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Lipstick Under My Burkha: Not Feminism But A Revenge Saga Against Men

I watched the much talked about ‘Lipstick Under My Burqa’ earlier this week, the first movie I’ve paid a ticket to go watch in the theatre all year. I’m not so sure it was a good decision. All week I’ve been pondering the discomfort I feel with the film. Wasn’t it supposed to make me, the Vocal Feminist, very happy? Well, it didn’t. I found some clarity in my thinking after reading this article (‘Lipstick Under My Burkha Is Bold But Not Feminist).

The story told me that women had problems. I knew that already. So? Does it lay them out in a nuanced way? Let’s see – marital rape, slut-shaming, moral policing. Okay, complex issues, further complicated by the tangle that is gender politics. The bedroom, women’s bodies, our relationships with each other are fraught with so much power play, so many sensitivities that there’s room for a really nuanced story.

Okay, we need to talk about the men in the movie. Why, you ask? Because neither patriarchy nor feminism exist in an isolated world of only women or only men. Both are upheld by people of all genders. Everyone is impacted in some manner by the conflicts inherent in these systems.

Four stories with a woman at the center of each. Let’s meet the men in each one’s world.

Usha buaji/Rosy is surrounded by male tenants/nephews that she keeps in check with stern looks and words. How do these men deal with an older woman who wields financial power over them? Add further nuance with one of them being a Muslim burkha shop owner – how does he deal with his home and livelihood hanging on the decisions of an older, uppercaste Hindu woman? There’s also the key male character in this story – a young lifeguard. He’s nice looking, he’s Haryanvi and he responds to phone calls from an unknown woman propositioning him. Uh, that’s it.

Rehana Abidi is an impish teenager who works at her father’s burkha shop and moonlights as a Led Zepplin humming, boots-wearing, beer-chugging activist collegegoer. How does her father rationalise letting his only child study in a co-ed college while swathed in a burkha? How does he feel about the scantily clad Miley Cyrus poster on his daughter’s wall (flimsily hidden under a towel)? What do the classmates who undoubtedly see Rehana’s daily burkha/ripped jeans metamorphosis make of her spurty activism? Why does the cool stud, Dhruv, find her interesting (apart from her being the only girl in Bhopal to know ‘Stairway to Heaven’)? Do they talk about anything other than music, drinking and making out?

Shireen Aslam appears to work in a world of only women. Her colleagues are all women, her customers are women and she’s not shown sharing a scene with any man other than her husband and her three sons. Somehow with all this, she manages to be the ‘top salesgirl’. That’s a sales job and I don’t care what you’re selling, you can’t NEVER meet or see men. What is her husband like? How is he coping with losing his job? Does he appear defeated and indifferent to whatever else goes on (which explains why he doesn’t seem to be looking for another job)? Is he charged up, angry and driven (with enough energy to openly date a mistress and appear to enjoy it)? How can he be both? That’s not character nuance, that’s Jekyll-and-Hyde.

And finally, the story of our enfant terrible Leela a.k.a The Bad Girl who is sleeping with a photographer while trying to kickstart a business and also survive an engagement with a good Indian boy. Who’s this fiance? He’s going to keep her in a tiny room overlooking the train tracks, in a house bursting with people. But he’s also buying her mother a house. How does he feel about the financial comittment he’s undertaking? And wouldn’t he feel a lot more entitled to his fiance’s time, attention and worshipful devotion? Hey, that’s how human beings think. Alright, never mind him. How about the photographer boyfriend? Does he love our girl, does he not care? Is he using her, is he feeling used? Does he contribute to the business set-up and if he doesn’t believe it, is mere sex enough motivation for him to follow her around? And if that’s so, why does he refuse to sleep with her later?

