ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 2

If there’s a theme that could sum up my experiences of day 2 of #recon2019, it’s that of personal stories, which end up making political statements. Not that day 1 didn’t have this, but what stood out most for me were the stories that people kindly shared, on stage, in conversation with a group or personally. Here’s some of:

1. BDSM and power dynamics: at a fundamental level, I have been able to understand the role of power in BDSM to be able to explain why it’s not (only/always) an exploitative type of sexual behaviour. In trainings that TARSHI conducts, we emphasize how BDSM often is far more mindful of consent than other socially legitimised relationships. Tshegofatso Senne from South Africa highlighted the levels of information and self-awareness that BDSM entails. Parties involved get into it fully knowing the risks of behaviour they’re about to engage in. What was mind-blowing was the dynamics between a dom and a sub that the speaker explained. One would assume that the dom is in power, but in reality is the sub – because the sub gives instructions, sets the tone for what can happen and when it should stop. Whoa!

2. Age of working and sex work: Jules Kim from Scarlet Alliance, Australia, raised the question of why, if sex work is work, the age of when a young person can legally start working is different from the age they can get into sex work. Clearly shows morality creeping into anything to do with sex and bodies – as if other forms of labour aren’t exploitative! If anything, sex workers around the world have been able to build powerful unions to make sure clients who don’t follow rules are pushed straight out. I know for a fact that most “white collar” jobs don’t give us such opportunities to out an abusive co-worker (ref: #metoo!) Jules Kim also shared the repercussions of this idea: organisations don’t get funding if they work with underage sex workers, so these young people slip between the cracks.

3. Science knows who is a woman: a powerful personal learning over the last few years has been to question the efficacy of science in explaining gender or sexuality, and learning to build the language to counter such claims at professional and personal spaces. This came back to me in the second plenary of the morning, where athletes, and sports and gender rights activists and professionals discussed how being “too fast” has brought them under intense, violating scrutiny. Katrina Karkazis is a cultural anthropologist who’s written an “unauthorised biography” of testosterone, and shared how when “testing” whether female athletes are “women enough”, we are under the assumption that a higher level of testosterone translates directly into better performance. Human bodies don’t work that way!

Seeing videos of Caster Semanya and Dutee Chand and hearing Pinki Pramanik live formed the most humbling, powerful and hard hitting moments of the day for me. I was awed by their grit and passion, outraged at the levels of despair they were pushed into (and having to justify their gender over and over) and above all, deeply touched by just how much they simply wanted to run. Repeatedly, the idea coming up in their words was that they hoped they aren’t barred from running due to this. Katrina Karkazis talked of a regulation (upcoming? Proposed? Wasn’t sure) that sought to conduct a “health exam” on every female athlete where the clitoris will be examined as it’s an indicator of how much testosterone the body can process. How can men be allowed to run with any level of testosterone and why do we believe that testosterone is a uniquely “male hormone”? Will men be tested for levels of “female hormones” in their body to decide whether they will be competing “wrongly” with other men in a race they will surely lose because of high levels of the wrong hormone? *smh*

4. Pushing for inclusion in spaces that are keeping you out: The facilitator of the curated session on disability (I missed their name) wrapped up the session (where participants, many of them people with disabilities) discussed personal experiences and how their countries approached disability. Janet Price asked why, world over, women’s movements weren’t inclusive (enough) of disability, and participants again shared their difficulties in accessing some of these women’s movements spaces. The facilitator ended by encouraging disability rights activists to go there and be part of these movements even if they weren’t invited. I hope I understood the line and context right, but this left me wondering whose “responsibility” inclusion is. Can one movement know enough about including the other without ever interacting with each other? In addition to the many fights that especially non male disability rights activists have to do to be heard within disability rights movements, should we expect them to also take up educating others? This feeds into a larger, fundamental question I have about whether as an activist, I have the responsibility to educate more people, or I can take a step back to safeguard my mental health when it makes sense to do so.

5. Tradition is for everybody? Kawira Mwiricha (who’s made the sexting sticker app I mentioned yesterday) also has a wonderful installation of kangas, traditional wear of the Swahili people, which has bright and colourful designs with a line on them. Kawira explained the this is likely the only type of clothing in the world the has to have words on it, an idea that appeals to me immensely. The installation has 21 kangas, each representing a “different type of relationship” (non heteronormative) from a different country. The words on each kanga are different, as is the design, closely connected to lgbtqia+ movements in the country. I was stunned at the amount of research that has gone into each kanga as Kawira explained how designs represent organisations, movements and motifs related to the country. As a bonus, Kawira also showed a video of how the kangas are used in a ritual to take a bride from her maternal home to the church to get married, and told us that this is one of the most legitimised use of kangas that is unfortunately not sanctioned for women who are queer. Kawira’s 21 kangas subvert the use of these cloths in a marriage setup.

