Finding the words…but softly

Painting of Draupadi vastraharan by Arun Prem (Source: https://bodhikshetra.wordpress.com/)draupadi2.jpg

You’re holding court

I know how you do it

I’ve seen you do it

I’ve HELPED you do it

You pick up the skin of the abused

That you tore off piece by piece

and stitched so that it fit just right

You wear the skin of the abused

To hide your own skin

The skin of the abuser

“She left me,” you say

Eyes fill with crocodile tears

“Come to my home. 

Eat my food.

Watch me light my lamp.

Listen, rapt, as I tell you

The tale of her descent into madness.

Pity me.”

“After all I did for her.

She left me

There was another man, you know

Otherwise she would have been with me

forever.”

Draupadi promised me

That my skin will burn on you.

But I will be dancing, somewhere far away

While you go up in flames.

It is inevitable that an abuser will accuse his victim of betrayal when she finally finds the courage to leave. The story of his own betrayal of her trust is not required by society, which is programmed to judge women on the basis of their compliance with social rules, and to shame them when they resist. If you are commiserating with an abuser, know that you are part of the problem.

Or give me death: The tyranny of happiness

On Deepavali this year Jeremy casually slipped me a gift-wrapped book when he arrived at my party. This was two months ago, and at that time I made the usual noises of gratitude and you-shouldn’t-have that one does in such interactions. The following morning I opened it and Instagrammed it. As one does.

IMG_3886

But it was only this evening that I humbled myself, made myself vulnerable, and gave it the respect of reading it. It has been the most difficult year of my life, and mounting depression has led to thoughts of suicide. There are days when all I can do is sit and stare out the window. (And those are the good days.) Or scroll mindlessly through my Facebook feed, looking at all the exhortations to be grateful, to make yourself happy, to view your obstacles as stepping stones to happiness. I have tried them all. I do have a lot to be grateful for. I have written the list. It hasn’t helped. Because it was not a lack of gratitude that broke me. So how can a surfeit of it fix me? Same thing with all the how-to-be-happy directives.

So you can perhaps understand with what cynicism I approached the book that Jeremy had given me – “On Happiness”. It wasn’t that I expected the book to be about how to be happy, or what happiness was. Which philosopher, playwright, poet, performer worth their salt would waste their time over such a trite premise? No, my cynicism was because so many works like this end with the nihilistic idea that there is no such thing. And I figured that it would probably deepen my depression but what the heck. Might as well go for broke.

The book has at its core a play entitled “Boxes” by Kenny Png and an essay by Jeremy Fernando that deals with the theme of happiness foregrounded by the play. As Jeremy explains, the problem isn’t happiness per se but the totalitarian nature of any prescription for the pursuit of happiness. The first thing Jeremy does is to question the conflation of happiness and freedom. There is, he says, a perverse freedom in the lack of responsibility of each individual subject in a totalitarian state, since all responsibility belongs to  the state. The self is free from blame from anything external to the state. Conversely there is an ironic lack of freedom in a democracy because each subject is responsible for any decision (however bad) made by the leaders they elected. Jeremy notes that according to Zizek, happiness lies in the gap between the ability to choose, and the actual consequences of real choice. The idea, therefore, is that happiness exists as possibility. Neither can we make ourselves happy nor is happiness to be found in others, but in the space of possibility between the self and the other. Perhaps this is why love is most keenly felt in yearning. Not in possessing.Perhaps also this is why the idea of freedom inspires while its reality (in whatever halfway form) is terrifying.

Peter Van De Kamp’s afterword adds a valuable distinction between the Aristotelian notion of contentment that is often mistaken as his definition of happiness, and the actual definition of happiness. The former (contentment) requires self-control. The latter (happiness) implies being favoured by fate. So it is a matter of chance. Thus any attempt to buy happiness, to make oneself happy through buying ideas or books or things, is mere superstition. The things themselves are no better than talismans. We were not born to be happy.

This book is more reassuring to me than anything I have read so far on how to BE happy. It isn’t that we can never be happy, or that there is no such thing. But that that isn’t the point of being alive. If happiness is always only a possibility, then really it is our UNhappiness that makes us human. So all this time I’ve been basically acting out a scenario of “give me happiness or give me death”. Asking it of some nameless higher power I’ve never admitted to believing in and never really felt a connection to. Now I wonder if it is the tyrannical nature of happiness – and its many advocates – that presents death as the only alternative.