Once more, let’s list out the men of Lipstick Under My Burkha:

  1. Irrationally hot-headed dependent (tenant/nephew)
  2. Boyfriend photographer prone to irrational rage, jealousy, ego trips and indifference
  3. Slow-witted, corrupt government officials
  4. Brainless hunk lifeguard who scatters words and smiles without abandon
  5. Socially awkward virgin fiance who assumes his fiance is one too
  6. Featureless colleague of husband who blabs to the wife about her husband losing his job
  7. Distant, oppressive father who frowns menacingly more than he speaks
  8. Abusive, cheating, absent father-husband
  9. College cad who dumps his pregnant girlfriend, seduces an underage girl and dumps her at the first hint of uncoolness

The first two are caricatures of irrational men whom the women constantly bully. 3-5 seem incapable of functioning as intelligent adults. 6 & 7 are not really people but blank walls with vague faces. The last two are versions of the all-dark MONSTER. Do any of these men sound like actual human beings?

I’ve heard the cry of ‘But this is a story about women!’.

This story is not set inside a women’s bathroom so why is anyone not female such shit?

That’s no more an accurate depiction of women than it is of their worlds or the men. Feminism is not about villifying men. It’s not about deifying women as long-suffering and showing the metaphorical middle finger to the world (only under the burkha and behind closed doors). It’s about respect and rights for every human being, regardless of gender or other qualifiers.

Slotting men so narrowly amounts to discrimination and what kind of feminism is it, which discriminates? As a woman, I am personally offended. I live in a world that treats me in problematic ways, yes. But I am not so weak that I need to believe that every man is a monster/imbecile. I’m offended by a narrative that tries every storyteller’s trick to define me as a victim. It turns the fight for equality into a revenge saga against men and that is offensive.

What’s worse, having adequately established the ‘See, women’s lives are HARD. Men are so horrible.’, the story closes. Like the article points out – in a cramped room, the women huddled together sharing a surreptitious cigarette and pointing a middle finger. Behind closed doors. What’s the point? Feminism was never about glorying in woe-is-me, any more than it was about hating men. Feminism above all, through its changing definitions, has always been about hope for a better world. Lipstick Under My Burkha offers none of that and sits back to have a smug, self-satisfied smoke at having put down the men. Note: Victory over men, not over patriarchy and what kind of victory is this?

Does this movie show us a single man that is not a cardboard stereotype? Any human characterizations of over half the world’s population? Any realistic depictions of the perpetrators-parallel victims of patriarchy? Any conflicted human beings troubled by the gender double standards while struggling to keep up with the changes wrought by feminism? Any angst at all in any of the men who seem to drive the women’s lives? Even a hint, a flicker of support, compassion, consideration for anyone? Any guilt, regret, confusion over how to express it? Huh?

There’s the problem. It’s not feminism if it’s looks, sounds and tastes like a revenge saga against men.

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*If you liked this post, you’ll want to follow the Facebook Page. I’m Ramya Pandyan (a.k.a. Ideasmith) and I’m on Twitter and Instagram.

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Do You Have A BiFF?

It’s an important question. A BiFF can change your whole outlook to the opposite sex, to love, relating, societies, work. A good BiFF is all good things rolled into one, a sort of Human Being Plus. I’d go so far to say the BiFF is like one of the X-Men. Wait, what’s a BiFF, you say?

A BiFF my dear boys and girls, is a Bisexual Friend Forever. I’m a big believer in friendship with the opposite sex so my BiFF has to be a bisexual man. Let me tell you why BiFFs are so amazing. But first, what do we know about bisexuality?

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*Image via thaikrit on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Rainbows are everyone’s favorite cause on the internet and we’re steeped in images of men kissing men, women marrying each other and matched pairs everywhere. Where do we stand on people who swing both ways?

At one end of the spectrum is the Sex and The City school of thought that sees bisexuality as a kind of greed, of not wanting to settle with just one sort. At the other end…well, need we call it an end since it’s pretty much the rest of the icebBoyerg? Yeah, anyone that’s not matched into One Male-One Female is not human. That. Let’s return to Sex and the City since that’s pop culture’s most recent revolutionary offering around sexuality. It’s over ten years old and that in internet years, could constitute four generations. I don’t know how bisexual people felt about it then but I’m not going to worry about that now.

Let’s set aside the theory bits and let me tell you about what I’ve seen. My first interaction with an openly bisexual man was when we were out on our first date. He told me that he had kissed another man. And then he paused in his story. What I said went on to define who I am (and I’m so proud of this),

“Did you like it?” I asked.

