We Are Those Lions

jayaben.desai.grunwick.jpg
Photo by simonm1965

Jayaben Desai passed away recently at age 77, leaving an extraordinary legacy in labor history. With a handbag in one hand and a bullhorn in the other, she led a two-year strike in the mid-1970s protesting the unequal pay and poor treatment of workers at a North London Grunwick film processing factory. The factory’s workforce consisted mostly of desi immigrants from East Africa, and many were women.

Before she walked off the job one day in 1976, the diminutive Gujarat-born Desai who came in at under 5 feet tall and immigrated to England by way of Tanzania, had a few words for her manager Malcolm Alden.

What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your finger-tips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are those lions, Mr manager. Continue reading

The Absolutely Sick Sikh Knowledge

Sikh knowledge 2.jpg

On his right forearm he has this tattoo. I didn’t recognize it at first – a four by four of solid black squares. “It’s the squares to my drum pad,” Sikh Knowledge said, pointing casually to his arm. It made sense – he was a reggae dancehall musician that loved to produce music. You may not know who he is but you will and I guarantee you’ve heard his beats. His tunes are the base music for many of the up and coming hip hop Desi artists of the day - Humble the Poet, Mandeep Sethi, and Hoodini have all used tracks produced by him.

Hailing from Montreal and well known on the Canuck Desi scene, Sikh Knowledge made his way to California for a mini-tour in December, hitting up cities all along the coast. I met him in Sacramento, where he was doing a show with his Sikh hip-hop posse at the Sol Collective. The show was live and it was intense to see a whole scene of brown underground hip hop heads. I sat down with Sikh Knowledge aka Kanwar Anit Singh Saini before he jumped on the mic at the Sacramento show. Here’s what he had to say.

Sikh Knowledge got his start young, singing at the temple when he was a child. But he got into hip-hop also at a young age. “I was one of those kids that would beat box going to school… I was the only grade 3 kid bringing mixed tapes to school. I lost Bobby Brown’s “Every Little Step” on the playground and that’s when I cried at school.” It was when he heard the Sound Bwoy Burill track in 1994 that he knew he was going to make music his life.

But what really made an impression on me was Sikh Knowledge’s confidence in pursuing his life. At the age of 20, he decided to stop being what other people wanted him to be, dropped out of engineering school and re-started honestly. “I dropped out, came out, and rearranged my whole life,” he stated. “I reapplied and did my undergraduate degree in music with a minor in linguistics. It was the happiest time of my life. I felt good about the decisions that I made.” He’s currently pursuing his Master degree in speech language pathology while having the dual career of mixing some of the ill-est beats in North America. Continue reading

Boys don’t cry

The NYTimes reports on a continuing practice in Afghanistan that breaks one’s heart (complete with a slideshow):

KABUL, Afghanistan — Six-year-old Mehran Rafaat is like many girls her age. She likes to be the center of attention. She is often frustrated when things do not go her way. Like her three older sisters, she is eager to discover the world outside the family’s apartment in their middle-class neighborhood of Kabul.

But when their mother, Azita Rafaat, a member of Parliament, dresses the children for school in the morning, there is one important difference. Mehran’s sisters put on black dresses and head scarves, tied tightly over their ponytails. For Mehran, it’s green pants, a white shirt and a necktie, then a pat from her mother over her spiky, short black hair. After that, her daughter is out the door — as an Afghan boy.

There are no statistics about how many Afghan girls masquerade as boys. But when asked, Afghans of several generations can often tell a story of a female relative, friend, neighbor or co-worker who grew up disguised as a boy. To those who know, these children are often referred to as neither “daughter” nor “son” in conversation, but as “bacha posh,” which literally means “dressed up as a boy” in Dari. [NYTimes]

Anyone that caught the depressing 2003 film “Osama” (saddest ending ever) will be familiar with the practice of “bacha posh.”

