The Muslim Face – on policing the resistance from within

The recent furore in the University of Yale for inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to deliver a speech has been for me the most unsettling of all the controversy that had Hirsi Ali in it. The thing about Hirsi Ali is that she is representative of the dichotomy that ex-Muslims in general, and ex-Muslim women in particular, have to go through, especially in countries where Muslims are a minority. One is to be seen as a traitor of one’s community for speaking out against the atrocities committed within and other is to be seen as an apologist for speaking out against unwarranted and bigoted suspicion and fear with which Muslims are seen by the majority. Kenan Malik has spoken about this in his article “Is There Something About Islam?“, in which the following anecdote is very telling.

The Danish MP Naser Khader once told me of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing Danish newspaper that was highly critical of the Danish cartoons. “He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims”, Khader recalled. “I said I was not insulted. And he said, ‘But you’re not a real Muslim’.”

Ayaan chose to not be that real Muslim and chose to be the traitor. For which she became the darling of the conservative and the right, while attracting the scorn of liberals and leftists from privileged classes.

And it is this dichotomy that unraveled at Yale, once she was invited to speak. There are two things to be considered here. First is the academic freedom of Hirsi Ali as an ex-Muslim woman. Michelle Goldberg in the Nation have put this matter very well, by comparing Hirsi Ali’s and Steven Salaita’s cases.

… it’s worth recognizing that arguments privileging “respect” and civility above freedom on campus are always double-edged. If you believe that Hirsi Ali shouldn’t be allowed to speak because she denigrates Islam and makes many students uncomfortable, then it’s hard to see how you can simultaneously claim that Salaita, a professor who has tweeted, “Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948,” deserves a place in the classroom.

Second is the expectations that are put upon ex-Muslims when they choose to criticise Islam and the practices within their respective communities. Here is the letter by the Yale Muslim Students Association, where the following statement is something that I found to be extremely repugnant.

While we have legitimate concerns from what we know, and while we cannot overlook how marginalizing her presence will be to the Muslim community and how uncomfortable it will be for the community’s allies, we are hopeful that the discussion is constructive and that Ms. Hirsi Ali speaks only to her personal experiences and professional expertise.

Not only does the above statement have the implication that they are being generous by not denying her her experiences, but they expect her to limit her expression to her experiences and “expertise”, read she’s not qualified to speak on Islam. So she is allowed to express herself but not allowed to interpret her experiences with Islam. Similar arguments were made by Hindu apologists against Kancha Ilaiah, a Dalit ex-Hindu writer and academic, for his trenchant and passionate criticism of Hinduism. In fact as a friend once pointed to us in Nirmukta, Hirsi Ali’s and Ilaiah’s experiences parallel each other. Both are denied the right to be passionate and also denied the right to hate the very institution that was the cause of their experiences. Despite being much close to oppression than privilege they are denied to opine and interpret on the same institution in the manner they deem fit.

But it doesn’t stop there. Here is the statement by the Yale Humanist Community, one of the signatories of the above letter,

As a diverse group of undergraduates with a membership that includes ex-Muslims and atheists from Islamic cultures, we do not believe Ayaan Hirsi Ali represents the totality of the ex-Muslim experience.

True, she may not represent the totality of the ex-Muslim experiences, but her experiences do belong to that totality. Her experiences and interpretations of the same constitute the larger ex-Muslim experience, and she has every right to be taken as seriously as any other ex-Muslim in that regard. One may disagree with plenty of her opinions, especially ones regarding minority rights of Muslims, but one simply doesn’t get to trivialise her experience by making such patronising statements as saying she does not represent the whole.

Another argument that comes against Hirsi Ali is that feeds the anti-Muslim/Islamophobic frenzy of the right and the conservative. But how fair is it to police her speech and expression by putting the blame of bigotry of the, well, bigots on her? Bigots have historically appropriated and misconstrued sane arguments for their own agenda, many a times even by going against the original intentions. How fair and constructive is it to point fingers at her, instead of engaging her?

Such policing and patronising of resistance within Islam while bringing down the credibility of secular humanism, greatly harms the larger struggle for a tolerant and secular future. Excluding the likes of Hirsi Ali will do none of us any good.

A Year of Grand Slam Data: Men’s Tennis and Women’s Tennis

Since the 2013 US Open, I’ve been collecting the statistics published by the grand slam tennis tournaments in a spreadsheet. This was prompted by a discussion on sexism in tennis about a year ago, where I saw someone say he didn’t watch women’s tennis these days as it was “full of unforced errors”. So I decided to have a look at what the stats were. And since they publish stats not only on unforced errors but many other measures as well, and they use an identical tabular format (links: Aus, French, Wim, US), it was easy to compare and aggregate them.

I chose a number of “metrics”, some I’m sure most tennis fans will agree on, some based on what I like in tennis. I also did a per-game/per-set normalisation to get around the 3-set/5-set difference (more on the number-of-sets issue later). Here are the metrics I chose:

(1) Winners per game (the more the better), (2) winners rate (the more the better), (3) unforced errors per game (the lower the better), (4) unforced errors rate (the lower the better), (5) winners to unforced errors ratio (the more the better), (6) points per game (the more the better), (7) games per set (the more the better), (8) %age of straight-sets matches (the lower the better), (9) %age of final-set matches (the more the better), (10) %age of tie-break sets (the more the better), (11) double-faults per game (the lower the better), (12) service breaks rate (the more the better).

