Posted on 27-01-2013
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

“Did a nude male model pose for students in your art class?” Piyul Mukherjee, my friend and reader enquired. I had to admit in the negative. My mind’s eye went back to model Satish who’d stand on a pedestal wearing a pair of thin, loose shorts. Our Kolkata art college professor used to admonish him to adjust them properly so we could see nothing more. But women models were unclothed. I was explaining to Piyul that as an artist drawing a nude woman with all her curves and beauty was more interesting; men’s straight lines were no challenge. “That’s a male outlook. If women get a chance to draw a nude male, they may find different lines from a woman’s perspective.” Her observation was surely profound. This too is a man driven decision that art schools draw female bodies. It’s never occurred to us to question why the male sex organ is a no-no. Male chauvinistic attitude in the art world tormented the incredibly great sculptress Camille Claudel I wrote about (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/asserting-creativity-breaking-barriers/1039138/0). She ended up in a mental asylum till her death in 1943.

Curiously though, Michaelangelo’s fantastic 5.17 metre (17 ft) David, the archetype of all sculpture, has been openly baring male genitalia since the 15th century in Florence, Italy. But ironically just next door, the Vatican is prudish. Various Catholic Church Popes across 450 years have battled against the Phallic symbol. Slowly but surely they’ve removed the genitals from valuable ancient Vatican statues in the name of preserving male modesty. Marble, plaster and metal fig leaves started appearing to cover up hacked body parts. In the 19th century, male statues not yet severed were destroyed because they “constituted grave threat to the faithful.” Today, every male statue you’ll see in this 2000-year-old Papacy is castrated.

It’s interesting to reflect on men’s mania over female erotica, very rarely have they painted nude men. Edouard Manet’s famed 1863 painting Luncheon on the Grass has 2 well-dressed men sitting in front of a nude woman. In 19th century French artist Gustave Courbet’s painting, The Painter’s Studio (1855), you’ll find a nude woman posing as a model among many fully clothed people. He later painted Origin of the World (1866), an on-the-face close-up of female genitals. Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany bought the painting in 1910, Soviet troops in World War II stole it, he ransomed it back and when emigrating to Paris he was allowed only one artwork, he took this. It sold for 1.5 million francs in 1955. When the new owner died in 1981, this painting was transferred to Musée d’Orsay gallery in lieu of his unpaid family taxes. It’s quite telling that we don’t see such captivated interest in paintings of male genitals.

Hidden in the male painter’s obsession to draw nude women could be to expose women’s mystic sensitivity juxtaposed against men’s harsh character. Paintings from master artists have discovered the beauty of women on canvas. But men’s bigoted character didn’t allow them to pose nude for women artists to paint their feelings about nude men. Perhaps society’s missed men’s hidden beauty painted by women. Piyul’s remark was so interesting it’s inspired me to eulogize the female form in art.

It’s true that from different societal angles, women have always been at the mercy of men. Let’s come to India where I’ve often heard loose talk about rape being somehow the woman’s fault. If a woman is seen at night, legitimately being dropped by a colleague, then walking to join her husband in another car, her character is immediately construed to be hanky-panky. Casting aspersions like this spreads like wildfire, prejudices people, and easily commoditizes women’s dignity. The 24% increase in Delhi rape cases in 2012 is alarming. What’s worse, in 96% rape cases, relatives and acquaintances were involved. Psychologists have commented that some men find it easy to satisfy their basic needs of food, thirst and sex within the home; if women get better opportunities it makes them insecure, and hurt male egos leads to violence against women.

“She should know how to conduct herself; she should know how to dress,” are standard biased remarks even if the victim is a child or sari wearing housewife. Puritan women support this unjust mentality too that women should follow certain social rules for her own safety because she’s ultimately responsible for anything wrong happening to her. Take these words I’d expressed in my last week’s column, "Disrespect to women got ingrained in the Indian male psyche when Draupadi’s eldest husband gambled her away like an object in a dice game he lost.” A male reader wrote saying he “highly disagreed” with me, and that society remembers Lord Krishna saving her and deploring the act by celebrating Rakhi, the brother-sister relationship between Krishna and Draupadi. However, in spite of the exploitation and disregard for womanhood by the Pandava brothers who gambled away their common wife, why do we continue to revere them in the mythological Mahabharata?

