Women’s Day – It comes and it goes

We celebrate all kinds of special Days in today’s time – Children’s Day, Labour Day, International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day. The reason behind commemorating these entities is that our children, the disabled, the workers, our parents don’t receive sufficient respect throughout the rest of the year and that we must mark an occasion to emphasize the importance of these roles in human society. The International Women’s Day is one such occasion. A woman, much like children, disabled individuals, a person belonging to the working class is a vulnerable object. And that, probably, is why civil society has granted a day in the year for compassion towards womenfolk.

I remember, nearly thirty years ago, when I’d demanded the ‘freedom of the uterus’, this particular expression had shaken up the bulwarks of patriarchy to not a slim degree. Thousands of religious fanatics had thronged the streets waiting to tear Taslima apart. Well, at least they weren’t the educated elite. And what were the respectable educated men doing then? Were they singing my praises – no, not! They were sitting in their comfortable apartments with their friends and discussing how best to get rid of me. While the fanatics were deliberating on my beheading out in the open, the genteel men plotted the same in the privacy of their drawing rooms. On the other hand, at every turn, I was expected to justify exactly what I’d meant by the ‘freedom of the uterus’. I would politely explain, whether a woman wishes to have children or not is her decision, at what age to have them and how many, that, too is her choice; whose semen to let enter her and who’s not to, this decision also rests entirely with her. My explanation had incensed many at the time. The elite, the unschooled, the literate, the illiterate, all kinds of men had turned anti-Taslima, for every single one of them believed that a woman’s body,every part of her body, indeed her entire physical existence were owned by men and men only. A woman has no say over the matter of her own body, she doesn’t deserve a say, and if she does hold an opinion, then she must be a ‘whore’. And a ‘whore’ I was called in Bangladesh, although at the time I’d been working as a medical doctor at a Medical College Hospital and was already a reputed writer.

The word ‘whore’ is one that’s hurled at women by all sorts of men in order to frighten her, to make her cower and crawl back into a grotto-like a fragile earthworm. Women who have been deceived by fate, cast off for some reason or another, stricken by poverty, sickness or ill-fortune are gathered by patriarchy and turned into sex slaves for the sexual satisfaction of men. It is such a woman that men call a ‘whore’. As also the woman who has defied all constraints placed upon her by dint of her gender, has refused the trammels of sex-slavery, has gone out and educated herself, made herself independent, not needing or seeking out male validation, ` is possible that many women have consented to the hijab simply to avoid being branded a ‘whore’ or safeguard themselves from getting raped. But can the hijab really protect anyone? Men force women to become whores for their own interests, and men also use the word whore to humiliate women whom they do not like. For many years now, I’ve been telling the women I meet not to kowtow before this abuse, not to be frightened when she’s called a whore, not to relent but continue undaunted on their own paths in life.

Does the story of my life not demonstrate with perfect clarity how terribly misogynistic Bengali society is the way it stands today? Must I spell it out for myself every year that – despite never having killed or violated anyone, looted, cheated or deceived anyone – the crime that got me banished from my own land was writing a novel about the liberation of women in society. I’ve been banished for having the gall to claim that an empowered woman doesn’t pay heed to the barbaric rituals and customs that constrain her, that she has no respect for them. If we belonged in a truly just and equal society, I wouldn’t be living in exile like this. It is only autocratic societies that banish their writers and stifle voices of dissent among its people.

Bangladesh celebrates International Women’s Day with pomp and fanfare. It’s their attempt to convince the world that they are indeed a civilized nation. Possibly also to tell the world that if a woman can be Prime Minister of the country, women here are allowed to inhabit other positions of power as well. So that the rest of the world may believe that women are accorded equal rights as men in the country and allowed to exist freely in the spaces they inhabit, that women are allowed education and healthcare to lead a life as qualitatively rich as a man’s. That a woman may be allowed to hold her own moral, ethical and political beliefs, stand for elections, assume leading roles in a system not rigged against her. Who is to contest these egalitarian claims? After decades of struggle against discrimination, who is to say whether a woman may really have all this without borrowing from the power and privilege of her eminent father, or a well-known husband, or her famed male sibling? Tell us, how many ordinary women have been allowed the privilege to continue her education, have not been married off forcefully by her family to serve as an unpaid maid at husband’s household, have been allowed to make decisions that freely affect her own life? Tell us, how many women in the country can honestly claim to have full sovereignty over the terrains of their own bodies, claim they may choose to or reject the idea of having children of their own? What clothes a woman will wear, which places she travels to, where she spends her money, how far she may be educated, what she will eat, whether she will bear children or not – every single decision forming the trajectory of her life rests with the male members of her family, not with herself! It’s not simply her body that belongs to others, it’s her whole life. A woman is a marionette – she does what she’s ordered to do, she may not defy commands from those above her, and she may never dare display a glitch in her programmed servility! And the woman who wants to go against the grain, be a free person of flesh-and-blood, make her choices, utilize her education to be an autonomous individual in her own right, she is a dangerous element who must immediately be eradicated. Take her life, violate her, shame her, send her away into exile!

The violation and abuse continue. Physical, psychological, in all spheres of a woman’s existence. The act of raping her has little to do with sexuality. It is to establish his dominance over her, to exert his will through brute force, compelling her forced submission to the misogyny that enslaves her through fear. Every year, the International Women’s Day comes and subsequently, passes. Beginning right from the old woman to the young girl, nobody’s lot improves. What use is such a Day then? If misogyny still gets free reign for perpetuating infinite brutality, if patriarchy still thrives with equal strength and force as it did before, what’s the point of having this blasted Day marked as special on our calendars?
So, here is my poem for Women’s Day:

They said—take it easy…
Said—calm down…
Said—stop talkin’…
Said—shut up….
They said—sit down….
Said—bow your head…
Said—keep on cryin’, let the tears roll…

What should you do in response?

You should stand up now
Should stand right up
Hold your back straight
Hold your head high…
You should speak
Speak your mind
Speak it loudly
Scream!

You should scream so loud that they must run for cover.
They will say—’You are shameless!’
When you hear that, just laugh…

They will say— ‘You have a loose character!’
When you hear that, just laugh louder…

They will say—’You are rotten!’
So just laugh, laugh even louder…

Hearing you laugh, they will shout,
‘You are a whore!’

When they say that,
just put your hands on your hips,
stand firm and say,
‘Yes, yes, I am a whore!’

They will be shocked.
They will stare in disbelief.
They will wait for you to say more, much more…

The men amongst them will turn red and sweat.
The women amongst them will dream to be a whore like you.
***

Hope that efforts to remove women fails

Women have to fight every day, at home and outdoors. Women cannot even survive without fighting. When the environment is anti-woman, with patriarchy in control, women are on the battlefield right from birth. Men too fight to survive, but women have to fight twice as much. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat stated: “In this country, the battlefield is still not for women. Women have many problems in getting into combat situations, beginning with maternity leaves. Furthermore, Jawans are not yet quite ready to accept women as commanding officers in battlefields.”

The General wants to say that the battlefield is for men only, not for women; women need maternity leave and for that reason, it is appropriate that they are not commanding officers in a battlefield. People do need holidays during illnesses, no one has any problem with that. But not accepting women for important jobs with the excuse that they need maternity leaves is not new. Maternity leaves are long; when the leader of a unit goes on that vacation, another would be assigned to lead that unit. Introducing this provision in the army is not particularly difficult. The problem mentioned is not impossible to solve. Besides, nowadays women do not give birth every year but produce one or at the most two children. All countries give maternity leaves as a rule. In many countries, not only the mother, but arrangements have been made for both parents to get such leaves. In civilized countries, especially in North European countries, if women get to leave for six months, so do men. It has been observed that less educated parents spend their leaves together over the same period, but couples with higher education take their leaves in tandem, one after the other. The father takes his paternal leave after the mother has spent the maternal leave and joins her work. Less educated folks believe that the main responsibility of fostering a child rests on mother, the father takes his leave at the same time as if to merely help the mother in her child-rearing. But the educated believe both parents’ responsibility in rearing the child to be equally important; the responsibility of raising the child is not the mother’s alone but the father too bears equal responsibility. That is why the father’s role is not merely to help the mother raise the child but his responsibility includes raising the child. Research has shown that children, who receive equal attention and care from both parents and even equal rearing-time from both parents, grow up to be healthy and well rounded. Studies have further shown that infant death rates are the lowest in countries where mother and father both take part in fostering the child. Civilized countries believe both parents have equal responsibilities toward their children and hence paternal leaves are as important as the material. The question could then be raised that do men lose their fitness to be commanding officers in battlefields because they enjoy paternal leaves? They do not. By the same token, women do not lose their eligibility as commanding officers in battlefields just because they take maternal leaves. Anyone leaving for vacation can be replaced by another assuming her work. All the women in the army do not get pregnant at the same time. Here the real problem is not with vacation per se but with the gender needing the vacation. Men do not consider persons with female gender as human beings as if their only job is to sit home, produce children and raise them.

