever I’m walking anywhere in TST with any of my friends, I suffer the same embarassment. I don’t have to look to see the stares, I feel them, and I also know of them by the sympathetic glances my American friends give me. By their occasional “wow, that creep was really staring at you! eww,” or their quick realization that I want to get away from this place as soon as possible. The other night a friend and I were returning from a meeting in Wan Chai and stopped for the light to change. A group of Indian men stood outside one of the bars negotiating prostitutes for the night (I kid you not). We stood about five feet away and as we discussed with each other how uncomfortable the situationalready was, it became ten times worse as, and I could have predicted it, the men glanced over at me with a defiant look. The light changed and we rushed across.

Just as I would never travel or live alone in India, or let any girlfriend of mine do it, I don’t walk alone in TST. I avoid walking in any Indian-concentrated areas in HK alone at any time. And I think about how sad that is, that I should have to avoid my culture and my people like this. A walk into the Chungking Mansion to get groceries is troublesome. Not just for me, but for any young South Asian girl. She could be wearing a burkha and they would still be leering and trying to catch a glance of her face. I have walked past masjids with its crowds of Muslim men (who should stare at no woman in this manner) and have noticed no difference in the behavior (which reminds me of a joke by a female Muslim stand up: “In Mecca I felt someone grab my ass and told myself: I’m in Mecca, surrounded by my Muslim brothers. It must be God.”) I have been in mandirs and had the same experiences.

And some days it just gets me. Days like today, it overwhelms me and it swims through my brain, the images and the sounds and the words. On days like these, all the stories come back to me and flood my brain, and I’m thinking back to my mother, to my aunts, to my cousin sisters, to my girlfriends. I’m thinking about my daughters. I’m thinking about my future and about how the men who repel me the most in the world are men from my culture. I worry about this anger and this hatred within me, and I feel helpless. What can I do? Seriously, someone please tell me. How do you deal with this? The Indian men who pass by here who DON’T think I’m an irrational, exaggerating bitch who’s just dissing all Indian men, and who actually UNDERSTAND and KNOW (I know there are some out there, because I have family and friends I love and trust, but who I just don’t place in the same world that these men must come from), what should a woman do? How should she deal with this? How should she protect herself, what should she tell herself to handle this?

Because I’ve done the most obvious: just avoided it. I’ve also just tried to banish these incidents from memory (doesn’t work). I’ve tried walking with blinders on, in a sense, looking down or straight ahead, my music loud and my eyes refusing to flit around, but I tell you that is not easy. And you still can’t avoid it. I’ve tried the stern, cold, bitchy stare. I’ve tried the shocked, disgusted look. But how do I help myself? Do I block these memories with effort and continue to do that at a regular basis? Even if I do that, what about my fear and my repelsion of my own countrymen?

Something is very wrong with my culture and my country. When a woman can be respected as a Goddess in one breath and brought down to the level of a slut with a look that matches that same breath, then there is something very wrong with the very moral fiber of this country. When a woman gets unwarranted attention and fears for her safety and her well-being just taking a normal walk in a busy place in broad daylight, then there’s something that needs deep change. Indians have lost perspective somewhere. How can Bajrang Dal and Hindu fundamentalists or Muslim fundamentalists focus on policing the women when men can’t take two steps without being aroused by every woman that walks by? How can the males not need any moral policing? Azar Nafisi discusses in Reading Lolita in Tehran how the Taliban’s rules worked: the nape of the woman’s neck and even her wrist is arousing to men. Ergo, a woman must cover these up. If she doesn’t, if it peeks out and comes to the attention of any man (who, poor thing, is aroused), then SHE must be punished. Its HER fault he was aroused. A man behaves in a disgusting, degraded manner, and the woman is to blame. What freaking justice is that? The same that requires women to sit behind men in certain temples (and follow after men in all the rituals), because if women sat ahead, they would ‘distract’ the men from prayer.

How can ANYONE find these arguments sane? How can anyone support them? I can’t fathom this kind of reasoning and I don’t understand what my sisterhood can do when this kind of fantastical rubbish becomes reality!

When you really begin thinking about it with all this in perspective, the women of the Amazon tribe really were onto something. I hope they really did exist, and to be honest, I can completely understand why they would.

(This rant makes me feel better, but thinking about another unavoidable afternoon in TST tomorrow doesn’t.)


