Monday, August 3, 2015

A personal note of gratitude to the organizers behind the stadium run - you are my heroes today

I write this with actual tears in my eyes. I am very humbled by what occurred this morning. But since most have no idea what I am talking about, I will do a quick recap of what happened over the weekend: On August 1st and 2nd Bangalore played host to some of the best ultra marathoners in the country. 38 men and women took part in a 24 hour and 12 hour stadium run and they ran inside the 400 metre track in Kanteerva. Organized by the Bengaluru Marathon team, it was truly an incredible sight to see - men and women who pushed past what is generally considered humanly possible.

Of course there were more men than women. There was only one woman in the 24 hours category (Aparna Choudhary) who  participated. Now I want to talk about the women for just one moment. These were fabulous ladies who were currently participating in a world dominated by men. And training for an ultra means you are on your feet for hours at end in one day. If you are a woman runner in India, then chances are you have had to face some interesting characters in your day. Now imagine facing such harassment on a larger scale because you are alone on the road for many hours. These ladies are more than rockstars, they are pioneers and trendsetters. They are paving the way for other girls in the country who are told they can't do something because of their gender.

Now why am I talking about the ladies in the ultra? Because while I was very happy to see the crowds, the organization, the incredible running by these incredible men and women, I felt slightly pinched at the end. The women who won got goodies bag and the men who won got goodies bag and prize money (of course like I mentioned there were more men than women). What about the women I wondered? I didn't sleep very well in the night and I tossed and turned a whole lot. I got up and wrote a Facebook post about these women I considered heroes and professed my wish that they could have gotten prize money.

Of course my post invited a fair amount of controversy within an hour of its posting. Some agreed with me and some didn't. After all, the organizers didn't take any money for registrations from the participants. I myself witnessed the ultra runners being treated with reverence and care. They were provided with every bit of nutrition they asked for. Perhaps it was wrong of me to even point out issues when the larger picture was about promoting running in the country.

But if running is to be encouraged, then it should be encouraged for everybody. And women and men should be recognized for accomplishing great feats in the name of sport. Now this New York Times article points out why men are faster than women biologically. We are all human beings but men have less fat and more muscle and women have hips (and boobs). Oh and there is the issue of testosterone. Which is why any race that has open category is inherently sexist. A man and woman who are both at the pinnacle of their fitness levels will still not be equal. The man will swim faster, run faster. Open category does not work. Period.

Now on any other day in any other world, this post would have been read by a few, ignored by most and invariably someone would have told me to "chill Aishu". Except it didn't quite happen that way. The organizers called me. They wanted to know why I had a problem. I explained it to them to the best of my abilities (I was quaking in my boots). I knew I had a massive responsibility on my shoulders. They genuinely cared about what I had to say. It was scary because I am so used to writing Facebook posts that go nowhere. I don't want to lie, I snuck into my office bathroom to cry from the sheer fear of having caused "trouble".

To my very genuine surprise, I wasn't yelled at. I was listened to. It is really a show of how great the organizers are behind Bengaluru, that I wasn't swatted aside like an annoying mosquito. They cared about the views of a random runner who is lucky if she completes a two hour half marathon. I have been screaming bloody murder about the Vodafone cyclathon for two years now for having only open category (I am famously known as the girl who shows up to yell at the organizers about this every year but never listened to).

A few hours after my conversation (during which time I emotionally ate my way through most of what Arya Bhavan had to offer in terms of junk food), I was contacted again. The organizers heard me out and thought I had a fair point. They told me that they are going to given prize money for the female winners too. When I read that message, my hands shook. I was stunned. And as is generally the case with me, I broke into tears (I am still in office but thankfully went back to the bathroom for a good emotional cry). But this isn't about me. This is so much bigger than me. This is about the fabulous women who ran ultras this past weekend who deserve every bit of this recognition. This is about a large race organizer going above and beyond to do what's right for the community. This is a miracle that I am glad to have witnessed. So, at the end of this very rambling and emotional post, I just want to say a few things:

