Gandhi and Idealization

I just read an article arguing Gandhi likely sexually abused young girls. It re-enforced for me how dangerous it is to idealize. We end up ignoring anything that might tarnish our fantasy, reject critical thinking, and unintentionally create the space for abuse of power to occur. This is as true for political and religious figures as it is for celebrities.

I still find Gandhi’s non-violent fight for India’s independence admirable – people, like life, are not black and white, good or bad – but his questionable past exploiting young girls must be acknowledged. Many Indians consider Gandhi to be the nation’s father, so it sets a dangerous precedent to ignore these wrongdoings. If India wishes to make progress in ending violence against women, it must start holding all of its powerful male politicians, gurus, and other leaders accountable. (Fyi, I am a Gujarati Indian – like Gandhi – from a Hindu background, although I now identify as an agnostic theist.)

And I’d add, this applies to every revered historical figure and country. We can’t just ignore unpleasant facts when it deviates from the popular narrative; we’re no longer re-counting history but reciting a fairy tale when we do. We must investigate these figures and countries critically, taking in their positive but also negative contributions. Jefferson, the great aristocratic American Founding Father, owned slaves – in fact, all of the Founding Fathers did. Mother Theresa was homophobic. Abraham Lincoln was a racist; closer inspection reveals the civil war was fought to preserve the Union, not for ideological reasons – just like most wars. (The Southern economy was strong due to slavery; Lincoln sought to weaken it to insure the rebellious South, angry over Northern taxes, would not leave the Union.)

The purpose of mentioning these people isn’t to prove they’re bad; it’s simply to show people, whether they are Mother Teresa or Gandhi, are human. It’s possible to be and do good and bad at the same time. When you label a figure as one or the other, however, you begin to look at history from a narrow lens that blinds you to the whole truth. And too often that comes at a price for the powerless few.

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Happy Women’s Day

The beautiful hands of the one who created me:

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I drew this simple design on my Mom’s hand on Valentine’s Day. The act held special significance. My Mom is an Indian Hindu widow from more traditional times, widowed young when I was just a child. Tradition holds that once a husband passes, a widow must no longer beautify herself the way she did during his life. So for years my Mom wore white Indian dresses.

You can imagine, then, that to apply henna – usually used to adorn brides- on a widow would be an outrage to the traditional, older types. Shameful even. Especially on Valentines Day.

Yet with the passage of time and the growth of willful, rebellious, authority-defying children in the US, my Mom slowly sheds away what I view as many disempowering customs of old.

And so, mostly unbeknownst to my Mom (she just thought I wanted to doll her up in honor of the day and play with henna) that’s exactly why I did it.

Here’s a toast to my brave, progressive Mother, who often can’t see her brilliance as clearly as I do. The world has been cruel to her as it has many Indian women of her generation and even mine. Being from different times, cultures and countries, we haven’t always seen eye-to-eye but she tries. And for this, I am so proud.

And to every Indian woman like her throwing off the cultural shackles preventing our gender from flying… Thank you. You give me hope. And a future.

Happy Women’s Day.

Representation

One woman’s/man’s views ≠ all women’s/men’s views.

One LGBTQ individual’s views ≠ all LGBTQ’s individuals views

One *insert cultural/religious/socioeconomic group here* views ≠ the views of all *insert cultural/religious/socioeconomic group here* viewsWhy? Each man, each woman, each poor person, and so on is different. Why? Each are ultimately individuals with unique experiences.It is impossible, ultimately, to be a true voice for all groups or even people. Not even the most immaculately-designed research in the world can claim to be fully representative.This sounds really obvious, but it isn’t. I often read articles about people claiming to represent entire groups, sometimes of those I belong to, but I cannot relate at all to despite the fact they claim to speak for me. Then there are times I most certainly can, but many from the same groups I belong to do not.

For example, I am a woman and I think and talk a lot about gender issues. And while sometimes I spout certain views I know many women agree with, or from my own personal experiences, I still cannot sit here and say I speak honestly on behalf of all women. Because I am not (sorry Whitney Houston, RIP) “every woman.” My experiences derive from my unique life circumstances that differ remarkably from another woman’s. There are many who disagree with my views, and they have every right to being women themselves. Their voices are as legitimate as mine, even if I may disagree passionately with them.

But sometimes I meet people who, when trying to argue a point, bring up certain individuals who agree with them from that group. Or they state they are a woman/from that religious group etc…as if that rests the case. When it doesn’t at all. Be humble enough to realize your life does not represent everybody else’s, not even your sister’s, the most genetically alike to you.

I think it bears reminding because it is easy to forget that each individual is different; we cannot always claim to know what they are thinking, or who they are, what they feel and believe, simply based on the group they come from. Sometimes we can have a good, general idea, but never the whole. And that is because each individual is more than the boxes the world artificially constructs for them.

When we forget that the tribe one hails from does not fully represent one’s life, we forget to truly listen and hear another person’s voice. Sometimes, we can even forget our own in all this group identification. We cannot truly be there for another if they need help. We cannot authentically connect. We can even end up imposing our own will onto them because “it worked for one person from your group/country/gender etc…”, so it should work for you.

Just take down your preconceived notions from time to time and hear another out.

Silence the Snakes

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Your sexuality measured by symbols on a strap

Your sense of self determined by the scale

Six-plus digits society calls success.

They’re snakes.

Your own soul, now a stranger

Silence society or silence yourself.

-Silence the Snakes

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.

Peace through becoming, not fighting: India’s Independence Day

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Gandhi used to sit and study in this area as a young student. I like to just reflect here with a coffee sometimes, pondering not necessarily him – he was both a deeply loved and controversial man, and I don’t like to put people on pedestals – but his ideas and what he represents: non-violence. Peace. Grace confronting the worst of humanity. And winning.

“We must be the change we wish to see in the world” floats through my mind, as does an “eye for eye makes the whole world blind”. Especially poignant and ironic words given that across this very street, a bus was bombed that fateful day July 7, 2005 by Al Qaeda.

For me, India’s Independence Day is more than just another holiday. It stands out from America’s Independence Day because August 15, 1947 doesn’t commemorate a battle between good and evil, like how the American Revolution eventually led to independence from the colonizer.

India’s Independence Day is a day that symbolizes the triumph of humanity over our darker, broken shadow sides. There was literally no resistance. It was simply the surrender, the embodiment of peace rather than the ironic fighting for it, that helped melt away “evil.”

Peace helping wash away the walls that harden us as humans, leading to liberation. Achieving peace through becoming, not fighting.

Peace as the way to peace.

Words for both the inner and outer world to ponder.

Happy Independence Day, India.

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.

Excerpts from Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life”

Just a few thought-provoking excerpts in non-chronological order from one of the many books I’m currently reading called “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” by well-known religious commentator Karen Armstrong:

ImageCapitalism and post-colonial psychology. Made me randomly ponder the link between post-colonial psychology and domination of women in certain countries, wondering if there is some connection between post-colonial emasculation and unhealthy attempts to re-gain masculinity through abuse/domination of women?

Image Interesting analysis of Islam image still pertinent today. Reminds me of how the media and society villainize(d) certain groups ie immigrants, Jews, women now and during times of witch burnings etc….as a means to expunge their Shadow selves?

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Why trying to be a Somebody is the path to suffering:

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It’s a great read – check it out:

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