Veiled

I have been raised in an environment where self-respect equates to chastity and modesty in your dressing style. I have been told by quite a few adults, my teachers included, that my body is something that should be hidden behind what society deems as appropriate clothing.

The female body has been indicted to so much scrutiny that everything from our reproductive rights to what we chose to wear is being consciously regulated by what others think is right. Something as natural as breastfeeding is confined to dirty bathrooms because people are so actively repulsed by the sight of women’s breasts doing anything other than pleasing the male-gaze.

I remember quite clearly that once my teacher told us, a class of around seventeen young girls, that when women wear “provocative” clothing or anything revealing it only encourages men to turn into rapists. I have never heard anything more blatantly blaming the sexual assault victim than that statement. Rape culture thrives on people who think that sexual assault happens because of how the victim is dressed. It gives legitimacy to the rapist – and in my eyes there is no bigger crime than giving legitimacy to a person or a law that violates the body of another human being.

It is a mindset like this, which is very unfortunately embedded in majority of the Asian society, that makes the environment hostile for women and trans men. When you start thinking that respect is earned by how people choose to dress themselves, that is when you start viewing human beings as tools of an institution rather than individuals who have rights of their own.

The aggressive advocacy for covering up the female body through the society accompanied with the hyper-sexualization of the female body through the media only incites young girls to view their body as merely something that arouses men and nothing else.

It surprises me every time I come across a person or an institution that polices someone to dress “modestly” to earn self-respect. The idea of self-respect is that you respect yourself as a human being and I can do that just as well when I am naked like I can when I am fully clothed.

What adorns my body is my skin and not the society veiled under a cloth.

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The Gavel Gap

“In a perfect world, when the men and women who deliver justice look more like the communities they serve, there is greater confidence in our justice system overall.” – Christopher Kang.

It’s not a particularly surprising fact that there are significantly more men in the judicial system as lawyers, advocates, consultants, and judges than women. The same can be said for a majority of professions. But what really is surprising is the statistics – more women than men enter into and graduate from law schools than men in the United States. But still, law is a male-dominated profession in the USA, so much so that there have been cases where cabinets of only male lawyers have been consulted for the preparation of pro-choice and pro-life bills, which is ironic considering how this topic affects mainly women and trans-men.

Women comprise of half the population but less than a third of state judges. Women have entered law schools and the legal profession in large numbers for the last forty years and they are doing significantly well in their professions, but are severely under-represented in state courts.

The international courts and arbitration centers show a little less disparity when it comes to gender-based discrimination, but it is still hard to deny the blatant truth that though women are equally qualified to become judges, their male counterparts are constantly seen as a better fit for the same position.

Lack of representation of women in law-making and law-enforcing bodies leads to unbalanced laws that the whole population (half of which is female) have to follow. Most of the judges upholding and deciding on healthcare bills or hearing on pro-choice cases are male. They are inherently deciding on fundamental factors that are never going to actually affect them.

In India, there is a very wide gap between male and female judges and consequently India’s justice system often fails to deliver adequate hearings on sexual assault and abortion cases and those cases that are primarily concerned with the welfare of women. It becomes increasingly hard to break antiquated notions that prevent women from getting comprehensive healthcare and work-field protection when those implementing and formulating these legislations are predominantly male.

We need more women in courts as judges and senior judges to make sure that our voices are heard when it comes to legislations that directly affect us. We need to close the gavel gap.

Access to Water – Access to Education

During my internship at a law firm, one of the advocates who was working there told me a small anecdote about how he, along with a few other individuals, helped fund a program that made water more accessible to the tribal population in Kenya.

Kenya, although adorned with green glory and an infinite supply of food, faces a dearth in accessible water for all the obvious reasons: politics that directs almost all the water to urban facilities, lack of adequate water preservation, and industrial greed. This leaves little drinkable water for the poor population: the forest dwellers and those who live under poverty.

Most of the tribal population has to walk for miles to reach a small lake where they can access clean water. And in most of these cases, it is the female population that has to walk under the sun to get water for their villages. And this practice isn’t limited to Kenya, the same thing is quite common in India and other South-East Asian countries as well.

Retrieving water for an entire village takes up almost the entire day for the women and girls of that village; this means that they have little to no time to do anything else. Their mundane routine is to wake up, collect water, come back to their village and do household chores, sleep, and repeat the entire process the next day. They do not get time to go to school to get even the most basic education.

