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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.

The Doomed Relationships of India

I am not in dil-toot anymore. It was dil-toot, a phrase I’ve coined to denote a less-than-heartbreak, more like a heart-pinch, just painful enough for me to feel something and think about it but not so shattering that I can’t piece together a coherent thought or sentence. Did I ever mention how or why it ended?

It ended when he said,

” I don’t know what to say.”

It ended because he assumed it was all about what he thought and what he had to say. It didn’t even occur to him that a conversation is between two people and that the other person might have something to say. It ended either because he assumed that or because he did not want to face what I might have had to say.

I’ve weathered the deep sadness, the now-familiar disappointment. I’ve even been able to see how this was a life experience that bothered me just enough to learn from it and also feel very good about the good parts. Being in love really is a wonderful feeling. I have remembered something I keep forgetting when my heart shatters – that love is that undefinable experience that goes beyond attraction, logic, compatibility and shared interests. It falls in the realm of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink moment and everything that follows is an attempt to explain it. I don’t have to, anymore. And that frees me up to look at the future with the hope of more love and other adventures.

I am tickled, even charmed by the surprised wonder in a boy/man’s eyes when it first occurs to him that I’m paying attention to him. I’m not even the most beautiful or desirable woman around but just the fact that I am listening to him and could it be – I like him? What’s worrying is that a lot of men never seem to get past that. That wonder takes on the quality of suspicion, fear even. And that’s part of what turns into slut-shaming, into cheating, into harassment or treating women badly. It’s the inability to handle any reaction from a woman but her derision or fear. Men who cannot deal with a woman’s appreciation or interest – is that not a poisonous problem?

I remember the deadend expression on his face, the frantic tone of his voice in the last moments as my dil-toot‘ed. I have seen it before on many men’s faces. I’ve assumed that it’s coldness, cruelty, selfishness and many other such things. But I’ve come to realise, this is something else. It is the outer limit of a man’s ability to feel, identify and express emotion.

Last week I watched Bramhan Naman, a disturbing movie by any account. It left me deeply sad because among other things, it exposes how woefully ill-equipped the Indian man is when it comes to dealing with the world of myriad emotions that make up the framework of relationships and adult life. In the movie (and echoed in real life) the verbose protagonist yearns for an intangible fantasy but can barely speak to the woman who spawns it. He treats professed, open affection with viciousness and is paralysed by his guilt and fear. When he encounters a woman with the right mix of attractiveness and vulnerability, he cannot bring himself to even respond, let alone initiate interest. So he settles for gestures like getting her food (the last), showing off his family business (the second) and stalking her (the first). These are the actions of a socially inept child, not a completely functioning adult. That adults with their freedom and power do this, is what makes it dangerous.

I complain long and hard about how Indian men (men in general but particularly, brutally Indian men) are infantilised and stunted in their emotional growth. This is what it looks like. They are barely functioning adults who are unable to deal with normal human emotions. Unable, not unwilling.

19brahman-naman

This outer-limit expression comes after bewilderment and panic. It’s not even resignation since that requires an ability to see that something is bigger than oneself and experience giving up. It’s literally like a very small baby who has not developed sight yet, running into a wall and being stunned, unable to figure out whatwherewhyhowohisthispainshouldicryuhwhatwait. Most men live in that place the whole time they are in love or a relationship. Boy, that’s scary. Add to it such nuanced, problematic ideas such as guilt over sex, Madonna/whore syndromes, mama’s boy dependency and toxic masculinity. No wonder Indian men are such a mess.

I cannot help but feel deep pity for them. And then great sadness for us women and the kind of futile relationships we have to endure as a result. Is there any hope for us all?

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