Wanderings and History

Last week, a friend from the U.K. visited me and my friends here at Bangkok. It gave me the opportunity to explore areas within and outwith Bangkok that I had not managed in the past 3 months. I made some photographs during these visits. Unfortunately, I do not have my DSLR with me, so I had to resort to the mobile phone camera, which worked surprisingly well in many cases.

Wat Pho:

It is famously called the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. More historical facts can be found here and here. [Yes, that is a Wikipedia link. I assure you, the researcher in me is rather disturbed by it, but sometimes Wikipedia is surprisingly very useful]

Wat Pho #1, Bangkok

The architecture was magnificent and intricate. What fascinated me about this temple and the surrounding monasteries were the opulence that was almost an analogy to the larger-than-life structures. As a tourist, I was struck by the simultaneity of tourist indulgence and active use of these temples as sacred spaces for Buddhists. I suppose that is representative of Bangkok itself – with a large expat community, language and food are so indigenous that it is a juxtaposition of an interesting and intriguing contradiction. There was also a part of me (that part connected to doing historical/postcolonial research) that felt as if I am intruding a sacred space of the natives by being there (I will explain this in a moment), making photographs, etc. For instance, in one of the monasteries/temples, there was an evening session of Buddhist monks chanting sacred texts in front of the Buddha’s idol. The other half of the hall was occupied by (mostly) tourists who were taking photographs of the monks chanting. It felt oddly intrusive to me.

Wat Pho #2, Bangkok

The hall with the Reclining Buddha was under renovation. But the visitors were allowed in. In addition to the magnificent statue of the Buddha, the entire hall was covered with murals that were depicting mythological stories.

Wat Pho #3 (mural), Bangkok

We then went to the historical city of Ayutthaya, which is now a Unesco World Heritage Centre. More on the city here. The best way to get to Ayutthaya is to take a train from Bangkok, which takes about 2 hours to reach. Then, there are numerous shops to hire bicycles. These shops also provide maps of the city, and then, one can go around on their own.

Here again, what struck me was the larger-than-life structures, both of the temples and the Buddha idols.


Ayutthaya ruins #1

Most of the temples dotted around the city are in complete ruins – as in, literally they are held together using scaffolding. There was something really surreal and earthy to walk through these ruins, looking at how large these temples were. One of my favourite “exercise” is to imagine people, from centuries ago when the temples were built, walking around these temples. And wondering whether they would have ever imagined how things would look like hundreds of years later. Perhaps not. But this exercise helps me experience these kinds of historical spaces as embodied ones that were part of human history, rather than disembodied, disconnected historical objects.

Ayutthaya ruins #2

Yet, amidst all these ruins were the signs of civilisation, which was very interesting to see being juxtaposed that way.

Ayutthaya ruins and a cellphone tower #3

The one thing that perhaps struck to me as the most interesting aspect of these ruins was this. Both at Wat Pho (which is in Bangkok city) and at Ayutthaya, there were series of the idols of the Buddha lined up along the inner walls of the temples. Both places have a long history. Yet, the opulence of the former and the bareness of the latter was rather striking, which I tried to capture in the following images:

The Buddhas, Wat Pho
The Buddhas, Ayutthaya

I hope to be able to return to Ayutthaya with a good camera and more photos.




Everyday feminism and its efficacy

This morning I have had a rather humbling moment.

Without going into too many details (as these details are not about my life!), I was speaking with a woman who approached me for some financial help. She described her harrowing life, of being a victim of domestic (physical and emotional) abuse from both her spouse and siblings. She belong to what are generally seen as lower economic class and lower in the caste hierarchy.

I am a scholar of Gender Studies within postcolonial context, and see myself as a feminist. Feminism has a problematic connotation in postcolonial contexts- I am not the first to propose this. Many scholars, specifically within Subaltern Studies, have pointed to this [See Mohanty’s fabulous and well known essay] . Also, that caste/class hierarchies cuts across patriarchy in the Indian context is something that many scholars have pointed to [see this and this]. Thus patriarchy is not homogenous, nor are feminist movements including ‘everyday feminism’. Hence, what I am primarily interested in finding is different ways of understanding alternative ways of acting agency for which positionality and intersectionality are key. I see ‘everyday feminism’ as a way of doing this: by this I refer to a broad understanding of feminism as (amongst others, I hasten to add) ways of subverting patriarchy. These can be small instances that generally are ignored as insignificant by the mainstream feminist movements. These are crucial in understanding how patriarchy works in varied contexts including the one I have described above.