The importance of being angry

Patriarchal dreams don’t die an easy death. They don’t go quietly into that good night. They have to be stomped out ruthlessly. And you have to be prepared to burn with anger.

Patriarchal dreams are dangerous. They are within us. Infused into us from the day we were born, through our childhood and into adulthood through the entrapment of community closeness. Be a good wife, we are told. Perform sacrifice and submission, we are shown. Illusions of agency are woven. The woman who is allowed to speak selectively never sees how she is silenced. Tell her she is oppressed and she will curl her lip in contempt, throwing the weight of her corralled and focused intelligence against you. She will be the strongest defender of her own oppression, reframing it as feminine power.

Patriarchal dreams are powerful. They are the reason you have no financial independence, no space for self-actualization, no air of your own to breathe. Asking for any of this means you are selfish. Expecting it makes you itchy and uncomfortable.

Patriarchal dreams do not sit well under skin that longs to be free. Be angry. Stomp hard on that which you think has made you YOU. Don’t worry. It is not you that you are killing. Be ruthless. Your patriarchal dreams do not define you. They are not you. They do not belong to you. Be angry. That is the most important thing. Be angry. Only then can you be free. Being oppressed leaves you with no emotional energy. I understand this. Anger is the only way. Pure, irrational, frightening, destructive, self-immolating anger.

Quotidian

quotidianI cut my toenails today

Bought the clippers and hacked off

A month’s worth of growth

Do you think the body waits 

For you to want to live again?

The dirt of a hundred miles

Gathered as I stumbled in the dark to find freedom

Fell away with each snip.

A month ago

Started the morning cooking my meals for the day

Counted out the blue pills and wondered if they would be enough

Had a shower. Went through the motions. Got ready to go to work. 

Skipped the moisturiser. What did it matter? 

Wherever I was going

My skin wouldn’t need protection

Started writing goodbye notes

Apologies

Not good enough

Not strong enough

But this was a month ago

Always the quotidian asserts itself.

I cut my toenails today.

And one day I will be free. 

Why leotards in gymnastics may be a more complicated issue than you think

farah_ann_abdul_hadi_balance_beam_artistic_gymnastics_sea_games_singapore_20150607_620_417_100Okay okay I apologise for the campy title of this post. But in a way, it’s not that far from what the post is about. Leotards in gymnastics ARE complicated. And most people aren’t really aware of some of the ways in which it IS a problematic issue. I’m writing this post because as a feminist, it’s interesting for me the way the debate over the Malaysian gymnast’s leotard at the 2015 SEA Games has taken shape. Just as a recap, Malaysian national gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was criticised by some of her compatriots when photographs of her competing at the games appeared online. The negative comments concerned the way in which the leotard she was wearing outlines the shape of her genitalia. Apparently, according to Islam, this is not allowed. In the latest update, the president of the Malaysian Gymnastics Federation has said that they are planning to propose to the International Gymnastics Federation that Muslim gymnasts be allowed to wear “ethical attire” during tournaments. Here is a list of links where you can read more about the issue:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/rafidah-to-farah-anns-critics-were-you-watching-gymnastics-or-the-gymnast [also the source of the photo above]

http://news.asiaone.com/news/sports/farah-ann-wore-right-attire-and-did-nation-proud

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/gymnastics-body-to-propose-ethical-attire-for-muslims

Quite a few of the responses that I have read online (unfortunately not public posts, but personal status updates on Facebook. And even if some tweets are public, I’d rather not highlight specific people on my blog without getting their prior approval) espouse a liberal stand that derides the religious fundamentalism at the root of the criticism. While asserting that such a stand is definitely one that resonates with me, I’d like to supplement that with another perspective to this debate that I think we need to consider when demanding that everyone should be more accepting of “global standards” of attire in sports. And I make this argument not in spite of being a feminist, but because of it.

I think that this furore opens the way to thinking about other forms of oppression that the leotard signifies. It is not only religion that seeks to control women’s bodies. How DID the leotard become the “global standard”? There’s a larger context in which the leotard has a regulatory signification. In a paper entitled “Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversions of US women’s gymnastics”, Ann Chisholm (2002:415) [1] argues that the gymnasts

“maintain a precarious balance not only between the superhuman and the merely human but also between the superhuman and the infrahuman (freakish). In turn, they represent ideal citizenship and extraordinary femininity, and they enact the promise of modern individualised heroism and empowered femininity,  while embodying the risk of the uncivilised other (of difference) in our midst.”

