Sonia Ashraf’s video “Kodaikanal Won’t” has gone viral, more than 2 million views.
In this video, Sofia is rapping parodied lyrics to Nicky Minaj’s “Anaconda” as a message to Hindustan Unilever [HUL], the multinational consumer goods company for its failure to clean up toxic mercury at its thermometer factory in Kodaikanal in south India. HUL attributed the adverse effects its former workers are facing to ‘circumstance’, and not to mercury poisoning and won’t compensate workers. Even though the factory was shutdown in 2001, its workers still face fatal problems including deformities and stillborn babies, which HUL has ignored for years. Ashraf began a petition online that demands two things from HUL: clean up the mess and compensate those who have suffered because of toxic contamination of mercury.
“Kodaikanal Won’t” has had an impact that few have achieved: it received 55,021 signatures after the video release, forcing Unilever to call a press release where they promised to act in a transparent and responsible manner regarding this matter. HUL CEO tweeted that ‘all humans are the same’ and ‘shouldn’t accept different standards’, and in another tweet he was determined to move to solve the issue fast. Sofia’s song didn’t die a quick Internet death like most ‘songs with messages’ but achieved its purpose, a rare moment in a superficial world of digital campaigns. Minaj isn’t the only one to support Sofia’s song when she retweeted Sofia’s video with a ‘wow’, but journalists, activists, environmentalists and major newspapers like Huffington post, and New York Times have all converged to force the entire world to focus on the Kodaikanal mercury toxicity.
But Kodaikanal isn’t the only cause Sofia Ashraf has espoused. She grew up in an orthodox Muslim home and has a BA in interior design and MA in graphic design from a Chennai university. After studying history, philosophy and many world religions, she read Islam from a different perspective and her old beliefs stopped making sense, so she gave up Islam at 22, created a new set of beliefs on which she bases her identity and left for Bombay. She became part of the Vettiver Collective in Bombay, a group that advocates for environmental, and human rights issues. This group has been fighting HUL for a long time before Sofia joined them, and they asked her to rap the song as they had seen her perform before.
Sofia is part of Justice Rocks, an initiative by Vettiver Collective, which puts on a rock show every year to fight social causes. Justice Rocks has taken on DOW chemicals over the union carbide issue, which killed many people in Bhopal, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board for their plans to set up nuclear plants instead of preventing leakage of electricity during transmission converting Tamil Nadu into an ‘electricity deficit’ state and moral policing of various religions against the backdrop of a fatwa passed against a Kashmiri rock band.
Sofia intends to use YouTube as a medium to fight other social and environmental causes, which for her, Dalit and women’s issue rate the highest and closest to her heart. She intends to change the way Dalit are seen in India. Dalit men and women are at the bottom of the Hindu caste system and despite laws to protect them they face widespread discrimination in India. Dalit must wash their cups when they’re done drinking tea because they are untouchables and anything they touch becomes impure. PhD Dr Vinod Sonkar – who studied affirmative actions in India with those of post apartheid South Africa & the USA and teaches at Delhi University – says India is the largest democracy in the world, but an apartheid-style state. The Indian government comes from the upper castes and has convinced the international community that caste discrimination is an internal, cultural issue. But the truth is that it affects the very way the country is run. It is this issue – the horrible treatment of the Dalit and particularly women’s issue – which made Sofia Ashraf move out of the comfort of her parents’ home and do something for them.
This article is informed by Prasanna D Zore’s “the Rapper who is taking on Unilever” India Abroad 14 August 2015 & Vignesh Radhakrishnan’s “Unilever misinformed to save face: ‘Kodaikanal’ rapper Sofia” in Hindustan Times August 7, 2015.
Love and hate are flip sides of the same coin perhaps because of the volatility of emotions. Emotions are prone to change as they are driven by desires and coupled with preference. Desires flow, then ebb over time and can change from one day to the next. One day we love Cosby and the next, all our love for him can change when news break of him drugging women then raping them. Someone can go from mentor and mentee to [sexual] predator and prey from one decade to the next because some desires like love, lust, and hunger not only change, but can also become blurred. Sex can be consensual and good one day, then become non-consensual and sour tomorrow, making it rape. Rape and Consent have become strange bedfellows because of the rape epidemic on campuses and around the nation today. It does not mean that non-consensual sex didn’t happen or that rape didn’t exist as abundantly as before. It wasn’t reported for fear of shame on the girl, but also because girls were usually raped by someone they ‘knew’ so there was that fear also that rape would be hard to prove. It may be for the same reason that the 30 or so women who have now come out against a father figure and public moralist or the very famous and lovable Dr Huxtable couldn’t do that two or three decades ago. Plus, before now, rape was associated solely with sexual violence. The women who knew Cosby went to his home, and even accepted financial help from him, making it quasi-impossible to prove rape at the time they were allegedly raped. The accusations of rape heaved against Cosby proves that rape is no longer just violent, but non violent, too.