Even in a small sociological study I recently did, the primary expectation of 30-40-year-old men from the wife is: “Be respectful of my parents’ culture and values, even if they’re sometimes wrong or you don’t agree. Manage good relationships with relatives. Yes, pursue a career, but family comes first.” His personal requirement is her being beautiful, sensible, not self-centered, caring about his feelings, being loyal, transparent, truthful, and childish to enjoy life’s every facet. From childhood, compared to her brother, a girl is generally conditioned to accept her secondary “temporary guest” position in her father’s home, so falling in line to her husband’s demands may not be considered so difficult.

India’s National Crime Record Bureau reported 2,28,650 crime incidents against women in 2011. Due to social stigma of being taunted, ostracized or looked down upon by family and friends, many more are not reported. Comments that make women vulnerable endanger their safety. Men should encourage the idea of “Respect and Save Women,” not degrade a woman, even if she’s a sex worker.

To download above article in PDF The male gaze on women

Financial Express link:http://www.financialexpress.com/news/the-male-gaze-on-women/1065302/0

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Posted on 20-01-2013
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Men’s barbaric ways are tormenting women in India. Story after brutal story of abuses against women is being reported. But on the globe’s other side, girls are posting their readiness to sell their virginity in a website that’s just auctioned off two virgins. Advances in medical technology has put so many human parts up for sale, like kidneys, eyes, heart, sperms, eggs, wombs for research, to save lives or help homosexual couples father a child. And yet, the auction of a hymen seems to supersede all sales! In my current gender equilibrium series, should I consider this feat as women’s liberty? Nobody forced the brave girl to sell her virginity, she proved that certain men fantasize on women’s virginity and consciously extracted that worth from the marketplace.

Listening as I often do to international media, it intrigued me the other day when the famous French radio station Europe One aired a very bubbly French accented “Vihrgeens Onthed” (Virgins Wanted in English) annals program. Twenty-year-old Brazilian Catarina Migliorini’s virginity was put on auction in an Australian website together with boy virgin, Alexander Stepanov. The bid started with $1 within Brazil, then spread worldwide. On 24 October 2012, both were sold: Catarina fetched a whopping $780,000 with 15 bids. Her third highest bidder was an Indian Rudra Chatterjee, the runner-up American Jack Miller while Natsu, a Japanese won his prize “flying in a private jet between Australia and the US in order to counteract international prostitution laws.” Meanwhile Alexander the man got 8 bids and sold for $2,800 only. Look at the premium female virginity commands even in today’s promiscuous society! Education and charity are on Catarina’s to-do list from this one-time bonanza she got.

Patriarchal societies where women are considered subservient to men are fixated on virginity. Deflowering a virgin supposedly gives men a sense of dominance and possession, a heady feeling of masculinity in drawing blood. It makes them winners, feudal owners of the conquest. In that act, women become losers, even though she’s just ruptured a body membrane. Some private clinics in Dubai are abetting unmarried girls to restore virginity by illegally performing hymen restoration or reconstruction surgeries. Banned for girls in most Arab countries where they’re expected to be virgins before marriage for cultural, social or religious reasons, such a surgery is supposedly a crime. But it’s not so if married women undergo this 90-minute surgery costing about Dh 10,000 ($2,700).

Is virginity a possession more valuable than other inevitable body functions like shedding milk teeth, losing hair or eyesight weakening with time? Female virginity remains a discussion topic and secret desire of men in developed countries too, although here it’s not associated with morality and honour issues. In 1981 when Lady Diana was engaged to marry Britain’s Prince Charles, as per a set of unwritten conventions governing royal life, British Royalty and its advisers expected her to be a virgin to ensure purity of the bloodline. That prompted Lord Fermoy, her late uncle, to publicly announce she was a "bonafide" virgin. Under society’s double standards, no one expected Charles to be a virgin. This reflects society’s acceptance of so-called superiority of males and of royalty. Perhaps the new generation is changing the masculine character of overpowering women. Their son Prince William has broken tradition. He’s lived with his commoner girlfriend on-and-off for 8 years before marrying her.

