Intractable problem of sexism

Why is women’s equality so hard to fathom?  Sometimes I am just stunned … because when you think it can’t get worse, it does.

Sometimes projects that aim to address problems that affect women replicate the structures of sexism and violence that make women’s lives difficult in the first place.  It happens in subtle as well as overt ways. Continue reading


Speaking of Caste

In chapters and at annual conferences, volunteers of AID have discussed forms of injustice stemming from various social identities such as gender, patriarchy, and sexual orientation and our own role in questioning the injustice and understanding how we take part in perpetuating them.  Two years ago discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation led to a conference session as well as an amendment to the volunteer code of conduct.  While amending the code volunteers included caste as a basis of prejudice to be eradicated. Continue reading


Seven Fallacies about Menstruation and Culture

Never have I so acutely felt the weight of Jonathan Swift’s remark, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it” as now, after responding to a “viral” article propagating pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in connection with menstrual untouchability, which is a crime against women just as untouchability is a crime against humanity. To top it off, this article suggests, in conclusion, that reviving traditional customs may effect social change and greater respect for women. The author is not some cranky old chauvinist male but a woman who works with government schools and health departments to teach girls and women about menstruation.  Girls certainly do need spaces where they can speak freely and ask questions about menstruation, to know it is not shameful and that their bodies are just fine.  How awesome would it be if after a presentation on the subject they could go home and declare, “I am not polluting, I don’t have to sit in the corner or in the shed. I can go where I want, when I want. I am free! Instead we hear that when girls ask questions about why they are not allowed to touch people, pickers, temples, etc, this particular teacher tells them that untouchability is “a personal choice” and that the myths and rituals reinforcing it are rooted in “ancient wisdom” when women were “worshipped.” How many adolescent girls, hearing a teacher in school offer you on the one hand patriarchy masked as “ancient wisdom” and on the other “personal choice” will choose the latter? I hope this response can increase that number:

Ask Amma

Several people have forwarded to me an article, written by an educator, connecting “ancient wisdom” to the practice of menstrual taboo, and pitying the misguided women who expect modern ideas of gender and feminism to empower them.  After cataloguing popular justifications for menstrual untouchability and suggesting that they come from a time when women enjoyed respect, indeed worship, in contrast to the present context of crimes against women, the author concludes that menstrual taboo is a matter of “personal choice.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Would those who condone menstrual untouchability extend their reasoning to untouchability?  Is it also a personal choice for us to connect to the “ancient wisdom” through the practice of untouchability?  With more than enough relatives who would be all too happy to think so, I take this as a wake-up call

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Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food

On 10 March 2014, I spoke about Women’s Rights Perspective in Birth, Breastfeeding and Food at a Training Program on Gender, Work and Health held at the National Labour Institute, Delhi.  In one session, graduate students from institutes in various parts of India attended.  In another session, Health Officials from various countries attended. Continue reading

Reflections, Report

Studying Society the Sangati Way

What do children study in social studies?   Sangati is a program that encourages children to study society, starting with themselves.  Avehi-Abacus has trained teachers in more than 900 schools of the Bombay Municipal Corporation to implement this program.  I had the opportunity to visit some of the classes during their Sangati session.

The Sangati curriculum is designed with the aim of helping students make sense of their personal experiences at home and in their neighborhoods in a broader social, political and historical context.  The students I met had learned about Savitri bai Phule who worked for the cause of education for women and girls, and read stories raising caste issues such as Premchand’s Thakur ka Kuan (Thakur’s well) and Eklavya.

In the course of the discussion, the teacher asked them questions such as,

“What have been the conventional roles expected of men and women?”
“How has society changed?”
“How does education play a role?”
“Was Dronacharya a great teacher?”  (क्या द्रोणाचार्य महान गुरु थे?).
“If your teacher asked you for such a guru-dakshina what would you do?”

In their discussion we could see that while the material they discussed challenged social conventions and power structures, their ideas of how to challenge these in their own lives were yet forming and would take many more such discussions for them to articulate.
The politics of the classroom and the politics of their present reality layered upon one another, complicating the questions that the teacher asked based on the lesson.   It poignantly revealed how far the students were willing to go in challenging issues of caste and gender which we like to think are settled.
I read some of the textbooks and teacher’s guides, including descriptions of their classroom exercises designed to facilitate introspection on questions of caste and gender.  It would be interesting to try out these exercises ourselves in chapters.  There is so much that we in AID can learn from this program, as travelers along the same journey towards a just society.


