White Women in the Indian Imagination.

Article published on June 7th in Kafila.

“Yeah, Indian guys think white girls are easy”, a British-born Indian remarked nonchalantly to me this week. Normally I’d be shocked by such gross racial stereotyping but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Not because Caucasian women by their very skin colour or cultural preferences are any more promiscuous than their South Asian sisters, but because of their sustained portrayal as loose and morally deficient. The image of the sexually liberated and ‘easy’ white woman runs deep in the Indian imagination, a perception which is drip-fed by the country’s all-pervading mainstream media.

The brutal rape and murder of an Indian student in New Delhi last December followed by numerous sexual attacks on foreign women has sparked international outrage. This year alone, a Chinese woman was date-raped in New Delhi, a Korean woman was raped after being drugged in Bhopal, a Swiss tourist was gang-raped by five men in Madhya Pradesh while holidaying with her husband, and a British woman broke both her legs after jumping off a hotel balcony to avoid an alleged sexual attack by the hotel’s manager. These incidents have led to a shift in how tourists perceive India, resulting in a 25% fall in foreigners travelling to the country and a 35% reduction in women travellers, reports New Delhi-based Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

In 2012 alone, 6.6 million foreign tourists visited India and earned the country $17.74 billion in foreign exchange reports the Ministry for Tourism. The inevitable consequence of the routine harassment, ‘eve-teasing’ and the more sinister attacks demonstrates a clear causal link to this 25% reduction in foreign tourism. This significant decrease should have the government of India desperately seeking a solution to stabilise figures before India’s reputation as a tourist-friendly country is permanently ruined. Such a behaviour shift should begin with the treatment of foreign women in both the Bollywood film industry and in the Indian Premier League (IPL) franchises.

Love it or hate it, Bollywood is the world’s most prolific industry, producing more than 1,000 films each year, reaching approximately 45 million people in India alone. In the majority of these films women are type-cast as pure, wholesome and wife-worthy or as fast-loving and morally loose in films that are dripping heavily with references to the more patriarchal elements of Hindu tradition and an ‘East beats West’ rhetoric. The most visible, and famous, example of this is Devdas in which actress Madhuri Dixit plays a prostitute and makes references throughout implying her similarity to Radha, the promiscuous lover of Krishna. On the other hand, film-favourite Aishwarya Rai plays a devoted, obsessive, virginal character and makes blatant references implying her likeness to mythology’s most perfect wife, Sita.

The use of patriarchal religious symbolism is repeatedly used in films to set-up dichotomies between pure and polluted women. Unfortunately women from outside the Hindu religious system often demarcate the ‘other’ and represent an impure threat to the sanctity and preservation of (albeit misogynist) tradition that places women’s honour and virtue as central to belief. White women have been fulfilling such roles since the 1970s, with Saira Banu playing a mini-dress-wearing, chain smoking and alcohol drinking harlot in Purab Aur Paschim. In a gross display of reverse colonisation, the character aptly named Bharat (played by Manoj Kumar) successfully transforms this free-spirited woman into a good Indian girl, worthy of commitment and love and not just a quick fling and proverbial role in the hay.

Things have only worsened. Western culture continues to be homogenised and presented in a one-dimensional and offensive manner with the underlying message that Eastern culture is uniformly better than Western culture. Womanising is both glorified and abundant throughout Bollywood and the examples of easy white women are endless with women reduced to arm candy, nightclub dancers and one-night-stands, as objects to be used by Indian men. From Bollywood hero Amitabah Bachchan playing geriatric womaniser in Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and humorously bedding a white woman called ‘Sexy’, ‘Sweetie’ or something equally ridiculous, to Junior Bachchan and John Abraham in Dostana seducing the white girls of Miami before simultaneously falling for Priyanka Chopra. Akshay Kumar’s Heyy Baby sees three womanisers bed-hop from gori to gori before mending their ways and apologising to their long-suffering desi girlfriends is a strikingly similar film to Thankyou where another three serial seducers bed a variety of fair-skinned women before apologising to their desi wives (in both cases the girlfriends and wives forgive as all good Indian wives should). Though Bollywood may have moved away from traditional boy-meets-girl, boy seeks approval of girl’s family, overcomes various obstacles, marries girl storylines, the treatment of white women unfortunately remains the same.

