On occasion, men hit on me. On very rare occasion, women hit on me. Usually I am slow to figure it out because I’m one of those people that has been in a serious monogamous relationship almost every day since I was 17. I started dating my husband at 20. I do not have a lot of dating experience, and I have never tried to meet anyone to date outside of my existing social circle, unless high school counts. So not only am I slow to notice when someone is hitting on me, but I’m really unfamiliar with the norms of flirting seriously with a stranger.

On two recent occasions, as I was standing alone in public, existing peacefully with myself, men have hit on me. The second one was tonight, when I was sitting on a bench at the gym. I work out at a gym attached to a health clinic, which is the kind of place where everyone wears sweatpants and is pretty non-competitive. After my workout, I was sitting on a bench drinking some water when the guy who was vacuuming the gym asked me how my workout was. I thought, hopefully, that this was just a friendly employee, and answered cheerfully “good!” Then he continued and added, “I saw you over there. On the—was it the treadmill?” “elliptical…” I answered, getting a sinking feeling. Then somehow the exchange ended, either because I looked down at my phone (very possible) or the guy just knew he should keep working and moved to vacuum somewhere else. As soon as he walked off I went in to the locker room so I didn’t risk seeing him again. The whole thing made me feel kind of creeped out and uncomfortable. I wondered what he meant. Had he been checking me out? Was he going to keep trying to hit on me or would he get the message when I hadn’t asked him anything in return? Did he hit on me because I made too much eye contact when I saw him a few minutes previously?

I was left wondering, too, if I was being oversensitive. I mean, after all, people have to meet each other somehow. Maybe this was a harmless flirtation, and all I had to do was politely indicate that I wasn’t interested. Why does this kind of attention almost always make me feel targeted?

One possible interpretation is that it has to do with my genderqueerness. Maybe my reaction to men who see me as a woman hitting on me is about feeling like I’m being misread. Maybe I feel like I’ll be found out as these men realize I’m not really the woman they are looking for.

But as I thought more about why I find it so impossible to just say “sorry, not interested” I realized that there have been times that I have tried to say that. And many of those times the man in question has immediately turned aggressive and mean. My first reaction to street harassment when I first ran in to it was in fact to politely rebuff. For my trouble, I got responses like “you’ve been sorry your whole life you white bitch!” So my reaction to stay silent and hide is probably the only rational one. If I continue the conversation, I’m leading the man on and I’ll just have to rebuff even more unwanted attention later on. If I try to end things quickly and clearly, like I’d like to, there’s a non-trivial chance the man will turn hateful.

I wrote this post in September, and it took me until February to walk back in to the gym again.


Rage away Friend!

The world seems full of possibility, everything doable. I remember when I was a girl and would rail against some sexist thing or the other, fighting with my cousins-uncles-aunts-teachers who insisted that women were an inferior type of human (it was quite normal to hold such views in those days), who told us that if some man pinched us on the bus, it must be because we’d worn Jeans (an immodest western invention) or looked someone in the eye (more immodesty). I once bit one of my cousins, so incensed was I by his unshakable and illogical superiority over me. Another one, I refused to speak to for years after he told me proudly about how he and his friends “rubbed against” the girls on the bus. And all those awful Bollywood movies in which either the woman was burnt to death by her in-laws or was raped before her marriage and had to kill herself to protect her family from shame. And everyone else found these movies perfectly entertaining!

And this was all just 15 years ago – all of these seem so bizarre now that I find myself questioning whether these actually happened or whether I’m exaggerating. And no! This and more happened routinely. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that things would change so much, so fast. I never dared hope – I assumed the world would remain what it was, and the most I expected for myself was to escape being burnt alive or raped.

And today, I look around me, and my family whatsapp group is filled with people tripping over themselves to proclaim their support for feminist ideals. The cousin I bit – he is the most vociferous of them all! The Indian girls in my class are loud and don’t seem to feel the need to mute.

So today, the world seems so full of hope. Everything can change and will change.

