Judith Butler – Gender Performativity

If you have the time, do also go through the comments to the Youtube video.


Hiring a woman

In all my grand 5 years of employment, I’ve heard several appaling things about women in paid jobs from men and women alike. Some of them startlingly prejudicial and some understandably. While I’ve had at least a few tens of arguments about such casually (also assumed to be harmlessly) prejudicial remarks against women, I’ve hardly written about it before. Listing some conversations I’ve had in the past (of course they are my recollections from memory and give it as much weightage as you will when you hear an anecdote). Now, you tell me what you think, yes?

Women are just not good enough for our company

This is one of the most common ones I hear (Is it simply a coincidence that I hear them more often in startups?). Some tend to be subtle about it – they talk of how few women there are or how their only woman employee is in HR or how they are all beer lovers or some such. But this one conversation I had with an enterprenuer I met was interesting.

The Enterprenuer (TE): Ha! The only woman we have here is the HR manager. All my other employees are men.

Ranjani K (RK): Why is that, you reckon?

TE: Oh, the women don’t even pass the interview here.

RK: Wow! Really, why?

TE: Oh we do some hardcore work here. Hardcore engineering work. Women don’t cut it. Also, we hire from the ‘big wigs’ of the world and there are really very few good women to choose from.

RK: Oh, are you saying, even the women from the ‘big wigs’ aren’t good enough?

TE: Yes. Sort of. Even the ‘big wigs’ hire women because they are mandated by law to do so. And when we become big enough, we’ll hire women to deal with the law. For now, I need people who can get work done.

RK: Women don’t get work done?

TE: In fact, we work a six-day week here. And most women don’t even call back when they hear it. We have no time for emotional issues here. Just pure work.

RK: Aha!

Are you married?

Every time I go for an interview, I am asked if I am married. I often snap and try to evade that question. But sometimes I also do play along. Here are two conversations I had about marriage with an interviewer.

Interviewer1: Are you planning to get married?

RK: What in my CV tells you I am not already married?

I1: Oh, you recently passed out from college and I assumed you wouldn’t be married. I’m so sorry. Are you?

RK: Is that relevant to the position you are hiring me for?

I1: Often, women join our company and leave in a few months saying they are marrying someone who lives in another city. I can’t go through this process again. So, if you are planning to do that, you’d better tell us know.

RK: I see.

I1: So, are you married? Do you have plans?

RK: I’m sorry. I am not going to talk about it. I presume I’ve given you enough already to make a hiring decision. I’ll wait for you to call.

Now, the second one is far more interesting. At least in the interview above, I was asked questions about my work and this came at the fag end. In the interview that follows, this is the 2nd or the 3rd question I had to answer.

Interviewer2: Are you from Bangalore?

RK: Yes, I am.

I2: Are you married?

RK: Haha, why do you ask?

I2: No no. Please don’t mistake me. It is not that I won’t hire you if you are married. We have plenty of married women working here. But you see, married women tend to take too much leave and I need someone who can do good work here. That is why I asked. Even if you are married, it is fine. But I just need to know.

RK: (deciding to play along/ or just wanting to get it over with/ by now lost hope of evading that question) No. I am not married.

I2: I see. So, you live with your parents? Are they looking for a man for you to marry?

RK: (That is it. I am not coming back even if they paid me the moon and then some)

Women are a hassle

While in all the instances I am quoting here, the underlying logic is that women are a hassle to work with, this one is special in a few ways. This is a friend of mine from a company that is known for its female-friendly initiatives.

Friend1: (while talking about his project) We’ve finally decided not to hire any women in the team. That’ll solve half the problems.

RK: (taken aback) pray tell why.

F1: You see hiring a woman into a project like ours is a lot of hassle. If she works late evenings, the company has to arrange transport and ensure her safety. For her to work late, we’ll need to get permission from boss’s boss’s boss in writing every single day she works late. On top of all this, our project manager already has a (bogus, he insists) sexual harassment case from a woman who was earlier in the team. We can’t deal with anymore trouble. So, we’ve decided not to hire any women.