Sorry Indian men, but not every white woman wanders around in a bikini or such scantily clad attire, do they? According to the adverting-fest that is the Indian Premier League (IPL) they most certainly do. White, Eastern European cheerleaders have been an integral part of the IPL brand for a number of years now and feature at every match in tight, revealing clothing, caged off like animals from leering spectators clicking photographs of them. Of course there are Indian dancers too, but look closely and you will see these young women are dressed in more conservative, traditional clothing. While cheerleading is a sport in the US, the IPL reduces these women (who aren’t even talented dancers) to sexual objects used solely to satisfy the Indian male gaze in between cricket overs. Unsettlingly, these IPL franchises are owned by some of India’s biggest film and industry stars, with actors Shah Rukh Khan, Shlipa Shetty and Preity Zinta all owning teams, as do leading businessmen Vijay Mallya, N. Srinivasan and Mukesh Ambani.  The continued use of licentious foreign women dancing for these cricket franchises indicates a tacit compliance of such racial stereotypes by owners and a subtle, conscious feeding of insidious perceptions about race and sexuality in India. These IPL dancers constitute one of the most visible ‘real life’ examples of this pure versus polluted dichotomy and in which white women have become commercialised in the process.

It’s actually quite offensive to be repeatedly typecast through IPL marketing and Bollywood and these two domains are spheres of influence which influence (to a certain extent) the thoughts and actions of all lesser-educated Indians owing to the mass media’s all pervading impact and reach. Should we really be surprised that white women get harassed, leered at and photographed on the streets of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai by the exact men who flock to consume these highly reductionist films and mentally undress the provocative, vamp IPL dancers? Should we really be surprised that Swiss and British tourists were seen as readily available to service the amorous intentions of their attackers on the basis of their skin colour?

The issue of women’s rights runs deep in India, for both Indian and foreign women, and to achieve better treatment for both will require two separate, complex solutions. For the latter at least, it is the immediate responsibility of IPL franchise owners and key film industry stakeholders to begin reforming the image of the white woman they choose to portray.


Shortlist announced for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature

Anticipation around the 2nd annual DSC Prize for South Asian Literature continued to rise earlier tonight as the shortlist for the prize celebrating the best writing on South Asia was revealed.

The jury for this year’s $50,000 prize includes renowned literary figures Dr. Alastair Niven, Dr. Fakrul Alam, Faiza S. Khan and Marie Brenner. Ira Pande, chairperson of the jury, reveals the difficult task of intense deliberation over the 16-book longlist:

“The task before the jury was not easy; the main hurdle was how to sift the clever and stylish from the real and true tale. All of us were united in feeling that a novel by any definition must have a strong tale to tell.”

Desperate to know who made it onto this year’s shortlist? Check the SALF website!

The winner of the second DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be announced at the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival on 21 January 2012. I can’t wait!


No Grey Area.

Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, September 24 2011. Available online here.


It’s the first time we’ve left the city together. Like a pair of fugitives, we’ve escaped Kathmandu on his motorbike in search of a temporary refuge, hoping to camouflage against a background of tourists and day-trippers, away from the suspicious gaze of our colleagues.

He sits opposite me at a dirty table in the back of a teashop. We’ve done this many times before close to the office, but now it feels awkward. Like we’re a pair of black and white chess pieces playing a strategic game of emotional insecurity. The rusting sheet metal door is pushed closed, separating us off from the rest of the hillside village and light pierces through the cracks. It juts into the darkness, illuminating the dirt-caked floor and reminds us that we’re not quite alone.

“We can’t be together… I hope you understand”. He’s so matter of fact, stubbing out his cigarette, with the deliberate detachment of a man sacrificing a goat.

I stare at him incredulously, letting the stench of fried roti and cigarette smoke waft over me and remain silent as he finishes his bowl of sweet, locally-distilled chhang. I’ve remained quiet since he brought me here and sat passively as he ordered in a language I can’t comprehend from a dark-skinned boy wearing a filthy Britney Spears t-shirt and ragged black school trousers.

As I sip the strong beer, he, without trace of emotion, works his way down a checklist of reasons why he doesn’t want me, lingering over each mentally prepared bullet point. Rational and analytical, but cold and detached, like the objective thinker he has been trained to be. He explains that I don’t understand his culture, that I’m too young and too emotional. I want to protest, but he’s clearly rehearsed this speech.

You’re treating me like carrion to be pecked at and ripped apart, a voice inside my head screams. I feel like a patient, anaesthetised and lying bare and naked before him. And he, like a surgeon, dissects my body with no understanding or appreciation of whom he has so recklessly pursued. And then, to finalise his decision, he stubs out the cigarette and takes a final swig of his beer. Checkmate, it seems.

