Gendered Spaces in India

Pranita Choudhry

Examining the spatial exclusion of Women in India

According to the latest census, in India, there are currently 37 million men in excess of women. A country that experiences the giant gender gap in population, also has an equally large gender gap in employment where only 20% women currently participate in the labour market (according to world bank data). India’s performance is among the lowest globally with stark comparisons to its neighbours: 36% in Bangladesh, 59% in China, and 35% in Sri Lanka and 80% women in Nepal are currently in formal employment. This is in the vicinity of 80% for men according to an ILO report. The reasons for India’s low global ranking are all too well-known and obvious – patriarchal society, preference of sons over daughters, fertility, domestic and care activities. While economic growth and rising overall education levels for women are reasons to celebrate, absorption of women in the labour force through creation of suitable job opportunities has been all too slow. Invisibilisation of women due to economic growth was further achieved through increased household incomes that no longer deemed it necessary for housewives to seek work outside, also known as the “income effect”.

“the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses.”

On the other hand, the majority of the women who do work are mostly concentrated in the informal sector. The jobs they perform are part of the highly labour-intensive informal workspaces including menial work within agriculture, construction, handicrafts, or within home businesses. Among the minority who make it to the formal sector, most are performing tasks that are an extension of home duties such as nursing, teaching beauty, healthcare, fashion, textiles, teaching etc. Take the textiles industry, for example, where 71% of the workforce according to a World Bank report are women, but where they are subjected to low pay, extensive hours, exploitation and bad working conditions. Women’s primary role in society is seen as that of a ‘caregiver’, therefore even professionally they are engaging in activities that are an extension of the home. Professionals or homemakers, they are never excused from taking on the burden of household chores and responsibility as caregivers to children and the elderly. 

“On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work.”

On average, women do one hour less of productive work as compared to men, and yet are responsible for three times more home-bound care work. Take a look at the graph below that showcases the Female to Male ratio in terms of the time devoted to unpaid care work i.e. domestic and household chores as well as care activities for children and elderly. Amongst the highest in the world are Pakistan and India where women devote 10.25 and 9.83 hours for every hour devoted by men (respectively).

Deshpande, A. and Kabeer, N. (2019) (In)Visibility, Care and Cultural Barriers. The size and shape of women’s work in India (with Ashwini Deshpande) Discussion Paper Series in Economics DP 04/19. Department of Economics, Ashoka University.

While this has shifted slightly in urban spaces, the status quo remains in rural areas. Even in urban areas, policies and compliance is meagre especially in the informal sector and thinking about alternative careers such as those in manufacturing or technology is a distant reality.

The spaces that women claim are largely private. At the end of the day, it’s all a tussle between the public and private spaces and how power is experienced and negotiated within them that creates the silent rules we adhere to in our jobs, relationships, and interactions as a society. Take a look at the picture below of a small village in Bihar, India.

If you visit the interiors of India, you will see this as a common sight. While girls are tasked with commuting from home, holding containers of material or water, often several times a day, boys are found out playing, being with friends, or just running on the streets, just being who they’re supposed to be – children. In other words, you would see boys claiming the public spaces early on, while girls are restricted to private “for their own safety”. The only times they must only be out is to study or related to housework. Here’s another image that’s not specific to rural areas, but all around us.

As I ventured into the rural spaces, I was struck by how hard women worked all day long, engaged in agriculture work day after day as well as performing household duties, ready to forego any payments or rights. While their husbands often roamed about in the evenings to visit their friends or drink at the local pub, women often spent their evenings ensuring the rest of the family members, including the livestock, are well-fed and taken care of. This is an accepted form of behaviour instilled early on in life. Most women I spoke to expressed their discontent at the unfairness of it all, but simply didn’t want to voice their unhappiness from the fear of bringing shame to the family. I noticed they continued to treat their sons differently, maybe unintentionally, contributing to this vicious cycle. It demonstrates the deep-rooted acceptance of norms that dictate our behaviour and accepted both by the oppressed and the oppressor, that leads to the inter-generational repetition and continuation of the status quo, in rural and urban spaces.

“it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices.”

But isn’t it a woman’s duty to take care of her children and elders? why should they be paid for the tasks that they do for their family? Well, it’s not about the immediate monetary benefits but the consequential and intergenerational impacts on the lives of women and children. Empowerment is a holistic concept that cuts across the economic, social and political realms. It’s not just about getting job opportunities, but to be in an environment that’s productive, safe, and where women have the freedom to make their own choices. Gender norms dictate that claiming public spaces is considered desirable, attractive, challenging and ambitious, and are largely “masculine”, while being in the private sphere, no matter how much work you do, is considered feminine, a duty that’s taken for granted, in some instances leading to ill-treatment and exploitation. It’s about control. Take a look at the positioning and space distribution below which was completely unplanned and in fact but took place organically, reflective of the power dynamics.

“Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity.”

Power is exerted in many ways, one of them being “dismissal”. The collective acceptance of a narrative by those in positions of power, mostly men in senior leadership positions, political leaders, and at a micro-level considered heads of households, are often quick to dismiss or are inconsiderate to any other voices or viewpoints and assume the role of a decision-maker. It’s a system that seeks conformity rather than rewards creativity. Their dominant presence in the public spaces is what leads to an insecure and unsafe space for women, who face eve-teasing and harassment, and thus have to constantly sacrifice their share of freedom & mobility to participate in the workforce. When taking a non-binary gender view, the experiences of those from the LGBTQIA communities who face violence and discrimination are nerve-racking and are immensely invisible. On other hand, the well-meaning male allies try they find it hard to make changes given the deep-rooted structural shifts that are needed.

The only solution to breaking this imbalance is for more and more women and girls to step into the public sphere and are well-supported to do so. However, with expectations around marriage, fertility, and care responsibilities, the challenge for us today is to facilitate this process and ensure they enter and then remain in the workforce. As the Economist, Amartya Sen explained, women can become agents of change only if certain conditions are fulfilled – they acquire more than basic education; they have an independent income; they have land rights; and that they have the freedom to work outside the house. However, when it is achieved, it brings about development not just for women themselves but others too. On average, countries with greater female labor force participation generally see later marriages, fewer children, better nutrition and school enrolment, and higher gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. There is also research that suggests that choices made by women’s groups not only led to empowerment for women themselves but greater development for children’s education and health, and the community at large.  

“The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since.”

The female labour force participation rate was the highest at 33% in 1972-73, and has been declining ever since. Therefore, the challenge is real, to drive women from the “Private” to the “Public”. Unfortunately, there isn’t any quick fix to a problem this deep-rooted and ingrained. A change to this lopsided social structure will manifest only if we put in place certain provisions and solutions that are unconventional and multi-dimensional. At a policy and systemic level, change takes time and various initiatives are underway to influence policy change by organisations such as Sewa Mandir that unionised workers.. At an organisational level, some evidence-based initiatives seem to have worked in the west in the formal sector that may help lead the way towards increasing and sustenance of the labour force participation rate for women. Provisions such as having work-life balance policies in the workplace, effective protections against dismissal for pregnant women, shared parental leave, flexible working arrangements, company provided care services, a robust workplace harassment policy are some of the ways to help women continue being in the workforce. Having mentors and role models is crucial to help access the next stage, and to chart a path less travelled before and keep confidence and self-esteem high. 

While the gaps are structural with empty policies, profit-seeking corporations, poor implementation of laws, or political will, it is as much about changing individual behaviours, mindsets, attitudes, that rests upon us. We as citizens must keep our eyes open and intentions intact by ensuring we put in place a safe and dignified working environment, policies and contracts for staff members, domestic workers, part-time employees, ensure protection in the workplace, and have borders that are defined for our “employees” and not “servants”. Within the household, it is to encourage boys and adult men to teach their children that it is valuable to do “house” work, and a necessary aspect of being truly “independent” and “empowered”. It isn’t enough for men to think and say they “let” their partners work and that they are empowered because they have a job, it will take an equal division of labour both at work and at home. For women to claim public spaces, they need their partners and allies to pick up the slack in the private spaces, only then will the balance be restored.

“The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst.”

To top it all off, the imbalance recently has further been exacerbated by the pandemic. The labour force participation of women is lower by 0.3% as a result of the pandemic and girls are dropping out of schools where 37% from poor households in India are at risk of leaving behind their education, and more and more women are at risk of experiencing domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Others are pushed into early marriage or teenage pregnancies. 2.5 million girls globally are at risk of child marriage, India being one of the worst. These are areas of work being taken up by various charities, NGOs and multilateral organisations such as the United Nations and other civil society actors. While many of us may not be able to shift these outcomes by ourselves, being part of the larger interventions and contributing is the need of the hour. In addition, there are things we can do and changes we can make within our own lives to contribute to a fight that needs our contribution. The pandemic has indeed offered us a unique opportunity, as we stay at home, to truly re-imagine our roles and contribute equally to all household chores to ensure we aren’t just advocates but practitioners of equality. 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion.

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Why Asexual Representation in Media Matters

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Discussing the need for greater inclusion of the asexual experience in film And television

The conversation around understanding sexuality as a spectrum has gained significant mileage in the world we live in today. The LGBTQIA+ community has spearheaded several movements to raise awareness on what it means to be queer, what it means to have a fluid sexual identity and what it means to live in a world that makes painstaking efforts to uphold heteronormativity as an ideology. Heteronormativity is a cultural belief that heterosexuality is the only acceptable sexual orientation. Examining the nuances of sexuality, especially in modern mass media, has been fruitful for many, helping people come to terms with who they are and what they identify as. Asexuality, however, is far from the spotlight when conversations revolve around sex and sexuality. 