  • I am really  sorry if I caused trouble to anyone. It was never my intention. I really do apologize.
  • I am so happy that the women who ran yesterday will get the recognition they truly deserve. Ladies you were inspiring. You are heroes. Just having witnessed you women run yesterday, I came out a changed person. You deserve every accolade and every award that comes your way. You are setting precedent for the future generation. And we women thank you for everything that you do. 
  • And finally a THANK YOU to Nagaraj Sir. You are my hero sir. You have today taken such an incredible step towards bringing more women into running. You listen to every runner. You have made  history in what you did today. You have set precedent for future races. Now we women can march up to other race directors and demand equality because of YOU. I shall forever be indebted to you and am very grateful for who you are as a person. You are not only the best race director in the country but an outstanding person and I am grateful to you. 

So, friends. There you have it. The world is filled with people who are willing to change it for the better. And women, let's ensure we flock the organizers of Bengaluru Marathon with as much love and support as we can possibly imagine. They are batting for us. They are batting for us when not many are.

P.S Yes. I am still in the office bathroom. But I stopped crying. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

It's not a joke and it is not funny

A few weeks ago I was running near my office in broad daylight. A man wearing an IT tag riding his bike, grabbed my breasts. And he sped off before I had a chance to stop him or even take down his vehicle number. I felt violated but I kept running. I came back to my office and checked my messages. There is a meme with a woman wearing next to nothing appeasing a man. A part of me got chipped away.

A month ago I was sitting at work late into the night. I had work to do and things to accomplish and I was very tired. I was aware that I may have make do with a plain cheese sandwich once I get home. A message arrives under the garb of a joke. It says that a woman's place in life is to be in kitchen and make mayo and cheese sandwich. Another part of me got chipped away.

A few days ago, I was hugging my mother after she returned home from a long tryst in the US. She wanted to go visit her parents and was deciding on whether she needs to get back to work or retire for good. She was telling me that I need to be more careful with my financial investments. A meme arrives. A naked woman whose breasts are being suckled by a man. She is wearing a doctor's costume and the joke is that men will line up for such a service. I feel physically tired looking at this.

I had to muster every ounce of courage I had but I finally broke down and voiced my opinion that I didn't like these jokes at all. They aren't funny. I have never laughed at them. Most of them make no sense and are not remotely clever. They all follow the similar train of thought - to reduce women. A woman belongs in the kitchen, claims one. A woman will beat up her husband jokes another (how is domestic violence ever ok? Imagine a victim of domestic violence in that Whatsapp group who had to see that joke. Imagine how much that must have hurt them). One joke is that a married man is playing darts on his wife's face and keeps "missing" her (again with the domestic violence). There are jokes about male rape (how will men ever come forward to report rape if you turn them into jokes????!).

Honestly, I don't know any woman in my life who has ever laughed at these jokes. They may not always speak up against them (maybe the person who cracks the joke is their boyfriend, maybe they don't want others to think they are humorless, maybe they have just reached a point where they no longer want to point out the misogyny inherent in these jokes) but I know no one who laughs at them. How can they? Women in general get painted by broad brushstrokes - emotional, vain, nagging, unable to understand technical things ("oh jaanu I don't understand this code" joke), or are objects to be pulled apart. Let's reduce her to her ass, her tits, her lips and other body parts. Let's post a picture of her naked body for the consumption of others. Would you ever send such a joke to your mother? Your wife? Would you be ok if your sister is mocked for her divorce? Why do you think such jokes are then things that can be passed down from group to group?

Here's the thing. Offensive humor can be very very funny. Amy Schumer is crass and funny. Louis CK is a funny comedian who happens to be ridiculously original too. Tina Fey, John Oliver, Aziz Anasari, Amy Poehler, are all some of the most celebrated comedians today and they deliver jokes that are a commentary on the society as it exists right now. And they offend. And they call out hypocrisy. And they are funny. And they manage to do so without becoming unoriginal and saying - hey women can't work. Who will cook for you? (Again, how is this remotely funny?).