My humbling moment came from the fact that much as I see myself as a feminist and much as I (and others) would like to talk, write and publish about women’s empowerment, there are instances and contexts such as the one described above where what we do seem to be ineffective. Do I dare to use to term ‘failure’? I do not say that feminism (everyday or not) cannot help women in the context described above. As I have said before, I strongly argue for understanding agency in alternative ways thereby broadening our understanding of feminism by taking contexts as a factor. My question then is: why do measures to subvert patriarchy, reduce violence against women, subvert patriarchy does not work effectively in certain contexts? I do not believe in any kind of feminist movement that is theorised and published but does not actually provide solution for everyday sexism.

I believe that both in academic and other contexts, we ignore those aspects of patriarchy that cannot be quantified. For instance, that patriarchy affects women in certain contexts (economic class and caste) disproportionately is widely acknowledged because we understand, in quantified terms, what class and caste structures are. Moving beyond that, there are several aspects of social structures that cannot be quantified. Take the example of the woman I was speaking with: she explained to me that what is preventing (or impeding?) her from taking any sort of legal action, approaching any organisation that might help or even just walking out of the situation (she has a job and therefore, seemingly economically independent to be able to do that) is the question of ‘bringing disrepute to the family’. In other words, she is concerned that her neighbours and others within the context she is living would not that think of her and her family as ‘respectable’. This social stigma, although might seem/sound Victorian, is an existential concern because… and this brings me to the next point… of the question of marriageability of her daughter. Most aspects of life (social and personal) are still governed by the marriage economy. A huge concern for parents in India, where arranged marriages are very common, is how the society (broadly) evaluates the women in the family and the family itself in relation to the marriage economy. (There is a reason why TV adverts regularly sell gold, real estate, skin-lightening cosmetic products, and dating/matrimony websites). With more women joining the workforce and apparently, becoming economically independent, this particular aspect is now becoming subtler and embedded in everyday practices. This concern dictates almost every action and measure. And this concern disproportionately affects women in certain economic class/caste contexts. This concern and that it dictates every aspect of one’s life (especially that of women) cannot be quantified and gets overlooked by feminist projects. Of course, feminist organisations in India are doing some excellent work catering to women in various contexts. But the fundamental problem remains: that these concerns exist and we must not overlook them.

Everyday feminism provides us a way of understanding subtler ways of subverting patriarchy. But it is crucial for us to observe both quantifiable and ‘unquantifiable’ factors that enables patriarchy to function in the first place.

Reblogged: Male violence against women is at epidemic levels – what to do?

With the update on Karen Buckley, one wants to ask, ‘why, oh why did this happen to her?’ And it also reminds us that anyone of us could be Karen Buckley. When one hears the news of a missing woman and almost ‘automatically’ assumes the worst, there is something completely messed up about the society.

In this context, this is an excellent blog post from Michael Marten channelising the anger we all feel reading about Karen Buckley and many more women. It is empowering, calling for us and men, in particular, to stand up against violence against women and stand up for what is a basic right- for women to be treated as human beings in this world.

Meanwhile, rest in peace, Karen Buckley.

In The Public Sphere

Trigger warning – this post discusses statistics and incidents of men’s violence against women.

This morning I read the tragic news that the body of Karen Buckley, a Glasgow student, has been found (as it happens, not far from where I live – I’ll be going past the spot on my way to Glasgow this evening).

Karen Buckley - click the image to read the STV story Karen Buckley – click the image to read the STV story

I cannot even begin to imagine how awful this must be for her parents (who I gather came here from Ireland once they heard their daughter was missing), and her wider family and friends.  Ms Buckley is another young woman who was simply enjoying herself at a nightclub before she went missing, who will now never again have the chance to smile at someone taking her photo by a loch, as she does in the photo here.

Her murder is not a solitary…

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India’s Women

I had put off writing a blog post about the horrific Delhi rape and death of Jyoti Singh, the protests in India aftermath, the trial of the accused, now convicted and on the death row, and the media coverage of all these developments. We were all shocked and emotional right after the incident. I remember having a mixed feeling of fear, uneasiness, sorrow and anger. This is not about me, it is about every woman in India. The fear and uneasiness came from the realisation that how each of us could’ve been Jyoti Singh; how each of us, when taking the public transport, have been sexually assaulted, harassed by men and yet how each of us had to make that journey again the next day putting the previous day’s incidents in the back of the mind. The sorrow and anger came from the realisation that all we could do was to feel horrible for a woman who, for no fault of hers, was attacked and put through unimaginable pain.

