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Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

Gift Culture

“I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain’t it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me
That’s too bad
Oh, all the things I could do
If I had a little money
It’s a rich man’s world…”

Sang the pop music group, ABBA, in the 70s and in this case at least, things haven’t changed much. Money governs the economy, and our lives. Among teens, in both rural and urban areas, there is a need to earn money, as soon as possible, as quickly as possible. Everything these days, it seems, is focused on the ultimate aim of having plenty of money in life. We go through the endless rut of exams and studies, in order to get a degree. And for what? To get a job with a good starting ‘package’ and gradually increase our bank balance.

There is a Mewari proverb that says; “The river never drinks its own water. The tree never tastes its own fruit. The field never consumes its own harvest. They selflessly strive for the well-being of all those around them.” Everything in Nature gives unto itself for something else; nothing is done with a selfish intent. In our post-World War 2, materialistic, consumerist, capitalist, environmentally-destructive, and ultimately selfish society, this sentence is of no value, no significance, and meaningless. Economics says that the ultimate aim of Man is to consume or ‘allocate’ scarce resources for meeting his unlimited needs to achieve well-being.  But as we strive to produce more and more, in order to consume more and more, is well-being really achieved? And can money really buy us happiness, or is another, completely different dynamic at play?

In the light of our ‘fast-growing’ economy, there are problems of inflation and exponentially increasing prices. Poverty hasn’t been eradicated, there in widespread inequality of incomes even today, the rich are getting richer and the poor become poorer. There are growing levels of stress, loneliness and increasing cases of depression. Perhaps, as many people feel, there is a need to re-think the idea of economics, and create an economy that doesn’t promote the ideas of materialism, competition and wastefulness.

Of the many alternatives proposed, one that epitomizes the core value behind the Mewari proverb is the concept of a ‘Gift Economy’. What is a gift economy, exactly? Wikipedia describes it as “a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards”. Very simply, the idea is to give away ‘gifts’, in the form of anything – food, clothes, household items, books, information, other services – without expecting a reciprocation or a ‘charge’. In some indigenous societies, gift culture is practiced in the form of ‘potlatch’, a ceremony held on special occasions by a family that gives a feast to the community and distributes its wealth to the people gathered. The value of the gifts given away indirectly increase the family’s social stature in the community; it earns respect in the eyes of the villagers. One could argue that it isn’t completely based on ‘gifting’, since there is an expectation of return, even though it maybe intangible.

On a philosophical level, the ideal of gift culture is the complete lack of expectation of returns. Where the driving force behind the giving isn’t the need to receive, but the need to give. It operates out of love, and what certain old romantics refer to as unconditional love. But is such a drive, such an ideal, even possible? There are certain people who experimenting with the concept.  Like ‘Sewa Café’, in Ahmedabad, which runs completely on the idea of gift culture. As their tagline says, ‘Living is Giving’, it is a volunteer run café that doesn’t have fixed prices on its menu. Guests can pay whatever they want, it is anonymous and you don’t pay for your own meal, you pay to ‘gift’ a meal to a future guest. And amazingly, it manages to cover its costs and even make profits! Except that the profits are more in terms of people’s love than monetary.

Inspired from this idea, Madhusudan Agrawal of Ahmedabad has started a new initiative, called the ‘Smile Store’. It is “a place for sharing, connecting and recycling. It’s a complete volunteer run gift store. There are no price tags, anyone can leave anything, anyone can take what they need and put any donation to run the store. Without any strings attached, this store is an experiment to spread trust, love and smiles.” *1

Many such small ‘karma kitchens’ and ‘free stores’ have sprouted across the length and breadth of India. But how can we implement this idea in our own lives. First of all, THINK. How often has ‘fun’ and ‘entertainment’ been link inexcusably to money? We go to ‘hang out’ at Café Coffee Day, go to watch movies and end up spending quite a lot of money. We zoom around on our scooters or go for long drives in our cars, and more money is spent. We ask for ‘treats’, and when it’s our turn give some too! Most of what we do with friends results in lighter wallets and sometimes empty ones as well! So, is there a way through which we can have fun, but which is conducive to our pockets, as well as the environment and society?