I don’t want to miss out on the sex workers’ opera, which had sex workers performing song and dance and talking about their right to consent, busting ideas about sex workers always being forced into the occupation and of them as those who break marriages! The performance was powerful, fun and most importantly, was about sex workers telling their own stories.

Heading into day 3 with the hope of catching up on the installations that I’ve missed out so far. There’s been a lot to process from the last two days, but writing this has helped!

ReConference 2019: Thoughts from Day 1

I’m at ReConference in Kathmandu. #recon2019 is organised by CREA and has pulled in over 500 people from 50 odd countries, and I’m here on behalf of the organisation I work with. #recon2019 aims to rethink, reimagine and reshape conversations around feminism, sexuality, disability, abortion and other related topics.

Day 1 was super stimulating, balancing a nice mix of the serious, the thought provoking and the fun! Here’s a bit of what stayed with me after day 1.

The serious:

1. The rise of anti gender movements globally, including the North: Sonia Correa have examples of how anti gender movements cleverly bring together the religious and the secular, are transnational (taking the movements across to other countries) and are willing to be open enough to accommodate anything that they feel is “threatening”, ranging from same sex marriage (“it disrupts family”) to sexuality education to anti abortion laws to insisting on the binary of sex or gender. While the ideas the movements were about weren’t new to me, it was chilling to see the blurring of national boundaries and the banding together of communities that would normally not see eye to eye (the religious fundamentals and the secularists, for example). As people working on sexuality or activism, the environment only gets tougher and tougher. The internet, a godsend for us, is also used so effectively by those on the “other side”.

2. Feminism, law and criminalization: so much of feminist movements over the decades of 20th century were about adding crimes against women into the law and appeals to ensure that perpetrators are put behind bars. But this panel, consisting of people from Mexico, the USA, South Africa and India, got me thinking about laws and women. Estefania Vela from Mexico was wonderful to listen to, so articulate and engaging! Vela talked about how the number of “crimes” getting added into law was ever increasing, with new categories coming up, like “obstetric violence” or “reproductive trafficking”, with the idea that no protection is possible for women without criminalization. But the issue – and this was echoed by other panelists – is that legal systems are seldom effective in following through. So we’re not really “changing” the society through these laws, and in fact women face the brunt of these, either because men are thrown in jail and their families suffer because of the lack of effective social safety nets, or because the legal system is biased against people of certain recess and communities, and most shockingly, women themselves get convicted – an example from another panelist was of drug using women who get pregnant being thrown in jail.

Panelists talked about alternatives to carceral justice and how feminists are now reevaluating their work to get these laws in place, and that was a very thought provoking moment: it’s important for us to be able to look back at our work, recognise its failings, but also get the right to be able to say “we didn’t know better then!” without being fired upon for that. I also wonder: laws are “easy” language, to some extent. Even with complicated topics like consent, laws give as framework off which we start conversations. It’s an effective tool to rule by fear, for honestly, while I know fear based messaging isn’t going to take us anywhere, what language can make people sit up and listen? All the while, the way these laws have turned against the women they were supposed to protect also confuses me. Vela repeated how the idea that laws are the “in the meantime” solution while we work on structural change in society, but that approach conveniently leaves aside the work on reducing poverty, bringing in public education and public healthcare, etc., which will go farther in “protecting” women. I have no clear ideas about this, but this session really got me thinking!

The fun things:

1. Coffee stains tell my future: I hate coffee but willingly gulped half a cup of bitter coffee in a session on reading coffee cups to start discussions around sexuality. The facilitator was from Armenia, and told us how she adapted the local tradition to get women talking about issues they could never broach openly. Sitting in groups, I was surprised how all of us – complete strangers – shared personal issues, family discussions, self doubts and violence. What a lovely way to turn around a ritual!

2. “Video me?” There’s a sticker for that! Kawira Mwiricha from Kenya has developed a support fun sticker pack which can be used for sexting. The faces used are gender and race ambiguous, and go “explicit”. Kawira hopes these stickers can help the partners start conversations on consent, discuss what they like, what they’re worried about, etc. This was fascinating! Oftentimes we struggle with language to express sexual desires, especially those that are seem as shameful or “extreme”. I was floored by how much the focus was on pleasure, and even more when the last sticker she showed was “let’s cuddle” 🙂 🙂 it’s called Backsies, in case you want to check it out.