RK: You aren’t seeing any bias in that?

F1: What do you mean bias? I am doing what’s best for my project, that’s all!

Women don’t work nightshifts

This is extremely common among IT/ BPO companies where the entire team is expected to take turns and work nighshifts once a month or two. Stories of women first accepting to do nightshifts because they need the job/ project and later refusing is very common. When asked for reasons for refusing, the responses are almost always female-centric.

My mother-in-law doesn’t want me to work night shifts

I am looking to get pregnant and night shifts aren’t helping

I have a young child to take care of and so I can’t do night shifts

While the reasons here may be legitimate (and in fact one does not need to explain why they wouldn’t do something), it’s disheartening that there is an implicit intention to take advantage of female friendly policies by the women. If this led to the eventual firing of the female team member for going back on her contract, we have a legal (at least logical) issue to deal with. But what this often seems to lead to is the hiring managers not wanting to go through the trouble of accommodating women at all.

I am not including the clearly sexist “she must be screwing someone to get those promotions” or “she’s too pretty for her own good” because there is no gray area in them. We know sexism when we see that. But in each of the above cases, the issues a little more institutional. For instance,

Women are just not good enough for our company – If the talent pool of women is just not big enough (or deep enough with no pun intended), is it the responsibility of the individual organisations to hire (what’s seen as) less than competant women and train them?

Are you married? – If you see every woman you’ve hired leave your company on marriage and no man who does that, is your prejudice still wrong?

Women are a hassle – if the employees of a company see the female-friendly policies as hassle, should the company get rid of them to have a level playing field? If they do remove such policies, it is really a level playing field?

Women don’t work night shifts – A lot of women don’t like to work night shifts (in fact, a lot of men also don’t like to if they had a choice). But because few women find it in their benefit to take advantage of policies, can we allow the hiring managers to become biased? By being biased, are they just saving their own backs?

I’m in no way substantiating any bias here (please point out to me if anything I’ve said comes across as that) or blaming women for their own problems. In fact, I aim to do exactly the opposite. I am calling out to practices that I see as discriminatory, most of which don’t really come up in interview conversations unless you go out there and invite people to it. (A good friend of mine has her marital status, date of birth, place of birth etc. on the right hand top corner of her CV – you see she invites none of the questions I seem to have invited).

But most of these biases seem to come with an explanation of their own. People who ask these questions seem to think they are justified in asking them. I am not sure I can rubbish all of this without consideration. So, here I am considering it is all.

The Washer of the Dead

In about the same time as reading the palace of illusions, I also read another collection of feminist short stories. This time it was a pleasantly brilliant one. A friend introduced me to this book titled ‘The Washer of the Dead’ by Venita Coelho (VC). (Look up Venita Coelho if you haven’t heard of her, she seems to have a very jealousy-inducing life).

The Washer of the Dead is a collection of ghost stories – yes, there is a ghost in every story – just not the type we’ve been used to seeing. There is a ghost that is in love, one that rides the wind, one that speaks to a woman during her period – several of them who live their lives right outside the spectrum of our imagination. Every one of the short stories is that of a woman – urban, rural, mad, musician, drug addict, dalit – you have all kinds.

I could talk at length about every short story and how beautifully Venita Coelho weaves real life tragedies into ghost stories. But I’ll pick only a few of my favourites here as examples. My best from the book is a story called ‘The Naked Ghost’ – about a woman who is humiliated, stripped naked and murdered for drawing water from the village well. The shortest of all stories in the book, this shocks the last bone of our comfortable urban sensibilities. Struggles that dalit, poor, rural, women go through in no more than a few words. VC draws a picture of a naked woman crying for justice in front of your eyes. It breaks my heart to think this is the world I live in.