General Rawat has further said: “If a female officer dies on the battlefield, and she has children, just imagine the consequences her family would suffer; they would be ruined. Besides if any Jawan peeks in on a lady Officer in battlefield changing clothes that would be even more trouble. Then the female officers would have to register repeated complaints to the authorities. Denying maternity leave on grounds of duty might cause an uproar.”

Death of a female officer at war might indeed ruin the family. But a male officer dying at the battlefield might ruin his family in the same way; is that a reason not to send male officers to war front? I do not see any rationale to stop female officers from going to battle in case some Jawans peep while they are changing clothes. Men and women officers both register complaints to the authorities all the time for various reasons. One hundred and one of these reasons pose no problem, only the complaints about peeping Jawans causes all the problems. If such complaints convert boorish Jawans into civilized humans then it must be a useful one. Peeping by Jawans might also occur while male officers are changing. Even the male officers might feel uncomfortable while some female officers might not feel any discomfort due to Jawans’ peeking. As a matter of fact, feeling discomfort is not necessarily gender-based but depends on the individual. Also, peeping/prying is not the characteristics of all Jawans but of only a few. Isn’t there a system of court-martial for punishing those who commit crimes? Is the system broken?

The Chief of Staff has observed: “A majority of the army jawans come from very far remote villages near the borders. Would the Jawans agree to go into the battle on the orders of a female officer? I wanted to send women into battle, but we had to take all these different issues into consideration.”

Listening to General Bipin Rawat one gets the feeling that Indian forces are not yet fully ready to send women into battlegrounds. There is no objection to women’s presence in the army as Doctor or Engineers. But the time to combat the enemy with weapons in hand, he says, has not come yet. Time does not drop from heaven; one has to usher it in,. Have the women ever said that they do not want to be commanding officers? They have not. The General has said that the Jawans from villages do not take women’s commands seriously. In that case, rather than stopping women from taking command, educating the Jawans seems to be a priority. Jawans have to be taught the lesson that the commanding officer, male or female, has to be obeyed. In the army not willing to obey a direct order from a higher officer results in a court-martial. Disobeying a Female officer’s command should have the same consequence; if not, then there must be some kind of flaw in the application of rules in the army revealing administrative weakness. If the culprit Jawans escape punishment, Jawans are not to blame. The fault lies with that influential, misogynist inauthority who want to achieve their heinous objectives while putting the blame on the Jawans. They want to see women as housewives, not as warriors. They want to see women with children in their laps and cooking pots and utensils in their hands. They do not want to see women as equally competent to men in all fields of work. They want to see women as soft, weak, dependent on others, scared beings. The truth that they can equal men in physical and mental strengths, firmness and sharpness – is not tolerable to such men. It does not stand to reason that just because Jawans have come from villages, they would not change even with a good education. One should not treat them with such contempt just because they are villagers. How many city-boys would willingly accept commands from women? Just because they are unwilling, should we deprive women of the opportunities to work in all fields? Absolutely not. Depriving them would make the misogynists victorious and we would only prove that it is quite easy to displace women from different workplaces. We should instead try to remove the immense hatred and jealousy from the minds of women-hater misogynists. Only then an unequal society could be transformed into one of gender equality and fairness.

At a certain point in time, our society was not willing to let women even be educated and objected to their working outside the home. When women slowly progressed ignoring and disobeying the opponents, even then they were kept under control with restrictions to prevent them from this or that work. If the misogynists’ opinions were valued, women could not be Doctors or engineers even today; they would remain as school teachers or nurses. That is why I say, listening to women-haters would destroy the society – the more you defeat them, the better.

World Hijab Day!

First of February begins the “World Hijab Day”. A campaign for the freedom to wear or not wear any piece of cloth on anybody happens only when the body belongs to women. I have never found men start a movement about wearing a keffiyeh or ghutrah or take to the streets for their rights of not wearing them. When laws were being made in Iran to impose hijab on every woman, hundreds of thousands of women marched down the streets demanding their rights for not wearing them. The theocratic rulers of Iran denied women that right.

Some women want to wear hijab – they wear it. But the problem arises when some women do not want to wear hijab; they are forced to wear it. Just a few months back, quite a few Iranian women stood on a high spot on the sidewalk to make
themselves noticeable to all, took the hijabs off their heads, tied them at the ends of sticks and fluttered them in the air in full public view on the open road in broad daylight without caring for any punishment or retribution. The statement they wanted to make was: Those who wear hijab, let them; but we do not want to wear it, we want the right not to wear the hijab. As hijab is a religious garment and since religion is personal for every individual, it is reasonable to leave hijab up to an individual’s personal choice.

Pressure is created to place hijab, niqab, burqa, abaya, head-scarf etc. on the female body. The state puts pressure, or the family does, the relatives and friends do, so do the neighbours. Majority of Muslim women surrender to these pressures. My personal opinion: let the pressures cease; let women be given the total freedom in wearing their clothes. Many women are willing to wear hijab for religious reasons. Countless men would stand with hijabi women if they were prevented from wearing hijab but a similar crowd would not stand by the women unwilling to wear hijab. Here lies the ultimate discrimination.

The “World Hijab Day” starts not in any Muslim country, rather in a nation of Christian majority, in the USA. The USA does not have any law against hijab, neither is there any social policy to humiliate hijabi women. Muslims even get permissions from the non-Muslim governments for agitations on the streets of Europe and America. For those organizing “World Hijab Day”, the goal is not religion – but politics. When religion turns to politics, all its virtuous qualities are spoiled. It no longer remains limited within the bounds of personal faith. Religion then becomes a tool for occupation, an instrument for winning power, for decimating the rights of others, a weapon for beheading others. Let religion stay as religion, let it not metamorphose into politics. We have seen the undemocratic activities and inhuman achievements of Jamate Islami, Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Boko Haram, The army of God, Eastern Lightning, Bajrang Dal or Shiv Sena already.

It is well known that in Islamic Republics people are forced to wear Islamic attires; women are specially goaded. But it is surprising to see that a similar pressure is maintained even in a People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Pictures of women wearing Salwar-Kameez and headscarf have been published in recent school textbooks with captions: Appropriate Attire for women. It has been said as an explanation that physical developments in female bodies make them stoop while walking – that is why walking with a scarf allows them to walk erect. I am afraid textbooks would soon present the picture of a woman in Burkha with “women’s appropriate attire” written underneath and many arguments in favour of wearing Burkha would be provided.

My question is: why should one feel ashamed of the developmental changes in one’s body? Why is it necessary to cover those up with extra clothes. Everyone knows about these changes in puberty. Boys go through changes in vocal cords- do they hide it with something? Hair grows on boys’ faces and chests – what is used to cover them up? Then why should the menstruation for girls be kept a secret? Why should layers upon layers of clothes be placed over girls’ bosoms – no one should see them; no one should guess that there is something like breasts under the clothes. Actually, the presence of scarves reveals that there is something. Isn’t the reason for women wearing scarves is: men are scoundrels, stare openly at women’s breasts without self-control; they don’t know how to act civilized? Whether we agree or not, it is an insult to men for women to have to wear dupatta or scarves. Barbaric men would pounce upon women not wearing scarves; some would consider pouncing. In reality, those who pounce would do so whether women wear scarves or not; scarves cannot stop them. They need something much larger than scarves to change their mentality – they need proper education to treat women as equal humans, not as sex objects.

So long as women continue to wear scarves, it’d prove that women can’t trust men, that they are uncivilized, barbarians. The solution is for women to stop wearing covers; and for men to stop being barbarians. Men or women neither are ignorant of the fact that breasts are just glands, mere fat, and flesh. Then why is seeing or showing them so troublesome? Maybe the problem is just that it concerns the female body. Men have breasts too and fat gathers on them but men are not asked to cover those – just because they concern male bodies. Anyone would realize that whole issue of wearing or not wearing scarves is there in order to create inequality between men and women.

