In Photos: Celebrating 25 Years Of The Fall Of The Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery

Today, 9.11.2014, Germany celebrates 25 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wish I could be there to join in the celebrations. Here is my little tribute to the Berlin Wall and it’s art and graffiti at the East Side Gallery.

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Disclaimer: All the images belong to Japleen Pasricha. Kindly do not use without permission.

Meet The Woman Behind The Children’s Book ‘My Chacha Is Gay’

unnamed3The first thing you notice when you click on Eiynah’s blog Nice Mangos, is a disclaimer warning you ‘The blog that you are about to view may contain content only suitable for adults’. In her own words, Eiynah, a pseudonym that she uses, is a Pakistani-Canadian blogger illustrator who blogs and draws about sexuality in South Asia (Pakistan mostly). She also writes/illustrates children’s books in the hopes of promoting more inclusivity, diversity and secular values and also to create resources where South Asian children are featured as characters, because she feels they are very underrepresented in international children’s literature. Its important for kids from all over the world to have characters to relate to, for books to tell their stories too…

Please tell us about your blog and the idea behind the name.

unnamed2It started as a blog about Pakistani sexuality (the first of its kind I believe), discussing the few candid interviews I had managed to get, despite major roadblocks. As word spread more and more people reached out with questions and concerns they had regarding sex or sexuality in Pakistan (and sometimes India too), I started including messages and emails from my readers, and answering them through blog posts (all anonymously of course) – and discovered that many people had similar concerns/thoughts/questions, and that many were just intrigued to read about others. Since sexuality is such a taboo topic in our culture, there is not much discussion around it. Which results in a lot of misinformation. Its important to provide a platform where people can discuss it openly, without experiencing the backlash. The blog has grown to include discussions about sexuality and religion, sexuality and politics, etc. Its main purpose is still discussion about sex and sexuality within South Asian and Muslim culture.
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I chose nice mangos because of the popularity of Pakistani mangos, and for the usage of mangos as a euphemism for breasts. I thought it was apt because I write about sex. Its also meant to be a subtle statement about the objectification of women.

What are some of the interesting projects you have worked on?

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#BearOurBreasts was a very interesting project and I plan to get back to it soon, and in fact open it up to women not just from Pakistan but all over South Asia. I would feature a pair of breasts every week combined with a quote from the person featured to express some of the sexism, misogyny they experienced as a woman in Pakistan. Got some really interesting feedback of course, many people – mostly men were not thrilled with women freely expressing themselves in such a way, or exposing their breasts.

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ABC’s for Pakistanis was a joke children’s book I created to highlight some of the issues our community faces. There was F for fundamentalist, and O for oppress for example…

I tend to be viewed as someone who is ‘airing the country’s dirty laundry in public’ a lot of the time. I get a lot of negative feedback from ‘patriots’ who are unwilling to acknowledge any issues.

How did the concept behind ‘My Chacha is Gay’ emerge?

It was something I had been planning for a long time. I write about sex, and sexuality. Homosexuality is something that comes up often. I always wanted to do a children’s book tackling homophobia because I think it’s a way of breaking down and simplifying the issue, to possibly speak to some adults too.

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Why did you choose to write a Children’s book and not one for adults?

Who says this book is not for adults 😉

In all seriousness though, I used this medium because simplifying the issue was the idea. I wanted to make a picture book. I think as an illustrator, it a great medium for me to express myself. And it’s actually been used in classrooms with older children too, so it’s not necessarily just for under 5 year olds.

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How has the response been so far, especially in Pakistan? How do you plan to take it forward?

Generally Pakistani media has been very silent on the book, despite the fact that it has been covered all over the world, in some major international papers too. The general response from Pakistan hasn’t been great, unsurprisingly. But there have been some groups of people who have been incredibly supportive. Most of my funding for the crowd-funding campaign that published the book came from Pakistan. So there is support, even if its from a small number of people. Internationally the response has been phenomenal, I received more support for this than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Did you also receive threats/hate emails? How do you deal with them?

I receive a lot of hate mail and threats. So much of it, that I’ve become quite used to it, I usually don’t take it seriously, some of the things people get mad about are really quite entertaining. But of course, there is a very serious element to the hate, even though it might be funny on the surface, I am aware of the risks involved.

What other kind of support have you received from individuals and/or organisations?

Well, my book, My Chacha is Gay was crowd-funded from all over the world. It was a tremendous help to get that support.

Some individuals have helped by writing stories about the project and about my blog, spreading the word through media is always helpful as well, so I’m thankful to those who have done that. Other than that, I haven’t really received any support.

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How has the journey been, given you hail from Pakistan and talk about Gender & Sexuality?

Its been a long roller coaster ride. A lot of it has been uphill, a lot of road blocks, and issues. People not wanting to associate with me because of the topics I speak about, or people not wanting to acknowledge that they read my work because of the content…Its been tough, because I have a large readership, but a lot of them are very silent and unsupportive. I feel like I run a one-woman media company sometimes, with no pay and no support. It gets exhausting.