A candle flickers uneasily on the table amidst the growing tension. I consider arguing my case, but the boy has returned to refill our ceramic bowls. I doubt he can understand English, but I remain quiet as the frustration builds. With each mouthful of beer the lines are becoming gradually blurry and all sense of reason is trickling slowly out of me. Was it his plan to get me too drunk to challenge his decision? Perhaps he’s right and I am young and naïve. I look at him for any trace of feeling, but his tanned face and black hair fade into the room’s darkness making it impossible to read his expression. His narrow eyes flash and glimmer beetle-black in response, showing no sign of emotion.

I want to speak, but the stench of cigarettes chokes my voice, already burdened with rejection and the realisation of my own foolishness. As the reasons why he has brought me here begin to sink in, I feel my surety squeezed out of me. He wanted control, of course, and he knew the only way to achieve that was to catch me off guard and not allow me to maneuver him in my native language.

He takes another cigarette out of the gold Surya packet on the table, holds it to his mouth and lights it, in quiet defiance of how much he knows I hate his smoking.

“You don’t know how hard I worked for this job.”

He speaks slowly in deep, heavily accented English, but these words are not new to me.

“Just last month two members of staff got fired for being in a relationship. I have so many responsibilities, and my parents are so poor.”

It’s the truth, of course, and I see his point. But I’m angry he’s played the poverty card. Now whatever I say, or any response I attempt, will make me look every inch the spoilt, thoughtless Westerner he probably thinks I am. He continues, the tip of his cigarette darting about like a mad firefly in the darkness as he moves his hands erratically, trying to express himself in a foreign language. Vaguely aware of the rise and fall of his voice, I allow his words to pass over me.

Do the past three months mean nothing to him? It was him who came over to my desk on my first

day working for the NGO and introduced himself in English, all smiles and pleasantries. It was him who’d asked me out to celebrate the end of my first week and then walked me in darkness through the sleeping streets to find a taxi. We’d have been completely alone had it not been for the city’s plump, greasy whiskered rats and a flea-riddled stray dog rummaging in a pile of rotting litter across the street.

That same night he began texting me on the premise of meeting to discuss a research project we were both involved with. And later during Dashain, when my host family had temporarily left the city, crammed like chickens into rusting, garishly painted buses along with the Valley’s other migrants, had he not offered to come over to keep me company on our days off to spend the day listening to music and drinking endless cups of tea?

No, I hadn’t imagined his interest. Nor was I unaware of his eyes on my body as he routinely passed my desk in the late afternoons as the sun was disappearing behind the perfectly etched silhouette of the city’s hills. The attraction was definitely mutual. Text messages sent from across the office, and the stolen glances as he went into meetings; none of that was imagined. And yet I feel that he was playing with me.

“Why is everything so black and white for you?” I begin cautiously, feeling the effects of alcohol seep into my speech.

He takes a drag of his cigarette and flicks ash carelessly onto the floor.

“Because it’s my culture”, he replies.

Ah, that familiar, cultural, explanatory catch all, dripping with religion and responsible for prematurely ending even the most intense of connections.

I’ve just finished my second bowl of beer and I’m feeling quite drunk.

“But I think I love you”, I reach over the table and touch his arm meekly. Reality and my imagination have collided cruelly as I realise I have said the words out loud and have, effectively, lost the game.

We emerge after some time into the late afternoon. Everything has become hazy and my boundaries have dissolved. He looks at me in the sunlight, his expression remaining steely despite the alcohol coursing his veins, and makes an empty comment about us being good friends. Perhaps in his world of tightly defined dichotomies—of pure and polluted, of good and bad—there really are no grey areas.

Interview with Rabi Thapa.

Published in the DSC South Asian Literature Festival’s online magazine, 22/09/2011. Original post no longer available.

Last weekend’s Kathmandu Literary Jatra promised a fantastic line up, including Rabi Thapa, former editor at the Nepali TimesLex Delaney interviews him about Nothing to Declare, his debut collection of short stories

Nothing to Declare centres on the experiences of Nepal’s middle-class youth in and around the capital. They follow a loose chronological progression, starting with Initiation where a young boy is deeply embarrassed by the rituals of an initiation ceremony, moving through to boarding school experiences in Angels, to college, moving abroad and returning, to exploring an arranged marriage. “It’s a series of characters in transition against the backdrop of the city and country in transition. It’s about their aspirations, their disappointments, their revelations,” Rabi explains.

“I was desperate to get on with writing, and when the novel proved resistant and the stories started coming, I soon realised I’d have enough for a collection and kept at it.” He admits to struggling with a “monolithic novel set in Nepal while not in Nepal”, but his worthy debut is certainly impressive. Nothing to Declare has already been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story prize, like fellow Nepali writer Sushma Joshi’s earlier collection of stories, The End of the World.

