During the pandemic my daughters and I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up a storm. One day we set out to cook a family favorite dish, vegetable pulao.I tell them we’ll be making it from my grandmother’s recipe.
“How come you don’t talk more about her?” my daughters ask. That began my journey to piece together the story of a remarkable woman.
As with most things I began with my mom.
“Tell me about patti (grandmother).”
My mother says, “Amma could whip up the most delicious pulao and raita. The badi elaichi left a lingering taste.”
It’s not easy to get my octogenarian mother to talk about her childhood years. “I was eleven when my mother died,” she says.
“She must have been 40?” I ask. My mother nods silently. Losing a mother at such a young age must have been a crippling blow. On one of the few occasions she’s spoken of it, my mother rued, “…at least I have some memories of my mother but your aunt was just a baby.”
I learned that patti was married at 13 to a 20-year-old law student studying in Madras. My grandfather went on to become an accountant general in the British India government. This meant they moved every few years. My grandmother had to set up households in cities across north India such as Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Simla. Many of my grandfather’s colleagues were Englishmen and patti was expected to interact with their wives.
How did a shy thirteen-year old girl from Thanjavur hold her own in an unfamiliar world? It wasn’t just a matter of stepping into a new environment but getting comfortable, and even being adept at playing hostess in social events that my grandfather’s job required them to host. This even while she had seven children of her own to raise.
The family album shows patti as a doe-eyed woman with a gentle expression. Understandably my mother’s memories of her mom are somewhat fragmented. Yet several incidents from her mother’s life have stayed with her, such as her explaining “how to make murukkus in her broken English to the wives of my father’s colleagues.”
My grandmother got comfortable enough to play tennis in her six-yards saree with these women, even while conforming to the conservative practices of her in-laws.
“She would change into a nine yards sari in the train before disembarking in Chennai!” my mother chuckles.
It wasn’t just her recipes that got handed down. “Amma would shoo us children out of the living room when the announcement for the music program came on the radio,” says my mother. “She’d ask us to come back once the music began so that we could guess the name of the raga being played!” My grandmother was a die-hard fan of Carnatic music, a love she passed on to her children and leading to my own career as a classical musician.
Even as my mother recounts her memories, I can sense some of what’s unsaid – the challenges of being a woman raising multiple children, even while juggling conservative in-laws in a patriarchal and colonial society. So taking a break or falling ill was not an option. Which is why when she caught tuberculosis, it affected the entire family. Long periods of staying at a sanatorium ensued as she recuperated. Despite seeming improvement, patti never fully recovered.
“Streptomycin became available a few months after her death,” my mother’s voice breaks. “It was too late for her.”
I sense it’s her 11-year old self speaking. We are both silent. I reflect on a young girl’s journey from a southern city of India and the legacy she left behind for future generations of women. While we celebrate women across the world as role models, I wonder if we look hard enough in our own backyards for inspiration?
“Ma, what do I do now?” my daughter’s voice draws me to the present. “Give the rice and veggies one last swirl and let it cook covered.”
As my daughter turns the pulao with a wooden ladle, I notice the thin gold bangles on her hand. It’s a gift from my mother.
‘Were they my grandmother’s?’ I wonder. Tracing the rim of those bangles, I find myself whispering, “This is like the armor of a warrior.”
My patti’s name was Meenakshi.
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based in Boston images: paintings by S. Elayaraja
On Monday, March 8 as we celebrated International Women’s Day, I received many empowering messages from my female friends from all walks of life. But at this moment in history, the irony of the situation is that while women have made tremendous strides in the workplace with fulfilling careers and increasing pay in the past half-century, the pandemic has upended all that progress in just one year.
President Biden has called it a national emergency and on that same Monday, March 8 on International Women’s Day, he signed an executive order establishing the Gender Policy Council within the White House to focus on uplifting the rights of women and address gender-based discrimination and violence among many other such goals. But a telling addition to his broad gender policy initiative was its particular focus on addressing the coronavirus pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women by engaging with the White House coronavirus task force.
Here are some sobering statistics from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Nearly 3 million women in the U.S. have left the labor force in the past year. Those who are employed make up an outsized share of the high-risk essential workforce, holding 78% of all hospital jobs, 70% of pharmacy jobs, and 51% of grocery store jobs. Two out of three women are caregivers, putting them at risk of depression and anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of mothers are in charge of supporting their children’s remote learning.
“We saw all of these economic cleavages that were underneath those gains laid bare for us,” says C. Nicole Mason, Ph.D., president, and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Women fell out of the workforce at four times the rate of men and have a disproportionate number of job losses mainly because they are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors like the service sector, leisure, hospitality, education, and healthcare. Black and Latino women in particular make up a little over a quarter of all jobs in the service sector. If you couple this with the lower wages, pay inequality, fewer benefits in those jobs, it has been economically devastating for the women in this country.
We were already dealing with a broken child care infrastructure and the pandemic brought this into focus for many American families. School closures had a disproportionate effect on women as well. In August 2020, when schools did not reopen, 860,000 women exited the workplace because they had to make the tough choice between their families and their jobs.
Many of these women according to Dr. Mason are the primary breadwinners in their family and make less than 40k a year but still had to make this desperate choice because their children were failing virtual school.
