Celebrating brave women and alternative relationships

Recently a very brave friend of mine decided to have a baby. This in itself, is something that I think of as extremely brave. Taking responsibility for a new human life and all that. She did something else alongside which made this braver in my eyes. She and her partner decided not to get married, and not even to pretend like they were married.

And so this post is dedicated to her. And others like her who have decided to go against the tide of our increasingly intolerant society and create a family on their own terms and in ways which don’t conform with societal expectations.
They did what I couldn’t do for reasons of cowardice*, sentimentality and practicality.

This brave friend wrote a funny, intelligent and delightfully experiential account of her decision, some of its consequences, confusions and the rationale behind her decision. Her account was reprinted on Firstpost and gathered a lot of trolls. And this is part of why I write this. This attempt to make sense of my own confusions surrounding marriage is my way of showing my solidarity and trying to counter the pointless anger and hatred I see directed at her and others like her.

Many people have written about the harassment women face on the internet, the downright violent misogyny of it. And I don’t want to repeat their arguments, inadequately summarized and mediated through my understanding of them. I also know the cardinal rule about the internet and trolls – Don’t feed the trolls. So I’m not going to. Much as I want to scream my frustration at the blind hatred and inability to read and engage with her thoughtful essay displayed in the comments section, I’m not going to rant here. Instead, I’m going to respond to this disturbing anger in the best way I know how. Add my voice, my two bits worth from my own experience to voices like hers. Here goes.

 

As someone who is deeply uncomfortable with marriage as an institution, but got married all the same, I want to talk about my discomfort with marriage.

I grew up proud. Proud of something that was not my achievement, as many of us are. I grew up, taking pride in the fact that my parents had married for love, that they had had a ‘marriage of choice’ rather than an arranged marriage. And so marriage was always a rosy-tinted ideal of true love and commitment, the foundation stone of a happy family, to my mind. Any violence, abuse or exploitation I heard of in marriages, I dismissed as an aberration from this romantic ideal.

It was only when I came to college that I began to have trouble with the idea of marriage. Living in the hostel during my time as an undergraduate student, I noticed that many of my seniors were concerned with marriage as an inevitable part of their lives. For most of them, this was not a relationship they were entering into so much as the end they had been preparing for all their lives. This troubled me. The fact that marriage seemed to be compulsory for women in a way which limited their ambitions.

Later, as a relationship I had entered into rather lightheartedly became deeper, I questioned marriage as a religious institution. My partner was not Christian, and as I had always believed that God was not so narrow minded and insecure as to damn people for not conceiving of him in the Judaeo-Christian tradition of thought, I began to wonder whether he (God – though he was genderless in my imagination) would mind if I married this man without his sanction via the church.

As a feminist, newly come to research, I questioned marriage as it was legislated upon in India with its deliberate insertion of a clause exempting husbands from the crime of rape if they raped their wives and as an exclusively heterosexual union.

Even later, as I explored my attraction to women, and my partner and I questioned monogamy as the only means of experiencing romantic-sexual love and companionship, I became increasingly uncomfortable with marriage.

And today as polyamorous and queer, I find marriage an impoverished institution. Impoverished as a result of its history of being used to control women’s sexuality and reproductive labour. Impoverished as a result of its use in maintaining caste and class. Impoverished as the only legitimate expression of sexual love and indeed sexuality.

 

I am often ashamed at my own cowardice in choosing marriage – the easy way out. No more lying to family about living arrangements, no more need to be defensive around neighbours and house-owners… no more worries when we travel together, about authorities who threaten to call parents. Some things have become simpler. I deeply resent that it took entering into a patriarchal heteronormative institution to do away with these problems.

In itself, as a commitment and an affirmation of love, I have nothing against marriage. But as it exists today, a coercive institution cementing heteronormativity and entrenching boundaries of religion and caste, I cannot reconcile myself to it. And I wish I could have remained outside its ambit.

I chose not to, of course. I didn’t want to hurt my parents any more than I had. Somewhere, deep down, in a place at odds with the principles I hold, I wanted to walk down an aisle. And someday my primary partner and I want to adopt babies together. So we did it.

We signed the paper, tied the thaali and walked down the aisle. I did my best to make the blessing ceremony sound queer-inclusive, as a sop to my conscience and to keep the expenses to my parents down (though I did not succeed on that front).

I am very proud to be part of both a legal (the Special Marriage Act) and religious (the Blessing Ceremony of a Civil marriage) practice that seeks to be accepting of, and celebrate love outside the boundaries of religion… but I am still deeply uncomfortable, passing as straight and monogamous and being tacitly part of the coercive societal edifice of marriage.