None of these changes, of course, can be traced back to anything I specifically did. But I believe that all my constant fighting and arguing and railing and hoping and praying and raging and supporting those I thought were on the “right side” and sometimes-sneaky battles against those I thought were on the “wrong side”….I believe that all these actions somehow helped create the world I see around me. Today, I go into a road-side restaurant in Chennai and there are young women sitting alone at tables ordering meals – 15 years ago, I was the only one I knew who did such “shameless-forward” things. It makes me want to crow and jump for joy seeing this. And of course, this does not mean that all things are great; clearly they are not….But I feel so certain that the thankless task of arguing and fighting and raging will bear fruit; perhaps not in any direct tangible way, but it will bear fruit and much much sooner than we expect or even dare hope for. So rage away, my friend! The world shifts and changes and reforms itself every time you do.

Religion and Feminism III

I’m on the fourth chapter of my bible study (it is amazing to me now that even though I was born and raised in the church, and have considered myself a practicing Christian for the past 8 years, I’d never actually read the bible end-to-end). As I read this book little-by-little, it blows my mind how twisted and one-sided bible teaching is. I’ve spent 38 years in the church, and I’ve heard, more-times-than-I-can-count precepts about women covering their heads and obeying their husbands, but never-ever-never have I heard the story of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah (Numbers 27: verses 1-10) – a bunch of feminists demanding property rights.

In my study, it seems that it would be completely biblically correct to go over the entire bible with a marker pen, and correct every mention of God as “He” into a “She” or “Ze“, because the word “Elohim” used in the original text is plural. In fact, God says, “Let us create man and woman in our image.” So the ubiquitous “He” definitely seems inaccurate.

It is amazing-horrifying that in all these years, I’ve heard the Sodom and Gomorrah story many times in sermons and elsewhere, and it is used as the linchpin for the church’s anti-gay stance – but have none of these people ever actually bothered to read Lot’s story? Because when I finally read this story, it is impossible to misunderstand – what God condemns in that story is not homosexuality but rape. The context of Sodom’s destruction was their sin – the sin of having an abundance of food and riches but not helping the poor and the needy, and not seeking justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and instead practicing abominable deeds (Ezekial 16; Isaiah 1): the abominable deeds refers to raping foreigners (irrespective of gender). So the word “sodomy” should (if-one-was-accurate) refer to ingratitude-uncaring-selfishness-xenophobia-rape; it had nothing to do with homosexuality.

Is there no one to defend religion from this twisting and stretching and perverting by one side? We, as feminists (or as liberals-humanists-anyone-with-some-common-sense), need to claim religion as ours (or at least stop dismissing religion as belonging to the nutcases trying to apply selectively the norms of a different era).

Religion and Feminism II

So here is my attempt to explain religion (as I see it and understand it and value it), and my hope is that others will join me in rescuing religion (or at least refrain from demonizing religion).

To me, religion at its crux (as represented by its holy texts) is unconcerned with culture; it is concerned with the more universal questions of connection, peace and joy. For instance, it is unconcerned about whether, in a particular age, it is considered appropriate to stone a woman to death for adultery, or whether, in another age, it is considered wholly appropriate to color-code your children in pink and blue. Those are matters for humans in each age to figure out. Religion doesn’t really care either way.

Or actually, I take that back.

It is not that religion doesn’t care either way about such questions or has nothing to say about such questions; it is just these issues are not the main purpose, the main concerns driving religion. These issues are the background context, and provide the setting for the larger and more universal questions about what drives our lives and why we must take the trouble to get up each morning. So in the Bible, for instance, there are stories of killings and women-taken-as-slaves-by-the victors in wars that were ordered by God. Oh horror!! But one has to read the whole book and not stop with these instances, because when we read the whole book and not just the stories of one particular age, then it becomes clear that killing-rape-victors was not the point-of-the-story – that was the unavoidable background context for the real story – the one about maintaining faith and trust and peace and joy when all is uncertain and everything is on the line.

And these stories that populate this holy book are complex and sophisticated multi-generational stories and there are layers of meaning, and if one just stops at the surface level without considering that every age has different ideas about what is okay and what is not, and that the specifics of these choices are largely irrelevant to questions about why we exist, then it is like going to the theater to watch a critically acclaimed play and then dismissing the play because we got distracted by what the actors were wearing.

And if it was a play and we dismissed it without bothering to peel back the layers and understand it, then it matters little. But if we do the same with a holy text like the Bible, then that decision, to choose ignorance, is consequential, because it hands over that entire area of life to the patriarchs; to be used as a bludgeon to beat other women down.