Not surprisingly, mothers are also doing a disproportionate share of pandemic parenting, regardless of employment. This raises the question, why are mothers taking on so much more of the parenting responsibilities during this pandemic, even when they have a partner who could share the duties? And especially when those partners see the devastating effect it is having on the mothers, both emotionally and economically.
“This is because of the gendered structures of paid work that existed long before the pandemic” according to Dr. Jessica Calarco, associate professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. This division of unpaid labor that women in families have always done has been starkly laid bare during this pandemic. Women are in crisis. They are tired, depressed, and scared.
Many of the work-from-home mothers described having little choice but to sacrifice their paid work for their families during the pandemic because they were the only parent able to work from home or they earned substantially less than their male partners or because their children demanded more of their attention at home. This leads to a combination of frustration, resentment, and then guilt – all taking a toll on their wellbeing and having an adverse effect on all aspects of their family’s life.
More than a quarter of mothers report more verbal or physical fights with their partners or spouses. 30% say they are yelling more at their kids. Another third says they are more frustrated with their children. Mothers also feel tremendous guilt at the amount of screen time their children are exposed to, because of virtual school and for entertainment.
Dr. Calarco’s research shows that the pandemic is having serious consequences for mothers’ paid work, relationships, and wellbeing. She says these inequalities exposed by the pandemic reflect the gendered inequalities in our workplace and are “not just the function of men not stepping up to do their part”. They are a function of failed policies, of the lack of affordable childcare, and lack of maternity leave. This forced women into lower-paid jobs and part-time work even before the pandemic and now leave them feeling like “they have no choice but to sacrifice their own careers and wellbeing for their husband’s higher earning jobs.”
When the recovery begins, it is very important to create economic policies that support this sector that was hardest hit – women and especially women of color and lower-wage workers. Some of the policies that could help women recover their place in the workplace include a minimum wage increase, especially for women of color. If the Federal government cannot pass this legislation, follow the lead of many states and cities that have done so. Healthcare, childcare support, and paid leave investments are also critical policies that need to be legislated. Education and job training opportunities for women coming back to work after the pandemic is also critical. And most importantly, we need vaccines in the arms of all Americans so that we can safely open schools and daycares and get women back to work.
Corporate America should open back-to-work programs and reduce barriers for women to return to work. Paid leave and childcare facilities could increase flexibility that frankly, most employees with families want. In many cases, the executives who are women and mothers with children at home and are saying to Maria Aspan, senior writer at Fortune, “I am not just worrying about this for my employees, I am living this.”
There is a genuine desire to work on these issues, but, says Ms. Aspan, we have to wait to see if there is “any action behind the rhetoric”.
This is a unifying time for all women, of all socioeconomic levels, that have been hit hard by this pandemic. We need to hold both the government and the private sector accountable. It is time for all of us to band together to advocate for policies that will help all women thrive emotionally and economically. And we will take our partners with us into this more equitable future.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality, and public education.
In its simplest form, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.” In other words, because women have traditionally had fewer rights, feminism is about asserting and working to achieve equal rights for women. However, nowhere does this imply that achieving equality should be solely women’s fight or women’s goal.
There are but scarce instances when men made it their business to fight for women’s causes. A shining example is the active participation of Indian men in the many marches that took place all over India in 2012 after the horrific “Delhi rape.” Rather than retreating behind rationalizations such as “men will be men,” or “it has always been thus,” or blaming women for their choice of attire and pursuit of activities outside the safe confines of home, thousands of men agitated for respect and safety for the women in their lives — their daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, girlfriends, coworkers, and neighbors. The men showed that women’s lives matter and that they matter to them.
In taking this proactive stand, the men were following the example set by a few men who came before. In this essay, I want to highlight a few of them.
I am sure many know about Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor, and her heroic struggle to bring medical care to the women of India. I just published “Radical Spirits,” her deeply-researched biography. In the course of my research, I came across a letter that her husband, Gopal, wrote in 1878 to an American missionary requesting help to educate his wife. The letter makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for the importance of empowering women and men’s essential role in making that happen:
Ever since I began to think independently for myself, female education has been my favorite subject. I keenly felt the growing want of it to raise the nation to eminence among civilized countries. It is the source of happiness in a family. As every reform must begin at home, I considered it my duty to give my wife a thorough education, that she might be able to impart it to her country-sisters…. On the other hand, female education is much looked down upon among my people… My attempts have been frustrated, my object universally condemned by my own people. … and yet I cannot give up the point. I will try to the last, there being nothing so important as female education for our elevation morally and spiritually.
Gopal Joshee believed that it was important to educate and empower women, but not just for their own good. He saw that this was an indispensable component of the good of families, communities, and country. Indeed, he went so far as to state that the state of women was a hallmark of a civilized society. And, in pursuit of this goal, he stood alone against his community and defied its regressive views.
Another great example of a feminist man is Ziauddin Yousufzai, father of Malala. In his TED talk, he said:
Ladies and gentlemen, this plight of millions of women could be changed if we think differently, if women and men think differently, if men and women in the tribal and patriarchal societies in the developing countries, if they can break a few norms of family and society, if they can abolish the discriminatory laws of the systems in their states, which go against the basic human rights of the women.