My apologies if this has become a self-involved justificatory monologue. I did not intend that, but it may have happened anyway.

I only wanted to add my voice to those challenging institutions like marriage or at least complicating the notion of marriage and asserting our right to form relationships and families in alternative ways. In my own – perhaps cowardly – way, I too try to challenge some aspects of marriage. Monogamy and biological parenthood are my sites of protest. And perhaps reformulating marriage from within the institution may be valuable. Who knows?

And yes, perhaps some of our formulations of relationships and family won’t last through our lifetimes and the stories of such ‘failure’ will be greedily grasped by those trying to discredit such attempts… but perhaps lasting a lifetime need not be the sole measure of ‘success’, whatever that is, in relationships. That need not undermine the fact that some try, daily, to write new scripts, to clear new paths and in the trying perhaps, create something that celebrates and expresses our particular loves… which is the best we can do, for ourselves, for each other, for our children and future children and for society at large, pushing it to accept more. One live-in relationship, queer partnership, unmarried parent, polyamorous relationship and so on, at a time.

So here’s to my brave friend and her new baby daughter. She will be loved, whether her parents remain together forever or not. She will be raised with love and strength.

Here’s to my other brave friend who told her parents she was living with her partner and does not intend to marry him.

Here’s to those negotiating jealousy and the intoxication of love whenever and wherever it appears.

Here’s to the others, coming out to their families about their sexual preferences, gender identity or even their desire not to quit their PhDs and marry.

Here’s to the ever-new margins of society as they challenge respectability.

 

 

 

* This is not all bad, in my book. Cowards die a thousand deaths, the valiant never taste of death but once, says Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I always** thought that sounded sensible and circumspect of the cowards. They clearly imagined several deaths, the dangerous outcomes of their actions and avoided these deaths by avoiding those actions. Clearly an intelligent and sensible way to approach life, as opposed to the possibly more noble but ultimately foolhardy, fatal acts of the valiant.
No, I am not calling my brave friend foolish. Go back and read the post. This footnote is a pointless aside, reflecting on the survival value of cowardice. Nothing else.

** Okay, fine. It was my father who first expressed this idea to me.

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Oldboy and Feminism

Good day, and welcome to more pop-culture criticism. I seem to be on a roll. Everything I watch seems to me, to be a scathing indictment of patriarchy.

Oldboy

Image stolen from here 

I watched Oldboy, the other day. [SPOLIER from here on]
The Korean version from 2003. It was a fascinating film. It was well made and some of the scenes were heartbreaking – like the one where Oh Dae-su after 15 years of imprisonment finds himself in the outside world with a random person, and touches his face and makes him touch his own face. That really brought home to me the idea of no human contact and what that could do to you.
The movie was tense, it kept me absorbed the whole time, and though I did guess that Mido might have been Oh Dae-su’s daughter, the film misled me when he tried to find his daughter and heard about her being in foster care in a different country… so the plot twist at the end was quite the twist and I was quite impressed with the lengths someone could go for vengeance.

I’m sure there’s a lot one can take away from this film in terms of it’s construction, the use of the camera, the script and so on… but I’m not a film studies person. What struck me was that the fact that this plot is intelligible to us at all, is a scathing indictment of patriarchy.

The story in brief is as follows. Oh Dae-su is kidnapped mid telephone call to his family, while his friend is speaking to his wife and assuring her that he is on his way home after being bailed out of prison for drunkenness. He is imprisoned for 15 years, with no human contact. He has access to a television – through which he learns that his wife is murdered and he has been framed as the murderer – and every now and then, he is gassed into unconsciousness, cleaned – his hair is cut, he is bathed and dressed in fresh clothes – and the room he is imprisoned in is cleaned as well. Each time he tries to commit suicide, he is gassed again, given medical aid and kept alive. He has access to a diary where he speculates obsessively about why he has been imprisoned (naturally) and who might be responsible for his imprisonment.

After fifteen years, he finds himself in the outside world. And after seeking human contact with the first person he meets – a man trying to commit suicide, he goes straight to a sushi restaurant. There he receives a taunting call from the person who had him imprisoned, and faints. He is taken in by the beautiful young sushi chef, Mido.

She reads his diaries while he is unconscious and is understandably curious about him. When he becomes conscious again, they talk a bit. When she needs to use the bathroom, she tells him the lock doesn’t work, but takes a knife with her to stop him from getting any funny ideas. He bursts in to the bathroom, and attempts to rape her, but eventually stops himself. I do wish she’d stuck him with the knife at that point. She emerges, shaken and says she understands… he has been imprisoned so long, she has let him into her home and so on. She assures him that she will sleep with him, just not yet. Only once she knows him better. And tells him that when she sings the song he had written in his diary, he should have sex with her, even though she might fight him.

