Archive for February 28, 2012

Kolkata Rape: Activists demand fair action from Mamata

kolkatta by Ramlath

By Team FI

Maitree, a women’s rights network in West Bengal, has demanded an apology from the State Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. The CM allegedly made insensitive comments casting aspersions on the victim of Kolkata gang rape.

A 37-year-old woman was raped at gunpoint in a moving car in Kolkata on the night of 5th February after accepting a lift from the accused. She was returning home from a nightclub. Further, the victim was humiliated by the cops when she went to file a complaint.

The chief minister had dismissed the victim stating the complaint was “cooked up”. However, on Monday, the CM blamed a section of media for distorting her statement.

Here is the excerpt from the open letter written by Maitree.

We, the members of Maitree, are writing to protest against the manner in which the complaint of rape of a woman in a car in Kolkata on Feb 5, 2012 been dealt with by the government, especially the police.

Despite being the Chief Minister and the Home Minister of the State, without giving time for investigation, you have stated that the incident is contrived and intended to malign your government. We are extremely apprehensive that your pronouncement will discourage a just and fair investigation. Supreme Court judgements on rape, say that for such cases oral testimony is enough to initiate the case, and sensitivity has to be shown to the assaulted women who come to seek justice.

The Minister of State for Transport and Sports, Mr. Madan Mitra, also made offensive public comments about the lifestyle of the complainant and alleged that the complaint was fabricated to extort money. He said: “She has two children and so far as I know she is separated from her husband. What was she doing at a night club so late in the night?”

Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee

A section of the police officials seemed more intent on finding “inconsistencies” in the complainant’s statements, instead of taking action against the police personnel who delayed in filing the FIR, failed to get the medical investigation done in time and misbehaved with the complainant.

At the same time, we would like to point out that there are inconsistencies in the different police versions. Had the police taken a proper attitude from the beginning, the arrests would probably have come much before 18thFebruary and the woman would have had less of a trauma.

Despite the Supreme Court judgements that the name and details of the victim of a rape case must be kept anonymous, these details have been made public.

Not only was there a delay in getting the medical examination done but no woman police personnel accompanied the complainant to the hospital. The law is clear that that immediate forensic investigation is needed.

It takes immense courage for a woman to report rape and sexual assault.  It is shocking to see that the complainant is being treated as the wrongdoer in this case.

The demands:

  1. An immediate apology from you, the Chief Minister and the Transport Minister for prejudging the issue and casting aspersion on the integrity of the complainant.
  2. Action against police personnel responsible for mishandling the case and misbehaving with the complainant
  3. Immediate security for the woman
  4. Fair and just investigation of the complaint



Miss Representation: The inconvenient truth

Miss representation review

By Amrita Shodhan and Ramlath Kavil

Miss Representation, released in 2011, is one of the most widely debated documentaries in feminist circles.  Written and directed by actor-turned-film maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, this film is about the deep-rooted sexism in the American media.

Jennifer Newsom starts the documentary as a personal story. She begins filming when she is pregnant with her daughter. She is anxious about the world she is bringing her daughter into and goes on to explore the power the media wields by sexualising and objectifying women, and thus impacting the average American psyche.

She briefly talks about her own past,  sexual abuse by her school coach, her eating disorder and how in her late 20s she was asked to lie about her real age, hide her MBA degree when she started her acting career so that she would not come across as ‘too smart’ in Hollywood.

The documentary presents its argument powerfully with finely edited scenes from commercials, TV shows, movies and news channels intercut with interviews and statements from articulate and powerful women in US politics and media.

Outrageous remarks against ‘bitchy’ Hillary Clinton and ‘ditzy’ Sarah Palin would convince anyone that politics was secondary when these women are portrayed in the media. It is all about how much skin they show and how good or ugly they look.  It looks at the impact this has in the personal, social and political life of the nation. It argues that this negative image of political women restricts women’s participation in politics.

The film sensitively looks at the problems of self-objectification and how it leads to further psychological problems (anger, eating disorders, self-harm, lower self-esteem, depression, suicides) as well as larger political problems for society – under–representation of women, loss of qualified women in public and political life, over-representation of men and making of hyper masculine choices, rape and violence towards women and so on.