Studies have shown that jokes such as these are very harmful as they reinforce the inherent patriarchal mores that our society functions in (The very fancy research article here). The jokes create hostility. They make it unsafe for women to be themselves. How can we be when we are forced to "take the joke" and not express our outrage as a result of it? How can we tell our male friends that a man grabbed our breasts and we feel violated when they were joking about male rape earlier that day? And when we do say that we are offended by those jokes, we are told to ignore them. We are lectured on the freedom of speech (it's funny that freedom of speech only exists in the context of sexist jokes. They don't apply to me telling you that you have crossed the line).

Jokes can be funny and comedy can effect change (Another fancy research and its stats). Why can't we be part of the change that creates a world that is inclusive of men and women (also I cannot stand LGBT's never funny to mock those who are already being subjugated)?

So, what happened you ask, when I finally spoke my mind? It hasn't been fun but it has resulted in a lot of introspection. For one I decided to no longer be in a space I didn't feel welcome in. I left the groups that I thought quietly chipped away parts of me. I tried to convey my discomfort, I was put down time and again and I realized that my voice was being stifled and it was my choice to walk away. I was told that I will lose friends as a result of my being "sensitive" and that made me feel really sad. But I pushed through. I don't want friends who just want an audience and are unwilling to see things from anyone's perspective but their own. How are we equal then? How are we friends? Of course I was told other things too. I was told that men do not find feminists "attractive". I was told that this was the reason people who are like me need to "get laid" (how to spot a sexist? Well, if the sexist male feels like he is losing the argument, he will immediately tell you that you are less desirable to the opposite sex...because that is what matters right?). Other parts of me got chipped away but I quietly rejected all those notions and stuck to my own convictions.I passive aggressively posted feminist memes on Facebook . It was not my smartest of moves but I wanted to create a safe space for me and just remind myself that females are strong as hell (it is a reference to indomitable Tina Fey's TV show - Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, not me making a grammatical mistake). I wrote this blog and reclaimed a part of my voice that was still afraid of ruffling feathers. I also learnt some important lessons along the way.

Fancy lessons learnt by Aishu in the past two weeks:
  • Never expect anyone to stand up for you just because you think or you know you are in the right. It is their prerogative. You just have to deal with it. 
  • Don't be afraid not to be the "cool girl". If you think you need to stand up for yourself and it goes against the status quo that has been established, don't let that drown your voice away. You have to always believe in yourself no matter what. Your opinions do not make you "hormonal" or "crazy". Don't let such men or women dictate your life and your voice. 
  • Women need to stand up for other women (also men). We need to come together and support one another and help one another. And that starts with me. I won't support hypocrisy (that holds true for both men and women). I won't support a woman just because she is a woman. But if a woman expresses that she is uncomfortable due to someone's casual sexism (or heavy handed sexism), then I pledge to come to her defense and support her (or him if it is the case of a guy). I know what it feels like to be all alone in a fight and I will in my power never let that happen to anyone else ever again. 
  • Welcome men into the conversation. I used to go by the old trope ("no uterus? No opinion"). But the truth is men constitute half the population and there are some fantastic men out there who want to help make the society equal for both sexes and we are pushing them away just because we feel their experiences as men invalidates them from fighting for equality of the genders. I am guilty of having done this in the past. I won't do this ever again. The fight is against a patriarchal system that imprisons both men AND women. Let's fight that together. 
  • Unicorns are real. They will always be real. And they will always be awesome. Yes. I learnt that in the last two weeks. 
So, this is where I am right now in life. A little bruised and chipped away but still sparkling and awesome. I have discarded things from my life I no longer need and found a strength I didn't think I had. I would say that this is the modern day fairy tale. The modern day romantic comedy. I want to say that this is my happily ever after but I know better. This is my beginning. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Grappling with feminism

One of my most vivid memories from my school years is that of a teacher pulling me out a class. He was angry that I was found fighting with another boy. He told me that I was a girl and I should behave like one and girls simply do not beat up boys. I also remember that the boy in question (G Arvind, I still blame you for taking my pencil box) was not questioned or pulled up or lectured.