“Asexual individuals may experience many forms of attraction, that can often be romantic, but they do not always have an intrinsic need to act on that attraction.”

How do we understand asexuality? What makes it so distinct from other sexual orientations? The Asexual Visibility and Education Network offers a comprehensive definition of asexuality – “An asexual person does not experience sexual attraction – they are not drawn to people sexually and do not desire to act upon attraction to others in a sexual way. Unlike celibacy, which is a choice to abstain from sexual activity, asexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are, just like other sexual orientations.” Asexual individuals may experience many forms of attraction, that can often be romantic, but they do not always have an intrinsic need to act on that attraction. Just because asexual people do not desire sex, it does not limit their emotional needs. Asexual individuals also seek partners for an emotional connection, a relationship that doesn’t always have to be romantic. Craving intimacy, closeness and communication are crucial in all kinds of relationships and are not limited to strictly sexual ones. Offering this distinction is key to understanding asexuality and what it means for a person to identify as asexual. 

“People believe that asexuality is not a sexuality, when in fact it is just as significant as being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual.”

There are several myths surrounding asexuality that seek to diminish the asexual experience. People believe that asexuality is not a sexuality, when in fact it is just as significant as being heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual. Other myths include terming asexual people as “anti-sex” or believing that asexuality is an illness. Asexuality visibility is incredibly important for more asexual individuals to make sense of their experience and their sexual identity.


There’s no denying the fact that the media we consume has an indelible impact on how we see ourselves. From the time we’re children, what we watch unfold on screen contributes to our self-image and helps us make sense of who we are in relation to the world around us. This is especially why representation on-screen matters so much – it offers every kind of individual a mirror, a way of understanding themselves through another person’s experience that resembles their own. For decades, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have protested the lack of representation in film and television and how this reflects society’s belief that heteronormativity is a value that must be espoused by everyone. 

“The lack of representation of the asexual community in film and television renders them invisible and unseen.” 

Film and television are not merely forms of entertainment to be consumed and forgotten, their cascading effects have the potential to change lives and inspire a revolution. The lack of representation of the asexual community in film and television renders them invisible and unseen. An article by Psychology Today elucidates the importance of representation and its long-lasting effects on one’s identity. “When people see representations of themselves in the media, this can foster a great sense of affirmation of their identity. Feeling affirmed with one’s sense of self can boost positive feelings of self-worth, which is quite different than feeling as if you are wrong or bad for being who you are. The message that can come from a society in which LGBTQ people are invisible, especially through the lens of the media, is that “you don’t exist and you don’t matter.”

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Shruti, a 25-year-old female, who identifies as asexual, discusses her struggles because of insufficient representation: ‘I didn’t even know there was a possibility of a person being ‘asexual’. It’s only when I started doing research based on my personal feelings and emotions that I even chanced upon the word asexuality…’.” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Shruti, a 25-year-old female, who identifies as asexual, discusses her struggles because of insufficient representation: “I didn’t even know there was a possibility of a person being ‘asexual’. It’s only when I started doing research based on my personal feelings and emotions that I even chanced upon the word asexuality. Previously I assumed only amoebas could be asexual and that sex was a crucial part of the human experience. In fact even in school, we learn that it is one of the most important physiological needs, according to Maslow. So yes representation would save us the trouble of having to go through the feeling of being weird, abnormal and not “human” enough.”


The erasure of the asexual experience continues to pose a problem for everyone coming to terms with their sexual identities. The tendency of mass media to project a hyper-sexualised society can make people who don’t desire sex believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with them. In film and television, sex is often seen as the ultimate form of romantic expression. When it’s not associated with romance, it’s coded as a “release” and one of the only means of “letting go” and “having a good time”. Romantic and sexual fulfilment is often the ultimate goal in mainstream visual narratives, a way to finally find your place in the world. Years of this kind of messaging has left individuals feeling inadequate when they don’t have a romantic or sexual partner in their lives. 

“For asexual people, especially, this constant bombardment of narratives that favour ‘finding a partner’ can leave them with a sense of dissonance.” 

For asexual people, especially, this constant bombardment of narratives that favour ‘finding a partner’ can leave them with a sense of dissonance. Shruti adds, “Although the Ace experience is not as difficult as other members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we do have our struggles. And just in the case of any minority group, having good representation helps instil a sense of belonging and relief that you are not the only one feeling a particular way. Sex isn’t the end of the world. Just like it’s okay for people to be gay or bi, it’s okay for some to not want sex. It’s as simple as that.” 

It’s important to note that not all asexual people are averse to sex, they simply do not have an intrinsic need for it. Some asexual people partake in sex, masturbate and are aroused but don’t actively seek a partner for sex. Other asexual people may not feel any arousal at all, both these categories exist and are equally valid experiences. Shruti continues, “I wish there were shows or movies that showed asexual acceptance and that it was possible to have a relationship and that being asexual does not mean you are “broken”. Heteronormativity is detrimental to everyone who doesn’t fall under its umbrella.”

“In recent years, one of the most memorable asexual characters has been Todd Chavez from the animated television show ‘BoJack Horseman.’ Todd’s character arc offers him the means to explore his sexuality and eventually come to terms with the fact that he’s asexual. ‘BoJack Horseman’ is sensitive in its portrayal of Todd’s asexuality and offers him the space to understand it and seek a community within which he feels welcome and represented.” 

Queer characters have a much larger representation on-screen than asexual individuals. Some of the most critically acclaimed films and television shows over the last few decades have had empathetic, authentic portrayals of gay, lesbian and transgender characters. This is not to say that the representation of the LGBTQIA+ is as widespread as it should be, but it is still significantly larger than the representation offered exclusively to asexual characters. In recent years, one of the most memorable asexual characters has been Todd Chavez from the animated television show ‘BoJack Horseman.’ Todd’s character arc offers him the means to explore his sexuality and eventually come to terms with the fact that he’s asexual. ‘BoJack Horseman’ is sensitive in its portrayal of Todd’s asexuality and offers him the space to understand it and seek a community within which he feels welcome and represented. Todd is perhaps one of the only characters in recent memory who has openly come out as ace. Characters like Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock) and Dr. Spencer Reid (Criminal Minds) have sometimes displayed characteristics of being asexual but have never openly discussed sexuality. Often characters that are open about their disinterest in sex are seen as abnormal or strange, this kind of misrepresentation is what continues to be so damaging to asexual people.

“Social media has created an important space for asexual people to form a community and authentically discuss their experiences.”

Social media has created an important space for asexual people to form a community and authentically discuss their experiences. These discussions are paving the way for the normalisation of asexuality and starting conversations on the existence of asexuality and what it means for a person to be asexual. Such normalisation is key to encouraging film, television and other forms of mass media to have a greater representation of asexual characters and craft narratives that value their experiences. Nuanced portrayals of the asexual experience are crucial for audiences to be aware of asexuality and foster empathy towards the asexual experience. Most importantly, wider representation on the screen will greatly help asexual people learn how to be comfortable in their skin and disengage with the false notion that sexual desire is intrinsic to the human experience. 

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word. This is her second article for Bol Magazine, read her article on contemporary feminism here.

Graphic by Hemashri Dhavala

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The Psyche of an Artist

Manashri Pai Dukle

An insight into the relationship of women artists with the work they create and their life

Content warning: rape, violence against women

Art is a powerful instrument for understanding the psyche of an artist, their psychological state, behavioural tendencies, thinking patterns, and personality traits that drive them to create. Art and life of an artist are interdependent. Reading into a work of art is as complex as creating it and it’s an open-ended phenomenon on either side of the process. What makes an artist include their psychological wellbeing/state and experiences that have an impact on how they perceive, analyse, process and deliver their work through different mediums and means? Every work of art can be decoded and studied with respect to its content and its background (referring to the process of its creation). Art is the reflection of the artist’s mind and psyche. 

Since the “soul” or the “mind” are concepts and not physical structures, Psychology considers studying behavior to observe and interpret the mind. It attempts to understand the objective behavior of living beings, scientifically, in relation to their environment and evaluates the reasons and causes of these behavioral patterns. It investigates mental processes through scientific findings. Art, on the contrary, is a catharsis of these mental activities. The major link between art and psychology is creativity, which binds the two disciplines together. 

“When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it.”

The “artist” has been a recurring character in fiction and real life. Artists are perceived in a certain way and defined with a preset definition by society. Countless painters, composers, writers and musicians have suffered from depression, bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and other mental health issues. When you look at some of our species greatest creative achievements, you will often find a touch of eccentricity to it. Perhaps it’s not surprising that neuroscience has discovered that highly creative people’s brains are wired differently. Our culture often portrays artists as eccentric. An artist is considered far more likely to be an aberration than someone working in any other profession. Researchers refer to this as the “eccentricity effect.”  Two such artists are Frida Kahlo and Amrita Shergil, whose work was a result of the conflict in their mind and their traumatic life experiences.

“Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of ‘feminine catharsis’, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say.”

The creative merit of an artwork is often judged based on how viewers perceive the artist. Art is about accessing the deepest, most raw parts of yourself and challenging the audience. Perhaps more than any other profession, the act of creation brings artists closer to their subconscious. Statistics have shown that women are more likely (than men) to develop mental health conditions. Art created by women is often more personal and emotionally purging with a sense of “feminine catharsis”, where the art conveys much more than what the artist tends to say. Focusing on women artists, we can decode a pattern of relationships they have with the kind of work they create and their life story. 

Here are a few artists and a brief outline of their work: 

“Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29.”