Dan Rather also provides a short video segment on the story:

http://video.nytimes.com/video/2010/09/20/world/asia/1248069063442/excerpt-from-dan-rather-reports.html

Continue reading

Desi Pride

SALGA Roopa Singh 2.jpg

This Sunday marks the 41st Anniversary of the Gay Pride March in NYC. With rainbow flags waving, the streets of NYC will be covered with people taking it to the streets. And unlike the 2009 Indian Independence Day parade in NYC where queer desi activist groups like SALGA where denied from partaking, Desis this weekend will be marching.The SALGA float will have Bollywood music, of course.

NYC based pop cultural aficionado Rohin Guha had this to say about the duality of being queer and desi.

I’ve always been fascinated by the strange overlap between Indian and gay cultures. They’re like spurned aunts at a cousin’s wedding, each giving the other the iciest cold-shoulder. But once in a while, they might thaw enough to cast a wary side-eye to one another. And then they’ll return to ignoring each other.[thisisfyf]

Rohin goes on to write about this unlikely “fusion” via this Spice Girls video that he ended up watching with his parents as a kid.

But, when the Spice Girls–dressed in saris and salwars–stormed the stage on auto-rickshaws: Epiphany! It wasn’t an explicit epiphany, though. This performance of the Spice Girls lip-synching “Wannabe” simply made clear that my coming of age wasn’t going to be as neat as a joint effort co-written by Jhumpa Lahiri and David Sedaris might be.

[T]his is one of the earliest instances I can recall of my two identities being able to put aside their differences and play nicely. [thisisfyf] Continue reading

Another Tasteful Post

Yesterday, the blog Jezebel wrote about the product of all products: a special “mint” for all you lovely ladies out there. But this particular tasty treat doesn’t necessarily have to remain in your mouth… “Think of it as an Altoid for your lady parts or, as its website explains, “A small, naturally sweetened flavoring, free of artificial dyes, which was created to flavor the secretions of a woman when she is…”Whoops, sorry! I got censored by the SM aunties. You’ll just have to visit the NSFW link for more information. But what’s the desi angle, you ask? Or is this just another self-indulgent sex post? Continue reading

Empowering the World’s Women

23cover-395.jpg This Sunday’s New York Times’ Magazine had a special and resonant theme: “Saving the World’s Women.” The magazine had a descriptive collection of articles well-worth reading. They covered subjects including the challenge of educating young girls in Afghanistan, an interview with Hillary Clinton covering the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in relation to women’s rights, a troubling trend of gender selection in developing countries, and a growing branch of philanthropy in which women support women’s causes. The cover article, “The Women’s Crusade,” is an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s upcoming book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” I’ll highlight a few of the most important problems and solutions illustrated in the issue here, but the whole magazine is well worth reading, and much of it focuses on South Asia and issues relevant to South Asia. The cover article speaks urgently about the world’s “missing women”:

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is striking…“More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in 1990…Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today.

Tragically, another article, “the daughter deficit,” points out that as development progresses in China and India, sexual selection actually becomes even worse. As women become better educated, they have less children, and the implied urgency of having a boy ironically increases than if they had many children:

In Punjab, then India’s richest state, which had a high rate of female literacy and a high average age of marriage…the prejudice for sons flourished. Along with Haryana, Punjab had the country’s highest percentage of so-called missing girls — those aborted, killed as newborns or dead in their first few years from neglect. Here was a puzzle: Development seemed to have not only failed to help many Indian girls but to have made things worse.

There are many more striking facts about the oppression of women globally: 1% of the world’s landowners are women, a woman in India has a 1-in-70 chance of dying in childbirth, girls in India 1-5 years of age are 50% more likely to die than boys their age, 1 million children work in Asia’s sex trade, “bride burnings” take place in India every two hours, and much more harrowing information that is important to read. But for all the bad news, there is also a lot of inspiring news in the magazine. It illustrates that simple steps taken to help educate and empower the world’s women can have a dramatic effect on the problems of poverty and extremism. (The good news after the jump….) Continue reading

Pakistan and Domestic Violence

Domestic Abuse Pakistan.jpg

This week, I begin working as a volunteer with Women Against Abuse, an organization in Philadelphia that provides shelter, legal aid and other resources to victims of domestic violence and their children. At the orientation for volunteers, they emphasized that domestic violence encompassed all cultures, creeds and backgrounds. At the same time, our training materials mentioned the variety of attitudes that a culture can have towards domestic violence. They include but are not limited to: outrage, denial and acceptance. For as long as I can remember, I’ve placed Pakistani culture in the category of indifference/acceptance when it comes to the matter of protecting women and children from the effects of domestic violence.

