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The “B” Word: Why You Shouldn’t Bark Bitch

By: Natalie Lopez

Bitch. The word that began from the reference to a female dog has evolved. Now, it serves as a high and vulgar insult directed towards women. The use of the word held the intention that comparing one to a dog would create a ridicule of a person. A female dog made that matter more de-masculating and thus humiliating in its original connotation.

In modern conversations, bitch has steered from comparison to a dog and has created its own negative connotation. This determined identity of a “bitch” is what others refer to when attempting to demean the power and ability of a woman through intimidation. The improper use of the word has created identity traits that misogynists use to emasculate women’s accomplishments. For example, in the occurrence that a woman reaches a position of leadership and acts on it, they label them a bitch to demean and belittle their success. While society would look up to a man in the same position, they refer to a woman as a bitch.

The most recent victim called a bitch for doing the same exact job a man is doing is the Democrat Representative from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When Republican Representative from Florida, Ted Yoho, accosted Representative Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the capitol, it was not a new experience for her. She recalls in her address to Yoho’s actions that she had experienced men harass her in previous positions in restaurants, bars and in general life as a woman in a busy city. Men who treat women to this language are too often forgiven and exonerated from any repercussions for far too long. 

In her speech, Representative Ocasio-Cortez recognizes this and blames the commonality of it on the current culture that permits this behavior . “It is cultural,” she stated, “It is a culture of a lack of impunity, of acceptance of violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.” As long as other men do not hold accountability within their social groups, and as long as women stay silent and remiss about these verbal accostings, we are tackling another barrier that exists to divide gender equality. 

Yoho, in his response to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, accounted his respect towards women stemming from the fact that he was a father and husband who needed to be aware of the language choices he made. Yoho never acknowledged how degrading his remark had been or how sexist he had acted towards a young, talented Latinx politician in a very sexist arena. Instead Yoho chose to announce that he would, “conduct [him]self from a place of passion,” a passion that he could not apologize for. Upon listening to Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s impassioned speech, Yoho must have decided that he did hold respect for women because he lived with them, and that’s another issue.

Men like Yoho, who choose to hide behind the women they love, claim they are not sexist because they respect the women in their lives. This didn’t translate very well for Yoho. It’s possible that he is not using the same language he used towards Representative Ocasio-Cortez at home, but so long as he calls someone a bitch, he is not supporting the women in his life from men, like him, who negate women’s fair treatment. 

What we shouldn’t misunderstand is that not all use of the word is wrong. Women have been reclaiming the word in an attempt to take back a harassing term and use it to empower themselves. Where women choose to call themselves a bitch, it’s not exactly how Yoho chose to address Representative Ocasio-Cortez. Women have been reclaiming the word through a new assigned definition that calls a strong woman, one who is owning her power and ability, a boss bitch. Women and people who choose to should hold the ability to reform the misuse of the word bitch, but not continue to use it as a form of bullying and belittling. The men who bark bitch are the reason women are reclaiming this negative derogation in the first place, bitch is a word that should never have been transformed to fight women.

All cuss words stem from derogatory terms directed to minority groups. Bitch in particular holds a special place among these words because it is so commonly overused without much insight to the abasement it pushes. Because it’s not just being called a Bitch that should anger you, it’s the fact that women are being degraded and disrespected so publicly and commonly while society has chosen to ignore it.

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The Puzzle of the Sari and Indian Womanhood

By: Atmanah Parab

When I had six yards of fabric wrapped haphazardly around my body, hands clumsy and unsure of which step to take next. I wondered, was now the time for a YouTube search? I also wondered whether my cousins would laugh if they could see me at that moment. 

When my mom had helped me put the sari on just two days prior, the fabric had slipped through her fingers like magic and laid precisely where she wanted it to, the result of years of experience. Eventually, with the help of several safety pins, two or three friends, and the aforementioned Youtube video, I strolled out of the house, sari somewhat intact. I felt a sense of pride as that was the first time I’d put on a sari on my own without my mom’s assistance. 

When I was seven years old, I remember gasping in awe as my mom showed me a newspaper clipping of an article about her and her sari collection. In 1997 when my mother and father moved into a small apartment in Ontario, CA, they were some of the first Indian people in the city. The article featured pictures of my mom doing her laundry in the apartment complex laundry room wearing a shiny green sari. The luster and hue of the fabric in stark contrast with the neutrality of her background despite the fading from age.

