From Sania Mirza to Sunny Leone - the sexism continues

By Tanvi Dubey|31st Dec 2016
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The issues that generated debate, discourse, and activism in 2016.

We have all grown up hearing what girls can’t do, shouldn’t do, and mustn't do.

In the midst of the cacophony of the year 2016, women have kept the noise out and followed their hearts. Many have broken the silence, chased their dreams, shattered glass ceilings and gotten beyond obstacles and mindsets that held them back.

However, things have not changed as much as we would have liked them to change.

Through the decades, we have fought for our rights -- to vote, for equality, for respect, for safety -- and unfortunately, even in the 21st century, much of the discourse continues to be the same!

‘The times, they are a changin’ is an anthem we all seem to be singing in the context of women's issues, but how much has really changed?

A few months ago, Twinkle Khanna was persistently asked the same question on Twitter. A certain gentleman wanted to know why she had not changed her surname after her marriage. Twinkle aptly replied-

We keep coming back to the same issues, witnessing attempts to keep women where they belong - on the second rung, and not on par with men.

Let’s look at the year that went by, what the issues were that impacted and affected women, and how we, both individually and as a society, addressed these issues.

Triple talaq 

In India, Muslim women can be divorced if their husbands utter the word 'talaq' three times. This issue came into the limelight again this year when the current government spoke about the need for a uniform civil code so that practices such as this could be abolished.

We reached out to Prof. Zakia Soman, a social activist and founder of the Mumbai-based Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), to understand how the issue is being tackled. Zakia shared that they held the first national public hearing on triple talaq in December 2012, and thereafter, have been campaigning against it.

A report released by the BMMA chronicling nearly 100 cases of triple talaq shows that 59 percent of women reported having been unilaterally divorced just because their husbands uttered the word ‘talaq’ thrice, and 92 percent of women have called for its abolition.

According to Zakia,

“All Indian women want triple talaq to go, and not just Muslim women. The press has been supportive, with in-depth coverage of the issue, individual stories of women etc. The personal law board is the most patriarchal body, which is threatened that its dominance would end. They are instrumental in denying women their Quranic rights in the matter of talaq. They are just another NGO, and they don’t speak for us. The government affidavit is appropriate, and we have welcomed it. Muslim women want this change urgently.”

In 2017, Zakia is confident that the SC will give them justice. However, one of the primary concerns is that the issue should not become a political one. “We want all parties to not do politics over the condition of the most vulnerable section, which is Muslim women. Instead, they should facilitate this fight for gender justice. The elected representatives are bound by their constitutional obligation towards gender justice to support and enable Muslim women’s struggle for justice,” Zakia says.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, if favourable towards the abolition of triple talaq, will be a landmark moment in the gender parity discourse of this nation.

Sex trafficking

The estimated size of the trafficking industry, as reported in a study by Global March Against Child Labour, varies from Rs 1.2 trillion to Rs 20 trillion.

There have been major reports in the media about how demonetisation has impacted the industry. Leena Kejriwal, installation artist and photographer, whose nationwide public art campaign, M.I.S.S.I.N.G, has helped raise awareness about the tens of thousands of girls who go missing in India, says, “Apparently, demonetisation has completely crippled it, but how long before black money or bitcoins find their way around? This is a criminal industry, so they are anyways not looking at legal money!”

According to Leena, trafficking is one of the most horrific crimes against human beings - worse than drug trafficking because it is an out and out violation of the human body.

Though there are multiple activists that have been working to make this issue mainstream, and though it has received media attention, the momentum thus far has not been sufficient.

Leena says, “I think the issue has still not got its due in public attention. It is a very deep and heart-wrenching criminal activity, but because it is not hurting the moneyed and the powerful population, it is something that is still on the sidelines. The laws are still weak, the traffickers are still loose, and they have turned billionaires as well."

Apart from the number of missing girls and the lack of severe crackdowns and punishments, allowing sex trafficking to continue to thrive, other issues, such as rehabilitation of those rescued or escaped, have to be addressed as well. A major part of the battle is addressing the social stigma that these people have to face.