Gender Equality in Our Lifetime?

Charlotte, 26 May 2013. Outside the conference room, S. Hiremath greeted me and said, “Congratulations to you and Sunita and the others for that session on gender issues. The way people spoke up and shared their experiences, I did not think I would see it in my lifetime! Really, hats off! How long can women endure this injustice in silence?”

The Survey, the Skit, the Session and the Silence
AID Conference 2013 at Charlotte, North Carolina

Daughter reads _The Art of Freedom_

The Survey Continue reading

Letter to Editor

Varanasi widows join seers and scholars in seminar, dine together

Varanasi widows join seers and scholars in seminar, dine together
ALLAHABAD, May 27, 2013


It is very sad that this is a headline, or that such efforts are needed at all.

No woman, indeed no person, should have to live with this kind of injustice, isolation and poverty. The exclusion these women feel stems from the discrimination against women that prevails in educated, middle and upper class society as well. Though women whose husbands have died may live with their families, enjoy comfortable lives and be invited to social functions, some remnant of discrimination remains. I have shared such an experience here:
A String of Jasmine

The initiative to offer education and vocational opportunities to those in need is welcome. At the same time we need a massive effort to educate the seers, scholars, family and society as a whole to recognize the dignity and equality of all women, regardless of marital status.


Little Things

Little Things
14th January 2013

Jasmine Garland photo by Leelawadee

“Give J___ Auntie a string of flowers.” my mother-in-law told me. Suddenly I grew tense with a sense of not knowing what to do.

I had a long string of jasmines which I had cut into small pieces and was giving out to my daughter’s friends at her Sankranti party. My mother-in-law and a couple of her friends were sitting on the sofa.

I busied myself in the kitchen so as not to have to respond to her instruction right away. Away from the crowd, I reflected, why had I become tense? I realized that it was because I was not sure how I could give flowers to J___ Auntie, while K___ Auntie was sitting right next to her. Then I realized that the solution was simple, give flowers to both J____ and K____ Auntie.

Why had this obvious solution not struck me right away? Why had there even been a “problem” requiring a solution?

Let us go back to the instruction, “Give J___ Auntie a string of flowers.” In giving this instruction, my mother-in-law had made an assumption. Someone who had not made that assumption might have had two questions:

1) Why had she instructed me to give flowers to J___ but not also to K___ Auntie?
2) Why hadn’t she herself given out the flowers?

For both questions, the reason stems from a distinction made between a married woman whose husband is alive and one whose husband is no longer alive. My mother-in-law had instructed me to give flowers to J___ Auntie because both of us fell into the former category. She did not give out the flowers, nor did she ask me to give flowers to K____ Auntie, because she and K___ Auntie fell into the latter category.

Upon hearing her instruction, I felt the tension of being unwilling to follow it, but it took me some time to unpack all this to understand why. Once I understood, I saw the way. I picked up three strings of flowers and gave one to each – my mother-in-law, J____Auntie, and K_____ Auntie. K___ Auntie immediately asked, “why me?” I just smiled. My mother-in-law explained, “she doesn’t believe that there should be that difference,” and put the flowers into her hair. K___ Auntie replied, “Yes, these customs should change.”

Note:  This article appeared as “A String of Jasmine” in the monthly newsletter of Association for India’s Development


More on Gender Footprint … Notes from AID Conference

AID US Conference 2009, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

What happened at the gender session?    GAME:  “Gender Bender” a simple yet thought-provoking exercise spurred by one classic gender issue: “there is so much work to do!!”  Or is there?  Whose work is it?  Men’s?  Women’s?  Both / either?

Forming five groups, participants took 20 cards, on which names of various “to do” or “to be” items were printed such as Continue reading



In response to  Nishank Sah: ” I was just wondering if AID is currently involved in any Anti-DOWRY campaign.”

Funny, a journalist wondering the same thing called me a few days ago. She wanted to find out why the campaign was no longer active in AID.

I offered some possible explanations …. key volunteers leading the effort moving to India and not keeping up contact, decline of the yahoo group (partly due imho to cross-posting and spam) , and also major emergencies that exhausted our volunteer resources such as communal riots in Gujarat, Tsunami. Also that those who took initiative in the anti-dowry campaign were the same people who were working actively in Narmada, Bhopal, Farmers’ Crisis, and several other major issues which demanded our time and energy.

Dowry is a hard issue because it means changing something about ourselves, our attitudes, our lifestyles.
It is easier to cite the above reasons but there is also something about the rising consumerism, changing demographics of AID volunteer base, changing forms of dowry, sexism … that demands our introspection as well.