Before looking at the data, try to do a estimate in your mind of what you think these numbers will be like.

The Data

Here are the results: you can view the Google spreadsheet here (hopefully the Excel-to-Google conversion preserved all the formulas), or you can simply see the aggregates in the screenshot below (click to enlarge):

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

Spreadsheet showing aggregated statistics of the four grand slams. (Please see article body for the main results in text form.)

The results (aggregate of all 4 tournaments):

(1) Winners per game: men 2.0, women 1.8

(2) Winners rate (as % of total points): men 31%, women 27%

(3) Unforced errors per game: men 1.7, women 2.1

(4) Unforced errors rate (as % of total points): men 27%, women 33%

(5) Winners to unforced errors ratio: men 1.14, women 0.83

(6) Points per game: women 6.6, men 6.3

(7) Games per set: men 9.8, women 9.2

(8) %age of straight-sets matches: men 50%, women 69%

(9) %age of final-set matches: women 30%, men 17%

(10) %age of tie-break sets: men 18%, women 9%

(11) Double-faults per game: men 0.2, women 0.3

(12) Service breaks rate (as % of total games): women 35%, men 20%


Arguments that women should receive less prize money than men are more generally arguments about value – i.e. does men’s tennis have more value than women’s tennis. The measurement of this value can take many forms – prize money is one of them; other forms are things like the amount and nature of media coverage, and the amount and nature of public appreciation. The higher the prize money, and the more and better the media coverage and public appreciation, the more the tennis is valued.

Most commonly one hears the argument that since men play best-of-5 and women play best-of-3, therefore men’s tennis deserves more prize money (i.e. it has more value). Leaving alone the fact that the WTA is willing to play best-of-5 too (links: Major obstacle to women’s call for five sets, WTA chief says women ‘ready, willing’ for five sets), the main flaw in these arguments is inconsistency – if number of sets really determines value, then that metric ought to be applied uniformly across the board rather than only on two sides of an arbitrarily chosen divide of men’s tennis and women’s tennis – i.e. it ought to be applied to all tennis matches, period. So a man who loses in 3 straight sets should receive less prize money (and less and worse media coverage and public appreciation) than a man who loses in 5 sets – because going by the logic of that particular metric, there is a difference in value the two men have provided. The same principle holds for any of the metrics above, or any other metric of your choosing, such as market demand (ticket sales, TV ratings etc.). Today the prize money is already equal, so what of the other measures of value – the media coverage and the public appreciation? It’s quite easy to see the inconsistency – a men’s match is treated kindly even when it ought not to be (as per these metrics). The media tends to be generous with praise and emphasizes the positive rather than the negative, with far more interview quotes and coverage for the men in general. One example from recent times – Maria Sharapova’s final-set defeat to Angelique Kerber in this year’s Wimbledon only got one sentence of coverage in The Hindu. Yet it devoted several paragraphs to Andy Murray’s straight-sets defeat (on a different day) – and this discrepancy in coverage was repeated on many days. This issue is something that would be worth doing a proper study on.

The fact that nobody is demanding “variable value” based on such metrics, yet noises about men-vs-women keep being made, indicates just how deeply embedded gendered thinking is – the divide shows up artificially even when it isn’t relevant, all the while appearing to be perfectly natural. (If you did make this proposal there would be an outcry against it, from players and fans alike – particularly if it involves prize money. I think the reason goes back to Michael Sandel’s Moral Limits of Markets. Market evaluations and incentives have a degrading and corrupting effect on certain goods and practices, and sports is one of them. Sports is bound up in all kinds of human emotion and values – honour, courage, beauty, skill, triumph over adversity – perhaps that’s why we wouldn’t like this idea. It also explains why we get angry when players aren’t loyal to their teams and play for the highest bidder.)

Another thing worth noting is, it’s debatable whether the 5-set format is better. It results in less straight-sets matches, but it also results in less final-set matches than the best-of-3 format. Yet you don’t see anyone arguing, “Women play more final-set matches, so women should receive more prize money”. Which leads me to to think that reason “5 sets” is used in the argument is that it’s what men play. Personally, I find a three-straight-sets match even worse than a two-straight-sets match, because the loser had three opportunities to win a set – over two-plus hours of my life which I’m never going to get back – and he couldn’t do it. A final set is the only thing I’m willing to watch in a tennis match these days, unless I have an emotional investment in one of the players. So I think the tennis authorities should instead revamp the scoring system entirely – neither best-of-3 nor best-of-5, but something completely different. Games like badminton, volleyball, squash and table-tennis have all experimented with scoring changes to make the game more appealing, so it’s worth trying. There will be objections to it, but I suspect these objections will mostly be a case of status-quo bias.

Finally, all the above is even before you take into account other important premises that ought to be included in any argument about men’s tennis and women’s tennis: the biological advantage that men have, and the barriers of sexism that women face and men don’t: implicit bias, explicit bias, objectification, sexualisation, infantilisation, body shaming, and policing of “femininity”. So taking all this into account, I conclude that we ought to value men’s tennis and women’s tennis equally, and also that the tennis authorities should look into changing the scoring system to make the game more appealing.

