To End Violence Against Women, End Violence Against Boys

A piece I wrote published in UC Berkeley’s The Chronicle of Social Change:

In her quest to achieve some semblance of justice in the world and in her own life, abuse survivor Rachael Kay Albers angrily sought refuge in feminism.

Until one day, she noticed an irony: In her aggressive approach to fighting for a more humane world, she was becoming like her abuser.

“I was becoming an angry, militant activist, simply participating in and replicating the greater cycle of violence,” Kay Albers said. “As I began to recognize some of my own abuser’s characteristics in myself, he turned from abuser to human. I started looking at these issues from a place of empathy and compassion.”

Like many social problems, gender-based violence stems from myriad root causes. From child abuse to cultures of violence, the intersections highlight how the common ‘oppressor versus oppressed’ narrative fails to paint the full picture.

Research conducted in 2010 by the International Center for Research on Women [ICRW] illustrates this complexity, demonstrating that a significant number of men who abuse their partners were themselves abused as children. The reverse is also true, by the way: most abuse victims do not go on to be abusers.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) referenced the study when she introduced H.R. 1340 – the International Violence Against Women Act – on March 6, 2015. Unlike its failed predecessor in 2010, it emphasizes engaging and helping boys and men.

“The fates of the two genders are intertwined; for women to thrive, men and boys must be part of the gender equality agenda,” said Gary Barker, co-founder of MenEngage, in a column for New America.

Often in global conversations, abuse is oversimplified into an us-versus-them issue. But as the ICRW study illustrates, such a depiction doesn’t accurately capture the whole story. By dichotomizing one party as good and the other as bad – male or female – it can prevent further exploration into the deeper roots of gender issues that could help make the world more humane for all.

The ICRW study notes men who abused their partners were often abused as children, it doesn’t take into account women are more likely to be child abusers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2013 Child Maltreatment Report published in January 2015, 53.9 percent of perpetrators were women while 45 percent were men.

Perhaps, then, the “solution” here is to simply accept there isn’t just one. Social problems are too grey for black and white diagnoses and solutions – the humans they involve, too vast for victim and villain.

Or as Kay Albers succinctly puts it: “We’ve all been socialized into accepting violence as normal. [We need] open spaces to have these conversations. Be open to dialogue…to learn and to self-reflect.”

https://chronicleofsocialchange.org/opinion/to-end-violence-against-women-end-violence-against-boys/10104

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Letter to a Stranger: Published in The Elephant Journal

EJ Dear Stranger 500x500

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/02/letter-to-a-stranger/

Dear Stranger,

I don’t care about you—I care about You.

I don’t care about the small you that you think you are, that volatile sense of self the world has fed you, where you’re riding high on greatness one day and in the dumps the next, feeling abandoned by all. Your friends, like the 15 minutes of fame, adoration, societal approval, gone the next moment when the feelings fade, and something better walks along.

I don’t care who you are in relation to everybody else—the status you may hold, the money you may have, your looks, the influence, or even whether or you’re considered a “good” or “bad” person. I don’t care if you’ve gone to jail or if you’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize. I don’t care about what the world thinks of your potential, or lack thereof. I don’t care how far along or behind you are on the rat race, how together you seem.

I care about You, the you with a capital “y,” and who you are now as you journey through the paths that life bring at whatever pace you may need.

I like you for who you are now, not what you can be—although I know that you are capable of so much. I care about your heart, that fragile beautiful diamond whose value has not always been recognized in this cold, shut down world with all its messed up priorities and ways.

I care about that heart pain, about how it’s broken pieces feed your mind’s lies that you are not worthy, not loved, not enough, and I wish I could take them away. I care about those memories that shattered your innocence and belief in the world and yourself, in the beauty of your dreams, and I wish I could erase them all.

I care about that moment your heart closed—when he abandoned you, when she said no, when the fist met your face, when they laughed at you, degraded you, insulted you, or simply did not notice you. And I wish, I so wish, I could have been there, to catch your fall. I care about the child you used to be, how the world wasn’t there for that kid.

How the world now judges you for the physical manifestation of those mental scars when what you really need, when all you ever needed, is/was love.

I wish I could apologize on behalf of everybody.

I care about your soul and essence, the million tiny beautiful and not-so-beautiful things that make up the story of your life and the masterpiece you are. I believe in you and your innocence. I believe in second chances, that the burn was not the end but simply a part of the necessary fire in the never-ending growth of your phoenix soul.

In short, stranger, I believe in You. I love You.