Anyway the journalist was interested in meeting a young couple in India preparing for marriage and facing and resisting family expectations regarding dowry.

Do you know anyone she could interview? She is going to India in January.


by Nishank Sah on Mon Nov 03, 2008 6:11 pm


I was just wondering if AID is currently involved in any Anti-DOWRY campaign and I came across this old thread. The discussions were really insightful and still pertinent.

Currently, what is the stand of AIDers against dowry? Especially among the unmarried folks??

Some survey was proposed to be taken to know the opinion of AIDers on different aspects related to dowry and inter-caste marriages. Had we collected any facts related to it?

Though, the demand for Dowry might have subdued per se, but it has metamorphosed into another subtle forms, like giving of gifts, jeweleries, ostentatious wedding celebrations (the cost to be born by bride’s parents), etc.

Moreover, still there are many young folks, who would not ask for dowry on their own, but who won’t oppose their parents demand either, saying “I can’t say no if my parents ask the bride’s family for dowry. Maybe I won’t ask dowry for my kids’ marriages.”

One of the best solutions for curbing the effects of dowry can be as simple as, a couple spending 50-50% on wedding arrangements on their own (assuming both are working), and keeping it low scale than pressurizing the bride’s parents for arrangements.

I am not sure, as how much just signing a NO DOWRY pledge online by people would lead to its actual implementation.

Nishank Sah

Radhika Rammohan on Thu Jun 15, 2006 3:26 pm

hi Shailabh,

Actually the point I was making was re. the society, expectations and “pressure” that people put on themselves even if it is not external. The notion is well-entrenched in our society that the girl’s family should do everything possible to ensure the couple start off to a good std. of living and that the wedding itself, and all its expenses are to be met by them — even if the grooms family were to be quite progressive the bride’s fmly will go out of their way and spend on the occasion.

Most parents of girls will have something put away for these purposes and that kitty would have been growing since the girl’s childhood. You brought up a point of “what if the grooms parents are not that well-off”. If groom’s parents were to be working under the assumption that roughly 50% of their son’s wedding and marriage start-up expenses are to be met by them, perhaps they would create such kitties too… just speculating.

“display and pressure” are relative — to me a lavish wedding whose expenses are footed by the girls family, and where dispoportionate level of gifts given by one side are indications of this social conditioning. It is of course FAR preferable to the arm-twisting and conditional marriages one sees.

My thoughts are not a departure from the original dowry FAQ…. if you see the next para in the faq.

      Nevertheless if parents wish to give anything to their daughter on the occasion of her marriage, they should give it in her own name and see that she is fully aware of how to manage the assets and capable of using them according to her own wishes and needs.

Shailabh Nagar on Thu Jun 15, 2006 2:45 pm

LS Aravinda wrote:

I was trying to get at what definition of dowry would be used that people would be pledging to work against and whether that can be something as rigid

ANTI DOWRY campaign pledge and faq may be a good start.

The pledge and FAQ were quite useful and seem like a good way of conveying what is meant. In particular,

Any gift given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family as a condition of marriage, under social pressure for fulfilling customs, or for showing the bride’s family status or under fear of ill- being of the bride, is a dowry. A gift given without such display or pressure or condition is not considered a dowry.

I felt that the direction in which Radhika was going with her interpretation of a gift given willingly went against the last line….and hence the questioning…

In line at the Kurla railway station, I conversed with a gentleman who started mentioning his child’s wedding and I started mentioning the dowry free wedding campaign. He also proposed hypothetical scenarios and asked me if that was dowry or not. I simply said that as an observer I may not know but the persons giving and receiving will know what they are doing and it is up to them to think judiciously about this, if they believe in the campaign, and act accordingly.

Very well put.
Sorry for being the online equivalent of your railway gentleman and
creating a “hypothetical scenario” diversion in this thread :-)

I think Ravi and your suggestions on getting feedback from the people
who use this kind of site would be quite valuable in taking action.


Vani Vemparala on Wed Jun 14, 2006 5:54 am

And what if the groom’s parent’s aren’t as well off ? Do you advocate the girls parent’s should hold back in giving so they fit this proposed definition of what is dowry and what isn’t ? This isn’t a rhetorical question but a real one.