What message would you like to give out to your fans & supporters?

Please don’t ever be afraid to speak up for yourself and for others you feel are being treated unjustly. That is the only way we can bring change. And if you like my work please help to spread the message by sharing it. There are many who like it, but feel it is taboo to publicly associate with work about sexuality – those people are only helping to perpetuate the mentality I am struggling against. Sexuality is an important and natural part of life. The amount of hurt that misinformation about sexuality causes people is immeasurable. Women suffer the most in our culture. This needs to change. Please don’t be a silent observer. Do something. Whether that just involves sharing a story on social media, sharing your story, or standing up for someone in real life… no matter how big or small, each step counts.

Eiynah’s book My Chacha is Gay can be purchased online here.

Disclaimer: All the images have been used from the author’s blog with due permission. 

P.S. This is an interview I did for Feminism in India. The interview was originally published here on 18 October, 2014.

Living In A Nunnery: An Offbeat Travel Account

We associate travel and vacations with indulgence, but what if a travel experience was all about the joys of simplicity? An account of living in a Tibetan nunnery.

Ever thought of spending your holiday in a nunnery instead of staying in hotels? Well, that’s what I did in June this year (2014). As part of a program called Gurukul 2014 by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was staying in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in lower Dharamshala.

Most people have a very fixated image of how a nunnery looks like: austere and minimalistic living, strict and silent environment, conservative and orthodox. Having only been acquainted with Catholic nuns via movies, convent schools, etc, that’s the image I had of a nunnery and was quite sceptical when we were told we would have to live there and follow the rules.

But Dolma Ling Nunnery & Institute, which is situated in Sidhpur in lower Dharamshala has been a pleasant surprise. Dolma Ling has been built and fully supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, a project set out to provide facilities for education and to empower and improve the overall status of ordained Tibetan women. The Dolma Ling Institute is dedicated specifically to higher education for Tibetan Buddhist nuns. It offers an educational program previously unavailable to women, starting with basic literacy and leading to the highest level of Buddhist philosophical education.

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Dolma Ling Nunnery

Where spirituality goes high tech

Besides the traditional studies, His Holiness the Dalai Lama put a lot of emphasis on being up to date with the time and to study and understand science. Therefore, the nuns also have courses in English, mathematics, social studies and computers. The nunnery has its own clinic where Phuntsok Wangmo who first completed her education and then became a doctor before dedicating her life to monastic living, is available for an hour at the evenings, providing first aid and medication for minor illnesses, and attending emergency cases at any time.

The nunnery houses eight retreat huts which the nuns themselves helped to build. Then, there is a debate courtyard. Daily practice of philosophical debate, called Jang Gönchoe is an essential aspect of the traditional Tibetan study program. Next comes the most impressive building of the nunnery, i.e, the media center. It is a center for media and language training, and includes an income-generating cafe operated by the nuns. The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.

Prayer Room

Prayer Room

The Dolma Ling Nunnery believes that technology is the pen and paper of our time and hence the nuns have shown great interest and aptitude in learning how to communicate their as well as stories of the Tibetan community to the wider world.

Harald Weichhart, an Austrian, has been giving continuous training to a large group of nuns on InDesign, Photoshop, video- making skills, video editing and photography. After the successful completion of their video- making course, the nuns made a documentary on Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute, the trailer of which can be seen here:

Apart from this, 10 nuns from Dolma Ling are preparing for the prestigious Geshema degree (equivalent to a PhD), which is the highest degree in Buddhist philosophy. Earlier, the nuns were not allowed to take this exam, but with the continuous support of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the dedication of the nuns, this opportunity has been made available to them.

The Debate Court

The Debate Court

A different kind of vacation

When I first arrived at the nunnery, I was sceptical. But as time passed, I started loving this place. The joy of living your life differently, something which you’d have never imagined before is ecstatic. Though it’s difficult, for example, if you don’t get up at 6 AM, you miss breakfast, dinner is at 7 PM and you need to switch off your lights at 11.30 and go to bed come what may, I still enjoyed my short stay here.

Stream down the balcony of Japleen's room.

A stream down our balcony, where we washed our clothes.

The nuns are very friendly and cooperative. They thank us for coming and staying with them, although it should be the opposite. We live a very basic life here; we don’t have fans, although it gets quite hot sometimes. We don’t even have a mirror in the wash rooms and wash our clothes near a small stream next to our rooms. We have simple Tibetan food but the big heart with which they serve us makes up for all lost luxuries.

Although evenings are usually free for the nuns, they offered us a meditation class on our request. They bring us food and medicines to our rooms whenever anyone falls sick and always have a warm smile to make us feel welcome and at home. Sometimes they come over and we chat for hours on topics varying from politics to philosophy. The nuns here are quite well informed on what’s happening in the outside world.

