“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss, I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!
The experience of reading can feel so alive when life itself seems like fiction. A momentous year has just gone by with landmark junctures that have left us delighted, horrified, proud and stumped in more ways than one, sometimes more than one of them at the same time. Globally, the women’s movement took a new step forward with the massive awakening of the MeToo moment and another wave swept over when the Aziz Ansari story broke. In its wake, we’ve been trying to figure out the nuances of consent and exploring it on multiple levels.
The more conversations and debates that we have on what it means on multiple levels, as a global society; as feminists, activists, writers and as citizens of our own country’s specific cultures, we know that consent is not a one-dimensional concept. Its gradations should and need to be understood in the different kinds of relationships we have with one another.
We decided to explore the many faces of consent driven by what’s happening in the world and the conversations that we’re having (or need to have), and put together a reading list of narratives that offer various perspectives, contexts and understandings of consent.
This is an effort to further the discussion and not let it fizzle out. To start a dialogue in spaces we’ve left silent for too long. This list is for all those that wish to do the same – to join the conversation, broaden their minds, further their perception even if by just putting themselves in the shoes of another over a few pages.
[Homegrown will be picking a different theme every month and putting together a list of essential readings and texts. Feel free to send in your suggestions to email@example.com]
I. ‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife’ by Meena Kandasamy
Having a discussion about consent in India is incomplete and unrealistic, so to speak, considering we have a legalised form of rape – marital rape. This is something that large parts of Indian society doesn’t even consider as abuse and assault because it falls within the ‘holy union’ of marriage where the man has the right over his wife. The harrowing reality is the normalcy given to husbands coercing, even directly forcing their wives, who have no agency in the relationship nor a voice in a patriarchal society.
This is what makes books like Kandasamy’s a necessary read. What makes it stand out is her telling of the as third-person narrator, portraying the woman as ‘she’. This hits you hard at the end of the book as this ‘she’ could be the story of any woman really. The universal nature is what shocks you.
Our main character is an educated woman that finds her marriage going sour as she’s controlled by her husband, isolated more and more from society. Her attempts to push back are quashed with violence, abuse and rape. The book serves as a story of countless women in India, across classes, castes and religions, that fall victim to toxic masculinity and bruised male egos sanctioned by a marriage certificate.
II. ‘Cat Person’ by Kristen Roupenian
You may not have read the viral New Yorker story but it is something that has definitely popped up on your newsfeed considering the huge debate that it triggered. Some viewed it as a story simply about bad dates and bad sex, while others saw it as a woman shaming the man. The reason why it reached so many people is also its relatability.
Cat Person illustrated our changing outlook on dating, the lines we draw (and ignore) in human interaction, power dynamics and different understandings of consent. Lisa Bonos aptly points out, in an article for The Washington Post, “Robert, 34, is part of a cohort of men schooled in ‘no means no’ — as in, he’ll consider a woman not interested if and when she tries to stop him. This is decidedly different from how the 20-year-olds of today like Margot are taught to think about consent — as a ‘yes means yes’ proposition where both parties affirmatively vocalize their consent and can revoke it at any time.”
The gender roles are clear in the narrative and one portion, in particular, caught our attention – Margot’s contemplation over how and if she should stop Robert after they both undress. Her fear wasn’t a violent reaction from Robert to her denying him sex but that “after everything she’d done to push this forward, would make her seem spoiled and capricious…” What would she come across as? What would he say? Can she really say no now, after everything? These are crossroads that many women find themselves at, and do give in, hesitating to say no, even if it’s just to avoid bad sex (as seems the case with Margot in the story). The same thought popped up in conversations regarding ‘Grace’ and Aziz Ansari.
III. ‘River of Flesh and Other Stories: The Prostituted Woman in Indian Short Fiction’ edited by Ruchira Gupta
This is a collection of short stories across languages, ages and regions, each one as gut-wrenching as the next. Women that are prostituted have little to no agency in our society because of the profession they’re in. In most cases, these aren’t matters of choice, many are victims of human trafficking who are then used and abused by ‘clients’ that see these women as objects to be bought.