3. New media to counter misogynist news: Brenda Wambui, also from Kenya, talked about the importance of new media in providing alternatives to mainstream news which in Kenya (and in SO many parts of the world) is misogynistic. Brenda runs a podcast called “Otherwise?” where 80+% of the guests are women. Later during tea, I asked Brenda what it was like to run a podcast as a woman in a society she described as not friendly to women in media (so women with opinions?) Brenda said she gets trolled every so often. While I haven’t (luckily) been trolled, as the editor of a nearly 10 year old online literary magazine, I face scathing comments on and off from angry contributors. They often resort to our (the two member editorial team) gender, calling us bored housewives, referring to us as young or immature women, etc. – funnily enough, these are often older people who write about the wisdom life has given them. What is it about women taking stances – much more open in Brenda’s case, and about editorial decisions and requesting people to revise their contributions, in my case – that ticks people off? I can vouch for the professionalism in my email exchanges with the writers, even as they descend into angry, rude and personal remarks.

The day ended with the fabulous Four Queens from Mexico with an outrageously funny and bold, cackling, high energy performance of “cabaret”, based on a Mexican popular music format. They performed songs on family’s loving gifts of household appliances to a researcher every time she scaled greater heights in academia; on cunnilingus; and even an adaptation of Despacito that had nearly all audience members up and dancing! All the time, the background had kitschy videos setting the context of the songs and with subtitles, since the songs were in Spanish.

What does day 2 promise? It hasn’t been easy writing this entire post on phone, but I hope to be able to write again while I’m in #recon2019

‘Ink Pen’ Tales

This morning, VK gifted me a Hero pen out of the blue. He’d found it in CP yesterday, he said. It is brown, with a golden cap, and has ridges along the line where the ink barrel meets the grip. I was excited because I can’t remember the last time I saw this kind of a Hero pen – and yes, I have another kind.

My silver-coloured Hero pen is known to those who’ve known me well over the last two decades. I got the pen in 2000, and then it was a silver-grey ‘special’ Hero pen, with thin, Chinese designs in red and black paint. My father, a pen fanatic, got it for me. That year, if I remember correctly, most of my cousins in school were gifted this pen by my father, but I wonder if the pen meant anything to them as close to what it means to me.

The pen went with me through my biggest stages in life. I got through class 10 with flying colours. I struggled through class 11 and sputtered through class 12. As the board exam neared, my parents took me to a mass prayer session organised by the Kanchi math, in Vani Mahal in Chennai. I got a black, fat fountain pen that was ‘blessed’ by the seers. I used that pen for two of my exams, sticking to my beloved Hero pen for the rest. When the results came, I’d scored well in three exams, and less so in two – and you guessed it, those two were the ones I’d written using the ‘blessed’ pen.

That’s it. The role of the Hero pen in my life was cemented.

Hero went with me to my university entrance exams, after writing which I was so confident about making it that I bungled up the Indian engineering entrance exams. And get through to that university I did, and the pen went with me to Singapore.

As I navigated a new country, being alone for the first time and figuring out making friends with people who were different from me, the pen gave me solace. I used it for long letters to parents; journal entries that dripped with confusion and confidence, and even lecture notes, much to the amusement of some Singaporean classmates who used gel pens in a variety of colours to take their notes. Once, I left the pen in a friend’s room and realised it much later in the night, and spent an anxious night before I woke up and texted her to know that it was there, alright.

The pen journeyed with me through graduation, my initial years of working, and my Master’s. VK came into the picture, and was introduced to it too. Along the way, friends got to know about the pen and my attachment to it, and a friend from school could even tell that I’d written my card wishing her on her wedding using this pen!

I’ve spent many harrowed days believing I’ve lost the pen, only to see it turn up later (I almost feel like I’m jinxing it by saying this). Most recently, it went missing in my new house, and this time I resigned myself to my fate, saying I was pushing my luck too far. It was gone for nearly two weeks. And one day I moved a mattress and ta-da! There it was, my faithful friend.

So this morning I excitedly filled the new Hero pen with ink. With a lot of anticipation, I pulled out my journal to write my first few words with it. And…it was rough. And it smudged. The scratchy feel of this pen was starkly different from the way my silver Hero pen glides on paper. VK wondered if the pen was original at all. I said that fountain pens need to be broken into; I distinctly remember that the silver pen took some time to turn soft.

We then talked about our lives with fountain pens growing up, until gel pens and ballpoint pens took over. As children switching from pencils to pens, we were not allowed to use ballpoint pens, and so I remember that blue ink on our selves was a standard feature of most of us class 4 kids. We remembered blue-stained white shirts and skirts, blue streaks on our nails, and the ‘ink cloth’ that faithfully rested within our pencil cases to be called to duty in a moment’s notice to deal with an ink-based emergency. Those pens would need to be filled with ink; only fancy kids got pens which had suction-based ink holders or cartridges. Ink fillers were a necessity for the rest of us.