I have made friends with young as well as old nuns, spend time with them and tried to help with the chores. This experience has given me a lot to think about and reflect and I’m sure to bring a lot back with me after my one month stay at the Dolma Ling Nunnery.

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An open letter to the Founder of IITIIMshaadi.com

Dear Dr. Ajay Gupta, Founder of IITIIMshaadi.com

Dr., eh? That too from Delhi School of Economics? Pretty impressive! Just a quick question, did they also teach you something called mutual respect and equality? Oh wait..

I just stumbled upon a Facebook post which said now men from IIT and IIM have a place to find their “soul mates”. I clicked on it and whoa, was I fumbled? Your extremely fresh idea to build a matrimonial website based on educational qualifications than evils like caste, class, race etc is damn progressive, I must say. Even trivialities like common interests and hobbies and compatibility didn’t find a meager mention because as the tagline of your website goes Alma Mater Matters. Well, I must congratulate you, Sir. You have solved that mystery which even Chetan Bhagat with 6 books down couldn’t.

You see, Sir, I have recently turned 25 and your website has come like a blessing in disguise to me. Like every dutiful, middle-class, educated Indian girl, it’s time for me to stop and smell the rose in my journey called marriage. After all, what good is my education when I can’t garner a good husband? You see, Sir, just like you, even I’m a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. And after three degrees down and on the way to the fourth one, I think I have realized the true meaning of my education, all thanks to you! However, Sir, when I with utter joy tried to log in to your site to search for that true soul mate, I found out to my dismay that I do not “qualify” to register on your prestigious site iitiimshaadi.com. Why, Sir if I may ask, why? Am I not good enough? Is it my qualifications, double major in German Studies that didn’t find any parent group it could attach to?  Is it because Humanities is as it is a disrespected field? Or is it because my university is largely a leftist one? Even the poor university couldn’t get enlisted in your élite group of institutions.

Or is it so because your pretty boys from the IITs and the IIMs might get intimidated by a highly educated woman like me? Is it why the eligibility criteria for women on your website and I quote is “Country-wide reputed graduation institutions on wards“. If I may ask, why Sir, would you need women from even “country-wide reputed graduation institutions“? If I’m not mistaken didn’t you mention the site has lower entry requirements for women to give “a larger pool of choice to the men“. I mean, as you rightly mentioned “some highly educated men, in terms of practicality, like women who also consider taking care of the home a task as good as a job.” Weren’t you the one who said, “They were looking for intellectual compatibility, but at the same time wanted women who would understand their hectic lives and dedicate more time to the house—while doing some part-time work, someone with a half-day job would have also worked.” After all, that is the true meaning of a woman’s life to serve as a maid and a fuck-buddy for her man, isn’t it, Sir? To be highly educated and intellectually compatible but dissolve herself in-house and part-time work. My parents would be so proud of me today, after all, this is why they brought me up and provided me the best education. They owe you, Sir, they owe you.

But I haven’t even come to the best part of your excellent website, Sir, if you may allow. The homepage of your site has a slide show of a few images with the header “Preview of things to come“. What a stroke of brilliance, Sir, what a stroke! The image starts from a marriage ceremony being culminated to a fancy car with the tag “IITIIM shaadi“. The message behind the images is loud and clear: Enroll in IIT or IIM and get a bride and a car FREE FREE FREE! Voila! After all, this is a “gift” and not dowry. You Sir, win hands down.

I’m grateful to you for making me realize the true meaning of my existence. Now, I’m just waiting for some IIT/IIM boy of yours to pity on me with my useless humanities degrees from an even useless university, marry me and end my misery. However, if you or any of your pretty boys somehow didn’t like my earnest appreciation of your venture, they are welcome to shoot questions at me. I do hope your pretty boys will come up with some quality arguments. The whole point is to have a dialogue, right Sir?

Enroll into IIT/IIM and get a bride and a car FREE FREE FREE!

Enroll into IIT/IIM and get a bride and a car FREE FREE FREE!

 

Update (as on 29.08.2014): I emailed the above letter to the Founder, Dr. Ajay Gupta on 26.08.2014 and received a response within less than an hour. Like the website, Mr. Gupta’s words were big and hollow. He mentioned he “respects”others’ opinions and expects the same. Very politely and smartly he has tried to explain his “philosophy” behind the site and conveniently ignored all my questions. However, fearing such angry letters, I assume, a few changes has been made to the website. The changes are following:

  • The image with the car has been removed and replaced with an image showing the wedding venue. Mr Gupta surely feared dowry accusations, but how much his mentality has changed, if he or his relatives will demand dowry for future weddings can only be speculated.
  • The introduction of the site has been changed. It no longer says that women must be from “reputed institutions” while men from “élite”. The current introduction is a more general one without any gender bias. However, if this bias is carried out in further steps, one can’t be assured.
  • More options have been added to the “Am I eligible” list including PhD and Masters, however Humanities still didn’t find a mention. According to the site, the list of institutions are also being updated.