Women are not given the right to wear clothes of their own choice while no one objects about men’s attires; they can wear whatever they like. Just for women, invisible “moral-police” have been posted all around. How can we build a society of equality until this discrimination is eliminated? Attire should not be an issue but it has been made into one. Women’s status in society can be guessed from their outfits.

Even in the Home economics textbooks of schools, I found that girls have been advised on what color clothes they should wear and what colors they should avoid. Chubby girls should wear light colors lest they look fat. That means looking fat is bad! Fat girls’ self-confidence is thus trampled into dust. In school texts, bodies of class VIII girls are being analyzed and researched for structures that look good or bad. Isn’t it more essential to instruct the girls about the discriminations in the society and family? Isn’t it necessary to help girls develop and broaden their minds? Isn’t it more urgent to inspire them in brightening the special qualities they are characteristically endowed with?

Are boys taught “Home Economics” or Home Science in school? This “science” is needed more for boys than girls. The notion that domesticity is for women, men have the world outside – has been proven wrong time and again. This idea has always created discrimination against women. Patriarchal society has locked women in homes centuries after centuries. Challenging this society, women are out today and have shown that whatever jobs men can do, women too can do. Women can be doctors, engineers, physicists, researchers, pilots, astronauts – they can be teachers, thinkers, artists, authors, politicians, sociologists – or laborers, police and military officers, ministers or heads of states. But men not yet been able to demonstrate that they can do what women can. They too can perform domestic duties and raise children. That is why I’d say that boys need to study “Home Science” more than girls do. Though girls have some grasp of this “Science”, boys are clueless.

It is worth remembering that in order to be civilized, an equal society, not a discriminatory one, has to be built. As long as men and women do not have equal rights, society will be anything but equal.

Even Women’s Breasts Are Not Safe From Torture!

In certain parts of Africa, a number of horrifying customs are still prevalent. One such practice is that of female genital mutilation (FGM), done to ensure women cannot experience sexual pleasure. Another is breast ironing, essentially nothing but torture, to ensure breasts don’t grow and men don’t feel sexual attraction for her. The fact that such customs are still practiced in Africa is technically not new information. In fact, it is fairly common for African immigrants and people of African descent in Europe and America to make their girls undergo female genital mutilation too. However, what is new is that even in the United Kingdom, right this very moment, there are at least twelve girls who are undergoing absolute torture in the name of ‘breast ironing’. London, Yorkshire, Essex, West Midlands – news has trickled in from many such places that there have been instances of hot stones being rubbed on girls’ breasts to singe the cells and stunt their natural growth. This painful torture is brought down upon these girls every week, or at least once every fortnight. A women’s rights organisation from the United Kingdom has issued a statement that although the cases of these twelve girls are relatively recent, if a proper survey was to be conducted one would discover that at least a thousand girls of African descent have gone through this torture till date.

Women’s bodies are tortured and mutilated only to make sure men cannot sexually abuse them. With breast ironing, the practice inhibits the natural growth of breasts, they never look like how they are meant to. The damage for the girl in question is both physical and psychological. Besides, these tortures are carried out by their own mothers and grandmothers, women who truly believe that these practices will protect their girls from falling prey to rapists and such people. The question that remains, however, is this – in order to prevent rape or sexual violence committed against a woman why does society not take any steps to educate men and make them aware? Why is it that women are the ones who have to undergo a series of strange, unnatural and humiliating experiences, ironically just to ensure their own safety? Men will grope, they will stare, they will pounce, they will harass and rape – women have to be wary of myriad such anxieties right from their childhood. So the moment they hit puberty their well-wishers shower and smother them with advice after advice – cover yourself, cover your breasts, cover your hair, your thighs and legs! Customs have to be followed out of fear of male violence. The fact that men are the predators and women are the prey – this logic is drilled into women even before they reach adolescence. It is indeed quite strange that those people to who young girls are the closest to in society are also their worst enemies – their rapists, their abusers, their murderers. Is such a society of any use to humanity? If this was the case with men, if they had to be always on edge that their bodies were going to be violated, that their lack of breasts was going to be a point of abuse, that their genitalia was going to be crushed and brutalised, then such a social formation would surely not have worked for them. Why are their breasts not as big as women’s, why are their genitalia so weird, why do their testicles hang, why do they have mustaches and beards – what if men were to be attacked over these things by the very people they cohabit with, the ones they trust the most? Surely, they would have termed such a society uninhabitable! Men must similarly understand the condition of women. They must understand that the society they have built up is equally uninhabitable for women.

I was born a woman. Why should I have to be ashamed or afraid of my own body? Why should the fear of a man force me to endure my breasts being flattened, have my genitals mutilated, often sewed shut to prevent me from experiencing sexual pleasure till a husband can literally cut me open and have me for the first time! Why should I have to suffer my entire life because I was born with the body of a woman! Don’t we have to pay for being women all our lives anyway? Why do you have hair on your body? Hide it! Cover your face! And why do you have breasts? Cover your breasts! And why hips! Cover it, and the butt too! Why do you have a vagina? Keep it secure! Thighs! Feet! Cover them as well! From the root of her hair to the tip of her toe, every part of a woman’s body has been put under embargo by the patriarchal society that surrounds us.

Breast ironing involves hot stones being rubbed on a pubescent girl’s breasts to arrest their rapid growth. Let more people become aware that such a thing exists, that breasts are things that can be ironed too! Despite the number of rapes men commit, their genitalia never face being melted with a hot iron as punishment. But despite not having done anything wrong with their breasts, women force women to undergo breast ironing only to prevent men from being swayed into committing a crime at the sight of them. None of this is for the sake of women, it’s all of the sake of the men. The sole objective behind practices like breast ironing and female genital mutilation is the drive to make sure that if a girl manages to escape rape or harassment when she is young, then the man who gets to marry her is promised someone chaste, a virgin body that he can be the sole consumer of. The primary function of women’s bodies is to provide sexual pleasure to men. They must keep their bodies pure to be offered up to the opposite sex. Consequently, the most primitive rituals connected with preserving the chastity of a woman are still so very prevalent everywhere, definitely in Africa, and in Asia as well. Many Africans and Asians too, no matter which end of the earth they move to and settle in, carry their customs there with them irrespective of how inhumane some of those rites might be.

Misogyny is now travelling from one end of the world to the other; it is being globalised. Practices from many backward cultures are seeping into many progressive and so-called civilised societies. On the other hand, discourses on human rights, women’s equal rights, democracy and the freedom of expression, all hallmarks of a civilised social system, are not making the reverse journey and finding their way into repressive and regressive societies. What people claim as democracy is not democracy at all, while most regular people are not even made aware of things like human rights and gender equality. When someone tries to rectify these oversights, they are invariably trapped in some circuitous legal mess and their freedom to express their opinions is taken from them. Such is the picture in much of the east. The civilised societies of the west, which men and women have built out of years of struggle over human rights and women’s rights, now face a severe crisis when practices like female genital mutilation and breast ironing find their way there, or when their social institutions find themselves stumped by the rise of things like burqas and niqabs.

Many women of the west have found their life-partners in many men who have immigrated there from other cultures. When you live in one society it’s expected that people will meet, that they will fall in love. Many women from the west have come into contact with men from the east and taken to the hijab, the burqa etc. Who can tell that one day they will not lose every last bit of reason and logic and end up advocating for terribly misogynist customs like breast ironing and genital mutilation as well! As it is the left has long been magnanimous in its proclamations that customs of all communities have to be respected, even the hijab and the burqa and suchlike. Perhaps even the ritual of genital mutilation too! Will we never accept the fact that not all cultural customs deserve to be accorded the same respect? One culture encourages music and dancing, the other propagates breast ironing – do they both deserve the same respect? Just because a handful of misogynous people continue to sustain and preserve patriarchal and misogynous customs does not make it necessary for us to adhere to them. Rather we must rise up in protest to ensure such rites are prohibited for good. We must not forget that in most communities the majority of traditions and customs are inherently laced with misogyny. In order to truly become civilised we must acknowledge the importance of equal rights of women in society. In order to truly become civilised we have no recourse other than completely delegitimising any and every misogynous tradition that we see around us.

