Just because the law recognizes you as a human, doesn’t mean the rest of society will

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“What’s next? The Supreme Court’s going to legalize marrying our dogs? Brothers? Disgusting. And now on top of it, Obama’s taking our dollars and throwing them into the hands of the –”

The infuriated aged man stops to take a deep breath, as if the words he were about to utter were so disgusting he needed to brace himself.

“The goddamn “poor”, he spits outs, the contempt in his tone loud to all.

My hand shook as I poured cream into my coffee, his words and anger both shocking and scaring me.

It was a riveting reminder I wanted to share with you all – a way, I suppose, for myself to make something beautiful out of words so ugly:

While great political wins have occurred, there is a still – and will always be a need – for cultural and psychological shifts. Not just towards the LGBTQ community, but towards every identity – from socioeconomic to racial and gender.

Just because the law recognizes you as a human, doesn’t mean the rest of society will. Don’t let talks of “equality achieved” render you deaf to other forms of inequality. Human equality isn’t some destination with a single linear path, but a part of the greater human narrative – story – whose ending we can’t know but we have a lot of power to influence. Her/History is a story that ends only when humankind ends.

At the same time, don’t despair. Stories do and can get better. People’s hearts and minds can and do change, particularly young people’s, who are the future. So learn, teach and communicate with those willing to respectfully listen and engage.

The future is beautiful and full of hope, but only if we realistically accept and approach the still – and always, so long as fallible humans exist – imperfect present.

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.

I am a bigot.

A professor once told me the first, and the most important, step in eradicating racism, sexism, gender role oppression etc…is to first acknowledge it in yourself and constantly work on it. Whether it’s you acting or thinking in a discriminatory manner towards others, or yourself, we all have prejudices somewhere within us. How can we not? Our histories and lives are filled with all types of prejudice; even saints or respected figures had them ie Gandhi, Mother Teresa, MLK, Nelson Mandela etc…Mandela himself owned up to that.

So I’m always uncomfortable around self-righteous types who point the finger a lot but never look at themselves. When people judge too much, I wonder what they are repressing and thus projecting. I don’t trust them. I think most don’t, hence we roll our eyes at “do-gooders” sometimes. Many don’t feel they’re coming from an authentic place because they are not – they are annoyingly, hypocritically “holier than thou” acting out roles rather than being themselves, and coming from an honest, inspired, heart-filled place. The ones who are legit, however, like Mandela – we feel inspired by.

I get it because I was once like that myself – not just with societal issues but personally – until I realized I was so motivated by fear and sometimes societal definitions of “good”, “acceptable” “perfect”, I wasn’t really growing or self-actualizing as a person. I felt so trapped. And like a disgusting hypocrite, I was afraid others would find out the darker side of me, the side that believed more in certain prejudices or was weaker than I would outwardly convey.

Honestly, because I was like that, I thought everybody was too – politically correct, perfect beings on the outside, but not so much on the inside. I felt pretty bitter, guilty, and inferior – a huge fraud. But to admit this would make me look bad, so I tried to pretend these things weren’t there. I was so ashamed, but I had no way to communicate or deal with it, so I projected it outwards and got even angrier and judgmental of others. And I most likely alienated and turned off more people.

Now I’m more self-aware and comfortable in my own skin, I’m not like that anymore, or at least am not most of the time. And I’ve noticed now in my own life – and others experiences – that people tend to listen to and respect those who have the courage to own up to their intolerance than those who are always angry and fail to look in a mirror. Judgment, labels, self-righteousness, the words “You are so this and this”, “People, or this group, are sheep, lazy, complacent, dumb, ignorant, self-absorbed” doesn’t really do a whole lot when trying to resolve issues. It just creates shame and guilt, and as anybody with an understanding of psychology knows, those are the exact emotions people do anything to avoid – and thus will avoid anything that triggers it off, whether through avoidance or anger.

A lot of people are generally loving and caring, willing to listen, learn, grow, and change when you communicate to them from a down to earth, humble, understanding, problem-solving way/approach. Or at least that is my experience and observations. It’s just all about honest communication and self-awareness.