The post will be updated if any other changes occur. Although, Mr. Gupta is trying to cover up his sexist remarks and patriarchal attitude towards women, how much will be put into practice cannot be said. Let there be hope!

Update on 12.09.2014: I and the open letter were recently quoted in an article in Deccan Chronicle, Banglore. Check out below:

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Disclaimer: This article has been previously published on Feminism in India here.

Happy Independence Day?

Yep, you read that right! Another critical I-day special article floating around the web and appearing on your social media timelines. And yet another cynic who likes to ruin your festival by writing big fancy words and trying to engage you in a pseudo intellectual dialogue.

However, I’ll try my best to ruin your festival as less as I may be capable of and zip up the do’s and don’ts. After all, let’s be honest, we all will celebrate our “freedom” by flying kites, dressing in funky tri-color combinations and trying to get passes of one or another “Independence Day” special party.

Next day, major newspapers will cover the top-notch parties on Page 3, there will be a few cases of street harassment or sexual assault on women by some drunken men (the blame would be of course why women were roaming around the streets on a national holiday), a gigantic lot of litter created by people “celebrating” I-day in Lodhi Garden or Nehru Park, a few cases of road brawls created due to huge amounts of cars trying to get away from the city and as far as possible and the day will go on.

If it would have been so easy to celebrate and more importantly, commemorate I-day and be truly happy about it, I wouldn’t be writing this post, right? But, how can I truly be independent when I don’t even feel free from within? When will I feel free? Will it be when my country would become a rape-free country, when I won’t have to consider to settle abroad to secure mine and my children’s safety, when other people won’t curtail my freedom to walk around the streets anytime day or night without any fear of harassment, when boys could be home makers and girls could work as mechanics without being judged, when I’d be free from the shackles of stereotypes of being a militant, anti-men feminist?

Credits: Must Bol

Credits: Must Bol

Or will it be when urinating in public would be a crime and not couples holding hands? When people would be fined for throwing waste on the streets, when one would obey traffic rules because one should and not because a cop is nearby, when people will help the needy/elders and people with special needs without the need for posters, bill boards and reserved seats in the public transport?

When religion won’t restrict you to view the larger socio-economic, cultural and diverse image of your country? When even though you love your country, you’d still be able to criticize it without being or feeling offended? When love would mean improving our country’s situation and not turning a blind eye to it in the name of patriotism? When nationalists would see a child selling the national flag on the road as a sign of poverty instead of patriotism?

Too many questions, not enough answers and so little time. I, in my capacity may not be able to answer all these and many more. But, I can certainly do something to amend some of these issues plaguing my country. My freedom can only come from within me and only I can take action to bring the change I wish to see: Change Myself!

Hence, I pledge. I pledge to break my silence. I pledge to raise my voice. I pledge to stand up and take action. I pledge to publicly shame the person who is harassing me. I pledge not to judge someone by their appearance. I pledge to wear the seat belt ALL the time and throw the litter ONLY in the dustbin. I pledge to reclaim my day, my night, and my space. I pledge not to be afraid. I pledge to smile more. I pledge to look for happiness during gloomy days. I pledge to be more patient with children and elders. I pledge to show my gratitude to the door man, the guard, the peon, the auto-walla, and my domestic help and smile some more, smile to them.

To write and promise is easy, but to change your words into action is no child’s play. And forgive me, for I’m mere human. I will be true to my words, even if I’m not always able to turn them into reality. I will try my best and be my change.

Anyhow, I’m going to a potluck picnic in Nehru Park (Delhi) on I-Day. The idea usually is that everyone will cook and get their dishes and we all will sit together, fly kites, sing songs and basically enjoy. However, I had some concerns in mind and volunteered to clean the park after we are done littering it. To my utter pleasure, many people on that Facebook event raised similar concern and joined in to help me. So, I’d be doing all the above but also cleaning my mess afterwards. This is my way of celebrating Independence Day. Let me know what you plan to do and please feel welcome to join me if you are in the vicinity.

Oh, and yes, happy Independence Day!

 

Where East meets West: A guide on solo travel to Istanbul

Can a solo female traveler go to Turkey and explore Istanbul without worrying about her safety?

Not only is my answer yes, I also believe that Turkey is a great destination for solo female travelers and a perfect introduction to the Middle East.

Last September, when I proudly announced that I was travelling to Istanbul alone, I was met with the usual amount of skepticism, worry and doubt, mostly from my family. The common notion that Turkey is a ‘Muslim’ country in the Middle East was their main concern. And when a young 24-year old Indian woman decided to explore Istanbul on her own, my family couldn’t digest it well.

But I calmly reassured them that Turkey is a very safe country and that I was going no matter what they said; I continued to plan and coordinate my first solo trip.