The last story in the book is called ‘sealed’ – one of a ten year old dark virgin girl who was allegedly sold by her mother for three thousand rupees into prostitution. She dies in a cupboard and escapes to her dream world in death. The story titled washer of the dead is that of honour killing – a little girl brutally killed by own brother – her dead body tells her story to its washer. The ghost next door, about a little girl in whose skirt a ghost puts its hands every day, kills you with the child’s ignorance and tragedy.

VC takes you through stories of women around you – women in real life who are surrounded by ghosts haunting them that they can do nothing about. She makes dowry, sexual abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, suicide, religion, caste – everything into ghosts that trouble women. In The Washer of the Dead, Venita Coelho narrates ghost stories – terribly scary ones. The ones that scare you about the real world that have no ghosts.

Feminist Masculinity

About Rituparno Ghosh’s passing away last week, someone I know joked about how she sent a condolence message to a ‘pansy’ friend she had. She thought it was apt that all ‘pansy’ men feel sorry for Ghosh. I however think we should all just stand around and feel sorry for ourselves, for patriarchy.

Before you jump at me for blaming everything on patriarchy because I am erm..you know.. feminist, here‘s a very interesting piece on what patriarchy has done to masculinity and how feminism can help change it. Read it, you won’t regret it.

Teachers of children see gender equality mostly in terms of ensuring that girls get to have the same privileges and rights as boys within the existing social structure; they do not see it in terms of granting boys the same rights as girls — for instance, the right to choose not to engage in aggressive or violent play, the right to play with dolls, to play dress up, to wear costumes of either gender, the right to choose.

A part of this is perhaps what men’s rights activists/ masculinists perhaps take up. I cannot imagine my son being asked to man up if he gets bullied in school, while it will be okay for my daughter to make noise about it. If my daughter dresses in boy’s clothes she is a tomboy and if my son dresses in frocks, he is gay or worse sissy. In creating a feminist ideal, what we should not create is a world of matriarchy but a world of equality.

And a crucial piece of dismantling patriarchy involves dismantling not only misogynistic conceptions of womanhood but also misogynistic conceptions of manhood.

Full article here.

In a forest, a deer

In a forest, a deer

I came across Ambai during my days of cinema research, as C S Lakshmi, a researcher and academician in women’s studies. For long after, I did not know Lakshmi write fiction and I didn’t bother. Recently, I got an opportunity to return to cinema research and I came across Lakshmi again and this time as Ambai. In an impulse, I decided to buy a collection of her short stories In a forest, a deer (Kaattil Oru Maan – translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom). The short story collection is translated from Ambai’s work for various journals over a decade.

My personal journey through the book was that of a silent walk along the lives of the characters, carefully invisible so as not to disturb them but watch them closely because each character was one of us. Ambai, as the storyteller, seemed to be around me, holding my hand, walking me across.

In the first story – ‘Journey 1’, she deals with marriage and motherhood. The ironic and repeated use of the word ‘amma’ in casual conversation about motherhood playfully reflects on the ways we respect our women, and the reasons we choose to do so. The story titled ‘One and Another’ is perhaps the most intriguing of them all for me. Ambai writes about (what I understand) as two lovers – two men in love, devoid of inhibitions, living lives in the middle of art and activism, in a far away mountain village. There is hardly a direct mention of love or sex, but Ambai takes us through their lives leaving us to make what we want of it. But that’s hardly the story. The story here is of death, of not living without the one you love, of dying like a bird.

How do you wish to die?

Like a bird. With no one observing me. Without being nursed. Suddenly. Without any plan. With no one to remember me.

When he does die like that in the end, as a reader, someone standing by his shoulder watching him jump off a cliff, I didn’t have the urge to stop him. I had the urge to look away and forget him. That’s what he would have wanted.

‘Direction’ is another of my favourites. For instance, at a meeting to arrive at a few decisions after a peace march:

‘The rubbish bins ought to be kept clean’. Instantly someone added, ‘Women should come forward and take responsibility in this matter’.  She retorted somewhat hotly that since there was neither male or female in the matter of rubbish, everyone should take responsibility in keeping the place clean. The man proclaimed loudly, ‘Oh, a feminist! A feminist in our midst!’ Then he added dramatically, ‘Please forgive me madam.’ Everyone laughed at this.