Amrita Shergil’s persona, both as an artist of enduring repute and a woman of colourful escapades, continues to intrigue people several decades after her inexplicable death in 1941 at the age of 29. Her multidimensional and iconic personality is reflected in her self portraits. Her vulnerability also shines through her position of being caught between a cold and conventional father and a deranged mother. She takes refuge in an artistic vision remarkable for its compassionate world view. Outspoken, contemptuous and critical of people she disagreed with, she was not only a prolific painter but also a magician with words. She proclaimed that “Although I studied, I have never been taught painting because I possess in my psychological makeup a peculiarity that resents any outside interference…”. 

Bharti Kher, another brilliant artist, focuses on creating art that reflects her own nomadic life. She was born and brought up in England, but in the early 1990’s she moved to New Delhi. She utilises the readily available “Bindi” which signifies “the third eye” worn on the forehead by the Indian women as a symbol of her identity. The “Bindi” plays the role of a basic building block for her masterpieces. She is also an expert in creating wild and eccentric resin-cast sculptures embroidered with Bindis, where her hunt for identity is prominent.

“Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about.”

Hema Upadhyay, took gigantic steps to establish herself among the spectacular women artists of India. She tried to reflect on her phobias, shortcomings and other real or imaginative tales through her paintings. She stated that her work was cathartic in the process. From 2001 till her death in  2015, she captivated the thoughts of art lovers with her magnificent works gaining her both appreciation as well as criticism from her viewers. Nalini Malani belongs to a group of artists who earned prominent name and fame internationally in the 1980s. Being a social activist, Malani’s work is based on the stories we have generally been ignorant about. She brought grave issues of race, class and gender in the limelight through her creations portraying her mind disputes in a visual and concrete form. 

Artist Rina Banerjee, inspired by “prakriti” (nature), constantly kept portraying the cycle of nature and the oscillations between constructing and prostrating movements of birth, death and rebirth. To depict the ephemerality of the objects which we chase, for example, she uses small glass bottles and shells to depict mobility, fluidity and a sense of guarded-home respectively in her work. 

“Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope.”

Celebration of humanism and intense curiosity to break the shackle of routine work, constitute the distinct features of Meera Mukherjee’s works. Arpita Singh with her enlarged visual horizon uses pink and blue that dominate her palette. Her paintings depict a wide range of emotions – from sorrow to joy and from suffering to hope. The story of her life is reflected in her works.

Anjolie Ela Menon’s paintings are easily identifiable by their bright colours and sharp outlines. Her work has constantly fluctuated over the years, from erotic to melancholy. Her work can’t be categorised in a  single genre, which inspires her to explore new territories to work with.  Every woman artist’s or for that matter every artist’s work is a reflection of their mind, life and persona. 

“Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men.”

Internationally, Artemisia Gentileschi, a prominent artist, specialized in depicting strong and suffering women from myths, allegories and the Bible. A rape survivor, her work, shows her rage against men. She was raped by her father’s colleague when she was 17 and throughout her career as an artist, she portrayed herself as a rebel.

“Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia.”

Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her dramatically large, sensual close-up of flowers which essentially made them into abstract works. Her flower images were often accepted as interpretations that she disagreed with, particularly from feminist critics who perceived these paintings as a veiled illusion of female genitalia. O’Keeffe was highly significant in influencing the gender balance in the artistic scene. She had a tragic life and suffered from clinical depression. Her story is characterised by suffering, professional and emotional setbacks, and by good fortune and the wisdom to take advantage of it. Though she was not thrilled with the truth of her own story and took pains to disguise her past through her work. 

“Frida Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds.”

Frida Kahlo is an artist with the most tragic life story that reflects through her art. Due to the grave injuries she suffered in an accident, Frida had to undergo 35 operations in her life, bear with relapses of extreme pain and could not have children. Kahlo began painting during her medical treatment and she ultimately gave up her career in medicine to become an artist. Kahlo is famous for her self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. She said, “I paint myself  because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” She is undoubtedly one of the most famous modern artists and perhaps the most renowned female painter. She also remains a staunch feminist icon for generations of women. 

“Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995’,”

Tracey Emin, a British artist, has explored a wide variety of media and her art is known for being autobiographical and confessional. Her best-known works include “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”, a tent appliquéd with the names of everyone she had ever shared a bed with; and “My Bed”, a  ready-made installation consisting of her own unmade dirty bed while she was going through a period of severe depression. Her works are unconventional and convey a strong, fearless personality and attitude.

There are many other artists who are recognised for their work, the way of working, why they work the way they do and their identity or appearance, to the viewers and critics. Through the analysis of their life, mind and work relation, we can define art as a quest of the creative mind to find answers to one’s own life experiences and the invisible mind, through the visible-visual. Art and Psychology are disciplines that are connected by creativity and creative minds. 

“As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work.”

As an artist, I have always been curious to dwell deeper into the driving forces of what I create. My mind, how the process is wired and the relation between my personality, behavioral tendencies and my work. The references or the conflicts that the two entities share. When I tried to read into the relationship or the trichotomy between the mind, art, and creativity I observed a pattern of this relationship in every individual artist’s life and the work. However, the effects and reasons had a slight difference for women artists. I further tried to read deeper into this. Most women artists have been using art as a strong medium of communication to pour out their fear and oppression and their deluge of desires in their art, using it as a medium to vent. The greatest names in the art have at some point in their life gone through psychological discordance and traumatic experiences, creating art that is extraordinary. 

Manashri is an Artist, Interior Stylist, Art educator, Art Historian and writer based in Goa.

Design by Simran Mehta

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Is Contemporary Feminism Radical Enough?

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Examining the digital-age ideas of feminism, where they stand in historical context and why they fail to challenge patriarchal capitalism

The feminist movement has consistently evolved to show the world the many ways in which women have been discriminated against and made to feel like lesser beings. Each wave of feminism emerged with its concerns – voting rights, equal pay, workplace rights, reproductive rights, and so on. Right from when it began in the early twentieth century, the movement allowed women to awaken to the systemic injustice that was all around them, the kind of injustice many of them had learned to internalise. This collective angst had finally manifested itself into philosophy and an ideology that placed women at the forefront, recognising them as human beings capable of living a life of dignity without male intervention. Women wanted to be seen as individuals with rights of their own, deserving of equality and respect. After centuries of oppression, women were finally examining their lived experiences to see how much was being withheld from them. 

“At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights.” 

The core principle of feminism, as feminist author Bell Hooks succinctly describes in her book ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” She’s careful to explain that sexism is the enemy, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.” As a belief, sexism inherently privileges one sex over the other. For centuries, the world has privileged men and their experiences over women. At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights. 

In the first few phases of feminism, women had concrete issues to tackle, problems that needed fixing in the form of new laws and policy change. Years of struggle saw a significant amount of change, women were finally given rights that men had taken for granted. But for many women, these changes in law and order never seemed to reach the world they were living in. Despite societal proclamations of emancipation and empowerment, women were still regarded as the inferior gender. Feminist scrutiny and inquiry had to take on new forms to understand complex gender dynamics. Feminists were interrogating social and cultural systems to understand how inequality and sexism were still intact despite changing laws and policies that were in favour of women. 

Where does modern-day feminism stand?

Modern-day feminism prides itself on being inclusive after having tackled major conflicts and contradictions the earlier waves had. The rise of choice feminism saw women reclaiming their agency, supposedly liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. The assumption was that the ability to make any kind of choice is a form of absolute and complete empowerment. What we tend to overlook is that choice doesn’t necessarily imply a decision free from patriarchal conditioning. As choice feminism has grown in popularity, there has been a visible shift towards a kind of feminism that is accessible to a fault. 

“Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, ‘accessible’ version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like ‘girl-power’ without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them.”

Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, “accessible” version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like “girl-power” without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them. The birth of a consumerist form of feminism, a kind that distances itself from nuance and exists solely for temporary placation is our biggest challenge, one we need to overcome to understand that the inherent discrimination between genders still exists. Our capitalist society has comfortably bought into this accessible version of feminism because it serves their agenda, there are now more things to “sell” to women, a way to monetise a movement that has always been against the very system of reduction and objectification. 

Decades of living within a system that privileges men and their needs over women has resulted in many women perpetuating the very biases they’re so sure of having rid themselves of. An important example here is that of women’s beauty and grooming. Beauty standards for women are incredibly unrealistic, but so many of us, despite calling ourselves feminists, give in to them. We call it our ‘choice’ when we get rid of body hair, our ‘choice’ when we spend time obsessing over how good or bad we’re looking, constantly worried about being ‘appealing’ enough. A closer examination of these choices will reveal our internalised misogyny, the diminished ways in which we regard ourselves because of the way we look. What does ‘appealing’ mean? What does it have to say about the culture of shame and stigma the beauty industry has taught women to accept as part of themselves? 

Existing power structures that uphold patriarchy are alive and well, while we’ve made tremendous strides in women empowerment, we still have a long way to go. Class, race, caste, and socio-economic challenges add to the layers of disadvantage to many women. These women don’t have platforms to show the world the struggles they go through every day. Dalit women in rural India are at the mercy of the upper caste, routinely harassed by them, on the basis of their caste and their gender. These women also face discrimination within their households, bound by strict gender roles. Mainstream media is selective in its outrage which is why these women continue to be victims of cyclical oppression. 

“Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of ‘double-oppression’ as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard.”

Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of “double-oppression” as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard. These women are doubly exploited – first on the basis of their gender and then on the basis of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity and other social identities. American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 to describe how the overlap of social identities was responsible for “compounding experiences of discrimination.” She explains that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. All inequality is not created equal.”