The body of the female gymnast thus carries many meanings, and based on this sort an analysis, we can assume that the way in which it is dressed is far from an incidental issue, or even one that is merely about what is convenient/efficient/attractive. Taking this further into the area of how women’s bodies are disciplined in gymnastics, Natalie Barker-Ruchti and Richard Tinning (2010:246) [2] suggest that

“the degree of discipline and submissiveness required by gymnasts is key in preventing these athletes from reflecting upon themselves as individuals, their conduct, as well as their sport, and thus using their experiences as a space to invent themselves. While the gymnasts’ physical strength and kinesthetic prowess challenged traditional ideas of womanhood, they did not consciously question traditional gender stereotypes or their sport. Rather, the challenging of traditional gender ideals was a side-effect, one that the gymnasts were subtly taught to hide through regulations such as clothing prescriptions for competitions and prescribed aesthetic sequences in their routines. The clothing partially hid the gymnasts’ muscular torsos and arms and emphasized their feminine body-line.”

How empowering IS the leotard then, for women gymnasts? And what are the implications for women in sports of this being the “global standard” of attire? Before even suggesting a way of answering those questions, we need to delve even further into what the leotard signifies about how femininity is constructed in gymnastics. Barker-Ruchti (2009:45) [3] describes how

“Until the late 1960s, women’s artistic gymnastics consisted of mature women performing gentle ballet-type exercises that were emotionally expressive and graceful. During the 1970s, however, the gymnasts’ performances and bodies changed dramatically. Young and sexually undeveloped gymnasts began to execute acrobatic- and risk-driven routines that consisted of complex air-bound combinations of gymnastics elements. The trend to acrobatics emerged in the former Soviet Union. Within this specific political context, a highly competitive, ambitious and ingenious sporting atmosphere fostered the development of the acrobatic trend in the Eastern Bloc countries and later in the West.”

This analysis leads me to think that the leotard in its current form is not just about sexualization of women in sports. In a much more complex way, it is also, simultaneously, about the infantilisation of women in gymnastics. To my mind, that is not much better than the way in which religion objectifies women and portrays them as nothing more than shameful walking vaginas.

In short, the “global standard” that we see as unproblematic is just as creepy as the awful comments young Farah received.

Endnotes

[1] Chisholm, A. (2002). Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversity of US women’s gymnastics. Signs, 415-450.

[2] Barker-Ruchti, N., & Tinning, R. (2010). Foucault in leotards: Corporeal discipline in women’s artistic gymnastics. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27(3), 229-250.

[3] Barker-Ruchti, N. (2009). Ballerinas and pixies: A genealogy of the changing female gymnastics body. The International Journal of the History of Sport,26(1), 45-62.

Interactivity and the appreciation/appropriation of artistic endeavour

I derive a certain pleasure from viewing lists of photographs such as this, where people pose with statues in creative ways. This photo – from the link – is my favourite, because the caption reads “All the single statues”, indicating that the people in the photo have posed in such a way that they bring out the resemblance between the statue’s posture and Beyoncé’s iconic choreography for her music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)“. And I think Beyoncé is Queen of the World.

all the single ladies statuesingle ladies

The phenomenon of posing with statues makes me think that interactivity is not just a technological feature but a mode of engagement and a cultural logic. When art loses its culture of reverence it can be engaged with in new ways that may or may not lead to new cultural forms. Most of these photos are from reddit/imgur, so while I can’t say that no one ever interacted with a statue in this way before the emergence of this aspect of digital culture, I think that the logic of performing, photographing and sharing has shaped how we interact with art. The impression of movement the statues convey also reach out and prompt playful engagement – paradoxically the movement of the statues elicits the freezing of the humans. I’m sure someone more well versed with the subject of art will be able to contribute more.

When I was in Hong Kong I viewed the wax statues at the Madam Tussaud’s there – posed with them for photographs also along with a whole lot of other people.