When I was just a little older and living in India, I marveled at my grandmother who wore a sari almost every day of her life. Uncomfortable in pants of any kind, she lived her life in a balancing act of fabric and friction. In it, she couldn’t run or jump but she could work in the kitchen, walk around the neighborhood and take her afternoon naps without even a grumble of discomfort. 

When I tried on my first sari at thirteen, I was shocked and confused when I didn’t instantly look like my favorite Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone. The saris present in the movies certainly tell a story of womanhood but it is one altered by the need to appeal to lust. Featuring prominently in Bollywood movies is not the Indian woman and her sari but almost a costume of them. Blouses are reduced to bejeweled bras and the front of the sari is pushed off to the side to expose a flat stomach. There isn’t anything wrong with choosing to wear a sari that is decidedly sexy, but the use of such saris almost exclusively in songs or scenes where a female in a movie is to be highlighted as attractive runs counter to the true significance of saris to the Indian woman. 

The sari is not just an item of clothing, it is an institution. Indian women wear the sari as a form of expression, but the sari itself tells a story of the woman who wears it. Traditionally, a girl is bought her first sari after her first period, a sign of her transition into womanhood. She is taught how to wear it by the other females in the house and can now wear it on special occasions. 

Buying a sari is an event in itself. There are as many variations to the sari as there are languages and subgroups within the Indian subcontinent. Not only that, locales are known for saris in special fabrics, colors and patterns. The way a sari is draped around the body is also a matter of regional preference. All this versatility and identity wrapped up in a length of fabric. 

Upon setting foot into a specialty sari store in Kerala, two states over from where my family lives in India, we were greeted with a bustle of activity on arrival. Sitting around a large table laid out with a veritable competitive bracket of potential purchases, we chatted and exchanged stories while sipping on complimentary sodas. The four women in my family including me, did not leave the store until each of us had two or three saris each in a sampling of the local flavor. Simply the mode of shopping makes the experience feel heavier and more substantial than running to your local Forever 21 for a dress. 

However, for some the cost of donning sari is higher than just the rupees or dollars on the price tag. For Indian transwomen, life is incredibly difficult, outwardly using femine presentation such as saris and having other people be aware of their identities often leads them away from their homes and communities to the “hijra” communities that are mired by poverty and kept afloat by coerced sex work. However, these communities are often the only places where they can be accepted for who they are. In an interview with the Diplomat, Shreya, a transgender woman living in Mumbai, spoke to her experience, “We leave our families, the security and safety of our homes, only to plunge into poverty and destitution. All this so that we can wear a saree.”[1] There are risks to being authentically feminine, to wear something like a sari that for many woman is an unquestioned given.

To be a woman anywhere is complicated, marking a balance between what is perceived as femininity and what is seen as “other”. As a symbol of womanhood and femininity in India, the sari is not just beautiful fabric draped about the body free from the complexities of history and society. It is history, it is womanhood, it is femininity. Uncovering the secrets of a sari as I’ve learned go far beyond a Youtube tutorial. 

[1] https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/what-does-indias-transgender-community-want/

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Shattered Hegemonies: Queerness in Precolonial India

By: Sai Siddhaye

Just as glass, which we perceive as a solid mass, is actually an amorphous substance somewhere in between solid and liquid, culture is also ever-fluid, and actions from centuries ago still sent shock waves to our contemporary lives. As glass slowly shifts and flows over time, human cultures also flow and adapt, yet both will be unrecognizable when shattered by a traumatic force. This traumatic force, of course, is imperialism. Colonization has irreparably changed indigenous cultures worldwide, both erasing and rewriting traditional practices and beliefs. With this in consideration, trying to understand these practices becomes more complex, because the context within which they evolved no longer exists. This holds especially true in discourse about sexuality and gender. Many cultures which may appear binaristic or heteronormative today certainly weren’t so hundreds of years ago. Indeed, Foucault claimed that sexuality-based identity categories were a 19th century European construction, and did not exist prior to that. If this is true, then the political vilification of certain identity categories relies on a Eurocentric and imperialist ideology. 

Let’s put this in the context of postcolonial South Asia. The figure of “the homosexual” is pivotal for many discussions of what is “quintissentially Indian”, as modern Indian culture strongly enforces hegemonic masculinity and heteronormative values that erase queerness in any form. Contemporary India–particularly Hindu nationalist theory–frames same-sex attraction and sexuality as a Western import, a regrettable product of globalization that has only recently stopped being criminal under the law (though of course it is still socially illicit). Such a characterization, of course, is far from the case; queerness has existed in South Asia for centuries, and it was an accepted part of human sexuality and pleasure before the colonial era. We can see evidence of queerness not only in South Asian languages but also in religious and historical texts and monuments. Though ‘queer’ is a modern term, it is the closest umbrella term we have to describe nonnormative sexuality. From here on out, I will be speaking about what is known today as India, but it is important to understand that the hard borders and land disputes are also a part of the legacy of the British Raj; South Asia is incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse, and the political distinction between India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is a modern concept conceived during decolonization. 