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For What Its Worth, Buffalo Springfield, from the OST of Lord of War

There’s battle lines being drawn/Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong

A brother of mine just sent me two speeches by Dr. Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who is a peace activist and professor at Hebrew University. I did some more searching and found some essays that speak more strongly about a subject I recently talked about myself: what about the children? I know this is a controversial subject, but what should not be a controversy is the belief that a child cannot be killed for the sins of a nation. The murder of a child is cruel and unjustified and terrible, regardless of the reason behind it. It can never be right.

Perhaps people are shocked by Dr. Elhanan, perhaps they listen more because of her background, perhaps they are incensed, perhaps they open their minds to the idea of peace…I’m not sure. I for one am filled with deep respect and admiration for this woman, I am grateful that voices like these exist and speak out. Dr. Elhanan lost her daughter in a suicide bombing incident in Israel (she is Israeli) and she speaks for peace. She speaks for Israel-Palestinian peace, for the children of both sides, for her sisters and brothers in both Israel and Palestinian. She minces no words and she makes no apologies: she is strong, courageous and clear, and she is right. She knows the pain, the anger, the shock and loss of what Israelis feel, and she also knows that that is how each Palestinian feels: it is no different, and the solution does NOT lie in war.

Let Our Children Live

When they become soldiers, they see nothing wrong in killing Palestinian children “before they grow.” But Basam and Salwa and all of us–Jewish and Arab victims of the Israeli occupation – want to live together rather than die together. We see our children sacrificed on the altar of an occupation that has no basis in law or justice. And, outside, the enlightened world justifies it all and sends more money to the occupiers.

If the world does not come to its senses, there will be nothing more to say or write or listen to in this land except for the silent cry of mourning and the muted voices of dead children.

A Speech to Women in Black

But I, who lost my only daughter, know that the death of any child means the death of the whole world.  “Satan has not yet devised a Vengeance for the death of a young child” said the Jewish poet Bialik, and that is not because Satan has no means to do so, but because after the death of a child there is no more death for there is no more life.  The child takes the war and the future of the war into his little grave to rest with his little bones.

Today, when there is almost no opposition to the atrocities of the Israeli government, when the Israeli peace camp has evaporated into thin air, a cry must rise, a cry that is as ancient as man and woman, a cry that is beyond all differences of race or religion or language, The cry of motherhood: Save our children.

2005 International Women’s Day Address to European Parliament

We are all the victims of mental, psychological and cultural violence that turn us into one homogenic group of bereaved or potentially bereaved mothers. Western mothers who are taught to believe their uterus is a national asset just like they are taught to believe that the Muslim uterus is an international threat. They are educated not to cry out: `I gave him birth, I breastfed him, he is mine, and I will not let him be the one whose life is cheaper than oil, whose future is of less worth than a piece of land.`

All of us are terrorized by mind-infecting education to believe all we can do is either pray for our sons to come back home or be proud of their dead bodies.

Living in the world I live in, in the state I live in, in the regime I live in, I don’t dare to offer Muslim women any ideas how to change their lives. I don’t want them to take off their scarves, or educate their children differently, and I will not urge them to constitute democracies in the image of Western democracies that despise them and their kind. I just want to ask them humbly to be my sisters, to express my admiration for their perseverance and for their courage to carry on, to have children and to maintain a dignified family life in spite of the impossible conditions my world in putting them in. I want to tell them we are all bonded by the same pain, we all the victims of the same sort of violence even though they suffer much more, for they are the ones who are mistreated by my government and its army, sponsored by my taxes.

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[Beware! This is a long post, but I ask especially all women who pass by to read it!! And please tell me of any of your experiences, here or at lemonsunflower [at] gmail [dot] com]

Pop Quiz! The above sign would be best suited:

a. In front of a men’s restroom/sauna/locker room

b. As a barrier to allow men to move ahead in the temple for darshan (obeiyance)

c. Everywhere! Gender segregation is the key to world peace!

d. None of the above! Segregation is the obstacle to world peace!

{I hope no one actually took c and d seriously}

So I do consider myself a feminist, but I’m not the one who jumps up and picks up a bat at every sexist comment, because I understand that in reality, life is never fair and was never meant to be. And I’m equally likely to make a comment to the opposite gender, so why make a fuss about the petty things? I’m a feminist because I am aware, fully support and recognize the important needs of women, as well as the instances of clear social injustice where you do need to yell and scream and make a point in a patriarchal society. I’m a feminist because the welfare of women is important to me, because I am one, and because I will not accept any obvious, vicious discrimination of any sort.