Fountain pens no longer feature in the lives of school-going kids, I’m sure. They hardly feature in the lives of most adults too, unless it’s a Montblanc or a Waterman. Yet, there’s something pleasing about using a fountain pen when you want to write in a journal or take notes in a meeting. There’s something meditative about filling ink – I’ve never been one for cartridges – and wiping out any leaks and testing the pen after the process. A friend recently told me how joyous it was to put together an ink pen in a quaint shop in Bombay – for all of forty rupees – and how she writes her journal entries using it now, and how happy it makes her.

A recurring theme in my recent writing has been about slowing down or being mindful of what I pack into my day. A fountain pen could be a part of the process, don’t you think? By harking back to an old concept, from a time where things were not as frantic, and a past that’s mine but also shared with generations before mine?

Sowkiyama?

A theme I come back to over and over in songs that I like is how easily they flit from one emotion to another. If you go back years on my social media feeds, you will see me praising one song or the other for this feature. Ruth aa gayi re. Rasathi unna kanaadha nenju.

Today, it’s Sowkiyama, from Sangamam. Obviously, I’ve heard this song hundreds of times, but somehow, this aspect of the song came to me one day when I was in a cab, waiting at the Chirag Dilli signal, anxiously clutching a bunch of test reports and wondering what my doctor’s appointment would yield. I was a nervous wreck – I was alone, and felt truly alone – and I was miserable, having had to miss a vacation that I was really looking forward to.

And into this melange of moods burst into song a bunch of girls accompanied by an enthusiastic veena.

Sowkiyama, kanne, sowkiyama?

Sadly, thinking or writing about this song evokes unnecessary imagery – of the punishment that it was to watch Vindhya play a Bharatanatyam dancer. I refuse to believe that there wasn’t another qualified woman they could cast.

Moving on.

I distinctly remember – sitting in that cab, Nithyashri’s words sent a surge of exhilaration through my body. I started observing every line, eager for the mind to stop thinking about doctors and hospitals. And nearly one year down the line, I’ve managed to write about it!

Barely two minutes into the song, I already have much to swoon over: the ghatam that comes in unexpectedly to take over from the mridangam for just a while. The control over her voice that Nithyashri has. It bends to her will. It brings to my mind a rivulet that’s playful, going steady for the most part but suddenly, just as you’d got used to its path, makes an unanticipated turn through a crevice in a rock – a navigation that you could expect from someone of her calibre, but is astonishing nevertheless.

I’m also stunned by the way the tune changes shape to accommodate the feeling in the lyrics, somewhat like a happy boggart, in this case.

… ena vizhigalil nadanamittai
pinbu idhayathil irangivittai
mella mella en uyirai parithukondai…

Only a few of Rahman’s songs stand out for me for the way the lyrics and tune glide hand in hand, like they do in this song.

The three sangathis of ‘Sooriyan vandhu vaa enumbodhu’ each convey a bloody different emotion:
– I have a simple question
– Do you still not know?
– It’s pointless – what can the pani thuli do, after all?

The next few lines are a mix of Nithyashri’s exceptional talent and the tune, and the master’s craft. As she goes from one line to another, she goes from expressing desire (kodi kaiyil ennai kollai idu) to a gentle warning (andha modhiram oddiyanamai aagum munname anbe azhaithen) to an outright cry of anguish (en kaatril swasam illai!)

If you had to visualise the way the tune jumps from the first ‘en kaatril’ to the next to the last, it’s like Nithyashri is guiding her voice along a veetu vaasapadi. A set of three steps flanking the porch. And it’s all wrapped up with a playful ‘adhu kidakattum vidu unakenna aachu?’ Don’t you worry, lover, I’m doing ok!

There’s more. The ethereal ‘pinbu idhayathil irangivittai’, sung so breezily that you can imagine someone stepping softly into another’s cloud-like, fluffy heart.

Not one to let up, Nithyashri gives us a parting gift with many moods of Sowkiyama towards the end – NINE, to be exact. Some of which are lucky enough to have chords lending gravity to their emotion.

I try to imagine the number of things that have come together to create this blessing of a song. I wonder about the people who lent their talent here – the kids, the divine saxophone player we’re all thankful for, the percussionists, the veenai player who makes you sit up and say towards the end ‘Did you hear that? Did you? Was it just me?!’, and so on. And at the risk of deifying, I try to map what might have been going on in the mind of the person who brought all this together. That’s a futile task – all I can do is thank him.