In other words, he made it his personal mission to empower his own daughter and to champion the empowerment of girls and women all over the world. The title of his memoir, “Let Her Fly,” says it all.
These two men, Gopal Joshee and Ziauddin Yousufzai, are separated by almost 150 years. Ironically, both were thrust into the limelight because of the tragedies of their protégés. However, these tragedies now live on as triumphs. Despite Anandi Joshee’s early death, or maybe because of the shock and tremendous loss that it represented, segments of 19th century Indian society took a decisive turn towards acknowledging women’s full humanity and their potential. Similarly, because of the violent attack on young Malala, there is greater awareness all over the world of girls’ right to education and empowerment.
Tamil Nadu: The government offered a 50% subsidy to girls/women to buy scooters and laptops
Uttarakhand: Girls enrolled in school get free bicycles
Kerala: Sanitary napkin vending machines have been made mandatory in all higher secondary schools
Karnataka: Girls studying in government and aided private degree colleges receive free education
Gujarat: Free medical education to female students
Undoubtedly, there are countless nameless men fighting the good fight within their circles of influence, be it in their families or workplaces, or communities. For example, I know of a farmer who sold part of his land to finance the education of his daughters.
However, the battle is far from over. Many issues continue to challenge women. Starting from the management of menstruation and early marriage to access to education and medical care, they extend all the way to sexual harassment and rape, family and maternity leave, and equal pay.
So, here is a challenge for men to be more active feminists. Encourage your daughter as much as you do your son. Create a safe and welcoming family and work environments. Agitate for equal pay for women. Be compassionate and generous to your women coworkers and your subordinates (including household help where applicable).
Make every day Women’s Day and make every month Women’s History Month. The goal should be to make women’s disempowerment a historical artifact rather than a present-day scourge. Rather than diminish your power, it will only empower YOU more.
Nandini Patwardhan is a retired software developer and co-founder of Story Artisan Press. Her writing has been published in, among others, the New York Times, Mutha Magazine, Talking Writing, and The Hindu. Her book, “Radical Spirits,” tells the deeply-researched story of Dr. Anandi-bai Joshee, India’s first woman doctor. Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash
I wrote this piece of fiction in honor of victims of acid attacks — especially in India. It was developed at EnActe Arts as part of the WEFT (“women enacting for themselves”) program. It is a humble and probably inadequate attempt to depict the victims’ plight, written with deep humility for unless we walk in their shoes we cannot know the unimaginable pain they bear. I offer it with empathy for their suffering, and admiration for their courage in the face of such heinous crimes. India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) has found that between 2014 and 2018, there have been 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Many more go unreported or unrecorded.
In my dreams I am whole, with my easy laughs, ready quips, fleeting annoyances, steady love of ice cream. I am walking, happy. But I shiver. I walk towards the sun. I don’t see the gaping pit ahead. I wake up shaking, sweating, hot and cold. Then my hands are on my face, and… I feel the scars, the craters, the hardness — Your gift.
Your gift erased so much of me, my face, my one window to the world. They say we are nothing without memories. We are also nothing without a face. This visage, this countenance, this mirror where the world sees itself reflected and knows its place. How do I tell the world who I am? I look in the mirror and my one watery eye sees a stranger, a horror story with no end. This thing that used to be a face, a recognition, a mirror is now a dark hole where all light ends and nothing reflects. Where there used to be me, my signature smile, my left cheek’s dimple – it’s all gone. I remain a nameless, faceless ghost visible only in my misfortune. Your branding iron left a seething script.
When it first happened, they wanted me to utter your name. I wouldn’t defile my mouth. The neighbors, the relatives, even the police came asking. They came to condole, to comfort my father, my mother, my brother who seethes in daily rage. But I know they just came to see me – the remains of me. Curiosity beats empathy but sometimes that’s the only vehicle to my door. I wrote your name down only once and gave it to the police. My mother took a photo of that piece of paper with my brother’s phone. When did she learn to take photos with a phone? She knew I wouldn’t utter it again, so she kept the “evidence” she said. But I know she keeps this paper to rekindle vengeful fires in her heart. My gentle, god-fearing Kali, who quietly tolerated harsh words from her mother and mother-in-law, is ready to kill for me today.
My father does not look at me. I miss how he used to cup my face, kiss my forehead every morning. Proud Papa. Now he won’t touch my face, just puts a hand on my head looking away. Sometimes I hear him crying when he thinks I can’t hear. My mother hardly cries. Instead she asks him harshly, “What’s the point of crying now?! Have you called the lawyer?” She is hard. So hard I fear her brittleness will break her. She only softens when she brings me food. Patiently lets me eat, gently wiping the drool from my mouth. My lips’ bare remains, mere lines relearn how to contain food. Grateful I can still taste, I tell her how much I love it. She won’t even acknowledge this joy. She keeps her vengeance alive.
I can’t recall the particulars, only the horrific pain of your carnage. Or why? Later they said it was because “you could not bear an unrequited love”. “Love”? Yes Love! Love? I want to laugh! I have forgotten that sordid history. Somehow the acid erased that too; clean, flat, blank like the contours of my face. Perhaps best this way or I may join those that blame me. “She could have said yes…”, “She could have married him…”, “Girls these days think they are better than anyone…”. Your signature devastation demands justice and there will be none. Blaming me helps the onlookers feel better. Perhaps safer. Some relief for their miserable, beaten souls.