Aya Sofya/Hagia Sophia: a basilica turned into a mosque which is further turned into a museum

Aya Sofya/Hagia Sophia: a basilica turned into a mosque which is further turned into a museum

Here are my 6 tips for solo female travelers in Istanbul.

Turks are the most hospitable people

After spending six months in Germany, I arrived in Istanbul with a huge suitcase, another huge backpack, a laptop bag and a hand bag. You can imagine how I was struggling not just with my luggage but also with the underground metro, the directions, the language, the address of my hotel and what not.

A young Turkish man who happened to be in the same metro not just helped me in searching my hotel, but he also carried my suitcase, delayed an appointment of his and made sure that I safely reached the hotel. Not once did he try to flirt with me or take undue advantage of me being a foreigner and totally lost in the big city.

You just need to give people a chance. Honestly, I have felt safer in Istanbul than I have ever felt in Delhi.

The Turkish hospitality is amazing. Turks are kind and very friendly. One can’t and shouldn’t stereotype a country because it is a Muslim country and lies in the Middle East. Turkey is a very east-meets-west country, with many girls dressing the same way as Westerners, working and living just like you or me. There are good people and bad people in every country. You just need to give people a chance. Honestly, I have felt safer in Istanbul than I have ever felt in Delhi.

Inside the Blue Mosque

Inside the Blue Mosque

Make friends on Couchsurfing

As I was doing a solo trip in Istanbul and didn’t know anyone there, I thought it is a good idea to make some friends beforehand. So I logged into Couchsurfing and searched for students and young people living in Istanbul who would be interested in meeting people from other countries and have a cultural exchange with them.

I made two friends via CS, whom I then met while I was in Istanbul. They showed me around, which is yet another great way to explore a city with a local and going off the touristic track rather than with a map and a Lonely Planet in your hand. Needless to say, I’m very glad I took this step as I made some great friends and spent amazing time with them which I’ll always cherish.

Galata Tower

Galata Tower

Book your hotel in a well-crowded place

This is the single most important thing while travelling solo. Istanbul is pretty much safe but still to be on the ‘double safer’ side, I would suggest that one should book hotels in well-crowded and touristic places. When I booked my hotels in Turkey, I did a lot of research and carefully chose ones that were perfect for women travelling alone.

Research where you will stay. Read the reviews; ask other people who have been there for suggestions. Don’t sacrifice saving a few bucks to stay in a hotel in a bad area. When you check in, think about what the area will be like after dark and if you have to walk back alone.

When you check in, think about what the area will be like after dark and if you have to walk back alone.

I would suggest looking at websites such as Neredekal and booking.com  for hotel bookings. Sultanahmet is a good area to book a hotel in. Taksim is very central, but probably costlier. Fatih is again a good area and is also well connected with trams and a metro which directly goes to the airport.

At the Topkapi Palace and the Prince Islands in my background.

At the Topkapi Palace and the Prince Islands in my background.

Blend in

Nothing works more than a warm and friendly tourist who really wants to know about the country and its culture rather than just sight-seeing and clicking away photos. Don’t be afraid, interact with people and ask questions if you have any. Locals love to talk about their surroundings and narrate little stories attached to the various monuments.

Although I saw tourists in all kind of clothes, I would suggest carrying a scarf and a thin cardigan all the time. It can get a little chilly in the evenings and it’s always nice to feel warm with a hot chocolate overlooking the Bosphorous.

At the Blue Mosque

At the Blue Mosque

Say ‘No’ when you have to, but politely

Turkish men are flirtatious and they will approach you, try to chat up with you and ask for a coffee, etc. This happened to me several times during my week long trip in Istanbul. But not once did any one of them tried to force themselves upon me after I politely but firmly said, No.

More important is managing your body language. Turkish women pay no attention to strange men. Foreign women may think it is rude not to respond when a handsome young man asks “Where are you from?” Turkish men may read more into your message than you intend to offer. I saw dozens of single women who visited Turkey and seemed totally fine and well with their experiences in Istanbul.

At the Dolmabahce Palace

At the Dolmabahce Palace

Least to say, be smart and alert

Needless to say, one should stay alert and be smart whenever one is travelling, be it India, Europe or the Middle East. The usual things apply, like don’t accept food or drinks from total strangers, take care of your belongings, be conscious of your surroundings, etc.

If you are concerned about being alone, then don’t be alone. Stay in a hostel and make friends, join a day tour or research group activities. There are plenty of ways to be with people when you are travelling alone.

Over time you will learn caution, and learn to read situations better while traveling that can keep you from getting into danger. This takes time and experience

Panoramic view of the city from the Galata Tower.

Panoramic view of the city from the Galata Tower.

 

Disclaimer: This article was first published on Women’s Web on March 12, 2014. 

Budget Trip to Europe: my two cents

Europe, the dream trip! But what with the falling rupee and the rising euro?