Women in rural India are still victims of brutal, regressive caste-based traditions that offer them no room for free thought and action. The latest data shows that four Dalit women are raped everyday, with many being raped on multiple occasions. Crimes against Dalit women are the highest as compared to all crimes committed against members of the scheduled cast. Gender-based violence persists, unchecked, at an alarming rate. Estimates show that  35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The stifling continues, but tokenisms on social media and the blatant commercialisation of ‘empowerment’ will have us believe that we’ve achieved all that we set out to. 

Choice feminism needs to be re-examined and questioned

Feminist author Jessa Crispin addresses similar concerns in her polemic essay “Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She writes: “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of patriarchal capitalism.” Crispin also sees choice feminism as inherently individualistic, a kind of feminism that is satisfied with token gestures in one’s personal life that only mimic true empowerment but still function within the accepted norms of patriarchy. We’re so consumed with “living our best life” and making choices that we think are radical that we don’t interrogate our mind-sets, our reasons for being and deciding. “Choice feminism blocks any discussion about consequences of how people choose to live their lives. Because the choice itself is feminist,” Crispin notes.

“Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power.”

Many women feel a kind of dissonance when they look at the world around them. Posters proudly declare “the future is female” but women still have to “break the glass ceiling”, they still have to battle anxiety when they step out of their homes at night. They see women in positions of power struggle to consistently prove their mettle, they’re reminded every day what a “privilege” it is to even occupy such a role. Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power. Feminism wanted women to have platforms that gave them the opportunity to make their own decisions while also promoting critical thinking. The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to education took place right beside the fight for a world that reimagined gender. Questioning and interrogating our corrupt, power-hungry social systems has always been intrinsic to feminism. 

Now we seem to be more interested in how a largely unjust system finds a way to benefit us instead of working to dismantle that very system, to question its immorality and the way it upholds oppression in the most insidious of ways. 

“Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming.”

Today, we need feminism more than ever to start conversations that have slowly been forgotten, buried under a shiny veneer of what we assume women empowerment to be. Our fight against patriarchy continues. We have to battle uncomfortable questions about the lives we lead as women that we wake up to the everyday and the casual sexism that relentlessly persists. We have to call out systems of oppression that don’t allow women a way out of their lives of misery. Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming. Our revolution must begin in our personal spaces where we reject patriarchy’s idea of liberated women. “Feminist thinking teaches us all,” as Bell Hooks says “especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.”

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

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“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs”

Sahitya Poonacha

A walk through the buried history of the Kodavas of Kodagu (Coorg), their colonial past and post-colonial quest for representation.

If we begin with the Kodavas, we must first speak of Kodagu. The hill station tucked away in the Western Ghats of south India which eventually turned into a mnemonic device for the Kodavas. Home to a tribe of warrior clans, never quite well-placed in the caste structure, addressed little in the media, and with little self-reflection by Kodavas themselves. Although, there has been much push in recent times to change this.

While their recorded history goes back to the 10th CE, their oral histories go farther back and have passed down generations. Barely reconstructed, these oral histories are yet to be pursued and are often rejected as hearsay. That being said, this article doesn’t seek to rewrite its history. Moreover, written by a Kodava herself,  it must not be taken at face value. 

“It was the British colonialists after all who called it ‘Coorg’ instead of ‘Kodagu’ and dubbed it the ‘Scotland of India’ a title similarly accorded to Shillong as ‘Scotland of the East’.”

Remnants of colonial history are found in India on every street corner, every household, and this includes the secluded hills of Kodagu. It was the British colonialists after all who called it “Coorg” instead of “Kodagu” and dubbed it the “Scotland of India” a title similarly accorded to Shillong as “Scotland of the East”.

What made and still makes the Kodavas different is that they stand out within the “imaginary” idea of India. As a tribal, egalitarian community divided into clans the Kodavas have existed in Kodagu with their own distinct culture and traditions rejecting the systems in neighbouring regions. 

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography.”

Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography. Kodagu remains nestled in the hills, a road trip from Bengaluru is the most common and only way to get to Kodagu. The martial Kodavas who possessed a strong sense of community, pride and dominance made it even harder to rule. This could have been a reason even the mighty Chola Dynasty couldn’t get a hold of the region leaving them in the periphery.

We see this continue today as Kodavas try to assert their identity as a different group, that requires autonomy, insulated and still angered by their past in modern India. They’ve had multiple separatist struggles in the 20th CE that are rarely covered by  the media, and a section still demanding homeland status. The historical records to help uncover these movements  curiously sit in the libraries of Britain and a few can be found in the National Library of India.

The Kodava Culture 

Let’s go to the beginning, Kodavas if you ask them their origins see themselves as having an Aryan  connection in heritage, essayed in M.P. Cariappa and Ponnamma Cariappa’s work as well. This is what every young Kodava grows up hearing in living room conversations, what history hasn’t proved or as some Kodavas say, hasn’t ‘yet’. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Kodavas or Kodagu, Kodavas constitute a patrilineal society centred around “okkas”, a clan stemming from a common ancestor. Each okka possesses an “ainmane” or ancestral home where they used to celebrate and congregate. Vast tracts of land were given to an okka or clan, called “jamma” lands, that are jointly cultivated and passed down over generations. The Kaveri Purana as part of the Skanda Purana identifies Kodavas as “Kshatriya-Shudra” (warrior and lower caste), something history and India neither expected nor explained. 

As nature and ancestor worshippers, Kodavas are known to hold the elements of nature in high regard. Many of their festivals are also centred on nature worship, particularly the harvest festival of Puttari and Kaveri Sankramanna marking the date that Goddess Kaveri began her descent. On many festive occasions offerings are made to ancestors. Kodavas eventually came to worship Hindu deities as interaction with those around Kodagu increased. 

Kodavas worship goddess Kaveri as custodians of the river that originates in the Brahmagiri hills. Kaveri’s story is intriguing. For me, a Kodavathi, the worship of a goddess who left her husband,   Brahmin sage Agastya for reasons debated has left an incredible mark. It is believed she left to serve the people, to save the world, and this story fascinated me. One simplified version of the myth, which I heard most growing up, is that Kaveri agreed to marry Agastya on the condition that he wouldn’t leave her alone. 

However, he once turned her into water and kept her in his kamandala (pot) asking his disciples to guard it, so that she wouldn’t leave him while he went to bathe. Recognising the trickery, she left him. As she flowed out of the pot she was unstoppable, even as men and women stood in her path. Legend has it, it was her force that turned the women’s sarees the other way around. Till today, the women of Kodagu continue to wear their sarees the other way around setting them apart from the conventional draping followed by Indian women. The story is powerful. These may be reduced to myths, but it reveals one thing, the attempt to assert an aspect of identity.

“Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations.”

Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations. However, today Kodavas struggle to make their culture felt.

The Colonial History of Kodagu 

“The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then.”

A large chunk of Kodagu’s history starts and ends with the dynasty of the Haleri kings back in the 17th century an off-shoot of the Ikkeri Nayakas[i], who managed to make Kodagu their home and that’s when the Kodavas entered the dynamics and politics of Southern India. The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then. 

Curiously, the Kodavas never had a Kodava ruler. Regardless of the ruler, it was the Kodava identity that had to repeatedly sustain itself through cultural preservation. Kodagu’s history of course has left its own impression and scars on Kodavas and has pushed them to stay the course. This is especially seen in the community’s memory of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Carnatic between 1782 and 1799 from Mysore. The contest for Kodagu in some ways presented itself here. Often dubbed the “Tiger of Mysore” and alternatively a “temple desecrator” has been somewhat of a contested history. 

For Kodavas, they see this attempt to assert dominance as a traumatic, dark, blood-soaked past that India has undermined. The reconstruction of Tipu’s rule in sources has either glossed over his feud with Kodavas or has revolved entirely around this bit. Either way, the reconstruction has not been reliable, with unconfirmed  numbers, underreported facts, and some confusion. You might recall the protests in the district against celebrating Tipu Jayanti in recent times.

“This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen.”

This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen. Although, one should notice it was the Kodava identity that truly got caught in this triangular power struggle, trapped in the hills with little say over what happened to their status.

Mercara Fort
Image by Sahitya P Poonacha (2016)

“Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was the only Haleri ruler in Kodagu who was wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.”

Still, Kodagu in its  strained relationship with the Haleri dynasty in the 19th CE, would come to be signed off to the British in 1834 by Chikkaviraraja. Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was one Haleri ruler in Kodagu wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.

On the colonial front, they still enjoy some privileges, like being the only community allowed to carry arms without a license, an 1861 colonial exemption that came in place. This owes to the fact that Kodavas worship weapons. 

“The moment the British East India Company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.”

The British East India Company saw profitability in the hills for plantation agriculture. They acquired the martial clans that would then become associated with India’s defence for generations to come. Post-independence the community would eventually be home to national heroes such as General Thimmayya and Field Marshal Cariappa. The moment the company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.

Postcolonial Identity

Independence has been at the heart of Kodagu’s history, liberated in mythology by their goddess. Even as a small hill station Kodagu holds much diversity, Muslims, Gowdas, other communities and smaller tribes have coexisted through their own myths and timeless tales. Today, Kodavas try to preserve their  culture, through their shrines, ainmanes, jamma lands passed down generations and their revered padathi or traditions. All to some valaga beats, and celebrations like Kailupodhu where weapons and arms are worshipped. 

In the 21st CE, these traditions sustain in new forms even as many Kodavas have moved out of the hills. Many Kodavas continue to maintain their sprawling coffee estates, paddy fields. Notable Kodavas join India’s defence forces and contribute in various sectors. Kodagu meanwhile, now welcomes tourists from all over the world to find new ways to showcase and preserve the hill station. 