A friend of mine organizes cycle adventures on the outskirts of his city. During weekends, some people gather and head off into the wild on their bikes (pedal-driven ones!) for a day of fun, adventure and new stories to tell. How easy is that? Some years ago, I had invited some friends over and done an impromptu mural-making session on a wall outside my house. We did warli art, and the designs still look beautiful and attract people to the house! Another friend of mine was sick of constantly giving and receiving gifts in the form of material presents… most of which she never used, and to others she felt compelled to give a ‘return gift’, the pressure of which she didn’t like. She has resolved to not accept such ‘presents’ anymore, and instead, as ‘gifts’, she usually gives a service to the person concerned, like a meal she’ll cook, or clean somebody’s garden, or give a nice head massage. “It is more engaging for both the receiver as well as me, because I don’t just give a ‘thing’ that I’m obliged to; instead, I give my time, my attention and my service as a form of love to that person, and this is obviously more special.” She says. The gifts she accepts also are ones in such forms only.

Two friends of mine and I, once decided to delve into the art of cooking and help each other learn to make three new dishes in the period of three weeks. Each week, we met at one person’s home, and made the ‘special dish’, while shooting the whole process of cooking on a basic video camera. We made a snack, a main course and a dessert. They weren’t fantabulous, of course, but we relished them! (Our parents ate a little reluctantly, though). And in the process, we learnt not only the finer aspects of cooking, but also many things such as basic video-shooting and editing, improvisation (once, the electricity went and we had to cook in candlelight), making the best from what we have, working in a team, disaster management, and basic marketing skills as well (How to Make a Dish That is Terrible into Something That Looks Edible 101, and parents always needed some convincing before they would taste!). More than anything, we learnt how to have fun – differently, creativity, and without spending money and time just on consuming stuff.

And if I were to summarize what ‘gift culture’ truly means to me, I would quote a much-loved Beatles’ track that goes –

“I don’t care too much for money
‘Cause money can’t buy me love…” 

Gender justice also concerns men!

First of all, let me clarify that I’m a woman writing this article. Also, that I’m a feminist. And these two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.

The reason I’m writing this article today is because, since the time last year when I started taking feminism seriously and started talking about it, most men in my peer-group started being very defensive about being men. After having long arguments with practically every male friend I have, being labelled as a ‘female chauvinist’ by some (in jest, apparently!) and trying to decipher the reason behind such a strong and vehement resistance towards feminism amongst men, I have finally decided to write this article. As an assertion that we’re not here to steal the golden throne on which you men sit perched upon so proudly. We just want you to shift a little and make space for us to sit as well. Or better still, get rid of the throne and let us both sit on the floor. And celebrate being together.

Feminism is for men, too!

Most people, I’ve realised, have a problem with the word ‘feminism’. It comes from the word femininity, which, according to many, refers only to everything women do and are; it is ‘womanliness’. But what if means more than that? It is, after all, an abstract concept, an idea symbolizing something, just as masculinity symbolizes another, diametrically opposite, idea. Traditionally, the feminine or the ‘yin’ symbolises fertility, creativity, nurturance, compassion, emotions, passivity, fluidity, empathy, tolerance, the moon and a holistic view of the world. Masculinity, on the other hand, symbolizes the ‘yang’, determination, passion, action, goal-orientation, logic, steadfastness, inflexibility, linearity, the sun and an individualistic view. Although, let me clarify that these are merely contextual representations; the concepts of masculinity and femininity can be perceived differently in different cultures, times and contexts.

The earth is feminine; receptive, compliant, has the power to create life. The rain is masculine; penetrating the earth to create new life. But the earth has masculine qualities as well; it is hard, solid and steadfast. And the rain has feminine qualities as well; it is fluid, tempestuous, nurturing as well as destructive. Just like that, all of us have within us both masculine and feminine qualities. A woman can be extremely determined and action oriented, like Rani Laxmibai, just as a man can epitomise qualities of compassion and tolerance, such as Mahatma Gandhi.