I grew up in a patriarchal world and never understood why my life was so incredibly different to my male counterparts and when I understood why, I became angry. It is just so unfair to live the world as it functions right now. The odds were stacked up against me even before I was born. Every year three million lives are lost due to female infanticide in India and I am lucky to be even alive. (Source: 3 million lives lost - The Hindu).

So yes. I am a feminist. I believe inherently that while men and women are not the same (no human being is the same), they are however equal. I believe that there need to be as many girls studying in engineering colleges as men. I believe that there need to many more female CEOs. I believe women deserve better representation in politics. I believe that when a girl is born, she should not be subjected to think that her place in life is to grow up and get married and that alone is her true worth. If someone chooses to be a stay at home mom or caretaker, then they should be applauded for their decision, but it should be their choice.

Accepting myself as a feminist is about the easiest decision I have ever had to make. Why will any woman think her place is below that of a man? In African and Middle East countries, female genital mutilation is still something that occurs (Source: WHO FGM stats). In India, even today women who accuse men of raping them are actually sometimes punished due to archaic mindsets (Rape victim punished). Living as a woman as part of this world and society, I don't see how I can't be affected.

However, the genesis of the "cool girl" means that when you take a stand on a specific issue, you are told that you come across too "aggressive" and then you get mocked for it (Source Buzzfeed: Jennifer Lawrence And The History Of Cool Girls). A lot of the times you are told to "Be chill and don’t be a downer, act like a dude but look like a supermodel."

In all fairness there are some fabulous men and women out there who are actively part of this conversation and are incredible about engaging with others on discussions about feminism. The numbers are increasing by the day and it is really heartening to experience. From what I had to face 10 years ago to the wonderful conversations I have had since with many men and women in the recent years, I have seen a clear shift in the mindsets of people that surround me. But that doesn't mean it still isn't an uphill battle at times.

You are told to be "chill" when you express your thoughts on feminism. An eye roll here, a shrug there, it sometimes can feel very alienating indeed. "Just let it go".

Here is the thing. I don't want to chill. I don't want to let go. I want to have the conversation right here and now. Even if it is about a bad joke, I want to talk about it. It took centuries of reinforcement to bring the world to its current state. The message that men were superior to women is something that has been passed down for generations. If we want to change the conversation, we need to be part of the conversation and not shrug it away as someone else's problem.

No. I don't find jokes degrading women funny. I don't like it when someone uses phrases that denote women somehow trap men. I don't like it. And I have as much a right and I believe a responsibility to speak up when some of these things happen. This isn't a joke to me. I am terrified of having to explain to future generations why my generation did not fight hard enough against blatant injustice meted out to human beings based on their gender and sexual orientation.

Feminism is not an angry concept. It just has been marketed that way. It is also not about bringing men down in order to prop up women.It is about freeing men and women from antiquated gender roles.  It is about ensuring all human beings are given a fair shot and are treated equally (however impossible and daunting that may be).

So, I am speaking up. Because if not me, then who? If not now, then when?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Long live the king. Saying goodbye to Henry

Every time over the past decade, whenever someone asked me why I supported Arsenal, I always mumbled about good sportsmanship, Arsene Wenger and beautiful game-play. Eventually if you prodded a bit more, I would admit that yes, I started out as a Thierry Henry fan.

Thierry Henry isn't just a player for most Arsenal fans. Everyone else knows him as the demi-god who scored 228 goals during his time at Arsenal. But he is more than just his stats for us. He was our hope. He gave us our greatest highs and he broke our hearts (and he would later admit his own as well) when he left.