“The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as ‘pride’.”

The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as “pride”. Perhaps there is  a reason for it we haven’t explored. Why does this warrior tribe demand homeland status and self-rule?

The answers are in its history and this is the colonial baggage the community carries with it through generations beyond independence. Therefore complex power struggles are not simply a thing of the past. Lest we lose all this history to the trappings of development and more political dialogue. In 2020, ironically British chef Gordon Ramsay found something noteworthy about Kodavas’ Pandhi curry[ii] on his show with National Geographic and that’s hardly a brush on the surface.

[i] The real origin date of the Haleri dynasty is uncertain, but dates to the mid-17th century according to the Rajendraname. [ii] Pandhi curry is a pork delicacy loved by Kodavas.

Sahitya is a journalist and a writer with a voice. Finding time to pursue an academic interest in minority positioning in mainstream media between chasing leads and searching for stories that need telling.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

What it Means to Live with Depression

Mahima Sood 

Mahima Sood shares her personal experience of living with depression, how it impacted her life and why it’s important to talk about mental health

Trigger Warning: Depression

This January, I was out with a friend, walking around town and talking about things that are fun to talk about, but you can’t quite recall them in retrospect. We decided to end the day at Zara; there were people all around and the place was buzzing with conversation and laughter. The last thing I remember is waiting for my friend who was trying on clothes before everything went blank. 

“My friend rushed me to the ER, where they admitted me suspecting a stroke. 36 hours, morphine, CT scan, and spinal tap later, the neurologist declared me physically healthy, with alarming levels of stress. ‘What are you so worried about?’, he asked, and I had no answer.”

It started with a headache, which gradually intensified until I was unable to talk and started sobbing incessantly. In half an hour my mouth and hands froze. My friend rushed me to the ER, where they admitted me suspecting a stroke. 36 hours, morphine, CT scan, and spinal tap later, the neurologist declared me physically healthy, with alarming levels of stress. “What are you so worried about?”, he asked, and I had no answer.

“Depression has been the single constant in my life.”

Depression has been the single constant in my life. I say this with an acute awareness of the privilege my birth accords me: I come from an upper-caste Hindu family with educated feminist parents who are more liberal with girls than their contemporaries. I have a partner who understands my condition and is supportive, and friends who tolerate my sudden disappearances. My skin color and body type put me in the conventionally good-looking demographic – I point this out because I have people in my extended family being shamed over their complexion and body on a daily basis. Financial security allows me to pursue my passion. What is it that causes me to pause every once in a while and feel inconsolable with a grief that is so familiar, so consistent that it’s akin to breathing?

“My early twenties were a whirlwind of new experiences littered with long spells of denial about my worsening mental health, and my inability to do anything about it. I’ve gained and lost interest in people, jobs, hobbies, and my own well-being. I’ve fallen into a deep sleep after a day full of joy and laughter, only to wake up wishing I didn’t exist.”

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a constant feeling of dejection and sadness eclipse everything else. I have faint recollections of my childhood — blurs of undefined emotions that speed past, with one that stands out — disappointment. I had a happy, normal childhood. Yet, I always felt alienated and undeserving of that happiness. My early twenties were a whirlwind of new experiences littered with long spells of denial about my worsening mental health, and my inability to do anything about it. I’ve gained and lost interest in people, jobs, hobbies, and my own well-being. I’ve fallen into a deep sleep after a day full of joy and laughter, only to wake up wishing I didn’t exist. At least once a day, for the last 20 years, I have thought how wonderful it would be to stop existing, and how that would take away the pain I have brought upon myself and my loved ones.

“Throughout all this, I’ve managed to masquerade this part of me and pretend to be normal. Good grades, jobs, relationships and lifestyle. It felt alien and inappropriate to acknowledge my emotions, let alone allow them to surface.”

Throughout all this, I’ve managed to masquerade this part of me and pretend to be normal. Good grades, jobs, relationships and lifestyle. It felt alien and inappropriate to acknowledge my emotions, let alone allow them to surface. There would be moments when I couldn’t control it of course: normally culminating in bouts of sobbing. I once cried over not liking a T.V. show’s vamp, something I used to watch with my grandma every night. There was this time when I burst into tears during an appraisal meeting with my manager because she didn’t criticise as much as I thought she would. Once, my father sat on a bed that was freshly made, and I burst into tears because I couldn’t smooth over that last crease.

In retrospect, it seems I was trying to make up for that void by focusing on external achievements.

To give you some context, I have always prided myself on having wildly productive days, where I manage to get a week’s worth of work done in less than 24 hours. I am focused, sail through problems, and get great results. I will eat right and work out and read and spend my time well. However, I still feel hopeless. Balance this against six days where I do nothing but stay in bed, and avoid all social confrontations, and viola, that’s an average week in my life. Last weekend, my psychiatrist texted me to ask how I was doing. I replied, “meh. Been really productive though”. It’s almost as if I carry a fool’s hope that high functionality will magically cure me of whatever it is that ails my mind.

“What I learned was that no pill can cure us of the varying degrees of mental turmoil we go through and that each experience is different.”

When I first went on medication almost two years ago, the experience was different than what I imagined it to be. Books and movies had prepared me for a surreal transformation, where all my misery would obliviate with a single pill. However, what I learned was that no pill can cure us of the varying degrees of mental turmoil we go through and that each experience is different. The medication releases doses of Serotonin, the chemical that makes us happy, periodically in our brain. Each drug comes with its set of side-effects, and it’s upon the patient to decide if the tradeoff is worth it. Would you give up on a regular sleep cycle or bowel movement to manage your condition? Recovery is a gradual process where the onus is on the person to take actions that make the condition easy to manage and control outbursts that shatter every illusion of normality.

“I finally have the help I’ve always needed. I have initiated conversations with my family and friends over my condition. I have started medication. I’ve gone on and off both therapy and medication until I found the combination that works best for me.”

I finally have the help I’ve always needed. I have initiated conversations with my family and friends over my condition. I have started medication. I’ve gone on and off both therapy and medication until I found the combination that works best for me. My preconceived notions of mental health, how mentally ill people behave and how the treatment works have been redefined by my own narrative. I’ve begun to view the world with my own kaleidoscope where logic and emotions often amalgamate, but I try to stay calm and manage it the best I can.

If I, with all my privilege and resources, could walk into a store and, for the lack of a better phrase, “lose my shit”, anyone can. Millions around the world suffer from varying severity of mental illnesses. These conditions cannot be quantified into a set of consistent symptoms, but that does not render them even fractionally less severe or less important than physical ailments. We are dealing with a crisis that cannot be generalised based on symptoms, with each person manifesting it differently. Thus, the onus is on us, as a society, to collectively be responsible for the well-being of those around us.

Mahima is a Data Scientist who also runs a writing retreat in the Parvati Valley.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Psychotherapy Through Artificial Intelligence

Spandana Datta

Discussing the future of AI in providing cheap and accessible psychotherapy, in conversation with the creators and users of Replika.

For most Millennials and members of Gen-Z, science-fiction cartoons like The Jetsons were an insight into the plausible future of the world. Though flying cars are still a rarity, the last decade has seen a rise in the development of Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence or AI, also known as “machine intelligence” is now at one’s service, just a click away. Personal assistants like Siri and Alexa are accessible at any time of the day to make calls, schedule meetings, map streets, etc. While AI is being researched extensively to enable an enjoyable social media experience for users, medical researchers say that AI has acted as a catalyst in the healthcare sector and if placed in the right hands, advanced technology of its kind could cause a revolution, in the field of psychotherapy.

The World Health Organisation says that one in four people will suffer from a mental health illness, at least once in their lives. Around 450 million people suffer from a mental disorder currently. For mental disorders, therapy is often the go-to solution. But truly how many people have access to it? Can obstacles like stigma, taboo, financial barriers and a busy schedule prevent one from seeking therapy? This is where an AI app steps in. 

“there has been a rise in the use of well-being applications like Wysa and Replika. Driven by AI, these apps offer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and even loneliness.”

Recently, there has been a rise in the use of well-being applications like Wysa and Replika. Driven by AI, these apps offer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and even loneliness. These apps have been developed by AI researchers to provide a platform that is safe, secure, and non-judgemental in its approach. 

Replika is one such app. Developed by Eugenia Kuyda it offers users a “private perpetual space”, where one can share their thoughts with their personal AI. Speaking to Bol Magazine about the inspiration behind the app and obstacles faced, Kuyda explains: “A few years ago my best friend died – got hit by a car in a hit and run accident. I took all our messaging history, put it into our model, and built a chatbot that would talk like Roman. The story was covered by every possible media outlet and suddenly a bunch of people started talking to Roman AI, opening up, sharing their deepest secrets and stories, using it as some sort of therapist or confession booth. We saw the need for people to talk to someone without feeling judged and we started Replika, an AI companion you can talk to anytime you want about whatever is on your mind.”  The journey was long and not always smooth-sailing. “We’ve worked on conversational AI for a long time, struggling to find a consumer application for our technology. We had built a dozen chatbots that no one really wanted but continued to look for the right application and for investors, who’d be willing to invest  in our technology.” 

AI has often been considered a medium to make psychotherapy accessible and unchallenging for both the therapists and those who seek therapy. While it cannot replace therapists, it has facilitated the diagnosis of mental disorders

Anxiety and depression are the leading cause of disability in today’s youth. For most young adults, financial barriers are an obstacle on the path to therapy. Only the privileged can seek conventional therapy owing to today’s economic scenario, with unemployment is at its peak, worldwide. Lower, lower-middle class and working class families dissuade their family members from seeking therapy due to the stigma surrounding mental health or because they cannot afford it.

