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?