When I came home after the first 23 surgeries, I heard them in my stupor from all the painkillers. I hated them then. All of them who said, who still say I could have alleviated your hate, who think I should now be traded off to someone even lesser, to “free” my parents. Perhaps free them of any hint of guilt. They know they are who made you possible. They supplied the fodder for the kind of anger you thrive in. When I first heard them I would scream but no sound emerged. Only violent, bruising tears. But then my mother – my gentle Kali – took care of them and their solicitousness. That makes me smile – only on the inside. The skin on my face borrowed from my thighs, my stomach stretches too thin to bridge a smile. I’ve tried it in the mirror – a contortion for a smile. I cringe with my eyes without eyelashes, even as I marvel at my perfect painted eyebrows. I often marvel at how well I saw all the flaws in my reflection before this annihilation of me. Maybe now I will learn to accept what I see. Maybe that is how I win.
It’s been over two years since I came home. I must have nightmares because my mother shakes me awake, often caressing my forehead, trying to calm me. But all I remember are dreams where I am whole. At first I prayed for a merciful death. But now I don’t want to die. I listen for the birds singing in the morning. My good eye loves the sun. I still marvel at how well my mother sings. I cook with her, I learn to sew with her, little things. Soon my hands will be steady. I put my head on my father’s knee when he comes home every evening. His blessing stalls the night.
This week I step out for the first time. I shake so hard that my Kali grips my hand tight as I accompany her to the market. I cover the side of my face. I want to keep my old face. I don’t let go of her hand. Soon I know I will bare my whole face and let them all see — and let you see. Maybe when I see you in court. I will look and point at you – steady, unselfconscious, straight. Maybe you can relish what you wrought. Your hatred manifesto. I will let you flinch at my ugly erasure. And when you flinch I will laugh. You gave me unutterable pain, you scarred me for life, almost erased me. Almost. The me that your acid cannot erase, is here. Still here. I win because I will make YOU look away.
Reena Kapoor is a writer and photographer. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. ‘Arrivals & Departures‘ is her debut poetry collection.
Genius Kids founder Rennu Dhillon says our greatest fear after death is public speaking — unless we make some incremental changes in our education system while we’re alive.
“Confidence is critical,” Dhillon says. “You have to learn how to take control of your life. Compassion, communication, eye contact — these are the kinds of soft skills that we as parents and teachers need to instill in our kids today.”
Her personal odyssey — long before she became a Bay Area education mogul, Radio Zindagi talk show host, and community activist — is its own story of confidence and coming into one’s own. Dhillon grew up in a tightly-knit Kenyan suburb, much like our Bay Area cities littered with extracurricular activities and educational pursuits.
“My mother, being the typical Indian mother that she was, enrolled me into practically everything from music, art, piano, and sports,” Dhillon says and laughs. “But my father, a medical practitioner and the local Deputy Mayor was very deep into politics. So one of the big things that he really wanted us, kids, to focus on was communication. They enrolled me into a drama school called the Little Theater Club at the age of three.”
Dhillon’s childhood in Kenya marked the intersection of so many rapid changes, from an early wave of the feminist movement to political unrest in India following the death of Indira Gandhi. The young actress put pen to paper, drafting impassioned poems and letters for the local newspaper.
“I was a very, very controversial figure in my town,” Dhillon says. “I mean, I was always expressing my views, especially when it came to women’s issues. And my dad didn’t even know half the time when I was writing to newspapers. It would only be when we would get anonymous phone calls at home threatening me about something that my dad would look at me and say, ‘did you write that?’ And I’ll be like, ‘yep.’ God, I caused so much drama at home.”
Twenty years later, the outspoken Kenyan pre-teen, after completing her Pharmacy Degree in the United Kingdom, and Doctorate of Science, launched into two very successful businesses of her own – a matrimonial dating agency and recruiting firm in the United States. She then ventured in Recruiting CEO’s for start up’s and went from hooking people and people to people and jobs. As a single mother navigating the labyrinthian American Dream, helping young men and women find love offered startling insight into the role of ‘soft skills’ within the South Asian American community.
For Dhillon, the devil was in the details. From critiquing her client’s fashion choices to providing advice on eye contact and tone, she realized how the simplest features of personal interaction paved the way to success. Her experience as a dating coach and recruiter molded her vision when she opened up a Fremont-based daycare and accelerated learning center named Genius Kids.
Unlike mainstream education programs, Genius Kids instills public speaking and collaborative skills in students from a young age. Founded in 2001, the organization quickly caught on among Bay Area parental circles. Dhillon’s effortless relationship with kids, paired with her knack of combining learning strategies with the latest technology, brought in more families than ever.
“I think kids learn with smart and interactive technology,” Dhillon says. “We were actually one of the first preschools to ever introduce smart boards into the classrooms. Even the toddlers will come up on our stage, look at a screen, and point to the answer with their little fingers. These are our ways of teaching children. To stimulate students’ curiosity, I don’t want anyone memorizing stories in my classes. I want discussions. I want kids to tell me the story back in their own words — add their own flavor to The Three Little Pigs and use their own imagination. This is how we access a child’s voice and build on their confidence.”