Robin Chaurasiya, the Founder of Kranti, a not-for-profit school in Mumbai for girls from the city’s red light areas, in an earlier interview had shared,

"Every city has an underbelly. But here, in Mumbai, I’m always shocked at who ends up understanding us. Even at Andheri, it wasn’t the poor people who threw us out, but the rich and educated ones who had an image to maintain."

How does one address these issues collectively? Individuals like Robin and Leena are pitching their bit, but more needs to be done.

More and more conversations need to happen around this issue. "Like-minded people must join hands and be vocal about it," says Leena.

Women's entry into places of worship

Even in religious places, women have been kept on a lower a rung vis-a-vis men. In the house of God too, there has been no equality. For centuries, traditions have continued unchanged, and women have been kept out of the inner sanctums of religious places. This year, women decided to take charge and barge into places of worship to demand equality.

Women gained entry into the inner sanctum of Hajji Ali Dargah. A 1,000-year-old mosque in Thazhathangady (Kottayam) in Kerala too opened its doors to women.

In the wake of the Bombay High Court’s ruling that women cannot be stopped from entering religious places, the Mahalaxmi temple in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district allowed women to enter its inner sanctum. Similarly, the Trimbakeshwar Devasthan Trust, too, decided to allow women into the famous Lord Shiva temple’s ‘garbha griha’ (sanctum sanctorum) for an hour every day, but with a rider that they must wear wet cotton or silk clothes while offering prayers in the core area.

The fight to enter Sabrimala, the famous hill shrine in Kerala, is still on.

Women’s entry into places of worship and the end of centuries-old traditions has been one of the big wins this year for women across India. Zakia Soman says, “It is historic. We are very happy that the High Court heard our plea. It will open doors for all Indian women to demand equality in places of religious worship.”

Burkini or bikini - it's about the right to choose 

Burkini or bikini, hijab or no-hijab, mini-skirt or sari, what women wear should be nobody’s business but their own. However, it looks like, apart from women, everyone has an opinion on the topic. The French government banned the burkini, while the hijab is mandatory in the Middle East.

Iranian women are required by law to cover their hair completely with the hijab or the Islamic headscarf. Olympian Heena Sidhu refused to participate at a sporting championship in Iran because it was mandatory for all the women to wear the hijab.

Recently, on a visit to Saudi Arabia, Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s Defence Minister, refused to wear the hijab.

This year, in a surprising move, Iranian men stood up in solidarity with women by posting pictures of themselves wearing hijabs online.

The debate continues. Women covering up or not covering up should not be the decision of any state, government, or organisation. However, bearing the complete brunt of it are women across the world. This tweet by the handle La sauvage jaune sums up the situation:

Since there are no rules about how men dress and behave, why should such rules apply to women? How long will we have to have this discussion about women and their clothing?

Menstruation needs censorship, but cleavage show is fine

Menstruation-themed photo series by an artist to demystify the taboos surrounding periods were met with censorship. Instagram pulled down the pictures, as the public reaction against it was vehement.

While news of rape, molestation and acid attacks don’t raise eyebrows, the sight of blood from a monthly cycle that women all across the world undergo drew a negative response. Why are we not ready to acknowledge that menstruation is a part and parcel of a woman’s lives? It is a monthly cycle often accompanied with pain and discomfort.

(Graphics by Aditya Ranade)
(Graphics by Aditya Ranade)

Moreover, with the taboos that still surround menstruation – from being barred from kitchens and temples to not being allowed to touch things such as pickle - women still face the stigma. From a chemist in a cosmopolitan city like Bengaluru to one in a small tier II city like Vellore, the reaction to sanitary napkins is the same - it needs to be wrapped in a black bag and then handed to the customer. The stigma is so prevalent that a recent experiment showed that people were comfortable with men answering nature’s call at a bus stop, but uncomfortable with a woman standing at the same bus stop holding a pack of sanitary napkins in a transparent poly bag instead of the customary black one.