Down With Superstitions

Nearly 885 lives have been lost in the devastating floods in Kerala, besides a cumulative loss
of property worth almost twenty thousand crores. Millions of people have been rendered
homeless. In such a moment of crisis a well-renowned personality has declared to the media
that the natural calamity was a result of women wanting to enter the Sabrimala temple in
Kerala; apparently this has angered the resident deity Ayyappan who has retaliated with
floods. Not just the uneducated masses, this is what even those who have had a university
education believe. Women between ten and fifty are not allowed entry into the Sabrimala
temple and there is a case being heard in the Supreme Court about revoking this prohibition.
Just like the rest of Kerala, Sabrimala too has been affected by the floods. Arguably, it was
the move towards changing the age-old rules of entry into the temple complex that angered
Ayyappan in the first place; the moment the point was raised the deity became so incensed
that he made sure to veto it in his own way. S. Gurumurthy, a right-wing politician, has
written, ‘The judges of the Supreme Court better consider if there is a link between the
Sabrimala litigation and the heavy rains in Kerala. Among the million possible reasons
behind the floods if even one is this then I’m certain the people would not want the ruling to
go against Lord Ayyappa.’ A god-man added to this assessment with his own reasoning that
since people eat beef in Kerala that is what has caused the floods.
As we know very well Kerala is the only state in the country where there are hardly any
illiterate people; the literacy rate is almost a hundred percent. Kerala is a state the country
ought to be proud of. Yet, these reactions to the floods reveal that when it comes to
superstitions Kerala is no less than any other state in the country. In fact, I doubt if there is
any country or state or city or village in the world where there are no superstitions! Even
Christian missionaries in the west preach that by legitimizing abortion and homosexuality we
invite God’s wrath in the form of floods, etc. It has always been the nature of religious people
to try and hold back progress; they have accepted technology while simultaneously denying
science.
It’s not a new maneuver to try and link natural calamities with supernatural underpinnings. In
1934, after the devastating Bihar-Nepal earthquake, Mahatma Gandhi had reportedly declared

that the earthquake had been caused by social practices like untouchability practiced against
the Harijans. Some people believe that the reason behind the 2015 Sabah earthquake in
Malaysia was that a few people had climbed Mount Kinabalu and taken naked pictures of
themselves. About three years ago Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e
Islam Fazal of Pakistan, had gone on record to state that since women were wearing jeans
instead of pyjamas, it was causing more frequent earthquakes. According to him, such
shameless behavior by women was also the reason behind inflation. He had gone on to note
that women who did not cover themselves up like ‘sacks of flour’ were the weapons that were
going to bring down human civilization. Consequently, it was such ‘shameless girls’ who
were behind electricity problems and internal security issues in Pakistan, as well as issues
plaguing Baluchistan as well. He had recommended putting women in sacks, keeping them in
the house and establishing Sharia law, all of which were supposed to ensure that the Taliban
did not attack Pakistan time and again. It has been proved repeatedly that religious
fundamentalists are also severely misogynistic. Nevertheless no one has ever taken any
concrete steps anywhere against such blatant dissemination of their misogynous views.
Many people can’t seem to stand women wearing jeans. Dr. Rajith Kumar, a professor of
botany in Sree Sankara College, Kerala, had declared to the media that women who wear
jeans give birth to intersex or mentally disabled children. There is no dearth of such
superstitions in this country. A while back BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj had blamed Rahil
Gandhi’s visit to Kedarnath for the floods in Uttarakhand. Similarly, after the Kathmandu
earthquake, Sadvi Prachi of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had placed the blame yet again on
Rahul Gandhi’s Nepal trip. In fact at one point of time rumours had spread that murder
allegations brought against Jayendra Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, had caused
the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
Such superstitious beliefs are prevalent in every household in the country. In the Kukke
Subramanya temple of Karnataka, during the months of November and December, there is a
three-day long festival called ‘Made Snana’ held every year which consists of lower-caste
people rolling around in the leftovers of Brahmins after they have finished eating. They
believe that rolling in the leftovers of those from higher castes will cure them of skin
diseases, help childless couples conceive and generally produce numerous boons. Nearly
35000 people participate in this ritual every year. Back in 1979 the High Court had ordered
for the ritual to be discontinued but it had to be reinstated after demands from devotees.

In an ancient ritual that continues to this day in Bijapur, babies are flung in the air with
someone waiting underneath to catch them as a way of seeking blessings from the gods. The
ones that survive and return to their mothers are thought to be blessed. The ones that die are
accepted as sacrifices. In the Sri Santeswar temple in Raichur numerous people gather every
year for this ‘religious festival’. Usually babies no more than two years old are chosen for
this dangerous game and since it has continued so for a few hundred years the police do not
interfere either. Many superstitious rituals and practices are prevalent in Gauhati’s Kamakhya
temple too.
The only way to combat superstitions is by way of science. It is the government that must
take up the onus of producing science-aware citizens. Rationalist, non-superstitious people
live risky lives in India today. Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead, Govind Pansare too was
similarly killed. Even today, in the biggest democracy of the world, speaking out against
superstitions can get you killed. The Anti-Superstition Bill that Dabholkar had been
pressurizing the Maharashtra government to pass had stipulations for punishment of those
found to be conning people by exploiting their superstitions. Practice of witchcraft, declaring
someone to be a witch, Aghoris, Ojha or witch doctors who claimed to be able to cure snake
bites, dog bites etc. – many such things were mentioned therein. The bill had been stuck in
the Assembly because various political and religious outfits had vehemently opposed it.
Knowledge and intelligence versus stupidity – it’s an eternal fight. It is not an easy task to
make people aware of their superstitions and misbeliefs. But down the ages rationalist
individuals have accomplished this very difficult task. Just as the freedom of expression and
the freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs and customs are fundamental rights,cultivation
of a scientific outlook, inspiring humanity among others, the cultivation of knowledge and
resisting hate are fundamental duties of all citizens.
We know that science must be utilized to combat superstitions. But we must also be aware
that it is possible the scientist might not be entirely free of them either. The directors of
India’s space programme reportedly consulted the almanac before the launch of a satellite,
even going to the temple and smashing coconuts to seek divine blessings. The directors of
ISRO themselves prove beyond doubt that a knowledge of science and freedom from one’s
misbeliefs are not mutually inclusive categories. Numerous people bathe in the dirty and
polluted waters of the Ganga everyday, simply because they believe it to be holy. Just as
numerous devotees do the same in the waters of the Brahmaputra at Langalbandh,Narayanganj
– foul-smelling and heavily polluted by chemical wastes – while chanting ‘O
Louhitya, absolve me of my sins’.

Faith is a dangerous thing, especially when rendered sightless. Blind faith and superstitious
beliefs are like twin siblings. If we wish to save society then we must activate all possible
channels to combat both of them.

Can rapes in churches be prevented if priests are allowed to break the vow of celibacy?