High value was placed on virginity in Western mythology. Ancient Rome’s Goddess Vesta (Hestia to Greeks) had 9 virgin priestesses serving her. Vestal virgin Rhea Silvia, raped by the God Mars, gave birth to Romulus and Remus, twin founders of Rome. The city’s fate was linked to virginity. If any of the virgins broke virginity vows, wars or natural disasters would befall Rome. So transgressors were punishable by death, the last recorded one was buried alive in 150 AD. Virgin Greek goddesses Hestia, Artemis, and Athena were symbols of female power and independence, quite unlike the connotation for virginity today. Among Greek gods, virginity was a renewable quality. Goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, renewed her virgin status every year by bathing in a special stream.

So was Queen Draupadi, wife of the 5 Pandava brothers, granted a boon from Lord Shiva to be born a virgin every year. She’s considered an eternal Kanya (virgin) in Hindu epic Mahabharata although she birthed a son each for her 5 husbands. Revered for her intellect and steely substance, she lived not only in polyandry, but managed polygamous relationships as all her husbands had other wives: Yudhisthira was married to Devika, Bhima to Hidimba, Arjun to several princesses and Subhadra, Nakul to Karenumati, and Sahadev to Vijaya. Disrespect to women got ingrained in the Indian male psyche when Draupadi’s eldest husband gambled her away like an object in a dice game he lost. His opponent publicly disrobed a defenceless Draupadi but Lord Krishna’s divine intervention made her sari endless, thus saving her modesty. It’s obvious that women have been fighting for self-respect from times immemorial.

Obsession with virginity is just another blown-out-of-proportion factor that demeans women. Our age-old culture has conditioned young girls to prize their virgin status without realizing they are buttressing male egos by doing so. The family should empower girls in the same way they do boys. Neighbours should become sensitive to a woman’s suppression next door and help her to fight it. Office colleagues should maintain decorum instead of taking gender-based advantage. TV and radio can encourage open sessions with men and women on family, education, sexual matters and how to work together at home and outside. The more these points are openly debated, the situation will improve for half the human population that’s long been denied justice. Let’s work towards equal treatment and equal opportunity for both genders.

To download above article in PDF Does virginity have value?

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/does-virginity-have-value-/1061899/0

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Posted on 13-01-2013
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Under a thorny bougainvillea creeper, you can enjoy fragile bougainvillea flowers as they softly fall on you. In exactly the same way, Bollywood films mostly perpetuate and reinforce patriarchal mindsets when they use women as colorful flowers following society’s barbed bidding.

Bollywood discriminates against women: Up to the 20th century, Bollywood generally held up traditional values of demure, sari-clad or rural women for the nation to emulate; the Western dressed were shown as immoral or vamps. Catering to NRIs in the 21st century, women are in designer clothing flaunting affluence. Did Bollywood contribute any learning to society on modernity, culture, education, social values, innovation, art? You will always find fantasy and subtle violence, the macho hero eve-teasing women who run around trees, now thin pillars at discotheques, smiling and saying, “Nahi, nahi!” This conveys that women want to be puppets. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt frankly disclosed recently, “There’s no denying that filmmakers have portrayed women as objects, … as mute animals being led by the chain by the men folk,” adding that this has to be corrected.

Bollywood mirrors the way families prioritize boys. I’m not questioning the creative liberty of the director or actor, just showcasing the mediocrity of creative ideation in films with the only ambition of making box office hits within a few weeks. Aside from encashing money from the lower income masses who have no other means of entertainment, films with skewed gender balance teaches them nothing about respecting women as individuals. Funnily enough, without playing any role to advance society, old Bollywoodians become politicians. Does it prove politicians with popularity are scarce in India?

