Imran Khan & Women's Rights in Pakistan by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: “I can’t believe there’s Indian liberals on the Internet celebrating the victory of Imran Khan in the Pakistan elections,” read a friend’s Facebook post. As a member of the Congress, he proceeded to talk about his politics, the politics of the BJP, etc. Hiya Harinandini and my reasons for dampening the celebrations are more feministic.

Dear well-intentioned liberals: if you think the suave, Jemima-Goldsmith-marrying playboy cricketer must surely be People Like Us, and he will surely bring some of his personal values to Pakistani politics, here’s a newsflash. He’s not the man you thought he was in the ’90. And the politics of his party reflect his current ultra-conservative avatar. 'He’ll improve women’s rights in Pakistan.' Er, no he won’t.

In Politics, the Personal is Professional

If the recently released book by his ex-wife, British-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan is to be believed, Imran Khan has lived a life full of “sex, drugs and alcohol”, and has several illegitimate children. (He also believes in black magic, but that’s besides the point we’re making.)

This is in stark contrast with the ‘sadiq and amin’ (honest and righteous) image he has now donned in the Pakistani media, which can mean one of two things. One, that he is a closet liberal, conducting his life and sexual liaisons in a free love, Western way. Or that he is really a good ol’ conservative man, on whom patriarchy bestows the rights to rights and rebellion, as well as to hypocrisy—to have a white wife, to sow his wild oats, to have three wives, to perpetrate domestic abuse—that he has exercised. With his recent jibe at Western feminism, we struggle to give him the benefit of the doubt and are inclined to believe the latter.

“Feminism Degrades Motherhood”

In an explosive interview to Hum News (Pakistan) in June, Khan denounced feminism and painted a problematic picture of his idea of motherhood in one swell swoop.

“A mother has (the) biggest influence on a person... a real mother, that is. I completely disagree with this Western concept, this feminist movement... it has degraded the role of a mother... when I was growing up, my mother had the most impact on me.”

Considering its not Imran Khan’s first utterly complacent and grossly ignorant take on anything factual or ideological, anger seems a little worn out to pursue. While he triumphed as the mouthpiece of the conservative lot with this comment, he is no different than others who have a patriarchal misunderstanding of what feminism stands for, that it is anti-motherhood.

Let’s first explore the outrageous things Western feminism says about motherhood, things that could have pissed off a conservative. Most important would be the feminist assertion that a woman’s identity doesn’t just lie in rearing a body other than her own. She’s also a person in her own right. Feminism has challenged notions of traditional motherhood because it has fought for the choice of motherhood. Perhaps it is the recognition of paid maternity leave. Or, maybe, it is the longstanding battle for legal relaxations and financial compensation for new and single mothers. Maybe it’s because feminists fight for the recognition of the woman’s unpaid labour at home as much as a man’s labour in a public space.

Are these the reasons that have prompted Khan to state that some feminist movements have degraded motherhood? Perhaps. It does seem utterly ridiculous that women be given rights to their own lives. The pitting of feminists and mothers is an inherently patriarchal act and misses multiple nuances of feminism and its development.

Further, he asserted that teaching the children in their mother tongue is the mother’s job, “especially if she is a good mother”—making it very clear what he considers ‘right mothering’ while simultaneously absolving men of the responsibility toward their children. A feminist thought of motherhood is the understanding that the role of the mother—as it has been traditionally described—is a societal conditioning. What is the job of a ‘good mother’? And what about ‘good’ fathers? Oh wait, they do not exist in Khan’s limited worldview. A ‘good’ mother, then, is whatever a man such as Khan wants her to be, which includes the martyrdom of not demanding anything from the father. Because, god forbid, a mother think of herself as an individual first and then responsible for her offspring. Agency and identity are Western feminist concepts, after all. They poison the beatific, self-sacrificing Eastern mother’s instincts to put herself last.

Journalist and author of the blog, The Married Feminist, Kiran Manral’s take on the issue is two-pronged, “To begin with, I think we’ve put motherhood on a pedestal for too long. Point is, motherhood is sold to us as a package, which demands to be glorified, like any underpaid job. I believe that in this pursuit, the realities of motherhood shouldn’t be undermined by all the excessively rosy, sloppy morality that we smudge all over it. Having said that, the feminist movement is about equality among genders and embraces fluidity of agency and thought. In this scenario, declaring the institutions of motherhood and Western feminism as unpalatable is rather unfair on the part of Khan. Motherhood is not seen as a liability by the movement but as an empowering choice, as much as the choice of women to employment, marriage, property, etc. It recognises women as the sole agents of their own reproduction and is inconsistent with the patriarchal notion which deems the woman as simply a baby-making machine.”

Wannabe PM of An Islamic State

That Khan has promised to make Pakistan an Islamic state—that has, in the past meant heightened restrictions on women and a poor women’s rights track record—is also cause for concern. In a CNN article, author and columnist Rafia Zakaria asserts: “If Khan keeps his pro-military stance and wants to appease the militants within the country, his Pakistan will not be a progressive country committed to gender equality. Religious hardliners in Pakistan have, in the past, opposed legislation that criminalises domestic violence, saying that would ‘Westernise’ society. They are unlikely to change this stance.”

The enforcement of “authentically Islamic and doggedly anti-Western law…. will destroy the legal and political progress Pakistani women have made in recent years. When women’s progress is seen as a Western concept, the result is unending suffering and retrogression for all Pakistani women who want to move toward gender equality.”

Is there hope? Perhaps, if Khan chooses to sideline religious hardliners and panders instead to those seeking a more progressive Pakistan with women’s rights at par with international standards. We must wait and watch. Until then, though, as liberals, as feminists, Imran Khan’s victory is not cause for celebration. Please, think before you tweet.

This article appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

The Purpose of (My) Art by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: My artistic manifesto.

I’m half-a-book old (less, if I’m being honest). I started reading for Why Indian Men Rape—a multimedia gender journalism and activism project spanning two books, a documentary and a blog—in 2013, but working on it actively since last year. It’s been a challenge on every front—from the funding for my research, to identifying and going undercover with my subjects, and the writing. Almost every day, particularly after nightmare-filled nights where I cry, blabber and thrash about (if I manage to sleep at all), I lament about why I couldn’t have chosen an easier first book.

So when I had a humbling conversation with someone who works in the gender-violence space a few months ago, I was quite shaken initially. In essence, she said: We know all there is to know about rape; what do you think your books are going to do?

“Well, for one, I wouldn’t presume the limits of our knowledge,” I replied, thinking on my feet. “More importantly, while the conversation about rape may be nuanced and evolved among academics, that’s not the case for most people. Maybe my project will broaden the discourse.” And maybe that’s all my blood, sweat and tears for all these years will amount to—nothing new, just bridging the gap.

Not that that would be a small feat in itself. ‘To make the important interesting’ was legendary Outlook editor Vinod Mehta’s mantra, as it has been mine since I started my non-fiction writing career over 10 years ago. I’d like to make my readers see what they hadn’t, and inspire them to think, examine, question, grow.

Take, for instance, our experience in Kamathipura, Mumbai’s red light area the other night. My last subject was a regular, and I was eager to visit. My spouse, Sahil, and my friend, Ajay, who is intimately familiar with the place, volunteered to take me. (Before you get ideas, ha, I must clarify that Ajay’s worked there as a doctor of public health.) A bunch of policemen noticed us when we got off the taxi past midnight; as we were preparing to leave an hour later, two of them intercepted us. We were expecting this.

To the boys: Why have you got her here? Who is she to you? Why did you take her to that all-male bar? We just gave the owner a dressing down.
To me: Have you been brought here on the promise of a movie role? It is an unsafe area. What if a drug addict had attacked you? Why couldn’t you come in the daytime? We’ve been following you all along. Go home!

Around us were lakhs of women treated worst than chattel, the worst of human suffering. And yet, here the cops were, protecting me, a (recognisably) high-class woman. Ironic. Or not. Privilege is invisible to those who have it. Do we realise just how many spaces are inaccessible to us women? Was the suffering of other people around me less than mine? Was it because my taxes pay the cops’ salaries? It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

But I’m making a broader point. Even when my writing doesn’t live up to some ambitious ideals (it’s often crap), even if your art has none (and that’s perfectly all right too), it’s your art, your expression. Just do it. Do it for yourself, for your voice from within. People will question it, who-what-when-why-how? They will process it through their own lenses. Find your balance. Be open to feedback, to growth. But stay true, stay convinced. It won’t be easy, and I admit to leaning heavily on my circle of supporters-not-sycophants in the face of trolls. In the words of Margaret Atwood: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”

Because the purpose of art is all the lofty things critics say it should be—to communicate, to elevate, to stimulate. What is often overlooked is the self-actualisation and happiness the act of creation creates in the creator, and the value of such individuals in society. The purpose of your art is personal.

This article appeared on Kalampedia in July 2018.

Ask a Feminist | Q. 10 What exactly constitutes bad feminism? by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

What exactly constitutes bad feminism?

“As severe a misnomer as the term is, we cannot deny how it sits in popular consciousness. The compartmentalisation of the feminist movement does not only trivialise the discourses that it aims to empower but also debunks the movement’s claim of being a safe and inclusive space by making participation extremely conditional. The politics of feminism has no set route, and no one is ‘bad’ just because it isn’t tapered according to another’s watertight perception of the same.”

This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

Ask a Feminist | Q. 9 Why are feminists so angry? It's putting off. by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

Why are feminists so angry? It's putting off.

“Hell, yeah! We’re angry. We’ve been hysterical with rage for centuries. (But what is also equally imperative is to recognise anger as only one of the many legitimate ways to feel or act, and not pedestalise it in a movement which must be all for inclusive righteous expression.)In the face of everything that plagues feminist life one violation, misrepresentation and injustice at a time, are you surprised? Among other tropes of seeking justice, anger is a choice we are entitled to. Unless, of course, your privilege strokes you long and hard and you expect us to grin our way through our rampant oppression.”

This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in July 2018.

An Ode to My Mother-in-law by Tara Kaushal

July 2018: Roopshikha Mane | 07.10.58-07.07.18 | No more, no less

Sahil and Ami's mum lost her long battle with cancer yesterday, after a few particularly hard last months. She'd told us she would go when her children were ready; when we rushed her to the hospital struggling to breathe the last time, we were. For someone so full of life, a life bereft of life was not living. Love truly means letting go, in the end.

You know, mothers-in-law in India get a bad rap that they often deserve. Mine was one of my favourite people in the world; I know I was one of hers, one of her three children.

Some of you know that Sahil and I met as colleagues who became best friends for two years as I dealt with the Bombay migrant experience, my father's death, a divorce and an alcoholic live-in boyfriend. My first interaction with my future MIL? She got Anshuman and I, new friends of her son's she had not yet met, these cool mugs from the Kala Ghoda Fest. "Why is your mum getting presents for some random friends of yours?" I asked S, confused. "She is like that only." And she was, bursting with life and love and laughter that touched everyone who had had the fortune to know her. At her funeral, I stopped counting the number of people I consoled with the words, "I know how important she was to you."

Shortly after, on Valentine's Day 2007, Anshuman and I met her when we went to their home for dinner. When Sahil and I finally got together 1 1/2 years later, I would find out that Ma had told Dad that night: "She may be divorced, older, living with someone, etc (other things that made me ineligible as an Indian bahu), I don't care. I know that this is the girl that will make my son happy." And she tried, sometimes not so subtly, to orchestrate this eventuality. Once, she told me, "Our Guru has said that it doesn't matter if the girl is older than a boy or taller, if they love each other they should get married." (I'm both, older and taller.) "Aunty, I am not interested in Sahil, he's like my brother!" I protested, struggling to find a word to describe our intense platonic friendship. (Six months later I would have to justify this statement in light of new developments, obviously; that it had been true at the time.)

Not that it was all smooth sailing. I live a highly feminist—therefore atraditional—life. I wear clothes much shorter, travel much later, live much more dangerously than she would've preferred. I am apathetic agnostic, in contrast to her strong religious beliefs. Although she knew all this from the get-go and saw me for me, outside a social lens, it was easier said than done to swallow it all at once. We've tread on each other's toes quite a bit. But she established, from the beginning, that love was the guiding principle of our relationship. 'With friends and family, you fight, forgive and forget' was her motto. And, whether or not she approved of what whatever you chose to do, she enabled you to do it and was firmly in your corner. Once she shut down this snarky aunty trying to rake up an issue with what I was wearing by saying, "But I bought it for her!" (She had.) She taught me that you have to love people the way THEY need/want to be loved, not impose on them your idea of who you'd like them to be. She was the biggest supporter of WIMR, financial and otherwise. That uncomfortable position that sons are often put in, to side with/choose either their wives or their mothers? That never happened. Her children's happiness was above all.

She'd hate me for saying this (because she really wanted grandkids!) but she's also one of the reasons I don't want to have children. Ma ho toh aisi, and I don't have it in me to love as selflessly as she did. She set the bar for motherhood too high.

... Maybe not only motherhood, but awesome-human-being-hood in general. In Ami's words, she did more in a week than we did in a year. Apart from the passionate love she showed so many people and her devoted religious service, she continued her architecture career, even correcting some drawings the day before she died. And what can I say about her incredible sense of style? Her love for Indian textiles showed in the houses she designed and her legendary saree collection. When she was dressed up—saree, hair pin, accessories—she was a sight to behold. Then there was her cooking, her (very bad) humour, her fabulous marriage, her everything. There is a giant Neeru-Mane-shaped hole in the universe.

Bye, my beloved Ma. As a spiritual seeker, you sought salvation that I hope you have received. If not someone as otherworldly as you, then who?

This piece was written in July 2018. Read the obituary I wrote for my father here.

#deathforchildrapists : A Former Believer’s Apologia by Tara Kaushal

April 2018: This is the viral open letter I wrote to those rejoicing about the amendment to POCSO that proposes the capital punishment for rapists of children under 12.


Dear everyone celebrating #deathforchildrapists ,

I know your heart is in the right place. This POCSO amendment is the best news you’ve heard all year! Finally someone’s doing something! Something’s gotta give! These rapes have got to stop! Our kids need to feel safe again! Three cheers!

I feel you. A few years ago, fresh out of college, with whatever little time I’d invested in thinking about it, I would’ve agreed with you. I remember chatting with friends about the many arguments pro the death penalty—why should evil people live on on taxpayers’ money; get it over with; long prison sentences don’t compensate for some crimes; it serves as a deterrent; etc. I believed in retributive justice, same as you. It feels great, an outlet for collective anger and adrenalin, like a popped pimple, phew! But then, I started studying about it.

Of course, there are ethical and moral arguments against the death penalty, but let’s talk about whether it plays a constructive role in society at all.

The biggest defence one hears is that it acts as a deterrent—people will not commit crime for fear of death. “There is not the slightest credible statistical evidence that capital punishment reduces the rate of homicide,” writes John J Donohue III, PhD, a law professor at Stanford University. Social scientists across the world, the UN, Amnesty International, all agree.

In fact, it is proven that it is not the extent of punishment for crime but the surety of receiving said punishment that prevents crime. The Indian culture of victim silence coupled with our laughable law enforcement allows perpetrators of sexual violence to operate with impunity. One of the rapists I studied, with no police complaints against him for the 20-plus rapes he confessed to, told me to go ahead and use his real name. “Mujhe kya hona hai?” What will ever happen to me, he asked.

Further in the Captain Obvious vein, is the fact that the Indian police is incompetent at best, actively deceitful and corrupt at worst. Let’s take the cases of the murders of Aarushi Talwar and Pradyuman Thakur of Ryan International School. These are not isolated cases—there are many unpublicised instances where the police has fabricated and fictionalised cases against scapegoats. Us CSI-watching people don’t know the half of it. (And even countries with more sophisticated detection and enforcement systems than ours are admitting to retrospective mistakes.)

The police’s negligence and corruption weighs most heavily on those least able to withstand it. It is the disempowered—men from lower castes, minority religions, poverty and illiteracy—that receive a disproportionate number of death sentences. Without legal representation, the penalty is applied with arbitrariness and after long delays.

Death to the innocent is an irrevocable mistake. The desire for closure through death, for retribution, for blood that the victims’ families are baying for are understandable but barbaric nonetheless. (What did the Father of the Nation say about an eye for an eye? Anyway.) If those accused are innocent, it is infinitely worse…

Let me anticipate a bit of the backlash to this letter. Yes, I feel as bad about the rape of children as the next person (not those who took out rallies in support of the rapists of the Kathua child, but, you know, most people). In fact, I’m a little more invested than the average armchair activist—my first book, which I have been researching for since 2013, is about rape in India. Hence proved: I am neither heartless nor headless. So when I and other activists strongly condemn the death penalty, in general, and especially for the rapists of children, we have our reasons. In a system so flawed, so fallible, the death penalty must be scrapped entirely, not have its scope widened. Do we want to be like China or follow the rest of the developed world?

There’s a rather misguided article doing the rounds about how sexual harassment must not be graded, that one act is as bad as the next. That’s bullshit. There is no doubt that the rape of a child is worse than the rape of an adult person, but it is certainly better than the rape and murder of a child. But, using an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ principle, rapists will now murder the child if both have the potential to get them the death penalty anyway. This way, without a living eyewitness, they may just have the chance to get away! The death penalty for child rapists will lead to an increase in child rape plus murder. Mark my words.

You know what else it will lead to? Less reporting. Because it’s easier to report rape when it was perpetuated by a stranger, when there was violence. As you may know, stranger rape, violent rape is the exception, not the rule. Will a child be able to identify his/her grandparent or uncle or aunt as the perpetrator if s/he knows this will send the person to the gallows? Will the parents take things forward? Will a judge? It may also lead to even fewer convictions. Think about it.

So, those of you reading my letter, educated, rational citizens of India… Please, think. Please, oppose this amendment. Let’s not settle for tokenism. Let’s not get distracted from the failings of the government to protect its weakest citizens. Let’s not forget that changing laws is the easiest thing to do.

Let’s expect well-thought-out laws and better enforcement. Let’s start with catching these men and putting them behind bars for life. (It is punishment enough; trust me, Indian jails are hell on earth.) Meanwhile, let’s work towards a culture where such impulses aren’t seeded in the first place.

Tara* Kaushal

This letter appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in April 2018.

Interview: Madame Gandhi by Tara Kaushal

April 2018: At United Against Sexual Violence, we introduce you to allies who actively use their privileged positions to help create a fair, free world. Madame Gandhi, musician and activist, talks about what we deserve when we are bleeding.

"There are a hundred mobile phone options, but even though half of the world bleeds and has been for centuries, the product design and innovation involved are limited, insulting and baffling." In 2015, a woman of Indian origin ran the London marathon on the first day of her period—free bleeding. Kiran Gandhi, known by her stage name Madame Gandhi (she is a musician), is a woman of many colours—drummer, feminist, activist. That woman who bled through the marathon, because she realised that limitations placed on her by society had very little to do with what she could achieve. “We do not have a comfortable vocabulary to speak about it—education is missing and myths fill the gap,” she has once said of menstruation, knowing fully well the power of her platform better than anyone. And she isn’t about to stop. Here, Kiran (29) talks to Pass the Mic about erasing stigma around menstruation and embracing autonomy—two goals which stretch across her works as musician and activist.

Is big pharma riding the coattails of the menstruation awareness campaign? Is that what the tax-free movement on sanitary napkins is all about?

That is a really interesting question. I often think that if we are living in this capitalist patriarchy. But if we can make the feminist agenda align with the capitalist agenda, at least we can make some positive change. If something that is benefitting women also happens to benefit big pharma, in the short term, we should make use of that big engine behind us and moving in the same direction, because it can help us. Obviously, that’s a dangerous game since most capitalist organisations exploit women’s bodies for profit. It’s ridiculous that we need to pay so much to exist and live comfortably in society. We don’t have enough women in office right now to advocate that we absolutely require these products for menstrual health and hygiene.

What are the alternatives to synthetic sanitary napkins?

I think an interesting alternative to pads right now are organic cotton pads, they are good and bio-degradable. They are being made in India, by this company called Aakar, the first natural, compostable sanitary napkin. Awareness is pushing more companies to develop these products. When we use non-biodegradable products, we are only putting plastic and chemical into our bodies. Unfortunately, organic pads, much like other organic products (food and health), are sold at extremely high prices in developed nations. It is treated as a luxury item, and the reversal of that is what we should be focussing on—how can we make something clean and sustainable, as well as affordable? I want this model for everyone. I have also heard of period-proof underwear, and I think that’s a great option for women with access to running water. The menstrual cup has been another great product, which is reusable and eco-friendly. And while we discuss products, we need to realise that not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate.

Does the push for sanitary napkins devalue traditional systems of menstrual hygiene, such as cloth, wood shaving and ash?

I want every person who bleeds to be able to have the choice to select what is comfortable for them, but I also believe they need to have access and feel like they have that choice. When you feel like you don’t have a voice is when you are oppressed, and you need to be able to choose freely for your body especially when taboo and stigma are so deep-rooted. What we are fighting here is:

a. Replacing the stigma with education so that no person feels silenced with regard to normal, healthy bodily processes; and

b. Access—how we can make sure that every person who menstruates has access to dignity, hygiene and comfort, is able to take care of themselves, and be as productive as they wish to. Today when I go to buy a mobile phone, there are at least a hundred options! Yet, half of the world bleeds and has been for centuries, but the product design and innovation involved are limited, insulting and baffling. I would never advocate one product over another, but I will always emphasise on destigmatising menstruation. In the end, all people should feel free from any kind of societal oppression.

This interview appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in April 2018.

Ask a Feminist | Q. 7 Why should Indian men join the feminist movement? by Tara Kaushal

March 2018: I answer questions that are burning your bras and run this column as a makeshift guide to the feminist way of life.

 Why should Indian men join the feminist movement?

"Here, one could extoll the advantages of feminism for men, and there are many. But advantages to the men are somewhat irrelevant. We should not have to bait men with possible benefits in order to draw them into the fold of feminism. Truth is, not being a feminist today is an unconscionable stand. You either don't see the historic privileges accorded to the male gender, or you don't think other genders deserve those privileges. Which makes you either stupid or an asshole... or both."

This column appeared on Pass the Mic, the blog of Why Indian Men Rape in March 2018.