There is a heart-rending scene of a teenager breaking down as she talks about her kid sister who slashes herself after being teased as ‘ugly’ by her peers. “When is it going to be enough?” one of them shoots a desperate question.

Besides interviews with teenagers, the film is packed with powerful women including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, minority leader of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, journalist and author Katie Couric, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and actor and activist Jane Fonda.

The image of women as consumers is very strong throughout the film-consumers of products and of the media.  The question of class is not really brought up, as the aspirational aspect of TV is not really looked at-television mostly portrays stories of upper class life and every viewer aspires to be part of this class. The impact of the media representation of women on men’s lives and aspirations is mentioned quite clearly and how the gender stereotype of machoness constrains men, but that is not the focus of the story.  The role of industry, profit and advertising is alluded to, but not clearly indicated in the documentary.

In a sense, the documentary does not tell a new story.  It has been clearly documented by others before, like in Naomi Wolf’s 1999 work ‘Beauty Myth’.  However, the angle on political representation is interesting and valuable. But is the mere presence of women being in positions of power a guarantee of a fairer world?  This question is not raised.  It does sharply emphasise that whatever stand a woman takes, it is important that she finds a public and dignified place from which to make it, rather than being sexualised and objectified.

Thus, the film uses Sarah Palin in juxtaposition with Hilary Clinton and how both – very different ideas of women — were equally discounted by the media and ridiculed. However, should the media bear the sole responsibility for this highly misogynistic pop/rape culture?

The movie relies too heavily on interviews of powerful women and lacks a wide range of women’s voices.  It definitely does not seek a political intervention except a demand for regulating the media. Condoleezza Rice makes faint remarks about politics being male-dominated and admits that often she would be the only woman in closed-door meetings.  Unfortunately, the film fails to question what these highly influential women, like Rice, have done to counter male supremacy in politics.

One needs to have more representation of women in politics, but don’t we also have to ask how inclusive is our political system? How receptive is the State when it comes to understanding women’s issues? What about those ignored voices of women who have been demanding better health care, better child care, equal employment opportunity, effective state measure to stop violence etc.? None of these questions figure in this 90 minutes long film.

Nevertheless, the film would work as an excellent motivational and discussion piece as it covers a lot of ground with very strong statements and clear case studies. It is a bit repetitious and quite focused on the US experience.  While the details of women’s images and class positions would vary in different parts of the world, the story of women being objectified is the same everywhere.  In India perhaps women are sexualised by being domesticated in the family rather than being represented as sex symbols available to every man.

The tagline of the film says it all; “You can’t be what you can’t see”

Which Side Are You On?: Ani DiFranco keeps things political

Which side are you on

By Ruth Rosselson

It’s been over 10 years since I last reviewed an Ani DiFranco album so I greeted the release of Which Side Are You On? with some trepidation and excitement. One of the things I’ve always loved about Ani’s work is that she is a songwriter with something to say and her music is the perfect vehicle for her lyrics.

She has never been one to follow the mainstream, nor to sacrifice her principles or artistry in pursuit of chart success. As a result, she has had a prestigious output, started her own record label and garnered a loyal and enthusiastic fan base.

I’m happy to report that this new album does not disappoint and that, reassuringly, Ani DiFranco has not lost any of her politics as she’s matured.

“I’m testing deeper waters with the political songs on this album,” she says. “I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to.”

Ani DiFranco: Photo By Shervin Lainez

It’s rare enough for a musician to admit to being a feminist, let alone for them to openly sing about it.

The music, while tuneful, never overshadows Ani’s lyrics and never obscures them either. The album’s title comes from the union song ‘Which Side Are You On’, popularised by folk legend Pete Seeger and also familiar to Billy Bragg fans. Seeger’s distinctive banjo playing opens the title track, reminding us of the song’s origins, before the electric guitar kicks in and a great full brass sound makes an appearance later on.

Musically, it’s a skilful updating of this folk standard to a rousing upbeat and fresh-sounding protest song. It’s not just the music that Ani’s updated, she’s worked on the lyrics too, incorporating America’s recent political history: Obama’s election victory, consumerism and feminism.

