Lipstick Dreams

The last scene of Lipstick Under My Burkha resonates, in a rather curious fashion, with the book I happen to be reading at present, Reading Lolita in Tehran. As the various men in power say their piece and move away, ostensibly to get a good night’s sleep, the women protagonists of the movie are left, quite literally, to pick up the shreds of their existence. They gather around the remains of the forbidden romance novel capturing the sexual fantasies of Rosie, in what is, on the face of it, an impromptu reading session, but in effect, captures the essence of what director Alankrita Shrivastava is trying to say throughout.

What makes Lipstick an engaging watch is that its women are feminist by the sheer dint of being real. The characters range from the college-going Rehana (trying to reconcile teenaged rebellion with her cultural identity) and Leela (the beautician whose dreams are bigger than an arranged marriage in a small town) to the older Shireen (a saleswoman struggling to carve a niche for herself within and outside her marriage) and middle-aged Usha (rediscovering her sexual identity through telephone sex). Each is flawed in her own way, and therein lies her perfection.

Perhaps it is the gift of a stellar cast at the hands of a female director, but Lipstick manages, for the most part, what movies claiming to be pro-women generally don’t — well-fleshed out female characters that make both appropriate and inappropriate choices, and have dynamic personalities extending beyond but not necessarily in alienation of the men in their lives. So, Usha Buaji (aunt)’s desire to read racy romance magazines is not at odds with her solid business sense, and Shireen’s success on the professional front does not erode her desire to keep her family intact at any cost.

Another stroke of brilliance that the script possesses is a fine sense of balance, be it in its portrayal of right and wrong, or in capturing a whole spectrum of sexual desire. So, on the one hand, where you find yourself rooting for the women taking the obligation of a Burkha and turning it around to live their dreams, you also find them facing up to the repercussions of some of their ill-thought out actions. The women of Lipstickknow that all is not well with the world, and thankfully, the director doesn’t sweep in with a magic wand to make the young swimming instructor fall for Usha, or for Shireen’s husband to suddenly realise how much potential his wife has, or for the police to let shoplifter Rehana off with a warning even as Leela’s nice fiancé comes back with a clichéd “Main thaamunga tumhara haath” (“I will take you back”, or some such shit). Lipstick Under My Burkhaconcludes the way such events in life usually do, with a lot of tears, an occasional giggle and a mountain of understanding, collapsing upon you all at once.

The best part isn’t even really obvious until you focus on what’s not happening in this movie. Halfway across the movie, it hits me that these women are, for the most part, all very non-judgemental of each other. In what is a refreshing change from the “A woman is another woman’s worst enemy” trope, we see Shireen helping Usha buy her bathing suit, and Leela acknowledging that Shireen’s need to be touched affectionately by her husband isn’t something she should be hiding. Even as Rehana’s classmate gets her arrested and lashes out at her in anger, we don’t really see the typical “You stole my boyfriend” scene. The anger is directed towards the legitimate recipient, the man who got one woman pregnant before leaving her for another. The final scene is a silent war cry and a flame of solidarity all at once, as the women read the end of the novel and share a cigarette. And as you watch, perhaps you would wonder, like I did, if the next day, Shireen would hand in a resignation at work, and the widowed Usha be sent away to Kashi (a city where abandoned widows live in India). Maybe Leela would choose to not run away to Delhi with her boyfriend, and Rehana would eventually complete her degree through distance-learning. And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re a woman who has the ability to make some, or all of these choices for yourself. The question is- If you aren’t wearing as much (or as little) lipstick as you want, who and what are you waiting for?

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Ode to consent

*Written in response to Nandini Varma (Airplane Poetry Movement)’s prompt “Shall I compare thee…”*

Shall I compare you
To a cup of tea?
And wait for his reply,
“But I only drink whiskey”
Or shall I liken you
To a monosyllable “No”
To be called arrogant or
Plain old boring, just so.

Shall I signal with my frantic eyes
Until he blindfolds himself between tries?
Or shall I scream, and shout, and claw my way,
Losing a familiar ally in an unlikely fray?

Shall I tell you
What you have sometimes meant?
I lie against his body bent,
And after a while, he does relent.
Then I get up to make a cup of tea,
And pen down clever thoughts of consent.

Savitri Bai Phule

They say television is inspired from reality, although a large proportion of our Indian TV shows might compel us to believe otherwise. Many members of the audience who have gotten teary eyed whilst watching “Balika Vadhu” might not know of the real-life personality who went from being a child bride to one of the most prominent social reformers of her time.

Described by Tiffany Wayne as one of the “first-generation modern Indian feminists” Savitri Bai Phule was born in Maharashtra in 1831. Like many others of her generation, she was married off to twelve year old Jyotirao Phule when she was merely nine years old. Taught to read and write by her husband, it marked the beginning of a tough but remarkable journey for the nine-year old girl who went on advocate the social rights of women, especially in education.

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Source: India Today

She was the first female teacher of the first girls’ school in India, standing up for widows, unwed mothers, and untouchables, segments of society that were treated worse than dirt by the upper-caste patriarchal system. In what must have been at the time, a mammoth rebellion against conservative mindsets, she founded a care centre for pregnant rape victims. Facing severe ostracism from orthodox members of society, she refused to give in. She was supported in her endeavours by her husband who was a visionary himself and believed in equal rights for women. It was owing to Savitri bai’s efforts that a Mahila Mandal (Women’s Association) was founded in Pune in the 1850s.  She died while caring for underprivileged victims during the Third Bubonic plague pandemic in India.