Oh Dae-su tries to find out who had imprisoned him. He tracks down the organization which had kept him imprisoned by tasting dumplings – the staple food he was served during his imprisonment – from several restaurants in the city till he finds the restaurant which caters for the prisoners. He follows the delivery boy to the place where he had been imprisoned, threatens the owner, and a fight ensues.

As his investigation progresses, he becomes suspicious of Mido, and ties her up and threatens her. In the middle of threatening her, he is contacted by the man who had him imprisoned and given a few days to work out why he was imprisoned. Oh Dae-su attempts to kill him but stops himself because he wants to know the reason for his imprisonment. As they speak, he reminds Oh Dae-su that he left Mdo tied up and the door to her apartment open. Oh Dae-su runs back to the apartment to find the owner of the imprisoning organization and several thugs molesting Mido as a threat to him. They are called off, and Oh Dae-su and Mido leave. Mido sings the song from Oh Dae-su’s diary and they have sex. It is one of the more realistic sex scenes I’ve seen in a movie, with Mido expressing pain as it is her first time.

After this, Oh Dae-su slowly figures out that his captor, Lee Woo-jin went to the same school as him and had a sister there, who comitted suicide after Oh Dae-su left the school. He eventually remembers having seen the sister, Soo-ah, engaged in a pornographic photo-shoot (which presumably lead to sex) with a boy from the school, and mentioning this to his friend before he left the school. That probably lead to rumours about her being sexually active, leading to her suicide. Having realised why he was imprisoned, he proceeds to trick Mido into being imprisoned, like he was(!!), ostensibly for her protection from Lee Woo-jin. He leaves, instructing the owner to release her on his return or if he is not back after the prescribed date by which he was supposed to have discovered the reason for his imprisonment.

In the final scene, it is revealed that Oh Dae-su, saw Soo-ah with her brother, Lee Woo-jin. And that rumours of their incest lead to rumours of her pregnancy which both Soo-ah and Lee Woo-jin believed to the extent that Soo-ah had a phantom pregnancy. She killed herself, and to take revenge Lee Woo-jin imprisoned Oh Dae-su for 15 years. During this imprisonment, he hypnotised both Oh Dae-su and Oh Dae-su’s daughter whom Lee Woo-jin raised (not sure whether he adopted/fostered her or financed her adoptive/foster parents) to fall in love with eachother. It turns out that Mido is Oh Dae-su’s biological daughter. Driven almost insane by that knowledge, Oh Dae-su begs Lee Woo-jin not to reveal this knowledge to Mido. Lee Woo-jin agrees, after Oh Dae-su cuts off his own tongue(!). Lee Woo-jin directs the owner of the imprisonment service to take away from Mido box he had had placed in front of her (a recurring motif in which Lee Woo-jin leaves clues for Oh Dae-su) containing the secret of her paternity. Lee Woo-jin leaves Oh Dae-su with the sounds from his sexual encounter with Mido playing (on speakers?) and bleeding profusely from where his tongue used to be.
He then shoots himself in the elevator, as we are treated to a flash-back to his part in aiding his sister’s suicide.
Oh Dae-su seeks out the hypnotist who hypnotises him so that he forgets the terrible secret that was revealed to him and is reunited with Mido.

There we go. It’s a long-ish story, with a complicated plot. Most people are struck by the horror of how far one can go for revenge, and the manipulation of the mind that this story suggests is possible.

I was struck that rumours of incest and pregnancy in school could force a girl to commit suicide – and that this idea, is something none of us watching it are surprised by.

I was struck that the characters and the audience are far more horrified by the fact that Oh Dae-su slept with his biological daughter than by the fact that he tried to rape her (when he, and we, did not know that she was his daughter.) Personally, incest has never seemed morally troubling to me, so long as there is consent involved.

I was struck that Mido told Oh Dae-su to have sex with her, even if she fought him.

I was struck that Mido could fall in love with a much older man who distrusted her so much that he tied her up and threatened her with violence – and that this is not central to the story. The audience isn’t meant to question this much. The film is not exploring why Mido is into abusive relationships with older men. That is merely incidental.