“My mother was a feminist, she taught me to see, the road to ruin is paved with patriarchy,” she sings, pointing out that feminism isn’t just for women – it’s about a shift in consciousness. It’s rare enough for a musician to admit to being a feminist, let alone for them to openly sing about it. I love this version, with the chorus “which side are you on?” reminding me that it’s all about taking responsibility – and being the change we wish to see. This is big band Ani and it works on all levels.

Not afraid to tackle the theme we don’t hear in songs very often, the sombre ‘Amendment’ takes up the thorny (especially in America) issue of abortion, arguing that it is central to the civil rights of women. In the more upbeat ‘Promiscuity’ Ani likens promiscuity to travelling the world – “some of us like to stick close to home and some of us are Columbus.” It’s a fun song, yet there’s a serious message behind it. I love it when she sings: “How you gonna know what you need, what you like, ’til you’ve been around the block a few times on that bike?”

For Ani, the personal is political and it is so wonderful in the age of bland singer-songwriters to have an album full of songs with meaning

It’s not all politics though. ‘Mariachi’ is a simple love song, celebrating the partnership itself rather than the subject of her love: “You and me, we make a mariachi band,” she sings joyfully.

This mood contrasts strongly with the album’s final song. ‘Zoo’ is a downbeat piece with powerful lyrics and you sense that this is introspective Ani, wondering whether or not the songs she writes really do make a difference. “If I should ever quit your spotlight, I hope you won’t think me wrong,” she sings.

I won’t think her wrong but I do believe it would be a shame for such an eloquent writer to give up now, as we currently need songs with power, hope and politics more than ever.

I have to admit I do find some of the tracks a little too musically downbeat, meaning that my attention wanders easily; the tracks that work best for me are those where the tune keeps me entertained and the lyrics keep me engaged. But that is the problem I’ve always had with Ani’s work – so it’s probably just a matter of taste. Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to the majority of tracks.

Overall, this is not an album to be bopping round the living room to, but one to make you think, smile, sing along. It is also one that highlights Ani’s skills as a lyricist. For her, the personal is political and it is so wonderful in the age of bland singer-songwriters to have an album full of songs with meaning, songs with words that matter, songs about the state of the world and contemplative songs about more than just love or breakups.

¿Which Side Are You On? is not a major departure for Ani DiFranco. She sticks to what she’s good at and she does it well. If you’re into gentle acoustic singer-songwriters with attitude and haven’t heard her yet, this album is a fine place to start. Then, from here, you can work through her extensive back catalogue!

This review was originally posted on the F-Word UK and our special thanks to the author and the fword editor who gave us permission to feature it on feministsindia.


Kerala Sex Scandals: Stolen girls of God’s Own Country


By Ramlath Kavil

The state of Kerala, India, often cited as a model of development, has in the past two decades seen a multitude of sex scandals where minor girls have been subject to sexual abuse and exploitation.

You got to be kidding. It can’t be God’s own country. God left this carpet of greenery long ago. Money, muscle power and misogyny have taken over the political will of this most politicised state. Big names, small towns and minor girls are inextricably embroiled in the numerous sex scandals that keep unfolding across the state one after another.

Lured, kidnapped, drugged and threatened, minors were ferried across the state. While bastions of power including political, dodged accusations, children died giving birth to children. Teenage brother killed his teenage sister to uphold honor. Girls who lost home, family and friends became refugees in their own home state.

Many of these cases got the attention of the public because of the victims themselves who sought help. Activists, however, warn that only few cases get reported. Even the reported ones would subsequently get diminished in the firing lines between political parties that take mileage from such cases.

The first such glaring incident came to light in 1996 when a teenager was blackmailed into eloping with a bus conductor in Suryanelli.

Suryanelli (1996): Unarguably the first case that brought shame to the most literate state in the country. In Suryanelli, a small settlement in the high ranges of Idukki district, a 14-year-old was blackmailed by a local bus conductor. She had been in love with him and he had threatened to expose her graphic pictures if she didn’t go with him.

Photo by Ramlath Kavil

What followed was gruesome sexual assault in captivity for 40 days by several men. Constant sexual abuse made the girl fall grievously ill. The predators abandoned her giving her a death threat if any words about them were spoken. The class 9 student went to the police and named 43 persons, including Congress MP, P.J. Kurien . 39 people figured in the accused list.