What the advocate in my law firm did was fundraise money for a charitable organization that built a mechanical well in one of the tribal villages in Kenya. The women no longer needed to walk almost six miles to get water because it was now available just a few steps from their homes.

A Christian missionary school operated a mile away from this village where all the boys used to go to get education. Within two years of installment of the well, the school which previously had only male students, started getting almost forty percent attendance from female students as well.

Making water more accessible to these villages indirectly made education for women and girls easier as well. Opening schools is not enough to increase access to education, we need to make sure that the most eminent demands for the poor population i.e. food, water, shelter, and health and hygiene facilities are taken care of as well.

A Labyrinth of Genders

Although it is increasingly being realized that there are more than just two heteronormative genders, it is still not determined how many genders really exist. Most of the conservatives will tell you that there are only two genders: male and female, and most liberals will refute this statement, and while I will always be amongst the latter, I too am not sure how many genders there are and if this indefinite number will increase in the future.

But that really doesn’t matter.

The whole concept of gender was created to give human beings an identity on the basis of their sex. It is human nature to want an identity, it satisfies our incessant need and want to be a part of something but at the same time stand out as unique individuals. An identity helps us do exactly that, whether that is religious, racial, or even being a part of a school group.

Overtime it has started to become obvious that the confined definition of gender that was prevalent since human beings acquired the ability to segregate and classify, restricts the actual identity of an individual.

We have been imposing a very limited definition of gender on people for a very long time. If you were born with a certain reproductive organ, you were directly classified as either female or male. This restrictive identity can have a negative impact on the well-being of those who are unable to identify with either a male or female gender or those who feel that they do not belong to the gender that they had been designated to at birth.

It is, therefore, important that the concept and idea of a gender-based identity expands to incorporate the affinities of all human beings i.e. non-heteronormative people.

Open Sexism in Indian Colleges – The Curfew System

There is a rather peculiar system that works within Indian colleges and that is the system of curfews that is unquestionably established in almost all girls’ hostels. Boys are not subject to this curfew, but somehow the authorities of educational institutions (institutions which are supposed to be imparting education and not imposing sexist and unnecessary rules) think that it’s okay to subject their female students with the curfew.

This curfew is usually at nine o’clock at night and all the girls staying at the hostel (which is pretty much ninety five percent of the female college students) have to come back to their dorms by nine at night and not even a minute more.

There are two things that are inherently wrong with this curfew system.

  1. Firstly, almost all college students are above eighteen years old and shouldn’t be subjected to unnecessary rules that restrict their freedom of movement. College is supposed to prepare you for the real world and there is no curfew in the real world. Instead of forcing the students (and in this case only the female students) to return back to their hostels at nine so that they don’t act “irresponsibly” at night, they should be influencing and educating all of the students to act responsibly on their own. Colleges should be promoting the importance of individual agency rather than collective suppression.
  2. Secondly, and this is more imperative than the former, this curfew system that works within almost all the colleges in India is downright sexist. When you differentiate someone merely on the basis of their gender it is called sexism, and in this case the colleges are discriminating against their female students.

The Indian constitution states that differential treatment on the basis of factors like creed, religion, and sex are a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India. Colleges are basically violating the fundamental rights of their female students and hiding behind the façade of “protecting” them. For how long are we going to deny women and girls equal opportunity because we want to “shelter” them? For how long are we going to treat them as commodities that need to be protected?

We need to give women equal opportunities and equal rights in all fields of life, including their living conditions in college. We need to break the curfew system.

Perceptions and Stereotypes

We live in an integrated world where our existence affects and is effected by the actions and even thoughts of those around us. This forms the basis of how we are treated in the society. No matter what our potential or caliber is, whether we are successful in what we do is to a certain extent influenced by how we are perceived in society.

Perceptions that are prevalent in society more often than not stem from existing stereotypes. This is why most women working in male-dominated work areas like engineering, astronomy, computer sciences, etc. often face workplace sexism and are subject to a lesser salary than their equally qualified male counterparts. This doesn’t happen because women in these specific fields perform less than men, but it’s because of the existing stereotypes that influence how their employers perceive them and their contribution to the office.