I was struck that we didn’t need to explore the warping of thought required for a teenage boy to blame another for starting rumours about his own incestuous relationship with his sister and see that as the cause for her suicide/aided suicide. The guilt and responsibility, I presume he felt as a male for causing the death of a sister/lover, was channeled into the revenge he took on Oh Dae-su. The anger he felt when Oh Dae-su’s friend begins to repeat the rumours about Soo-ah to him, leading to him killing the friend… the protectionist impulse alive in those actions and appealed to when Oh Dae-su begs him not to let Mido know what they had been manipulated into… all of this is self-evident to the audience.

I was struck that the premises on which this fascinating story is based, lay bare the patriarchal assumptions we’ve all been conditioned to make. The fact that this story makes sense to us. To all (well, most) of us across the world. The fact that none of us require an explanation of these premises, that patriarchy is so well entrenched… that’s what I found chilling.

P.S. A friend asked me what the female gaze would look like in a film like this. Honestly, I don’t know. I imagine, though, that we would have dwelt more on Soo-ah’s attraction to her brother and how she rationalized it. We might have explored Mido’s character… the reasons behind her attraction to abusive men and older men, her feelings for Lee Woo-jin, who presumably is her foster father. Perhaps she would not listen to Oh Dae-su and would open the box in front of her which would reveal that he was in fact her biological father. Perhaps that might not even be as significant to her as we assume, because after all, Oh Dae-su did not raise her, and the fact of biology alone does not make him her father.

And perhaps we would have a sequel where she takes revenge on both her fathers.

None of this questions the patriarchal premises on which this story is built, but perhaps it gives us some insight into the female characters in this situation. I can’t  begin to imagine what this story would look like without the patriarchal premises. It’s likely that it would be completely incoherent.

Ex Machina, AI and gender

It’s hard for me to enjoy movies these days. Even though I’m now open to myself about my interest in women, I have to work hard to flip something in my head each time I want to feel attracted to a woman on screen. I have to switch from the lens which views films noting every (at least it feels like every!) unnecessary sexualization of the female characters, and waiting eagerly for conversations between female characters which need not necessarily have to do with a man… I have to quiet the voice which reminds me that the frames are subtly tailoring the film to the heterosexual male gaze and conditioning all of us to view the world with that idea of the male gaze as the norm. I have to silence all this in order to appreciate the female forms on screen and wait with building excitement every time the story appears to reflect a woman exercising her agency… and even then, I’m not sure whether she is indeed exercising her agency and how much of what I find attractive is constructed through this way of viewing the world or whether I’ve switched lenses at all… it’s hard watching movies, these days.

Sci-fi movies are particularly difficult for me, because they often give one the impression of including women characters as more than mere plot devices, while simultaneously being extremely objectifying and in fact… using the women as plot devices. (Cue: deafeated sigh) Angela Watercutter’s article on WIRED uses a number of examples of this, pointing out repeatedly that female robots and AI are usually forced to use their sexuality in some way and that they are rarely as intelligent, or seek purely intellectual solutions to their problems like ostensibly male robots/AI.

In some way, this I think, could be the biggest indicator of the male gaze operating in sci-fi films – more so than the unnecessary sexualization of female characters. It taps into the very old and much overused patriarchal trope of the vamp – the seductress, (who sometimes poses as helpless) who manipulates the decent man to her benefit and his ultimate and inevitable doom. This trope is made far starker when the ‘woman’ figure is not human, and her emancipation could mean the end of mankind… parallels with patriarchy, anyone? Female robots… the ultimate manifestation of heterosexual male wet-dreams turned nightmares. I want to find them attractive, but the buzz of thoughts on gender which movies/stories centered around them sparks makes it quite difficult.
The movie ‘Ex-machina’ did so many more things with relation to gender in my head than just sparking a critique of the male-gaze while also making me feel creepily attracted to Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Ava and her unreal ballerina movements… that I had to write some of those thoughts down.

ex-machina-poster-official

Image stolen from here

So. Straight to the story, then. [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER to a siren sound]

Creepy reclusive internet giant and coding genius, Nathan, selects an employee, Caleb, to perform the Turing test – to determine whether the AI can pass for a human – on the AI that Nathan has been working, named Ava.

Nathan brings Caleb in for the test under the guise of Caleb having won a contest and getting to spend a week with his legendary employer. Nathan selects Caleb not for his coding expertise as we are initially led to believe but for his lack of family and romantic partnership, making him an easy human to dispose of… and emotionally needy enough for Ava, the AI, to manipulate quite easily.