Rape has always been a huge a problem before now given that prominent leaning models for consent used to come [and still come] from porn, TV, movies, and one’s patriarchal cultural upbringing, which is not the healthiest education for sexual behaviors. These means of sexual education positioned males as gatekeepers of consent and had set up a power dynamic that undermined consent as an ongoing conversation between two people. Today, those means, especially porn, are as flourishing as ever and even more with Internet freedom and no age limits, but at the same time, the same Internet is also allowing space for women to speak up against rape and silencing it. Simultaneously, we’ve come a long way out of hiding in shame over matters of sexual harassment and rape: from Anita Hill in 1991 to the mattress girl at Columbia currently. Over time and because of the frequency of rape in colleges and sexual harassment in offices, rape has had to extend its definition to ‘consent’ from both partners, but especially from girls since campus rape had grown exponentially. Judith Shulevitz’s “Affirmative Consent” unzips this issue and whets our appetite on this indigestibility of affirmative consent where sex and rape are concerned: http://nyti.ms/1NnQhdD
But, the lack of clarity around consent to have sex is a slippery slope, because it is difficult to evaluate and show consent before having sex and before deeming it rape. Before the affirmative consent question flashed, the onus to substantiate rape was the girl’s exclusively; she had to convince the court that she didn’t ask for sex. Women had to prove before this legislation that ‘no’ did not mean ‘yes’ as men and women both inside and outside of the court thought that the girl’s clothes and behavior were big factors in blaming them for rape. Affirmative consent was impossible to prove pre-internet age, and still is even today, but much easier, at the same time. Shulevitz argues that affirmative consent is anxiety producing and risks criminalizing poor communication. Consent can indeed be a contraption as the 1988 film Accused [Jonathan Kaplan, 1988] proves.
Accused, which won Jodie Foster the Oscar for best leading role, illustrates the difficulty of ‘consent’ very well. Based on actual events, and on an actual rape, Sarah Tobias [Jodie Foster] goes to a sleazy bar, sexily dressed, where she and the men all drink, play pinball, then she puts on a one woman-show, then dances with one of them, and is raped by 3 of the men while others cheer and spur the men on:
Tobias has to prove that the rape was legit; in other words, she has to prove that she didn’t give the men ‘affirmative’ consent to rape her. The film does not explore the blurry domain of sex, which turned into rape. Tobias has to convince the Court that she said ‘no’ although she had taken drugs that night and acted provocatively in the bar. She was able to prove that all the seductive body language did NOT mean consent, despite that both lawyers thought she had a past, was ‘not uncomfortable flirting’ leading the men on. Her behavior was NOT affirmative consent for sex and therefore the men couldn’t assume rape.
Like these men who raped Tobias, Cosby, too thought he was skilled in picking up non verbal cues that signaled a woman’s consent: “a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them” [NYTimes Graham Bowley and Sydney Ember, “Cosby detailed many affairs in testimony: sex, drugs and deceit described by actor” on 7/19/15]. Sex can go awry because of some idiotic men who rape and don’t or can’t read signs [like Cosby and others] or conversely, because some angry or spurned women cry harassment or rape, especially if they don’t like the person coming on to them. There are innumerable examples of men raping in Shulevitz’s and others’ articles, but few of women ‘crying wolf’. A recent episode of White Collar allows us to imagine this question of consent when the criminal Keller approached a woman at a florist’s shop to flirt with her, but she rejected him harshly and resolutely and was ready to cry for help. Next scene cuts to a very handsome, well dressed, and suave Neal Caffrey who rescued her, and she was all smiles and flirtation, and ready to embark upon a second meeting, which she did.
