A lesser known violence: female genital cutting

Nicholas Kristof, a senior journalist and New York Times columnist writes this week about what he calls ‘a rite of torture for young girls’ – female genital mutilation or cutting. To understand what exactly this involves, read Kristof’s description here.

Widely practised across Africa and some countries in Asia, this form of gender violence has been particularly insidious and difficult to dislodge, in large part because it is a deep rooted cultural, social and/or religious practice. Not surprisingly, efforts by ‘western organisations’ to abolish this practce have been dismissed as ‘cultural imperialism’ as Kristof points out.

I first read about female genital mutiliation when I randomly picked up a book called ‘Do they hear you when you cry?’ by Fauziya Kassindja, an African woman who had fled her home to escape this form of violence. At that point, I was 20. Her descriptions terrified me and I distinctly recall coming close to tears. I also decided to make the book my ‘project’ for my Feminist reading class.  I still remember standing in front of my classmates – all girls – and trying to explain to them what female genital mutilation actually involved. It wasn’t easy. I was squirming, most of my friends were. But I persisted and even managed to read out some particularly difficult passages in the book.

Looking back, I now realise how hard it was for a group of 20 year old girls to discussed their bodies, their female genital organs. The words were unfamiliar – we had maybe read them but rarely uttered them aloud. Just saying ‘clitoris’ or ‘labia’ was difficult.

I’ve digressed but the point I’m trying to make – in a somewhat round about manner – is that we need to find ways to talk about our bodies openly. Kristof argues that one reason it has been so hard to prevent female genital cutting is that it involves private parts, which no one wants to talk about. I agree. And it makes me appreciate all the more how difficult it must have been for Fauziya Kassindja to talk about her experience, to strangers, both men and women, from another country altogether.

You can read more about Kassindja’s book here and about female genital mutilation here

PS –  Female genital mutilation is not widely practiced in India – probably the only form of gender violence that isn’t.

What a walk can (unexpectedly) reveal

I just got back from a walk/run on the beach (that I badly need to get some regular exercise is a long story that belongs elsewhere!). It is 9:20pm and if my grandmother knew, I’m sure she would berate me for going out alone at night.

To get to the beach, I have to walk along a very busy main road. At this time of the night, traffic is particularly heavy. It also happens to be fairly well lit, with several shops lining one side of the road. Not surprisingly, the side with the shops is also marginally better lit.

On my way out, I instinctively crossed over to the better-lit side and walked towards the beach. Outside one of the shops, a group of men semi-leered at me, not in a particularly threatening way. It was one of those halfhearted ‘oh hey you are a woman walking alone so we might as well say something mildly offensive. But we can’t actually be bothered to say/do anything more’ . I of course just ignored them and continued on. Half an hour later, coming back home, I walked on the less-crowded, less-lit side.

Here’s my point. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about safety audits quite a bit. I first participated in a workshop by Jagori last year; Prajnya then piloted an audit during the 2010 16 Days Campaign. For those who aren’t familiar with these, a women’s safety audit is a research tool used to understand how safe a particular space ‘feels’. Usually, the audit is carried out by a group of local residents and assesses several factors that all contribute to how safe or unsafe a woman feels – lighting, the condition of pavements, how wide/narrow roads are, whether there are shops, whether it is a busy or isolated road, etc. You can read about Prajnya’s audit here: http://www.prajnya.in/16d10report.pdf

Somehow and entirely unconsciously, while walking back from the beach this evening, I found myself mentally doing an audit. I was looking at lamp posts to see if they were working, at the location of tea shops to see if men were gathered outside, at gates to see if they were open or shut.

And I remembered one of the Jagori team members telling me, ‘once you do an audit, it is very hard to not go on auditing every single place you go to’. She described how could she could no longer enter a mall without going over the safety audit checklist in her mind.

I can’t think of a better reason to do more audits, to get more groups of local residents together. Audits force us to stop and think about the spaces we use every day. And no, we don’t have to become paranoid about these spaces but it surely can’t hurt to become  more conscious of the roads and streets that we tend to assume complete familiarity with.

GRIT@Prajnya: the Why, How and What

At Prajnya, we like to say that we have an unusual talent for creating more work for ourselves. We have an idea, no not even an idea – a thought; and before we know it, its a full-fledged project! Often we grapple with the chicken and egg question: does the work actually exist or are we creating more than we can actually take on and manage?

In the case of the Gender Violence Research and Information Taskforce, or GRIT as we now fondly call it (!), I can confidently say that there are no such doubts. Our work on gender violence originally began as a corollary to the work we hope to do on women in politics and public life – as a way to acknowledge the limitations that violence imposes on women’s daily lives. Our plan was to organise the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence every year as an awareness raising exercise. But in the way of many other non-profits who’ve no doubt traveled the same route, we soon found out that we couldn’t get away with an annual September to December appearance.

The fact is this: even in a city considered to be one of the safest in India, Chennai, there is a lot of work to be done. In a sense, Chennai offers a different kind of challenge: that of conservatism, unlike say, a Delhi that carries the baggage of being an unsafe city for women.

Our mandate then is three-fold, as is the case with any Prajnya initiative: GRIT will carry out research on gender violence in India and eventually South Asia; we will look to network and facilitate conversations between different groups of people for whom violence is a reality; and finally, we hope to put in place a full-fledged year-round programming calender that will include workshops, seminars, round tables and other public events.

There are of course several obstacles: finding entry points into places where we want to hold these conversations and of course, the funding to support our work.

We intend this blog to become one of many platforms we will create and sustain over the years, a place to document and record narratives of violence and an opportunity to have conversations about how we can deal with this violence .

I cannot promise you that this will be a fun blog to read, but I can say that we do hope to talk about issues that are relevant to every one of us.  Welcome to GRIT @ Prajnya and do write to us if you’d like to join or support our work in anyway!