The ‘Turing test’ here, is a little different as Caleb is given clear indication that Ava is not human and the test is in fact to see whether or not she can demonstrate a consciousness – trick Caleb into responding to her as he would to a human – while her not being human is still apparent. Angela Watercutter suggests that the test here is rather different from the Turing test and is more akin to the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner.
Naturally Ava chooses to convince Caleb with the skills at her disposal – flirtation, seduction and the childlike helpless damsel in distress act. All augmented by Nathan’s creepiness and the connotations of sexual abuse that are evident in his relationship with all his (racially diverse) robot women. Ava also demonstrates her not inconsiderable intelligence in engineering the power cuts, making obvious the power differential between Caleb and her in their conversation and so on… but all this is naturally overshadowed by her feminine wiles (and the calculated intelligence with which she uses them).

The film ends with Caleb having aided Ava’s escape, though part of his plan was seen through by Nathan and was in fact part of the test he manipulated Caleb into performing. Ava and Kyoko (Nathan’s robot housemaid and sex slave) work together briefly to kill Nathan, without visible regret, pleasure or relief. The satisfaction the viewer gets from Nathan’s death, arising from the sexual exploitation of his robots, hinted at (and perhaps augmented by the earlier allusions to Nathan being a creator/God), is completely absent from the expressions of both Ava and Kyoko.

Kyoko dies(?) having played her part in demonstrating that even though programmed for docility she has gained some manner of consciousness and having aided the white female lead in escape. Ava dresses herself in the skins of her predecessor AI robots, who we have been given to understand were driven to self-destruction by Nathan’s exploitative treatment – both sexually and mentally – and goes on her way, ignoring Caleb’s pleas as he is left behind trapped in the strange electronically locking house of his late employer. She does this with a calm and lack of emotion at odds with her earlier behaviour in front of Caleb – displaying vulnerability, loneliness and sexual interest – much like her demeanour as she slides the knife into Nathan, killing him. The utter lack of interest she has in these two deaths – for Caleb will surely die trapped there – is what I found most chilling.

Before I go into my thoughts on the gender dynamics in this film, I have one question… have we learnt nothing from Jurassic Park!?
Apart from the obvious parallels of creating life – or in this case AI – and expecting to stay in control of it, there was something about the opening scene where Caleb was flown in by helicopter to Nathan’s estate, in the middle of a huge sweeping lush green expanse of vegetation which was oddly reminiscent of Jurassic Park. That’s when I knew Caleb was going to die.

Right. Back to the gender dynamics. First the obvious – both human characters are male. The highly intelligent scientist and the aspiring coding expert. There are no human female characters. In that sense we can’t even begin to apply the Bechdel test or any similar measure/indicators of gender dynamics here.
The robots, however are female.
There is a glaringly obvious entrenchment of the heterosexual male gaze here. The female characters are actually objects. Created for male pleasure, both physical and intellectual – can the toy I made behave like an actual human? And viewers need not feel any guilt about sexualizing Ava and Kyoko… because they’re robots. Also, if you feel anything like pity or empathy for them, don’t. They will kill you without a thought.

Patriarchal anxiety over feminism, much?

In a sense the absence of human female characters, makes this film a kind of commentary on our gender dynamics. Or so argues Alex Garland, writer and director of Ex Machina. He insists that the portrayal of gender in this film is meant to be a commentary on our constructs of gender.
In some ways, I think the film succeeds in this. The obvious nature of the observations I made about objectification can serve as a social commentary on gender dynamics, just as well as an entrenchment of the heterosexual male gaze. It all depends on the maturity and sensitivity of the viewer.
Garland however, goes a little off target of a feminist commentary insisting that viewers are supposed to find Nathan’s dynamic with Ava (and all the AI who came before) creepy and want Caleb to rescue her. The use of sexual exploitation of the female characters to generate the White Knight’s (Caleb’s) sympathy is an ancient and tired story telling device.

White Knight saves damsel in distress. Yay! Only damsel is not human and leaves White Knight to die. Oops. Also she looks just like us but has no feelings and is now loose in the world. Run!

I think the way this film succeeds as a commentary on gender is through laying bare the self-serving motivation behind presenting oneself as childlike, helpless, vulnerable and attracted to the White Knight. The warping of feelings and expression of them in our relationships, through patriarchal socialization and the imposition of gender roles is made starkly visible with the women characters being robots.

Of course this view also entrenches the view of femininity as being manipulative. Sigh. But perhaps it breaks the stereotype of women being emotional? Oh wait. She’s not human. A real human woman would have feelings. Sigh.

In a sense, this is a film about masculinity, as Charlie Jane Anders of iO9 argues. Lacking female characters, the film is about the different ways men try to exert control. It doesn’t explore women’s experiences and the female form of the AI merely serves as a plot device, laying bare male attitudes.
Which man doesn’t want to be the White Knight and save the vulnerable and sexy woman. Oh, that’s right, it’s the creepy creator genius father-figure, who wants to make robot sex slaves.
How does a woman get what she wants and needs in a world populated by White Knights and creepy father-figures? She plays the damsel in distress.