For the second time in her life, Dhillon embarked on a writing journey, this time penning a parenting book titled, Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders.The book has different sections dedicated to Dhillon’s ‘Cs’ — compassion, conflict resolution, charisma, control — the different elements that shaped her experience in both teaching and parenting.
“There’s a need to simplify parenting into its basic ingredients,” Dhillon says. “It’s not something that always comes naturally — especially now that we have all these distractions. The world was very different for my great grandparents, grandparents, and my parents. Now, we’re living in a crazy world — completely insane. And if you don’t prepare your child to be able to face a world of the unknown, your child won’t have any control over their life. So I’m a huge one for books. I’m always on the search for new material and information because learning never stops.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, there may be no better time for Dhillon to release Raise Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders. As lockdown restrictions force schools to adapt to a virtual learning environment, every parent must challenge their preconceived notions about testing, college admissions, and academic life. And perhaps there may be no better writer to release this book than Dhillon herself. As a woman who ventured across borders, within new industries, and into the lives of hundreds of children, Dhillon seeks to embody the very experience she chronicles in her book — a journey into the precarious unknown, where learning and adapting is always essential.
“Don’t underestimate your children,” Dhillon says. “Let them pursue and find their path. And most of all, listen to what they have to say.”
Stay tuned for Confident Children: Today’s Kids, Tomorrow’s Leaders, which releases on October 6th on Amazon! Click here for further details.
Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor for India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar, the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as the Executive Director of Media Outreach at Break the Outbreak. Connect with Kanchan on Instagram: @kanchan_naik_
Serene Singh is a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford completing her postgraduate studies in Public Policy but it is her work outside of academics that initially inspired her. As former America’s Junior Miss and Miss Colorado Teen, her pageantry and modeling experience created a space for her to empower women worldwide. She created The Serenity Project nonprofit to give confidence and self-love tools, improve, and provide access and opportunity to at-risk women.
The Serenity Project was founded in 2016 after Serene lost a best friend, a survivor of violence, to suicide.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for at-risk women in the U.S., womxn who unduly battle body dysmorphia. While working in the US Senate on violence, trafficking, and rape policies she noticed womxn survivors were never in-charge of the settings where changes impacting survivors were created. Serene dreamt of empowering survivors to dream again. In the face of a culture of mental health stigmatization, societal shaming of survivors, and a lack of tools for at-risk womxn to gain confidence, Serene’s vision to support and empower women has made waves and had an impact spanning across the United States and reaching hundreds of womxn. Previous project participants include (but are not limited to) survivors of domestic violence, attempted suicides, PTSD, human trafficking, etc.
Empowering womxn survivors to transform their pain into their power is what The Serenity Project is about.
The Serenity Project empowers “at-risk” womxn by challenging 1) unhealthy beauty standards 2) the rising number of suicide attempts and 3) the lack of support, tools, and skills survivors receive to grow through the trauma they have gone through.
The Serenity Project begins with a 10-15 at-risk womxn to participate in a kick-off fashion show (featured in the Documentary) followed by a 12-month curriculum called the Soaring Curriculum, alongside a globally-based mentorship program. The curriculum builds skills (i.e. self-compassion, meditation, public speaking) while womxn mentors from around the globe are able to serve as mentors and support survivors to develop passion projects that help the womxn pay their experiences forward and invest in their dreams.
The Serenity Project’s recent release of The Serenity Project documentary captures the very first year of the project lifting off the ground. The visceral impact of witnessing womxn gaining confidence and unapologetically being their true selves touched everyone’s heart. The Live Zoom event followed by the Youtube Premiering of the Documentary brought tears to the eyes of many viewers who were survivors themselves.
Serene Singh states, “There is nothing more powerful and inspiring than a woman who discovers her wings and uses them to build herself up and bring others with her too. That is what this nonprofit is all about.”
Violence against women is not a spatially or temporally bounded. It persists all around the Globe. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This Declaration defines, violence against women as ‘any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life’.
According to the World Health Organization, violence against women is a major public health problem that has seized the woman’s basic human rights internationally. Particularly vulnerable are the women in forced social subordinate status and less education because they are more prone to experience intimate partner violence.
These ‘Covidnary Times’ are extremely challenging and Neo Normal. The COVID era has made the existing ‘vulnerable’ section more prone to abuse, both physical, sexual, or mental. It remains a poisonous truth of our society, that women, even in the 21st century, still do not get the same status as men. The degraded state of women is visible, not only in our society as a whole but is also prevalent in a more severe form within the households and this makes women highly vulnerable in the Covid-19 Tsunami.
Women continue to exist as a neglected bunch and their plight is often swept under the rugs.
Any Pandemic like Covid-19 is bound to have a draconian impact on the lives of women particularly those belonging to marginalized communities.
This is primarily due to two major reason: firstly, the women in India within a given household remain neglected which means even if they become symptomatic of the deadly Coronavirus disease there is a high probability of them being ignored especially in orthodox families that possess pre-existing patriarchy overdose; Secondly, because of the widespread educational deficiency which persists more in women than men, globally.