If there is one thing you must take from this it is this: there is at least one person in this world who doesn’t give damn whether you’re the most successful, beautiful, together person in the world or that the only thing you accomplished today was getting out of bed. Who doesn’t care what the world might think, or what you’ve done, how many mistakes you’ve made, how many you’ve hurt out of your own in pain.

She still believes in you. She still loves you. She believes in your light, your purity, always.

You are loved.

You Can Be Indian And Not Hindu: An Agnostic Indian’s Thoughts: Brown Girl Magazine

http://www.browngirlmagazine.com/2014/08/can-indian-hindu-agnostic-indians-thoughts/
India: A land of many identities, not just one

I read an otherwise well-written piece arguing Urban outfitters indulged in cultural appropriation when they chose to sell products featuring Lord Ganesh. While I agree that their actions were insensitive to Hinduism as a religion, I had qualms with BG Saumya’s assertion that this was cultural appropriation.

I am Indian, but don’t feel offended by Urban Outfitter’s actions for one crucial but simple fact: while I grew up Hindu, I rejected organized religion as a teenager and describe myself as an agnostic theist now. Thus, is it still considered culturally insensitive if one doesn’t identify as Hindu? I, as a non-religious Indian, don’t feel my culture has been insulted because religion has nothing to do with my cultural identity as an Indian.

I’ll even go one step further and state that I don’t think any Indian, Hindu or not, should feel that Indian culture has been attacked, because I don’t think we should even be associating any religion with our cultural identities in the first place.

I’m sure such an idea sounds counter-intuitive. Realizing it or not, we have all been sold an idea of Indians as being synonymous with Hinduism. When non-Indians think of India, they often think of the ashrams and spirituality. Think back to most of the Indian social events you have gone to. Likely right along the Bollywood music and saris,  pictures of Hindu deities or other Hindu symbols were present.

So why is this problematic and needs to be changed? Well, just like the West doesn’t have the right to define and dominate my culture, why should a single religious group? So much so that they impose their values onto me by linking religious symbols to my cultural identity as an Indian? It’s just as wrong for Indian-Hindus to do it as it is for American-Christians to force their way of life and iconography onto the rest of us.

This is especially significant as India is technically supposed to be a secular country, while Hinduism is supposed to be a religion at its core that promotes peace. Yet, when the majority of Indians fuse these two together to create their personal identities, it has often led to the demeaning of both the Indian constitution and the religion.

For example, such a strong association between Hinduism and Indian identity has largely contributed to oppression of non-religious and religious minorities, like Muslims. This is an especially poignant point to consider given this year’s election of Indian Prime Minister Hindu nationalist Narenda Modi, the same former Gujarat chief minister who refused to apologize for the 2002 Gujarat Riots. The riots, the worst in Indian history, led to the death of more than a thousand Indian fathers, wives, and children. Their crime? Being Muslim.

Now, at this point, some might argue that with such a heavily entrenched fusion of identities, it is not possible to construct a culture that is still very much Indian without also being very much Hindu. After all, Hinduism has played an important role in India’s development.

I argue, however, that it not only is very much possible – India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, after all, was agnostic – but needed to represent the voices of all Indians, not just Hindus. Certainly Hinduism has heavily influenced Indian culture, but the fusion of Indian and Hindu identity is not fixed and is constantly changing in its relationship with each other.

For example, a brief look at Hinduism’s early and modern history reflects this well. It was actually the Mughals, or Muslims, who invented the term “Hindu” to identify the citizens of the invaded country. AsAjita Kamal explains, Indians created what is now known as Hinduism to protect their existing culture:

To the Indians, Islam was an alien ideology which was capable of replacing all local knowledge and culture with it’s own self-contained narrative. Their response was the formation of a reactionary element against Islam from within the Indian community (this happened by cultural evolution over many generations, as well as by concerted efforts of individuals and groups). This part-organic, part-organized movement adopted the label conferred on it by this enemy. Hinduism was born.”

‘Hinduism’ in its modern form was born from colonial times. Like the Mughal invaders, White colonialists ironically generalized and labeled all Indians as “Hindus,” and consequently those Indians fighting for freedom adopted the term with the religion as a tool to unite Indians against the British.

Ajita Kamal continues:

The entire early history of India had become synonymous with a religious ideology by the time India gained independence from Britain.”

Clearly the relationship between Hindu and the Indian identity is not a rigid one. It’s one we must divorce from each other if we want our culture and country to progress and become a more truer representative of all Indian voices.

There are a number of ways we could do this; Indian media outlets abroad and in the U.S. could perhaps represent Hinduism less, and report more on other aspects of our culture that are not tied to religion. They could give a voice to Indian atheists or other Indian religious minorities. At home, we could hold Indian social events that are not predominantly influenced by Hinduism, thus symbolically opening the doors for other religious and non-religious Indians to attend and feel accepted.