But he never left us. He just played for other clubs. But he always only belonged to us. We weren't just Arsenal. We are Arsenal that Thierry Henry once called his home. We are the Arsenal where Thierry Henry scored his unbelievable volley against Man Utd in 2000 cinching us the victory. We are the Arsenal, when in 2004, he ensured we never lost.

And even after he left the club, he stayed on as our mascot. As our good luck charm. Fans of other clubs could call us "Boring old Arsenal". They joke that our manager equates finishing top 4 in Premier League is same as winning as the trophy. They can poke fun of the fact, our trophy cabinet has been a bit empty in the past decade (it hasn't. We won the FA Cup and it matters!). But they can never ever take Thierry Henry away from us. They can never tell us that he only played for us because he was under contract and there was never really any love. They can never tell us that for him it was just a job the way it was for so many of our other players who left the club and joined our rivals.

Thierry Henry loved us. Loves us. He left his heart behind at Arsenal and kept coming back because he could never close his chapter on us. He came back in 2012 and scored an amazing comeback goal against Leeds and left us all in a puddle of tears. He stood next to his statue at Emirates and choked up as he heard the crowd chanting his name.

Passion. Dedication. Loyalty. Love. People don't equate football with these words anymore. But it exists. It matters. Thierry Henry is living proof of that.

Now we shall wait patiently until he comes back to the club he loves. Because this club is his home. And we will always be waiting for him. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The marathon is about the city...not just the runners

Marathons matter. They aren't just about world records and Kenyan runners running faster than supercars (although let's face it, it's inspiring to watch elites scorch the roads). For the most part, they are expressions of how ordinary people  push towards something that they would have never thought possible. Folk who have battled severe illness, or taken up running to stay healthy or even because they wanted to do something with their lives to somehow matter. Folk like me. We never win the big races but we work hard to do the best that we can. We don't get the glory but we are part of the bigger community that's willing to push itself beyond the possible. We love torturing ourselves for the sake of elusive PBs. Our toenails fall off...our feet blister. We sweat. We bleed. And it's all worth it on race day.

I cried while running the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. Am embarrassed to admit it but I couldn't help myself. I reached the 8k mark and looked at the masses that had gathered to cheer me along. I choked up. I was overwhelmed. And this little kid who could not have been more than 7 years old screamed - keep running didi! And for a few moments, my sweat was mingled with tears. This kid was cheering me along. Little me who kills herself to be just an average runner. Who might never win any big races. To whom glory means an extra slice of pizza. Mumbaikars really wanted us runners to feel special. They made me feel special.They were proud of their city. They were proud of the thousands who showed up to run. They wanted to make sure every one of us had the best experience of our lives. And honestly, most of us did.

Yesterday I ran a race that I had been looking forward to months - the Bengaluru Marathon. It's my race. I started running in this city. It's my home. And it was a great privilege for me to run here. I wanted to be part of the city's history. However one thing I didn't count on was people who were stuck in traffic actually trying to harm the runners.

The traffic police was at every turn trying to ensure the roads were safe and free for marathoners but motorists became hooligans and were yelling at the cops. We could hear them yelling. We could hear them shouting. We heard the abuses. And we also saw them blatantly break the rules, push past the cops and start riding the streets where runners were running. They were honking their horns and pushing us out of our own roads as the cops helplessly tried to do their best. Runners then had to take it upon themselves to ensure their own safety and the safety of others who were running as well.

Am sure there are lessons to be learnt for the organisers, the cops and the runners too. But there are bigger lessons to be learnt for the city itself. We are part of this city. This is our run. This is our pride. We should want runners to go back to their cities and feel jealous of us. We should want every runner to have done their best.  Our goal shouldn't be to run them over but to carry them to the finish line. Ordinary people coming together to become part of something extraordinary.