And then there is a story about rain, ‘glow’ it is called. Which begins with squirrels and ends with Bharati. ‘Parasakthi and others in a plastic box’ – a story of displacement and compassion. The aged mother who makes pickles for the neighbourhood and distributes kungumappoo to pregnant women around. A simple Tamil woman who brought up two modern young women. ‘Vaaganam‘ is the story of a woman’s dream to cycle – a metaphor for the degradation of a woman’s freedom post independence.

In a forest, a deer – a woman who hasn’t come of age, unpublished manuscript – a woman who left the home of her abusive husband (who she chose herself), Wrestling – a woman who has to give up public performance because she is better than her husband, Journey 3 – of women, children, gods and movies, Ambai tells tales from real life. Of people you know, of women you’ve seen, of situations you’ve witnessed, of tears you’ve shed.

‘Forest’ is an enthralling story, perhaps more than one story. The story of Chenthiru who goes to the forest looking for peace and of Sita who gets her rudravinai lessons from Ravana. Of independent life in the forest, of wandering and thinking, of peacocks and rains, of toddy-drinking rural women, of Sitayanam, of lifting Shiva’s bow as a child but waiting to marry the man who can lift it, of falling in love but staying within boundaries, of being betrayed, of walking away and starting afresh. In all of her stories, Ambai draws from mythology, from culture, from history – but this one is the most moving retelling of them all. Of leaving Sita alone, allowing her to redeem herself. Of dwelling in possibilities.

It is my life, isn’t it? A life that many hands have tossed about, like a ball. Now, let me take hold of it; take it into my hands.

Every story is a gem. Every woman is a silent warrior. Every feminism is new.

Image courtesy of womensweb.in

Indian Feminist: Vina Mazumdar

In whatever short life I have led calling myself a feminist (online), I have heard all sorts of advice about the need to be or not be feminist. But what’s more interesting is the sort of things I got to hear about feminists at all. The unreasonable, man-hating, ‘western-feminism-inspired’ non-women lot.

The usual ones of ‘The need for feminism is over. Women are now equal to men’, ‘You lot have no sense of priority’, ‘The hoo-haa about women’s rights in unwarranted‘ are all too common. (If you have the time, read the comments I’ve hyperlinked. The change in the course of the conversation genuinely reinstates my faith in humanity). My favourite of course is when someone I once worked with, with great concern, wrote to me, “I read your blog. All men are not as bad as you think they are”.

What hits me in the gut is when people say, “I hate feminists” and hastily add “except of course you”. In most cases, these feminist-haters can’t name 3 feminists they hate and explain why. The one allegation I take seriously though is one that calls us young lot ‘western-feminism-inspired’. It is not far from the truth, I must admit. We are often affected by the Caitlin Morans and the Naomi Wolfs of our time that our thought process does get substantially influenced by Western standards.

In my personal journey of learning more about Indian feminism and (at some point) join a collective movement, I’ll begin to put together some writing about Indian feminists (and some by them), mostly just for me to come back and brush up my memory. You are welcome to join in.

I begin today with Vina Mazumdar, who passed away last week. Some obituaries and some interviews below.

In Tehelka (May 31, 2013), Lalita Ramdas, a renowned activist and feminist in her own right, writes about the influence Vina Mazumdar has in her life.

You helped me understand above all, through your personal example, that in order to change the world, it was not necessary to destroy ones personal relationships; you taught me that it was possible to combine and draw deep satisfaction from successfully  managing all the many roles of wife, mother, daughter, feminist and activist. I have struggled to juggle these roles all my life – and if I have managed them a lot of the credit goes to you.