Understanding the “Privileged”

Another piece I wrote for The F-Word UK: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/07/understanding_the

Individual #1: Racial minority, woman brought up in a single-parent household with a deceased Dad, experienced financial hardship as a young child.

Individual #2: British citizen, well-educated, from a loving family, raised in some of the world’s safest areas, no physical impairments, middle-class upbringing.

It’s easy to identify which is the privileged one, yet they both describe the same person: me.

For a long time, I identified more with the first description. While aware of other types of privileges, the predominant in my mind was wealthy white male heterosexual privilege. Consequently, I was on the losing side.

That is, until I had a conversation with a white male heterosexual friend about race and gender. We discussed the concept of wealthy white male heterosexual privilege, which he found offensive.

I initially felt anger, but as he was my friend, I thought I’d calmly explain why he was wrong to feel offended. I elaborated by talking about how white male privilege adversely affected my life.

My friend listened compassionately, and seemed shocked.

“I’m so sorry to hear about that. I knew before that it’s hard to be a woman and an ethnic minority, and wasn’t trying to say it wasn’t, but I get it now. I am so sorry.”

I felt pride and asked if that helped him understand his privilege.

“Well, I still feel there’s something wrong I didn’t communicate well before. It’s more the way it’s often spoken about,” he replied. “I feel there’s this underlying assumption many have when they speak of the concept. Like that because I experience privilege as a white heterosexual man means I have the overall better life, when that’s not the case.”

He went on to talk about his past. He’d experienced tremendous poverty and abuse growing up. He felt he suffered from depression, but never asked for help due to the stigma he felt as a man he’d receive for it.

It was now my turn to feel shocked. All I’d known was his current situation – in which his family was wealthy – and the image he conveyed: tall, confident, and muscular.

It made me re-consider my belief that because I was less privileged in some ways, I had the worse life. While I lost my Dad at a young age, I lived a safe, stable middle-class upbringing. As a child, my supportive family and education-oriented culture taught me to value academics and family. My friend, on the other hand, suffered from neglect, experiencing brief stints at foster homes and street fighting.

It was like I’d created this mental hierarchy measuring people based on privilege, rich white men and women were further up, and thus had greater lives. When I realised I was more blessed in some ways than my friend, I saw how flawed that logic was. After all, I hadn’t had it easier than him in life overall just because I grew up with love. I’ve battled with emotional health issues, some actually indirectly a result of sexism, racism, and my socioeconomic background.

Yet I also asked for and received mental health treatment because I knew my family would help me. Reflecting on it deeper, I likely also benefited from the fact it’s societally more acceptable for a woman to ask for help than a man.

I realised what my friend was saying: just because you’ve the upper hand in one area of life doesn’t mean you’ve the happier life. Nobody’s immune from pain, no matter her or his gender, race, or wealth. After all, depression and suicide can affect anybody.

My heart softened. I learned an important lesson: if one wants real understanding between the sexes, or even non-white feminists and white feminists- we’ve got to respectfully talk and call somebody out on their privilege. The intention has to be to promote unity rather than separation, which is more likely to occur when one communicates as opposed to aggressively confronts.

In similar past situations, I’d get mad. Why should I “respectfully” educate and listen to him when I feel disrespected? It shouldn’t even be my responsibility as a non-white minority to teach him in the first place.

Yet because of structural racism, the average person isn’t taught about these concepts. I myself didn’t know about white male privilege until university. Is it really productive to get mad at him personally, taking out what is actually my anger at society, for being born into a world that didn’t teach either of us better earlier? Wouldn’t it be more productive to instead respectfully explain it to him and hear him out, given people usually listen when they feel heard?

It turned out it was. That day my privileged white male friend became an advocate for women and racial minorities’ rights, and I became a better human being.

My second piece for the F-Word UK

When the Defenders are the Perpetrators – the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/06/when_the_defenders#comments

With 151 countries signing a protocol to end sexual violence in conflict-affected countries and the introduction of a new UN policy to help do so, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict in London was a fantastic step forward.

The Summit’s aims were many, with much noise made about holding governments accountable, better training for peacekeepers, and supporting women human rights defenders.

Yet what to do when the very defenders are also the perpetrators – such as the United Nations itself? Unfortunately, the Summit did not provide much of an answer.