Movements like feminism in the twentieth century and Black Lives Matter in the twenty-first century were all started in an attempt to challenge these stereotypes and change how these marginalized groups were viewed in the society.

In my home-country, India, class ascendancy and caste-based discrimination is extremely prevalent. While it was started because of a complex creed, its notions prevailed in the society because Indians continued to view those belonging to the lower caste as less than human. Their perception of the lower caste population continued to be degrading and demoralizing and it was this very thought process that continues to make its way into the way the lower-caste members are treated in the Indian society.

But just like Dr. BR Ambedkar, who belonged to the lowermost caste in the Indian society, made his way to the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution; we, too, can change the way that we are perceived in the society. During his work in the drafting committee, Dr. Ambedkar was able to pursuade the committee and the politicians to set up a clause in the constitutions that especially protected the rights of the lower-caste population. This clause is still upheld in the Indian constitution and has significantly changed the way the lower-caste members are treated.

We, too, need to challenge the stereotypes that have seeped into our institutions. We need to create an egalitarian space for ourselves and for the members of the section of the society that we represent where our potential can grow beyond the limitations that had been previously set for us.

The Stigma Against Menstruation  

Menstruation is considered a tabooed subject in many societies across the world, even in the twenty-first century. And this stigma, that has been somehow attached to one of the most natural processes of the human body, can have a strong detrimental impact on the lives of young girls.

Many girls in south-east Asian countries and African countries drop out of school during the first two years of their middle school when they start menstruating for the mere reason that either them or their parents (or in many cases, both) are too embarrassed to go to school/send their daughter to school.

This decision to drop out midway through their education is driven by society’s stigma against menstruation. In many cultures, menstruating women and girls cannot step into the kitchen, perform religious activities, touch men or children, and sometimes they are segregated into a separate living space altogether as if they are victims of the nineteenth century plague.

Even in more urban societies where the concept of menstruation may be a bit more open for discussion, there are many instances when girls refuse to go school during the time of their menstruation because of inadequate sanitary facilities.

Transgender men, gender-fluid people, and non-gender confirming people too suffer from the stigma of menstruation. If it’s hard for cis women to talk about periods, it is a hundred times harder for trans men and women to talk about it because they are leaving themselves open and vulnerable to a topic that many people consider tabooed.

Fundamental rights say that every child has the right to education; not just children who are not menstruating. It’s time that menstruation stops becoming a hurdle in accessing education for young girls. And this can be done only through more open discussions about the subject.

It is only when we educate people, spread awareness, and provide adequate facilities that the very act of menstruating can be taken for what it is: bleeding, and not subject to the negative connotations that the society puts on it.

Why Abortion Should be a Fundamental Right

Fundamental rights not only protect citizens from exploitation but also provide a basic framework within which the citizen is protected in a democracy. Under no law does it say that a citizen is required to utilize their own body for the protection of someone else. In fact, fundamental rights in a democratic constitution revolve on the basis that autonomy of an individual should not be compromised.

Proponents of the pro-life propaganda hide behind their statement that the fetus is equivalent to a human being. Even though that has been scientifically refuted, let us take hypothetically that the fetus is equivalent to a human being. Even then, under no state or religious law does it say that an individual should be forced to compromise their bodily autonomy for the protection of another life.

In fact, if you use the body of another human being to protect yourself in any circumstance without said individual’s consent, you are violating their fundamental rights.

Why, then, is abortion still illegal in many democratic countries like India? Why, then, are people so divided on a basic concept of human rights?

Abortion is all about right to bodily autonomy; and if you think about the provisions that a democracy promises, the right to do what you want with your body is not a matter that involves the sate. It is not even a public matter. It is a private matter and the pregnant person who wishes to terminate their pregnancy shouldn’t have to produce an “approved” reason for doing so.

If you say that a person has the right to seek abortion only if she (or he) has been raped, then you are basically saying that a person needs to be sexually violated for them to have basic sexual rights.

In the Indian constitution, we have rights that safeguard our physical assets, but we don’t have a right that safeguards our body from the state. The sexual rights of many women lie in the hands of the government, where they are exploited and subject to succumbing to someone else’s belief.

The right to access to safe and affordable abortion should be incorporated into the provisions of every democracy for the government to be actually called democratic. Otherwise, it is just a democracy for the people who can’t get pregnant.