Some critics have questioned whether the content will appeal to an international audience. “Any one of us could have written it”, believes Paavan Mathema writing in Wave magazine. While it’s certainly true that anyone who has ever spent time in Kathmandu will feel a stab of nostalgia for the characters portrayed and the places described (and may have to resort to google translate for the odd word), Rabi’s attention to detail and vivid depictions of the more mundane aspects of Kathmandu life make for fascinating reading.

There’s a feeling as though many of the experiences are deeply personal, such as those of boarding school life in Angels. “I draw on events that happened to me, those that happened to people I know and don’t know, and my imagination. My short stories are the first to make it out of me, so there was probably a tendency to stay close to the bone”, he reveals.

Fortunately for the reader Nothing to Declare steps away from the clichés and the continued media focus on Nepal as a war-ravaged, poverty stricken country with low social development indicators, led by hopeless —and hapless — politicians. “It can get tedious”, Rabi says of the somewhat obsessive focus of the (inter)national media on the country’s political quagmire. “There’s a tendency among fiction writers to have the Maoist insurgency as an obligatory backdrop”, as with Narayan Wagle’s best-selling Palpasa Café, a work that has been defined by many as an anti-war novel.

“Writing about the middle-class may seem indulgent, but there are other ways to address the social change. I refuse to write stereotyped, ‘social’ fiction.” While it’s deeply refreshing to see an author so unashamedly celebrating a city’s bourgeoning middle-class youth the reader is left with the impression of a privileged, but insecure elite. This rings true in A Nepali Maid, where an affluent son feels the need to justify the presence of the family’s long-standing maid and recount her experiences from his fortunate position.

There is also a recurring theme of displacement, tinged with failure and disappointment in many of the stories. In The Trail, located in the murky tourist area of Thamel, we see the protagonist revealing his feelings of rootlessness when living abroad while attempting (and failing) to seduce an Israeli girl. There are also glimpses of the more deprived Nepal in which inequality and injustice are still very much alive. In Home for Dashain, a policeman is brutally murdered by Maoists and in Desire we see a frustrating exploration of Nepal’s rigid social structures as a wealthy employer’s son is attracted to a domestic servant.

While the stories invoke curiosity, the reader is left with only a partial sketch. You can’t help but feeling that by looking at Kathmandu culture through a privileged and almost entirely masculine lens, Rabi limits his humour and insightful writing style to a very select group. That said, this is a very welcome and well-written addition to a growing number of Nepalis writing in English.

Nothing to Declare is published by Penguin Books India.

Book Review: Last Man in Tower

Last Man In Tower, Aravind Adiga’s hotly anticipated third literary offering flings the reader into the heart of Mumbai’s Vakola neighbourhood. Set against a backdrop of slums and rampant poverty, we are introduced to Tower A of the Vishram Cooperative Housing Society, home to a community of seemingly harmonious neighbours.

Adiga throws us into the insalubrious world of Mumbai’s building industry, personified by real estate developer Dharmen Shah and his left-hand man Shanmugham. Shah’s plan is simple: buy out the residents of Vishram Society and build a luxury apartment complex to house the city’s new generation of wealthy elites.

The narrative traces the consequences Shah’s generous offer has on the neighbours, many of who have lived together for a number of years. While the adjacent Tower B agree almost immediately, Tower A’s excitement is mixed with caution. We are repeatedly—and ironically—reminded of the building industry’s murky reputation by the respectable members of Vishram Society – “I know these builders and they are all liars and criminals” accuses single mother and “Communist Aunty” Mrs Rego.

Last Man in Tower is a book of dichotomies. While Shah and Shanmugham represent the alleged criminal building industry, and conversely, the neighbours are characteristic of law-abiding citizens, a paradox begins to emerge as the residents consider the offer before them. An ailing Shah begins to pick off the most reluctant dissenters, planting seeds of doubt in their minds. He is subtle in his actions, and we are left to watch as the real damage is done by members of the society themselves as these seeds develop roots.

We are also given brief glimpses into the lives of those on the margins of Vishram Society life. Mary, the slum-dwelling cleaner, and rum-swigging Security Guard Ram Khare remind the reader of the coexistence of towering wealth and festering poverty overlapping in Mumbai. Mary’s stoic existence severely undermines the ongoing bickering between the residents, who in reality, are relatively well off.

Is the lure of money stronger than friendship? Adiga would suggest so in this hard-hitting account of what the promise of wealth can do to a community. At first glance, Last Man in Tower is an account of greedy, middle-aged neighbours and squabbling pensioners. However it becomes clear that what the characters are chasing and what is within grasp for Vishram Society, is security.