Because of men and women of dubious and psychotic character, sex and rape have become conflated and we must now address this matter for the general good of all [women]. It has become necessary to protect our girls at colleges because the school cannot, because college personnel are busy protecting their football jocks, donations, and school reputation. Consent policies are great because sex is undoubtedly safer for our girls at college and elsewhere. But affirmative consent is great only in theory in an ideal ethical world, but in practice the problem rests in reading body language, which as Cosby has shown is not easy to read.
Today, 27 years after Accused, consent is still as shaky because it is as hard to disprove intention or prove consent. It was difficult to prove that Tobias’s conduct gave a clear ‘yes’ through every step of her seduction, and it was difficult for Cosby to fathom that his attention to these women was rape. We don’t see the men asking Tobias if their actions were okay, although she does say no laughingly twice then continues. So how do we define ‘consent’ legally when it stands on such shaky and emotional grounds?
Affirmative consent, according to legislation, is defined as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” every step of the way. In Accused, a real event, Tobias was conscious of the men’s actions and seemed okay, therefore there was voluntary agreement via flirting, kissing, gyrating, laughter, and scorn she heaps on her female friend whom she rejects because the friend is ‘jealous’. Tobias was clearly drunk or tipsy as most college aged males and females are at parties, and who become uninhibited and flirtatious. If this is so, then that would exclude all girls and boys under the influence of alcohol and drugs, because whatever occurs during sex would not really be conscious as per legislation’s definition. Under the draconian rules of affirmative consent, it would be easy to violate the law of consensual sex, and will turn a lot of spontaneous people into sex offenders.
Instead of setting better repercussions against rape crimes, and meaning them by enforcing them, preparing colleges to handle rape criminally instead of being pacifists, and educating our girls and boys especially about sexual behaviors from young, and teaching and telling them to think intelligently and independently and to say when they’re scared or uncomfortable, we are codifying sex. Codifying sex will undoubtedly help women against over-sexed psychos and perverts, but it will also reshape sexual mores as it eliminates intimacy, and kills desire and joy between two consenting adults.
Affirmative consent across the board, while necessary in some cases, could make real sex rigid and contract-like if one partner has to stop and ask every minute if what he or she is doing is okay rather than read his or her partner’s body response. Not only will actions have to be given the green light during intimate moments, but desire, too will have to shut off and on. The problem is that desire doesn’t always work like that, and in fact works quite opposite to affirmative consent. Desire is there, or it isn’t! And without desire, no meaningful sex!
With policies to regulate bedroom activities Big Brother wants ‘in’ in our bedroom, too. Will privacy have to change rooms if it cannot occur in the bedroom? If we continue to monitor sex, love, desire the way we are doing with data and information we may soon stop holding hands, and that would be a pity. Social media is already changing the rules of love and coupledom, and now codifying sexual behavior threatens what’s left of intimacy, spontaneity, and desire, and could make desire and sex become extinct because of some dimwits for whom legislation is slack. The other difficulty with affirmative consent is how to eliminate the possibility of misunderstanding when most people aren’t talkative during the delicate tango that precedes sex, and aren’t always good at decoding sexual signals.
What would sex and building relationships look like if intimacy, spontaneity, and desire are taken out of its substance?
They were mere points jotted down in my phone on the run, and not yet edited. Instead of hitting ‘save draft’ my finger must’ve hit ‘publish’. It will be republished shortly.
There was a time when the practice of white face transformed to blackface was popular. When blackface was a form of theatrical makeup used to represent a black person, and when Blackface minstrel shows were popular. It lasted for about 100 years – between the 183os to the 1930s – and became an American national art in 1848.
But while blackface was popularizing black culture, the stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels were playing a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes, and perceptions worldwide. These sterotypes included characters who were buffoonish, lazy, superstitious, cowardly, and lascivious and who stole, lied pathologically, and mangled the English language. In fact, Florence Kate Upton’s “Golliwog” in 1895 was described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”, googly-eyed, inky skin, exaggerated white, pink or red lips became common in entertainment, children’s’ literature, toys and games as well as cartoons, comic strips, ads, postcards, food branding like Banania – a chocolate powder in France.
Through the 1930s, many well-known entertainers of stage and screen went on to perform in blackface including Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple and Judy Garland [an extensive list can be found at Strausbaugh, John (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy Tarcher, Penguin: 222-225].