IMG_1225IMG_1281

Everyone’s photos must have looked really interesting, because we all know how to pose now and look as though we are having a wonderful time for the split second needed to take the photo. But there, in the display area, it felt as though everyone was just mechanically moving from figure to figure. Move, pose, snap. Move, pose, snap. Lather, rinse, repeat. The wonder of the waxworks was not felt. Expressions of “oh how lifelike it all is” were missing. I felt the loss because when I was a child I had experienced the wax figures with my family. We had all remarked on how lifelike they were. But now perhaps everyone is used to simulations of much more variety and much higher quality. And now perhaps the point is not to look at the statue, but to draw it into a photo. Which can then be posted online. Perhaps the point is to erase the artist, to eradicate the wonder that her work is meant to evoke, and by becoming part of the art, by manufacturing a photo opportunity that the Internet will appreciate, to be seen as an artist of sorts. Consuming is not enough anymore. We must BE consumed.

I don’t think my point is that we are all going to a digital hell in a mechanical hand basket. This sort of activity has a memetic quality, after all, and I am of the opinion that memes have political potential. I am also of the opinion that exploring the political potential of memes is valuable – even if no immediate structural change takes place, more people being able to express themselves is a cultural phenomenon that can support the efforts of focused political action in numerous ways. I just think that acknowledging that interactivity is a mode of engagement and a (new?) cultural logic in our engagements with public spaces might help us to think about how we can unlock the political and pedagogical potential of these engagements (I’m thinking, for example, of Banksy‘s work).

PS: I wrote this post just so I could be on the same page as Beyoncé.

So long, uterus, and thanks for all the feels

My love-hate relationship with my uterus started when I was 11. When that first bleeding came I was thrilled, because it meant I was a big girl, like my two elder sisters whom I idolised. But it also meant a sort of negative attention that felt like an albatross around my neck. The household I grew up in was one that was in flux between a traditional order and a more modern one. My paternal grandmother ruled with what she thought was an iron fist, my mother resisted quite creatively and courageously when she could and my father tried to walk the thin line between the two, discovering as always that when you try to make everyone happy you usually manage to piss everyone off instead. What this has to do with my menarche is that it meant my sitting isolated from the family for 3 days. A menstruating woman is an unclean woman in Hindu practice, and so you weren’t allowed contact with anyone, couldn’t touch any of the common household utensils, couldn’t sit on any fabric-covered furniture, couldn’t enter the prayer room, and had to maintain this state of isolation until the fourth day when suddenly you were miraculously clean. Thankfully I didn’t have to do this for very long. My eldest sister had always fought my grandmother over this oppressive practice, but had succumbed to keep the peace as long as it was just her, my second sister and my mother who had to undergo the isolation. When I was 11, my eldest sister was 20. It was an age at which I remember her as being at her most powerful. She is powerful now, too, but in a more peaceful way. At that time, she looked to me like an avenging goddess, whom no one could dare to suppress. To her, I was a baby sister, to be bossed around, yes, but also fiercely protected. And she rose up in flames of righteous anger when she came home that day and saw me sitting in a corner. She told me to get up, told my grandmother in no uncertain terms that this practice was stopping now, and quelled my parents with a single glance. At least this is how I remember it. My grandmother sulked for a while, but no one ever had to be singled out like this again in my house just because they were menstruating.

Yesterday this now peacefully powerful eldest sister sat next to my hospital bed and massaged my head gently but firmly as I drifted in and out of a drug-induced sleep. I had gone through five years of turmoil with my uterus: heavy bleeding, pain, migraine. And every treatment for the bleeding was – according to my gynae – “medically successful”, because it did slow the bleeding. But the side effects seriously affected the quality of my life. My legs would balloon up, I had bouts of depression and near-suicidal thoughts, more migraine, rapid weight gain and more. It didn’t help that I’ve been grappling with graduate studies over the last few years. Every visit to the gynae cost money, as did the pills I popped and the IUD I had inserted. Finally, with the support of my gynae and my husband, I came to the decision to have the uterus removed, and the deed was done yesterday.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Not because I had any romantic illusions about the sanctity of my uterus in defining my femininity or my humanity. Nor even because I thought its work was not yet done – if I have not had all the children I wanted to have I have at least had two very loved and very special boys who I (probably somewhat hubristically) see as my greatest achievements. The difficulty of the decision was mainly because of intense fear of the unknown. I read compulsively, asked questions equally compulsively, checked and double-checked with my gynae. Talked to the women in my life who had gone through the surgery, mainly to find out what I could about their decision-making process. Looked up online forums for the same reason. So many women with so many stories. So overwhelming! The large majority of the stories were told through what I will call the lens of expert-established need. These of course carried themes of intense suffering, and quite often great distress at the news that the uterus would have to be removed. But they also embedded themes of validation and justification. They may have had their uterus removed, but it wasn’t just because they were suffering. It was because the doctor said flat-out that it needed to go. Of these stories, among the most heartrending (though each was sad in its own way) were those of young women who had not even had the chance to decide if they wanted to bear children yet. That choice was taken out of their hands. But there were other stories that were told through what I call the lens of self-determination. There were fewer of these, possibly because (from what I read of these stories) there was simply less uncertainty and angst. These were women who had discussed their cases with their doctors, and arrived at a decision to undergo the hysterectomy – not because there were no other options, but because they had, for various reasons, deemed that this was the best. There were of course themes of suffering. I even came across stories of trans people undergoing the surgery, and that opened up a whole new world of suffering to my knowledge-seeking eyes. There were also themes of validation and justification, but these were of course very differently expressed.