UN peacekeepers have repeatedly committed acts of sexual violence in many of the same countries the summit highlighted, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti. How can we forget the 2005 revelation that UN peacekeepers were paying young girls in the Congo food for sex? Indeed, according to reports by Cornell constitutional law scholar Muna Ndulo, “UN peacekeepers have fathered an estimated 24,500 babies in Cambodia and 6,600 in Liberia.”

While the UN has condemned these actions and taken steps towards reform, the organisation has been criticised for not taking sexual violence seriously enough – partly because it does not even have the power to do so. It is the UN’s structure that largely enables this abuse; peacekeepers are only contracted to the UN, and thus are subject to their individual countries’ laws. Thus, UN policy enforcement on tackling violence against women is as problematic as the policy enforcement on tackling violence against women is in every country.

While the Summit addressed strengthening domestic laws so that prosecution can occur, still, it did not address this in reference to the UN’s peacekeeping failures – one almost wonders if to avoid touching on the UN’s embarrassing history. It also did not address how the UN keeps knowingly hiring peacekeeping troops from countries that do not adequately prosecute their soldiers for rape, and even keeps the identities of these individuals anonymous.

It is disappointing that at the largest summit of its kind, the media and government representatives at the Summit remained curiously silent about the United Nations’ own contribution to the problem. It would have been the ideal platform to speak up, but then perhaps given the UN’s large presence at the event, it would have hit too close to home.

This inconvenient truth and its omission from the discussions at the Summit offer an important warning: when it comes to ending sexual violence in war, everybody needs to be held accountable for genuine progress to occur. In many ways, some of the factors that have allowed sexual violence in conflict-affected countries to continue without adequate punishment mirror some of the reasons why sexual violence worldwide is so rampant.

To an extent, both are largely fueled by a global culture that perpetuates rape and gender inequality. It’s a culture that often either victim-blames or simply does not take rape seriously enough. Thus sexual violence is not simply the problem of certain countries, but reflective of a worldwide systemic issue all countries contribute to. Even the Summit’s host – the UK government – has failed to protect refugees victimised by sexual violence in war, causing further trauma by refusing to even believe them. And let’s not even get started on how often rape in general occurs every hour in every country, from the US to the Congo, and yet how poorly politicians sometimes respond towards these cases thus perpetuating the problem. For example, the US – despite its large presence in the Summit and the UN – has neglected its own college campus sexual assault survivors.

Ending sexual violence in conflict-affected countries will require more than just 151 signatures. It will require everybody – countries, the UN, individuals – to take an honest look at itself and take responsibility for its own part in this larger problem. The Summit was a wonderful move in the right direction, but until each country and organisation does so, real change will not be possible.

The Greys of Liberation (from The F-Word UK)

I wrote a piece for The F-Word UK I’ve pasted below. Original article here: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/06/the_greys

What exactly does a liberated Western woman look like? Is she the driven career woman, the stripper, the nun, or the housewife? In feminist circles, the debates over this issue are endless and admittedly often judgmental.

To me, the answer is quite clear: there is no set answer. Indeed, to attempt to even provide a rigid definition for another person can ironically be counterproductive.

Let me explain.

For me, who I am today is a culmination of all the people I’ve ever been in my short life. I’m on my journey towards authentic liberation as a woman, but I had to first experiment with different selves – and still am doing so.

When I was a teenager, I rebelled heavily against my more conservative, studious Indian upbringing. The hyper-sexualised Western world seemed more liberating than my strict background, in which I’d felt so controlled by cultural and familial expectations. Scenes and activities I later found objectifying I embraced in an attempt to construct an identity of my own. I looked at the likes of pole dancers and party girls with secret admiration.

Yet as I grew and gained more self-awareness, I eventually no longer felt this way. While I was beginning to construct an independent sense of self, I realised I was still unhealthily looking for the same validation I had as “the good Indian girl”, but now from men and my Western peers. I realised many of the “sexy” women I’d looked up to weren’t as free as I thought. I felt we’d been pressured subconsciously from society and the media to look and behave like a sex object.

I became disillusioned. I labeled women who largely used their sexuality for gain as disempowered – sell-outs who were emotionally either unintelligent or unhealed. I was wary of the sexuality I’d been sold that seemed so disempowering to my gender. I shunned my sensual side as I couldn’t trust my own impulses anymore; they seemed more a product of a patriarchal society and past conditioning than myself. Certainly I was becoming more liberated as I was starting to learn to think for myself. Still, I was not being my full self ironically for fear of not being a truly liberated woman.