The incident is in the news again, with Leslee Udwin’s BBC documentary India’s Daughter to be aired on 8 March 2015 at 10 pm on BBC4. What began as a documentary on the ‘rape crisis’ in India focussing specifically on the Delhi incident, goes on to portray the psyche of gender inequality and gender violence. The Indian Government has banned the film from being screened in India, whilst TV stations have been banned from televising the interview of one the convicted rapists now in Tihar jail. The government’s rationale that this documentary ‘defames’ India on the world’s stage has been criticised by many in India and abroad. And the politicians also indulged in their favourite pastime of finding a somewhat irrelevant aspect of the issue to focus on hoping that the main issue would dissipate from the public sphere: in this case, wondering if Udwin had obtained legal consent to the interview the rapist even though she has documentation to prove that she wrote to the Home Ministry, and the rapists’ defense lawyers have also participated in the interviews! Censoring dissent or ideas/expressions that subvert (what are seen as) the norms, specifically pertaining to misogyny and heteronormativity, is not new in India (and I’ll hasten to add, in other countries too!). Famously in the 1990s, the film Fire was banned because it portrayed a lesbian relationship.

I must admit that when I read about the documentary, I was rather uneasy not because of the reasons given by the Indian Government but because I wondered why and how the family would have wanted to relive the horrific incident.  As it became clear that the family had consented to the film being made, my uneasiness diminished. I would like to clarify that I do want the film to be shown not only in the UK but also in India to remind us that rape and sexual assault must not be seen as a norm in any society and that the movement that began after the incident must not dissipate. That, I strongly believe, is the only way gender inequality and gender violence can be overcome. In fact, when this issue, of banning the documentary, was debated in the Indian Parliament, a Rajya Sabha minister (upper house) argued that “it is good that the documentary has been made because it will make several men realise that they think like rapists”. Although capital punishment was given to all the convicted rapists and during the legislative measure following this incident, many  insisted on the law stipulating capital punishment for rapes, this is not necessarily the best solution because as research has proved time and again, capital punishment does not serve as a deterrent for any crime. Having said this, Udwin has said that the judge, who heard the case, admitted that this was an exceptional circumstance and hence the punishment.

On the coverage of the controversy surrounding the screening of this documentary, Udwin (for many justifiable reasons) said how she found the attitudes of several men rather shocking and ‘brutal’. She argued that she wanted to understand ‘why do men rape?’ My skepticism with the documentary lies primarily in the way media has dealt and is dealing with the issue of rape/gender violence, in general and the Delhi incident, specifically. The question we must then ask is, what is the purpose of this documentary? In other words, what has the film maker, Leslee Udwin, attempted to do in this documentary? If the primary purpose of this documentary is to ‘keep the conversation going’, then yes, it is much needed in an environment where protests and grassroots movements need such impetus.

The sensationalism that has been created by publicising the interview of one of the rapists and how he blames the victims seems rather counterproductive. As Nilanjana S Roy rightly argues, whilst Udwin was right to interview the rapist, creating a ‘buzz’ for the film through this interview is in many ways giving a voice to the perpetrator. That he has no value for another human being, specifically woman, does not need to be proven. Additionally, the fact that Udwin claims that ‘things have gotten worse’ seems to only prove the point that a ‘shock factor’ is at play here. Women raised in India and familiar with this context would agree that since the Delhi incident more cases of rapes have been reported in the Indian media; how does Udwin claim that things have gotten worse? Or has she only now become aware of how widespread the problem is? Also, to call the movement after the incident an ‘Arab Spring’ is problematic. The use of the term ‘Arab Spring’ in the media for any grassroots movements is rather ubiquitous and unhelpful. If it is used as a buzz word to make a comparison to a sensational movement (actually ‘Arab Spring’ is not a monolithic movement nor is the term ‘Arab’ – but I digress), then it proves my argument above – the film-makers are using sensationalist terms to draw attention to the documentary.

One might say that I am focussing on semantics and that the core issue, gender violence, is being completely ignored. In this context, however, semantics is very important because then the issue transforms from a gender inequality problem to an Indian problem. We are thus no way closer to solving this, rather we are attempting to frame this as a ‘natural’, ‘psyche’ of the Indian society. In other words, we are taking an Orientalist approach to gender violence, which Rana Kabbani, in her fabulous text, has discussed in detail. Radhika Santhanam shares some of my critiques here.

What might be a responsible way for the media to address this problem?