Racism with fairness cream: Among the many discriminatory angles that promote bias against women is the Rs 2000 crore market for fairness creams. India being a vast, deep, heterogeneous country in terms of its geography, culture, language, religion, food habits, economic disparities, it’s obvious there will be differences among people. Already the caste system unfairly assigns us permanent stations in life at birth. The female foetus is under threat of being aborted if her gender is known in advance. New born girls are disappointedly rejected, dumped in orphanages mostly by poor parents who cannot afford dowry. This gender bias leads to an overwhelming majority of children given up for adoption to be girls. Now modern technology has created another stigma, a racial beauty cream to make dark skinned faces fair. How come we degrade women by accepting a face bleaching marketing product to determine beauty or desirability? Most matrimonial advertisements peddle the girl’s skin colour along with caste and education.

Biased gender balance in education: This brings me to a 2010 Indian Express report that exposes how frightened society gets if girls perform better in education as they did in Karnataka’s pre-university level. Institutions like MES College and National College set higher cut-off percentages for admitting girls ostensibly to “equalize classroom numbers.” The Science course had cut-off marks of 594 for boys and 599 for girls; while in Commerce cut-off was 553 for boys and 580 for girls. St. Joseph’s College of Commerce had said it gave admission preference to boys.

My grandmother’s partiality to me as a boy: If I look at my own upbringing, even under the conditions of poverty in our refugee colony, I was the darling in my joint family. When my girl cousins were born much later, they were not as indulged as I was. Unlike me, they were taught household chores, and my grandmother didn’t especially hide mangoes to give them when they returned from school. Even today in almost all homes in India, boys are given preference. Both boys and girls unsurprisingly imbibe that preference as the natural state of affairs. It’s Indian mothers who equally and willy-nilly contribute to enabling this discrimination that they themselves have grown up with. The Indian census has proved that more families continue to favour boys than they did in yesteryears. The 0-6 years sex ratio of girls to 1000 boys was 962 in 1981 which declined to 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001 and 914 in 2011 census. There’s sharper decline in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Clearly female infanticide is widespread. As sex-determination tests are illegal, doctors secretly providing this service are becoming richer.

US is also patriarchal: In general, more boys than girls are born in USA, by a ratio of 1.05 to 1. A University of Maine survey (1988) found adults aged 18 to 66 generally preferred a son as an only child. The Psychological Reports journal study confirmed the bias toward male first-born children. The latest research in genetics and reproductive technology has proved 80% success in a technique called sperm sorting which identifies semen samples rich in X (female) and Y (male) chromosomes. The preferred sample is then artificially inseminated into the woman. Preimplantation genetic diagnosis is another sex selection approach first reported in UK (1990). Now developed at Cornell University Medical Center, New York, it involves removing one of eight cells from three-day-old pre-embryos, analyzing DNA for sex before implanting the embryos in a woman’s uterus. Dr. Jamie Grifo, director at Cornell said, “This is a very intensive, expensive procedure for couples who have a high risk of passing inherited diseases” like hemophilia and Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy. He added, “We will not do this for sex selection.” But as abortion is legal, patients are questioning why termination of life is allowed, but choice of gender is not allowed.

Gender balance to start from villages: Insensitivity towards girls starts not only at home where boys are pampered. At government run schools in most Indian villages there are no toilets, so girls are forced to quit studies once they reach puberty. From there the prejudice continues at every step. Apart from load handling, I’ve seen that women are more meticulous, productive and maintain their working time better than men. In our country, empowerment of women through equal opportunity in education, work and in social status needs to be urgently made possible.

To download above article in PDF Family favours the boy

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/family-favours-the-boy/1058555/0

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Posted on 06-01-2013
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

A whirlpool slurring reputations is where women can commonly get thrown into. When former French Health Minister Simone Veil and her sister managed to survive Hitler’s Nazi death camp after World War II, anti-Semitic Frenchmen made disparaging, gender-denigrating. Judgmental remarks like, “How they came back? It proves that it was not that bad.” Is it fair to victimize women victims with excoriating mental torture over and over?