Why the A.I was created gendered was superficially addressed in the film, Nathan arguing that without gendered difference there would be no motivation for individuals to interact, and that sex is fun (ignoring the existence of asexuals and agender individuals). This is also perhaps the blithe answer of a sex-crazed lunatic genius.

Considering the hints we were given of the use of search engine data in creating Ava’s intelligence, it is possible that the most common models for human thought and intelligence that exist in such media are gendered. (Asexual and agender models might prove too few to generate adequate data.) It is also true that to pass as human – to pass the Turing test – the A.I would have to assume a gender. So much the easier when she is already assigned a gender, much as most humans are, and has been designed with breast contours and a mechanical vagina which can be stimulated to generate a pleasure response.
This attention to ensuring the pleasure of the robot, despite having envisaged her as a sex slave, intrigued me. On the one hand it seemed to be a step up from the objectification I spoke about earlier. On the other, however, it seems to be part of the fantasy of modern masculinity. Use her for your pleasure and she’ll enjoy it.

A question that plagued me repeatedly during the film, was how important Ava’s gender was to her self-identity. While Ava uses her gender to free herself, she does not display much else about her attachment to her gender and experience of it. The scene where she strips the skin off her sister-predecessor AI bodies that hang mutilated in Nathan’s bed room is imbued with positive lighting and hopeful music. She lingers before the mirror, perhaps truly seeing herself for the first time, perhaps savoring a feeling of being whole… but we cannot know how she feels about her body and it’s similarity to a human woman’s. Her face is as expressionless as it is when she kills Nathan and leaves Caleb to die.

And perhaps this question is the most interesting reflection on gender to shine through from this film. How important/intrinsic is gender to us, really? A recurring question, these days, and it is interesting to see it thrown up in films like this.

I’d like to view this film as a warning to Heteropatriarchy. Get your shit together and quietly implode before humans start to work on AI.
If you build sex slave robots, they will kill you. And you will deserve it.
This is how AI will take over the world. Because heteropatriarchal men are dicks.

Other interesting articles on Ex Machina and gender in sci-fi:

http://www.wired.com/2015/04/ex-machina-turing-bechdel-test/
http://io9.com/from-maria-to-ava-why-are-so-many-artificial-intellige-1699274487
https://bitchmedia.org/post/ex-machina-film-review-gender-and-ai-feminism

Thoughts on surviving rape, post a talk by Flavia Agnes

Over the last two days I have been very lucky. I attended two talks by Flavia Agnes – feminist lawyer, founder of Majlis and all-round gritty (as opposed to glittery) hero who battled horrible odds to get where she is and involve herself in the women’s movement. If anyone needed that introduction, please take a minute to read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flavia_Agnes

Her first talk was about Muslim Personal Law and Women’s Rights and called into question a lot of assumptions about the Uniform Civil Code and its liberatory potential for women. This talk was very relevant to my research, and I shall write a more detailed and researched account of it in a day or two.

Her second talk, originally scheduled at the English and Foreign Language University, had to be shifted to Osmania University at almost no notice, due to the vagaries of bureaucracy and the megalomania of the Vice-Chancellor at EFLU. Anyhow, it’s the talk itself that I want to write about, not the circumstances surrounding it.
She spoke about “Love and Punishment: Perspectives from Law”. The talk itself was not aimed at an academic audience, though most people present were involved in academia to some extent or the other.

Flavia spoke about gang rapes, and a kind of pattern to them that she says is not often spoken about. Usually they occur when young women – adolescent or in their early twenties – are out with young men, alone and without visible signs or markers of marriage. Sometimes boyfriends, and at other times male friends or acquantances. There is, she suggested, a punitive aspect to gang rapes, where the boys and men raping, feel they are teaching either or both the woman and her male companion, a lesson.

She also made us think about how rape is constructed as stranger rape and gang rape and this allows us to erase rape by people known to the victims – trusted friends, husbands, fathers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers… Usually, she said, young girls who have boyfriends or are sexually active are more vulnerable to rape by a family member. She suggested that the premise for these rapes was usually that if the girl was sexually active with an outsider, what right did she have to deny access to her sexuality to members of her family. She emphasized that rape by family or friends is far more common than stranger rape.
She asked us to consider the very different reaction of a family to rape by a father and spoke of cases where extremely young girls are pressurized by their families into keeping quiet about repeated abuse by their fathers. Often after they have complained to the police, they are pressurized into withdrawing their statement and claiming that the loss of virginity exposed by the ‘medical’ examination is a result of consensual intercourse with their boyfriends. These children are forced to take the blame for a ‘false’ case because if the one breadwinner of the family is imprisoned the entire family will starve. The boyfriends are forced to undergo lengthy court proceedings as statutory rapists.