PS: any errors you find in the spreadsheet are honest mistakes; please point them out if you find any. I got tired of validating the data and the formulas and was seeing stars by the end of it, so I’m just going to go ahead and publish this post now.



Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave

In the wake of the Tejpal rape case, some articles and comments in Indian media have propagated certain myths about how “true” rape victims “should” behave. These myths echo depictions of rape in cinema and television, and go something like this:

  • rape victims always fight back against their attackers;
  • rape victims always scream “rape” and display hysterical distress after the assault;
  • rape victims always give complete and consistent testimony to the police after the assault.

When one looks at the scientific research on victim responses to sexual assault however, it becomes clear that the expectations that all rape victims “should” behave this way are unfounded. So let’s take a look at the research.

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

The first resource to see, is this seminar from the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), titled “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault”. The NIJ is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice – it improves knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. The seminar is part of a series of seminars on translational criminology, which attempts to guide and improve criminal justice through scientific research. The speaker is Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who has conducted research on rape for the past twenty years – in particular on medical, legal and mental systems’ responses to rape. The seminar is an hour and a half long (and includes a lengthy Q&A with law enforcement and legal professionals); you can view all the slides along with the audio at the link above, and you can also read the entire written transcript here.

Here are the key research findings she shares during the talk, which are relevant to the above myths. She describes the neurobiology of sexual assault: the hormonal and emotional effects of the assault on the brain. Various hormones come into effect in the victim of a sexual assault – the catecholamines (one of which is adrenaline), cortisol (the “stress hormone”), endogenous opioids (like endorphins), and oxytocin. These hormones affect two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which modulates events that are important for the organism’s survival, and the hippocampus, which processes memory. The consequences of this on the victim are:

1) Tonic Immobility, also known as rape-induced paralysis. This is a muscular paralysis experienced by the victim during the assault, and explains why some victims do not fight back. As Dr. Campbell says, (emphasis mine):

The catecholamines are often going to be at very, very high levels during the assault. We talked about how these hormones are very helpful for the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, we’ve also hinted at a little bit that those hormones may not be the best things in terms of memory. The other thing that these hormones are not the greatest at is that they impair the circuits in our brain that control rational thought. So the parts of our prefrontal cortex that allow us to do “IF this THEN that” — that’s rational thought in simple terms — those circuits literally do not work at their optimal levels when catecholamine levels are high. So a victim under sort of normal levels of catecholamine — meaning not being victimized — might be able to look at a situation and say, “Oh, well of course the rational, logical thing for me to do is this.”

The victim literally can’t think like that during the assault. The catecholamines have caused structural cellular damage to those circuits. It’s not permanent; it’s temporary. But at the same time, they can’t do that “IF this THEN that” thought. So when they’re in the middle of the assault, strategies like “Oh, you coulda, you shoulda, you would have done this” — they can’t even think of the options, let alone execute them. So again, kind of a tragic situation where our body is working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, it can help here, and on the other hand it’s not going to help the rational thought mechanisms.

[...] And then finally, for some victims, it’s the corticosteroids that have dumped out at very high levels and actually reduces the energy available to the body. Now, I’ve been talking so far about fight-or-flight. It’s actually fight, flight, or freeze — that for some victims, they don’t fight back. They don’t flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the HPA axis. And it can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body. And the technical name for this is tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.” It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. [...] Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

[...] Because they had this reaction, they’re afraid of how it’s going to be perceived by others, so they’re very reluctant to seek help. And when they do come help, it’s always there in the back of their mind. They are dreading that question “What did you do?” Because their answer is one that they don’t think anybody’s going to understand and quite frankly they don’t understand, because their answer is “I did nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I just laid there.” When people disclose tonic immobility, when victims disclose it, family, friends and service providers often react very negatively to this. You got the, “Well you must have wanted it, because you just laid there. You coulda, woulda [skips] something.” They can’t. Remember, it’s an autonomic mammalian response wired into our brains to protect the survival of the organism. So it can be helpful to try to explain tonic immobility and normalize this. Fight, flight, or freeze.

2) The victims’ emotional response after the assault is not always “hysterical” and “upset”:

Opiates released in very, very high levels during sexual assault, again blocking the physical pain, the emotional pain. But morphine — if any of you have had major surgery — morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties. It’s out. It blocks the pain. So the affect that a victim might be communicating during the assault and afterward may be very flat, incredibly monotone — like seeing no emotional reaction, which again sometimes can seem counterintuitive to both the victim and other people. It’s like “This was a horrible traumatic event. Why aren’t you showing these kinds of emotions?” Opiate morphine is not letting it come through. It has been blunted.

[...] These neurobiological changes can lead to very flat affect, that sort of bluntness or what appears to them to be strange emotions, or huge emotional swings that over the course of the interview you can see them high, you can see them low, you can see them somewhere in between. And you can see that all unfold in a span of about 90 seconds or less. And then the cycle will repeat.

So the behavior that they see is due to a hormonal soup. Remember how we talked about how those hormones can sometimes even be working at cross-purposes. Which hormones are released at which levels? We don’t know yet. We don’t have data on that, but we know that there’s a lot — that those are the four main ones that are being released and that they can kind of put the body at cross-purposes. So what is often interpreted as a victim being cavalier because she’s just sitting there or interpreted as lying because she seems so cavalier and not upset about it, is very likely attributable to the opiate levels in her body, because those will be released at the time of the assault and they can stay very elevated for 96 hours post assault. So the key thing that practitioners need to know is that there is, in fact, a wide reaction of emotional reactions to sexual assault, and it can be helpful to normalize those reactions for victims, because they don’t understand why they’re behaving that way either.