As a child, I always enjoyed going to temples. I enjoy Hindu festivities, traditions, the various little rites and customs. We’d take off our slippers on the chaukhat (doorway) and walk in on cool ground, and it would be completely quiet within. You’d walk up to the beautiful murtis (idols) and bow, dip your finger in the tika or chandan and carefully anoint the center of your forehead. Then, if you were tall enough, you’d reach up and clang the bell, or your dad would pick you up. The sound would resonate in the silence, a beautiful sound, and you’d feel at peace. Then the best part: you’d walk out and stand in line for prasad (offering), sweet halwa or a laddoo, a piece of fruit…it always tasted best in the temple. During aarti, you’d sing together with people from all walks of life, clap your hands, and marvel at the beautiful clothes and jewellery the Gods and Goddesses were dressed up in. The festival months were even more wonderful, and exciting, and life filled the temples: everyone came, with goodwill, with happiness, with varying levels of devotion. There were lights, and bhajans (devotional songs), and a mass of colors and voices. My family weren’t ardent temple-goers. We’d go to mark birthdays, special events, report cards, a promotion or a success in the family, to pay our due devotion and show our gratitude. God was everywhere, but in the temple the presence was greater, the experience more satisfying. I always looked forward to these visits (and I’ll admit it was often for the prasad), times when my family was together, unified and happy to visit the Lord.

But the point of this post is this: I don’t recall as a child having to stand behind the boys and the men during aartis, or waiting in line behind the men to see the idols or get the prasad. I recall standing with my brother, not waiting behind him. There was never any segregation in the temples I visited, though there were always rituals or customs that discriminated against women. At that point, I never understood them, or I never noticed. When you grow up with it, its a way of life, nothing extraordinary to ponder about. But there was surely nothing that ever left a mark on me, or disturbed me enough to stay with me all these years or blemish my temple visits. I’m grateful for that.

And yet, a visit to a temple here ignited a rush of questions and emotions (mainly anger, and frustration), last weekend. I’ve been there before, and been through the process before, but accepted it every other time as a cultural custom. India is a mixture of cultures, and one cannot presume to understand the traditions of some from the west or the south if I’m from the north or the east. Often, you have to go by the when in Rome saying, and so I did every time. As fas as I was concerned, I was there to bow my head in front of God (and God alone), experience the peace and beauty of the temple and leave.

But this weekend my conscience flared up, and refused to stay down. We sat behind the men during the aarti, a large group of women who had to strain our necks to glimpse the idols. And then when it came time to “circle” and walk up the other murtis, this sign blocked our passage. Finally, they removed the sign. We walked past. I looked straight ahead and reached the end of the passage.

“You will have to stop. First let the swamiji and his disciples go by.”

He would have pushed me back, but he wasn’t allowed to touch any women in/around the temple. From the corner of my eye I saw he was merely a teenager. Dressed in a white kurta-pajama, and he had the big responsibility of holding back the crowd of women who threatened to just flood in and pollute the prayers of the “swamiji and his disciples.” My heart started thumping and immediately, my anger threatened to burst out. My eyes didn’t look in his direction at all, there was no way I was dignifying his rubbish by acknowledging it and looking in his direction. I looked straight ahead at the idol in front of me. He repeated his sentence. I didn’t budge, didn’t move back (but didn’t move forward either). I simply stared ahead. He shut up, finally, and simply stood there on guard. I considered my options.

Then I swiftly turned around and walked out.

Yup, I didn’t do anything. The righteous anger, the will to stand up, the frustration and I didn’t even squeak. I took the cowardly way out with just the one rebellious act of ignoring him a bit, which he probably didn’t even notice. I didn’t say a word out loud to express my indignation.

I wanted to say “Why? Why? Didn’t a woman give birth to your swamiji? To God himself? Doesn’t Sita stand with Rama in the idols? Radha with Krishna? Who gave you right to make us feel like second-class devotees, when the Hindu pray to both Goddesses and Gods? Why must I wait to pray? Why must I stand behind the men?” I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to question and express outloud the terrible injustice that was being done.

