Saturday, November 21, 2015

Why should boys have all the fun?

Vartanama, Nov '15
By Pawan Dhall

                                                                 Photo credit: Mitali Sarkar
An assortment of circumstances, and I find myself writing this piece in Maddox Square in southern Kolkata, sitting next to the stump of a once handsome shirish tree struck down by kalbaisakhi lightening. It’s almost 7 pm and as I wait for a friend to turn up from work (we have shopping lined up for later), I observe a group of seven or eight women (presumably middle class and well-off) enjoy tea and snacks at a bench nearby. This is accompanied with much laughter and light banter, a lot of it about family matters. In a while, at least some of the women will join the ranks of evening walkers in groups of threes and fours, in gleaming white sports shoes that don’t quite go with the churidar kurtas or sarees but indispensable nonetheless for a brisk walk. Their conversations will continue uninterrupted, almost as energetic as their walk.

Later, as I walk through my neighbourhood, I see a group of teenage girls trying to learn cycling in a narrow lane adjoining a slum. There are a couple of boys watching them, but no, there are no snide or patronizing remarks from the boys directed at the girls (at least not while they are in earshot). There is general regalement around the whole effort, and one wisp of a girl shouts: “Photo niye ne, FB te tule de!”

This time of the year is also time for the ‘International Fortnight Protesting Violence Against Women’ (November 25 to December 10). Individuals and organizations engaged in protecting and promoting human rights will go all out through a variety of events and campaigns to highlight how widespread violence against women still is, and not just physical, but also in the forms of mental and sexual violence, financial exploitation, and controlling behaviours and neglect by the perpetrators. The campaigns will pitch at attitudinal changes at individual, family, community, institutional and structural levels; there will be calls for better policies and laws, and stricter implementation of both.

The status quoists, cynics, critics and detractors of these efforts won’t be far behind either. “Boys will be boys”, “short and skimpy clothes encourage rape” and similar other statements by public figures are bound to gain headlines; refrains of ghar (ki chardiwari) wapsi for women will be mouthed by god men (and women). All in all, it will be a high-decibel phase of many voices seeking change, while others try to drown them out.

For both sides, though, it might come as a surprise, pleasant or otherwise, that real change often comes about rather quietly. The sports shoes, cycling thrills, Internet familiarity, freedom to laugh it out in a public park or a narrow lane – all maybe seen as symbols of change in the lives of girls and women (as also boys, men and others beyond the gender binary of man and woman). Mundane these symbols maybe, not even recent perhaps, and yet significant. If not a sign of change, then at least they indicate that ‘boys and men aren’t having all the fun’!

Photo credit: Arunavo Ghoshal
The lead story in this issue of Varta endorses this spirit in no uncertain terms – in Gendering the Trekking Trail, Paramita Banerjee narrates how she defied age and gender ‘weaknesses’ in trekking through Sandakphu and Kumaon. Similarly, Star Quest: Bisexual, Bipolar and Happy profiles Rupsha, a bisexual woman, out about it and out to help others deal with stigma around their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shampa Sengupta’s Rewarding Awards extends the issue of social inclusion around gender to ‘access and empowerment for people of all abilities’ and sounds an alert that while government awards related to work around disability rights can bring recognition and inclusion for some persons with disabilities, for others they can also lead to further stigma and exclusion!

In the coming months, Varta will also cover developments around the Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals adopted by member countries of the United Nations to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030. Pious though the intent maybe, social exclusions lurk within this agenda as well. Can you imagine ‘well-being for all’ without governments committing to safe abortion services for girls and women? Or ensuring non-discrimination for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other queer people? These and more concerns require all of us to be alert and ensure that our governments don’t evade a commitment to meaningful social change.

Beyond the pages of Varta, also take a look at the schedule of the upcoming 9th edition of ‘Dialogues: Calcutta International LGBT Film and Video Festival’, November 26-29, 2015 at the Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Kolkata – click here.

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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