In the early years of film, whites also performed blackface routinely by portraying black characters. In the first known short film Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) all of the major black roles were whites in blackface [John Kenrick, Blackface and Old Wounds; musical]. Even the 1914 Uncle Tom starring African-American actor Sam Lucas in the title role had a white male in blackface as Topsy [see John Strausbaugh (2006) Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Popular Culture. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin]. David Griffiths The Birth of a Nation and America’s first full length feature film in 1915 used whites in blackface to represent ‘all’ of its major black characters [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1998), University of California Press, p. 79], but reaction against the film’s racism largely put an end to this practice of blackface in dramatic film roles.
Thereafter, whites in blackface would appear almost exclusively in broad comedies or “ventriloquizing” blackness [Strausbaugh 211-12] in the context of a vaudeville or minstrel performance within a film [Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1998), University of California Press: 79].
Of course, made-up whites routinely played Native Americans, Asians, Arabs, and so forth, for several more decades, and still do, for example during halloween, but there is no consensus about a single moment that constitutes the origin of blackface, according to Strausbaugh: it as part of a tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers” that dates back at least to 1441, when captive West Africans were displayed in Portugal [Strausbaugh 35-36]. Today, blackface remains in relatively limited use as a theatrical device and more commonly used as social commentary or satire. That is until Rachel Dolezal hit the headlines.
The Dolezals are white, but Rachel identifies as Black. When Rachel Dolezal was a teenager, her parents adopted four black children, one of whom now lives with her and her son, whom she had with her former husband, Kevin D. Moore, who is black. Dolezal has lived a life as a black person. Some argue that she misrepresented and lied about her race. But she didn’t paint her face black, and instead took on the whole persona of a black person: in face, mind, and body. That makes her NOT part of the blackface tradition of “displaying Blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”. She was forced to ‘come out’, much like homosexuals and transgenders, and, as we’ve been discovering over the years, not everyone who ‘comes out’ is a bad person. Jenner was applauded for changing his identity from male to female and lauded with praise. So, too, many gays and lesbians who proudly and promptly went out and got married immediately upon countrywide same-sex marriage recently. Their biological identity did not limit them. Why should Rachel Dolezal’s?
The Jenner-Dolezal argument is a slippery one though. Caitlyn Jenner can transition and find herself in a community she feels comfortable in without hatred, but Rachel can’t. If Caitlyn has a right to be a woman, Rachel should have a right to be black. Jenner was trapped in a man’s body but identified as woman, and Rachel was black in a white body. She has been a fierce and unrelenting champion for African Americans, politically and socially, doing a first rate job, teaching classes on African American culture, leading NAACP, chairing police committee overseeing fairness in police activities [which is in very short supply]. The black community is better off because of Dolezal’s efforts. For those, white or black – like Baz Dreisinger, an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York – who think that it taps into all of the issues around blackface and wearing blackness and that whole cultural legacy, which makes it that much more vile,” get over it ! The so-called ‘deception’, ‘lie’, ‘portrayal’ of Dolezal as someone she isn’t did « not » harm anyone. Her deep commitment to black causes and culture only helped black culture.
The fight for equality is too important to all Americans to lose someone as passionate as Dolezal. Someone who has accomplished as much as she has is not a conspiracy to defraud [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Time June 15, 2015] and seems more a case of her standing up and saying, “I am Spartacus!” Rachel Dolezal is no modern day blackface, and doesn’t like the term ‘African American’, but prefers to be grouped by blood type. I’d say that that’s a way to eliminate racism and branding, but not a deception. She passes the ‘race’ test, because race is not in the DNA; there is no gene for race. Dolezal opted out of this social construct. She opted out of whiteness and into blackness which fences us in boxes. Rachel stepped outside that box, dismantling what was in place. She adopted the cultural elements of a different cultural group not to misappropriate, but appropriate them as her ‘own’; neither distorting or desecrating these elements, but instead endowing them with deep meaning against the dominant culture, which oppresses that group whether in Alabama, in DC, in NY and elsewhere. And although Rachel opted out of her ‘race’ racism isn’t dead which is precisely why she stayed in another identity. Her entire purpose to emulate the black and be like a black person made her a black woman. She wanted a different reality, a different world for blacks so decided to change her own world.
Dolezal did not act immorally. Morality can be subjective, and what is subjective can become objective.
- Since the rape of India’s Daughter reporting has increased by 35%.