Of course I want to thank all those who did come out to the streets to cheer us along the way. The kid who was gleefully giving high-fives to hundreds of runners who went past him. The uncle who doubled back during his own race to give me oranges because I looked like I was going to pass out. My friend who wouldn't leave my side as I struggled through illness during the race. The army men who applauded us. The volunteers who ensured the aid stations were perfectly packed. And of course the thousands of runners who joined me to run their bests.

Marathons matter. Not just for the elites who run so fast and hard that they are no more than a blur whizzing past us mere mortals. But for the runners who beat odds to just show up for race day. And they should matter to the city too. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

30 questions for the world

I am going to embark on a new project. A quest or a journey if you will. Anyone who has been remotely following this blog and who knows me in real life knows that I don't have the answers. I don't pretend to have the answers. In fact I probably would not know the answer if it danced naked in front of me wearing Dobby's tea cozy (Harry Potter fans will get that reference).

So, I am going to ask everyone else questions to life's biggest mysteries (why is Kim Kardashian famous?). So, basically, over the next few weeks or months, I plan on hounding the people in my life...the people I barely know and the people I have just met, a set of 30 questions. Consider them rapidfire questions filled with irreverent moments. I shall blog about it right after with their answers. The whole concept behind this conceit is that you can learn a lot about life and purpose to living if you were willing to listen to what someone else has to say (even if it is their take on Kim Kardashian's fame and her wedding to husband number 3). My only goal is to learn from the other human being and hopefully someone else learns from them as well. One day I hope to collate them all and see if there is any structure to living life...if there is a specific goal to it. And really what does 42 really mean? (This time I am going for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The questions will range from something as simple as someone's favourite colour and could get as personal as their favourite memory.

Anyway, I am very excited about this moment in my life and the possibilities I am opening myself to just by being willing to listen.

P.S: If anyone of you is willing to let me pose 30 quick questions, do drop me a line on Twitter or Facebook. The farther I reach, the better it is for me. (Really I would love it if someone came forth willingly to give me their take on life).

P.P.S: I might fall flat on my face while attempting to do this...but I hope I don't. I am quite excited at this prospect.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

That child in Gaza...

You can see smoke rising from the world around you. From buildings. From roads. From schools. Your playground. From the bodies of your best friends. Best friends who held your hand two weeks ago. Best friends who sang along with you, who laughed along with you.

Your dolls have been left behind in your house as your parents bundled your whole life into a few blankets and forced you to leave your home behind. You don't understand why your strong father seems to look so small and broken these days. Your mother hasn't stopped crying in 10 days. You haven't seen your sister in a while. She is nowhere to be found. Is she playing hide and seek with you? Every time you ask your mother where you sister is, your mother starts weeping all over again.

Nothing seems to make sense anymore. Who are those funny men in funny hats who walk around with plastic guns? They point and shoot at someone and they die. What do they want? Why do they point at people and kill them? What are these noises? These bangs and explosions that follow you through the night? The noises that make your parents huddle together in fear?

You saw the TV the other day. A pretty woman with golden hair was talking to an old man. You didn't understand what they were saying but you pick up one word - war. You turn to your father.

"What is war papa?"

"This is not war. This is murder. They are driving us out of our homes. They are killing us. They are destroying us and they call it war. This is not war."

"But who started it? Did I? Did I do something wrong?"

"You didn't start any war. Long before any of us even lived, old men decided they would fight over land and dust. They decided that people's lives was worth nothing to them. They decided to make weapons to extinguish humanity. Long before you were even born, these men decided that they would kill you."

Your father starts to cry. You hug him. You don't understand what he's trying to tell you.

He suddenly sits up pushing you accidentally to the floor. He tells you to grab your mother. It's time to go, he says. They're coming.

He scoops you up and runs over to your mother. It's time to go, he says. They're here.

The explosions begin again. You see the funny men in funny hats. They are pointing at people.

It's time to go, your father says. They're here.