Note that only 45.9 percent of women in India use their mobile phones themselves
If one goes about analyzing the state of women in contemporary India, it becomes clear that women in India have been and still continue to be marginalized. And it is not only the women as a homogeneous group which is being discriminated over centuries but the women in many sub-groups of women which exists as the ‘marginals among the marginalized’ – Dalits, tribal, HIV infected, sex workers, LGBTQ, and women belonging to a minority group.
Going by the official data, the National Family Health Survey in 2016 revealed some deplorable Statistics which we cannot afford to ignore. It stated that 28.8 percent of women faced violence domestically by their respective spouses, 3.3 percent of women faced violence even during pregnancy.
Again one should keep in mind that these figures could be misrepresentative due under-reporting or no reporting at all. Women in India remain reluctant to report any kind of violence, primarily due to the terror they face within their given households.
In this crisis hour, social media is keeping us entertained. Last month, a Facebook friend who lives abroad posted on her wall “Lipstick under my Mask…Must”. Another former colleague posted a photo of hers wearing a light brown lipstick and wrote “Lipstick after ages” using the lipstick emoji. Another FB friend in my list posted a photo of hers in a red lipstick bought in the midst of COVID-19.
Ever since humans have been forced to wear a mask as a precautionary measure against Coronavirus, the lipstick is facing an existential crisis. Its dirge has been sung. A visit to a leading cosmetics store in South Delhi on the occasion of my birthday in the first week of August revealed that sales have drastically dropped in the past few months from April to July. The salesgirl in charge of the Lakme counter, Babita Chauhan, informed that customers are showing a preference for nail polish and eye makeup.
In this new world order, makeup lovers may find solace in eye shadows and nail varnishes, but these hardly equal the lipstick in status. In fact, lipstick addicts will agree that a dash of lip colour in bold reds, pinks and oranges, or even demure shades like peaches, browns and nudes, instantly lend sophistication, mystery and glamour to our everyday look. After all who can forget Marilyn Monroe’s bold red lips voted the most iconic beauty trend of all time.
A powerful statement
The lipstick is a cultural icon and stands for women’s sexuality, sensuality, desire, ambition and even femininity. In fact, references to the lipstick have been repeatedly used in writings and in cinema to convey important suggestion about women’s liberation. While Agatha Christie talks about the modern women in the throes of great social transformation in post-war British society, there are constant references to the lipstick. In fact, in one of Hercule Poirot mysteries, the little Belgian detective, who is well aware of female fashion and beauty trends, suggests a particular shade of lipstick to a woman character.
In Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, in a scene which speaks volumes about female camaraderie, Madhabi Mukherjee, who plays Arati Mazumdar, tries on a lipstick urged by her colleague, the Anglo Indian Edith Simmons. Later, she wipes it off with her saree before entering the home, as middle-class Bengali women applying lipstick was unthinkable in the 1970s. In the film, the lipstick symbolises the heroine’s initial hesitance and then gradual acceptance of her role as a working woman.
The lipstick as the symbol of freedom has also been used in the Bollywood movie Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava. In one of the initial scenes, the character of Rehana Abidi played by Plabita Borthakur first steals a lipstick from a mall in Bhopal and then applies it after discarding her traditional burkha. In the very next scene, she is seen wearing jeans and her bright red lips denotes a newfound confidence.
During my childhood, the lipstick was a forbidden thing lying in my mother’s dressing table drawer. Sometimes, when mum was not around, I would surreptitiously open and see the colours and even smell the beautiful pink bullet. Seeing my mother applying it before the mirror was enticing, but it was not for little girls, as she constantly reminded me.
Walking down the streets wearing one’s favourite lip shade with the wind playing in the hair is one of the best moments many of us can think of. But sadly this is at stake with masks covering our faces.
Will lipsticks survive?
So, is it the death of the lipstick, one of the most potent weapons denoting self-love and strength? As masks in various colours adorn the shelves of shops, the lipstick has been eclipsed, temporarily going out of view. But the desire to apply it remains as strong as ever.
In my reply to the Facebook friend, I told her that I hate to see my lipsticks lying idle in makeup boxes. So, I am unabashedly wearing lip colours at home and also beneath masks. After all, one can still post pretty pictures wearing them on social media, isn’t it? Maybe many of us are thinking the same with Chauhan revealing over the phone a week later that lipstick sales are picking up slowly.
Though the lipstick made its appearance by the end of the 19th century, in the 20th century it became popular, especially in the West. The powerful, sultry and seductive red lipstick, which was associated with prostitution and loose morals, became one of the symbols of the Suffragette movement which demanded women’s right to vote.
Over the years, the lipstick has witnessed countless revolutions. From matte finish to glossy to creamy textures, the colour palette has also undergone dramatic changes. Apart from the classic red, one can choose from bold pinks, neons and fuschia to dark wine shades and even black.
All said and done, the mask cannot defeat the lipstick forever, though it has certainly been covered up for the time being. When the scenario improves, it will be back with a vengeance and triumph over the current adversity. As lipstick fans themselves are proving that life without the super bullet is unthinkable.
Deepanwita Gita Niyogi is a Delhi-based freelance journalist.
Empowered” is a gutsy and gritty adjective that some women have the luxury of being heralded with. But do all these women set out to be “empowered” or do circumstances simply tread them along a trailblazing path, which perhaps was the only path available to them, towards something as basic as self-preservation?