Those looking into the Society are desperate for security. Mary lives an insecure life with the constant threat that her makeshift slum home will be ripped apart and the worry of losing her job if the luxury development goes ahead. Even Shah’s persistent efforts to better himself financially and socially, and to often distract himself, seem in pursuit of meaning and peace of mind.

For the Tower A residents, the money on offer is symbolic of Mrs Puri’s freedom from the constant caring for her disabled son, for a secure future for Mrs Rego’s children and for the chance to help retired Mr Pinto’s financially troubled son.

The author’s voice appears to be expressed through Frank, the objective American—who like Adiga did—works as a journalist. While the rest of the characters we meet assume that the principal dissenter, Masterji, simply wants a bigger “sweetener” to secure the deal, Frank recognises the protesting to be: “A statement, isn’t it? Against development. Against unplanned development.”

However, Last Man in Tower, treads a similar path to Between the Assassinations and bestselling Man Booker prizewinner The White Tiger in its preoccupation with issues of injustice and poverty. But, these are all-pervading, macro-level issues that need to be critically questioned and Adiga’s winning formula seems to be his ability to deconstruct and challenge India’s increasing gaps in poverty and inequality. When combined with his talent for weaving satire so effectively into the mundane, this makes for powerful reading.

As Adiga’s Last Man In Tower paints the development of India’s sprawling cities, it becomes more than just a revealing glance at the imploding relationships between a close-knit community. It becomes a parable for urban development in India as the grave consequences of unplanned development are revealed.

But, there is hope. By shining a light on all the Masterji’s of India who are prepared to stand up and fight injustice, Adiga is encouraging us to follow in the old teacher’s footsteps and stand up for what we truly believe.

Last Man In Tower is published by Atlantic Books in the UK on 16 June 2011

Published by the DSC Literature Festival here.

Om nom nom.

Okay so I know this blog is primarily about gender and development, but some things are just too good to keep to yourself.

I found this recipe for Mock Duck à L’Orange which I’m rather excited about. It serves two people and takes less than 30 minutes to prepare – perfect!

You will need:

For the orange sauce:

– Juice of 2 oranges and the zest of 1

– 100ml/4fl oz vegetable stock

– ½ tsp arrowroot, dissolved in a little cold orange juice

For the duck:

– 1 tin of mock duck or seitan

– 1 tsp olive oil

– salt and black pepper

Plus whatever side vegetables you like.

To make:
– If cooking new potatoes, pop them on to cook now.

– Heat the orange juice, zest and stock in a frying pan.

– Add the arrowroot and stir in well.

– Bring to the boil and simmer until the sauce is reduced by half.

– Drain the liquid from the mock duck/seitan. I find that placing it onto a clean tea towel or some kitchen roll and squeezing the moisture out with a spatula to get rid of as much moisture as possible is the best way.

– Season to taste and fry the ‘meat’ in some olive oil until both sides are brown.

– Serve with the orange sauce and potatoes (and whatever other veggies you decide to cook).
– Enjoy!

Nepal’s women have a voice in politics, but noone is listening.

Hurrah! Published on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters Blog at the end of last month.

Women occupy 33% of seats in parliament but their influence on Nepal’s new constitution has been limited by patriarchal attitudes.

After two years of intense wrangling and political deadlock, the extended deadline for passing Nepal’s new constitution is looming, with a decision expected on 28 May. In 2006, a decade of fighting came to an end when Nepal’s main political parties signed a peace deal with former Maoist rebels. A year later, an interim constitution was adopted, setting women’s representation in the legislative parliament at 33%.

In the 2008 election to choose a constituent assembly (CA) tasked with drafting a new constitution, women’s political participation soared to new heights, with one of the highest representations at the level of national parliament worldwide. However, despite women occupying 33% of the seats in the CA, their progress in contributing to the constitution-building progress has been hindered by a culture of patriarchy in which female politicians continue to be marginalised.

This inherent patriarchy is reflected in the organisational structure of the various political parties and government bodies. The present government led by Jhalanath Khanal, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), has just five women ministers out of a total of 43. Another of the main parties, the Nepali Congress Party – Central Working Committee (NC-CWC), has only 14 women among its 65 members. In the CPN-UML’s 115-member central committee, there are 18 women, and only four women are members of its 39-member politburo. The central committee of the largest party, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), includes just 12 women among its 148 members, and there are just two female representatives within the 45-member politburo.

According to female politicians, the marginalisation of women in the political sphere reflects entrenched patriarchal attitudes towards them. Suprabha Ghimire, of the NC, believes that Nepalese society is still reluctant to accept women as leaders. “Society looks up to men as born leaders. They are not eager to welcome women in these roles,” she says. Sarita Giri, leader of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, believes women do have more influence in smaller parties such as hers, but they face obstacles in the decision-making and constitution-building processes at the national level.