What is Privilege?

When I say that you are privileged in this society, in this political system; I am not assaulting your identity or in any way claiming that you are less entitled to fight for the rights that you might have been refrained from.

When I say that you are privileged, I am not accusing you of committing a crime. I am not segregating you into a section of society that does not deserve the status that they have. I am not classifying you into a group of vain people who don’t understand oppression because they have never felt it. In fact, I am not saying that you haven’t ever been oppressed; because in a society that feeds off of repression, every single person has faced oppression because of their social background in one way or another.

When I say that you are privileged, I am telling you that within a multifaceted sphere of our political system, you have some important rights that I am not fully able to utilize.

Privilege is not a one-dimensional statement, it has several implications and nuances that fit from one person to another. A white man might be privileged over a white woman, whereas at the same time a white woman born into an upper-class wealthy family might be privileged over a white man born into a lower-class family.

But the important nuance here is that a white woman is more privileged than a black woman with an identical background and a man is more privileged than a woman with an identical background. This essentially underscores the dynamics of privilege: antiquated ideas prevail and prejudice clouds the way that we are treated in society.

Privilege stems from the unfortunate reality that in every situation there is a class of people that is being oppressed by another single or multi dominated class. It is the sad truth of white-washed feminism, all-lives-matter, and the pro-life movement.

The only way you can erase privilege is by granting the same opportunities and the same facilities to all the people regardless of their gender, religion, sexuality, sexual orientation, etc. This, on a deductive level, incorporates the basic idea of democracy; but hypocritically, there is no democracy in the world that functions on these ideas.

While erasing privilege may be a strive for utopia, there is a definitive hope that in future generations, discrimination can be curbed to a point when privilege will only stem from the identity that the individual creates and not the identity that has been thrusted on the individual against their will.

Victim Blaming: Gender, Race, and Class

Rape victims aren’t the only assault victims that are blamed for the crime that was committed against them. Many black and Hispanic people are blamed for theft that happened on their property or held accountable for the kidnap of their child.

However, in the same situation, white men and women have a much lower chance of being blamed. This suggests that there is a discriminatory pattern among police officers and court verdicts.

For the same reasons women (and men) are blamed for their sexual assault so as to relieve the sex offender from their due punishment. And even in this case, reports show that men of color are much more likely of being charged of sexual assault than white men.

This basically means that if you are a white man, getting away with crime is comparatively much easier for you.

It’s a given fact that racism goes hand in hand with sexism. I, for one, know that even though we are living in the twenty first century and people like Ruby Rose are redefining gender roles, I am going to be looked down upon in the workplace, not only because I am a woman but also because of the color of my skin.

There are a lot of rape cases on college campuses (and in private organizations) that are largely underreported because of the universities’ want to protect their reputation rather than their students. Reports have shown that many rapes that occurred on campus were by members of fraternities who were legacies and contributed a lot to the universities’ financial funding and rankings.

So now let me rephrase the sentence that I have earlier mentioned: if you are a white, rich man, getting away with crime is definitely much easier for you.

I am not trying to make anyone feel bad about their racial or gendered privileges. Our society has been historically shaped in a communist way, some people are more privileged than others in a few walks of their lives. But instead, I am asking these people to use their privileges to support those who don’t have them.

If there is one thing we can learn from socialism in Russia and China, is that socialism eventually dies. So I am not asking for a society that is socialist, but I am asking for us to redefine communism.

We should be equally accredited according to our contribution to the society and we should be equally punished for our crimes. Our gender and our race shouldn’t interfere in this.

There are several instances in college where women report their assault to campus security, and the campus security does not take it seriously and casually dismisses it. And all of this is done solely to protect the university from media criticism.

According to one 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics/Department of Justice study, fewer than 5 percent of completed and attempted rapes of women in college were reported to law enforcement officials, and that number drops still lower for other forms of sexual assault.

(src: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/182369.pdf)

Victim blaming is, thus, the rawest form of discrimination, and here’s why:

  1. Women are often blamed for their sexual assault when the reported sex offender is an accredited white male.
  2. Men are blamed for their sexual assault because society thinks that they should be strong and they should have fought against their rapist; if they didn’t then they had been ‘asking for it.’ This is sexism at it’ finest.
  3. Women of color are more likely to be blamed than white women because of prevalent racism.