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Sexual Diversity in Hindi Cinema: A Beginning

Aditi Aryal

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Bollywood, or as the more politically correct call it the “Hindi Film Industry”, released last week what is advocated as the first commercial film to portray love between two women characters in ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ (When I Saw a Girl I Felt That Way). A sterner breakthrough was in1996 when ‘Fire’, a path-breaking mainstream film boldly represented same-sex love between two women worn-out from their conjugal lives to find companionship in one another. Gatekeepers of Indian tradition and culture vandalized theatres and ran smear-campaigns against the film; it was way ahead of its time. The later Hindi films did little justice to aptly represent diversity by only typecasting characters to fit into the stereotypes of queer men as effeminate and reducing cross-dressers to a mere punch line.

The misrepresentations and badly written jokes were unobjectionable and continued to amuse the audience and homosexuality was typecast into a box of fallacies.  Homophobia persisted, if not strengthened, as influential politicians and famous yoga gurus condemned homosexuality as immoral and abnormal but treatable disease. Some went so far as to call it a Western import, an idea that was flowed in to corrupt the Indian purity. The retrograde legal standing on homosexuality as an unnatural activity remained a hurdle to depict properly the gravity of the issue in mainstream cinema. Yet, the fact remains that these films only reflected homophobia that truly exist in the society.

Following the decriminalization of homosexuality in India in September 2018, a six months later about woman struggling to come out to her family is exceptional. The film plays safe within the realm of a conventional narrative without going overboard. Not pushing the envelope to advocate for a radical change in thoughts and action, the film simply speaks for acceptance. But does it really get its message across?

Perhaps not. The movie’s representation of homosexuality is washed out akin to the superficial dealing of homosexuality in India. It does not even do as much as show some physical intimacy between the main leads. It revolves around the obsolete narrative of a protective family that is oppressive to protect the woman. It shows a self-sacrificing situation where she is ready to marry a man only because she needs to put her family first, even before herself.

By doing this, the film is toying into a genre of a submissive female, a storyline that has always been exploited by Indian films. The act of women as submissive to the demands of the family by suppressing their desires to save the honor which lies in their character is outdated. For a film woke enough to speak about homosexuality openly, these outdated narratives were unnecessary as they tend to reinforce the norms that need to be eradicated from Indian cinema.

It goes without saying that Indian content is consumed across a huge geographical region, covering the whole of South Asia and also across Indian communities all over the world. A form of cultural hegemony has been established as local content is dominated by Indian content, thwarting native culture in the process. For the more diverse and liberal audience that consume these films it is concerning whether such things will also be internalized in more open societies.

However, delving into a topic that is untouched but essential in today’s time, it is one baby step that will gauge the standing of the society on homosexuality. It is not to say that the issue has gained much acceptance largely. Sexual minorities in India continue to be marginalized and their struggles to fit as ordinary or to be treated equally into the society is crushing. Progressive films are one way to get on board to bring the required change.

Nevertheless, it is only with slight trepidation that filmmakers can proceed to depict ‘bold’ issues on screen. The presence of a paternalistically stringent censor board has always been a hurdle to pass. Fringe groups backed by strong political connections are almost at the ready to vandalize a film set and put a bounty on the director and actors for distorting Indian culture.

23 years after the fate of ‘Fire’, little has changed about acceptance – both in cinema and society. More progressive films in the mainstream might be a long way ahead in India, especially since the formula of success is doused in skewed gender representations. However, one can only hope for stronger scripts that stir the audience, incite dialogue, and then bring the change we have always wanted to see.

Aryal is a student of Social Science and writes about social and developmental issues pertaining to exclusion, inequalities, and gender disparities in the South Asian context.

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New Social Compact

Herat, the fire’s bride

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The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

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New Social Compact

The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage

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Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse

“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.

It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.

12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18.  According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.

Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.

My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.

This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education.  This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom.  Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work.  With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women.  A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce. 

Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women.  The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy.  Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides.  Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child.  Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education.  This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.

My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth.  Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability.  Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line.  The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards.  Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.

When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.

That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.

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New Social Compact

Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping

MD Staff

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Brazilian peacekeeper Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga serves in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Photo: MINUSCA

Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.

Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.

“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.

“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.

These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.

Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.

Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.

Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.

Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.

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