3) Memory consolidation and recall is difficult for victims. The encoding and consolidation of a sexual assault into memory happens in a fragmented way. There might be several gaps in memory too, particularly if the victim was assaulted while under the influence of alcohol.

That’s why memory can be slow and difficult — because the encoding and the consolidation went down in a fragmented way. It went down on little tiny post-it notes and they were put in all different places in the mind. And you have to sort through all of it, and it’s not well-organized, because remember I told you to put some of them in folders that had nothing to do with this. I told you to put one in the pencil jar. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. It takes a while to find all the pieces and put them together. So that’s why victims, when they’re trying to talk about this assault, it comes out slow and difficult.

But the question everybody wants to know about is the accuracy of that information, okay. And what we know from the research is that the laying down of that memory is accurate and the recall of it is accurate. So what gets written on the post-it notes — accurate. The storage of it is disorganized and fragmented.

However, there is an exception — alcohol. If the victim was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, the encoding process might not have happened at all or in any degree of accuracy. I think in a group of this size all 21 and over, we can appreciate that alcohol impairs encoding across the board — not just for traumatic events, for a lot of events. So if you have a traumatic event that occurred under the context of alcohol, the information might not have been encoded, and it may not be consolidated, and it may not be transferred into long-term memory. So for victims who are assaulted under the influence of alcohol, they may not have anything to retrieve. So to speak, their post-it notes are just blank. They may not have it, okay? But for those who are able to remember it, either in pieces and parts, it does go in accurately, it does come out accurately, but it comes out slow, steady, fragmented and disorganized.

[...] How are law enforcement and prosecutors trained to handle something that looks fragmented and sketchy? They’re trained to believe that that is something that is not truthful, and their job is to hone in on it and look at it from multiple points of views and keep cycling back on it to try to ferret out what is true and what is false. And again, they interpret this victim’s behavior as evasiveness or lying. And again, what it really is, most often, is that the victim is having difficulty accessing the memories. Again, the content of the memory the research tell us very clearly is accurate. It’s just going to take some time and patience for it to come together.

Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive?

Here’s a second resource on the subject: the publication Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive? by the U.S. National District Attorneys Association. Again it examines responses to sexual victimisation, and how these responses appear “counterintuitive” to the general public. The authors are careful to explain what they mean by that term:

The term “counterintuitive” is used to explain how a juror may perceive a victim’s behavior and not the behavior itself. For local and state prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases, it is important to remember that labeling these certain victim behaviors for members of a jury as “counterintuitive” reinforces the notion that there is an appropriate or “normal” way to behave after a sexual assault and that anything outside the realm of a presupposed reaction is somehow inappropriate or abnormal.

The authors go on to present research on (1) how victims cope with sexual victimisation, (2) the variability in victim responses, and (3) rape myth acceptance.

The need of the day is for us to educate ourselves and others about these myths. As Campbell points out, the widespread ignorance about these issues is partly responsible for the secondary victimisation of rape survivors. The police and prosecutors themselves have misconceptions about victim behaviour, which leads them to not believe the victims’ story. In fact, many rape survivors themselves are not aware of these facts, and as a result end up feeling guilty or blaming themselves. Here’s Campbell again, quoting one of many emails she receives from rape survivors:

“I cannot believe I am reading this article. After years of blaming myself, questioning myself, feeling tormented, I now understand why I froze every time I was assaulted. It now has a name. I don’t have to wonder why or what’s wrong with me or why didn’t I do anything. I can’t tell you how much relief this article brings me. You must know how much your website and your work helps those of us who have suffered in silent torment and agony. You give us a voice. You give us compassion. You give us strength and hope. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel.”

How Rapists Manipulate Their Victims

(Content note: contains numerous quotes from rapists, taken from Project Unbreakable.)

I’ve been following Project Unbreakable (tumblr, facebook) for almost two years now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an American initiative started in 2011 by then nineteen year old Grace Brown, which photographs sexual assault survivors holding posters with quotes from their attackers. There are over two thousand images to date. Every post is like a hammer blow. The posts that chill me the most are the ones where the pattern of manipulation becomes apparent – i.e., the way the attackers manipulate their victims. They do this before the assault, after the assault and even during the assault. Accounts like these corroborate the research which shows that rapists are not “accidental”, there is no “misunderstanding” (see these two links for more). They know what they are doing – they just want to get away with it, and they don’t want society to consider them rapists.

Over time I started bookmarking these posts, because seen together one can clearly see the pattern. So here they are, about fifty of them. I’ve copied out the quotes from the rapists (and some comments from the victims), and the quotes link directly to the photographs, or in some cases to the facebook post:

“Just the tip.” “It is your fault because you make me so hard.” “I’m sorry for what you think I did.” A year and a half later: “I’m sorry for any hurt I caused you.”

“No, stop, this will make it feel better.” (He is married now with a daughter.)

“You’re FINE. You’re FINE.”

“Shhh, just lay back. You can’t say ‘no’ now.”

“You scared me… I thought I did something wrong.” (You did.)