- Australia: 35% women sexually assaulted only 15% reported to police
- Canada: over 1 in 3 women sexually assaulted and only 6% reported to police
- Democratic republic of Congo: more than 400,000 women raped each year
- Denmark: only 1 in 5 reported rapes results in conviction
- Egypt: 96% of women have suffered genital mutilation
- Ethiopia: 60% women subjected to sexual violence
- France: 1 in 10 women is a victim of domestic violence
- Nigeria: 10 out of 36 states have laws that allow husbands to use physical forces against their wives
- South Africa: a woman is raped very 26 seconds
- Sri Lanka: an average rape case takes 6-12 years to be resolved
- United Kingdom: 33% girls between 13-17 have experienced sexual violence
- USA: 17.7 million women have been raped
Udwin traveled to India to make India’s Daughter, where she and an all Indian crew interviewed the following: rapists [Mukesh Singh; Ram Singh, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Akshay Thakur and the juvenile]; Sharma – attorney for the rapists; Leila Seth – former chief justice member of the rape committee; Dr Maria Misra- writer & historian at Oxford; Sandeep Govil – psychiatrist for the rapists, and other speakers from the rapists’ village. India’s Daughter (Leslee Udwin, 2015) is an impassioned plea for justice following the rape of Jyoti Singh, the young medical student, who was brutally raped by 6 men in December 2012 then dumped naked onto the streets and who died 17 excruciating days later.
But the great difference in reporting rape in America vs rape in India is that rape in America is NOT tinged with shame, or the desire to commit suicide or silence or all three. A girl is “not” damaged for life, and can often do well in life with therapy and help, and more importantly rapists are jailed, humiliated at times appearing on registries of sex offenders digitally and barred from living near schools etc. And the self-imposed silence in some parts of America when rape isn’t reported is a different silence than the forced silence which exists in India & other worlds. Silence is used to force girls to go silent in India and the shame and blame hang over these girls, their families and entire village forever. In America, however, decades of feminism and discussions on sexual assault on campuses and in the military have extinguished the silence and shame associated with rape. There are outreach programs in poor communities, in emergency rooms, at police stations etc and are all working to encourage reporting and penalizing rapists. In the USA, we engage with victims on a very different level than in India, because advocacy efforts and rape crisis centers ALL give the same message: come forward and report.
The result of removing the shaming, slut shaming, silencing from violence and rape in the US makes for a more confident and comfortable, accurate and realistic reporting on sexual assault. It is no longer a question of one woman fighting against a whole country, village, town or society and family, as it is in India. There is no lone Suneetha Krishnan or Leslee Udwin showing the world a door to change, or who are opening up dialogue on the urgent and dire situation of women raped and abused in India. But, Jyoti Singh’s rape was NOT the first high profile rape in India – the 1972 Mathura rape which called and ed to legal reform and laid groundwork for development of the protest constituency that filled Delhi’s political corridor from Rastrapati Bhawan to India Gate that December which ultimately turned into a war zone of tear gas, lathi strikes and police violence [Sonia Faleiro “India’s Daughter review- this film does what the politicians should be doing” The Guardian 5 March 2015]. Despite the legal change of the Mathura case and the massive Ferguson-like protests in India and neighboring countries after Jyoti’s rape, some prevalent opinions in India’s Daughter [which appear in the order they are pronounced in film] explain the mentality ‘still’ surrounding rape and women’s status in parts of India:
- Rapist Mukesh: it takes 2 hands to clap. A good girl doesn’t roam around 9 at night. Girl far more responsible for rape than boy
- Defense lawyer Sharma: the moment she [Jyoti] came out with a boy who was neither husband nor brother she left her reputation and morality as a doctor as well as a girl’s morality also in the house and she came out just like a “woman”
- Mukesh: boy and girl not equal. Housework & housekeeping for girls. Not roaming in discos and bars at nights, doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of these girls are good
- Sharma: a female is just like a flower. It gives a good looking very softness performance, pleasant (sic). But on the other hand a man is just like a thorn. Strong, tough enough. That flower always needs protection. If you put that flower in a gutter, it will be spoilt. If you put that flower in a temple, it will be worshipped
- Sharma: she was with an unknown boy who took her on a date. In our society we never allow our girls to come out of the house after 6.30 or 8.30 in the evening with any unknown person
- Sharma: they left our Indian culture. They were under imagination of the filmy culture in which they can do anything
- Sharma: she shouldn’t be put in the streets just like food. The ‘lady’ on the other hand, you can say the ‘girl’ or ‘woman’ more precious than a gem, than a diamond. It is up to you how you want to keep that diamond in your hand. If you put your diamond on the street, certainly the dog will take it out. You can’t stop it
- Sharma: you are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry that doesn’t have any place in our society. A woman means I immediately put the sex in his eyes (sic). We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman
- Govil: the main mental set-up is “it’s our right. We are just in enjoyment mode. And everybody has a right to enjoyment. Big people, you know, somebody who has money, do it by payment. We have the courage so we do it by our courage”
- Dr Misra: before this event there was a very very strong culture of shame around rape. To be raped was deeply shaming. Worse than being dead. So there’re politicians who say the most extraordinary things about rape victims. That it would be better if the raped victim dies otherwise she’d be a walking corpse
- Mukesh: When being raped she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’ and only hit the boy.