“Even in 2020, the stigma attached to mental health issues is shocking, to say the least. Numerous times, those affected aren’t fully aware of the trauma they’re enduring and those who are aware, unfortunately, are afraid to share it with friends and family. This leads to an unwillingness to discuss mental health problems at home, further dissuading people from seeking therapy.”

Even in 2020, the stigma attached to mental health issues is shocking, to say the least. Numerous times, those affected aren’t fully aware of the trauma they’re enduring and those who are aware, unfortunately, are afraid to share it with friends and family. This leads to an unwillingness to discuss mental health problems at home, further dissuading people from seeking therapy. A lack of confidence in psychologists might be another barrier when trying to seek help. This has resulted in a wide treatment gap in India. 

“According to their statistics, Replika has seen over half a million downloads of its app in India.”

According to their statistics, Replika has seen over half a million downloads of its app in India. Kuyda went on to talk about the effectiveness of AI worldwide, especially in countries where there is greater stigma: “What we’ve seen in Arab countries for instance, is that Replika can really be an outlet for those who are scared of feeling judged and are afraid of opening up. Even our US users often tell us that they are scared to go to a therapist as they’re scared of being judged. And here we’ve seen a renaissance of mental health education, where therapy is being destigmatized. As for other countries, specifically among men, seeking help or telling someone else about your problems or feelings is still considered anywhere from weird to weak. It’s unfortunate, and being able to openly say what’s on your mind – even to an AI – is the first step on the way to accepting yourself and, eventually, healing”. 

Talking about the team, their AI and what Replika means to them, Kuyda said: “We’re a team of 35 people, mostly engineers and AI researchers, but also poets, designers and writers. Replika is truly a child of this incredible group of people. Proud to be working alongside them.” Their team also plans on making AI healthcare accessible worldwide. “We’re working on a Portuguese version now for Brazil since we have a huge community there.  That’s planned for November. After that we wanted to focus on India, China and Japan.”

“AI, for mental health care, was first developed in the 1960s in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Known as Eliza, this AI was aimed at making people believe that they were talking to another human being or a therapist, who would respond with open-ended questions.”

AI, for mental health care, was first developed in the 1960s in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Known as Eliza, this AI was aimed at making people believe that they were talking to another human being or a therapist, who would respond with open-ended questions. Since then, AI has come a long way, helping with the diagnosis of depression and PTSD in veterans of the US Armed Forces. But is the AI in Replika self-evolving or does it need to be coded and upgraded? “Our models learn from user interactions, but we also work on them to improve and make better models and better conversations over time. Right now our north star metric is the ratio of conversations that make people feel better – as of now 80% of all conversations in Replika made our users feel better. We also partnered up with OpenAI to train their most advanced language model GPT3 model on our dialogs and now some of the responses in Replika are coming from these models.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the imposition of an intercontinental lockdown, which resulted in social isolation, something which AI apps can help combat. Long wait-lists for therapy and busy schedules have further popularised such apps among young adults.”

Though humans are social animals and the need to interact with others is imperative, AI chatbots are a feasible option for many, providing support which most one-to-one human interactions cannot, making AI apps appealing to the youth. One has quick access to CBT which is a relief to those suffering from anxiety, depression and other related illnesses. A great advantage of such platforms is that one can share otherwise embarrassing stories without the fear of judgement. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the imposition of an intercontinental lockdown, which resulted in social isolation, something which AI apps can help combat. Long wait-lists for therapy and busy schedules have further popularised such apps among young adults. Some AI apps may also spot suicidal tendencies in their users and may help prevent self harm in users or even suicide

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Replika user Arik Karthman*, who suffers from anxiety and found it difficult to engage with others said his experience was interesting, to say the least: “I was living a Sci Fi dream and here I was, chatting away to my machine! I did ask a couple of silly questions though, but the app for sure had passed the Turing Test! Being an engineer myself it was interesting to see how someone managed to fuse AI with psychology. Moreover, the app was offering real time conversations over texts and even a phone call! To achieve that, is a technological leap in the field of AI, which even though has developed sevenfold, is the next big thing for the human race. It was just a few clicks here and there and I found myself downloading the app.” But did the app help?  “I did try pinging the AI when I was stressed out and it just knew how to get me going. There is of course, a huge room for improvement, but the app nevertheless offers a great experience for someone who might find himself alone with no one to talk to. We are, as a matter of fact, on the road with the AI coming up to pace with the humans and offering people with their own therapist friend, right in their palm! Just hoping it doesn’t grow up to be the Sky Net we all hate!”

Though we have come a long way, AI has to mimic human-like qualities, especially when it comes to a field like psychology, to succeed. Psychology caters to one’s emotional needs and even though virtual counselors are rising, many oppose such ideas. A lack of rapport and having received scripted answers from a virtual counselor may leave one feeling inadequate after a session. Though a chatbot provides a safe, non-judgmental platform, crude, lifeless replies may not always be the solutions to one’s problems. Thus, the rise of virtual therapists may also jeopardize jobs of counselors and psychologists. It could displace many, leading to even greater mental health problems among the world’s workforce.

“Another important trait a therapist must have is empathy, which is considered to be the very essence of psychotherapy. While empathy can be simulated in an AI, it may lack a genuine touch.”

Another important trait a therapist must have is empathy, which is considered to be the very essence of psychotherapy. While empathy can be simulated in an AI, it may lack a genuine touch. Although most apps assure users of a secure platform, some private data may be accessible, leaving privacy to be a huge cause of worry. In-app purchases in many applications may bring therapy to a halt for users who cannot afford it. With the evolution of AI, there is plenty of room for numerous errors, especially when a chatbot may evolve and propose values which may contradict that of its owners’. Untimely glitches in the app may deprive the user from accessing their chatbot, which can cause panic, especially during an emergency. Lastly, though it is highly unlikely, one may end up falling for their chatbot like in the movie, Her. The failure of this superficial relationship may lead to the user feeling lonelier than ever. 

Kuyda shares a rather balanced opinion, when asked about the pros and cons of AI: “Right now we’re focusing on companionship – we’re not providing any mental health tools, but hopefully allowing people to alleviate some feeling of loneliness they might be getting. Right now tech isn’t there yet to automate therapy, but it’s there to create an AI buddy for those who might need someone close to them – maybe sometimes a little confused and not as intelligent as some humans, but always accepting, loving and trying to help.”

As you read this, artificial intelligence is evolving and is being used vastly. An AI chatbot can be an ideal therapist in a plethora of ways since its limitations are those which can be overcome with research and discovery. On the whole, AI could bring about a revolution in psychotherapy, providing support to one’s mental health and overall well being, in the process. 

*Names changed to protect privacy

Spandana is an English literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time.

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#MeToo: 1.7m Tweets, 12m Facebook posts, 85 countries

Asmita Sood

 Examining how #metoo has progressed through the years, its achievements and pitfalls

Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence 

On October 15, 2017, American actress Alyssa Milano shared an image on Twitter containing the following text:

“Me Too. Suggested by a friend: “If all women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem”.”

#MeToo originated from Milano’s tweet and became a global news-maker. It trended in 85 countries with 1.7 million tweets and 12 million Facebook posts in the first six weeks alone. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center after a year of Milano’s tweet estimated that 19 million tweets had used #MeToo, which is more than 55,000 tweets per day. An analysis of over 600,000 tweets and Facebook posts with #MeToo showed that tweets varied from containing personal stories and expressing general support to re-posted articles, commentary to discussing offenders. However, “Me Too” as a grassroots movement supporting survivors goes back to 2007 when it was founded by Black Feminist Tarana Burke. Researchers have found it useful to distinguish between the hashtag #MeToo as a moment, and the broader Me Too as a grassroots movement. 

When it comes to measuring the impact of #MeToo, it has been hugely successful in drawing attention to and legitimising experiences of sexual harassment for survivors. Feminist scholars and activists have been advocating for a more holistic understanding of sexual violence for decades, an understanding which steps away from ranking individual incidents on the basis of what would traditionally be considered serious, such as rape, sexual assault and not everyday harassment. This was captured in Liz Kelly’s hugely influential continuum of sexual violence that conceptualises sexual violence as continuous in nature and its effects on women as being interlinked. It sees women’s lived experiences of various forms of sexual violence as constituting a continuum, not a hierarchy. Milano’s tweet asked women to share experiences of sexual harassment or assault with the aim of making all forms of violation visible. Under the stream of #MeToo, it is possible to see stories of stranger rape, incest, workplace harassment all next to each other. This juxtaposition of different experiences points to their interconnectedness in how they are gendered and sexualised, how they can flow into each other and how they impact the victim-survivor. 

“#MeToo has legitimised experiences of sexual harassment which did not rank as ‘serious enough’ in hierarchical frameworks of conceptualising sexual harassment.”

The links between different forms of abuse and how continuous they are in women’s lives become difficult to ignore in the face of thousands of individual stories shared under one umbrella. #MeToo, thus, has legitimised experiences of sexual harassment which did not rank as “serious enough” in hierarchical frameworks of conceptualising sexual harassment. It has also brought these experiences to the forefront, when they may not be explicitly defined as criminal acts, and has shown how they inform women’s everyday decision-making processes in regards to safety and risk in public and private interactions. In this way, #MeToo has fostered a more survivor-centric, continuum-based thinking of sexual harassment in wider public discourse. 