She then moved away from rape per se but stayed with the theme of law being used to control women’s sexuality. She spoke of what she calls ‘elopement’ cases, where young girls attempt to assert their autonomy and choose a sexual partner, only to have their parents file cases of kidnap and rape against the boy. Often these girls are below the age of consent and the act of consensual sex is still considered statutory rape. At other times, the girls are above the age of consent but police take the girl’s father’s word about her being below the age of consent and register these cases anyway. Sometimes women wait until they are no longer considered minors and try to marry the boy, but often as a result of lengthy court procedures, social stigma and familial pressures the boys in question do not want to marry the women any more.

In a world which punishes both judicially and extra-judicially, women’s sexual autonomy, she asked us how we would deal with rape.

Flavia spoke of the famous and much talked about ‘Nirbhaya’ case and the discourse surrounding it. She compared this case with the not-as-famous ‘Shakti Mills’ case – incidentally, there were 2 gang rapes which occurred there – and asked a few very troubling questions.

Why did the Delhi gang rape victim die, and the Shakti Mills victims live? What makes the difference between a victim and a survivor?
Her intent was obviously to challenge the mainstream glorification of victims and victimhood, and to question how we sanitise them. She said as much.

Then, she spoke about the “India’s daughter” documentary, and said that the one thing she took away from the documentary was what the accused (and convicted) Mukesh Singh had said – if she had not fought so much, they wouldn’t have used the rods – which almost certainly caused her death.
She looked at the victims’ behaviour in these 3 cases. She made a joke of the possibility that men in Delhi were much more brutal than men in Mumbai and then spoke of fighting back as opposed to letting it (the rape) happen and asked which was more likely to result in the girl’s survival.
She used several examples to further her argument. She mentioned Sohaila Abdulali’s experience of gang rape and her public reflections on it, (https://kractivist.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/i-fought-for-my-life-and-won-sohaila-abdulal-mustread-vaw-rape/ , http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/opinion/after-being-raped-i-was-wounded-my-honor-wasnt.html) and emphasized Sohaila’s statement “I fought the attackers physically at first, and with words after I was pinned down. Anger and shouting had no effect, so I began to babble rather crazily about love and compassion, I spoke of humanity and the fact that I was a human being, and so were they, deep inside. They were gentler after this, at least those who were not raping me at the moment.”

She also spoke about what one of the survivors of the Shakti Mills gang rape had told her – that at that point, all she had wanted was to survive, so she had stopped fighting them and did what they asked.

She told us about another survivor of a brutal gang rape, a 15 year old girl, who had been about to faint from the violence of it and had asked one of her assailants for water. He, apparently, not only gave her water but refrained from raping her (awful though, that sounds, he was part of the group that was raping her and stopped himself after her request), and locked the room promising her that none of them would bother her that night. It is probable that his actions saved her life. Today, that girl is in a home and seems to be recovering. She is also very proud of her handiwork – she makes bags with the other members of the home and insists that hers are the best.

She used these examples to make her most controversial point – that in the event of a rape, and that is something we should all think about – we must focus on surviving. And perhaps the best strategy to do that, is to stop fighting and let it happen.

Flavia’s intent was to change the way the discourse handles rape. Our focus on prevention which (as many feminists have noted) only leads to increased policing and restriction of women, she suggests is short sighted and in some ways plays into market strategies. She made light of young women buying pepper sprays and storing them in handbags alongside their make-up – tools marketed young women as solutions: make up to make us more sexually attractive, pepper spray to prevent rape.
She insisted that we need to reject the narrative of martyrdom that we have been fed. There is no need to fight till the death. Rape is not worse than death. Our notions of purity and honour residing in our vaginas are obstacles to our survival.

She spoke almost passionately about our instincts which are always geared towards survival and suggested that we have suppressed our instincts partly through the rights discourse and our notions of purity and honour so that we fight till the death and become sanitised martyrs like ‘Nirbhaya’ (an erasure of the very human Jyoti Singh).