In 2005, eleven years after the incident, in one of the most shocking judgments in Kerala’ s judicial history, the High Court acquitted 35, convicting only 4. The court even raised questions about the character of the 14 year old.

Meanwhile, in a bizarre twist, the girl who now works as a peon in a Government office was arrested two weeks ago, accusing her of financial fraud. She was subsequently suspended from job. Activists fear that the fraud charges could be part of a conspiracy to ensure that she doesn’t get justice in the Supreme Court.

Vithura (1996): A 16-year-old in Vithura, a scenic village surrounded by Western Ghats in south Kerala, followed Suryanelli’s fate. The girl was lured into getting roles in films by her neighbour and was taken in and out of Kerala for a year.

The girl named 100 people and subsequently identified 18, including a popular film star (Jagathy Sreekumar, who was later acquitted), a former police deputy, and a senior public servant.

Last year, the victim who is 29 years old now, sought a stay in trial proceedings. In the petition, she stated that she had to undergo acute mental trauma and misery at the hands of the accused and the public.

“The maximum punishment in a sexual abuse case is 14 years of imprisonment and what I experienced in the past 15 years is worse than the imprisonment. I have lost all hopes of justice. Leave me alone.These were her words.

Kozhikode Ice-cream Parlour (1997):  One of the biggest and most controversial cases of sexual exploitation, money power and rotten politics in Kerala. This sensational case is still the focus of media primarily because of the involvement of P.K Kunhalikutty, Kerala’s Industries Minister and leader of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), popularly known as Muslim League.

Five minor girls approached Anweshi, a women’s group in Kozhikode led by K. Ajitha. Big names like P.K Kunhalikutty, CPM leader T.P Dasan, top custom officials etc. figured in their petition.

Anweshi team conducted an investigation and reported to the police and media that an ice-cream parlour in the city was used as a front to trap young women and minor girls by offering them ice-cream laced with sedative in order to sexually exploit and blackmail them. The activists complained that the dead bodies of two teenage girls found on the railway tracks in the city had strong connection with the case and they feared that many girls could have been trapped.

Out of five victims, two retracted their statements later. In 2005, the Kerala high court dismissed the petition that sought Kunhalikutty’s prosecution. In 2006, the Supreme Court dismissed the case citing lack of evidence.

After 14 years, in 2011, the case started hitting headlines in Kerala again. A close relative who was an aid to the minister during the scandal, accused in a press meet that the minister had bribed the victims and the three judges in the high court to obtain favorable verdicts.

The controversial Minister, P.K Kunhalikutty

Following the relative’s allegation, the Government ordered a fresh probe and the report submitted by the Special Investigation Team is expected to be released soon.

In January, 2011, former Director-General of Prosecutions (DGP) Kallada Sukumaran alleged that in 1997, the CPM led Nayanar ministry had intervened in the ice-cream parlour case to ‘exclude’ IUML leader P K Kunhalikutty.

IUML deny all allegations and Kunhalikutty is holding the portfolio of Industries and IT in the present Congress led UDF Government.

Kothamangalam (1997):  A 15-year-old filed a police complaint stating that over 100 people sexually abused her for a year. The police identified 43 of the accused and some arrests were made. This case hardly caught any media attention until recently when it was raked up by the controversial minister P.K Kunjalikutty’s close relative.

In a press meet, the relative stated that the minister had bribed the victim in order to buy her silence. The girl had been admitted to a prayer centre in Kerala after her physical and mental conditions worsened. The relative alleged that the minister had sent his man to the prayer centre. The case lists 138 people as accused but has been in the cold storage for a long time.

Panthalam (1997):  An academically bright student, who was expecting rank in her final year degree exam, was raped by a group of 8 for over three months. She named four of them as being lecturers from her college. They also shot her video and used it to black mail her. As the young woman saw no end to this ongoing exploitation, she approached the police with the help of her parents. In 2002, the special court passed a judgment punishing seven of them. One accused had committed suicide during the trial. Despite strong pretest from activists, the NSS college management reinstated the lectures.