Yet, I could never label either of these stages in my growth as more or less liberating than the other. Each part of the journey led to greater liberation, a blossoming of different aspects of myself, shaping the more balanced woman I am today. The only way I could ever grow and become more liberated is by being able to choose, at least consciously, to carve my own identity. Sure, I will never be 100% free of subconscious, environmental, and biological influences, yet I will always have conscious control. And as I choose to create my life, I grow into and learn more about what is truly liberating for me, even if I make some mistakes along the way.

So really, I’ve no idea what is liberating for you or what will be liberating for me in a few years from now. But thanks to all my various phases in life, I have a better idea of what feels liberating for me right now. Like when I let myself feel insecure or strong, allowing myself to be the imperfect, multi-faceted human being I am who’s still growing. When I belly dance, and experience a different, more sensual side to myself. When I achieve a goal and experience a sense of accomplishment.

I also have a stronger idea of what doesn’t feel liberating for me right now. Like chasing success because I am trying to prove my worth. Dressing a certain way because I feel societal pressure to look and appear sexy. Trying hard to appear confident, like I’ve got it all together, and acting like a “good, classy girl” – doing whatever it takes to not appear like the “trashy” or insecure woman we are taught to look down on. Judging another woman, rather than compassionately supporting her in finding her own personal liberation, however it may look like and differ from mine. Because by trying to suppress and define another for themselves, I inevitably end up suppressing and losing myself.

Perhaps, then, a liberated woman is one who defines liberation on her own terms. She makes her own life decisions in whatever way and order she decides aligns with her individual values. Whether that’s pre-marital sex or waiting, one career or 20 or none ever at all, a job as a sex worker or a life as a nun without sex. Maybe a liberated woman is simply one who lives her life according to what she feels is right regardless of what others tell her, whether that’s a patriarchal system or a feminist leader.

Going Beyond India is Weird

I recently read a post on Thought Catalog titled, How India Changed Us.” In short, the article featured the travel perspectives of two young Americans who recently bicycled across India. Their account was condescending; an eloquently expressed unoriginal piece at best. I can’t even count the amount of times they recounted how traveling in India made them feel “lucky to be American.” While I don’t believe the duo were intentionally being racist they unwittingly approached a sensitive matter in, as one commentator put it, a “less than enlightened manner.”

What surprised me most was not their depiction of India, but the response of many other Indians to the article. A few were upset. Many were not. If anything, they were complimentary -– and critical of those who had issues with the piece. One individual stated:“I think a lot of the time people fall into the trap of immediately branding something as racist if it doesn’t fit into his/her idea of what is appropriate. I understand that, but I really hope we can move past that.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of writing. Nor is it the first time I’ve seen a positive response to it from fellow South Asians. Sadly, I think that sometimes South Asians get so excited about being represented in a media outlet, they ignore the fact the depiction may not be entirely accurate or balanced. Or maybe, like the writers, they’re not even aware of it themselves.

When you’re a Westerner writing about a country like India in public, or a region like the Middle East or Africa, you have a responsibility to be careful given the historical context.

Instead of offering something “interesting” or “original,” readers were offered the same overdone, condescending, Orientalist, being-in-India-made-me-appreciate-amazing-America cliché. It offered a very superficial image of India. The same image we’ve seen time and time again. It was disappointing, especially from a website that claims, “You’re going to discover stories, ideas, and voices here that you won’t find in the mainstream media.”

Why do I resent the image of India portrayed in “How India Changed Us”? Because it ignores the myriad, complex reasons for India’s status quo. India, like many former colonies, finds itself mired in social inequality and poverty for many reasons, some internal but also external. Corrupt governments. A colonial legacy. Unfair international trade practices, which contribute to farmer suicides by organizations dominated by — or at least traced to — the United States, such as the World Trade Organization. These are just a few examples.

But none of these issues are even touched upon in this article. It simply parrots the same old, “Indians are backwards,” “India is weird” trope we see time and time again. While nobody expects these two young bicyclists to offer 10 paragraphs narrating the various back stories behind India’s many troubles, the fact that the article was published in its current form continues a troubling precedent.

The dialogue seen in “How India Changed Us” is particularly significant today. It adopts the kind of approach that breeds First World resentment. For Americans to present themselves as morally superior, when we have helped install authoritarian governments and have contributed to many of the problems in the developing world smacks of hypocrisy.

Now, I’m sure the writers didn’t intentionally mean to insult. They probably just wanted to talk about their radical bicycling trip. But because the post appears on a public site, Thought Catalog, and only serves the purpose of reinforcing American stereotypes regarding countries like India, it’s irresponsible to share yet another article like this one without at least offering a balanced counter-narrative. Every story has two sides. And this one is lacking.

I published this here: http://theaerogram.com/going-beyond-india-is-weird/