“I know you were uncomfortable.” (Then why did you keep going??)

“Shh.. sweetie… it’ll be over soon.” - My first attacker, while 4 others encircled the bed, waiting for their chance.

“Don’t regret it in the morning.”

“I’m just trying to show you how much I love you.”

“You never said anything.”

“Things like this just happen, and we should just forgive and move on and learn from it, I don’t know why you’re so unwilling to do that… you make me sound like a monster.” (2 days after)

“Stop playing hard to get.”

“If I do that again I want you to slap me as hard as you can, okay?”

“I would have been fine without anything happening but it did. Now somehow, it’s my fault for treating you the way you presented yourself?”

“If you really loved me, you’d do it, regardless.”

“I can’t help it/Don’t you know that I love you?/Why won’t you show me that you love me?/If you loved me, you’d let me.”

“I love you. I know it’s early, but I know I’ll marry you.” “I want to fuck you so bad.” “Oh god – I’m suck a fucking asshole – I won’t do it again.” “How does that feel against your pussy?” “I’m a monster.” “You’re so wet.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” “I just masturbated in your bed, I had to release – you just turn me on so much.” “BUT I LOVE YOU!!” “You should masturbate – you don’t know your body at all.” “I just want to please you because I love you so much.”

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t.” (He lied)

“Don’t exaggerate. It can’t hurt that much.”

“Is this okay?” (No.) “Do you like this?” (No.) “You’re lying.”

“Stop whining, you’re acting like I raped you.”

“Why are you crying? You know you want this.”

“Just relax, trust me.”

“It’s your own fault. If you didn’t want it, you should have said something.”

“You’re not going to, like, call the cops or anything right?”

“I did it because I love you.”

“It’s already happened now you might as well let me finish.”

“You said no too quietly, it was basically a yes.”

“You wanted it too.”

He heard me say “No!” but he said “You didn’t sound certain.”

“We’re cool, right?”

“You can’t stop me now.”

*laughs* “I’m just playing with you… stop moving away from me.”

“This is what you wanted.” “Stop moving, it will hurt less.” (Afterward) “Don’t you dare tell anyone I raped you.”

“I thought you were just teasing when you said no.” (I repeatedly said no and struggled.)

“‘NO’?! Come on… just relax and stop fighting! I know you want it.”

“It’s not rape because we are married.” “If you love me you’ll let me do it to you.”

“You still bitter about a simple misunderstanding?”

“You’re a champ.”

“I don’t want you to think that I took advantage of you.”

“Don’t you love me? Don’t you trust me?” / “I can’t believe you’re gonna be MAD about this.”

“It hurt even for me.”

“It’s OK. You’ll like it.”

“It was just a joke.”

“Relax… it’s all just part of a joke. Others do too. You have nothing to worry about.”

“It must have been the alcohol, I didn’t even realise what I was doing.”

“Just do it, you’ll like it.” / “It’s okay, it will feel good.”

“Please come back on the couch. It’s OK.”

“I love you…” “We’re married in god’s eyes now…” “Stop crying…” “It won’t hurt if you relax.” “You have no idea how good this feels.” “Just let me do it.”

“I’m sorry about last night… I hope we can still be friends.”

“You can’t do that. Don’t worry I’m almost done.” (after I asked him to stop)

“Was that good for you?”

“It’s okay.”

“Shh… it’s fine.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m a bad guy.”

“You said ‘yes’ already, you can’t change your mind.” / “Don’t you trust me?”

“Just try to forget.”

“Hold still, you’re safe.”

“Don’t worry, we can wait until you’re ready.” (and so I let my guard down)

“You know I would never do anything that would deliberately cause you distress or harm.”

“Shhh, it’s okay.”

“Just trust me?”

“Don’t cry, you’re going to make me feel bad.”

“Please, just once.”

“It’s a good kind of hurt.” / “I’ll stop eventually.” / “You never said no or stop.”

“I’m your boyfriend, it’s not a big deal.”




How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? Take the Survey

One aspect of the recent Devyani Khobragade controversy has been the treatment of domestic workers, particularly how much (or how little) we pay them. We’ve decided to do an online survey to get an idea of how much domestic workers in India are paid, and for what kind of work. It’s a short survey, consisting of just 10 simple questions. It will only take 5 minutes of your time, so if you employ a domestic worker in India, please do take it – and please spread this link around too. We’ll publish the results on the main Nirmukta site in due course. Thank you! (UPDATE Jan 2 2014: The results of the survey have been published here.)

Click Here to Take the Survey

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.

A female domestic worker sitting on the floor and washing kitchen utensils.
(Image via The Hindu; links to source.)


It’s Domestic Work, Not Domestic “Help”

The Indian media is abuzz with the Devyani Khobragade controversy these days – she’s the Indian Deputy Consul General in New York, who was arrested recently by US authorities. One of the issues it raises is the rights of domestic workers, since one of the things she is charged with is having paid her Indian domestic worker, Sangeeta Richard, far below US minimum wage.

And as usual, we’re seeing domestic work referred to as domestic “help”. Today’s front page in The Hindu (Bangalore edition) used the phrase domestic worker once, domestic employee once, and domestic help three times.

It’s not help. It’s work.