I think the issue is one of expectation. whether groom’s parents and rich or poor, they cannot have any expectations that girl’s parents should/shouldn’t do something.

let me give an example. if groom’s parents are not that well off, would they invite 1000 guests, if they were footing the bill? may be not. so why should they, if the bride’s parents are the ones who are paying for it? groom’s parents being ‘poor’ as in your example, does not entitle them to a single paisa of bride’s/bride’s parents money. Marraige is not a lottery ticket. If the starting of the life together is with these expectations (which have nothing to do with intrinsic qualities of two people, who are going to be living together), it is quite a slippery slope from there, IMO.

I think some of the posts here are talking about the expectations on the bride’s parents that have been levied for so long. if the parents of bride are ’empowered’ enough to make decisions (irrespective of societal expectations) whether they want/not want to give, those examples will automatically not fit into the campaign.

As I understand, the campaign exists because this expectation exists and reaches ugly levels quite frequently in a myriad of forms.

manoj tammiraju on Tue Jun 13, 2006 7:07 pm

As radhika was mentioning may be its the sharing of expenses that would bring down the way money is spent in marriages. well with this issue partly the fault attributes to both the sides, groom and the bride.

The major problem I feel with dowry and many other things is that many don’t see these things as issues unless some art film/documentary or an utter tragedy points it out blatently as these are so ingrained in the society making us callous to their presence and acceptance. For some even if they see it around unless it happens in their family they even don’t care. And many even if they see don’t realize the potetial impact they can make to society they live in (both positive or negative).

What do you all think about starting out with questions to our own AIDers and see in a week what all we feel about this system as such and suggestions on how to counter it. Since we (guys) in AID were complimented to be a “good boys” in conference :wink: and in AID there are girls who are saying “death to dowry”, lets see on a whole what we all feel and how much we commit to the issue. I believe the survey suggested by Brunda and Dwiji is a good start.

I feel the questions should converge in bringing up the point that what ever some of us might do as a fashion and others consider as tradition is turning out to be a compultion to many. Probably we leaving out some of this “maryada” or “shaan” or “status” things to a little extant might bring in a good change and stop this unnecessary selling and buying process.

My way of looking at it is surely not to suggest in having ideal marriages like signing registers… The dreams of grand marriages is no harm as long as we are observing the social impacts we might be causing. Leaving alone those things… enjoyammadi 8) …..

My discussions with some really outspoken and well educated girls and guys:

1. Its ok as long as the dowry is a one time affair as its pretty common and as long as the grooms side doesn’t pester again and again, I don’t mind my father giving a dowry. (what happens if they do?? No idea)

2. I am not interested in dowry and all things mama but you know these are formalities of parents. I don’t care much about it and why should I when they are capable of giving and my parents are not forcing anything anyway.

3. When guy says it would be good to share the expenses as its not like one is giving and other is taking but two families getting together… The response was nah it would not look nice upon us, though its a good thinking.

4. If I won’t someone else will give and if I haven’t had sister I would have waited to say I would marry the guy who won’t ask for dowry. Well anyways even if some may not ask dowry they would be looking at the aspect that I am earning and my salary comes in. So who do you think is better the one who openly asks dowry or who had such a thing in mind and marries me giving a show as if he is Lord Rama.

5. Come on ra I don’t like dowry but see its a status symbol. My cousin was given a crore and me being in US my parents expect to show my worth more than that. Above all do you know they would think that I have some defect if there is no mention of dowry.

Ravi Kuchimanchi on Tue Jun 13, 2006 2:00 pm

hi all,

when we say no dowry we expect the couple will resist asking or taking dowry that can be initiated by their parents and others. dowry will in all likelihood be discussed by them and we hope and expect they actually succeed in haVING A dowry-free MARRIAGE.

no caste means we wont allow caste to be disclosed in matrimony announcements. again it will in all likelihood come up in discussions they have with each other and family members. i have seen several AID pairs whose parents succeeded in preventing their inter-caste marriage.

maybe on both counts — dowry and caste — we should ask people advertising to say if they have their parents consent for dowry-free and inter-caste weddings before they use our site. if they have do not have or do not want to involve their parents while placing ad. they should state how their parents are likel;y to react and how they will convince their parents.

we should request couple to give us post-wedding feedback on how they handled dowry and caste and to what extent they had to compromise.

likewise even one of them can give anonymous feedback on negative aspoects — like if parents succeeded in breaking marriage plans or if they married but dowry was actually taken. we should have a way where even we dont know who the person is who is writing to us but know its genuine as s/he used a code number that the computer assigned to him/her at time of placing ad.

these feedback should be made available sans all personal references on matrim. site.