What took me so long to make the decision was not knowing on which side my story lay. I didn’t have the anguish of a hysterectomy thrust upon me. My gynae in fact suggested trying the IUD again (the mirena – in case anyone wants to look it up). And I was the only one who seemed so bothered by the side effects of all the hormone-based treatments. My surgeon even suggested that I put my feet up if they were swollen, and that if I was depressed I could see a psychiatrist. Or that if I was gaining weight rapidly I could try eating less and exercising more. In fact it amazed me how insular the perspective was. At the same time, I can’t pretend that I don’t know this about medical science – that there are things it can do at any point in time, and things it can’t do. But these sorts of conversations made me even more determined to find out as much as I could, to advocate for myself, and to make a decision that I could live with. I was assertive in seeking the information, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat for myself, and anyone I love. I don’t believe there is any such thing as being too assertive when you are asking questions about major surgery, and any doctor who gets put off by my questions or my “tone” is not performing my surgery. Thankfully, my doctors rose to the occasion!

I read papers in medical journals about how difficult it was to ascertain things like amount of bleeding – most gynaes will ask you how many pads you went through. But the fact is that you don’t always change the pad only when it is full. Also, clots are a game-changer, and completely skew your estimates of blood volume. Even pain differs from one woman to another, and the decision about how quality of life is being affected cannot be standardised. One paper came to the conclusion that in treating menorrhagia, the best rule of thumb for when to perform a hysterectomy was when the patient actually asked for it herself. In fact this was also a good indicator that the surgery would successfully end all the symptoms and side effects, thereby increasing quality of life (apologies for not linking to the paper. I will try to find it later). No matter how much I craved the external validation of an expert-established need, it looked like I was going to have to take this into my own hands.

And so I decided to go ahead with it. The night before I was admitted, the family had dinner out and shared a bottle of wine. My son raised his glass and told his brother: “We’re saying goodbye to our first home.” It made me laugh. But later on in the night, I started to cry and couldn’t stop crying. I cried almost the whole of the next night as well, in the hospital bed, before the surgery the next morning. As reflexive as I try to be, there was a deeper level of emotion that I simply hadn’t reckoned with. Again, it wasn’t because I was attached to my uterus (although I did wake up with a start at one point from a dream in which my sons were standing next to a few more children – all the children I might have been able to bear). I was really terrified about the surgery. As I was being wheeled off, my husband got my son to take a photo of me. In the photo, I am laughing as though I haven’t a care in the world. I know that I was quaking beneath the smile.

surgery

The whole time I kept asking myself – am I making the right decision? Just before I went under the general anaesthesia, I held my surgeon’s hand and said “I trust you”. And the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery with a pain in my abdomen. Somewhere was the thought that since I had had the surgery done vaginally there was no incision on my abdomen. Where then was the pain coming from? According to the surgeon, my uterus had turned out to be much larger than he’d expected, which probably explained the intense pain I had experienced with each heavy bleed, and indicated a form of endometriosis. But he will know more after looking at the full report and will go through it with me when I go for my follow-up appointment. I am looking forward to asking more questions and finding out more about what was going on with my body. Like any research project, the real fun is in grappling with the data. And as a friend of mine pointed out, while we think medical science is modern, that diagnoses are sometimes made after the surgery makes it post-modern as well!

So long, uterus. I learned so much about myself from grappling with your first awakening, feeling you grow my babies, enjoying your orgasmic contractions, and making a conscious choice about removing you from my body. It’s been quite a journey. Thanks for all the feels!