Line Hodiadhu I don't want to give the impression that my social life revolves around this Free Speech conference a fortnight ago, but that seems to be the case.
On the first day, VS and I skipped the movie because the Blank Noise meeting was at my place later that evening, and I needed to shove my clothes under the bed. I'd spent all day in the vicinity of Lawrence Liang, so I was quite tipsy on the idea that any restraints on speech or expression tend towards tyranny. We were swaggering up Kasturba Gandhi Marg looking for an auto, and a woman, slimly attractive in that Delhi-Delhi way, was walking past us, and I was hardly aware of it before a "KWAAAAWOO..." began to squeeze out of my throat. VS gave me an incredibly violent pout, though, and the catcall receded before it could make too much of a racket. Then VS took me by the arm and shepherded me home before I could damage my self-opinion any further.
There is absolutely no moral to this story, although I spent a while trying to derive one. The closest I got was
(1) damn, she was hot, I wish she'd looked at me, and
(2) don't be such a dick, Rags.
There is a deep-set paradox in trying to be an ally (and by an ally I mean the Swarthmore connotation, someone offering support and solidarity to the members of a group who face a kind of disadvantage that he or she does not), particularly in trying to be a straight male ally to women's fronts against sexism. The paradox is nothing complicated: in trying to combat sexism, you're trying to strip yourself of an archaic right that you're usually aware of still wanting. Some people, the pessimistic type, would say its an attempt to take arms against your biological hardwiring. I dont know about any of that, but I'm calling myself RAM until proven ROM (sorry, people who know what those mean).
Still, this paradox lends itself to a certain type of misbehaviour: the temptation to use progressive politics as a foil against examining your own attitude, or worse, to collect feminist cred without making much effort to put your own chauvinist impulses in order. Its quite likely that I'm as much a perpetrator as I am an ally. Do I just want everyone else to change? "Look," says Anand, in his prudent, politically-weathered manner, "I don't think it's hypocrisy if you put it that way. Obviously as men we're all mysogynist and there's no conquering our mysogyny once and for all. As I see it, thinking we've got the answer to mysogyny is accepting it, in a way. Remaining self-critical is the only way to be a male ally."
* * *
A good place to go to get it all in perspective is Cairo. Cairo is an extraordinarily woman-unfriendly place, although I dont know what the city is like to anyone behind a niqab. Probably quite uneventful. But anyway, Cairo is not like Riyadh is, by all reports, that honestly dystopian way. Gender relations on the streets of Cairo have the kind of passive-aggressive nature that overlies a deep schizophrenia.
I spent seven months there, okay? So I know everything about Cairo.
It starts with politics: colonialism, which is always self-explanatory. Then economics: a country, and a regime, that is heavily reliant on tourism, the second largest source of revenue after textiles. Then civic dynamics: gaggles of Italian tourists drifting through Islamic Cairo in tubetops and Daisy Dukes, while their guides pointedly feign laissez faire attitudes to clothing. A couple of reductivist steps down the ladder: a culture of street harassment like nothing I have ever seen.
Unless my memory is hyperbolizing to me, visiting the Khan el Khaleeli with girls could be overwhelming - hands, hands, everywhere, hands, incomprehensible voices, more hands - with a thoughtless rapidity that leaves you looking more like a baffled spectator than a heroic protector (another problematic point). Most frighteningly, a lot of those hands and comments belong to boys too young to know what they're reaching for, picked up like any bad habit from older brothers.
One afternoon, after class, a friend of mine walked home across the bridge and through Gezira. Our hostel was in the diplomatic area, so every street junction had a pair of bored national guardsmen fiddling with their rifles and kicking dust at each other. This afternoon she was wearing a long brown skirt, right down to her feet, and a loose collared shirt, I remember the outfit quite clearly. She passed a policeman who was tilting his head back, drinking water from a Baraka bottle. Then he straightened up, and spat a mouthful of water all over her.
She was exquisitely graceful under fire. She walked back to our hostel, calmly told us what had happened and retired to her room to be upset in peace. I went out with the receptionist and caught an officer, demanded to know what he was going to do about it. He winced and smiled and shrugged, this is ordinary stuff, ya basha, you indignant foreigners are such pests. We bullied him for a while. "Tell me what you want me to do," he offered, rhetorically.
"Scalp him!" I screamed, in English. Then in Arabic, the correct response, "You are his officer. Cannot him keep doing this. I said what happened. You do what is appropriate."
"Taaban!" he exclaimed, "Very good, sir. I will do that!" And, nodding to me, he stormed off vengeantly in the opposite direction.
* * *
My point is not to absolve India of its transgressions - of course not. I'm trying to situate harassing behaviour, very clearly, at an intersection of social determination, institutional sanction and individual choice. That helps me understand the three fronts on which it can be combatted, and it helps me understand my own position as both the subject and the object of that struggle. Each one of those fronts is a point of opportunity as well as of resistance, and they do not necessarily move in concert, which can disguise true progress as it occurs. The paradox I described earlier is the sight of these opportunities and resistances knocking against each other.
Each front is one in which something can be seized - the editing of a popular magazine, a penal code, an autodriver's collar - and made to contemplate the simplicity of something better, and how that simplicity flies in the face of its resistance. I doubt that, in my lifetime, the streets around my home will become a place where no one feels uncomfortable, demeaned or violated because of their sex or sexuality. We'll never fix society, or the police or the judiciary, or people.
I'm pretty sure, though, that each of them has an unrealized capacity to want to be an agent of fairness while also being a beneficiary of unfairness. To seed the streets with that paradox - to make them a place where people enter with the desire to respect each other, even if they do have bad habits or wild hormones - that doesnt seem like as much of a fantasy. It seems quite doable, really. What a petite ambition. But what a place to be proud of.
* * *
Today is International Women's Day. I wrote this as part of the Blank Noise Project blogathon. Keep on keepin' on.
You think I dont know the word for 'appropriate' in Arabic, but its munasib, sucka.
Raghu + made the Blank Noise blogathon happen. He was part of the team that planned it and gave it shape. Thank you Raghu. Smita ( for proposing the idea), Harneet +
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