A nun of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of Kottayam in Kerala has filed a rape case against none other than the bishop, alleging that numerous times over the past four years the man lured her to his quarters over various flimsy pretexts and raped her. The first incident occurred on May 2014 in a guest house in Kuravilangad. She had reported the incident to the church authorities back then but they chose not to take any action on the matter. Subsequently she was harassed by the bishop on a number of occasions, adding up to about thirteen different counts of rape and sexual assault. Having failed to get any justice from the church the nun was finally forced to seek the help of the police. A bishop is no ordinary individual; he is usually a man of immense influence among Christians and is chosen by priests as their guide and leader. Expectedly the people of the church are unwilling to accept such unsavoury allegations against such a holy person; consequently, their entire ire has been deflected towards the nun. She is being pressurised to drop the case and it has created a furore across the country.
Perhaps the worst rule in the Catholic church is that all priests, nuns and bishops have to take a vow of celibacy. They are not allowed to marry or have sex. Not just Christians, such vows of chastity or brahmacharya are common among Hindus, Jains and Buddhists too. That is not to say everyone unanimously adheres to oaths taken; some observed their vows piously, some stray from their path. The Buddhist monks of Japan used to flout their declarations of celibacy so much that they had to be eventually allowed to get married. I strongly believe that the laws making celibacy necessary for priests ought to be done away with. I am not claiming even once that such a move will ensure that women and children will no longer be sexually violated. But I do believe that it will at least give priests a choice as to whether they wish to remain celibate or not; if they wish to they can and no one will be able to force them otherwise. If celibacy no longer remains obligatory t will only result in an increase in the number of people who wish to join churches to serve God. It is a complete misconception that it is not possible to give oneself up to the service of the Lord while simultaneously performing one’s domestic duties. Rather, it is nearly impossible to put one’s mind to something while trying to repress physical unease or dissatisfaction. Sexual desire is as natural a phenomenon as thirst, it is not contrary to the divine. If God has created this universe then sexuality too is divine creation.
Despite sexual harassment being a systematic and rampant problem in the Indian subcontinent, a counter-movement akin to Me Too of the west has yet to emerge here. Here, if an influential person is accused of rape it does not create any inconvenience for them; instead people slut-shame the accuser or the survivor. In Kerala too the priests have not sided with the nun, they have come out in support of the accused bishop. One priest went as far as to ask the nun to sort the matter out and went on to claim, ‘We will buy a plot of land for a convent and all of you will be safely moved there. Drop the case.’ This was followed by outright threats when the nun refused to back down.
Around the same time that the nun from Kottayam was fighting bishop Franko Mulakkal of Jaladhar, in another convent in Kerala the dead body of a nun was recovered from a well. Blood stains were found in and around the scene and the deceased nun was identified as Susan. A while back another such body had been recovered, that time a nun called Abhaya. Did both these women commit suicide or were they killed?
Men cannot stand the fact that a woman can cause trouble for a man, regardless of the fact whether the man in question is a rapist or a murderer. Quite true to character P.C. George, a MLA of the state, has called the nun a prostitute simply because she has dared to report rape. ‘No one has doubt that the nun is a prostitute.’ Since she has mentioned thirteen counts of rape he has shot back with, ‘Twelve times she enjoyed it and the thirteenth time it’s rape? Why didn’t she complain the first time?’ Powerful and influential people including MLAs have been rattled by the turn of events. They wish to argue that since the nun did not report the incident the first time itself, the accusations of rape are untrue! Some want proof to determine if the bishop did indeed rape her. During the early days of the Me Too movement in Hollywood when actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Lawrence, Ashley Judd were coming out with their stories of sexual harassment involving powerful mogul Harvey Weinstein, did anyone turn around to ask them to furnish proof? Did anyone demand investigation into the matter? Not that I know of. A woman’s claim ‘I was raped’ is enough for her to be believed. No one rapes someone with witnesses in the scene. Be it the east or the west, everywhere it is the same thing that women do not easily report rape simply because in many occasions such an admission only results in further harassment. Whenever someone comes out to directly accuse a man in a position of influence they do so with acute awareness of the dangers involved. They know that society will easily label them as whores and their lives will be upended entirely. And yet they still go ahead with the allegations, all to the service of truth. In the west some women have at least taken such bold steps thanks to Me Too but in the Indian subcontinent harassed and violated women still have to remain silent on most occasions. In this case the nun from Kerala had to have been truly courageous to have not been daunted by the inevitable backlash. Not many of us can claim to be that brave. In this instance she has earned that bravery after thirteen counts of violation against her person. There are countless around us who remain afraid to report rape even after the hundredth time because they are terrified of being shamed by our inherently patriarchal society.
It cannot be said enough how patriarchal and misogynistic our society is. It also explains why the nun found herself alone after alleging rape, with even the church refusing to side with her. She was denied basic facilities like ration and stipend. Since the news broke in the media and became wider public knowledge, pressure had been steadily mounting demanding an investigation into the matter. That is perhaps the only reason why the authorities had to look into the matter, why the bishop was removed from his duties and why he was finally placed under arrest today. If the incident had not been reported in the newspapers it would have surely been hushed up and soon enough another dead nun would have been recovered from yet another well somewhere.
Some go so far as to claim that revoking the vow of celibacy will result in a decrease in the number of cases of sexual violence or rape of women and children involving the clergy. Celibacy is an irrational and absurd ritual and must be put an end to. But it has absolutely no correlation with curbing instances of rape. Rapists do not rape because they do not have a partner or because they are not married – they rape because patriarchy has taught them that they are the stronger sex, that women are inherently weaker and that they have the absolute right to control and torture the latter. Patriarchy has made men into such brutes, has poisoned them with so much cruelty, that they do not even hesitate to sexually violate innocent children.
All across Europe and America today people have gradually begun to voice their allegations against the Catholic church because the clergy have continued to sexually abuse children across centuries. The children had been quiet thus far but today many of them are adults and they want justice. The Pope cannot solve any problems, he merely goes around apologising. And this is not just in the churches. Imams of mosques and teachers of madrassas rape and abuse children with similar impunity, just as Hindu godmen cheat people, amass fabulous wealth and keep raping whoever they want. Some have recently been indicted and jailed too. Even Buddhists monks are known to have committed rape and murder, quite against the grain of popular belief about them being honest and nonviolent.
No godman, no imam, no priest, no bishop, in fact not even the Pope, must be allowed to get away if it’s found they have committed a crime. Everyone must be brought to justice. Across the globe the history of exploitation and persecution of people in the name of religion is an ancient one. If today we continue to remain silent, if we do not build up a resistance against those who wish to see this cycle of abuse continue, then our future is perhaps already doomed.

If we can accept western technology then why not adopt their modes of protest too?

This year the Nobel Prize in Literature will not be awarded. This is hardly the first time something like this is being done, but never before has the reason behind such a step been a sex scandal. The members of the Swedish Academy decide the recipient of the prize each year but this year the award has to be canceled because there are only ten extant members of the total council of eighteen. That is not enough to come to an agreement over a suitable recipient of the Nobel Prize. Where did the rest of the members of the council go? They have resigned because the husband of one of the members of the Academy has been accused of sexual harassment by eighteen different women. The Academy also used to financially aid an organisation founded by the accused. Besides, in the past this same man has been accused of leaking the names of the winners in advance having gained the information from his wife. After these uncomfortable incidents came to light some of the members of the Academy resigned. One must admit that it is because of the Me Too movement that so many women have come forward with their stories of harassment against such an influential man. The movement has provided immense impetus to women who have faced sexual violence to voice their accusations, to not be afraid and to never feel ashamed. It has provided many women with a lot of strength and assured them that no matter how rich or influential the accused men are, their stories of harassment will no longer remain dirty secrets, that their Time’s Up. In case of the Academy, if the women had not come forward the husband Jean Claude Arnaut would have remained installed as a virtuous man in the public eye. His reputation now lies in ruins, the Academy has snapped all ties with him and his wife too has had to pay for his indiscretions by resigning from her position in the Academy.
Hollywood too has gone through a storm recently. A series of women came forward and accused powerful producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Harvey was forced out from his own company. Accusations were leveled against Kevin Spacey and Ben Affleck too; Spacey lost his deal with Netflix as a result while Affleck too has had to apologise for an old incident when he had groped a young journalist. Accusations were raised against director Oliver Stone that he had allegedly grabbed the breasts of a woman in a party twenty years ago, with the woman recently making the story public. Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas, Roman Polanski, David Copperfield are only a few among the nearly 122 celebrities against whom many women have alleged sexual harassment. Without consent they have grabbed breasts or touched buttocks, told sexually coloured jokes, lured women to their rooms under false pretexts, tried raping many of them and even succeeded with some. Not just in Hollywood, this is everywhere, in the music industry, in the world of art, in politics, business or media. The effect of Time’s Up has been felt in nearly all of these places. Not just ordinary women, celebrities have accused other celebrities of sexual harassment and have caused devastation in the lives of many such predatory men, causing them to lose their reputations, their careers as well as their clout. To give due credit, Me Too has managed to unmask many such predatory abusive men. The stronger Me Too has grown in the west, the more rabid general misogyny has become too. Time’s Up has added to the pressure, leading to many institutions crumbling and even ministers being forced to resign.

In the Cannes Film Festival this year, for the very first time, a hotline has been established to combat harassment. If anyone attempts any sort of indiscreet behaviour they will be immediately reported to the hotline. On fliers of the festival this year they have printed advice such as ‘Good behaviour is required’ ‘Don’t spoil the party, stop harassment’. This sort of an initiative by Cannes is commendable as well as essential.
A few days ago the Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman was forced to resign after four previous lovers alleged that he used to physically abuse them. Although Eric was a vocal crusader in the fight for gender equality he is now being regarded as a liar and fraud by the people, the shame forcing him out of office.