- Raj Kumar – patrolman – who found their bodies and went to the motel opposite and got a bed sheet to cover her and water. About 30-35 men gathered but no one helped. He asked for help but no one helped. Kumar said Jyoti looked like a cow (holy in Hinduism) after it had Given birth to a calf [because her intestines were out of her body].
- Nurse Rashmi Ahuja, reporting in English: she was bleeding a lot from vagina. 1130pm. She was scared but not sobbing; she clearly described everything in clear detail. She was slapped on face, kicked on abdomen. Multiple injuries over her, over her private parts. There were multiple bite marks over her face, over her lips, over her limbs
- The surgeon told Jyoti’s mother he’d been practicing for 20 years and had never seen a case like this. “The system by which the main body functions is all gone. We don’t know which parts to join”
- Leila Seth: lots of Gang rapes in India. It was a normal time for a boy and girl to be returning from movies (8pm) in the capital
- Seth: equality is in the constitution, but men feel they have a right, from tradition
- Akshay’s [one of the rapists] wife: will you hang all rapists? Who will protect their wives and children?
Statements which makes rape possible and continue to occur:
- when a girl is with a boy, she aggravated the boys
- if she’s alone, she aggravated the boys
- Or it’s her clothes that caused the rape: jeans, saris, salwar kameez. How then does one explain raping a 4 year old in Ghansaur in April 2013 or the 6 year old in Ahmedabad in March 2015? How did these girls provoke boys to rape them? Where were they when raped? They couldn’t possibly be wearing ‘trashy’ clothes at 4 or 6.
- And if a girl ‘should get protection from boys’ in lieu of her parents to go to the bathroom, with whom should she go to the public restrooms or shop or movies if the boys are the ones to rape her?
India’s Daughter lets people speak in the film. Do those who speak – like Sharma – define India? Are these the representatives who set boundaries for India? If they are, there’s no difference between these ‘cultural ambassadors’ and rapists. It is these ambassadors and rapists who killed the perfect dream of Jyoti’s parents. India’s daughter is not just a film, but current India where women’s rights are abrogated to men. But the film is banned in India, because it is an ‘international conspiracy’ according to parliamentary affairs minister M Venkaiah Naidu, and because censorship likes to perpetuate views that cannot withstand the scrutiny of reason. What is not banned is another video by Annapurna Sunkura on India’s Daughter before a global audience. Sunkura’s video pays tribute to the inspiring and remarkable Jyoti Singh and also explores the compelling stories behind the incident and the political ramifications throughout India for an Indian public. And most of all it CANNOT be banned in India like India’s Daughter:
What comes out of visuals like India’s Daughter and Sunkara’s video is that when rape is compared to America, it is left unaddressed where it matters – in India. That America has the highest incidence of rape per capita is not the problem nor the solution to India’s’ rape crisis. Comparing India’s rape to America’s rape is only detracting India and its government/ filmmakers/ other speakers from the serious crime of rape in India. Women in India have no voice or affirmative action, as in America. Not naming the 17 year old and referring to him as ‘juvenile’ is also skirting the issue. In India where shaming and naming isn’t news, why does everyone in Udwin’s films say ‘the juvenile’? Jyoti’s name was Nirbhaya before we knew her real name but many knew her real name online way before it hit the airwaves, so why couldn’t this ‘juvie’ be given a name? Why is everyone protecting this juvie who was skilled in luring people in the bus, and brought alcohol in the bus and one of the rapists who repeatedly raped Jyoti. It is time for the language of modesty and shame to be removed from the Indian penal code for change to sink in, and for women to come forth and report acts of inhumanity.