In the ancient times, both these masculine and feminine energies of the world were worshipped. Hence, during those times and even in contemporary tribal cultures which live apart from civilized society and in harmony with nature, women and men were (are) accorded equal respect and status in the social structure. However, perhaps because of the advent of monotheistic religions, the world moved on towards a reverence for the masculine (a single male God or ‘His’ Messiah), progressively eliminating the importance, and thus the appreciation, for the feminine. Subsequently, we see our society becoming increasingly masculine; goal-oriented rather than process-oriented. The pot at the end of the rainbow is always more important than the rainbow itself! We are becoming competitive, individualistic, and consumerist, while ideas such as compassion, co-operation and tolerance are disregarded—be that in areas of work or in our personal lives. They’re becoming words that are glorified, idolised and put on pedestals, but of no use ‘out in the field’, much like how society perceives and treats women!

Even today, a century since the Women’s Movement was kick-started, women are still worse off than men. Women have to deal with threats of violence and abuse, both inside as well as outside the house. They have no say in governance of the home or of the state, and whatever little they have is mostly nominal.  They have no property rights, even now after so many laws and policies on joint home ownership and women’s share in heritable property. Basically, most women are not aware of their rights or not bold enough to demand them. They are conditioned to be compliant, docile and subservient. Men, on the other hand, have a sack full of privileges that patriarchy has gifted them, right from their birth.

But what fails both men and women fail to recognise is that patriarchy has also put restrictions on men, although so nicely gift-wrapped and falsely glorified that many don’t even understand they are restrictions. These limitations are basically regarding the expression of or inclination towards the feminine. In earlier times, this was controlled through religious teachings and had a framework of ‘dharma’ or morality attached to it. The worst part is, this notion of ‘masculinity as a virtue’ is so deeply rooted within us, through conditioning while growing up or the influence of mass media, that we start regarding it as natural. I remember in primary school when the sight of a boy crying made me so uncomfortable that I would have a fit of awkward giggles. Never did a girl crying leave me feeling like that. I still wonder what it was that caused this discomfort. Crying is a natural phenomenon that is triggered by pain caused to the body or mind. Everybody does it; we don’t observe male babies not crying because they are males. So obviously, it isn’t ‘unnatural’ for males to cry. Why is it, then, that society hammers this “men do not cry” ‘fact’ into our brains— be those male, female or somewhere-in-betweens?

Feminism sought to show the world that women could be ‘equal’ to men. But in that process, I feel, it asserted something that patriarchy was already doing for so long. It exalted masculinity and shunned femininity. For my mother’s generation of feminists, discarding make-up, hair and traditional women’s clothing was a sign of protest; a liberation from stereotyped notions of femininity and beauty. Today, what with ‘lipstick-feminism’ and SlutWalks, women are acknowledging that it is empowering to ‘embrace one’s femininity’… but when will men start embracing it as well, and appreciating its value? And again, is femininity only about wearing revealing clothes and lipstick? Or is it about also nurturing the values it symbolises, values that both men and women have been steadily rejecting over the years?

Hence, I think feminism isn’t only about women trying to step ‘out’ and ‘show’ men how they can do everything men do equally well, it is also about men accepting the feminine within themselves, and not being afraid to express it! That doing the work traditionally done by women, or expressing tendencies traditionally associated to women can be as empowering as women stepping out of the house in trousers to earn a living. Being able to care for one’s children, cooking, looking after the home, expressing strong emotions, showing care, compassion, empathy, sensitivity, being able to just listen to someone, are all needs that exist within every human being, but which have been denied expression by the patriarchal society for too long now. This denial and belittlement not only creates a sense of false superiority within men and women who portray strong masculine tendencies, but also puts a burden on them to follow rigid patterns of behaviour, communication and choice of work. Instead, by nurturing these feminine values and traits, not only can men (with some help from women, of course!) rein in a new kind of revolution but also develop themselves as more holistic and humane beings!

Ultimately, what we as feminists have been advocating for the last century is this freedom of choice. The choice to live, work, behave and just be according to our own potentials and dreams, rather than according to our sex, or our caste, or our religion, or our skin-colour, or any other such categorization that we have no choice in.

The earth needs rain just as the rain needs the earth. Both are interdependent. Masculinity and femininity, both abstract concepts, values and ideals, co-exist, just as men and women, imbibing both within them, co-exist. And what the world needs today is a shift towards femininity! It needs compassion, empathy, tolerance and authenticity. It needs people who can talk about their feelings, but more importantly, it needs people who can listen. It needs a sustainable, holistic, we’re-all-in-this-together approach. It needs people, both men and women, who care – for each other, for their children, and for the environment.