Urvashi Butalia, one of my favourites among  contemporary feminists in the country (especially for her work towards getting feminist voices heard) writes about Vina Mazumdar in the Hindu (May 31, 2013)

For Vinadi all of this was possible, and had she been able to, she would have packed in more. Born into a middle-class Bengali household, she was taught to read by the family driver, Nagen. Supported in her desire to study and travel by her mother (who persuaded her father), Vinadi’s life journey led her from the Diocesian Girls’ School in Calcutta to Banaras, Patna, Delhi, Shimla, Behrampur and Oxford <ed>

But what stands out for me (of course apart from the scholarly work that Vina Mazumdar seems to have done) is her role in nurturing the next generation of feminists.

The activist years of the 1980s and 1990s often saw her in the forefront of demonstrations against dowry, rape and violence against women. But there was another, less talked about aspect to her and that was the support and encouragement she gave to new ideas, young activists, indeed anyone who sought her out.

The best piece I’ve read about Vina Mazumdar’s this week is an interview in Livemint (May 30, 2013), recorded in 2002. She talks of families, activism, feminism in a way that a loving elderly family member talks to you. More compassion, less rhetoric. If there is one piece you are choosing to read about Vina Mazumdar, I recommend it be this one.

Aparana Vaause, the historian, it took me years to persuade her to do some work on her own grandmother. Once she started dipping into the family archives, she discovered much more. She came and told me, “Not my grandmother. An earlier generation, they were much more stronger, and much more rebellious.” I said, ‘Well, write about them. “By the time she collected her material, she came and said, “Sorry, ulta cheez hai.Ulta ho raha hai. WE are MORE subordinated!” I said, “Okay, well, chalo. Now you have graduated.”

Isn’t there always more work to do?

Calling yourself feminist!

Abigail Rine, The Atlantic (May 2 2013)

Abigail Rine’s feminism is rooted as much in theory and study as in practice. With two advanced degrees in feminist studies and men a book on feminist literary criticism (coming out later this year), she still finds herself wondering if she must call herself a feminist publicly.

And yet, in my professional and personal life, I increasingly find myself talking about feminist ideas without actually using the word “feminism.” Why? It is exhausting to preface every conversation about combating misogyny with winsome, disarming anecdotes about how I actually do like men—enough to even marry one!—and how I actually haven’t burned any bras (and probably never will, because they are so expensive). I’m tired of doing this myth-debunking dance, and, weirdly enough, the conversation often goes more smoothly if I just avoid the “F-Word” entirely.

Full article here. A must read if you are going to walk into the world and call yourself a feminist (for the first time).

The scary F-word!

Laurie Penny, NewStatesman (16 March 2013)

This is the piece about Feminism where Laurie Penny steals my thoughts and writes them down eloquently.

It’s no wonder that “feminism” is still stereotyped as an aggressive movement, full of madwomen dedicated to the destruction of the male sex and who will not rest until they can breakfast on roasted testicles. It should be obvious that, as the feminist writer bell hooks puts it, “Most people learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.” As a result, most people remain confused about what the fight for gender liberation ultimately means.

Do read the full article here.

Do you watch what you’re saying?

Kafila | Feb 11, 2013

Feminists have always held that language plays a very important role perpetuating in gender-based oppression. In this piece on Kafila.org, Anupama Mohan writes about phallogocentrism and the impact of language on societal values.

In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb.

From there, she goes on to talk about the phallogocentrism, patriarchy, matriarchy, mythology, history, political correctness etc. to elaborate her point on the role of languages in the society.

Full article here: http://kafila.org/2013/02/11/the-languages-of-sexual-violence-anupama-mohan/

Virginia Woolf, on Pancakes and Porridge

From the Paris Review: Virginia Woolf, on Pancakes and Porridge. (February 7, 2013)

“When in a good and merry mood Trisy would seize a dozen eggs, and a bucket of flour, coerce a cow to milk itself, and then mixing the ingredients toss them 20 times high up over the skyline, and catch them as they fell in dozens and dozens and dozens of pancakes. But her porridge was a very different affair … It dolloped out of a black pan in lumps of mortar. It stank: it stuck.”

—From a series of sketches Woolf wrote for her nephews in their paper, The Charleston Bulletin. Illustration by Quentin Bell.