Recently, Elinor Burkett expressed what some people feel in private, but are reluctant to say in public in her article “what makes a woman” with the question: do women and men have different brains? [NYTimes 7 June 2015]. Burkett’s question had already been asked ten years ago and answered in the affirmative by a former Harvard president – Lawrence Summers. The result of his ‘wrong’ answer was a withdrawal of Harvard donations as long as he was there and Summers had to eventually step down. Fast-forward to 2015, and Burkett explores and answers the same question as Summers.
Burkett’s question has led to a maelstrom of Tweets and criticisms, with commentators attacking her for her ‘intolerance’ because she said “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Burkett’s [and Summers’] response calls to mind an old but similar debate in ancient Greece: Tiresias, a prophet known for his clairvoyance, was asked: “do women and men have different pleasures?” Hera and Zeus wanted to know how men and women experienced pleasure but didn’t like Tiresias’ response: “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” – i.e. women have more pleasure. Tiresias was punished for saying this by being transformed into a woman’s body for seven years, and then blinded. This female Tiresias in Greek mythology was specifically erotic, but another feminist version of Tiresias surfaced in 1903: Les Mamelles de Tiresias [Guillaume Apollinaire], where male Tiresias also changed his sex but only to obtain power among men so he could change customs, subvert the past and establish equality between the sexes. Today, gender studies leave gender wide open saying “you are what you feel” and that “behavior matters more”. While Tiresias’ era had a singular view of gender until Appollinaire, our twenty-first century makes it possible to reverse gender via surgery and in the near future by exploiting the fundamental genome itself. But whether these permutations can really alter sex is explored in another modern day Tiresias – Tiresia by Bertrand Bonello in 2003. In this iteration, Tiresias is a Brazilian transsexual living in the Parisian banlieue; he is kidnapped by an obsessive man, and prevented from taking regular doses of hormones, which make him female, and he gradually starts to change back to a male without his hormones. The cinematic adaption shows him as a woman, but internally the lower body has always been a male, even though Tiresia has always considered himself a woman. This cinematic Tiresias illustrates the modern day obsessive perfection for beauty, and the artifice of gender. This film updates Greek mythology the way people update their biology today. But even this Tiresia is still in the ever-shifting no-woman’s land, between woman and man.
‘Tiresias’ has always been then this complexly liminal figure, vacillating between female and male. How did the normal change from the Greek Tiresias to the appolinairian Tiresias to the Tiresias of Bonello and finally to a modern-day Tiresias, like Caitlyn Jenner? What was the tipping point of this debate? Was it the same sex acceptance since Lawrence’s answer because 10 years ago, gay rights and marriage were not acceptable?
Sixty-six years ago – in 1949 – Simone de Beauvoir broached the question of female embodiment in her famous Second Sex by saying: “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Beauvoir used these words as a vehicle for female freedom, as women’s bodies were sites of ambiguity in her era and before: female body was presented as both positive and negative, both oppressed and free. Taken literally, Beauvoir’s pronouncement could imply that one could change one’s sex by [re]creating oneself. However, Beauvoir’s theory also posited limits to self-creation and self-definition, and transgendering was not a part of the equation when she pronounced these unforgettable reusable words. Both Beauvoir’s words and Burkett’s enquiries provoke the same question: “how does one ‘become’ a woman, and how does this ‘becoming’ happen?”
In probing this question we should not forget what brought the feminist movement on its head: men had been defining women for far too long. Some people – like Burkett – see Jenner [a once-upon-a-time man] as still defining women: “people who didn’t get to live their whole lives as women shouldn’t define us”. Both Beauvoir and Burkett feel that you are who you are at/from birth, and their exploration on what it means to be a woman supposes that we cannot change our gender or sex overnight. If someone –man or woman- decides to become Marilyn Monroe by plastic surgery does that mean he or she is Marilyn Monroe? If I buy a Prada or Dior dress and have it ‘altered’ is it not Prada or Dior still? Or how about I paint an exact copy of Mona Lisa and a version 2, would my simulated tableau qualify in the same range as the original?