Author Veena Rao, in her debut novel Purple Lotus, unravels the journey of one such woman, who embarks on a seemingly normal journey but is forced to summon her inner strength as she plunges into valleys of anguish, to eventually elevate herself to summits of triumph.
Purple Lotus unfolds the life and times of protagonist Tara, much like the title flower that rises from the mud, blooms out of the darkness, and radiates into the world, in a soothing tone of absolute resolve to remain unaffected by the sludge that surrounds her.
The choice of the title plays quite a pronounced role throughout the narrative, both literally and symbolically. Tara, the lotus (literal translation), finds herself in muddy waters right from the get-go, when her beloved doll, Pinky, goes missing during the family’s move to Mangalore. Even as she bears the brunt of missing her friends and her priced doll, she watches in helplessness as her parents move to Dubai in pursuit of a bright future for the family, leaving behind Tara with her aging grandparents and a schizophrenic uncle in Mangalore, while taking her baby brother with them.
Amidst desolation, Tara ironically finds solace from her uncle in his moments of clarity when his mind is not bogged down by the disease. Tara even finds love in its warmest of forms in Cyrus Saldanha, only to be forced to let go when her parents return to Mangalore.
Rao submerges Tara in more of life’s slush in the form of Sanjay. The seed of abandonment seeped into Tara’s being at a tender age reaps its bounty as she is bound in a loveless and abusive marriage with Sanjay, a groom her parents picked for her, mostly because she was getting beyond the “marriageable” age and he was willing to marry without any bridal dowry (gifts). Her trials continue to mount as Sanjay’s indifference gradually turns into violence and Tara is forced to accept the kindness of American strangers to fight Sanjay, only to be pressured by her patriarchal family to make peace with her circumstances.
Tara begins to bloom, when, in a moment of truth, she discovers the prominence of her own esteem and worth, turning towards the light, setting herself free from conforms of her community as she reconnects and eventually marries her childhood love, Cyrus.
The journalist in Rao shines through in the last chapter as she wraps up the novel with a fitting “article” by Tara that confronts a victim-shaming society. “Not all monsters are egregious. Some stay hidden in plain sight,” writes Rao’s Tara, pointing to not just to the perpetrators of crime against women, but also a spiteful society in general and a venomous close circle of the victim, in particular, that crushes the victim’s spirits, driving them into a deeper abyss of despair.
Purple Lotus, an emblem of peace of tranquility, maintains a calm undertone throughout, staying faithful to its symbolic title. The wave of calm is evident in many instances, such as the incident where Tara forgives a friend who intentionally hurt her in childhood, when the friend admits it was her fault, despite the immense pain it had caused her at the time. Rao’s strength in writing is her ability to maintain the mellow milieu even as she powerfully propagates empowerment, confronts social stigmas, and deals with deeply disturbing feelings of dejection, rejection, and desertion with grace and poignance. Rao scores extra brownie points for the character development of Tara and her ensuing transformation. Never rushed or overtly dramatic, the growth is refreshingly organic and effortlessly relatable.
I particularly enjoyed the bonding between women, who, despite their own shortcomings, offer courage, companionship, and care to each other, forging sisterhood far beyond blood and borders.
The streets of Mangalore and Atlanta come alive, as does the food of the regions served up by its inhabitants, sometimes hearty like the abundant love and support she relishes, and sometimes spicy, like their harsh attitude she endures, all of which become companions of Tara’s tumultuous journey.
This charmingly simplistic chronicle explores the many dimensions of the human mind and mindset of society, and the consequences of each, which may turn out to be tragic or triumphant.
“I take heart in the knowledge that the monsters around me do not sully me, because the names they have for me are not the names I have for myself,” Tara writes about herself.
In the age of social media, where kids are bullied, and adults are shamed by nameless cowards who hide behind their firewalls, and sometimes openly, just because they feel entitled to do so, could use the same realization to emerge victorious amidst the very soiled “victimization of victims”, as Rao puts it, and bloom into a glorious, serene lotus, a rare purple lotus even.
Jyothsna Hegde is a City News Editor at NRI Pulse newspaper and an independent software consultant. She holds a master’s degree in Computer Science and has served as faculty at Towson State University. It gives her immense pleasure to share triumphs and tribulations of the indomitable human spirit through her writing.
Trigger Warning: this article discusses sexual assault, rape, and trauma.
When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually assaulted by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.
Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.
“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable,” said Srishti Prabha, Assistant Editor for India Currents, a community news website based in the Bay Area.
“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.
Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.
Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.
Childhood and Cultural Taboos
Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.
“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit …flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on…I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”
Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.
“Indian Americans don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”
Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.
“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.
Public Speech and Private Pain
Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.
The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,”a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.
Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK,”which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release. This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”
“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”
The Indian community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.
Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights, and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the Indian community and its diaspora.
What Works — And How
So what does work to help women?
New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.
According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.
“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”
Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects its clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support, and mental health counselors.
Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:
In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.
The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.
Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.
“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”
But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.
And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.
“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”
But Prabha sees progress.
“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.