While Europe is one of most desirable destinations for Indians (thanks to YRF), it is not easy for young Indians and students to just pack their backpacks and hop on to the next flight. Europe can get quite expensive if you don’t plan and travel smartly. Budget is the need of the hour and here are few travel tips that I have compiled from my numerous trips to Europe.

The Louvre, Paris. January 2010

The Louvre, Paris. January 2010

 

  1. Start with finding a great airfare

Research, research and research. You can get really good deals if you look hard and know how to use search engines. Plan your trip and book your flight well early in time. Turkish Airways and Qatar Airways offer some great prices. Even Russian Airlines are quite reasonable and allow you a baggage that is enough to start a living in Europe. I have travelled twice with Turkish Airlines and my experience was fantastic; easily reliable, great food, friendly hostesses and a spectacular view of the Bosphorus while stopping over in Istanbul.

  1. Look for hotels with value, not frills

On your first trip to Europe, have a plan largely for the places you want to cover, but a hotel booking only for the city where you are landing. Book a place only while leaving the previous one, and for that http://www.booking.com/ is a great tool. Here, you can book cheap, safe and totally refundable accommodations and pay only when you arrive at the hotel. It has no pre-booking charges and is pretty reliable. Another great Hotel-cum-Hostel for young people, students or solo travellers is the famous German chain called Meininger (http://www.meininger-hotels.com/). It has a hotel/hostel facility and is located in six different European countries and is a great place for socialising with fellow travellers.

  1. Visit the local tourism board

That to me is the single most important tip I find when travelling in a foreign country for the first time. With not much time to do any research before visiting Western Europe this year, my friends and I perfected a little routine. We’d hop off the train, make a beeline for the tourist office, find out which walks/sights would fit in our day, get some maps and brochures and set off exploring on foot. It worked really well for small places as well as cities like Amsterdam and Brussels. The office staffs often give good tips on what can be avoided and where one can have a good meal. It often happens that they (and sometimes hostels as well) have information they you wouldn’t usually find in guidebooks. When I was travelling around Belgium, I found these ‘Maps by the locals’ (http://www.use-it.be/) which were absolutely brilliant in their recommendations and youthful style. Do try them if you ever go to Belgium!

  1. Travelling within Europe

Once you arrive for your first European vacation, you’ll confront the matter of transportation between cities and countries. Take advantage of rise of Europe’s budget airlines, including carriers such as easyJet and RyanAir. A good place online to start checking for budget airlines within Europe is Euroflights.info, which is organized by country and city. Simply click on an airport to find out how many budget airline options you’ll have in that place. Depending on where you plan to travel within Europe, acquire a Eurail pass. I found that if you are travelling in Eastern Europe it doesn’t save money because the tickets are so cheap, it’s better to buy them individually. In Western Europe it can help if you travel long distances, especially in countries like France and Switzerland where they’re so expensive.

  1. Pack smartly

Possibly the easiest thing to do when you want to pack lighter is to use a smaller bag – that way when your bag is full, it still won’t be too big. It is possible to travel with just the outfit you are wearing and thee-four others if you pick the right things. Pack your clothes in layers, so that you can mix and match later and accessorize it to make a great outfit.  I take leggings & stockings which doesn’t take any space. You can even stuff them in handbags. Pack for all four seasons. The weather is very changeable in Europe. So always take sweaters /jumpers and leggings and a raincoat/sturdy umbrella!

  1. Find local food

Sometimes eating out is great. If you find a decent restaurant with authentic food, you get a window into the culture. Be sure to try the specials and native drinks. Don’t just order a hamburger. Not only will you be disappointed, you won’t be trying anything new. Going to grocery stores in other countries is very illuminating. Try and see what you find. It can be surprising and fun. Cooking on your own will also save money.

Special tip for vegetarians: People usually scar others by saying we don’t find veggie food. But I’ve seen the hidden treasures of veggie delights in all the villages/cities that I travelled. They will have baked beans, breads, vegetable / minestrone soups, baked / roasted potatoes and ample green veggies.

  1. Visit Europe in the off-season

You know that winter is not the time to visit European beaches, but perhaps you don’t know that there is serious money to be saved by visiting other attractions here in the so-called off-season. Venice in March? Paris in January? It might sound unorthodox, but many times lower airfares and hotel rates await those who are willing to travel to Europe in the off-season. Take a look at some of the advantages and plan for the potential pitfalls.

Every trip is unique in its own way, you just need to make sure that you have important things organised and first landing booked. Once you arrive, Europe is sure to take you on a roller-coaster ride.

Disclaimer: This article was first published on Women’s Web on January 1, 2014.

India’s first ever “I Need Feminism” campaign at IGIT and AUD

Feminism in India Project is an initiative started by me last year to learn, educate and develop a feminist consciousness among the youth. It is a social media movement required to unravel the F-word and demystify all the negativity surrounding it. I have been working on this project since a year now and plan to take it forward by holding campaigns and events and providing sex education workshops in schools and universities.