When he completed his story, I thanked him for sharing something so private with me. He smiled and told me that it was test to see whether I’d think of him as weird. No, I thought considering, not really. It felt as normal as anything else and I couldn’t find anything inside my reactions that felt revulsion. He went on to introduce me to John Mayer and Sex and the City. He was the only guy I knew who had even heard of the show, let alone owning the entire VCD collection. It would be a few years before I became involved in the rainbow cause and longer still for friends to start talking about their own bisexuality.

Here’s what I know about bisexual men. They have none of the homophobic hang-ups of the straight men I’ve dated. This means, they’re a lot more relaxed in their own skin. They aren’t as horrified by women’s power as most straight men (obviously or otherwise). They are not defined by limited notions of what constitutes manly behavior. Interestingly, some of them are even alpha males.

At the same time, they are not as weighed down by the discrimination meted out to the gay community (of course this may just be the specific people I know). They are not either screaming themselves hoarse waving rainbow flags or devolving into sulky passive-aggressiveness against straight people. Their sexuality is just one more thing about them, like the colour of their hair or their favorite food. Isn’t that interesting now? By being pan-sexual, sexuality ceases to define them. Think about a man that is not defined by who he chooses to sleep with.

I’ve always thought that homophobia and low self-esteem are both led and reinforced by straight men. Okay, a very specific kind of straight man. It’s that guy who keeps alive notions like, ‘Ooh boys’ night out! Because women are terrors to be gotten away from’, ‘Woman on top! Yay, porn! No, not in real life!’ You can see why I think the Bisexual man is an advancement on this breed.

Once upon a time, the gay best friend was a fashionable idea, conjuring up images of boy/girl duos shopping for pastels and ogling men together (“Is he for you or for me?”). In reality, the friendships are nothing like that. Shopping and bird-watching are the most trivial of pursuits two people can undertake together. And with people who are supposedly as emotionally evolved as women and gay men, really is that the best one can come up with? In truth, I find the conversations boil down to who is feeling more marginalised, more discriminated against (Women, of course! We’re the biggest mistreated minority in the world! But then I’m biased). If a conversation goes beyond that, it’s because we are two people who like each, regardless of our sexuality. And the sexuality bit is just something that well, we don’t have anything in common. Gay relationship dynamics are very different from straight ones.

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*Image via stockimages on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But bisexual men make for great friends to women. They think like men but they are also able to relate to the way straight women think and feel. Picture this. You’re getting ready for a first date with a hot guy. Turn and ask your caricatured gay friend for advice. Run around wheeing and clapping hands and jumping up and down. And then the rest of the week agonising about the date.

Instead ask your BiFF about the date. He’ll give you a once-over and say,

“Looks good. Less lipstick. I know you like it but if I were him, I wouldn’t want to kiss that. If you want to get kissed, lose the lipstick.”

So you go, “Hmph. It’s a first date. We are only going to have dinner.”

“So?” he counters, “Don’t you want to have sex with him?”

“I haven’t thought about it,” you bluster, “It’s only the first date!”

“You met him on Tinder,” he replies and looks away.

No, he isn’t being respectful and giving you time to wipe your tears in private. He noticed someone hot walk across the room.

“Your hair looks really nice, by the way,” he interrupts your stream of thought, as he starts to get up. “See you later.”

He pays, his eyes never leaving his target and reaches for you with one arm. You sigh and resign yourself to the side-hug. “Call me if you need to get away” he whispers into your hair and vanishes.

Yeah, like I said, the BiFF is all things good about a man. What happens if your date is a creep and you have to call him and he’s busy? Well, that’s the subject for another post.

A Professional Woman

A fortnight ago, a friend and I parted ways. He came to me, looking for comforting, for sympathy. I gave him instead, honesty. Words were exchanged and the friendship is now a thing of the past. The thing is, I never offered comfort or sympathy, only outright, unvarnished honesty. We’ve spoken of it. He’s pointed it out as my character trait; I haven’t denied it. Yet, he expected it of me. Because I’m a woman.

Last week another friend and I had an argument, one that’s been brewing like dark clouds for awhile. The storm finally broke when he said,

“Women are more considerate than men.”

