Why Google’s Women’s Day Doodle irked me

Did you see Google’s Women’s Day Doodle or the Washington Post’s list of ways to celebrate Women’s Day? Neither represented my idea of Women’s Day. Why is it that it is becoming attractive to celebrate Women’s Day in a way that makes the majority of women invisible and subjects the rest to patriarchal denigration?

I apologise in advance for this post comes a bit too late. It was written on 8 March but has been published today because it was waiting for a few finishing touches!

Google Doodle for International Women’s Day
8 March, 2012
Google’s Women’s Day Doodle irked me a bit. There was something wrong about its floral and colourful appearance. Not that I hate flowers or bright colours. I love them but how can they be representative of Women’s Day?
I had an argument along these lines with a friend a couple of years ago. I noticed bright tulips on her desk on Women’s Day. She told me a group of men had taken her and other women out for dinner and given them flowers because it was Women’s Day. I found this celebration of Women’s Day very bizarre. I mean, isn’t this what happens everyday anyway – men take women out, give them flowers and pay the bill? How is that of any significance for Women’s Day?

Nestled in its ‘Lifestyle’ pages, the Washington Post’s list of 10 ways to celebrate Women’s Day is equally odd. Though it does include protest as one of the way Women’s Day could be celebrated, the list is unfortunately a bit lipstick-and-cupcakes heavy. Apparently, a marketing agency has initiated a ‘Rock the Lips’ campaign encouraging women to wear red lipstick to mark Women’s Day. It’s only as absurd as the Washington Post’s suggestions ‘Give flowers to women’ and ‘Eat a cupcake’ to celebrate Women’s Day.

Since when has feminism been about eating cupcakes and wearing lipstick? There’s so much wrong with these suggestions and ideas at so many levels.

First of all, as a blogger points out, feminism is about ‘power and politics and equal pay’. Lipsticks and cupcakes, as far as I understand, are not concerned with any of those. They are, instead, about having  ‘me-time’ in a very consumerist and elitist way. Issues affecting women are much more significant (for lack of a better word) than deciding whether your clothes match your bag or if your lipstick goes with your skin tone.

For millions of women, issues of concern include scraping enough food for the day, getting to work without being sexually harassed and assaulted, ensuring they have a safe place to sleep in the night. In light of this, even the suggestion of celebrating Women’s Day by wearing lipstick or eating a cupcake is, to use an extremely mild word, ridiculous, but also quite offensive for it trivialises the lived experiences of a vast majority of women, making them invisible. The majority of women, after all, do not have the choice to spend hours over choosing a bottle of pink champagne, the right shade of red lipstick and flowers that go with their home’s decor.

Secondly, obsession over women’s appearances (wear lipstick for Women’s Day) and sentimentality/frivolity (give women flowers for Women’s Day) takes us back at least a century. If ever there was an example of patriarchal celebration of Women’s Day (as ironical as that sounds), this would be it.

Thirdly, such suggestions of celebration of Women’s Day undermine the political significance and history of feminism. They deliberately gloss over issues that feminists have worked hard to bring to mainstream attention. They subscribe to a postfeminist propaganda that believes (or likes to believe) that women have achieved equality and can have it all. Further, putting women in corsets and high heels to celebrate Women’s Day not only reduces women to their external appearances but also takes the focus away from their political projects. It is the market trying to hijack Women’s Day from feminism.

Such a celebration of Women’s Day is not only classist but also sexist. For me, Women’s Day is an opportunity to revisit the relevance of feminism, to celebrate the achievements of women’s movements and to assess how much progress (if any) has been made so far. It is also an opportunity for cross-cultural and international dialogue on women’s issues, to learn from each other and to renew focus on action.


Opposition to public breastfeeding is sexual hypocrisy*

(c) http://www.whale.to/

There is much opposition to breastfeeding in public, especially in Western countries. However, the lack of a similar opposition to sexual exposure of breasts in the media and other public spaces betrays the sexual hypocrisy that feeds this revulsion.

Last year a mother breastfeeding her baby was ordered to get off the bus in Bristol. The mother was accused of ‘indecent exposure’ for responding to her six weeks old daughter’s hunger. The bus driver asked the mother to either ‘put them away’ or get off the bus, and the woman chose the latter.

On another occasion, a woman breastfeeding her baby in a library in north London was advised to be more discrete and ‘face the wall’ the next time she feeds the baby. A similar incident occurred online when Facebook took down a page about breastfeeding for featuring pictures of breastfeeding mothers. Facebook argued the pictures contained ‘inappropriate content’ though it changed its stance later and reinstated the page. Breastfeeding in public, whether it’s the actual act or visual representations of it, remains a fraught issue.

Breastfeeding mothers in the UK are now protected by law. The Equality Act 2010, which came into force in October last year, explicitly protects breastfeeding in public for up to 26 weeks after a woman has given birth. Not only does this protection entitle women to breastfeeding in public but also asks public bodies to make proper provisions for working and student mothers. It is indeed a big step that the legislation has taken but the question remains – have attitudes towards breastfeeding changed at all?