About a year ago, I attended a panel discussion in which one of the participants was Donna Fernandes, founder of the women’s rights organisation Vimochana. One of the things she had been campaigning for was domestic workers’ rights, and she made a point which stuck with me: she said it was a constant battle to get lawmakers and powers-that-be to see domestic work as work and to make them drop the conceptualisation of it as “help” or “assistance”. She said that the reason is patriarchal: domestic work is seen as something that is a woman’s “duty”, something that she does for free over and on top of any work she does outside the home. The wife is simply expected to do it; and so the domestic worker’s work is devalued too, it’s seen as simply helping along the house owner’s wifely duties.

The consequences of this are truly horrible. Here’s a sample:

Domestic workers – where would you be without them?

Said Premamma (45), who has been working as a domestic help for 10 years: “Over the years we have learnt to ask for a salary dependant on how big the house is or the amount of work we do. While people from other professions are paid for the number of hours they put in or the quantum of work they do, we still have not evolved a mechanism to fix salaries.” Another domestic worker, Sarojamma (30) who lives in Kamakshipalya, said her repeated requests for a salary hike had been rebuffed. “I have been working in one house for nine years. My initial salary was Rs. 200, which is now Rs. 800. Initially I would only wash clothes. Now they make me clean the house and utensils as well.”

Child domestic workers suffer from statistical invisibility, says ILO:

The world over, around 15 million children work as paid or unpaid domestic workers, of which at least 10.5 million are below the legal minimum age, according to an International Labour Organization (ILO) report titled Ending Child Labour in Domestic Work, released on the occasion of World Day Against Child Labour. These children work under conditions either hazardous or “tantamount to slavery” says the report. Not surprisingly, in these slavery-like conditions where physical, mental and sexual abuse is rampant — the report establishes through individual case studies from across the world — girls far outnumber boys. In fact, 71.3 per cent of children employed between the ages of five and 17 in domestic work are girls (2008 statistics).

The invisible workers:

In 2011, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Domestic Workers Convention. India supports the Convention but is yet to ratify it. One big reason for the absence of a targeted law, say activists, is that the law-makers — the babus in Delhi and elsewhere — are themselves employers and a law protecting the rights of domestic workers could be antagonistic to their interests.Belonging to the unorganised sector means that in case of a dispute with the employer, the worker cannot go to a labour court, as she is not technically recognised as a ‘worker’. “All laws since Independence are formulated for the organised sector, which is hardly 5 per cent in this country,” says Subhash Bhatnagar of Nirmala Niketan, which organises domestic workers.

I didn’t know that last bit – that the ILO had a Domestic Workers Convention and that India had not ratified it. India is by no means alone in that: there are many countries which haven’t ratified it, including the US and the UK. In fact, only ten countries have ratified this convention.

We’re putting together a short online survey, titled How Much Do YOU Pay Your Domestic Worker? As the title suggests, the aim is to get a sense of how much Indians – Nirmukta members in particular – pay their domestic workers. I’m guessing that as we fill up the survey, we’ll suffer the dawning realisation: that isn’t enough. Watch this space, we’ll publicise the survey once it’s ready.




Arguments From Analogy in Victim Blaming

[important]“Analysing Arguments” is an ongoing series which analyses arguments found in daily life. Some good background material for this is Coursera’s enormously popular course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, and the book Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. You might also find the primer How to Argue Online useful. Other installments of the series are listed in the analysing arguments tag here and also on[/important]


This post analyses various arguments from analogy (“AFAs”) used in victim blaming. It also talks about victim blaming in general – what we mean by blame and responsibility, and the psychological causes of victim blaming. Finally, it argues that victim blaming is wrong in general. If you’re already well-versed in debunking the AFAs, you might want to read only the section on Moral Responsibility, and then skip to the last two sections at the end. If you are interested in the AFAs, please read How to Analyse Arguments From Analogy first, so that you’re familiar with the structure of AFAs and how to evaluate their strength.


The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA
Moral Responsibility
The Lollipop/Lollipop Owner
The Bear Attack Victim
The Careless Pedestrian/Helmetless Biker
The Job Interviewee
The Laptop/Car/Home Owner
The Late Night Walker and the Football Fan
The Psychology of Victim Blaming
Why Victim Blaming is Wrong

The Components of a Victim-Blaming AFA

To recap from the first post, an AFA has the following form:

1. Object A has property P (and possibly Q, R…).

2. Object B also has property P (and Q, R…).

3. Object B has property X.


4. Object A also has property X. (From 1-3.)

A victim blaming AFA has the following components. This is something I settled on after thinking about it for ages – there are variations of it which could work, but I think this is the best version:

A = a person who suffers harm

B = another person who suffers harm

P, Q, R etc. = (severity and circumstances of harm)

X = is (or ought to be) blamed/punished.

So a victim blaming AFA essentially says: we blame/punish this victim in this case of harm, therefore we should also blame/punish that victim in that case of harm. Before we get to some examples, I want to talk a bit about the property X above – i.e., why it says blamed and punished - and hence why this called victim blaming in the first place.

[Read more...]

In Defence of Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross)

A white woman from the University of Chicago recently published an account of her unfortunate encounters in India. She was sexually harassed and assaulted on several occasions. The story received widespread attention, and Rose Chasm had many sympathizers, but as all cases of sexual assault stories go, she also had to face severe negative backlash.