I replied.

“No, they are not.”

He insisted. It made me as angry as if he had told me my place was in the kitchen. I argued that he wasn’t a woman, I was. He replied with that perfect blend of dismissive condescension and polite acid,

“You…are a different specimen.”

I was angry then, but I am not, now. Both these men have been raised to believe that men are bad people and women and kind, gentle, long-suffering victims. They’ve each tried, very hard, to not be that personification of their gender. They are polite, courteous and nice – to women who are gentle, kind and nice. They play a part and they play it well, especially around women who play their parts in the same play. How are they to react to a woman who refuses to say her lines on cue?

A Professional Woman

*Image (without text) via stockimages on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Being a woman is a job, it would seem. It requires conformity to certain customs, delivery of some expected things and a certain kind of etiquette. It is not enough to have a uterus that bleeds every month. That’s only the graduate degree. To truly be a woman, one must perform in relationships, outward presentation and inside one’s head. I’m quite terrible at it and I get told so, often. I’m too flashy (modesty befits a lady), too opinionated (women are supposed to be peacemakers, not troublemakers), too outspoken (yes, this is a thing, haven’t you heard of diplomacy? Learn some.)

D minus on the job of being a woman.

I’ve grown up hearing versions of this my whole life. I was a tomboy through school and college, a fact that people who know me now find hard to believe. My style and my vanity are recent acquisitions, like grown-up shoes that I started wearing well into my 20s. Life has just been easier for me, that way. But these, like apparel, are superficial and come off easily. Who I am under that, hasn’t changed. I don’t want to be treated a certain way, because I am a woman. Because, the price to be paid is that I have to behave a certain way for being a woman. What’s wrong, I’ve been asked, in being nice or considerate? Nothing at all. Except, I’d like to do it because I’m me, rather than because I’m a woman. And by the same token, I would like people to be nice or considerate to me, because I’m me, rather than because I’m a woman. And I would like to reserve the right to sympathy for those I believe deserve it, rather than having to distribute it for free ‘because I’m a woman‘.

Men like the two I’ve spoken of, come back with the refrain of not being nice or considerate to women like me, because as I lay it out, ‘they don’t want to be’. Fair enough, I say. Except, is their consideration and their politeness subject to a cold formula of adherence to a certain behaviour? If you are only nice to people who follow rules that you uphold, then you’re not really being nice, you’re being transactional. People pay you with their conformity for your good treatment of them. How is that different from a bribe or protection money?

I would like to be respected for my actions and my ideas, not for my body plumbing. As commonsensical as this thought sounds to me, it comes across as rebellious, disrespectful and needlessly selfish (all names I’ve been called). And because there is more of people who think this than there is me (I’m only one), I find myself having to compromise. I don a pretty outfit, I smile at my camera and post the picture online and I dimple my thanks when people show me how much they Like me, for that smile. I’m learning to be a Professional Woman.

“I Love You If….”: The Transactional Nature of an Indian Man’s Love

I’m finding that there’s something extremely transactional in nature, about the Indian man’s love. Let me explain ‘transactional’. Indian men can be loving and supportive. They can be romantic, soulful, understanding, patient. They’re protective, chivalrous, generous even. They can be all of these as long as it is within a defined universe, to a very specific kind of woman.

As Indians, we live in very tightly defined social structures, even today. It doesn’t actively occur to us in our daily lives but we are governed by a complex maze of social norms, conditioning and rules. I realize this fully only because I question and defy a lot of them. Doing this is a fulltime job, practically a lifetime, an identity by itself.

How do other people react to someone who doesn’t live by their rules? That’s the oldest story in human behaviour, of course. The thing is Indian society is mired in a labyrinth of heavy, conflicting, sometimes obsolete rules. It’s like being caught in a house full of naked wires, broken steps and crumbling ceilings. A single misstep could be fatal and there are so many possible that the living is no more than survival, just barely.

Snapping out of that gristly metaphor, how does this translate in everyday life? People do not treat you well if you do not follow the strict rules. Deviations are seen as aberrations.You get treated badly, not because you have behaved badly (lying, cheating, being mean or rude to, being selfish). You may treat people around you with respect, gentleness and affection. But none of that is considered if you do this while breaking a social rule.