As the pendulum of time swings towards a masculine pull today, can the men of the world help swing it back towards a harmonious balance?

Poem: Give Peace a Chance


“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

Let’s make clear everyone realizes the price we pay for war
The way humanity takes a back seat as tempers soar
The way we forget what’s really important in this life
It’s the love of loved ones, not a land in strife. (more…)

Why do we celebrate Women’s Day?

It’s Women’s Day. The newspapers bring out a special edition declaring the ‘importance of women’ and facebook is overloaded with status updates paying tribute to the various facets of femininity. It’s the day my uncle calls in the morning to wish my mom and me A Very Happy Women’s Day and we get “you are special!” SMS forwards from our various friends and fans urging us to “celebrate your womanhood!” And I sit here and think, so what’s the big deal about being a woman that needs to be shouted out and parroted by everyone just for this one day?

So here I am, trying to put my thoughts into words, trying to piece together what, for me, is important about being a woman today.  More than two centuries ago, a group of courageous women stood up and starting talking about themselves, as women and as human beings. We’re as human as you, they told the men, and hence we should have a say in running the world and running our lives as much as you do. They fought for equal rights: to vote, to work and earn and to procreate. They challenged the then-societal beliefs that “a woman’s place is in her home” and urged women to become economically independent. A century later, around the early 1900s, Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a speech called “A Declaration of the Rights of Women,”[1] and after a hundred-year struggle, finally got women’s suffrage. And there’s been no looking back ever since.

And today, on 8th March 2011, I think, well, Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft and the rest of those amazing women, finally have their efforts paid off! Today women have access to education, to information and knowledge, and they are asserting themselves in positions that have traditionally been dominated by men- from political leaders to taxi drivers. In my own life, I know many women of my mother’s generation who are engaged in jobs outside their homes, and almost all the females my age have chalked out a ‘career’ for themselves, which hopefully isn’t restricted to marriage and bearing offspring.

But is it all that equal, I wonder… For if one wants to be a successful ‘woman’ of today, not only does one need to have a glittering career but one must also be a good wife and a devoted mother, balancing demanding work routines with household and children-related duties with apparent ease. Strangely, the same formula doesn’t apply for being a successful man: his worth is only measured by the number of zeroes in his month-end cheque! Then why are we, as women, burdened with that extra responsibility that men can brush off so easily?

To develop clarity on these questions and confusions in my mind, I began reading post-feminist theories and arguments. A bunch of disgruntled ladies argue that ‘feminism’ and the struggle for equal jobs and equal pay just put more responsibilities on women. Danielle Crittenden, author of What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman,[2] suggested that women should marry and bear children at an early age, stay home to raise their children, and then pursue careers later in life. Another similar thinker, Amy C. Goldman, declared that feminists who criticized traditional gender roles devalued the importance of motherhood. “A better form of feminism would be not to rebel against ‘gender roles,’ but instead to assert the value of these roles and to ensure their continuing existence. . . . It is where distinctions between the sexes are properly maintained that men and women complement each other and promote each other’s happiness.” she said.

But then this is only the conservative side of post-feminism. Other ‘liberal’ feminists have argued that the difficultly women faced in juggling this twin burden of responsibilities could be resolved by changing the entire notion of ‘work’ and ‘home’ itself. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, suggested a perspective change on the assumption that women only should bear child-rearing and other domestic duties. She wrote that “What women and men today need [are] real choices about having children . . . without paying an inordinate price or facing dilemmas in their careers. We need to restructure hours and conditions of work. The technology of work today . . . urge[s] us to flex-time, with staggered hours of starting and leaving work, and variable schedules during the work week.”

So while the conservatives state that feminism has evidently harmed women by transforming social norms of ‘equality’ and discouraging women from shouldering domestic responsibilities hence sabotaging their happiness, the liberals suggest an entire paradigm shift on conventional gender roles and the values assigned to them.

