The Greys of Liberation (from The F-Word UK)

I wrote a piece for The F-Word UK I’ve pasted below. Original article here: http://www.thefword.org.uk/blog/2014/06/the_greys

What exactly does a liberated Western woman look like? Is she the driven career woman, the stripper, the nun, or the housewife? In feminist circles, the debates over this issue are endless and admittedly often judgmental.

To me, the answer is quite clear: there is no set answer. Indeed, to attempt to even provide a rigid definition for another person can ironically be counterproductive.

Let me explain.

For me, who I am today is a culmination of all the people I’ve ever been in my short life. I’m on my journey towards authentic liberation as a woman, but I had to first experiment with different selves – and still am doing so.

When I was a teenager, I rebelled heavily against my more conservative, studious Indian upbringing. The hyper-sexualised Western world seemed more liberating than my strict background, in which I’d felt so controlled by cultural and familial expectations. Scenes and activities I later found objectifying I embraced in an attempt to construct an identity of my own. I looked at the likes of pole dancers and party girls with secret admiration.

Yet as I grew and gained more self-awareness, I eventually no longer felt this way. While I was beginning to construct an independent sense of self, I realised I was still unhealthily looking for the same validation I had as “the good Indian girl”, but now from men and my Western peers. I realised many of the “sexy” women I’d looked up to weren’t as free as I thought. I felt we’d been pressured subconsciously from society and the media to look and behave like a sex object.

I became disillusioned. I labeled women who largely used their sexuality for gain as disempowered – sell-outs who were emotionally either unintelligent or unhealed. I was wary of the sexuality I’d been sold that seemed so disempowering to my gender. I shunned my sensual side as I couldn’t trust my own impulses anymore; they seemed more a product of a patriarchal society and past conditioning than myself. Certainly I was becoming more liberated as I was starting to learn to think for myself. Still, I was not being my full self ironically for fear of not being a truly liberated woman.

Yet, I could never label either of these stages in my growth as more or less liberating than the other. Each part of the journey led to greater liberation, a blossoming of different aspects of myself, shaping the more balanced woman I am today. The only way I could ever grow and become more liberated is by being able to choose, at least consciously, to carve my own identity. Sure, I will never be 100% free of subconscious, environmental, and biological influences, yet I will always have conscious control. And as I choose to create my life, I grow into and learn more about what is truly liberating for me, even if I make some mistakes along the way.

So really, I’ve no idea what is liberating for you or what will be liberating for me in a few years from now. But thanks to all my various phases in life, I have a better idea of what feels liberating for me right now. Like when I let myself feel insecure or strong, allowing myself to be the imperfect, multi-faceted human being I am who’s still growing. When I belly dance, and experience a different, more sensual side to myself. When I achieve a goal and experience a sense of accomplishment.

I also have a stronger idea of what doesn’t feel liberating for me right now. Like chasing success because I am trying to prove my worth. Dressing a certain way because I feel societal pressure to look and appear sexy. Trying hard to appear confident, like I’ve got it all together, and acting like a “good, classy girl” – doing whatever it takes to not appear like the “trashy” or insecure woman we are taught to look down on. Judging another woman, rather than compassionately supporting her in finding her own personal liberation, however it may look like and differ from mine. Because by trying to suppress and define another for themselves, I inevitably end up suppressing and losing myself.

Perhaps, then, a liberated woman is one who defines liberation on her own terms. She makes her own life decisions in whatever way and order she decides aligns with her individual values. Whether that’s pre-marital sex or waiting, one career or 20 or none ever at all, a job as a sex worker or a life as a nun without sex. Maybe a liberated woman is simply one who lives her life according to what she feels is right regardless of what others tell her, whether that’s a patriarchal system or a feminist leader.