I walked out and all I could think of was: even a rapist, a murderer, the most dirtiest and corrupt man in the world, has the right to pray to God before I do! What justice! What a world! What customs, what traditions! This hadn’t been what I grew up, the temples we visited, had it? I had never had to feel this way as a child, among my family, and my parents tried my best to shield me on the outside. But I know this for sure: during Diwali, Dussehra, Holi, I saw all men and women stand together and pray in front God! [Note: this temple is run by Hindus from a different part of India than from where I am from. Customs change widely by area]

I don’t mention religion here. I will not say Hinduism has not discriminated against women. Hinduism and Hindus as a population have committed grave sins against all women, like EVERY other religion does. And yet, in all the years that I have lived, if there is one thing I understand and am completely sure of, is that God does not make religion. Human does. The idea of God is meant to give hope, it is an idea to have faith in when everything seems bleak. Yet the Human adds his own words and language and ideas and beliefs to the simple idea of God, until what the Human has said and done and thinks becomes indistinguishable from “God.” Humans corrupts “God.” And so, I cannot blame the faith. I can only blame those who preach their version of it and claim its truth and goodness and purity…when in reality, their version is no different from our world: corrupt, unfair, cruel, biased and dirty.

I discussed the incident with someone. Ofcourse, it was wrong, the guy’s behavior was wrong, I was told. And yet, I must understand why they do it. The reason men and women are segregated is because the mind of Man is weak, it is easily swayed, essentially filthy. And so, Woman must be away from Man during prayer to avoid temptation. And so, I said indignantly, why don’t women sit in front then, stand in front of men. Its still segregated, right?

Why not?? Because if women stands in front, the men sitting behind will stare at the women rather than pay attention to God, since men are so weak.

Does it outrage you? Regardless of your gender, do you sense the unfairness, the injustice? Even if I accept the argument based on the scientific evidence of pheromones, it is still ridiculous! Why must women suffer, if men are weak? Who decided that? Its the same argument that foolish people throw out justifying rape. “Its how she was acting/what she was wearing.” And hear, the woman’s crime is simply: being a woman.

How ludicrous. Immediately, I was reminded of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir written by the English professor who taught secret classes for her women students (highly recommended). Ms. Nafisi recalls how after Iran became a republic, all her female students had to wear burkhas. Not a bit of skin should be visible: only the palms if necessary, not even a bit of wrist or the nape of the neck. The women were fined or verbally/physically punished if the law was violated. And the justification provided to Ms Nafisi, can you guess? The sight of the woman’s white skin was a temptation to the men, seducing and distracting them from maintaining their pure lives.

Again, I do not believe this is Islam. I believe this is Islam from the corrupt eyes of those who changed it to meet their needs/forgive their crimes/grant them freedom and loopholes. Just like what happened to me at the temple is not Hinduism. It is Hinduism that has been conveniently manipulated and modulated and reworked to suit the needs of Men.

The thing that hurts me the most is that this happens in the place of God. Where individuals come to find solace, peace, love, warmth, understanding, gain some kind of acceptance. Women have always met with discrimination, in all walks of life, from the beginning of time. But being stopped in the house of God where I come simply as every man does, for the same reasons and in the same way, with the same devotion and the same dedication and love, is just so very degrading and painful. Its painful deep down somewhere, in my heart, in my soul, its frustrating, it causes my blood to boil and my head to spin with anger. If I had been a child, ignorant of the ways of the world, I know how I would feel: shocked, hurt, and at fault, like there was something wrong with me, something that makes me not as worthy as my brother to face God, makes me deficient in some quality in front of God. I know because even though I understand the narrow-mindedness and cruelty and corruption of the world, I still feel a little bit of that, and that makes me grateful to my parents for shielding me as a child, and scares me at the thought of raising a daughter in this world. And that makes me lash again…how dare anyone, ANYONE, make me feel this way?

And all I did was walk away. I let down all my sisters that day at the temple, by not saying a word. I stayed mute, and walked out, and I have no excuse. I apologize. It was too difficult, it was too burdensome and I knew that that day, at that temple, it would make no difference to that boy or any other man.

May God give me strength the next time I see this sign in a temple. Strength to push it over and out of my way, strength to kick any man who dares to stop me in the balls, and strength to march forward to claim my birthright.

John Mayer: Belief

Various Artists: Ishwar Allah

[This song isn’t working right…it sounds like chipmunks on this player. But you should be able to download it by rightclicking on the link and that should work fine]
{from the movie 1947 Earth by Deepa Mehta}

Ishwar Allah tere jaahaan mein nafrat kyun hain, jang hai kyun

(God, why is there hatred in your world, why is there war?)

Tera dil to itna bada hain, insaan ka dil tang hai kyon?

(Your heart is so large, why is the heart of man so narrow?)

Full lyrics and translation at: http://www.bollywhat.com/lyrics/1947_lyr.html

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