One might say that is to be expected, seeing as how sexual assault victims haven’t exactly had the kindest audience. However, what was surprising about the Rose Chasm case was that she faced severe backlash from women, who know perfectly well what it’s like to be at the receiving end of such abuse.

Let me start with this article written by Polly Hwang which says “People who generalize are evil”, thereby making… a generalization. In her article, she says:

Not to chastise Rose Chasm in anyway but she should not have been dancing in the Ganesha street festival known for its hordes of extremely drunk young men. She should not have stayed in cheap shady hostels in Goa which I’m sure had no positive online reviews. She should not be flipping fingers at locals and most importantly, she should have left after her first incident of sexual harassment, instead of staying for over 90 days and developing PTSD. I’m not victim shaming in any way, the pigs who tormented Rose Chasm take 100% of the blame. However as foreigners, it’s our responsibility to be aware of how to behave and live in the local culture.

That’s a whole bunch of “She should not have…” statements followed by a cautionary “I’m not victim shaming.” Did the definition of victim shaming change while I slept in a cryogenic chamber for about one thousand years? I don’t understand how telling someone what they shouldn’t have done, and including a clause about leaving a place after experiencing one instance of sexual assault so as to not “develop PTSD” is not textbook victim blaming. I live in India, I’m a victim of sexual assault and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t appreciate this “advice”. It is patronising, misleading, and misogynistic. There is nothing victims can do to “prevent” sexual assault. If Rose had stayed in a not-shady hotel instead of a “shady” one, there would be no telling if she would be safe. Out of the 244,270 reported sexual assault cases in 2012 in India, 98% pointed to trusted friends, family or acquaintances as the perpetrators of the crime. That’s a staggering statistic. So, what should Rose have done? Should she have never visited India? On one hand, Polly’s article makes the case against generalizing Indian men, and says:

By implying that every man she met in India is a pervert and by not giving any examples of good decent Indian men, she is indirectly stereotyping Indian men in a very harmful way.

And then she implies that Rose should not have stuck around. Great, then we could all gang up on her again and say she generalised from one bad experience and decided to not stay. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Should she have been clairvoyant and known she’d get PTSD? Also, why should anyone suffering from that wretched trauma-inducing medical nightmare have to go out of her way to make commendable statements about Indian men? It makes no sense. If I were suffering from PTSD, while writing about my experiences and battling my trigger-prone brain and depression, the last thing on my mind would be appending a statutory line about the goodness of the hearts of the scores of Indian men who really are nice people. It is not Rose’s responsibility to include a clause so as to not save all the men in my country from coming under bad light.

Polly wasn’t the only one. Here’s another such seemingly empathetic post from another woman called Dilshad Master. Dilshad says:

Getting out alone, on foot, would be equivalent to…well let’s say, you and your friends dancing at the Ganesh Chathurthi festival on the streets of Pune. What in the world were you thinking? Oh, hang on, you weren’t thinking.

Life pro-tip:  To express your sympathy/empathy for someone who was tortured in your home country, do not adopt a sarcastic tone that is condescending towards the victim.

She then goes on to say:

I’m not quite sure which “lovely hotel in Goa” you stayed in. Did anyone recommend it to you on Trip Advisor or perhaps your friends on Facebook? Did you actually go through the comments on either or did you click on reservation, letting price and availability be your only guide? You see, we wouldn’t do that In India, not anywhere in the world. And if we did (like I did in Chicago), then we’d do it fully aware of the consequences.

More condescension and perfect 20/20 hindsight introspection for a sexual assault victim. This poster really is asking if Rose took enough precautions, implying that if she didn’t, she should have and that it would have made her life easier.

Then there was another article published on the same iReport section of CNN as a response to Rose Chasm, written by “twoseat”. In it, she says:

I want to address the consequences that arise from writing that lends itself to careless generalizations. The problem that this article has is that it ends up blaming an entire population for the actions of some.

The problem that ^that article has is that the article it references, does not, in fact, blame an entire population for the actions of some. Rose Chasm never insinuated or stressed that Indian men are all horrible, raging beasts. She only recounted her painful experiences and yet, twoseat thinks it is Rose’s responsibility to “articulate both sides”.

And then there have been those countless posts that are quick to point out that sexual assault also happens in the USA. Just read the comments section on any of the aforementioned articles. How is it okay for people to think Rose Chasm was playing the blame game here? She did not intend to demonise India, so why are people asking her to reflect upon the problems within her own country? Does the fact that there’s sexual assault in the USA negate Indian problems? Does it make people feel any better to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who rape and plunder!”? I can’t think of any other reason than derailment.

Although all these articles were written in good faith, they are perfect examples of how good faith can pave the road to hell. A sexual assault victim should not have to listen to multivarious accounts of what she should or should not have done. She shouldn’t have to listen to “advice” masked as apologia. She shouldn’t have to be told that she wasn’t prepared “enough”. She shouldn’t have to be coerced into acknowledging all the kindness and beauty in the world when she is trying to recuperate from acute trauma.

In a lot of ways, articles from these women are reminiscent of some statements made by Indian “leaders” that essentially place the onus of safety onto victims. Statements that dissect every action of the victim in hindsight and provide no comfort except obligatory platitudes.

Candle-light marches, prayers, and aggression don’t mean anything if we aren’t willing to admit that India has a problem (which is also prevalent in the rest of the world, no doubt, but that’s hardly the point) which can only be solved by a conscious, collective effort not make the women more liable in “preventing” something that really isn’t in their control. This is a nation where one rape is reported every 20 minutes, and that’s not counting the unreported cases, and other forms of sexual assault.