Going Beyond India is Weird

I recently read a post on Thought Catalog titled, How India Changed Us.” In short, the article featured the travel perspectives of two young Americans who recently bicycled across India. Their account was condescending; an eloquently expressed unoriginal piece at best. I can’t even count the amount of times they recounted how traveling in India made them feel “lucky to be American.” While I don’t believe the duo were intentionally being racist they unwittingly approached a sensitive matter in, as one commentator put it, a “less than enlightened manner.”

What surprised me most was not their depiction of India, but the response of many other Indians to the article. A few were upset. Many were not. If anything, they were complimentary -– and critical of those who had issues with the piece. One individual stated:“I think a lot of the time people fall into the trap of immediately branding something as racist if it doesn’t fit into his/her idea of what is appropriate. I understand that, but I really hope we can move past that.”

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I’ve seen this kind of writing. Nor is it the first time I’ve seen a positive response to it from fellow South Asians. Sadly, I think that sometimes South Asians get so excited about being represented in a media outlet, they ignore the fact the depiction may not be entirely accurate or balanced. Or maybe, like the writers, they’re not even aware of it themselves.

When you’re a Westerner writing about a country like India in public, or a region like the Middle East or Africa, you have a responsibility to be careful given the historical context.

Instead of offering something “interesting” or “original,” readers were offered the same overdone, condescending, Orientalist, being-in-India-made-me-appreciate-amazing-America cliché. It offered a very superficial image of India. The same image we’ve seen time and time again. It was disappointing, especially from a website that claims, “You’re going to discover stories, ideas, and voices here that you won’t find in the mainstream media.”

Why do I resent the image of India portrayed in “How India Changed Us”? Because it ignores the myriad, complex reasons for India’s status quo. India, like many former colonies, finds itself mired in social inequality and poverty for many reasons, some internal but also external. Corrupt governments. A colonial legacy. Unfair international trade practices, which contribute to farmer suicides by organizations dominated by — or at least traced to — the United States, such as the World Trade Organization. These are just a few examples.

But none of these issues are even touched upon in this article. It simply parrots the same old, “Indians are backwards,” “India is weird” trope we see time and time again. While nobody expects these two young bicyclists to offer 10 paragraphs narrating the various back stories behind India’s many troubles, the fact that the article was published in its current form continues a troubling precedent.

The dialogue seen in “How India Changed Us” is particularly significant today. It adopts the kind of approach that breeds First World resentment. For Americans to present themselves as morally superior, when we have helped install authoritarian governments and have contributed to many of the problems in the developing world smacks of hypocrisy.

Now, I’m sure the writers didn’t intentionally mean to insult. They probably just wanted to talk about their radical bicycling trip. But because the post appears on a public site, Thought Catalog, and only serves the purpose of reinforcing American stereotypes regarding countries like India, it’s irresponsible to share yet another article like this one without at least offering a balanced counter-narrative. Every story has two sides. And this one is lacking.

I published this here: http://theaerogram.com/going-beyond-india-is-weird/

Blackfish

Watched the CNN documentary Blackfish via Netflix which slams Seaworld for their unethical practices towards both their whales and employees.

It made me think: some ways we treat animals reminds me how the colonies, non-whites, women etc…have been treated. We fear the different so we control, break, and make small – attack, weaken, objectify or make cute, a source of entertainment – so the seemingly intimidating and threatening become manageable. That is, until they naturally rebel and go “crazy”. Then we slap the word “psychotic”, “criminal”, “savages” and inflict other labels onto them. But that is another story…

A neuroscientist from the documentary said whales and dolphins have more complex brains than us with a very developed sense of self, intelligence and family bond. The part of the brain that controls sensitivity and emotions in them is actually more developed than it is in us!

So when you think of the implications of that – that they are psychologically in some ways more sensitive than we are – us throwing them into tiny tubs for our amusement, making these very strong predatory but also very social creatures our little cute toys and clowns, completely isolated….well, it makes sense the creatures held captive have attacked and killed trainers.

I highly recommend this film to all and encourage my friends to never go to Seaworld again. I am re-thinking zoos too and want to learn more about these kind of issues.