The answer to this question is neither simple nor one we can to gauge at the moment. The more important question here, and the one we can dwell on now, is – what is so offensive about breastfeeding? And is that offence justified?

The anti-breastfeeding in public discourse is an interesting one. Due to the onslaught and interest around breastfeeding in public, there has been a proliferation of scientific studies on health issues related to breastfeeding. According to a recent research conducted by University College London’s Institute of Child Health, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months may result in iron deficiency in the baby. Of course, the ‘naturalists’ are always quick to get back with their own scientific studies of how breastfeeding for as long as possible is the best a baby can get. And then of course, there is the whole debate around the ‘maternal instinct’ which often tends to demonise women who opt to bottle feed their babies.

However, the debate I am exploring here is not about whether breastfeeding is the ‘right’ option or whether mothers should, as a maternal duty, breastfeed their babies. Those debates obscure the real issue. The question is what is it about breastfeeding in public that makes it a matter of such divided public debate and concern?

Opposition to breastfeeding in public seems to be largely a ‘Western’ issue. There have been no incidents of people expressing revulsion at a mother breastfeeding her baby in Asian, Middle Eastern or African countries, but that the West tends to show a more systematic and institutionalised opposition to breastfeeding. It is, therefore, no surprise that opposition to breastfeeding in public in the developing world is most often heard of in urban than rural areas. This is indeed an intriguing dichotomy, though not an absolute one. It is intriguing because it flouts the ‘normal’ expectations of ‘modesty’ in Western and Eastern women – veiled women in many countries feel no shame in breastfeeding their babies in public.

This dichotomy has several aspects to it. One, it may be a result of the perception that breastfeeding in public is a ‘savage’ act – people in ‘uncivilised’ countries breastfeed their babies in public because they are not familiar with the nuances of a civilised life and mostly do not have enough space in their countries (because of their exploding populations, which are also a result of their ‘savagery’) to be able to enjoy any privacy. Western populations, however, are civilised and have the privilege of privacy; therefore, mothers in Western countries, who have access to a ‘room of their own’ should restrict the act of breastfeeding to their inner quarters.

Secondly, this dichotomy can also be credited to the idea that the West is more ‘advanced’ and women in Western countries are educated and independent as opposed to women in the Eastern countries who are meant to exist only for the purpose of reproduction. This perception makes it easier to accept a woman to be seen in public with a baby latched onto her breast in an Eastern country while making the image of a Western woman as a mother something difficult to digest as a Western woman is a ‘professional’ who has enough resources to buy formula milk and breast pumps.

These perspectives are only meant to exemplify the attitudes underlying the opposition to breastfeeding in public but are not the only aspects of this debate. Breastfeeding is in fact a much more complex cultural issues and to find the original cause behind the opposition to breastfeeding in public would take at least several years of research.

Besides the ‘modesty’ issue, the hypocrisy of the situation is betrayed by the almost complete lack of a similar opposition to what is otherwise termed ‘indecent exposure’ on the television, on the big Hollywood screen, in pubs and clubs, on the streets and so on. The whole issue then boils down to the ‘belonging of breasts’ – where is it appropriate for breasts to be exposed and how much?

One doesn’t have to be a genius to be able to clearly see that exposing breasts in a sexual way or in sexual situations is deemed appropriate whereas, breastfeeding, a non-sexual use of breasts, becomes problematic. This is about men claiming sexual possession of breasts – breasts are only meant for sexual gratification of men and so that is how they should be presented, laced and dolled up in bras, not bulging and lactating with an infant latched on to them.

My contention with the opposition to breastfeeding in public is not that breastfeeding is ‘natural’ or ‘instinctual’, not even that it’s a basic necessity, but that it’s a glaring example of sexual double standards. It appears that it’s quite difficult for men to be sexually gratified by an infant sucking on its mother’s breasts and consequently such a scene should be kept out of their view. It’s ironic that the only time breasts can be acceptably exposed is when they are actually displayed. A mother who, on the other hand, may be hesitant about exposing in public to breastfeed her baby is seen as repulsive or disgusting.

And this is exactly why I believe we need to move away from the debate of whether breast milk is the best for baby’s health or whether breastfeeding is instinctual as that discourse only fuzzes the real issue; instead we need to focus on questioning the sexual double standards that the opposition to breastfeeding in public betrays.

*Originally published on the Vibe

10 random reasons I am a feminist

Today, being the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, is a good time to introspect and think about why I am a feminist. I don’t know whether I should be happy or sad about this – it was really easy to come up with 10 reasons for why I am, and should be, a feminist.

For those who are exasperated with my feminism, in short – I am a feminist because I believe men and women should have equal rights, because I am angry at the everyday discrimination women face all over the world and because I want to rescue feminism from what it has been made out to be by anti-feminists.

(c) Jay Morrison

1. Every time I walk on the streets alone after dark, I walk in fear of being raped.

2. Whenever I go in to get technical help, I have to stop geeks from treating me like a dunce by clarifying that being a woman does not automatically mean I am technologically challenged.