And it is amazing-horrifying how easy it seems to be do this – to use the complexity of religion’s stories (which is what makes them so real and true), and twist and stretch and shade and use to justify all sorts of cultural mishaps. And it makes me mad that something so true and perfect is twisted out of all recognition to justify some twisted ideology. And no one objects!!

Religion and Feminism

I remember a roundtable in a conference for feminists in academia, and there was this woman whose whole research agenda was to “prove” that religion is evil (racist-misogynist-homophobic-violent-evil). And she had all sorts of measures and stories and facts about different religions, and how all of them seemed to exist for the sole purpose of oppressing women. I could see where she was coming from – the trappings of religion are clearly patriarchal. There is just no arguing with that. I’m Christian, and Christianity often inspires in me a feeling of helpless rage at the blind hate that is encoded in its rules and rituals. And the problem is not just structural – more often than I would like, I’ve come across individual practitioners, perfectly nice men and women of the Church, who think nothing of making sexist, racist, homophobic remarks with no provocation out-of-the-blue, like other people might casually talk about the weather.

And yet, I’m Christian. I usually do not mention this to my feminist friends, since to most feminists this is like admitting to kicking dogs in private for fun. But I have received so much from my faith – in fact, all the good things that I have received in the past decade – trust, freedom from constant anxiety, thankfulness, peace, joy – are the gifts of my faith. And it seems wrong and ungrateful to hide what-is-best-in-my-life, and compartmentalize so that my feminist world and my faith-world are two entirely disconnected areas of my life, one ashamed of the other.

And this hiding is mostly one-way: I make no particular attempts to hide my feminism from my faith-community, since I honestly think that feminism can make religious life a lot better. But until recently (actually until today with this post), I’ve never much spoken about my faith in my feminist community. But it bugs-saddens me that this faith that I love, that has transformed my life, has been abandoned to the patriarchs to-do-what-they-want-with, because those on the other side couldn’t be bothered to rescue it. And it seems to me that, even from a purely strategic instrumental perspective, it is unwise for feminists to dismiss religion; if it is all about getting converts (and yes, feminists – let us just admit this – we are as much into proselytizing as any evangelical), then demonizing all religion makes no sense given that many human-people need some kind of faith to get them through the day. And this dismissal of religion is not just unwise, it is also harmful – It forces feminists in most countries of the world to have to fight multiple battles simultaneously; rather than marshaling all resources just fighting patriarchy, they find themselves suddenly pitted not just against patriarchy, but also against Islam/Hinduism/Christianity, challenging not just people’s choices regarding their daughter’s education, but also challenging their faith (an almost unwinnable battle). Religion has been coopted by patriarchy, perverted and abused to justify all sorts of crap. And feminists have allowed this to happen, washing their hands off religion (“fine you can have faith, as long as we get to keep tofu”), and the reasons, to me, seem born out of a very different understanding from mine about what religion really is about.

So next up: I’d like to explain my religion, as I understand it and value it. And my hope is that I can show my fellow feminists what I see in religion so that I can convince some to join me in rescuing religion, or at least refrain from demonizing religion.

Continuous scales for injustice

I was thinking about why I am ashamed of my posts and don’t want anyone to read them, and pealing back the layers of feelings and thoughts involved, I realized that the reason is simply that I think these issues are ultimately not-important-enough in the universe of issues that I should/could be worrying-obsessing-doing-something-about. So while racism-feminism is something that affects me on a day-to-day basis and frequently reduces my enjoyment of daily life at work and out-in-the-world, and homophobia is just wrong and ridiculous and makes-me-angry-sick-sad, I ultimately believe that my preoccupation with these issues is a frivolous past time – like focusing on a bruise on my arm to avoid thinking about the cancer in my brain. For instance, last time I went back home, I saw a child, about five, sleeping on the sidewalk. I saw many such children every day until I stopped seeing them. And then I came back and spent time feeling furious-helpless because the lady downstairs came and questioned us because someone had broken the apartment lights, and her gut-sense told us that it must be us.

So how do other feminists think about this? Do they too rate their sense of injustice against other injustices in the world?