Bruce Jenner only recently discovered ‘his’ truth: that he was in the wrong body. It is the skipping of the states that Burkett is questioning, because Jenner’s truth isn’t Burkett’s. Jenner’s female identity is not Burkett’s. Jenner’s cultural experience isn’t the same as Burkett’s; nor other women. This recalls a time when black and colored feminism felt it incumbent to reprehend white feminism for its universalizing tendencies: for putting ‘all’ women in the same category ‘feminism’, no matter what their specificity. Burkett is asking her question in this same vein; universalizing feminisms under one banner didn’t work for colored or black or Asian feminists or even feminists in the same country, why then should Jenner in his new body be considered a woman? Burkett is echoing other women’s realities who are NOT the same as Bruce Jenner’s or Caitlyn Jenner’s, the same way that “Other” feminisms [Black, Asian, Chicano etc] questioned inclusion into a white feminist category, which denied them existence, and didn’t fit their bodies or realities.
Modern day feminists like Burkett and other pro female thinkers continue to question sex and gender which makes the “what makes a woman?” question very relevant, discuss-able, contend-able, deconstruct-able, turn-able inside-out, as we’ve been seeing and will continue to see and read. But these interrogations limit possibilities for people like Jenner.
In the early 1900s, Anais Nin posited a possibility when she said that “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain there”. Taken literally, Jenner could be said to have elected a state and stayed there, skipping a good many states. The state he elected to stay at is not a ‘death’, but in fact quite the opposite today- ‘life’, a new life. What Nin may be postulating is that people go through a phase or phases, negative and positive, like a battery’s polarity, like Jenner’s male then female identity. Jenner was perhaps stuck in a state and body, which became untenable and he decided to phase out of being male and become female. But Burkett’s and Beauvoir’s question do not entertain grey zones of sex or gender because someone cannot just ‘become’ a woman without actually going through the range of emotions, expressions, sensitivities, experiences, stimuli like unequal wages or psychological results of rape etc that are formed since [female] childhood. Burkett and Beauvoir’s vision limits us because of the two tiered gender system, but what if the reason for having this gender system disappears? What if we identify as continuously changing as Nin suggests, how does this synchronize with our biological apparatus? What if humankind found a way to create life without ‘gender’ as we see in a film like Splice [Vincenzo Natali, 2009], where genetic engineers successfully splice together the DNA of different animals to create a new hybrid? This human-like female creature was produced in a lab, not inside a human womb? Would we still need the categories of sex and gender if reproduction no longer decided the creation of life? Until recently, nature had been the incubator for evolution, but the adaptation method could change. Films like Splice and lab babies prove that human beings are becoming the incubators, and not nature. Today, technology is capable of producing new possibilities not only in film but also in real life, like Bruce Jenner’s changeover from man to woman. For now women are XX and men XY: when DNA is tested it will show a man’s DNA but if we start creating clones or hybrids with advancements in stem cell and genetic sequencing / replications, what will they be?
Perhaps it is time to recognize that we have culturally and technologically evolved, keeping in mind that there’s an undertone of biological evolution happening. It is vital to understand that forms and identities like Caitlyn Jenner’s have existed not just in ancient great Greece or contemporary society, but in other places where a third gender exists. In India, Hijras are men who are born men, but dress like women and live like women all their lives; Waria in Indonesia believe they are biological men born with the souls of women, who have an irrepressible feminine spirit; Mahu in Tahiti are not wholly men nor wholly women, of ambiguous gender but treated and respected like women because they possess the virtues of both men and women, and in Oman Zaniths or Xaniths are considered a third gender, who speak in falsetto voice, dress in between men and women, sing at weddings and perform other social tasks.
Burkett’s question was based on the 2 binary-gendered system, which has been socially constructed and set in place a long time ago; the same gendered system that makes some women think that adding Jenner to the female category feels like going backwards for women, and the same system which makes men feel uncomfortable about portraying Jenner on Vanity Fairs’ cover as a stereotypical male fantasy of Ms Jenner as a ‘sex babe’.
But, whether we accept it or not, evolution is happening not only because of technological innovation, but also because of psychological innovation, and will crop up again as more people come forward with sex/gender change. It behooves us then to build the apparatus for such change, and create space for these new identities.
 Comment by Chris Heiss in response on June 11 to “Who decides what makes a woman?”: Brynn Tannehill at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brynn-tannehill/who-decides-what-makes-a-woman_b_7560486.html