Thoppumpady (2002): Also known as the Mattancherry case, a 16-year-old maid servant was lured by an auto driver and was kept in captivity and raped by many. She was also forced to act in porn films. The girl named 69 people including a film director and a priest. The judge had come down heavily on the investigating officers as the victim complained that the police was trying to change her actual date of birth in a bid to weaken the case. This case too is languishing.

Kiliroor (2004): The case came to light when the girl’s father had lodged a complaint with the police that his daughter was promised roles in TV serials and was subsequently exploited by several people. When the complaint was filed, the 18-year-old old was in a government hospital having delivered a child. Three months, later, the girl was dead. The doctors said that it was kidney failure. The police concluded that she died of post delivery complications.

The activists cried foul.

In an astonishing twist, CPM leader V.S. Achuthanandan, gave a statement to the effect that he found it odd how the young mother’s condition worsened soon after the visit made to the hospital by some VIPS. Some senior CPM leaders had visited the girl in the hospital. Activists alleged that a powerful section in CPM was desperate to sabotage the case.

The CPM leader later played down the controversy saying he was only repeating what the doctor, who was treating the girl had stated. The CBI investigation team could not collect any evidence that would corroborate the allegation.

Last month, the special court, sentenced the five accused to 10 years of imprisonment. Activists and the girl’s family protest that the big fish in this case too have escaped without a scratch.

Kaviyoor (2004): The case got media attention as four members of the family including the 15-year-old victim, her parents and her younger siblings found dead in 2004 in what appeared to be a suicide pact. The father was a priest in a local temple.

The girl, who was a talented classical dancer, was alleged to have been sexually exploited by several people after being promised roles in TV serials. While the CBI who re-investigated the case got to a conclusion of incest with the father as the accused, activists have alleged that Kaviyoor and Kiliroor cases are connected and have made several requests to the authorities that this case should be investigated by the same team.

According to P.Geetha, an activist who has worked extensively on many of these cases, since both the victims ( Kiliroor and Kaviyoor) are dead, there is very little chance of truth coming out.

Kottiyam (2004): One of the rarest cases in Kerala that made headlines with an alleged honor killing. A 15-year-old was picked up by the police at a sleepy junction in southern Kerala. As in most cases involving minors, the school going girl too was lured by a neighbour who promised to make her an actress.

A year later, in 2005, she was killed by her 17-year-old brother in what appeared to be an honor killing. In a video interview given to three women activists before death, she said that she was first taken to the Pangode Military Camp, near Trivandrum. She was 14 then. Days before her death she had approached the police stating she feared for her life. This case too has been in the cold storage for a while.

God's Own Country - Women's Own Hell? Photo by Ramlath Kavil

Poovarani (2007): This case came to light when a 14-year-old died in a hospital near Poovarani. As per the postmortem record, she died of AIDS. Further investigation revealed that the minor, hailing from a poor family, was forced into prostitution at the age of 12 by her aunt. The girl’s family is untraceable now and the case has not made any progress.

Kothamangalam (2011):  The incident came to light when a 14-year-old was taken by her father for abortion to a local hospital. The class 10 student was 6 months pregnant then. The girl informed the police that it was her father who gave her away to his friends for petty cash for over a period of one year.  32 people have been arrested so far and some are out on bail. The victim gave birth to a child last year, in October.

Paravur (2011): The sexual abuse of the 14-year-old school going girl came to light after her aunt complained to the police that the girl’s father had forcibly taken the minor into prostitution. The girl informed the police that she was first raped by her father who took her in and out of Kerala for over two years. The minor also told the police that her father used to threaten to kill her younger brother if she refused his bidding.

The class 10 student, unable to bear constant sexual abuse by many, ran away and took shelter at her aunt’s place. As the father started threatening the aunt, she took the minor to the police.  A total of 150 people including, a trade union leader, a local politician, a retired naval officer, and a PWD contractor figure in the accused list.

Last year, the Kerala high court directed that the authorities should complete the trial proceedings by end of May, 2012, so that the girl can resume her studies.