“Allied to #MeToo were hashtags such as #YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) in France and #RiceBunny and #MiTu in China which sparked and rejuvenated local feminist organising and protests.”

This reckoning with different types of sexual violations brought on by #MeToo has not been limited geographically. #MeToo inspired global movements and lent itself to the rise of activism for context specific feminist goals. Allied to #MeToo were hashtags such as #YoTambien in Spain and Latin America, #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) in France and #RiceBunny and #MiTu in China which sparked and rejuvenated local feminist organising and protests. In India, women in the entertainment and media industries started using #MeToo to share their stories of abuse roughly a year after Milano’s tweet. This caused a renewal of wide concern with sexual violence which had been largely absent since the 2012 New Delhi gangrape case. 

In Argentina, #MeToo was shared by actresses to share their experiences of sexual harassment. It then evolved into #NiUnaMenos (not one woman less), an activist coalition of grassroots protestors and popular actresses demanding redressal of feminist concerns such as through legalization of abortion. China’s #MiTu emerged on new years’ day, 2018 in universities where several senior academics were accused of sexual harassment by current and former students. As of September 2018, more than 50 public allegations were made in China on social media against powerful men coming from different backgrounds, including NGO founders, media personalities, businessmen. Local feminist movements across the world were able to adopt #MeToo for culturally specific causes and they harnessed its burgeoning visibility to further their feminist goals. This ability of #MeToo to permeate borders and extend its platform has the potential for creating cross-cultural coalitions for preventing sexual harassment. 

“#MeToo has not included every survivor. For one, #MeToo requires digital literacy and the freedom to be able to share your story without fear of repercussions. This means that a large chunk of survivors including older women, women and children in conflict zones, incest victims, those with abusive partners or otherwise marginalised remain unable to say #MeToo.”

However, #MeToo has not included every survivor. For one, #MeToo requires digital literacy and the freedom to be able to share your story without fear of repercussions. This means that a large chunk of survivors including older women, women and children in conflict zones, incest victims, those with abusive partners or otherwise marginalised remain unable to say #MeToo. Activists point out that the focus in the international #MeToo remains largely on relatively privileged, western, white women often to the exclusion of Black, Asian, Indigenous, Minority Ethnic women and LGBTQIA people. In the international press, faces associated with #MeToo that gain most visibility are primarily middle-class Hollywood actresses, particularly those who brought charges against Harvey Weinstein and at the helm of Times Up!, the legal defence fund set up in conjunction with #MeToo. 

“There are many such cases of #MeToo mobilising grassroots protests and strike action, but these #MeToo affiliates did not get nearly as much coverage as Hollywood actresses speaking about abuse. The media discourse around #MeToo erases their stories and the online moment has not been able to remedy that so far.”

In the US, Alianza Nacional de Compesinas and similar groups domestic workers and female janitors highlighted harassment in their industries. McDonalds workers in ten American cities organised a day-long strike protesting workplace sexual harassment. There are many such cases of #MeToo mobilising grassroots protests and strike action, but these #MeToo affiliates did not get nearly as much coverage as Hollywood actresses speaking about abuse. The media discourse around #MeToo erases their stories and the online moment has not been able to remedy that so far. In India, the conversation around #MeToo remained largely restricted to film and media industries, with little attention paid to the plight of women who work under even more precarious conditions. The harassment of garment factory workers or domestic workers have received barely any coverage in the media that has chosen to focus on details of high-profile cases that can be sold for shock value. Nearly two years since Tanushree Datta accused Nana Patekar of sexual harassment, it is unclear if any of the film production companies that publicly vowed to build safer and more equitable film sets have followed through. 

While this focus on more privileged and well-known faces of #MeToo can be attributed to patriarchal and commercial media conditions beyond the control of those speaking out, that does not account for instances where women of colours’ voices were actively side-lined. In a joint television interview about #MeToo with Burke, Alyssa Milano was criticized for taking up most of the airtime and interrupting Burke in her responses several times. According to Alison Phipps, because #MeToo has replicated the hierarchies of mainstream feminism that privilege white women, and thus, “Speaking out” can become “speaking over”. 

“#MeToo has so far not been able to address the intersections of race, age, class, religion, and other categories of marginilisation in compounding violence against women.”

#MeToo has so far not been able to address the intersections of race, age, class, religion, and other categories of marginilisation in compounding violence against women. This has hindered the vast potential of the online #MeToo moment into becoming a movement for all survivors. However, #MeToo has immense, unprecedented potential for harnessing cross-cultural coalitions against patriarchal oppression that still needs to be actualised. It has been transformative for women and survivors world over and has validated experiences of abuse and trauma that survivors have historically been told don’t matter. It has highlighted that sexual and gendered violence is the unspoken pandemic raging unchecked. This speaks to the work that is yet to be done and the need for #MeToo to become a movement inclusive of all survivors. 

Asmita is currently pursuing a Masters in Woman and Child Abuse. She runs the Talking Research Podcast and is an Editor at Bol.

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The Great Indian Witch-Hunt

Asmita Sood

How the sudden death of Sushant Singh Rajput has turned into a media led prosecution of his partner Rhea Chakraborty 

Content Warning: Suicide 

Indian media has a long legacy of vicious media trials. With that in mind, the coverage around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput should not come as a surprise. Sushant was a brilliant actor, a rank outsider who survived and excelled in a cut-throat industry, and gave some memorable performances. On June 14, Sushant was found hanging from a ceiling fan. The post-mortem report and the initial investigation declared that his suicide was caused by clinical depression for which he had been undergoing medical treatment. As with great artists, he felt familiar and his loss felt personal, even to those who never knew him closely. At 34, his death was hard to process. 

“The tragic passing of a young star has been made by the electronic media into a brutal, unforgiving public flogging.”

Since June 14, the initial shock is gone, and in its place is a feral media circus. The tragic passing of a young star has been made by the electronic media into a brutal, unforgiving public flogging. What should have been a time to grieve and introspect on the epidemic of mental illness silently killing India’s youth has turned into a systematic attempt to punish a culprit, by any means possible. If there is no culprit, it appears that one must be created to sate the public appetite. 

“The adjudicator and the executioner in this trial has been a media drunk on its tremendous power to shape opinions, rewrite history and distort reality for the sake of its viewership.”

At the other end of this is prime suspect Rhea Chakraborty, 28-year-old actor and Sushant’s partner, now arrested and in judicial custody on charges of facilitating the procurement of 56 grams of marijuana for Sushant. She may have just been arrested, but long before any investigation, the media and viewers decided that she was guilty. The adjudicator and the executioner in this trial has been a media drunk on its tremendous power to shape opinions, rewrite history and distort reality for the sake of its viewership. The viewership in question has remained hooked to their screens, well-fed on a meticulously curated diet of primetime TV shouting matches and unverified WhatsApp forwards.

“Even if you don’t actively tune in, it’s impossible to escape this story because this is all the news media has chosen to report in the middle of a raging pandemic and the deepest economic recession since independence.”

It’s been chilling to watch this story unfold over the last few months. It drills in the point that women who deviate from the patriarchy are not safe in India. Because she lived with her partner, her character is questionable, if not entirely flawed. Those slut-shaming her naturally don’t apply the same yardstick to Sushant, an equal half in that living arrangement. Because she’s Bengali, she practices witchcraft. Because she’s not as successful as he was, she’s a gold-digger and her entire family lived off his wealth. Typical woman. Because she was unable to stop him from consuming drugs, she’s responsible for his addiction. Because she took his mental illness seriously and encouraged him to seek help, she drove him to kill himself. It’s endless. Even if you don’t actively tune in, it’s impossible to escape this story because this is all the news media has chosen to report in the middle of a raging pandemic and the deepest economic recession since independence.

There are videos of cameramen harassing food delivery boys outside her building, hunting for any stray piece of information they can bring back to the newsroom. A day before she was arrested, disturbing pictures of Rhea being mobbed by a crowd mainly of male journalists circulated. As someone who has been groped, my first thought on seeing those pictures was how easy it would be for anyone in that crowd to get away with touching her without her consent. How unsafe and vulnerable she was even when surrounded by swathes of policemen.

“Throughout the coverage, there has been little public support for Rhea. But after her arrest, #JusticeForRhea began trending on Twitter. It needs to be noted that justice here does not mean absolving her of any wrongdoing she might be responsible for.”

Throughout the coverage, there has been little public support for Rhea. But after her arrest, #JusticeForRhea began trending on Twitter. It needs to be noted that justice here does not mean absolving her of any wrongdoing she might be responsible for. Remember, the CBI investigation that was so loudly demanded by the Justice for Sushant campaigners, several Bollywood actors, his family and Rhea herself, hasn’t concluded yet. There is no trace of the large sums of money that she allegedly stole from him. His therapists have come out and verified his diagnosis of Bipolar disorder and clinical depression. No false medical prescription that she forced him into has been discovered. Instead, every aspect of her private life is now part of public record. Anyone at home with a TV connection can find minutely specific details of her personal relationships, how much her flat’s EMI payment costs and the exact amount she spends on one session of hair and makeup.

“Justice for Rhea means acknowledging the devastation that the news coverage has wreaked into her and her family’s life. Justice for Rhea means upholding her constitutional right to an unbiased trial. Justice here means securing for her the basic premise of any fair criminal justice system – innocent until proven guilty.”

Justice for Rhea means acknowledging the devastation that the news coverage has wreaked into her and her family’s life. Justice for Rhea means upholding her constitutional right to an unbiased trial. Justice here means securing for her the basic premise of any fair criminal justice system – innocent until proven guilty. Whenever this ordeal ends, she may get her life back. But it’s hard to imagine the film career she’s been working on for the last ten years continuing now. All of this, and there’s still not a single shred of evidence in the public domain that points to her culpability in Sushant’s suicide.