It is considered perfectly acceptable to be mean or rude to someone who has defied a social convention (“What does she think of herself, dressing that way?”). It is fine to treat a woman less than respectfully if she does not dress and behave the way a ‘good Indian woman’ should behave. It’s not that a woman who makes different choices about her life, does not need affection, love, support and yes, protection from unsavory elements. But since she chooses to flout those rules, all of these get increasingly restricted to her. Affections and respect are paid out in direct proportion to the adherence to social norms. That is what I mean by transactional.

This may be as seemingly minor as the major she pursues in college, never mind that she is getting an education, a conventional one at that. It may be as inconsequential as choosing to keep her hair short in a family/community where women usually keep their hair long.

It may be a little more complex such as refusing to sit in a certain seat or room because of her gender. Doesn’t this last one sound ludicrous? After all, the Indian law does not see us as a gender segregated country. But family functions, even wedding banquets appear to be places that you must only socialize with people of your gender. Down to today’s modern-day get-togethers and dinners, notice how the women crowd into the kitchen or into bedrooms while the men sit in the living room and discuss politics, sports, business and work? I’m talking about Mumbai in 2013, not Madurai in the 1800s.

It may be something as personal as her own beliefs, not even as major as the religion she follows but that she chooses to not let religion get in the way of her political views or her friendships. How do you think an agnostic woman who believes that Muslims are being mistreated, is treated in a religious family? Or if she is vocally supportive of gay rights, why does that affect her prospects of being in a (straight) relationship?

Now certainly both sexes are equally guilty of this kind of a rabid reaction to defiance of convention. Female cliques are alive and kicking and the terror mother-in-law remains very much a key character in Indian drama. However, I am thinking about an emotion that goes beyond logical distinctions, defined rules and intellectual discourse. We love people for who they are, for who we become when we are with them, for that unique something that they and they alone bring to the universe. It may be harder to love someone who is different from your notions of what a human being should be, but it’s not impossible. What’s more, those notions being so tightly, suffocatingly defined, are any of us likely to find real love?

In the many patterns I see in the men around me, there is this. I’ve experienced love and loyalty and friendship, all my life. But they’re all contained in these tiny spaces of time when I’m being who they expect me to be. Put one foot out of place and all these things appear to vanish. They are supportive (extremely so) when they see me falter and fail. But they are nowhere around when things are fine and I am not a tender creature that they need to protect. They are there to chastise me when I slip up but almost never to bounce ideas off as equals and hardly ever to applaud me when I’m successful.

There’s the praise that comes my way when it is in a setting that follows convention. An academic achievement in a traditional school/college, a promotion in a steady job – these things are celebrated. But a more unconventional achievement that nevertheless brings joy is not seen as something that deserves acclaim. The new age Indian man may be openly proud of a very educated woman in his life, who has a high-flying corporate job. How often do you catch him boasting about a woman in his life writing a book, going on a car rally or starting up an e-business of her own?

Aren’t love, support and loyalty 100% things? There’s the support you need when you’re down but there’s another kind of support you want from your people when you’re just fine and when you’re great too. I find that severely lacking in the world around. And I think, my world loves me only when I’m miserable and down and begging for help. It’s transactional, indeed.

Pink Is Long Way From Unisex

Women…….

burnt their bras. donned leggings and in some cases the pants in the family.

picked up swords and knives and eventually guns. also ploughs. and pens. and hammers.

went to work. demanded a vote. ran for politics. were good leaders. and bad ones.
learnt maths and science and accounts. flew aircrafts. then rockets.

threw hand grenades. wrote poetry. and scandalous literature.

walked out of marriages. said “I’m not ready for commitment”.

There are still far more women willingly taking to behavior, clothes and roles that are supposed to be ‘masculine‘ than men doing the same to that which is considered ‘feminine‘. Remember that the next time someone talks about insecurity.

* Please do note the italics. The definitions of ‘masculinity’ and ‘feminity’ are fluid.

**A version is posted at Yahoo! Real Beauty.

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