One such campaign was held on 15th April 2014, i.e. last Tuesday when I with a group of close friends and volunteers organised a ‘I Need Feminism’ campaign at Indira Gandhi Institute of Technology and Ambedkar University Delhi.

Poster for INF campaign

‘I need Feminism’ campaign is a public awareness campaign aimed at asking people why and how feminism is important to them. The campaign is directly inspired from a similar campaign organised at the Oxford University and at the Cambridge University, which later became a rage at many campuses across the globe. The INF campaign is a collection of photographs of people using words to voice their opinions about feminism. Both young men and women hold placards, which through the written word raises their voice against gender discrimination and baseless societal and cultural stereotypes. A similar campaign was also organised by the Feminist society at LUMS, a university in Lahore, Pakistan and it was a remarkable success.

We need feminism because we need to bring so many issues to light. There are too many of us getting groped in public, stared at, catcalled, insulted, teased and abused. There are too many headlines about girls getting raped. Too many people are trying to fit both the male and female genders in a box. Too much of “girls can’t do this” and “boys should do this”.  We initiated the ‘I Need Feminism’ campaign to set a platform for both women and men to voice out their opinions and beliefs.

Our team reached IGIT at 10 AM and started preparing for the long eventful day. We began by asking people what they understand by the term ‘feminism’ to break the ice. Once the discussion got into gear people started warming up to the idea. After that it was one slogan after another, we were running from one group of excited students to another. We made it clear right at the beginning that these photographs will be published on our Facebook page and those who were shy held the posters right in front of their faces. We did not convince anyone forcefully to participate as quite a number of students turned down the offer. After collecting a good amount of 45-50 posters from IGIT, we then rushed to AUD where we got an even better response and quality conversations on related topics like gender, patriarchy and women’s rights. Some of the students were skeptic and some didn’t want to include the term ‘feminism’ in their slogans but almost everyone wanted to participate. We even crashed a Gender Studies class and after due permission from the professor requested all the students to participate. The friendly professor also wrote a slogan and got herself clicked. The campaign ended around 4 PM when we started counting our posters and realised that we have crossed our target of interviewing 100 people. The overwhelmed team then as a closing shot wrote our slogans.

It was our first ever offline campaign which is also India’s first ever ‘I Need Feminism’ campaign successfully organized and executed. We received an overwhelming response both at IGIT and AUD. We talked to 100+ people, got posters and photographs of their personal slogans clicked and documented. We plan to do more such events in future and hold INF campaigns at University of Delhi and JNU during the upcoming semester.

Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.” -Joss Whedon

All the posters along with the photographs can be accessed on our Facebook page here. Below is a collection of some of my top favorites, although it was a little difficult to choose, as everyone who participated in the campaign wrote what they felt and experienced. Some of them even narrated true incidents of street/sexual harassment. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did and I wish to see you in the next round. Cheers!

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Update: Since its initiation, the campaign has been a huge success, a lot of people who could not directly take part in the this particular campaign due to time and space constraints, requested for an online one. And therefore, we have organised an online campaign on our Facebook page where one can send in their photos with their slogans and posters.  Another great news is that we have been featured on various online magazines who loved what we did and wanted to write about us. The voice of our campaign can be found at Life Beyond Numbers, Women’s Web and The Alternative. Hoping for more love and support. Peace.

In Photos: Feminist Artwork in JNU

Walls that speak: India’s campus graffiti

Graffiti or the art of writing/painting on walls is not yet a big concept in India, though one can many new young artists picking up from their counterparts from the West and gearing up for Street Art festivals. Jawaharlal Nehru University, one of the most politically active universities based in New Delhi follows the tradition of graffiti or more accurately said wall art since ages. JNU has an old culture of open debates and intellectual discourse.

One can find wall art literally everywhere, ranging from hostel canteens to university library to various departments. Every inch of JNU walls scream art and social issues which can vary from mundane price rise to gender rights, from Naxal politics to international issues such as occupation of Palestine and rise of the global left. The wall art also serves as a running commentary on current affairs in the country and the world. To see and know more about artwork in JNU, check out this page on Facebook here.

1. Speak up/ Awaaz uthao! 

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2. WHO reports that worldwide 35% of women have experienced violence. In 21st century. Shame!

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3. Around 30 middle-aged women walked naked through Imphal to the Assam Rifles headquarters, shouting: “Indian Army, rape us too… We are all Manorama’s mothers.”

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4. A woman’s struggle in India starts right from the moment she is conceived in the womb till she dies. Female infanticide is still rampant in India.

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5. On 2 November 2000, Irom Sharmila began a hunger strike which is still ongoing. Ironically, she is also currently on trial for attempted suicide.

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6. The revolution will be feminist or it won’t be. Occupy patriarchy.