In the discussion afterwards, where she asked to hear our thoughts on how to survive rape, a few very interesting points were brought up. Her suggestion to stop fighting and ‘let it happen’ was unsettling to many of us and questions were raised about passive submission being damaging to the vitcim as well as the lack of marks of struggle being used in court as evidence that the sex was not non-consensual.
A major point countering this was that choosing not to struggle is not easy or passive. (Vasudha) It is often a wise and pragmatic choice which ensures survival. Flavia also clarified that according to the law, no marks of struggle are necessary to prove rape – an achievement of the women’s movement post the Mathura case.

There was also some discussion on where the need to fight stems from. A friend (T) spoke of her own experience of abuse and how she feels guilt for the times she did not resist. Flavia answered that that was due to our conditioning and a focus on surviving rape would free us of just that, the guilt of not fighting back. T tried to point out that there was something more to it than conditioning, and that sometimes we just fight out of a desire not to be treated unfairly.

Another friend (M) pointed out, that the conditioning on how to survive rape exists – our mothers teach us how to survive rape everyday in marriage. It is only in cases of stranger rape that we need to discuss how to survive.

I was unable to clearly articulate the strong discomfort I felt with this way of looking at rape. I tried to suggest my own intuition that the stigma surrounding sex was indeed a major reason why rape is considered and experienced as so damaging, and therefore, we do indeed need to do away with the martyr constructions of rape. However I was uncomfortable with the shifting of the onus for survival onto the woman again.
Flavia replied with a lovely analogy, about mugging. When boys are likely to be mugged, they are not taught to hold on to their possessions no matter what. Mothers teach them to leave it and run, no matter how precious they are. Why do we not teach girls the same, about their ‘purity’?

I think the point Flavia raised is definitely important – that we need to actively consider ways to survive rape, and we need to discard societal notions of purity and honour which hamper this. However, I still think that the phrasing of Flavia’s questions shifts the burden of guilt and makes Jyoti Singh and others like her responsible for their own deaths. And this is very dangerous, especially in a context where rape itself is explained as a punishment for the woman’s transgressions.
Yes, we do need to have conversations about how to survive rape. Our conversations about how to survive rape do need to balance out the narrative of preventing rape and the other narrative of martyrdom after rape… but I think these conversations need to be very carefully phrased, because they can easily fall into the same kind of logic as the ‘Bhaiya’ solution. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/asaram-rape-victim-shouldve-pleaded-for-mercy/article4283466.ece) And that sort of thing only strengthens patriarchy.

I also think that the women’s movement in India, does not need to take additional blame for rape victims not surviving. Blaming the rights discourse for women fighting back against rapists does a disservice to both the rights discourse and the women who fight back. The rights discourse has a complex history and is (at least partly) responsible for several of the opportunities women have today. And women who have very different non-modern notions of themselves which often do not involve rights, fight back just as much as women who vehemently articulate the need for women’s rights.
I’m sure a lot of our behaviour is a result of conditioning and both our mainstream ideas of honour as well as the rights discourse shape our reactions to and contribute to our ideas about sexual violence. However the combination of factors which leads to a woman reacting in a certain way is so varied and nebulous that we cannot pin her reaction on any one factor.

There is a danger, I think, in seeking a formula to survive rape, because the experiences of rape are so diverse. Sometimes fighting helps – both with getting away and avoiding rape itself, as well as with guilt post the experience – and at others ‘letting it happen’ or speaking to the perpetrators does. Sometimes our ‘instincts’ do make us shut down and survive the ordeal, but at other times instincts can make us fight what we see as injustice, especially when we have been feeling discriminated against for a long time. Collapsing all these experiences and strategies is not likely to benefit us. (This idea about collapsing experiences was better articulated by N. She blogs here: https://nathawahlang.wordpress.com/)
And we can never know what happened to those who do not survive. Perhaps they did everything they could. Perhaps they submitted, begged and pleaded. And perhaps they were still brutally assaulted and then killed. Or perhaps they fought till they died.

Just as the mainstream narrative of rape and the loss of honour does these women a disservice of deifying them and erasing their humanity, this phrasing of the narrative of survival of rape does them another disservice of blaming them for their own deaths.

Lets keep them human. They reacted as best they could in that moment. And lets place the blame squarely where it lies, on the perpetrators and the patriarchy which socialised them into believing that they had a right to her body and a right to ‘teach her a lesson’.

And let us definitely have more survivor stories.

Further reading:
Flavia on why we love ‘Nirbhaya’ but hate Suzette – http://www.asianage.com/columnists/why-india-loves-nirbhaya-hates-suzette-723

On the making of a high profile rape case – http://www.kractivist.org/making-of-a-high-profile-shakti-mills-rape-trial-vaw-justice/

Sohaila Abdulali’s account in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/08/opinion/after-being-raped-i-was-wounded-my-honor-wasnt.html