Rise, to learn and act

Weak and oppressed! Rise my brother

Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone

Manu’s the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge– the English have come

Learn, you’ve had no chance in a millennium.

We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn

Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy in my soul

Crying out for knowledge to be whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste

I’ll blot out from my life at last.

In Baliraja’s kingdom, let’s beware

Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “Misery go and kingdom come!”

Awake, arise and educate

Smash traditions-liberate!

We’ll come together and learn

Policy-righteousness-religion.

Slumber not but blow the trumpet

O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast

Rise, to learn and act.

Savitri Bai Phule

 

Ismat Chughtai

I first read Ismat Chughtai’s highly acclaimed and highly controversial “Lihaaf” as a teenager, relatively ignorant of the intricacies of gender and sexuality. I read it again several years later when I was not quite so innocent, or perhaps, ignorant, anymore. Chughtai’s work has a quality most young authors, including myself, would dearly wish their work to possess- each time a reader revisits it, they come away, absorbing something new, a hitherto unknown perspective in their mind.

One of the fiercest feminists of her time, Ismat Chughtai was an Urdu author who did not mince words when it came to writing about relevant social issues. An inspirational figure for women, many of her books were often banned at some point or the other. Her stories were incredibly honest about things usually kept under strict wraps, such as homosexuality, child abuse, and conflict in middle-class society.

How as a young girl, Ismat Chughtai convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:

“Women cook food, Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.”
Ismat Chughtai

Facing harsh criticism to the point of having a law-suit filed against her for blasphemy (which she later won), Ismat broke the shackles of orthodoxy that conservative Islamic culture was associated with. She was an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and a front-runner for politically conscious literature. She lent a unique woman’s perspective to issues like the Partition. “In Ismat’s hands, the woman became a flesh-and-blood creature, with all the flaws and failings of a human being but also thoughts and ideas that did not necessarily limit her to the zenana.”, writes Rakshandha Jalil.

Read the full text of Lihaaf here.

Mary Anning

Followers of the iconic TV show  F.R.I.E.N.D.S might remember laughing every time Ross’ profession as a paleontologist is mentioned. Indeed the picture that comes to mind is either of an intrepid Indiana Jones like figure who goes on expeditions or a professor covered in mud and dirt. However, as early as the 1800s, Mary Anning was creating ripples in the world of geologists by discovering a series of fossils that would form the basis of our present-day knowledge of dinosaurs.

Born in a poor family in Lyme Regis, Britain, part of the Blue Lias geological region that abounded in fossils from the Jurassic period, the Anning family collected and sold fossils to supplement their income from carpentry, which was often a pittance. The family was never given their due until Lt. Col Thomas Birch stepped in on their behalf to hold an auction of fossils.

Over the course of her life, Mary discovered the skeletons of the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur, even though she did not actively participate in the scientific community. She was also responsible for the discovery that coprolites, or Bezoar stones, that are used as trace fossils to analyze behaviour of the species, are fossilized faeces.

As a woman, and a working class woman at that, Mary was almost never given her due, and she was unable to become a part of the Geological Society of London. Her expertise in finding and assessing genuine fossils, however, won her respect among professors working in this field. Several celebrated fossil experts visited her to learn from her practical experience. After her death at the age of 47, Charles Dickens wrote of her,

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Watch this animated documentary about the life and work of Mary Anning-

Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

While India may have legally recognized the third gender in April 2014, a majority of the country’s transgender population is still widely discriminated against, be it in terms of being insulted on public transport or rejection in job interviews. India’s first transgender college principal, Dr. Manabi Bandyopadhyay, despite being competent and qualified for the job was forced to resign in 2016 after less than two years in office owing to non-cooperation of the staff and a section of students. This was a case that only came into the spotlight owing to the individual’s privileged status- there are numerous transgender individuals whose everyday struggles for existence never make it to the papers.

Amidst the bleakness of this scenario, Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a transgender rights activist and trained Bharatnatyam dancer who identifies as a woman, is an inspiration. Born male into an orthodox Brahmin family, Laxmi faced ostracism and abuse at a very young age, despite having a relatively supportive family. She was the first transgender individual to represent Asia-Pacific at the United Nations in 2008 where she spoke about the condition of sexual minorities.  She also represented her community and India at the World Aids Conference, Toronto.

Laxmi has served on the boards of several LGBT rights organisations and in 2007, she started her own organisation called Astitva. She has been associated with the Hijra community and actively campaigned for the inclusion of the third gender along with journalist and LGBT activist, Ashok Row Kavi. She has been featured in a documentary on LGBT Indians titled ‘Project Bolo’. Despite criticism from her fellow transgenders on account of being “elitist” and failing to bring about any real reform, it is undeniable that Laxmi Tripathi is a figure that stands out for being unabashedly herself. As she says in her autobiography “Me Hijra, Me Laxmi”-

“Every morning I wake up, look in the mirror and say that I love myself. If every woman would love herself as much as I love myself, this society would cease to be patriarchal,”- Laxmi Narayan Tripathi

Optimistic perhaps, but food for thought, don’t you think?

Watch Laxmi at TEDx Mumbai-