If you’re struggling with sexual harassment, abuse or violence, please contact:
Sakhi For South Asian Women: Helpline: 1 (212).868.6741 or text 1 (305) 697-2544 Email: email@example.com Website: https://www.sakhi.org/
Maitri: Helpline: 1-888-8MAITRI or 1-888-862-4874 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org www.facebook.com/maitribayarea Languages: English, South Asian languages (countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Fiji Islands, amongst others)
Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program.
Lately, there have been many reports about women choosing not to have kids all over the world. Despite the changing times, unfortunately, bearing a child still seems the very definition of womanhood in many sad parts of the world where a woman is deemed “complete” once she “fulfills her purpose of bearing life”. Well, last I checked this is 2020, and isn’t humankind supposed to be more evolved than that by now?
Before you judge me, let me clarify that I am very much pro-kids and maybe, someday, I’ll have one too. However, I also totally get if someone chooses not to have kids, to each her own.
However, this article is not about women choosing not to have kids (you do you, girl!). This article is about those who not only choose to have kids but are also incapable of talking about anything but their kids. This is a real problem. There are online discussions about this with people (including mothers) venting about why some women cannot stop talking about a smiley their kid drew the other day!
Hold On To Who You Really Are
We all have that one friend whose life circulates around her baby. I understand that having a child is a life-changing event – priorities shift and personalities evolve as we embrace motherhood and learn to parent. But, do we have to completely lose ourselves? Does our life have to be only about the kid’s poop, fart, food, and sleep?
Women undergo many physical, biological, emotional, and physiological changes in the process of delivering a child. Our appearance, the way people see us, everything changes. I strongly feel that amidst all this, it becomes even more pertinent for us to hold on to who we really are. Women as mothers have been put on these unrealistic pedestals where in some cultures they are treated like Goddesses (I won’t argue that though). However, jokes aside, we are not Goddesses. We are only human and we should have the liberty to freak out, get exhausted, and demand a break when we need, even from being a mum.
Trust me, I have never met a man who is only capable of talking about his kid. That makes me wonder if the real cause behind this is the deep-rooted heteronormative gender bias in all cultures around the world. The brand of the mother is always associated with care and nurturing while the stud dad goes out and earns a living. Well, this isn’t the 1950s, so women, please chill!
How The Society Is At Fault Here
Sometimes, this can be because of other reasons than just being over-excited about motherhood. If you observe closely, you will see a pattern. First, they obsess over their fathers, then over their husbands and eventually, over their kids. This pattern is alarming because it hints towards a total lack of sense of identity.
Across many cultures, especially in Asia, a woman’s entire life can be broadly divided into three milestones:
Being a dutiful daughter
Getting married to a fine suitor
Mothering a child
You must think I don’t know what I am talking about and that this is all ancient news but look around and tell me – is it really? In many parts of China, if women stay unmarried, they are called “leftovers”, and in many parts of India, if women choose to marry someone they love, they are slaughtered in the name of honor killing.
This brings me back to my original point. The fact that some women talk non-stop about their kids is probably because they have been made to believe that their existence on earth is not enough as themselves. They are made to feel that they must latch on to a man or a child whom they serve, care for and nurture to be essential.
I really hope that as we take baby steps towards a more progressive and open world, women are able to feel free and own their identities.
To those, who just love talking about their kids and disagree, I have only thing to say: “No, I don’t want to know what your child did today. Tell me, what you did.”
Surabhi Pandey, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Website | Blog | Instagram
We need to pay attention to domestic violence in the South Asian community.
Providing support, resources, and intervention to those experiencing abuse is incredibly necessary, but what do we need to do to get to the point where fewer and fewer South Asian people experience domestic abuse?
Working towards a culture where we begin to acknowledge and break down the hegemonic structures that have shaped our community requires active engagement from all of us, regardless of if our lives have been directly affected by domestic violence or not. In one of the few notable studies on the topic, survivors emphasized the need for community empowerment and education to address gender-based violence in South Asian communities.
This summer, Narika, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard, is conducting a study in order to change this status quo. By collecting this data, we will be able to communicate the prevalence and severity of this issue through statistics, which is essential in engaging the community.
If you would like to participate in our ongoing research project and help us begin to make this change, you can take the anonymous five-minute survey here, and sign up for an anonymous 10-minute interview here. Participating will also enter you in a raffle for up to $100 in gift cards to a Black-owned business of your choice.
Data shows that South Asians experience domestic violence at higher rates than other groups in America. Information is skewed due to the reality of underreporting in our community –– the variety of social and cultural barriers that South Asian survivors face to even report their abuse, from immigration to familial stigma.
In one study, 42% of the 160 women surveyed reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year. However, only 11% of those South Asian women indicated receiving counseling support services for domestic abuse.
Organizations like Narika begin to fill this gap of support services by providing culturally-informed counseling and programming for South Asian women and families. But one of the most significant obstacles of this work is how in the dark it is: there is very little academic research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities, despite the unique barriers and situations this community faces.
This lack of data and statistics to support the necessity of their work prevents us from understanding this issue completely and, by extension, doing all that we can in order to build a culture of empowerment and allyship to address domestic abuse at its root.
If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to learn more about this work, please contact email@example.com.
Bhargavi Garimella is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Neuroscience. This summer, she is interning at Narika where she is conducting research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities.