The corrosive language of Bollywood

Strap yourselves in, patient readers. Pull out your patience and worry it gently between your fingers, for this is not going to be a short post.

We’ll start with a little bit of personal anecdote, because it’s highly relevant to what I’ll go on to say. On Monday night, I went to see a gig in London. By fate’s cruel conspirations, I found myself committed to working from 8.30 a.m. the next day, on the other side of the city from where I actually live. The friend who accompanied me lives even further from where the gig was than I do, hence she was in as much of a hurry as I to leg it out. An early finish was swiftly undermined by our getting on the wrong branch of the Northern Line, rushing off the train and then my seeing a man rush frantically to the doors, holding up her card-holder as the train rushed off.

I persuaded her to catch the next train to the next stop and scour the platform. Gloriously, he was there, right at the other end. She received her card-holder, and he showed us alternative, quicker routes to reach our respective destinations. A young woman had given him a newspaper to read while he waited for us. As luck would have it, she turned out to be on our carriage when we boarded the next train, and was introduced to us. Already buzzing from a brilliant live music experience earlier, my friend and I were now steeped in gratitude at the kindness of strangers.

Once I reached my destination, I suddenly remembered that oh shit, I had absolutely no number for the friend I was meant to stay with (mobile or flat number!), and couldn’t even remember which residence she was staying in. A lady in the Residences Office narrowed it down to one residence, which I got lost trying to find, and had to seek directions to a second time, as the rain began. Trying not to panic, I began the laborious process of ringing and knocking, asking for my friend.

Fairly early on, a guy (Bangladeshi or Pakistani, I assumed) let me in and let me knock on doors inside the flat. He also said I could call him if I didn’t find my friend, before going back to his room. I had no luck, slipped out, and continued my mission. He and another guy from the flat came out a little later and were watching me go, ringing doorbells because my survival at work depended on it. As I drew back from another series of unanswered disappointments, they called me over. I went over and explained the situation: I had more doors to go, and my phone’s Internet wasn’t working. The thing that worried me, I explained, was that I needed to establish some sort of contact soon, or I wouldn’t be able to go home and would be stranded. The first guy let me use his Net briefly, and I waited in his room for my friend to ring. Just as I was giving up hope and resigning myself to sleeping there (he even offered me a pair of his shorts, which I put on and then whipped off shortly after!), the call came. I was blessedly saved from the awkwardness of depending on a total stranger.

Nonetheless, I was grateful (as you would be) for his help, which came without any of the attendant sleaze and creepiness that a young female might reasonably expect (especially when I found out he was Indian!). He insisted on walking me to my friend’s flat, and I thanked him. I eventually got to bed (though I didn’t sleep amazingly… my friend was up till 5 a.m.!) and the next day at work was actually pretty fun.

The evening was when things got interesting. I had considered, and then forgotten, the possibility of  adding the Indian dude on Facebook, or even just messaging to say thanks. Maybe even proposing a hot drink or somesuch, if I was ever in the area. Then, I got this message:

Hi

I hope you remember me, It was quite strange the way we met each other last night, but now I cant stop thinking about you,
I know its looks strange, but it was not only mere coincidence,

Just want to meet you once, If you feel like meeting reply back

My best friend and boyfriend were slightly more amused and less dismayed at this than I. As my best friend put it: ‘Yeah, kinda saw that one coming.’

‘How?!’

‘Bollywood.’ I wasn’t exactly blind to the decidedly filmi aspects of the message (lame, over-dramatised intensity, anyone?), but my friend’s repeated and direct invocation of Bollywood sealed it. My brain was sent spinning; I would have to write about this.

Bollywood is hugely influential in India. It impacts upon, and attempts to reflect, just about every aspect of Indian life. Even the soaps and adverts have been unable to resist copying it to some extent. The one area that Bollywood categorically does not shy away from – nay, adores – is romantic relationships. You could say that Bollywood tends very much to be an advert for marriage, and you’d be pretty much right.

The erasure of homosexuality and non-marriage-centred romantic relationships (such as cohabiting, polyamorous relationships or fuck-buddy hook-ups) is bad enough as it is. However, given how conservative and religiously-rooted Indian society is, it’s kind of deluded to expect to see such relationships in Bollywood anytime soon. I mean, ferChrissakes, the Delhi high court only decriminalised homosexuality about a week ago, and already they’re being challenged.

Bollywood’s depiction of romantic love isn’t exactly a good one at that. It fetishises the notion of ‘love at first sight,’ reducing love (which is a complex yet often surprisingly mundane feeling) to an entirely superficial experience, forged of insecurity, inexperience and hormones (read: sexual attraction). This superficiality is conveniently disguised and justified through spirituality (or the veneer of it anyway). You ‘love’ this person because you’re supposed to; because you’re destined to be together! Neat, innit?! God has decided it! Your meeting was not a mere coincidence… but destiny. So far, so teenage and stalkerish. The unfortunate reality of love being more difficult than that, and taking more work, is conveniently dealt with in other instances by having people who ‘grew up together’ suddenly fall for each other.

So, the subliminal messages say: marry your friends! Don’t go for a stranger unless it’s ‘fated’! Um, yeah. There’s a group on Facebook called ‘Bollywood gave me unrealistic expectations about desi men‘. However, I’d never before considered the broader impact that Bollywood has. Bollywood encourages women to develop ridiculous hopes about love, whilst effectively encouraging men to enjoy the deeply patriarchal status quo. In a culture where the segregation of the genders is commonplace and notions of gender are fixedly ‘traditional,’ it offers up to men a language of love with which to pursue women just as clueless and naive, whether their intentions incline towards love or not.

This isn’t a new scenario, of course; men telling women they love them in order to get sex or because they think it’s the right thing to say when they don’t actually KNOW what they want.  Deceit on the part of the men, is of course, inexcusable. However – and here I’ll return to that message I received – what if there’s nothing else? What if men use that language because it’s the only language available to them?

The message made me a little angry at first. I actually said ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, he helped me out yesterday and now because of that he thinks he’s in LOVE with me?! I bet he just woke up, remembered our odd encounter and liked the look of my Facebook picture! If anything, it’s infatuation.’ Partly, my reaction was so strong because I have had Indian and Arab guys coming on really strong like that, more than once. It is absolutely not appealing; I actually find it insulting and clichéd.

However, this fellow was very unlike those others. He had been nothing but gentlemanly; something was wrong with the picture. Then, it clicked. I realised he didn’t actually KNOW what the hell he should say to a girl. And why would he? It’s not as if discussions of sex of any sort are exactly commonplace in India. Even among the middle classes, which my family apparently spring from, I am mystified as to how people learn about it. All I know for sure is that it is usually surreptitiously, shamefully and most likely through interaction with contemporaries of the same gender (often, but not always older) rather than through direct experience of the opposite sex.

The patriarchy has a lot to do with this. In a culture that rewards men for being men, I don’t doubt that part of the way men approach women is down to a sense of entitlement. They deserve us, ladies, and if we knock back their oh-so-impassioned approach, we have every right to expect the rape, stalkings, murder and general misogynistic harassment that is (sometimes) (briefly) featured on-screen! Hence, in a few cases, the coming-on-strong is bolstered by genuinely arrogant delusion.

The segregation of men and women also is a patriarchal classic, with its roots in that well-known phenomenon of the Goddess/Whore dichotomy. I’ve adapted it from the original Virgin/Whore dichotomy, as you can see. A perfect example of this is in the novel-turned-film Devdas, where Devdas becomes attached to both Paro (a low-born but goddess-like woman of pride, beauty and obedience to her social duties) and Chandramukhi (the ‘tart with a heart,’ to put it bluntly). OF COURSE he flirts with Chandramukhi, but the star of the love-obsession show is Paro.

The big problem is that whatever you spin to keep the genders separated – THEY’RE STAYING SEPARATED. Women are domestic and ‘goddesses,’ neatly kept out of harm’s way on their pedestals in the kitchen, or alluring and ‘whores,’ paraded for all to sneer at (and secretly desire) in the bazaar, whilst men are, er… everything else? Heroes, villains and everything in-between? They have no experience of each other, and thanks to the pervasive belief in arranged marriages, it’s likely that many never will really know just how much fun romantic love can be before it settles down. The thing is – Bollywood could change this. Instead, it entrenches it. How? By ignoring friendship.

That’s right. Think of a Bollywood film where a male and female are friends. Single – or one of them is attached – and friends. Just friends. You can’t, can you?! That’s because as far as Bollywood is concerned, it doesn’t exist! It never happens! Friendships are generally only possible between people who are already involved; otherwise they are yet ANOTHER springboard to ROMANCE and MARRIAGE. Friendships are certainly never shown as a valuable source of information on the other gender, even though that is exactly what they are to so many people. Where are the films where a girl says to a guy: ‘Don’t tell her that, she’ll run for the hills!’ or a man says ‘You know, a lot of guys don’t actually mind girls dressing ‘Westernised’ a lot’?!

Slightly skewed and/or stereotyped information is surely better than no information at all! It’s no wonder that there is such a glaring gulf between ‘freshie’ men and British Asian women. The ridiculous thing is that if things changed and friendship wasn’t treated as an aberration to be suspicious of, things might go better between British Asian women and British Asian men as well. Let us not forget that the adoption of stereotypical ‘black macho gangster’ posturing by so many comes from a place of insecurity and cluelessness. They haven’t been taught how to communicate with women by their parents either, so they just cast around for a general rule: confidence and directness. Unfortunately, wooing (even just for the purposes of sex) often involves so much more precision and subtlety than that lets on.

Luckily for a friend of mine (a French citizen who was born in India and now lives here), he had me to turn to when he wanted to ask a girl out. His original inspiration involved the likes of ‘When I see you, I lose control and I feel weak in my body.’ Yeahhhhh… NO. I helped him to save face and comprehend that that type of thing might work with French girls, but with British Asian girls? FUGGEDABOUTIT.

That, ultimately, is the whacked-out thing. Bollywood’s acknowledging that men and women can BE FRIENDS with each other – yeah, with no marriages popping up all red and infectious between them – would ease the misunderstandings between Asian men and women somewhat. It would suggest to people that they have some personal freedom (to ask questions about sexual matters), that segregation is a sucky state of affairs, and that you don’t have to settle for anyone because you’re romantically clueless. Men wouldn’t lose face so bad, women wouldn’t feel quite so harassed (because trust me, it often feels like your acquiescence is taken for granted when men invoke fate and destiny!); hell, maybe they could even laugh it off and become friends afterwards! However, that would suggest that – SHOCK – marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all of life, that personal happiness is a desirable thing and that discussing sex doesn’t have to be a shameless ‘Westernised’ semi-pornographic experience, or a shameful, carefully-concealed, potentially guilt-ridden ‘Eastern’ extravangaza – but instructive, fun and rewarding. And we can’t have THAT now, can we?!

Sex: now I have your attention…

In the relatively few years I’ve lived on this strange planet I’ve managed to devise a simple formula to get people to listen to me. In order to achieve full, mouth-foaming hysteria just simply pick one of the following topics and set it motion: sex, religion and politics. But let’s be realistic here, while everyone pretends to be interested in the other two, it’s really all about the sex. Whether you’re a Tibetan monk or Britney spears, most of human endeavour seems to centre on sex and sexuality. Even if you have no interest in sex whatsoever, sex will still define your whole identity as you’ll emphatically be known for not liking it- asexual people are defined by and are given a whole identity based on this thing that they are not. I’m not here to judge the centrality of sex in our lives as a good or bad thing, but realising it and coming to terms with it, with the goal of putting sex in its right place is the good thing and pretending it’s not an issue and letting it wreak havoc underground in our unconscious is the bad thing.

I’ve grown up in a culture that is obsessed with sex…implicitly that is. Sex was such an unmentionable for us that we couldn’t even say the word, it was too embarrassing to talk about even if you were discussing it scientifically. Unless you were talking about one’s biological sex, which itself was embarrassing, you had to spell it out to avoid saying a dirty word: S-E-X. Now imagine having this culture at home and also being taught sex education at a very young age because of your school’s very liberal values. I was taught about sex at the grand old age of 8 (7 actually because I was put up a year for reasons too long to go into). Of course, I didn’t realise how strange this all was at the time, and paradoxically, I don’t recall any extreme reaction from my parents. They must have known what we were being taught through the school’s communiqués and I do remember being told off for mentioning certain body parts at home that I had learnt at school that day. I can only reason that the folks thought this was what it was like in every ‘English’ school.

It’s a long shot, but there could be an explanation for why my old school taught us about sex so early. I very innocently absorbed what we were taught like it was any other lesson, and had no idea of the taboo or special importance attached to this common and vital human act. When I, like the eager geek that I am, passed on my new found knowledge to my friends, I didn’t understand why I was doing something wrong in their eyes. I don’t want us to be flippant about sex, far from it. Learning early on how sex makes babies will far from trivialise it. Better kids first hear of it in this disinterested scientific way, as a natural and biological fact of life.

But of course, thanks to the pornification of our culture, there’s no way to stop children learning about the most misogynistic and grotesque kinds of sex through online porn at the worst and Hip Hop music on a more prosaic level. The phenomenon of pornification has become so depressingly endemic over the decades that when I was growing up I thought that’s just how the ‘West’ was. Rather than just the product of a liberal capitalist democracy I thought this was part of the rituals, rites, and lifestyle of actual western culture and what you had to do to be part of the club. It was like living with Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s little wonder, then, that we harboured the characteristic fear and loathing of the West and we learned to hate and fear this aspect of the west very early on. ‘Boyfriend’ was another unspeakable word.

What to everyone else was just an unfortunate side effect of the otherwise positive move towards sexual freedom in the ‘60s was to us a justification for an extremely repressive attitude to sex. And here’s where it gets really depressing. Take a culture, like mine (Arab culture), which is already virulently anti-sex and place it in the midst of a field of free-loving hippies, and it will incubate and fester. My parents suddenly found themselves awash with justifications for their restrictive mores. It’s hard to challenge their ideas of sexual purity when to them the only alternative is a lurid, orgiastic fuck-fest.

As society becomes more sexually explicit, something weird had been known to happen. The shameless advertising industry has seized on the fact we have greater sexual freedom to make a quick buck and have so far gotten away with touting the basest sexual and gender stereotypes because that’s what sells. So what we get here is extreme irony. Wanting to get away from our sexually repressive past, we’ve established greater freedom with which large chunks of society appear to be freely adopting the tropes of our sexually repressive past. Studies have actually shown that kids who consume this kind of sex in the media inherit more traditional views of gender.

I say freely adopt, but those who get the raw end of the deal, and let’s face it, it’s the women, are under immense pressure to play along. Men are also under pressure…to lose their virginity. Sensitive men who don’t make it their life’s purpose to sexually conquer the female race, or men who just find it harder to compete, are singled out as freaks and pariahs. But it’s the pressure on women that’s worse because it’s not just easier to scrutinise them and their sex lives, but they’re under pressure to perform a ridiculous and paradoxical juggling act. They are expected to look like porn stars, while acting like the Virgin Mary.

A terrible feedback loop is occurring where advertisers are overselling sex, if you like, and in turn young people are becoming influenced by this and pressured to conform to this high standard of sexual prowess. And so ultimately sex does sell because you’ve made it sell. Not only are we, thanks to irresponsible marketing, reverting back to repressive sexual attitudes, but the simultaneous over-sexualisation of our culture is sending traditionalists like my parents and Christian Americans into a defensive frenzy. So, while sections of society are happy with their freedom to sexually indulge and experiment, other sections of the very same society are subject to suffocating honour codes, while their cousins in America suffer from the similar purity codes and vulnerable teenagers continue to be under pressure to become virtual porn stars. I think sometimes I can be too liberal and turn a blind eye to the lurid sexualisation of all things around me. I justify it by simply dismissing it as crass, but I think it’s high time we complained en masse to ASA and Ofcom about this.

Me VS the mob…

Or not quite. This (unexpected) post was inspired by having (unexpectedly) read all of Sathnam Sanghera’s If You Don’t Know Me By Now, or The Boy With The Topknot, as it is now apparently called.

I found myself – unexpectedly YET AGAIN – warming to the author and finishing it in the space of about 6 hours. Given that he sets himself up as a spoilt tosser (lots of brand-name dropping at the start…), that was a genuine shock. A sign of good writing, especially since my animosity fell quietly away without my even noticing. It comes highly recommended – I laughed heartily out loud at points.

The book got me thinking about a whole load of things, not least interracial relationships (which I will accordingly be posting about in further, anguished detail soon!) and the different positions of the genders in Indian society. Anyone who’s already read Shame by Jasvinder Sanghera will know this already, but guilt and shame are used to emotionally blackmail girls into ‘behaving’ in SA (and other) cultures.

That’s the thing – as Sathnam demonstrates in his book, guilt can be (and is) used on men too, but shame is a much more gendered weapon. Since men are automatically assumed to be superior to women, women must consider themselves grateful if they land a husband (the ‘right kind’ of husband, especially). I have hopes that women fighting back and refusing to abort their female children (as chronicled in my previous post), plus the seriously skewed sex ratio due to female-foeticide folly, will mean things start to turn around in India.

We are in ‘the West’ though, are we not? Surely, the thinking goes, since Western values are so wonderful and liberating, everyone will adopt them. Unfortunately, as SS points out in his book (p.46), in:  ‘A Study of Changes in Marriage Practices among the Sikhs of Britain’ (Jagbir Jhutti, Oxford University, 1998), the author concludes that:

‘no evidence of a complete assimilation into British society has been found. The study shows that rather than rejecting their cultural traditions, i.e. arranged marriages, the second and third generation Sikhs have played an active role in maintaining such traditions.’

Given the paramount importance of marriage to Indian society (just TRY and find a popular soap or film where marriage doesn’t figure in some way or another!), that’s pretty definitive. Guilt works very well to maintain the state of affairs as described above, but shame plays an even bigger part. Why? Well, shame essentially harnesses the power of Chinese whispers. It conjures a powerfully persuasive straw-mob, making a female incessantly paranoid about ‘what people will say.’

To return to what I said earlier, Indian women are indoctrinated to believe that their marriages are the focal point of their lives and that they should be nigh-on grateful for a husband. Shame is incredibly powerful because it jeopardises all this. It reminds women that their finding a ‘suitable boy’ is contingent upon the ‘suitable’ society set accepting them. Forced marriages aside, this is still a clever and subtle form of emotional blackmail. It implies not that your choice would be suspended (as it would be if you were ‘forced’), but limited and effectively useless. If you don’t play the game, you won’t get the guy you like!

See, the reason this is so clever is because it has a veneer of liberality about it. The girl isn’t being directly forced to choose a particular guy. It also absolves the parent of blame; they are simply making her aware of how others think and act (they may believe this guff themselves). You are bringing the power of the mob to bear on an individual, knowing full well they will likely buckle under its weight. Believe it or not, the racial element comes in very useful here. For example, Sikhs are a minority in India, but they are much more visibly a minority here.

This undoubted enhanced visibility of us SAs here, even when unspoken, is a powerful, powerful tool. When you say a girl will be shamed, you do not simply mean that she will be humiliated. You mean that her prospects as an attractive commodity for sale on the marriage market will suffer big-time. Not any marriage-market either, but the community marriage market.

See, horrible as it is to say, I really don’t think many SA girls actively choose to fall for non-SA guys. There are some, whose liberal backgrounds mean it’s not a big deal. I’ve noticed that in areas where there is a lower concentration of SAs, the resident SAs often tend to be a bit more open. That’s not to say that they won’t rediscover ol’ conservative values come marriage time though! Those who’ve lived around many other Asians, however, are all too aware of the ‘Asian Network.’ The ‘Asian Network’ being the intricate system by which everyone in the world knows each other and gossip about you is always likely. By which verboten behaviour may be broadcast to undesired ears.

Asians in these areas also tend to have less interaction with non-Asians because… well, quite bluntly, they don’t have to (might I just say, this is observation rather than absolute, stated fact!). This can mean that naturally, traditions die that bit harder. The combination of the factors just described tends to make shame very effective. A provinicial mindset develops  in many young Asians (often, few in London will have travelled to other areas outside their own, and without their parents, by choice). Many will often also be spoon-fed political beliefs and attitudes by their parents.

This means that many will initially plump automatically for a partner of the same background. I will raise my hands here: guilty as charged. Like many other Asian girls, I deludedly believed that picking someone who ‘got’ all the rites, rituals and language was preferable to explaining it to somebody else. I wasn’t even religious, or particularly traditional, as some are! The possibility that patriarchy might have brutalised the men too, never crossed my mind. Neither did the possibility that I could meet someone non-Asian, and not of my religion,  who was as interested in Indian culture and my religion, as I was.

As a wise woman once remarked: ‘Just because you’re born into it [ a culture], it doesn’t mean you understand it or appreciate it.’ The sort of men who ought, in an ideal world, to have been my natural allies, were themselves running scared. A lack of interest in Indian culture itself – the music, films, etc. – due to associating ‘culture’ with ‘tradition,’ and their own personal hang-ups, left me cold. One was trying to reject it altogether, a bit like SS at the beginning of the book. His bad experiences with Punjabi culture meant that all Indian culture was now off-limits. The most frequent problem I noticed was how emotionally stunted many of them were. They had been fucked over too, but unlike me, they wanted to ignore and flee from that reality.

When I met my partner, I was in a relationship with such a man and was looking for a free-event-going companion. Much to my embarrassment, it took only 3 meetings for there to be  cocked-trigger intensity between us. My ludicrous and primitive assumptions about ‘gore’ (white people, in this case white men) were dislodged by pure chance. Like so many SA girls, I had let a simple fear and lack of reflection dictate what I thought. White men interested in SA girls were probably weird Orientalist types, it was all about the sex, they wouldn’t ‘get’ all the little bits of Indian culture that belonged to me. Nor would they understand my attitudes about love and dating, and my very specific, very urgent needs…

This is a very convenient side-effect of growing up under Indian ‘mob mentality.’ Both indirectly and directly – not least through the racism of Asian parents, which is more common than expected – SAs are taught to see others as they see themselves. The ‘Western’ notion of viewing individuals as just that is dangerous, because it admits the possibility of there being non-Asians who are technically ‘suitable’ partners.

The interesting and hypocritical twist that SS’s book allowed me to observe, is that for boys, it is not so much Indian mob mentality, but British mob mentality to which they adapt. This seems to be the case more for Sikh boys, however, since they are more visibly ‘different’ than other SA minorities. The very fears that lead so many girls to commit themselves to lives they don’t deserve and aren’t happy with, drive boys to discard their visible ‘otherness’ – with the fear simply being generated by the ‘other side.’ A brilliant example is how Sathnam loses his topknot during adolescence, because he just wants to fit in.

Conveniently, however, since men are superior to women in SA culture (as previously stressed), women ‘pick up’ the religious tab. Behind some of the guilt and shame is a real fear of erasure among diasporans, and instead of proactively educating boys about their heritage (which would require men to step in!), the traditions are drummed into the women. To return again to SS, he described how he was his mother’s ‘religious experiment’, his brother and father having cut hair, and remarks that she became increasingly religious as she got older.

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Communism is afforded the status of a ‘new religion’ (see Preface!) and this helps shed some light onto why women actually seek to preserve traditions. In a world where women cannot help but be aware of their blatant second-class status, of sexual double standards and a personal insecurity about the state of the world (it is set during the Cold War…), a clear belief system is necessary to make connections and render existence worthwhile. In SS’s book, and in the lives of many SA women, the pretence that women are goddesses, morally superior, etc., is sorely challenged by the reality of domestic violence, being denied proper education, being wrenched from one’s family, MIL abuse, etc.

If there’s something to really bring home the reality of the myth of post-feminism and progress in equality – it’s domestic violence. When you factor in that SS’s mother was no Anna Wulf, free and able to constantly write and analyse her feelings and the cultural alienation and isolation, the appeal of religion is obvious. War is traumatic, but being ripped from your homeland and transferred to a poor copy of it (aged 16), never having contact with its other (foreign)  residents and facing a violent, mentally-ill husband and his judgemental superstitious family… well gosh, that sounds like a fair recipe for trauma!

To end on a random note, religion paradoxically permits these women individual freedom, even as they are bound to a watchful wider religious community. A better way to deal with things, as SS understands, is to talk about them. Honestly and painfully. The absolute, abysmal failure of so many SA men to express themselves and to relate to their wives, and children, is quite frankly pathetic. Take, for example, the plot of a recent Bollywood smash hit, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. A man who has been hastily arrange-married to a young woman is in love with her. However, she’s not ready for that, given that her father and previous fiancé just died.

Does he invite her to talk over the grief? Does he give her a hug and relieve her briefly of her wifely duties? Does he offer to send her to counselling, so she can work through it on her own, if she so pleases? No – he dresses up as another man altogether, infiltrates her dance class and becomes her dance partner! AND SHE FALLS FOR IT! It could only happen in Bollywood. Now, the film in question was quite sweet, but… do you SEE what I frickin’ well mean?!

Getting the ladies on-side

Feminism, in its modern incarnation is just gosh-darn confusing. The ‘second wave’ of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to a much larger and more diverse ‘third wave’ of feminism. This has been bad (misunderstanding of what feminism is now supposed to represent by men and women alike, due to the lack of a definitive uniting issue or campaign) and good (greater inclusiveness, a growing attempt to apply intersectionality to feminist thought).

I’m in a weird place as an Asian female. I think that the ‘second wave’ had a coherence and clarity of vision that the ‘third wave’ lacks. I sometimes feel closer to Twisty Faster than I do to Jessica Valenti. However, both IBTP and Feministing influence how I think and what I learn from feminism immensely. In particular, the effort made by the white readers on Feministing to acknowledge and deal with their racial/class privileges are something I find impressive.

One major problem for me with radical feminism is that it fails to take account of the specificities of other cultures; it is still very much white and middle-class. IBTP is an amazing and inclusive space; I don’t think I’ve ever seen racism or ignorance there. However, not all radfems will be quite so aware or (seemingly) unprejudiced. Transphobia among radfems is a well-documented problem (Google ‘radical feminist transphobia to see what I mean!) and this post on the F-Word called out the general ‘whitening’ of feminism.

What do I mean when I say the ‘specificities of other cultures’? Well, I can only speak from my experience as a British Asian female. One problem in my culture that I can imagine some militant feminists blanching at, is the role of women as oppressors. Sometimes I wonder if the experiences of some radfems with male violence and ‘political lesbianism‘, mean that they would not know how to deal with this.

In South Asian cultures (and undoubtedly elsewhere), patriarchy exists in familiar and recognisable fashion. The way it manifests itself, however, is rather different. Whilst men are still the shadowy generals, around whom traditions and culture are fashioned, women are the ground-level sentries. When we come to consider marriage – that all-important institution of Indian society (and no doubt other societies too), the power-relations become dancingly hazy.

What I mean to say, is that the society is set up for the ease of men (same old same old) and it is women, very often, who go to great lengths to ensure that this doesn’t change (sitting up, now?). I am not alleging that all Indian women are inherently evil, or blaming them. Western feminists despair over the silent complicity – sometimes even acquiescence - of women with patriarchy. In India and other SA societies, it is often the other way around. Men acquiesce silently, while women – older women in particular – are the guards of tradition, fighting off progress.

Here, I return necessarily to the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflict. Much popular culture is suffused with it  – it is very common in Indian soaps and is also visible (though less so nowadays) in Bollywood films. The whopping great ginormous issue is that this conflict is framed as THE pivotal relationship of a woman’s life. We Asian ladies can’t just ‘up and reject it’ as Western feminists might suggest – because it is something we are prepared for from childhood. What it takes to reject this relationship is luck, guts, and serious deprogramming (at least 11 years’ worth, in my case).

The way the conflict works is this: when you become part of your husband’s family, you have to prove yourself to everyone, but to your mother-in-law especially. Why? Because you have married her precious son. I have never, and I repeat never, seen a case where it was the other way around. Funnily enough, when a guy marries a girl, his mother-in-law must usually go overboard trying to making him feel like ‘a son of the family.’ This means (since women tend to do most of the housework), that she will bend over backwards to cook his favourite foods and so forth.

Tension is not an apprehension in Indian culture – you’re supposed to view it as a given. Your husband is perfectly permitted to be ambivalent and only somewhat supportive of you, as you struggle to become his mother. It would seem that not just motherhood, but being the mother of boys, is the ultimate ideal and aim for an Indian female. This is borne out by the high rates of female infanticide (as documented by this great blog).

This is the key misogynistic weapon: woman VS woman. For me personally, the desire to learn how to cook was tempered by the utterly unreasonable claims of my mother. Occasionally, she would say that I should learn for myself (this happened later, out of desperation, once the following failed). At other times, the mask would slip and she would descend into hand-wringing about how I had to learn to do it for my mother-in-law. Not my husband, but my mother-in-law. What would people say about her as a mother? The most common was: ‘Your mother-in-law will think I’ve taught you nothing!’

Two things tie into the MIL/DIL conflict and help worsen it. Firstly, the idea that a group identity is better than an individual one. Marriages are subsequently framed not so much as the affirmation of two individuals’ relationship, but the extension of family networks. It is not necessarily always like this, but can you imagine your parents picking a husband for you on the basis of whether they wanted to be friends with his parents or not? There you go.

The second problem is the idealisation of age and experience. Perhaps inevitably, given the respect for education and intelligence in India, age = wisdom. The authority of ‘being older’ can offer serious power trips. The soaps are full of instances where people are told off for addressing others in a way that doesn’t respect their seniority – and it’s frequently in the sense of ‘older = better.’ In a house where there are parents, elder and younger children (sometimes, additional senior relatives as well), the youngest will often find themselves patronised, excluded, silenced and downright ignored. It’s no wonder that situations like this can then arise. Respect does not extend both ways. Often, even if you are listened to, you will frequently be mocked for your naivety and insulted so as to keep any perceived arrogance (real or otherwise) in check.

Silly me, though – I forgot that this happens to GIRLS much more than it does to boys! Boys and men, as the silent overlords of patriarchy, are generally allowed to do whatever as long as they don’t marry someone of another race or turn out gay. They may even be able to manage the former in some cases! People cry ‘what about the men,’ but when it comes to Indian culture, I am really NOT HAVING IT. I used to sizzle with fury, that ‘men’s jobs’ included driving, cleaning the car, painting/decorating, lifting things and er… that seemed to be it, really. If a boy helped out with a task which I was trained to never be able to ignore, like loading the dishwasher (God! Strenuous!), he was to be thanked and assured that his contribution was appreciated. Repeatedly.

My father once informed me proudly that he could make chapattis (I couldn’t, and still can’t very well). I found myself aghast at the fact that this fact was being used to shame me over my failings as an Indian woman, rather than to challenge him over why he could do it himself and never did. Older women chide younger women if they attempt to involve their husbands in housework; it is ‘unnatural.’ I have, sadly,  found myself apologising to my current boyfriend for involving him in the ‘preparation’ of meals, as well as washing up!

Despite my father being a relatively good man by our society’s low-ass standards, my mother has not capitalised on it. Rather, she has indulged him to the point where he puts his dishes in the sink and walks off. What happened to rinsing and dishwasher-stacking?! When I mention this, I am guilted into silence with mentions of how ‘Oh Dad’s tired/Oh, he drives so much/Oh, he’s your father/Oh, never mind.’

Hence, the men are conveniently ‘written out’ – and many are fine with this, using genuine ignorance as well as targeted laziness to do fuck-all. There seems to be a very Freudian twist to this, I feel. Women, reduced to powerlessness by our society, find themselves chained to the hearth. Let me remind you that many of these women are intelligent, and quite a few may have had education and/or careers which literally stopped short once they married. Rather than thrash against the yoke, they ‘turn.’ Like a particularly violent form of Stockholm Syndrome, housework and children become the purpose of their very existence.

Male children are a key to power. Society values the males more, and so mothers of males often exercise power both through and over their sons. Through, in that they get a DIL to push around, re-enacting their own suffering. Over, in that these women invest greatly in their sons. They seize power by exercising complete control over them, until they remain stunted man-children. They involve themselves to the point that they are utterly indispensable to a man’s life.

There lies the catch-22. How can someone indispensable be replaced? This is where the cruel game of stripping women of their individuality and forcing them into a personal box marked ‘my mum’ happens. I don’t know what you’d call this. It’s not quite the Oedipal complex, but it’s close. The MIL must be ‘killed,’ either by replacing her, or by moving out – only then can the marriage be peaceful. Never mind that a marriage is meant to be about the man and the woman getting married! In some tragic cases, the situation is reversed and the DIL is the one who must die. Many cases also feature mothers and sons working together to abuse and murder women.

There is a pretence that marriage is wonderful because a daughter is being sent to another family, but note the ‘being sent.’ The passivity. Not ‘going.’ That’s because it is bullshit and what it often feels like is the trade of a female servant between female owners. Of course, if women do it, it’s OK. The system is legitimised. That’s why you don’t generally see men enforcing domestic training (though they police sexuality, naturellement) – there’s no need. If it’s women doing it, it must be the right thing to do! Women are GODDESSES in Indian culture, y’know! (Yeah, like Sita, who had to pass through fire to prove she hadn’t been raped. Draupadi, who was shared between 5 husbands and… oh my God, just go read that fucking link already, it’s horrific). Fucking catch-22s trip us up once again.

To conclude: much of ‘third-wave feminism’ worries about how to get men on board Feminism Express… but WHAT ABOUT THE WOMEN? How do all we women, of many cultures, suffering under the brutality of the worst kind of collaborators, cope? What can we do to stop this, apart from not colluding ourselves? Should we work with the men, or target these women first? How do we ‘get the ladies on-side’? I’m hoping to get thoughts of all kinds (even if you feel they’re not useful, post away!) in the comments.

Veils, Headscarves, Hijab…

A’rite people, it’s Keladry of Mindelan comin’ atcha again with more blurry unfocused…

(Unsure as to why I began in that manner).

I wanted to discuss the veil and hijab in this post. I have been intending to write about this for some time now, but kept lacking in time/willpower. Here goes.

Firstly, the misuse of language regarding this topic. Frequently, in the public domain, people use ‘the veil’ and ‘hijab’ interchangeably. This is erroneous since a veil is a piece of clothing, whereas ‘hijab’ is a mode of dressing. It’s like using the terms ‘blazer’ and ‘school uniform’ synonymously. They are related, but quite obviously not the same, since the latter can refer to a policy of wearing uniform in schools as well as the clothes themselves.

The other problem is with the word ‘veil.’ What many Muslim women wear is a headscarf, rather than a veil. The word ‘veil’ is so erotically charged that it’s somewhat ironic to apply it to the headscarf, which is intended to be part of preserving a woman’s modesty. It is true that the word is equally misapplied elsewhere – for example, with nuns ‘taking the veil.’ However, there’s the sense of taking a metaphorical bride’s veil, since nuns are effectively marrying themselves to God. Once you take the veil, you are ‘veiling yourself’ from union (sexual/marital) with others (though this may not be the case for all nuns?).

So yeah, it stands for nuns because it’s signifying their becoming ‘brides of Christ’ rather than a real bridal veil. Veils have frequently been used to signify something concealed and desirable – I mean hello, the bridal veil? It’s part of the whole sexual-marital ‘making it official’ where the man can ‘have’ his woman at last – he is allowed to lift the veil and gaze upon her. Funny that you don’t seem to see bridal veils quite as much these days… probably because people don’t feel like they need to wait till marriage to have sex?

C&Ving from Wikipedia like a good ol’ lazy bugger, we also have this:

The first recorded instance of veiling for women is recorded in an Assyrian legal text from the 13th century BCE, which restricted its use to noble women and forbade prostitutes and common women from adopting it. Greek texts have also spoken of veiling and seclusion of women being practiced among the Persian elite. Statues from Persepolis depict women both veiled and unveiled, and it seems to be regarded as an attribute of higher status.

For many centuries, until around 1175, Anglo-Saxon and then Anglo-Normanwimple). women, with the exception of young unmarried girls, wore veils that entirely covered their hair, and often their necks up to their chins (see wimple).

In this instance, you are concealing something of high value in a different sense – to differentiate between different types of women, but see yet again how there is a strong sexual dimension to it. The veil acts in these instances as a literal marker of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy that you should really bloody well know about by now. If you still refuse to believe me, Google ‘taking the veil’ and you will see that the first result links to A Little Girl Dreams of Taking the Veil, with summary:

It is the story of a girl who loses her viginity [sic] on the day of her first communion and so commits herself to “taking the veil…

Sex, sex, sex - I feel like I’m being possessed by the randy ghost of Sigmund Freud…

As you can see, ‘headscarf’ is a fairly neutral word in comparison, and a headscarf just does not have the same sex appeal that veils do. I think headscarf, and I think stereotypical, frowning old Eastern European/Italian grandmother. Or, God forbid: hippies. Haha.

However, perhaps the connotations and history of veils are instructive here.  Useful in a multitude of ways. I’ve always found it ironic that only the niqab, or burqa, is a ‘veil’ in the strictest sense. This is a garment which frequently succeeds in its aim of desexualising the female form for onlookers – not least because the eyes are often barely visible. Also, the sort of women who wear it will also follow hijab very strictly. I’ve yet to see this rule fail!

Just to inform anyone who isn’t aware: hijab involves wearing loose clothes (leaving only the hands and face visible) and covering hair for women. Apparently, the shape of a woman’s body should be as concealed as possible. HOWEVER, men also have to be covered ‘from navel to knee’ and apparently should refrain from ‘the lavish display of wealth on one’s person’, (trans.: bling). Nor is hijab merely a dress code, but also meant to work in tandem with the practice of ‘modest behaviour’, including men and women lowering their eyes when in each other’s presence (if they aren’t related).

Part of what makes the veiling of niqab-wearing women so successful, as I said, is that they follow hijab to the letter. Every one I’ve seen has been wearing the loose flowing jilbab that conceals their shape and has walked in a brisk, efficient way. They also, for the most part, are dressed entirely in black. In short, they flit in and out of sight and mind – which is what hijab for women is meant to achieve…

Hence, it is only because the veiling is supported by additional ‘full-body-veiling’ (if you will) and the eyes are only barely visible, that it works. It almost renders women’s sex invisible, except that it doesn’t really, because it marks them out as women. In the U.K, where the majority of the population are white and many Muslimahs are content simply to c0ver their heads, the invisibilisation of attraction seems to work on the whole. However, I’d like to know: what about societies in the Middle East? What about places like Saudi Arabia, where all women (Muslimahs, especially) are meant to be ‘properly covered’?

In such societies, I would be tempted to wager, the reason that women are ‘not harassed’ or ‘less harassed’ is more because they are forbidden from the public domain. If men cannot encounter women alone (or access anyone but their wives and daughters), it makes it that much harder to rape them. Except of course: marital rape. Given that a married, fully-veiled woman published a Mufti-of-Dubai-approved book on sexual relations WITHIN marriage and still received death threats… I would say good luck to those actually trying to rock the boat by gathering info on things like sexual harassment in such a closed society… even if you don’t see it, or hear of it, it doesn’t mean that it’s not happening…

One big problem I’ve always had with the idea of hijab and the headscarf are that frankly, they just are not realistic. If we lived in completely isolated, hermetically-sealed groups, then it might work. However, as I already pointed out, the very word ‘veil’ is incredibly sexualised. The problem is that the headscarf is not free from sexual connotations, because that is simply not possible. In the Middle East, it revives past notions of sexual purity and elitism, because upper-class women were veiled and prostitutes were not. In essence, you are dividing between women who are bought (wives) and women who are sold (slaves). Lovely.

Also, as pointed out in the linked article, many men are not responding to the segregation and enforced modesty by becoming more modest – they are simply turning towards homosexual sex. Proof if you ever needed it that trying to deny sexuality does not work, because it simply reroutes around proscriptions. Also, as a couple of my friends (one Muslim, one non-Muslim) and others have observed – and is perhaps intentional – the headscarf is a marker of a definitive sexual identity. They were both hit on by men professing to be Muslims simply because they looked the part!

The fact that the headscarf is supposed to be worn when a girl hits puberty, only emphasises further how it acts as an inadvertent sexual marker. It’s almost equivalent to putting up a sign saying ‘MY BODY IS CHANGING.’ As we all know, this is when a girl’s body begins to prepare for motherhood. Given how painful and awkward puberty is, I can’t help thinking that I for one would certainly not want something like that advertising my state.

Perhaps to avoid doing that, I have noticed that many girls begin wearing hijab at a very young age – some even as young as 8 or 9 years old. If we reconsider the crude sexuality of concealment and veiling in particular, this is problematic because you are effectively sexualising children. Given that hijab is about invisibilising sex, there are no two ways about it. You are saying that children have something desirable, which needs to be hidden away from foreign eyes. Considering the furore over Islam and paedophilia, this isn’t exactly a wise strategy…

Yet that’s just it, I believe the parents who encourage it are genuinely unaware of that side of things. Much more likely, it is the pragmatic issue of control that occupies them. No doubt, if you were to allow girls to wait until about 13 or 14, to have the choice of wearing the headscarf, many would refuse. By getting them used to it early, they not only develop a habit, but even a need. The thought of being without it is frightening. It is much like my vegetarianism, a habit which I had to be thoroughly cajoled into breaking.

I’m not judging at all here, might I say. I understand why parents feel the need. In a society where you are a minority, this kind of thing is totally normal. Also, in South Asian societies certainly (at least), frequently the family bond is revered and parents’ authority cast as unbreakable much more so than in British society. Again, there are good and bad sides to this – a bad side being that it can be that much harder to rebel because you are so tied up with your family. Guilt is overwhelming; it’s not just yourself you are hurting but them too. The individual self becomes fluid and then gets co-opted by the family or parental ‘self’.

To conclude this latest helping of unfocused blur: we should know whether the headscarf and hijab work or not. Certainly, the non-sartorial element of it needs to be emphasised, since it demands respect and consideration from men. Nowhere in the world is free of deeply patriarchal attitudes. Muslim men (and some women) use this reality, Catch-22-style, as a reason to essentially preserve the misogynist status quo – rightly drawing forth the familiar, if clumsy, cries of oppression. Hijab is important and even empowering to some – why? Does the answer of a woman who could be punished for not ‘covering up properly’ differ from someone living in the West? I am quite sure it would.

There are problems that hijab and the headscarf fail to address, as already discussed. Sexual harassment of women, abuse, domestic violence, etc. – these are things that it seeks to address, but can’t. Then there is a much older issue. Women are allowed to be bare-headed around male relatives – what about incest and sexual abuse? Also: how can you attempt to enforce hijab for Muslim women without dealing with the issue of prostitution? If men can freely buy sex with foreign women, or demand it from their wives’ employees, hypocrisy defeats the noble ideas behind hijab, showing them to be unattainable. The hateful, male-dominance-asserting attitudes that see women stoned to death for being raped and being forced to have sex with their husbands need to be challenged. Otherwise, the headscarf and hijab for women just look like more victim-blaming.

That big macho elephant in the (class)room…

Greetings, y’all. I am Keladry of Mindelan. Except that I am not really, because then I would be somehow transmitting this post to you from between the pages of a book, and as we all know, that’s the kind of shit that belongs in a horrifyingly-bad ’70s sci-fi movie.

At the moment, I’m getting some experience of teaching (not a lot, it must be said, given that my placement has doubled in length and disjuncture thanks to exams!). I’m in an east London secondary school, one which was rated by Ofsted as ‘good and improving.’ Hence, whilst it’s an, ahem, education in many ways, it’s not the suicide-inducer that screaming headlines about teenage knife crime and pupil defiance would have you believe.

However, it has been drummed into me – so hard that I am metaphorically rippling still – that secondary schools are places of unbelievable conformity. This isn’t all that surprising, given that you hit puberty and then your teens in secondary school – a time of horribly acute self-consciousness.

‘Sex changes everything.’ Amen! The struggle with yourself that puberty-and-teens brings is legendary. You don’t understand. Your parents sure as hell don’t understand it. You think your peers might, but sometimes you worry they understand it better than you. Nobody wants to be left behind, and even if they do (even if they’re not hell-bent on ‘growing up,’ as in the case of yours truly), they can’t admit it.

So… everyone copies those who seem the most confident. In socially deprived areas, this is important. It means a certain type of stereotype figure, which ought to DIE A DEATH, lives on.

I’m talking about the black macho stereotype. Think of your rappers and gangsters.

Now, it’s a pretty well-worn cliche. In America especially, the issue of the ‘gangster’ or ‘gangster rapper’ and the terrible role-model it offers to African-American kids is hardly new. Chris Rock summed it up better than anyone, I think, and the excellent HBO show The Wire demonstrated how little real choice those living in impoverished areas have, but to get sucked into the cycle of dangerous and illegal living.

We’re in Britain though, and race relations are certainly very different here. ‘Better’ or ‘worse’ aren’t terms to be applied; it’s just different.

The ‘gangster’ (aka black macho)  stereotype proliferates in a very different way here. While those most susceptible to it are often children from poorer families, middle-class kids aren’t immune either. Asian boys from middle-class backgrounds ape it wildly and buy into ‘gangster rap,’ ‘crunk’ and all the other related subgenres with great enthusiasm. The most ironic thing about that particular situation is that it often constitutes a ‘rebellion’ against parents perceived to be more conservative and authoritarian, more ‘old-fashioned.’

And yet! They ‘rebel’ by selecting as their model something which is centred on money, superficiality, isolation and misogyny. That’s ironically not a million miles way from many Indian parents, many of whom think that a job which earns good money trumps all others, aspire to own a Mercedes above all else and divide labour along VERY predictable gender lines. If you’ve seen the Bollywood film Devdas, then that IS a semi-accurate depiction of how many Indian fathers are. Even if they’re not that strict (and many aren’t), there’s still an incredible awkwardness and distance between themselves and their children. Communication is something ‘that the woman does’; most fathers seem to think that simply being at home, and driving their kids places, constitutes quality time.

The collateral damage here is pretty notable. Mothers become much more present influences in their sons’ lives, exerting the power they have been denied THROUGH their sons. The story of the mother-in-law oppressing her daughter-in-law is one of the most frequent tropes in South Asian soaps and dramas (also in films…). That would be because it is unfortunately very often true. Gautam Malkani linked this frequent ‘matriarchy’ with the aggressively macho behaviour of boys in his novel Londonstani (interview highly recommended!).

This ridiculous and exaggerated performance of masculinity conceals a powerful need for good male role models, pride in one’s ‘own’ culture and understanding of other genders. It also promotes the supremacy of the ‘crew’ over the individual (just what we need in schoolchildren! Even more motivation not to think for themselves). Ironically, given that part of this attitude also involves virulent homophobia, the ‘black macho’ stereotype allows homosociality, permitting Asian and white boys to replace the misogyny within their own cultures and societies with a stronger version which posits itself as more ‘dynamic’.

The notion of the ‘crew’ is vitally important, because it taps in to what puberty is all about: self-consciousness and the desire for approval and validation. Puberty feels to some like an ongoing popularity contest and that’s because it is. A lot of British culture venerates pairs or individuals (don’t make me give you a list… OK, OK: The Prisoner, The Avengers, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Doctor Who… even The bloody Apprentice! Let’s not even mention the ‘reality’ shows…). So, between one stereotype and another, there isn’t much scope for positive development.  Of course, as any fule kno, the ‘crew’ is likely going to be hierarchical too, with a pre-defined leader. However, teens think that by choosing the person they wish to validate them, they are empowering themselves. Er, no…

The ‘black macho’ stereotype doesn’t just affect boys though, although the effects are perhaps worse for them. It also affects girls. Just the other day, I witnessed a Bengali teenager with a giant, grease-cemented ponytail-handlebar on the side of her head, and those giant gold hoop-earrings that just looking at makes my earlobes want to drop quietly off. The near-identical white version, or ‘wigger,’ is very well-known too. However, for the most part, girls aren’t allowed to continue being ‘macho’ for very long. Society usually does what it can to wear them down, more often than not with quite a lot of success.

To conclude, let’s just return to the ‘popularity contest’ notion. We all know, whether it involves increasing detention time or keeping a person ‘in’ a programme via the sympathy vote – le grand public is not always right. Or even rational/logical. Yet if something gets their support, it lives, wretchedly on.

The black macho stereotype is just that – a stereotype. A figment of imagination. Even the people who promote it don’t really believe in it, much of the time. I remember being shocked to discover that most rappers had wives. Not just girlfriends, but wives. Also, a lot of these women weren’t necessarily what you might expect – not really like the girls in the videos at all!

For the sake of themselves as well as for black people (in Britain, and I would hope, in America too), Asian and white kids need to get a grip and stop acting this unpleasant charade. People rave about Islam being antithetical to Western values, but interestingly enough, nobody seems to think much about the likes of this. It too involves racism, sexism, homophobia, a tribal mentality – many of the things which they attribute immediately to Islam. It involves ridiculous megalomania and a persecution complex (at times), and glorifies anti-intellectualism (a trend unfortunately already embedded within British culture) and consumerism.

I mean, if you think about it, how often do you actually see black girls wearing gold door-knockers? The black community’s not going to have much luck putting this awful character to death whilst it is being enthusiastically and exaggeratedly adopted and performed by their white and Asian compatriots.

Just what we need to be imparting to the next generation at a time of global recession, climate change and cultural conflict!

How, then – how, even in the most miniscule of ways – might we even hope to begin putting a stake through that particular vampire’s heart?

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