Many Indian scholars have studied the queer history of India and Hinduism, the most notable of whom are Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, and Rohit Dasgupta. They have written several books and articles about their research, including Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History by Vanita and Kidwai, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Vanita, and Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging by Dasgupta. Their studies cover a wide variety of topics, and provide an approximate timeline during which queer attraction can be analyzed.

Medieval India, according to Vanita and Kidwai, is most easily studied through the theology that was present at the time. Hindu deities were treated as genderfluid and andrygynous beings; the reincarnation of godly avatars meant that Hindu deities occupied many different bodies that were male, female, and intersex. Vatsyana’s Kamasutra, which–unlike its public perception in America–was something of a guide for spiritual life, even describes queer sexual acts purely for pleasure. Many other ancient texts also feature intimate same-sex relationships, both sexual and asexual in nature. In the Mahabharata, for example, Krishna and Arjuna are said to have a bond of friendship that goes beyond marriage or procreation, and their friendship is a very important aspect of this epic. Krishna states that “Arjuna is more important to him than wives, children or kinsmen- there can be many spouses and sons but there is only one Arjuna, without whom he cannot live”. Though the nature of this relationship is not stated, the close intimacy between these two men implies that the modern hegemonic standards of masculine friendships–and the distinction between platonic and romantic relationships–were not expected at the time. In the Kritivasa Ramayana, the sage Bhagiratha is said to be born from the sexual union of two women, blessed by the divine sanction of the god Shankar. The variance in sexuality and gender in ancient texts and understanding of divinity suggest that sexual fluidity was also not culturally taboo at the time. 

This fluidity in intimacy is also present within the languages of India. The term ‘sahki’ in Sanskrit-derived languages translates to one’s close friend, yet the space the term occupies within devotional poetry describes a relationship that is much more intimate and sapphic than simply a friendly onlooker, and ancient paintings of heroines often eroticized their female friends. Because this role between friend and lover has no place in the Western cosmology, it is difficult to translate into American culture.

Many religious monuments and sites that depict same-sex eroticism still exist to this day. Konarak Temple in Odisha, for example, is a temple for the Hindu sun god Surya. This temple includes carvings and statues that depicts erotic scenes, which are sometimes queer in nature. This temple also harbors many images of group sex, suggesting that nonnormative sexual configurations was not uncommon, and that the patriarchal nuclear family did not play as big a role in Indian culture as it did today. The Khajuraho Monuments are a series of Hindu and Jain temples also depict same-sex eroticism, particularly among women. These temples indicate that in Medieval India, sexuality was seen as a spiritual practice, and queer attraction was not shunned in the religious tradition. As Dasgupta said, “Hinduism is content to allow opposites to confront each other without resolution, which provides a space for non-normative sexualities and same sex desires to exist”. 

This acceptance of fluidity, however, did not continue after colonial interaction began to occur. In the 1700s, Britain–driven by a Victorian obsession with ‘purity’–prompted policies that regulated sexuality. This was driven in part by the large number of British men who, while in the Indian colonies, would have homosexual encounters with Indian men. Homosexuality was painted as an “oriental vice” and Indian culture demonized as “backwards”. This also seems to have been a justification for the further expansion of British imperial rule; claiming to civilize otherwise “savage” indigenous people has been a long-standing excuse for enacting colonial violence. Thus bore the rise of the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code in 1861, which made homosexuality illegal under punishment of incarceration for life. It criminalized queerness and forced any queer relationships, whether homosexual or simply nonnormative in nature, underground. This hypocritical and archaic law was only repealed in 2018, after centuries of damage to Indian culture and people. Section 377 also allowed colonial leaders to outlaw certain texts that they deemed ‘deviant’, which included some Hindu and Perso-Arabic tales and epics; such censorship allowed Britain to dictate what kind of masculinity was socially acceptable, and which actions were effeminate and therefore criminal.