In the west when accusations of sexual harassment or abuse are raised even the most influential of men have to now go through shame and censure; they have to face public ridicule. In many cases they have to leave their high positions of authority, come to terms with their fall in society and their tarnished reputations. And how are things in our subcontinent? Here women continue to face torture and incredible sexual torment, rape or gang rape on a daily basis. Not just adults, even infants are no longer safe. Every day there is fresh news of abuse against a child, be it in Comilla or Kolkata. Let’s take India for instance. Even after accusations are proved the accused do not fear any backlash against their reputation. Back in 1988 a government official had accused the then DGP of Punjab Police K.P.S Gill of sexual harassment. The next year Gill was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian honour. Even after the accusations were proved in court the award wasn’t rescinded and nor did it affect Gill’s name in any adverse way. Various accusations of harassment, including allegations of rape, have been raised against as many as 48 MLAs and 3 MPs across party lines but the political parties hardly care about such data. If things come to a head they can always blame things on the violated woman’s clothes or her character and support rape too if need be. The only consequence is that no one will have to suffer any at all – since most people in the country are used to victim-shaming rather than shaming the predators.
Misogyny, abuse, rape have become so normalised in our societies that accusations leveled against men result in people shaming not the accused but the woman who has gone through the ordeal. Men don’t have to hang their heads in shame, women do. I speak from experience when I say that society has never criticized or rebuked any man who has shamed me or cheated me; it is I who has always had to bear the brunt of all abuse. I used to be in love with and was married to poet Rudra Muhammad Shahidullah a long time ago. In the second volume of my autobiography Utal Haoa (Restless Wind) I have written about his treatment of me, terrifying stories of his regular visits to brothels even after marriage and bringing back STDs to infect his wife with. After reading these accounts Bangladeshi society had felt no hatred for him; all their hatred had been directed at me. I had dared to speak about sex in public and that must make me a bad woman, a fallen woman. Because to them the only good woman is the kind that silently tolerates all abuse and torture at the hands of her husband, and the woman who successfully hides all her husband’s misdeeds is the one with the strongest character. In fact, after the revelations about Rudra nothing happened to his social standing other than his consistently surging popularity. This is unthinkable in a civilised nation. In the third volume of my autobiography Dwikhondito (Split) I have written about renowned author Syed Shamsul Haque’s frank admissions regarding his relationships with teenage girls. He had once taken me on a trip and force me into sharing a room with him at night. Even though I had averted any untoward incident the whole thing had been terribly uncomfortable. Did Syed Haque have to apologise after these revelations? Did he have to bow his head in shame? Did his social standing suffer? Not at all. He continued to lie with his head held high, went to court and hit me with a hundred crore lawsuit and got my book banned by the High Court. Syed Haque is no more but my book is still prohibited in Bangladesh. Those who were expected to be on the same side as freedom of speech and the independence of women, they had sided with Syed Haque, sang his praises and thrown the choicest of abuses at me, all because I had dared to publicly reveal the misdeeds of the great man.

This is our patriarchal misogynous society. Sunil Gangyopadhyay, the ex-president of Sahitya Akademi, had once groped me; I had been stunned by his audacity. Even after revealing this on social media no one had accused Gangyopadhyay of any crime, they had directed all the abuse at me. Many had figured out I was speaking the truth but they had sided with him nevertheless. They were convinced that a man had the right to sexually harass a woman. When Sunil had devoted himself to banning Dwikhandito he had repeatedly remarked that whatever happens between two people behind closed doors has no business being discussed in public. Since I had done exactly that in the book I was pronounced guilty and the men who had committed the actual crimes were deemed not guilty simply by virtue of the fact that they were men. What would Sunil have said about Me Too? Would he have also rebuked the western women who are revealing the abuse they have faced at the hands of men behind closed doors? No he wouldn’t have. He would have hailed them precisely because they are from the west, while had it been a woman from this region he would done all in his power to drive her out, to silence her, to bring down devastation upon her.
I am talking about my own experience but this can as well be the experience of any woman in the subcontinent. A Ram Rahim or an Asaram Bapu is punished, not to give women their due rights, but because such punishments help one reap immense political profits.

Unlike West’s ‘MeToo’, subcontinent’s men don’t hang their heads in shame. Women do

A Naked Protest

There’s a term called the ‘casting-couch’ – in simpler words, I will give you a good opportunity for success, but you have to sleep with me in exchange. The term may have emerged from the film industry but the casting-couch is omnipresent in the patriarchal society we inhabit. Married or unmarried, young or old, it has become normalised, almost commonplace, that the male employers will try and take advantage of a young job applicant.

Sri Reddy, a rising young Telugu actress, has launched a naked protest against leading directors and producers of the Telugu film industry about her experiences with this casting-couch. In response, Shivaji Raja, the president of the Movie Artists Association, threatened the strictest action against any other artist thinking of working with Sri. It is fairly obvious that under such circumstances no producer or director is going to be willing to work with her. Sri’s landlord too has handed her an eviction notice. She had wished to fight against discrimination only to be further discriminated against. Her stripping in public had most angered the same people who had stripped her in private. She has dared to speak out against rich and influential men; there’s no way they are going to let her be in peace!

Naked protests are nothing new. Of course, such a protest presumes certain physical and psychological risks since it is possible for anyone to retaliate with hatred or physically hurt the protestor at will. But nakedness is also strength. Even without any weapons it can make one feel powerful. Nakedness itself is a weapon. In the 80s Bangladesh, Noor Hossain, a poor auto-driver had taken off his shirt and painted in white ‘Let Democracy Be Free’ across his back and ‘Down with autocracy’ across his chest to march against the despotic Ershad government. The police had shot Noor Hossain through his chest and he had crumbled to the ground – a death that had shocked Bangladesh into silence. Noor Hossain was a symbol of the movement against tyranny in Bangladesh, a symbol of freedom. Many poems, songs, play were composed in his name. So many young lives have often been lost to police bullets while marching for freedom. But since martyrs of the Language Movement of 1952 no other death had devastated Bangladesh more than his.

A naked protest is not nudity, it is the act of taking off one’s clothes in public. It is the act of becoming utterly and completely vulnerable – a vulnerability that makes the protest against the oppressors much stronger. It also serves to bring into stark contrast the differences between the vulnerable and their persecutors. In such cases since it becomes immediately obvious who the oppressors are and who are the oppressed, a naked protest against discrimination is far more symbolic than most other forms of dissent. You have everything while I have nothing; you are powerful while I am not; you are huge while I am small – this is what a naked protest stands for. Is there anything more extraordinary than the sight of a bare chest pressed against the barrel of a loaded cannon? Don’t we remember that young Chinese man from 1989 standing in front of an advancing tank? When the tanks were reentering Tiananmen Square after having crushed to death nearly 10000 students the night before, all of whom had been protesting to save democracy, a lone unarmed youth had stopped the advancing machine of death with his own body. At that moment hadn’t the body been stronger than the tank? Of course it had. People across the world had expressed solidarity with that lone body back then. Then again in 1969 John Lennon of the iconic group The Beatles had stripped with his wife Yoko Ono in their hotel room in protest against the Vietnam War. He had called for peace instead of war, naming their protest Bed-Ins for Peace. He had asked people to make love, not war.

A naked protest attracts the attention of the people and the media. It sparks sympathy because the one who strips naked does so to stand by the dispossessed. Take the instances of rape committed by the army in Manipur for example. Driven to desperation by the sexual violence and the extra-judicial killings, a group of elderly Manipuri women had stripped down to nothing in 2004 and marched to the Kangla Fort division of the Assam Rifles with a banner that read ‘Indian Army, Come Rape Us’. Before this no other protest movement against rape had managed to strike a more lethal blow to the collective conscience in such a manner.

There have been naked protests the world over against various discriminatory practices. Last year nearly a hundred women in Argentina stripped in front of the court in Plaza de Mayo to protest against the various injustices and acts of violence being committed upon women, against the number of women being killed on a daily basis. Naked women lay down on the footpaths, many bodies intertwined together. Instead of causing sexual arousal such a scene could only make one tighten one’s jaws against the injustices being committed against women. At least that is what should happen. The same thing had happened in Argentina a couple of years ago too when women had stripped in front of the parliament to protest against the treatment of women as sex objects.