Women lack opportunities to express themselves during parliamentary and plenary discussions, she says. “Whenever we raise an issue inside the CA, senior leaders walk out of the hall without bothering to listen to us. Even the media ignores the issues that women raise,” says Savitra Bhusal, from the CPN-UML. Giri adds: “Women haven’t been given due importance in the constitution-building process.”

In Nepal, gender discrimination is rife. Disparities exist in access to secondary education, while the high rates of domestic violence and early marriage, discrimination towards widows and prevalence of trafficking in girls demonstrate the unequal status of women in society. Bhusal highlights chaupadi pratha, the practice of isolating women who are menstruating, as an example of this discrimination. At its most extreme, rural women may be forced to sleep in animal sheds during menstruation. She says the “backward” attitute that menstruating women are somehow “polluted” persists among people in both urban and rural communities, and regardless of their levels of education. She says the “influence of a feudalistic, patriarchal society” is evident within the CPN-UML.

How to tackle such entrenched perspectives is a matter of considerable debate. Bhusal wants grassroots action while Ghimire believes such attitudes are perpetuated by illiteracy, which can only be tackled over time with better education. “One must promote female education through affirmative action policies,” says Ghimire, adding that these are key issues of the NC manifesto.

Clearly, it is a vicious circle: women are marginalised in politics because they are considered inferior within society, and discrimination against them continues because of failures at policy level.

The situation has been further complicated by the difficulties in implementing laws during the transitional political phase, Bhusal argues. She says a number of discriminatory laws affecting women need to be changed. Anti-dowry and domestic violence laws remain poorly implemented and legislation has been affected by the political stagnancy. For effective reform to take place, changes at the constitutional and policy levels need to trickle down.

Nevertheless, many Nepalese women are voicing their concerns. In 2006, no women were selected for the six-member constitution drafting committee but this was revised after women lobbied and held demonstrations. On 28 May last year, women members of the CA came together to protest against all the parties that were demanding an agreement on the extension of the CA’s term.

At the grassroots level, too, women are speaking out. But, says Madhu Shrestha, president of the Rural Women’s Network Nepal (Ruwon Nepal), politicians do not adequately represent the interests of rural women, and they are rarely able to implement women-friendly polices. “In practice,” she says, “women MPs do not represent the grassroots women population. Most of them are either wives, or sisters or relatives of the male leaders of political parties.” The fact that the minister for women, children and social welfare is a man speaks volumes.

A major problem for women is lack of self-confidence, says Uma Bhandari, a lecturer at Tribhuvan University. But she, along with education expert Dhruba Ghimire, Ruwon’s general secretary, Shrestha and a team of Ruwon volunteers are focusing on grassroots action through campaigns, leadership training and knowledge-building. At their women’s literacy school in Saraswoti Nagar, Kathmandu, around 200 illiterate women are learning to read and write in Nepali and English and to understand mathematics to boost their confidence and equip them with livelihood skills.

Ruwon’s holistic approach also covers leadership training in the rural district of Sindhuli, teaching women how to speak confidently in front of a group and how to express thoughts and opinions. As well as providing health and hygiene awareness classes, Ruwon provides practical knowledge through workshops on marriage registration and political rights, to enable women to understand what their rights are and give them the confidence to assert them.

However, in Nepal the consequences of speaking out on behalf of women can be dangerous. Dhruba Ghimire admits he has been treated with hostility because of his work. Amnesty International has reported on the deadly consequences of women’s activism, highlighting the case of Uma Singh, a journalist in her mid-20s who was murdered in 2009 for writing about gender-based violence. Amnesty has reported not only on the vulnerability of women activists to violence, but on police complicity in perpetuating discrimination when women speak out.

The organisation’s research suggests that, instead of investigating incidents of violence, police sometimes coerce women into attending traditional community courts, where bribes and the perceived lack of importance of the crime often prevent any real justice.

Despite the dangers and obstacles they face, a minority of women aren’t afraid to speak out and challenge social norms. At the political level, too, “the clouds have a silver lining”, says Pampha Bhusal, a member of the United Community Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M). She is hopeful that the new statute will build on the advances made for women, including the Women’s Right’s Bill, in the interim constitution.

Yet as the constitution-building process drags on, with no reliable evidence that a consensus will be reached by the May deadline, the perspectives of Nepal’s women continue to be represented by a few women in what continues to be an “old boy’s club”, and the real progress appears to be occurring outside the political arena.