Dasgupta states in Digital Queer Cultures in India that  “the normalisation of heterosexual identity is a part of the processes of colonial modernity”. This includes the centuries in which the British Raj rewrote the cultural rules for masculinity and sexuality, which bore the violent heteronormativity present in India today. This is especially ironic if we analyze the pinkwashing strategies that the Global North uses to depict the Global South as unaccepting and homophobic. The cultural vilification of queerness in India is a product of colonial occupation, and denying the material impact of the British Raj on queer people in India falls into the same branch of imperialist ideology that Britain utilized to enact violence in the first place.

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Family and Fear v.s. Peace and Love

By: Atmanah Parab

I’ve had to reacquaint myself with many aspects of living at home since quarantine started. Whether it be abiding by my parent’s mandatory household vegetarian days or my sister stealing my fancy moisturizer.  Bhajans played at frankly inconsiderate volumes that wake me up before my 10:30am alarm. The smell of dinner, pervasive and yet somehow welcome at the same time. All small changes I’ve reincorporated into my daily routine.   

One heavier thing I’ve had to get used to are the twice-a-day calls to Mumbai to check on my grandfather. In 2016, my grandfather had a severe stroke that resulted in paralysis from head to toe of the left side. Since then, the structure of my family’s life has changed to include trips to India whenever financially possible to check on him. A part-time ward boy was appointed to take care of my grandfather’s medical treatment but after the death of my grandmother, the ward boy and his family had to move in full-time to make sure someone was always looking after my grandfather. 

This brings us to the current date. In the time of COVID-19, movement is limited and fear is unending. For the first few days of quarantine, I spent my days in a bubble. I was annoyed and bored as only those privileged enough to be complacent can be. My immediate family was safely at home and non-immunocompromised, as long as we stayed inside, this crisis would blow over soon.

This facade of peace was shattered by the realization that while coronavirus was spreading rapidly in the United States, it was also spreading in Mumbai, where the rest of my family is. 

I see a field of matches and fire, unencumbered, engulfing them all in the blink of an eye. In my fearful mind’s eye, Mumbai feels like this grid of matches. The first thing to understand is that Mumbai is not a city of easily recognized structure. It is a civilization built into the sea and reaching for the sky to hold its bustling population. Pavement dwellings built from a hodgepodge of materials with hammered tin roofs are often a two-minute distance from brick and mortar buildings oozing from the humidity, and those yet, are ten minutes from sleek high-rises with balconies to clap from. That is, if you’re not counting the worst traffic you could imagine. One thing is evident in this organized chaos, Mumbai is a city of its many, many people. It is incredibly common for multiple generations of a family to live in one house, after all that is the way my family has lived for decades back. In an area like this, social distancing poses a glaringly obvious challenge. 

The second thing to understand is that in some eyes, my father has failed in his most important duty. As the only son of a relatively traditional Indian family, it is a part of his duty to take care of his parents in their old age. The roles he plays and how they conflict are only thrown into sharper relief with financial pressure to perform at his highest capacity, make sure his daughters and wife are safe and to make sure that his father is being cared for, over the phone with no way of physically going over there. All he can do is make sure to check in as much as possible and take care of his father through the phone. Some calls are sadder than others, there are days where even the smallest movements normally possible through physical therapy are simply too much for my grandfather. On other days he can’t seem to remember any of us. On the worst days, he’s unwell and fragile and the distance between California and Mumbai seems too far to help. 

Kishore is the name of the ward boy who takes care of my grandfather. Him and his family now live in the same flat that my grandparents had inhabited for the past 20 years. In the words of my mother “it was God’s grace and our good karma that we found him”. In the past few months, their stay in our family flat has brought a new wave of excitement: Kishore’s wife recently gave birth to a baby boy. In the midst of one of the most widespread public health crises and in a house that was previously a makeshift hospital room, new life was breathed in. It was in sleepless nights and coordinating with doctors to make sure that she received the best care that the news impacted my household here in the states, but in the days since the birth, my parents have added cooing at the baby sleeping soundly into their daily routine. A bracing reminder that no matter what, life will go on and family and love can still bring joy. That we as human beings can still be here for each other and fight for each other from a distance. 

The coronavirus is a physical threat, with many psychological side effects: fear, anxiety and guilt. At this time, the only real certainty is uncertainty and it’s hard to find silver linings when the world feels as if it’s been thrown into chaos, but despite whatever has happened and whatever will happen, humanity has the capability to look out for each other and to love. So the next time my father Facetimes India and I get to see my grandfather’s face, more delicate and sallow than I’ve ever seen it in real life, I’ll remember that it is our luck and love that keeps him alive. Though he will be struggling to remember me and wave at the phone, it’s another day that he’s safe and for now that will have to be peace.