Women fighting for animal rights on behalf of PETA too have resorted to naked protests against the fashion industry and use of animal fur. They have put on animal masks and stripped to lie down on the roads amidst chants of ‘It’s better to go naked than wear fur’. FEMEN, a Ukrainian radical feminist activist group, has been holding naked protests across the world to campaign against oppression of women. Their protests are directed against religion, patriarchy, despotism, corruption and rape and torture of women. The women of FEMEN write their protest slogans on their own bare backs and bodies and turn up at various places to stage protests, to shock and disconcert people. The other day when Bill Cosby was being taken to court the entourage faced the women of FEMEN with slogans written on their bodies – ‘Women’s Lives Matter’. The Bill Cosbys of the world have always treated women as merely sex objects and FEMEN’s primary focus is to fight this sort of misogyny.

When women take off their tops during such protest all eyes are usually drawn to their breasts. Since they had breasts the police was quite prompt is dragging/carrying the activists of FEMEN away. However the police never displace the protesting men. Breasts are the most natural thing in the world and yet they are treated as the most unnatural. Breasts are utterly normal but when bared they are immediately treated as the most abnormal. Women protest against weapons and power using the gifts given to them by nature. Naked protests are less about the nakedness and much more about a revolutionary spirit. A woman’s nudity makes a man uncomfortable because men have always treated women’s bodies as their personal property and seeing this body bared in public makes them uneasy. The fact that women are the true custodians of their own bodies, the fact that they have a right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, there are not many who are willing to come to terms with this. Whether people are willing to accept it or not nudity is a sign of resistance.

Sri Reddy had been protesting against the casting-couch for quite some time. The protest only gained ground when she chose to strip. What she had wanted to say, no one had had time to hear it before. It was only after she decided to take off her clothes that people stopped to listen. Perhaps the only way to combat injustices being committed against one’s body is by using the body itself. The police were prompt in rushing Sri away from the site of her naked vigil while the powerful and the influential paid scant heed to her protest. Perhaps because patriarchy is so strong there that Sri Reddy’s act of rebellion did not manage to make any dents on its perpetuity. Perhaps if other women like Sri had protested they could have catapulted some visible change. Like how thousands had taken to the streets in Delhi to protest against the Nirbhaya rape.

Sri Reddy has confessed to have been a victim to the casting-couch. She has mentioned names of famous producers and directors who have used her for sexual favours and who wanted to sleep with her in exchange of giving her a break. Just like this, in Bollywood and other film industries, if masks begin to come off the faces of all the rapists pretending to be divine and holy in order to earn the adoration of people and who sexually exploit young girls in secret, then perhaps some good can be done for the betterment of society.

Despite having requisite qualifications many women fall prey to sexual exploitation by their male overlords who cannot see beyond women as sex objects. Most people assume that artists and writers are much more progressive and open-minded than other people, that they believe in the equality of the sexes much more than other men. However they too can be rapists just like other uneducated, insensitive and inhuman men. They too can take advantage of a woman’s helplessness and exploit her for sexual gains.

In Hollywood the masks are gradually coming off the faces of serial sexual abusers – Harvey Weinstein, Bryan Singer, Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Spacey. Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood, Dhallywood – in the numerous Woods that are there in the world, it won’t be enough if the sexual predators are only publicly exposed. Just as how the ground has been snatched away from under the feet of such men in Hollywood the same should happen to all others of their ilk. Men who continue to occupy positions of power and influence despite exploiting, harassing, insulting and torturing women just because they are women cannot be allowed to continue any longer. Let their reputations be swept away into oblivion by a tidal wave of comeuppance.

The Rapes at Kathua and Unnao

From the Europe and America the news has come that Christian priests have raped young boys inside Catholic churches. I haven’t investigated how prevalent it is in other Muslim countries, but I have often read in the newspapers of Bangladesh about Imams raping children in mosques, of a teacher at a Madrasa raping a four-, five- or six-year-old girl student inside the Madrasa. Now I’ve been told that some people brought an eight-year-old girl into a temple in Jammu and Kashmir and gangraped her. One of the rapists is Sanji Ram, who had the responsibility for looking after the temple. Sanji Ram’s relatives as well as two police officers, their friends, kept the eight-year-old girl imprisoned inside the temple and raped her. The girl used to take horses out to graze in Jammu. When one of her horses was lost, she went looking for it in the jungle, which is when the gang of rapists captured her and imprisoned her in the temple. After raping her for several days in succession, the valiant heroes smashed the girl’s head in with a rock and murdered her.

Had the girl been a Hindu and not a Muslim, perhaps those men would have captured, imprisoned, raped, and finally killed her in exactly the same way. Both the poor and the rich know that killing the poor usually reduces the chances of trouble. I don’t believe that those men would have allowed the girl to walk on unscathed in the jungle had she been a Hindu. A rape takes place in India every 14 minutes. Hindu men rape Hindu women every day. They don’t spare anyone, from old women to one-year-old children. Muslim men rape in the same way. They don’t spare any women of any age. Rapes are continuing. Murders, too. Those who rape are usually not interested in the name, address and religion of those they are raping. They’re only concerned with the body. The more tender it is, the more delicious. Or they only consider the ‘valiance’. There is no lack of people in the world who think barbarity is bravery.

Raping the women of the enemy is nothing new. Since, like the elephants and horses and land and houses of the enemy, their women too are considered property, the visors take away the elephants and horses, occupy the land and houses, burning and pillaging them, and rape the women. This is how it was been since ancient times. Subjugating the adversary by raping his mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter, is an age-old practice. After killing jews in Arab lands, the prophet Mohammad had distributed the Jewish women amongst his militant companions for their pleasure. Pakistani soldiers raped two hundred thousand women in the Liberation War of Bangladesh. Although the troops were Muslims, and so were the majority of the women they raped, resistance had been a bigger factor than religion. The Pakistanis looted and pillaged the homes of Bengalis and set them on fire, and raped Bengali women. They raped the women because the war provided an opportunity. Whenever there’s an opportunity men rape women all the time, irrespective of caste and creed, it doesn’t even need a war.

To tell the truth, there is no ongoing war between Hindus and Muslims in India. It is true that some people are trying to provoke a conflict, but the conflict has not reached the proportion where Hindus will rape Muslim women in droves, or vice versa. Hindu men have raped a hundred times more Hindu women than they have raped Muslim women. It’s the same story with Muslim men. It is not as though either of them has vowed to rape women of the other religion alone. They do it when they get the opportunity. Muslim men rape more of Muslim women because they’re the ones who are near at hand. It’s the same with Hindu men.

Was it merely the attraction of raping a Muslim that made seven people rape an eight-year-old girl for seven days, that even made a man travel all the way from Meerut to Jammu? Or was it the opportunity to rape a female child? The rapist from Meerut would have travelled to Jammu even if the eight-year-old had been a Hindu. Child rape is on the rise today. Whether they’re Hindus or Muslims, Buddhists or Christians, no one gives up the chance to rape a child these days. Perhaps rape of children has always existed, and it is just the increase in the number of news reports about it that makes it seem it is on the rise.

Had Hindu men never raped Hindu women, I would have assumed the Hindu males of Kathua raped the eight-year-old girl because she was a Muslim. Had Muslim men not raped anyone other than Hindu women, maybe it would have become clear that the conflict between Hindus and Muslims is increasing or that the war between them is becoming more intense. But society still has Muslims like Imdadul Rashidi, who do not want to start a riot by attacking his son’s Hindu murderers as an act of revenge. There are still Hindus like Yashpal Saxena who prefer to forgive the Muslim murderers of his son rather than avenge his death. The Indian subcontinent needs Hindus like Yashpal Saxena and Muslims like Imdadul Rashidi.

Over in Uttar Pradesh, an 18-year-old woman has accused an MLA named Kuldip Singh Singer and his brother of raping her. The alleged rapists are Rajputs, and the young woman, a Dalit. Some people are saying that upper-caste men have a tendency to rape lower-caste women. Because hatred is one of the factors causing rape, it is entirely possible that the upper caste rapes the lower caste out of hatred. But it isn’t as though upper caste men are not raping upper caste women. And lower caste men are raping lower caste women. So it is not caste but hatred for women, the notion that women are of a lower class, that they are maids and slaves, that they are brainless creatures, that is responsible. As many of us know, rape is not sexual intercourse, whatever else it might be. Rape is muscle power, male power, penis power. The bottomline: the act of putting a crown on, or flying the flag of victory from, the bald head of the male organ is also known as rape.