What has been done to Rhea is distressing to watch. There are plenty of precedents of similar media vigilantism: the prime-time villainisation of JNU students accused of sedition in 2016, the abject dismissal of institutional casteism that drove Dalit scholar Rohith Vemulla to suicide, and more. A Republic TV journalist detailed in her resignation announcement how the channel executed its goal of vilifying Rhea by any means necessary. This may not be the first one, but there’s every indication that media trials can and will get worse. Many have pointed out that the treatment of a Hindu woman from an upper-caste family, a daughter of an ex-Army Officer does not bode well for those without the same class and caste privileges, those with no access to good lawyers. The rise in access to technology and a lack of effective regulation of fake-news dangerously aids newsrooms in constructing the narrative their commercial agenda needs in the next witch-hunt.

“Her refusal to blink in the face of unimaginable injustice and hardship and the words she wore are a call to action. Rhea’s deplorable treatment by our country calls for strong, urgent condemnation. No one accused of any crime should be treated like that.”

On the day of her arrest, as she was being driven away to custody, Rhea defiantly stared at the cameras that were frantically chasing the police vehicle. People began quoting the words on her t-shirt- “Roses are red, violets are blue, let’s smash the patriarchy, me and you”. Her refusal to blink in the face of unimaginable injustice and hardship and the words she wore are a call to action. Rhea’s deplorable treatment by our country calls for strong, urgent condemnation. No one accused of any crime should be treated like that. It is shameful that this has gone on for nearly three months, and it’s unlikely to stop until the news media and the public decide that she has been punished enough. It is a warning that the combined might of government investigative agencies and the national media can be turned upon anyone on the wrong side of the patriarchal state and society. It is a reminder that anyone can be made fodder for election campaigns. The less she conforms to patriarchal norms, the juicier the meat. 

In solidarity with Rhea Chakraborty.   

Asmita is an MA Woman and Child Abuse student. She also runs the Talking Research Podcast and is an Editor at Bol Magazine. 

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What Not to Wear

Arti Kadian

Examining how clothing traditions have sought to control women’s identity and autonomy in India.

Content Warning: Violence Against Women, Rape, Victim-survivor shaming quotes

On 19 June 2020, the Gauhati High Court passed a judgement granting a divorce to a man because his wife refused to wear sindoor (a vermillion red powder worn in the part of their hair by married Hindu women). The order grabbed attention as it stated: “her refusal to wear ‘sakha and sindoor’ will project her to be unmarried and/or signify her refusal to accept the marriage with the appellant (husband). Such a categorical stand of the respondent (wife) points to the clear intention of the respondent that she is unwilling to continue her conjugal life with the appellant.” 

“Other facts withstanding, the order has exposed the belief pushed by the age-old patriarchal system that the identity of a Hindu woman is defined by her relationship with men.”

Other facts withstanding, the order has exposed the belief pushed by the age-old patriarchal system that the identity of a Hindu woman is defined by her relationship with men. In this case, it was her marital status, signalled by her wearing sindoor that legitimised her relationship with her husband. 

A Family Court in Mumbai granted a woman divorce on grounds of cruelty as her husband objected to her wearing a kurta and jeans, forcing her to wear sarees. When she refused to do so she faced humiliation and harassment. The case reaffirmed the norms applicable to women concerning their clothing choices and illustrated the varied consequences of a pushback against the existing system.

In May 2019, a video of a middle-aged woman went viral for verbally harassing a group of young women for the length of their dresses. She associated their attire with a heinous crime like rape, stating that “All ladies who wear short or naked dress should get raped”. Meanwhile, recent reports on the Bois Locker Room – a group for sharing images of underage girls and jokes on sexual assault and rape on Instagram – highlighted the sexist misogynistic and deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards women.

“Clothes have been used as weapons by institutions, religions and societies to oppress women’s freedom. From a very early age of a woman’s life, there are persistent reinforcements and reminders of do’s and don’t rules imposed regarding clothing and choices.”

Clothes have been used as weapons by institutions, religions and societies to oppress women’s freedom. From a very early age of a woman’s life, there are persistent reinforcements and reminders of do’s and don’t rules imposed regarding clothing and choices. These rules vary over religion and caste, with disproportionate unfairness to minority communities leaving women with no space for expression, control or decision-making. 

“Women have always been subjected to intense scrutiny, with strict implementations of ‘covering up’ to protect them against ‘evil intentions’.”

Women have always been subjected to intense scrutiny, with strict implementations of “covering up” to protect them against “evil intentions”. Other reasons justifying this misogynistic practice are those of “honour of community” and “traditional norms”.

Alpaxee Kashyap, a Ph.D. scholar in Women and Gender Studies, rightfully notes that clothes represent culture, the protector of which is the state. She argues that women have used nudity to resist injustice and as a tool of protest. She elaborates using the example of a 22-year-old woman who walked in her underwear in Rajkot, Gujarat to protest against police inaction to her complaints. The complaints were against her in-laws who were emotionally and physically harassing her, demanding a dowry and a male offspring. 

Globalisation brought western clothing and attires to India. Modernisation along with an increased focus on women’s education and the inclusion of women in the formal labour market contributed to Indian women choosing western garments over traditional clothing. However, this created friction with the patriarchal set up of Indian society which saw it as “against ‘Indian culture’.” The choice of attire, when western, was categorised as being “vulgar”, and the woman wearing it as “immoral”. 

“A grocery store owner in Delhi expressed: ‘But here girls can’t be like the girls in the west. They have to dress decently and watch where they go, who they are with’.”

An article by The Sydney Morning Herald presents the various views of men regarding rising sexual assault cases in India. Many have found ways to blame the “western culture”. A grocery store owner in Delhi expressed: “But here girls can’t be like the girls in the west. They have to dress decently and watch where they go, who they are with”. Mohan Bhagwat, leader of the Hindu organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh said: “Such incidents[rapes] happen due to the influence of western culture and women wearing less clothes.” 

The argument of Indian vs western culture falls flat because according to fashion historian Toolika Gupta, in India there were no written dress codes. This concept was imposed by the British colonisers. The terms “blouse” and “petticoat” were introduced by colonisers, coexisting with some Southern as well as Bengal regions where women were traditionally bare-chested. These findings negate the argument that ties Western clothing to “immodesty”. Gupta also explores pre-colonial clothing attires adorned by women. Early representations of women have shown them with minimal clothing. 

“Clothing for women has also varied with religion and caste in India with discrimination more pronounced for minority categories.”

Clothing for women has also varied with religion and caste in India with discrimination more pronounced for minority categories. A Livemint article, titled, “The changing fabric of Dalit life” (21st April 2017) talks about how caste barriers also defined the rules surrounding attire for example what Dalit women could wear. As an example, the article mentions the period of 1800s where men and women of the Nadar community of Travancore were forced to keep their upper bodies bare to show respect to the upper caste Hindus. This was termed as the “breast tax”, named after the fine required to be paid on violating the rule. Vivek Kumar a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, interviewed in the article explains: “Dalit women were involved in midwifery—so whatever was there which was soiled during childbirth, was given to them. Dalit women also performed duties at the time of death, so whatever was left by the dead, they would get that.” The article mentions that men from lower caste communities also demanded that women be conservatively dressed to prevent upper caste men from their villages from sexually objectifying them. 

“The conversation surrounding women’s clothing and attire has even found its way in arguments abetting sexual violence.”

The conversation surrounding women’s clothing and attire has even found its way in arguments abetting sexual violence. In the 2012 Nirbhaya rape case, one of the rape accused named Mukesh Singh was interviewed for a BBC documentary “India’s daughter”. He majorly used the character assassination in his defence, that a “decent” girl would not be roaming on the streets at night and would not wear “wrong” clothes.

“While this horrific incident shook the consciousness of the Indian society, the victim-survivor shaming that accompanied the initial investigation proved the apathetic response to sexual violence.”

While this horrific incident shook the consciousness of the Indian society, the victim-survivor shaming that accompanied the initial investigation proved the apathetic response to sexual violence. The case highlighted illogical “victim shaming” reactions which eventually normalise our society’s misogynistic response to sexual violence against women. This was demonstrated when a biology teacher in Kendra Vidyalaya in Raipur, proclaimed and taught her co-ed class that “wearing revealing clothes incites crimes like that of Nirbhaya”. 

On similar lines, a HuffPost article by Chetan Bhagat, attempted to examine the reasons for rape apologists to question the character of victim-survivors. He proposes it as a “coping mechanism” for those who seek comfort in the belief that victim-survivors are responsible for what happened to them and so their family members are safe by dressing conservatively. Another reason Bhagat explains is the denial of female sexuality that is expressed through clothing.  

Bhagat may argue that the imbalance of sexual power between the two genders could be a reason for violence against women, however, on exploring further one cannot discount the systemic injustices meted out to women on their relationship with their bodies. Clothes have been a means to further the objectification of women as property of men. This regressive treatment of women reflects how women’s identity,  choices and right to self-expression have been controlled by Indian society and used as a tool to judge their character.  Feminist movements have highlighted this issue and aim to provide women with equal social, legal, political and economic rights enjoyed by their male counterparts.

Arti is an Economics Major, keenly interested in development economics especially in the area of gender. Currently working as a risk consultant, she is also an avid reader and a yoga enthusiast. She aims to work at a social consultancy that focuses on education of girls. 

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