Sex workers aren’t given rights to the taboo that rides over their lives. These women face violence that is viewed as ‘paid for’, so where does consent come into the picture and matter? Rape and abuse of sex workers are one of those invisible aspects of society that we prefer to ignore when it comes to the subordination of women. This is a brilliant anthology that is difficult to get through for its hard-hitting nature but is a needful experience to the lived reality of many. ‘River of Flesh and Other Stories’
IV. ‘Speak’ by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak is a powerful and important young adult book for the subject that it deals with and Anderson’s unfiltered, stream of consciousness writing style makes the story feel so real. We’re presented with a teenage protagonist Melinda that is shunned by her schoolmates and close friends for calling the cops during a party and busting the entire night. Made an outcast by those around her, no one is willing to hear her side of the story about that night. Defeated, alienated and traumatised – Melinda goes silent.
Melinda’s pain and navigation through her trauma are clearly depicted as it really is – a journey, that’s different for every person. It stresses the necessity of victims of rape and assault to speak up but also portrays the difficult nature of doing the very same; it shows us the different reactions people have. The varying degrees of trauma and different coping abilities of each person. A point that many of us continue to miss when we question why a person did ‘speak up sooner’.
V. ‘Don’t Pull My Cheeks!’ children’s book by The Irrelevant Project
The importance of teaching children ‘good touch-bad touch’ cannot be stressed enough. At an early age children need to be taught that setting boundaries are okay and that when it comes to family members as well, they’re allowed to say no. We grow up in a world where we’re told that adults are our guides and they’re always right – it’s in these circumstances that children are forced to bare uncomfortable physical advances.
The Irrelevant Project is an initiative that, as its name suggests, is creating content for children (and their parents) that address uncomfortable subjects that need to be addressed. A group of 3 writers and 4 illustrators, they address topics and subjects that need to be inculcated through early childhood experiences.
Don’t Pull My Cheeks! Tells the tale of Bibloo who’s growing increasingly annoyed by a cheek-pulling uncle. Bibloo looks to his mother for help, as many kids do, highlighting the need for parents to listen to their children’s experiences and feelings and treating it as important conversations for setting boundaries. The books stress the importance of parents and caregivers to be listeners and facilitators to such conversation with children. How they react to such situations sets a larger precedent on how children are told to deal with untoward advances.
VI. ‘I was like his sex slave and not his wife’ – A gut-wrenching first person account of marital rape by a woman who’s petitioning for justice, as told to Priyali Sur
In 2015, Sur shared the story of a woman she met that was petitioning the court to criminalise marital rape. In the article published Women’s Media Center, she recounts the horrors of her first year of marriage, it’s likely to leave you - as it did us - asking the same question every time the defence of ‘marriage sanctity’ comes up: what about the sanctity of consent?
“I’m not angry, but I’m sad. I’m sad at the condition of the women in my country who face this, day after day, night after night. If, as an educated and independent woman, I’m struggling for justice, think about the many women who endure the pain and torture in silence every day. Will there never be a law that upholds their rights?” the lady laments to Sur.
“The concept of marital rape does not apply in India because society treats marriage as sacred” – this is what the government had declared in Parliament at the time. While citing India’s deeply patriarchal laws, we had pointed out how marital rape, which is not recognised in the country, puts India in the same league as Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan. This story, her experience, is another statement of the fact that marital rape is a brutal crime, deserving of punishment, regardless of the relationship between perpetrator and victim.
VII. ‘Don’t Run, My Love’ by Easterine Kire
Based on a Mizo folktale, Kire’s book tells the tale of a mother Visenuo and her daughter, Atuonuo, and the legend of ‘Tiger men’. A handsome suitor Kevi comes to their village and peeks everyone’s interest. The young widower Visenuo can remarry but she has chosen not to – a choice that leaves many in their traditional village baffled. Kevi is kind to the two women, and when he proposes to the young girl, her rejection takes him aback.
Through a seemingly simple folktale, we see gender dynamics play out, bruised male ego’s burst through outer images of ‘properness’ and courtship where rejection by women isn’t seen as a possibility or accepted. The reality of such situations with bubbling toxic masculinity, for us in India, unfortunately often result in abuse, kidnappings, rapes and acid attacks.
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