3. For most men (at least those involved in media production), a typical woman is one who PMSes, hatches plots to get her boyfriend back from other women and is, more generally, a low IQ human being – apolitical and glossy.

4. Sexual harassment is euphemistically called ‘eve teasing’ in India.

5.  I am still the ‘bad one’ in the relationship if I refuse to take on more than my fair share of housework.

6. People appear surprised when it comes to their knowledge that I, a ‘self-proclaimed’ feminist can cook, clean and keep a house!

7. I am considered to be a ‘kill-joy’ if I refuse to laugh at everyday sexist jokes.

8. It’s still considered absolutely normal and not at all wrong that I may, at some point in life, lose my job as a consequence of getting pregnant.

9. I am angry that more than 100 million women are missing from this world.

10. I still happen to know a lot of people who flinch every time I use the ‘F’ word, it’s just so much fun to make people flinch!

‘Facebook rape’ – Insensitivity toward rape or de-stigmatisation of rape?

Facebook raped or ‘fraped’ is part of a rather new (Facebook specific) terminology.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the term ‘Facebook raped or fraped’ is defined by Urban Dictionary as ‘the access of a Facebook account by a third party, unknown to the account’s owner, which alters and adds humiliating or otherwise derogatory words to the account’s profile for the purpose of a prank. The act usually takes place between friends after one leaves their Facebook account logged in’. Examples would include statements like ‘I am coming out on fb – I am gay!’ or ‘My brother is right – I am a dumbass’ or ‘I smell like feet’ etc.

One of my friends recently expressed her astonishment and disapproval at this public and frivolous usage of the word ‘rape’, a grave crime/act of violence. Surely this usage reeks of insensitivity? Doesn’t it show how lightly rape is treated without any concern toward more than 250,000 cases of rape or attempts to rape every year (and the figure counts only the reported cases)? Well, I thought so too. At first.

But on a second thought, more possibilities started swimming and it got difficult to make up my mind on the issue. Is it possible, through such common everyday usage of the word ‘rape’ to rid it of the stigma associated with it, the stigma that makes it the ‘unspeakable’ crime all over the world? Rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes even today – the vulnerability of the situation, the unrightful ‘accusation’ of the victim and thus, the stigma associated with rape are the major reasons for the under-reporting of rape.

The big question then, I suppose, is – does such usage of the word ‘rape’ lead to the ‘normalisation’ or the ‘de-stigmatisation’ of rape? Both the possibilities appear equally strong. I have always felt the need to de-link rape from the ‘honour’ of a woman because it is indeed the terminology and ideas around a woman’s honour being stripped by rape that act as stimulant or motivation for a lot of rape cases and certainly lead to the ‘hushing up’ of the crime.

However, it is problematic to argue that rape should be treated just like ‘any other’ crime because it is not like any other crime for all the reasons that I mentioned above. But then this is a vicious circle that we are caught up in and there has to be a way out.

Whether or not the common usage of the term ‘rape’ is fruitful toward the effort to break out of the circle cannot be decided with certainty. It could be representative of a yet unrecognised but emerging trend of normalisation of rape; does this normalisation imply an automatic de-stigmatisation of rape or an actual increase in incidences of rape? How can then rape be rescued from the ‘stigma’ terminology without making it sound like everyday ‘normal’ crime?

While I churn my mind over it, I would love to know what your initial reactions to the issue are.

Modern communication, sexual politics and Indian women

It’s not unusual to read contradictory news stories about India for India truly is a land of contradictions. And its contradictions do not just run at the simplistic level of rich versus the poor but in all of its nooks and crannies, in almost all of its veins.

This week I came across two interesting articles/news stories – one in the Independent about how ‘independent, career-driven, female singletons are the driving force behind a new publishing phenomenon’ in India, namely, the growing demand for Indian chick lit and the second one in the Washington Post about the banning of cell phones for unwed women in an Indian village for fear of these women arranging ‘forbidden marriages’ and elopements via the cell phone.
Both the news pieces apprise us of the growing communications industry in India – be it the publishing or the telecoms industry. And this growing communications industry is coming to shape and define Indian women’s sexuality, albeit in often contradictory and multitudinous ways.
On the one hand is the increasingly independent career driven urban Indian woman whose ultimate goal or topmost priority in life is no longer getting married, having a comfortable home and three children. On the other is the often not-that-well-recognised rebellious rural woman who wants to indulge in pre-marital romance, who wants to take her life decisions in her own hands, who refuses to bow down…and yet is mostly trampled upon in one way or the other – beaten up, murdered, forced into marriage etc.
Not that the two categories are unitary or solid, but roughly they do give us an idea of the wide and far reaching effects communication technology has on women in a developing country like India. It wouldn’t be wrong to assert that Indian women are much more affected by and are more responsive to technological changes in the field of communication as compared to Indian men.
While newer means of communication have equipped Indian women with the tools to express themselves, not only literally but also figuratively, they have also, at the same time (and inevitably so) , got entangled in the web of sexual politics where men regulate women’s accessibility to and use of communications technology and through it, their sexuality.