As a child, domestic violence was an inextricable feature of the culture in which I grew up. My parents, who emigrated from Pakistan in the eighties, settled in a small town in New Jersey where we interacted little with the Pakistani Christian community. But I recall clearly the time I was six years old and we went to Philadelphia for some kid’s birthday party. I tugged at my mom’s blue dupatta. “Hey mom, what happened to Aunty N.’s arm?”

Continue reading

No strings attached

Happy Raksha Bandhan to those of you who celebrate it, from one who does not. Our family tried to introduce the custom once, when my sister was three, and there are some great photos of her crying and desperately holding on to the rakhi for dear life. There was no way she was going to give the sparkly object and mithai to her brother in return for a promise, merely oral, not even signed and notarized.

I imagine she also thought “I’ll fork over the tinsel you promise to protect me from you, you big bully! You got to stop bossing me around if you want the sweets. You’re not even big enough to protect me from anybody else, that’s mom and dad’s job.” And so the tradition never took hold.

When I got older, and my offer of protection was more credible, I realized that my sisters-at-large would be likely to take offense at my mafia-like offer of protection in return for tribute. After all, these were not simpering ladies, these were girls and women more than capable of kicking my kundi. If one of these women were ever to need protection, the best course would be to buy them a firearm and some range time and get out of their way.

The holiday also came across as both sexist and unfair. Why can’t I be weak and helpless and trade a trinket in return for protection? It seems like men are getting the worst deal since Indians sold Manhattan for a bunch of beads.

Continue reading

Love don’t come easy

When our parents ask “Beta/i, why aren’t you settled yet?” We like to respond that it’s just much harder to find somebody in American than it was back in the desh. Well, it seems that men and women in India don’t have it so easy either.

Consider the eligible bachelors of Barwaan Kala who remain unmarried because the ladeez (and their parents) consider the village a tad too rustic:

Some 121 villagers aged between 16 and 80 remain bachelors, they say, because of the remoteness of the village. The last wedding in the village was reportedly 50 years ago… the reason for the high number of bachelors is not because they lack eligibility but because there is no approach road to the village. [link]

After 100 50 years of solitude, they were given hope that the government would listen to their pleas when a politician asked for their votes and promised that he wouldn’t get married either unless he could get them a road. Unfortunately, that hope was cruelly dashed the next year:

But, after winning, the new Member of the Legislative Assembly not only got married the next year but, in the villagers’ eyes, added insult to injury by making the event a gala affair. He is now the proud father of a two-year-old daughter. When the villagers approached him to remind him of his promise to them, they say he asked them if they really believed that he too should remain a bachelor forever. [link]

So now the villagers have decided to take the grasp the problem firmly with their own two hands, and are laboring furiously to produce a solution. In the past six weeks half the road has gotten laid, with an equivalent amount of laying still to be done.

“Who among you,” she asked “will donate to me your sperm?”The story is pure Bolly. You have desperate villagers, a perfidious politician, and an epic effort by the men to build a bridge to romance, much like Rama building a bridge to Lanka to rescue Sita.

There’s even a Jindalesque moment in the plot where the villagers are told that they cannot build the road themselves, because they are in a protected wildlife area and they have to satisfy the red tape! (We’re currently at the cliffhanger moment right now … )

There’s one problem – I don’t believe it. If nobody has gotten married in 50 years, then how are there 16 year old boys in the village?

Continue reading