But then, how does it relate to my own life, my own understanding? Here I shall proceed to share some of my own reflections that I have formed while reading/talking/hearing/exploring feminism and asserting my place as an outspoken woman in this world.

I have been raised in a non-conformist, radical-thinking family, and as an only child. My parents had deconstructed gender roles and responsibilities in their marriage, a stark contrast to many of my relatives’ and friends’ households that I occasionally chanced to witness. Both my parents worked 9 to 5 jobs and shared all the household responsibilities. Since we didn’t have any household help, except for a woman who has been cooking for us since the time I began forming memories, hence chores were shared (and continue to be!) by all three of us. My father does the dishes, sweeps and mops, waters the plants and does the laundry. My mom makes breakfast and lunch. I help them both, and occasionally clean my room and the toilet. This isn’t a rigid system, people usually do what they feel needs to be done and sometimes force me to do it. I think it is a good, workable system.

But because of this, I find it difficult to accept rigid gender roles and get very frustrated when I see it happening, even with my so-called ‘modern valued’ male friends! Some of them refuse to step into the kitchen and help their mothers, even today!  A lot of men justify their reluctance as “this is a woman’s job” and “demeaning their masculinity”… Then I wonder, why is it that if WOMEN step out of their houses to do jobs traditionally done by a man, that’s called empowerment, but if MEN step in to do work traditionally done by a woman, that’s subjugation? It seems there is an inherent notion in our society that masculinity is better than femininity!

This makes me think more about these allocated ‘jobs’ for women. Perhaps the inequality and discrimination lies not in who gets to do what, but in the perception of these jobs themselves. The values we assign to a set of activities traditionally done by women and men define which activity is ‘better’, hence economically beneficial, hence empowering. So, the activities of women as natural child bearers and rearers aren’t valued, hence have no economic gain, hence degrading to the person who does them. Who set these values in the first place, I wonder… And I haven’t really found my answer yet.

But what if we all change this hierarchy of values at its core? What if men and women BOTH become capable of doing what was conventionally restricted to only one gender? And what if traditionally ‘female’ work was of equal value as ‘male’ work? Sure, certain natural things cannot change; men won’t be able to birth children for a long time as yet, but they’re certainly up for taking responsibility for their offspring’s nurturing! If there can be reservations for women in the ‘hallowed’ hallways of power such as governance bodies and educational institutions, why can’t there be reservations (at least 33%!) for men in the even more sacred sanctums of the home and hearth?

And perhaps, this hierarchy of value isn’t only restricted to the work of men and women… it can be applied to the other oppressive systems in society today, say of caste and class. Virginia Woolf, in her feminist literary criticism essay A Room of One’s Own has said, people, for asserting their own superiority, devalue other groups different from them in certain ways, and start considering them inferior, to boost their own collective ego. And when the other group, that has been considered inferior, starts accepting that, well, that’s the start of discrimination. The same has happened in our scenario of caste and reservation, methinks. There are reservations for Dalits and other ‘lower’ castes for positions in educational institutions, but then why aren’t there, based on the same logic, reservations for Brahmins and other ‘upper’ castes in positions of sweepers and rag-pickers? Why is this work, actually very necessary for society, devalued?

I accept it is more complex than that. That there is an entire question of violence used for subjugation… And another of choice and centuries of being denied that choice— for both women and ‘backward’ groups—the choice for doing something apart from what was expected of them. But looking closely, was this choice as freely available to men and ‘upper’ castes as we think it to be? I think not.

I clean my own toilet. As I mentioned, we don’t have any household help, and in our non-rigid, organic role-distribution system, toilet cleaning often falls on me. Initially I was aghast, yes, I too carry that value hierarchy somewhere within me, but I did it. And started doing it more often. And soon, started enjoying it too, although occasionally it does gross me out. But well, I tell myself, it’s my own shit that I’m cleaning. And it’s a great way of releasing pent-up frustration, so ultimately, not only does the toilet come out bright and white and sparkling, but so does my soul.

So if you’ve read this completely and agree with me even just a little, take this Women’s Day as a time to reflect what value hierarchy you are carrying within yourself. What work, what chore do you consider ‘below’ your standard to do? Why do you feel it is so? Explore that. And then try to do that work. I think empowerment begins from there.

 

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