Aditi Gupta, the Co-founder of Menstrupedia, which is a healthy guide to periods that shatters the myth around menstrual hygiene through blogs and comics, says, “Open defecation is not a taboo, but periods are, and hence, people don't get offended by men peeing in public. How many times have you seen a sanitary pad with blood in public or at home, just lying around? Or people saying periods out loud? It's ironic, but that's how it is.”

There is a lot happening in this space, and Aditi sums it up for us, saying, “Right now, the activism seems to be a mixed bag or reactions- against sanitary companies, sustainable periods propagators who are against the usage of pad. The period positive movement is still restricted to the privileged and is not inclusive of the people with special needs. Also, the menstrual needs of people across the spectrum of gender are not addressed in India.”

It is a grave issue that needs a lot of attention, but for years, we have been comfortable about making it insignificant, and continue to do so. Conversations around it are changing, but Aditi believes that it will be decades before things actually start changing, and that collective effort from all stakeholders is essential.

Though there are multiple organisations and individuals who are working on this issue, the game changer will be individual action. Aditi says,

I believe working on the individual level works the best. Every women breaks the taboo at least for herself.

From Sania to Sunny- the sexism continues

Be it a seasoned journalist or a not-so-seasoned one, both asked questions that stank of sexism and were called out by the women in question. Sania’s response when asked about settling down was a bomber. Sunny, in the face of sexist questions that were thrown her way on a news channel chat show, kept her poise and cool, and tackled questions in a manner that won our hearts.

The barrage of questions never seems to stop, and this year, too, was no different for women.

The sexism continues across social media, TV, news, films, at workplaces and in our homes. It is a challenge that every woman faces every day and battles to the best of her ability.

Sportswomen shining in the face of the worst odds

The movie Dangal is a prime example of some of the challenges that sportswomen face in India – from having to break stereotypes to lacking funds and resources, and a general lack of appreciation.

The naysayers, the continued sexism, and the double standards within the world of sports hasn’t managed to keep sportswomen down, however. A prime example was the performance and achievements of women this year at the Rio Olympics.

While sportswomen have spoken on and off about the lack of training and infrastructure, and the continued sexism, the need of the hour is collective action. We all need to collectively speak up, including the men.

In an interview with YourStory last year, Shiba Maggon, who has been playing basketball for nearly 20 years, had said, “If women in sports get more exposure, they will do better than the boys.” 

The performance of the women at Rio was a case in point.

Violence against women and cyber bullying

In the context of India, we see rape, sexual harassment, and child molestation cases across both rural and urban areas. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 36,735 rape cases were reported in 2014; the conviction rate was 28.0 percent. For the 3,37,922 crimes against women reported in 2014, the conviction rate was 22.3 percent.

Women safety continues to be a cause for concern, and victim-blaming and low conviction rates only add to the pain. There is a lot of focus on safety, from government and women-centred organisations to individuals, startups and apps that are working toward women safety. So, why are things not improving?

The only way things are going to change in this regard is if there is a fundamental shift in our thinking. Especially in how our society perceives women. Women have to be looked upon as individuals who are in control of their own lives and bodies.

We have to teach our sons not to rape, and teach them that when a woman says no, she means it.

While social media has provided women the power to speak their minds and express their views, it has also become a means of bullying and harassing women online. From trolls to bullies, all have found new ways of harassing women online. Shobha De, Barkha Dutt, Twinkle Khanna, and many more women have tackled these trolls and bullies online. Twinkle Khanna’s retort this week was classic:

While we have succeeded in reaching some small milestones, the big victories are still far away. The discourse has not shifted from the times of our mothers and grandmothers, which reiterates the fact that patriarchy is strong and deep-rooted. Women have to crawl through the muck to fight for themselves, to drown the continuous cacophony of voices that keep telling them that they are weak, downtrodden, dependent, and belong in the kitchen. They have to take control of their own lives; like Sania and Sunny, they have to tackle the sexism, and call it out.