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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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.

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-

Nellie Tayloe Ross

Hillary Clinton’s election run for President, Michelle Obama’s active interest in social causes as the First Lady and Nikki Haley’s election as governor of South Carolina showcase the best side of the United States of America , upholding the ideals of freedom and equality.  But much before any of them, the US saw the election of Nellie Tayloe Ross as the first woman governor in the nation, for the state of Wyoming.

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Contesting after the death of her husband William B. Ross who was the erstwhile Democrat governor, Ross was driven not only by a desire to carry forward his work but also by her shrewd political acumen and ambition. At a time when it was “unladylike” for a woman to have such aspirations, Nellie was sworn in as governor on January 5, 1924. Growing up as a Southerner in Missouri soon after the Civil War, her difficult childhood taught her the value of hardwork. The uncertainty in her life was definitely a factor that fed her ambition to succeed.

In 1869, Wyoming Territory had been the first government in the world to grant women permanently the right to vote. In 1894, Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Estelle Reel was the first woman ever elected to statewide office. In 1920, women won the vote nationwide. Now, just four years later, Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the first woman governor in the nation.Excerpt from ‘The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross’ , Tom Rea

Apart from continuing to back a few of her husband’s proposals, she suggested several new proposals that had hitherto never been formally raised in Wyoming- “requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks; exploration of better ways to sell Wyoming’s heavy crude oil; earmarking some state mineral royalties for school districts; obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor.”

“It is most amusing and amazing to me, for example, to be asked, as I was soon after my election, whether I expected to appoint any men to office? This question, telegraphed to me from the East by a well-known metropolitan newspaper, had every indication of being quite sincere, and was apparently inspired by the fear that the elevation of women to executive office was likely to be followed by the dismissal of all men and the substitution of women in their places.”- Nellie Tayloe Ross

In an era when the arena of the female was primarily the domestic and her most acceptable role as a charming and social hostess, Nellie Ross successfully made the transition from First Lady of Wyoming to the Governor. Indeed it might seem like a favourable precedent for another charismatic First Lady that many have wanted to see at the helm of affairs.

Trying to find a middle ground between being ambitious and being perceived as ‘manly’ or ‘unfeminine’ is something female politicians and leaders are struggling with, even ninety years later. It is undeniable that even now, comments about appearance, be it positive or negative, overshadow achievements and calibre. A vast majority of online articles about women achievers begin with ‘Top 10 hottest women in…’.

Not all men abuse or molest, or are sexist, but what is the first thing men see, and women see, when they look at a woman? That is the question.

Day 1: Pat Benatar

This is the first post in a series of what I envision to be a 365 day project on women who are and have been dynamic pioneers in fields ranging from Astrophysics and Basketball to Yoga and Zoology. 

And you know that their little lives can become such a mess
Hell, hell is for children
And you shouldn’t have to pay for your love
With your bones and your flesh

Hell is for Children, Pat Benatar

The first time I heard of Pat Benatar was a few years ago when a rather quirky Economics Professor in college came to class one day and told us to listen to a song called ‘Hell is for Children‘. Rather intrigued, I think I was one of the few who went back and did so. In a world where a large section of society still refuses to explicitly acknowledge violence against children and child sexual abuse, this song has stayed stuck in my head, resurfacing especially in times of recent turbulence all across the world.

Born Patricia Mae Andrzejewski, Pat Benatar is an American singer-songwriter who was very popular in the 1980s, especially on MTV that was relatively new in those days. Having her early beginnings as a cabaret singer, Benatar is a classically trained singer whose songs resonate with a raw energy. There is an honest intensity in her lyrics that is reflected in her memoirs, titled ‘Between a Heart and a Rock Place’ where she writes-

“I’ve enjoyed every age I’ve been, and each has had its own individual merit. Every laugh line, every scar, is a badge I wear to show I’ve been present, the inner rings of my personal tree trunk that I display proudly for all to see. Nowadays, I don’t want a “perfect” face and body; I want to wear the life I’ve lived.”

― Pat Benatar, Between a Heart and a Rock Place: A Memoir

With four Grammys to her credit, she has several RIAA certified platinum and gold albums as well as 15 Top 40 singles, including  “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”, “Love Is a Battlefield”, “We Belong”, and “Invincible”. She partners on stage and in real life with her guitarist husband Neil Giraldo.

Tonight, on the first night of the new year, I leave you with a particularly poignant song of Pat’s. Remember Alan Kurdi, and remember that he wasn’t the only one. Remember that he will not be the last, unless we decide to do something about it.

He used to be somebody’s baby
Someone used to hold him close
And rock him gently
He used to be the light in someone’s eyes
He used to matter

Somebody’s Baby, Pat Benatar

Sources:

http://www.biography.com/people/pat-benatar-213028#related-video-gallery

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Benatar

http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/10117294-between-a-heart-and-a-rock-place-a-memoir