Bhutanese Literature Festival: Mountain Echoes 2011

Published by the DSC South Asian Literature Festival

While the Land of the Thunder Dragon is famous for its scenic beauty, tranquility and natural wealth, Bhutanese writing is lesser known to the rest of the world.

Mountain Echoes 2011, a four-day festival from May 20 – 24 was out to rectify this and aimed to showcase the talent in Bhutanese writing. The India-Bhutan Foundation, in association with Siyahi, united some of Bhutan and India’s top literary talent in a packed series of workshops, discussions and theatrics in various locations across Thimpu, the country’s capital, for Bhutan’s second annual literature festival.

The presence of distinguished guests and established writers gave the festival a buzz. Lam Kesang Chhoephel, a freelance translator and consultant conversed with Dasho Sheruk Gyetshen, secretary of the Dzongkha Development Commission on the underlying tenet that humanity is the yearning for happiness and the rejection of suffering. Bhutan’s Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, author of Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan provided insights into Bhutanese culture and society and revealed her inspiration for writing the book.

Among the fresh Bhutanese voices speaking on culture, society, politics and history were writers Dasho Kinley Dorji, author of Within the Realm of Happiness and Chang Dorji, author of The Clear Mirror of Archery in Bhutan and Clear Exposition of Bhutanese Architecture. Namgay Zam, a Bhutanese television producer and Dr Chencho Dorji, a nominee for this year’s Geneva Prize for Human Rights in Psychiatry, took to the stage to discuss the transition of Bhutanese culture and the influences of the media, along with scholars including political anthropologist Dr Sonam Kinga and renowned translator Lily Wangchuck.

From India, there were a whole host of literary personalities, including publishing giant and author of The House of Blue Mangoes David Davidar, author and columnist Shobhaa De and bestselling fantasy novelist Samit Basu who engaged with the audience and each other on the literary platform. Memoirs and biographies were also discussed, as Pulitzer award winner Kai Bird and journalist Namita Bhandare joined with Tehelka Magazine’s Gaurav Jain to share their experiences. Davidar returned later with writer Namita Gokhale, and His Excellency Pavan Varma, India’s Ambassador to Bhutan, delighted the audience with much-anticipated excerpts from their new books and Dr Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri writer, released an anthology of poems written in collaboration with students at the University of Bhutan.

Bollywood fans were treated to a workshop on script writing from director and writer Imtiaz Ali. Poet Gulzar, who needs no introduction, and film lyricist Javed Akhtar were also in attendance to chat to the audience and engage with the guest speakers. There were thought-provoking talks from Jaideep Sahni and Imtiaz Ali, who shared their experiences of working in the film industry on the third day of the festival. Imtiaz advised Bhutanese authors to avoid drawing inspiration from any of the ‘Woods’ (whether Bolly, Holly or Tolly) and instead focus on telling Bhutan’s own story through film.

Food, textiles and children’s writing was also on the agenda. Singye Dorji, director of the Textile Museum of Thimpu presented a historical picture of Bhutanese textiles and Laila Tyabji, founder member and chairperson of DASTKAR, a society for crafts and craftspeople spoke about the contemporary identity of textiles and what textiles tell us about a country’s culture.

Award-winning writer Kunzang Choden and reviewer, critic and freelance writer Anita Roy led a lively and interactive session on writing for children and brought to life the traditional folk tales of Bhutan, delighting adults and children alike in the audience. The fun-filled occasion was also the launch of Kunzang’s Aunty Mouse and Room in your Heart, two children’s books. Anita also drew on her 23 years of writing experience and led a workshop on the craft of writing: developing your personal voice, character building, maintaining a plot, the importance of emotional investment in your story and the needs of creative writing – talent, skill and stamina.

There was food for thought as Pushpesh Pant, author of the bestselling Taste of Home, joined Mita Kapur, CEO and Founder of Siyahi, and Kunzang Choden to discuss food and reminisce about the taste of home. Buddhism’s relationship to ecology and the environment was considered by Namgay Zam, television anchor and producer for the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, in conversation with Margherita Stancati, news editor from the Wall Street Journal, and Rinchen Khandu a scholar and renowned translator.

The importance of heritage was considered, with Aman Nath, hotelier and historian forming a panel with author Chang Dorji and journalist Nandini Mehta. The relevance of social media in Bhutan was debated by Tshering Tobgay, member of Bhutan’s parliament and leader of the opposition party, Gopilal Acharya along with author David Davidar and Dorji Wangchuck, media secretary to His Majesty of Bhutan, who revealed that the presence of Facebook and other networking sites is small and only reflects the views of some people in the country. Tshering Tobgay emphasised the importance of blogging in Dzongkha and suggested people upload videos if language was an obstacle.