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7. We produce, we eat, we earn, we live.
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8. Sinful women will rise.
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9. We will fight till the very end.
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10. “Irrespective of how much you break me, I will rise from my own ashes.”
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Disclaimer: I do not lay claim to the artwork and neither do I support nor promote any political party.

On legalization and regulation of prostitution in India

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Prostitution has been described as the world’s oldest profession. One of the first forms of prostitution is sacred prostitution where each woman had to reach the sanctuary of Aphrodite and have sex with a foreigner as a sign of hospitality for a symbolic price. In India, it was practiced extensively, so much so that Kautilya mentions it in his master piece ‘Arthashastra’ written around the 4th and 3rd century BC.

In South Asia, a tawaif was a courtesan who catered to noble men, especially during the Mughal Period. The tawaifswould sing, dance, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Their main purpose was to entertain their guests and sex was not always a part of the contract. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.

Today the world’s oldest profession remains sketchily legal in India. Prostitution is legal under certain conditions but, a number of related activities including soliciting in a public place, kerb crawling, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering are crimes. The current law allows prostitution to thrive but attempts to hide it from public.

The primary law dealing with the status of sex workers is the 1956 law referred to as The Immoral Traffic (Suppression) Act (SITA). According to this law, sex workers can practice their trade privately but cannot legally solicit customers in public. As long as it is done individually, voluntarily, sex workers can use their bodies’ attributes in exchange for material benefit. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) which predates the SITA is often used to charge sex workers with vague crimes such as “public indecency” or being a “public nuisance” without explicitly defining what these consist of. Recently the old law has been amended as The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act or PITA.

Currently, prostitution is not regulated. Soliciting sex is an offence though practicing it ‘in private’ isn’t. And more often than not, clients are criminalized and prosecuted. Organised prostitution isn’t allowed either. Also, Indian law doesn’t recognize male prostitution. Unlike the case with other professions, sex workers are not protected under labor laws thus, making it uncontrolled, unregulated and very unsafe. And this is not counting the huge amounts of human rights violations and human trafficking that is a part of this illegal state of happenings.

Prohibiting prostitution isn’t going to stop it from existing. Until and unless it is completely eradicated, which by and large is a very far stretched idea considering its existence and practice since ancient times, proper legalization and regulation of prostitution will not only benefit sex workers but also the society as a whole.

Most of the girls in various brothels come in through human trafficking. A firm, liable to the higher authorities, must be established, where every sex worker would undergo an interview with which her views, ideas, choice would be taken into consideration and only then can she she work in such an environment. If found forced, then the dealer who brought her could land up in jail. Secondly, regular and surprise inspection must take place. During such inspections, if revealed during conversations with sex workers that appropriate money is not being given then the brothel could be shut down and the license cancelled. Thirdly, as they also constitute under the domain of ‘ workers’ so they must be protected under labour laws, given aadhar cards, various rights under the law, voter identity card, etc. Fourth, they shouldn’t be denied the basic human rights conferred by the constitution and various central govt schemes.

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If prostitution is ‘properly’ legalised, it will help control illegal human trafficking, help fight HIV/AIDS and other STDs which are rampant in India. It will ensure better living conditions for sex workers as well as their children. Most importantly, it will give sex workers protection under labour laws. At present, they don’t have any rights and as such are forced to lead miserable lives. If the law recognised it as any other profession, violent clients could be taken to court which at present, is not possible. Brothels could be issued proper licenses and therefore regulated. Other positive points are revenue generation, choice of profession, less trafficking, better health conditions due to awareness, acceptance to achieve equality in the society, optimum satisfaction level of living in a country, employment, more of external finance to overcome the deficit, security, tax revenue and many more! Legalising prostitution will regulate the trade and help in curbing down the way HIV spreads in our country. It will officially recognise those practising it and entail them to basic human rights which they are denied till now.

Sex workers will be more respected and less abused. They will be raped less and there will be less number of reported rapes. They will be pimped less and will receive better health care. They can openly talk about their profession and not be ashamed about it. They will receive benefits from the central vis-à-vis state government. They will no longer be treated as second-class citizens because legally they will be bearer of rights. Regulation must be implemented properly in consultation with the sex workers. This will ensure good working conditions can be legally enforced, thus reducing exploitation. It will improve public health, increase tax revenue, help people out of poverty and get sex workers off the streets.

It will drive a lot of pimps out of business; women and men alike will work of their own accord and not against their wills and desires. It may also lower some forms of crime. Without legal protection, exploitation will remain unpunished, just like in any other unregulated industry. Sex workers must be directly involved in this process, they have a right to political participation.

When abortion is legal, so should be prostitution. The ‘my body, my right’ argument should apply here too. Moreover, morality is subjective and as long as no one is being forced, it shouldn’t disturb anyone. Sex work is a human right; it’s as respectable as anything else.

 

Disclaimer: This article has also been published on Women’s Web and Youth Ki Awaaz