The theory of Mediatisation (media shaping and framing the issues) is closely related to two other mass communication theories – Agenda Setting & Framing. The crux of the theories is that media has the ability – through its coverage, placing and framing of issues – to shape the viewers’ perception. Numerous studies have used these theories in various fields specifically in Political Communication and Journalism.Take the example of the UK’s No More Page 3 campaign or the campaign against so-called ‘lads mags.’ The fundamental argument of these campaigns is that by portraying women in a particular way, in this case unwarranted nudity, an association is made with sexual violence against women. Coming back to the specific issue of ‘rape crisis’ in India, an opinion article in The Hindu wrote about ‘normalising’ incidents of rapes by incessant reporting by the news media: the writer argued for a responsible coverage of the issue, instead of reporting incidents of rapes like that of daily weather.  This idea, that the media can influence public opinion, also makes a case for a responsible media. What might seem idealistic is in fact very important and practical here.

What do I mean here by responsible media coverage? If we are speaking of incidents of rapes and violence against women, we must also talk about the daily sexual assaults and harassment women face in India. I have argued on this blog and on twitter that within the context of India violence against women focuses mostly on rapes but does not give nearly the same attention to the daily sexual harassment and assaults women experience in the public sphere. Media institutions must come out against violence against women, yes – but not only as a matter of political correctness, they must avoid misogynist heteronormative coverage of news involving women in general. That is – a news organisation cannot condemn rapes on the front page and carry sexist articles about women in the entertainment section. This is far too common in many Indian news publications. It is hypocritical and counterproductive. It is important for the media to remember that gender violence exists across the world; the ratios are different but the issue still remains, something this article by Suzanne Moore has shown well. Of course, this does not say that I am using the ubiquity of gender violence as a counter-argument or even a defense for what happens in India. On the contrary, I am arguing that whilst it seems easier for the Western media to claim a moral high ground on how women are treated in the West, a favourite argument used whilst Othering Middle Eastern countries and ‘third world’ countries generally, it is important to remember that violence against women exists in every society. Using the argument of ‘it’s much worse over there’ is hardly an answer or a solution.

Grassroots movements are one important aspect to ending gender violence and gender inequality. And those who are familiar with the political system in India would know that it is utterly naive to expect politicians and the government to be the agents of change. If that were true, then every country in the West with a law to end violence against women should have achieved gender equality – and we all know that that is not true. Change must then come collectively from various sections of the society. Media, as one of the key players in a society, must aide these grassroots movements… responsibly!

Thanks to Dr Michael Marten for comments on the draft version of this blog post.

Fragile and Tangled Paths…

I lived in Aberdeen for 4 years and moved to Stirling in 2013. For very many reasons (mostly personal, of course, that I do not wish to explore here) it was a ‘big move’. I have lived abroad for a few years having to move between countries. But this was a significant one. Soon after, as I was walking around the loch at the rather beautiful Stirling University campus I made this image.

Path to... where? (2013)
Path to… where? (2013)

It was made on a Samsung mobile phone. There is nothing technically exceptional about it; but to me the way the path curved into oblivion (at least from where I was standing) and the shadows of the trees were interesting and ‘spoke to me’, as it were. Since then, I have found paths intriguing. To me (and am sure to many others), it works as a fabulous metaphor.

A rosy sky afar (2015)
A rosy sky afar (2015)

I recently began reading Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories called Fragile Things. I like Gaiman’s work–the way he creates alternative understandings of reality and how he questions the imaginary and the reality in very unique ways; they blend and yet they contrast. However, what fascinated me the most was the Introduction chapter of this book. At one point, he says: “The peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are… Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill” (Gaiman, 2006: xxx).

Paths that we take, the choice we make (or sometimes forced to make- then it is not a choice, is it?) are inherently fragile and here I am not referring to the ‘path not taken’. We do not always know where we will end up but also because there is a need for certain trust or openness with which we choose that path. We, to some extent, need to ‘let go’ of ourselves in order for us to work through the path. Yet, we are all, after all, embodied beings. How much of what do we ‘let go’ then? Does that render us fragile? This made me wonder, how do we understand fragility?

Unclear path (2015)
Unclear path (2015)

Is it vulnerability? Is it loneliness?

Of life and the other… (2015)

Does the ability to transform one’s form render them fragile?

Seasons and the changes... (2015)
Seasons and the changes… (2015)

Or is it the perceived lack of clarity that makes things appear a tangled ‘mess’?

I see you (2015)
I see you (2015)

Can this ‘messiness’ be seen as an invite for further exploration?

Can you see me? (2015)
Can you see me? (2015)

Would that transform the way fragility of things are understood? So… what is fragility?