Considering the fact that science has actually associated demure behaviour to be what most sexual assault perpetrators look for in a victim, we should question whether we’re putting women at significant risk by advocating modest clothing and submissive behaviour. We should acknowledge that by contributing to an already enormous narrative of teaching women to not “get raped” rather than teaching men (and in some cases, women) to not rape, we’re tip-toeing on a dangerously thin rope. We’re promoting rape culture that makes rapists feel at home, while making the victims feel guilty. We’re completely neglecting a victim’s state of mind while we chide her choices without understanding the “neurobiology of sexual assault” (here’s a transcript of that video) and how “secondary victimization” can further a person’s trauma.

We owe it to our sisters to educate ourselves about a persistent, ugly social evil and really empathize with their struggles.

TL;DR: Do not blame the victim. Be brilliant like these men in Bangalore who wore skirts in solidarity for women, thereby making a bold statement about clothing (or anything else) never being an “invitation” for sexual assault.

Is Being a Hindu Nationalist Important for Women Too?

A national political party puts up “I am a Hindu nationalist” posters across the city of Mumbai. I see complacency in the privileged Hindu men and women.  The men are not ruffled as they benefit from patriarchy and the women conditioned to exist within the construct.

I ponder over what this emphasis on religion as the primary identity marker by political parties, yes parties as almost all of them make cynical use of religious issues, means for Indian women. Will it hinder the movement towards women being regarded as individual citizens by the state? Secular women and men want civil laws for marriage, inheritance, guardianship.

While the culturally Hindu women accept obscure rituals like “kanyadaan” in traditional marriage ceremonies as part of their religion, they should take a moment to reflect that despite opposition from orthodoxy, religious personal laws like women not having the right to choose who to marry had been abolished. In fact, until Section 6 regarding guardianship was repealed in 1978 by the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Act, the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, persons entitled to consent included amongst others even the girl/woman’s ‘brother by full blood; the brother by half blood; etc.’. Laws are amended by progressive thought, but the insidious nature of culture is such that notions of family honour are linked to masculine identities and women still bear the burden of maintaining this. It’s not just the family and extended family that tries to control women, but the caste group to which they belong to from the Hindu community as well.  In northern parts of India, there are the barbaric diktats of the Khap panchayats and ‘honour killings’ and in southern Tamil Nadu, there are educated Hindu men lobbying against inter-caste marriages and this in the only Indian State that legally recognizes “self-respect” marriages.

Hindu nationalism is just patriarchy in disguise duping women to take pride in a culture that harms their interests.  We see it in its extreme form in militant hindutva organizations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) that launched the Ayodhya temple agitation, and trains young persons in and for protecting Hindu culture. Its youth wing for women, the Durga Vahini (DV) (Durga – legend of a warrior goddess) founded by Sadhvi Rithambara, enrolls young girls from ages 15 to 35. The DV says it instills Hindu sanskaars in young women:

A peek into one of DV’s training sessions gives a glimpse of how teenagers are being taught that women are the weaker sex, education and a career are not important and they should be married by age 18. They’re being coached to fit into the Hindu patriarchal construct of a heterosexual family. The DV inculcates and promotes a regressive society wherein a young woman’s growth is stymied, she will be denied the opportunity and the right to think or choose her lifestyle, and be dependant on the men in her life.

As if that was not bad enough, it goes on to give them a false sense of empowerment of being battle-ready to take on irrelevant issues:

I watch with shock and anguish as a young trainee from the DV camp says she is willing to kill anyone for her religion.  She’s being brainwashed to hate, enrolled by her father, too young to realize that she’s being used as a foot soldier for religious fundamentalism.  She is a victim.

The dichotomy between Hindu women being expected to be docile and obedient within their families and the aggression of the right-wing women leaders and activists is exemplified in the political party Shiv Sena (SS). The Shiv Sena Mahila Aghadi, the women’s front was the cultural wing of the SS.  During the 1992-93 riots these women had actively encouraged men from their families to take part in the violence by castigating them for not being ‘man enough’, implying and reinforcing the stereotype that women are weak and cowardly. The personal gains that might accrue made the SS women insensitive to the ‘other’ women brutalized in riots. (References: Shiv Sena Women: Violence and Communalism in a Bombay Slum by Atreyee Sen, and Empowering Women? Feminist Responses to Hindutva by Elen Turner.)

Not only do the SS women not acknowledge the rights and choices of other women who want to be liberated, they go on to actively oppose and harass whom they see as ‘westernized women’. Women corporators of the Shiv Sena (SS) have been known to physically assault women political rivals in the civic house, BMC.

Why did these women become collaborators and perpetrators of misogyny? They had to learn to behave just like the SS men do, to fit in. They can go ‘thus far, and no further’.  These women have been co-opted into the very masculine Hindu nationalist fold that seeks to preserve the gender hierarchies and caste hierarchies inherent in Hindu patriarchy.  Violence against women from other religious communities and castes is brushed off as collateral damage.  When women of less dominant communities become targets just by belonging to the “other” and the state does very little to protect them, what choice do they have except to retreat within their own communities and bear the gender inequalities very much existent there too.