3.8, 3.91, 4.01, 3.9

That is my evaluation. My teaching evaluation for 4 sections of strategy. In this popularity context, I am an almost-4 out of 5. That’s good. That’s great. I’m safe. No longer in the at-risk-of-being-asked-to-take-pedagogy-classes category of loser-teachers, the ones talked about with sighs and head shakes – she’s-great-but-can-sometimes-be-hard-to-get-along-with. Thank God I’m no longer in this talked-about set. It can beat you down, this exposure and this number, so clean and stark like a blade…a 2 out of 5- God! people must really hate you, you unlikable bitch.

I dare you to be a woman, an Asian woman to boot, and survive intact with a 2 out of 5 on likeability; anything is preferable, I’d even prefer ‘slut’ to ‘unlikeable.’ Last year by chance, an admin-glitch, students evaluated me before I taught the class, and guess what these numbers were – 3.5/5. The average teaching evaluations in the department are 3.00 – so Yes! On average, students prefer our absence to our presence.

“Why this number, ‘Quality of professor?’” you may ask. It seems perverse. Why not what they actually learned, why not a pre and post-test to see if they learned something from class; it’s simple enough to do online. I don’t know why. It is just not done. Meyer and Rowan say that it is ceremony and myth – all of academia – assessment decoupled from practice. It makes sense then why things are so difficult for me here – if the primary aim is ceremony and legitimation, then a skinny brown Indian woman, in need of legitimation herself, is not the best person for the job.

After 5 years in the trenches of clawing my way up from 3.2 to 4.01, I’ve finally lost all the idealistic nonsense that filled my head about this job being one where I can REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE. 90% of the class cannot survive 5 minutes without checking their phones. Plus, these are the clear-eyed practical ones who chose business as their major, they understand how the world works a lot better than I do, and aren’t here wanting for me to REALLY-MAKE-A-DIFFERENCE in their lives. They are the customer and what they want is good packaging and paiysa-vasool.

Maybe there is some point to teaching something else, things like physics or math or gender studies….but what is the point in teaching business? – it seems more efficient just to have extremely selective criteria (so you weed out based on certain types of IQ and on class and generational wealth), charge high fees (to make doubly sure of the weeding), get people to spend time together (so they get a network of other-people-like-them) and then give them the stamp of a big-10 school. Why go through all this trouble – like in INSEAD, a colleague, another PhD, a woman, an assistant professor teaching strategy, went through the usual hazing process, and in her class, a student walked out and then walked back in naked. Students who can make a teacher cry win the weekly betting pool – it is all in fun of course, and is meant for bonding, a noble goal.

On my good days, I give myself pep-talks – “Don’t think on the 70 cell-phone obsessed zombies in your class; Instead meditate on that one girl who was mostly silent in class, but turned in the most brilliant memo with hours of additional analysis, and then came to office-hours and asked the best questions and showed you how she put together all the data she collected. Think on her. Don’t be discouraged by the students who showed up to 2 out of 4 sessions, turned in a crappy memo with nice graphics and a whole lot of talk about brand image, and then emailed you demanding why they haven’t got an ‘A.’ Instead remember the Indian girl who came to you on the first class as if she’d just sighted a unicorn; delight and thoughts clear on her face – “My God – are you real? You are the business strategy teacher?!” I remind myself to stingy-store away these incidents, to take out and look at and admire and remind myself that there is some larger purpose to all this pain.

On my bad-days, the days when persistent magical thinking (example, the world is really a fair place and good things happen to those who work hard, or content really is what ultimately matters) clears, I instead remember the fruitless-pointless hours improving content. I remember snippets of wisdom that white men with teaching awards sometimes slip up and reveal: “teach right after a 2/5 – you’ll look good in comparison,” “teach the internationals, the Chinese are the best, Spaniards, Indians, anyone but the French for whom no one is more than a pas mal 3”, “never show vulnerability,” “answer questions with many words (it doesn’t matter which)”, “don’t provide grades/feedback until you’ve been evaluated,” “end class early,” and the best-one-yet, “show them who’s boss – tell them they are stupid if they make a stupid comment.” These words were perhaps well-meaning but make me feel foolish and don’t help – a brown woman who says nothing and tells people they’re stupid?! – I’m not into professional suicide, at least not yet.