On Indian TV one day a woman was protesting to local politicians about her neighbor being raped. When they went to the police station, instead of taking the complaint, the policeman demanded the raped woman’s character certificate from the Municipality Commissioner before filing the case. Similarly in Kolkata, a woman politician said the 38-year-old mother of 2 gang-raped last February by fellow Park Street night-clubbers was “a misunderstanding between a lady and her client, not at all a rape case,” inferring some hanky panky. Even after the Assistant Police Commissioner’s probe proved the case to definitely be gang-rape, the victim continues to await justice. Society so despises her that she can’t get an apartment to rent. Recently a Member of Parliament belittled the women protesting the 23-year-old’s fatal gang-rape in Delhi as “highly dented-painted women giving interviews on TV.” I’m not commenting on individual views, but representatives elected by the masses have to speak responsibly. Every citizen should demand destruction of this immoral attitude.

Anywhere in the world, a rape is a disgraceful criminal act, irrespective of whether the woman is a wife, sex worker or daughter of the man. Yes, several such perversions of fathers raping daughters have come to light in India and other countries. Actually rape is just one crime against women. The several other outrageous discriminations in India are killing the girl child either before or after birth, giving dowry, dowry deaths, forced marriage, honor killing, purdah, sati, widow seclusion, molestation and caste-related bigotry opposing women’s lawful rights. Not even a sex worker can be raped as she represents the dignity of women in society.

Very often people debate chauvinistically that women invite rape by titillating men with revealing dresses. In the 21st century’s internet and free economic digital world such insensitive comments have no place. According to the occasion, women, and not a third party, should exercise their own discretion to dress appropriately as per their choice. When people try to commoditize crimes on women by blaming women, simultaneously defending men’s natural sexual urges, they reveal prejudices and utter disrespect for half the world’s population. Women are not the prey for men’s sexual enjoyment.

Many Indian enterprises dealing with Western firms have a gender balance initiative within their captive environment. Unfortunately our cultural milieu reduces this exercise to naught. If a married woman works late or attends an official dinner with clients, she’s questioned at home. The same family “understands” even appreciates the husband’s late return home, attributing it to his importance at work. Nobody even wonders if his delay was due to traffic jams or courting his paramour. Indian women in general sacrifice for their family. Yet I’ve often heard a husband openly praise his mother’s cooking when comparing a dish his wife made. A daughter-in-law wearing pants is frowned upon, while the married daughter is allowed any kind of dress when she visits her parents’ home. “Her place” in society smacks of cultural injustice that curbs women’s freedom.

How can we find a remedy for horrible rape, the barbaric act of men? I’d say grass-roots level social learning is the major requirement, with innovative sex education for children. Without imposing this on society, I’m personally against capital punishment as I believe it’s not humane. I’d prefer change in the rapist’s attitude rather than death. Long-term imprisonment with psychological torture treatment for rape offenders will symbolically showcase to others the penalty that awaits such crimes. The Indian Constitution guarantees the right of freedom to citizens, but society denies that to women. So the first thing to eradicate is culture and caste-inflicted unfairness to women in a patriarchal society. It is in everybody’s hands, particularly the men, to prohibit and abolish, without political influence, the sexism we practice against women. We have to stop the root cause, which is giving preference to men at home. Taking out processions against criminal offences like gang-rape or candlelight mourning creates awareness, but will it make any dent in society in the long term?

Strong, disruptive, symbolic and sustaining activities with execution excellence are required to enforce laws or change the minds of men. Continuous, hard hitting acts can alter men’s consciousness. For example, writer-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir mocked society, went against Napoleon codes and 2000 years of rigid Vatican laws when she wrote “Manifesto of 343 Sluts” and got 343 famous Frenchwomen to sign it. This led to their Parliament legalizing abortion. It also stoked the embers of feminism. Western women, triggered by the 1968 French students’ movement, made their protest unforgettable by burning bras for women’s freedom. Sustaining momentum is required to break male domination over women. No woman activist or any political stand can achieve gender equilibrium. Only men’s whole hearted initiative to respect and save women can correct this major social flaw. Of course the State must protect its citizens by strictly implementing laws that exist, an action that’s weak and ineffective today.

To download above article in PDF Respect and save women

Financial Express link:http://www.financialexpress.com/news/respect-and-save-women/1055095/0

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