The festival was considered “another success story” by organisers and certainly proved that Bhutanese literature is being taken seriously.

Nepal’s consequences of culture.

Nepal: land of contrasts. Snow-covered peaks jutting into an azure blue sky, stony grey high rises competing for space in an urban, concrete jungle and raging rivers weaving through steep ravines, giving way to lush grasslands and dense forests.

Sadly the contrasts don’t end there. Although statistics estimating the numbers of girls who enroll and stay in school differ greatly between NGOs and agencies, what they do tell us is that far greater numbers of girls continue to drop out of secondary school.

Why? The reality is complex. Nepal has one of the highest incidences of early marriage in the world, which is one explanation. Despite the recent changes to the law which raises the minimum age at marriage for girls to 18, UNICEF statistics reveal that over 50% of girls currently aged between 20 – 24 were married (or in a union) by age 15; 10% of these girls were married before 15.

Nepal’s ethnic mosaic, diverse landscape and different religious beliefs mean that cultural marriage practices vary widely. Throughout Nepal we know that Buddhists marry, on average, later than Hindus. Tibetan groups found in hill and mountainous areas marry the latest, on average around 23. In the south of the country, in the rural Terai regions closer to India, Hindu Brahmin and Chhetri groups marry the earliest, around 13 in some cases.

Patriarchal beliefs underpin the continuity of early marriage in this area and have become entrenched in the region’s social fabric. Many Hindus believe that the role of women, as laid out in religious texts, is to be a good wife and mother. The ideal age to bring punya (religious merit) to the family is before a girl starts her period, around 12 or 13.

Poverty is a significant influencing factor and education is an investment that many Nepalis cannot afford and early marriage both prevents and precludes access to education. Logic follows that as a girl will leave her parent’s house to live with her husband and soon start having children, it is pointless wasting scarce resources on her future.

Poverty is also a gendered experience in Nepal and indeed across South Asia. 2/3rds of those living below a dollar a day are women. The same girls that were taken out of school to be married.

The culture of dowry (money and gifts given away on a girl’s marriage by her family) is also a major incentive to marry girls earlier. In the Terai it is reported that the older the girl, the more her dowry. As some of Nepal’s poorest and most marginalized live in the Terai, it makes financial sense to marry a girl off younger and less sense to invest in her education.

Sadly the circle is often vicious. Not only does early marriage result in fewer years of schooling, but also that girls who have been to school are more likely to immunize their children.

Early marriage has also shown increased links with sexually transmitted diseases, maternal complications and mortality, cervical cancer and increased fertility. Girls are also at greater risk of domestic violence, particularly if their dowries were smaller and the younger the girl is, the younger she could potentially become a widow and be ostracized by other members of her community and be at risk of child abuse from members of her husband’s family.

The culture of early marriage has complicated links with health, education and economics and raises difficult questions of how development can work alongside tenacious and established religious norms.

The change in the marriage bill is a step in the right direction. But one thing is certain, for Nepal to successfully achieve both national and international development goals on maternal health, charities and development organizations continue to provide an inclusive learning environment for girls who are already married, as well as educating communities on the benefits of later marriages. There’s still a long way to go.

Uma Ghimire from the Rural Women's Network Nepal with a group of women in Sindhuli.

Aquablakk return to St Helens for star-studded roadshow

Published in the St Helens Star on February 24 2011.

THE Theatre Royal will be bouncing to the rhythm of the Aquablakk Roadshow on Sunday, March 6.

The gig will feature hip hop artists Aquablakk, rapper DJ Ironik, Britain’s Got Talent finalists Nemesis and TV’s Got to Dance contestant Gingerbread Man, among others.

Aquablakk, aka Chesterfield duo Vee and Mulleezy, have been performing together since 2008.

Their debut single How Ya Like It, a blend of R’n’B and hip hop, reached the top spot in the UK independent music charts in February 2010.

So far the dynamic duo have racked up performances supporting British hip hop sensation Chipmunk and US R’n’B star Ne-Yo as well as appearing on national television.

Aquablakk are no strangers to St Helens. Last year, they switched on the town’s Christmas lights along with Britain’s Got Talent finalists Twist & Pulse and R’n’B group Encore and performed to an 8,000-strong crowd.

The duo are now planning their tour across the UK to promote their latest project, Run This, and are set to perform in South Africa during a 15-day tour with South African chart-topping girl group La Vuvuzela later this year.

* Tickets are available at the Theatre Royal’s box office at sthelenstheatreroyal.com/booking.asp or by calling 01744 756000.

For more details about Aquablakk, visit their Facebook page.