The Paradox of Kerala

These tales of abuse and money power reveal a disturbing truth. How minors are trapped, raped and then pushed in to sex work. It also exposes the paradox of the state of Kerala. On one hand there statistics that garner praise – high literacy, high education, high female sex ratio, high life expectancy, better health care, better living condition and on the other hand, the questionable quality of life of a woman in Kerala subject to a misogynistic society, where women and children are not safe even in their own homes.

Today, dowry is the most common practice cutting across class, caste and religious divide. Daughters are often seen as financial and moral liability. Suicide rates in the state are one of the highest in India. Sex is a taboo and to complicate it further moral policing is gaining acceptance in the society. Women’s participation in politics is very low ( 2011 kerala assembly has only 7 women compared to 133 male legislators). The land that figures in the list of 50 must see places in a life time by National Geographic Traveler is one of the most unsafe places for women to travel. The list goes on.

It is time we admit 100% literacy and high education do not change the mindset. What we need is a greater political will and commitment to ensure that “God’s Own Country” doesn’t become a living hell for its women and children.

The Dirty Picture: A feeling of sheer incomprehension!


By Supriya Madangarli

The Dirty Picture, a film loosely based on Silk Smitha’s life and death is all sound and no fury.

To describe The Dirty Picture as a biopic of the late Silk Smitha would be to stretch the word over its finite limits and then some. One could call it a caricature for all that it resembles the late actor’s life and career.

Incidents which subscribe to the legend of Silk Smitha have been used to create the story of Reshma (aka Silk) enacted by Vidya Balan, whose much touted ‘bold’ performance meant that dialogues were supposedly salacious and the costumes were apparently audacious.

You know when Silk is going to say something ‘naughty’ or what the filmmakers want to the audience to perceive as such for the moment is heavily underlined by a ‘saucy’ musical score which at times included orgasmic sigh and a wink.

What comes across is that Reshma aka Silk sees herself (as do the rest of the characters in the film) as a body which would help the film to sell tickets. When the film begins she is determinedly unapologetic about it. In the first scenes leading to the creation of the legend ‘Silk’, Reshma is rejected by the casting person, she is told that she neither looks like a wife or a sweetheart and so she better forgot about acting roles. She proceeds to drown her sorrows watching her favourite superstar. The guy sitting next to her offers her twenty rupees for a bit of a fun. The next day she walks onto the set and confronts the person who had rejected her. There must be something in me, which made that man give me twenty rupees she says. Reshma holds on to this as she moves to success.

An early portrait of Silk Smitha. Photographer: No record

However, the bid to establish the character as a pure ‘soul’, a virgin at heart, has the script make her truly in love with the superstar she had propositioned to ensure her survival.

Reshma is naively ignorant about the dirt thrown at her by tabloids content with keeping a scrapbook of clippings that has ‘good’ pictures of her. When the fantasy like state she has built for herself is destroyed, there are the platitudes of empowering dialogues such as her speech after she wins an award – ‘I am used as body parts to sell your film, yet you call me vulgar’. There is a hint of power play, the economics of sex in films, the incestuous media relationships but the film barely skims the surface, satisfied with soap opera dialogues and the accompanied orchestrated score.

The rationale of Reshma’s suicide is weak. Facing financial ruin and on the verge losing her home and career, she agrees to work for a small time producer who turns out to be a porn filmmaker. She refuses to do the scene but is drugged to be complaisant but the arrival of the police saves her in the nick of time. The woman in the beginning of the film, who thought that she is worth something when she was offered twenty rupees for sex, kills herself when it looks like she would have to do porn for survival.

As for the other characters, you have a bitter diatribe spouting narrator, Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) a, mock-intellectual for whom Silk (and not the actual people in power) personifies all that is rotten and dirty in commercial cinema, who plays a role in the destruction of Silk, and yet inexplicably falls in love with her by the time film reaches its end. Then there is the paper-thin character of superstar Suryakant (Naseeruddin Shah) who plods through the film hamming away to glory playing godfather with the destinies of his heroines.

The only emotion the film stirs in you is when you hear the song Ooh la la tu hai meri fantasy blasting out of megaphone at the fancy dress competition in the primary school next to your residence. A feeling of sheer incomprehension.

Director: Milan Luthria

Players: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor, Anju Mahendru