It has not yet been proven whether MLA Kuldip Sengar has raped the women from Unnao. But there will be nothing to be surprised at if it is proven. He did not rape the woman because he is a BJP MLA. A male MLA of the Congress or the SP or the CPM or Trinamool or any other political party could have raped her too. Because he is a man. It is the powerful who commit the most rapes. Because the powerful have arrangements to cover their tracks. And it is not a custom to punish the powerful. They are the ones who can commit crimes and get away untouched far more often than others.

The Kathua rape is being called communal, and it is being said that the rape in Unnao took place only because it was a BJP MLA. I believe that the rapists in both cases did what they did because they are men. They raped the women because they had the opportunity to do it. A patriarchal society has taught men that women are nothing but sex objects. Therefore there is no crime in gratifying themselves with women’s bodies in any way they please. A patriarchal society has taught men that women are helpless and powerless – no matter what their religion or age, what their caste or their lineage, whether they’re rich of poor, they belong to the lower classes. And men have the right to humiliate them, to torture them, to crush them. Which is why men rape them. One rape every 14 minutes.

Until this patriarchy is not abolished, until men do not dismiss equal rights for women, until men stop thinking of themselves as lords and of women as sex-slaves, all men – Hindu or Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jew, poor or rich, upper caste or lower caste, legislator or minister, Imam or priest – will keep raping women.

Rapes will continue unhindered in temples, mosques, churches and pagodas because the custodians of these ‘holy’ places are all God-fearing men. God-fearing men do not consider rape a sin as they are well-aware that everything – notwithstanding Ishwar or Allah or Bhagaban or their respective religions – is undeniably misogynous.

REFORMATION OF ISLAM

There have been movements of reformation in all religions. Edicts and beliefs that are misogynous and contrary to human rights have been struck down and changes have been brought about by enacting laws. Even Islam has undergone much transformation over the years, although many Muslim women across the globe continue to be vocal about the need for far greater changes. They have been writing about it, debating over its ramifications. Some have stated that their love for Islam is so profound that they cannot bear the thought of not being allowed to keep the fasting during Ramadan in case they begin menstruating. Not only do they wish to fast while menstruating, they wish to pray too. Even though they are exempt from fasting and praying during these days, they do not wish to be left out. Such is their ardour for their faith that they cannot bear the thought of going a day without their customs. Besides they firmly believe that the prohibitions in Islam are simply there for the sake of personal hygiene. If that can be adequately taken care of then there remains no need for prohibitions against fasting or praying, or so they believe. They have declared that since nowhere in the Quran it is written explicitly that women cannot fast while menstruating, they are not going to follow such unfounded prohibitions. Many have also declared that they do not believe in the prohibition on sex during fasting in Ramadan. Nowhere in Islam has sex been called impure, especially sex between spouses. These women firmly believe that the purity of the union between a man and a woman can only have a positive influence on the fast. So they have ruled in favour of sexual intercourse during fasting. They have also questioned why vomiting should force someone to break the fast. According to them thoroughly rinsing one’s mouth afterwards should be enough to take care of the problem.

There will be many who will be livid on hearing these demands. That is hardly new information. People have always made demands; demands that have made some angry and made others pause and reflect. Some demands have been met, some haven’t been. Today, in many Muslim nations simply saying ‘talaq’ thrice does not necessarily guarantee a successful divorce. Child marriages have been prohibited, as have been hilla or halala (interim) marriages. The fasting during Ramadan is supposed to be observed from sunrise till sunset; many Muslims of northern Europe and America do not feel at ease fasting based on when the sun rises or sets. There’s usually daylight for a couple of hours in winter and an equally small stretch of night during summer. Islam has provided no specific directions for northern countries regarding the month of Ramzan. So Muslims there have figured out their own fasting schedules based simply on convenience. This is how things are reformed and this reformative impulse is necessary to be able to match steps with modern society.

There are mosques in England where women as well as homosexuals are allowed to serve as imams. In these mosques female imams lead the prayers with both men and women following her lead. Many wish to extricate themselves from age-old beliefs. This is the same for all religions, the need to expunge things that do not go with the tenets of modern society. Everyone, at least the ones who are freethinkers , know how much more excision Islam must undergo. It is the progressive Muslims who must come forward for this task. In this day and age, we make laws based on human rights and the women’s equality, we sing paeans to democracy, and we valorize the freedom of speech and expression. Religion too must learn to acknowledge human rights and equal rights of all. The more a certain faith can work in tandem with the epoch, the more the chance of its survival.

It’s not as if Islam is stuck in one place. It has undergone various changes at different times. The age of the Mu‘tazila had been a progressive one. Similarly one of the most glorious traditions of Islam is Sufism. Darkness usually resides very close to the light. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab of Arabia had dragged Islam into an abyss, all in the name of reformation. And today, fundamentalism is begetting terrorism. Of the numerous terrorist activities that go on across the world the most take place in countries where the majority population is Muslim. Even though the jihadist Muslims of the world are far lesser in number than the ordinary peace-loving ones, it’s the former who have become the symbol of Islam. Today most people conflate the ISIS, the Boko Haram, the Al-Qaeda with Muslims in general and the image of the ordinary, innocent Muslim has gradually become fuzzy. This, of course, is an alarming trend. Unless one can combat this jihadist ideology firmly, the future of the Muslim world is in dire straits. Jihadists ultimately hunt Muslims. The way they are slaughtering critics of Islam and freethinkers it is quite possible that one day soon the term Muslim will only denote the jihadists and their supporters. It is the duty of every progressive individual of the Muslim world to summarily separate religion from the state, law and education. No reformation is possible without this crucial amendment. And without any reformation it will not be possible to stake a claim to being a part of the civilized world, let alone demand respect.

My guileless mother used to read the same Quran that the murderers at ISIS read. My mother used to forgive, while the ISIS only kills. My mother did not accept many parts of the Quran literally; whichever part she failed to grasp she would usually fashion a workable explanation. The people at ISIS don’t do that, in that way they are quite like the Crusaders of the 7th Century. Despite there being many forward-thinking Muslims like my mother, the latter usually remain in the shadows in the background while the ones we see as vanguards are the relatively much smaller group of terrorists.

If this continues to persist then is it any wonder that the jihadists will continue to rule? The time has come to snatch away their weapons and turn Islam into a religion of peace. This is not the job for a government. We have never been lucky enough to have an entirely self-less government and it’s unlikely that will happen any time in the future. So this task rests on the modern, progressive individuals from Muslim societies who not only believe in human rights, women’s rights, queer rights, trans rights, and rights of all non-human creatures, they must also be able to acknowledge culture, civilization, science, evolution, and technological advancements. It will be possible to deal with the problem of jihad if one can understand the reasons that compel men and women to choose it in the first place. If these reasons can be eradicated then a solution to the problem ought not be too difficult to find.

Even the holy texts of monotheist faiths like Christianity and Judaism are replete with numerous instances of intolerance, misogyny and violation of human rights. But such things don’t usually bother most of the people of these faiths; they have mostly forgotten the finer details of what is there and what isn’t. Instead they have written laws foregrounding equal rights for all, devised policies on education premised on secular doctrines, formed their social structures based on individual autonomy, and espoused the ideals of democracy while building their nations. It will perhaps be the best outcome possible if all the Abrahamic faiths come to walk the same path, if Islam too can reform and remerge as a humanitarian faith in the twenty-first century.

Last year in Bangladesh, iftar has been distributed among the Muslims from the Iskon temples of the Hindus and prayer-halls of the Buddhists. Why can the Muslims not show a similar open-mindedness and generosity in spirit! They can give refuge to Hindus in need of aid in the mosques, even arrange for food and alms to be given to hungry Buddhists from there, and extend their support to any and every non-Muslim who might be in need. Let people know that Muslims are not only about hacking non-Muslims to death, that despite what might be written in a book Muslims can find it in themselves to be humane, generous, nonviolent and self-less.

Islam can only be reformed when Muslims agree to reform themselves.