Ambarin Afsar's Photo Story 'Fluid' Is Pertinent Within Our Gendered Spaces Discussion

Ambarin Afsar's Photo Story 'Fluid' Is Pertinent Within Our Gendered Spaces Discussion
[Editor's Note--Over the past few weeks, No Country For Women has been using our little space in the world wide web to investigate India’s current narrative around sexual violence towards women. In her 1st piece, co-founder, Shreena Thakore, elaborated on the ‘myth of the impoverished rapist’ and emphasized the need to challenge the way we think and talk about the issue of rape. We followed that up with a curation of powerful, crowd-sourced, real-life stories from women across the country; 'Break the Silence' showcased the roots of gender-based violence in India. However, it was when she hit us with a compelling narrative around 'gendered spaces' in the country that we decided to start a digital photo campaign to involve all our readers in a deeper discussion around the same. Last week, we featured this collection of photos by photographers from across the company who interpreted our brief in an incredibly pertinent way. One of them happened to be Ambarin Afsar, and since she had so many compelling narratives to offer us, we decided to provide her with a space all unto her own. Please scroll down to the end to read our note/understand more about our campaign and involve yourself.]
These singles are a look at our spaces and how we divide them on the basis of gender, and how they shape gender roles and identities. Masculinity comes along with a checklist—the more boxes ticked, the more masculine you are. Femininity, on the other hand, is equal parts ridicule and respect. The polarity of these emotions is mind-boggling. There is nothing in between. We measure an individual's worth through their gender, which is such a narrow-minded view and is one that is the cause of our own loss. We fail to see people for who they are, instead labelling them with these notions of 'ours' and 'theirs', insider and outsider, other and similar. We saddle ourselves, and those close to us, with the unnecessary burdens of gender-normative definitions.
This isn't just about masculinity or femininity. Can't you see? Every time we force a stereotype onto one gender, the others also get affected. In stifling one, we stifle all. We lose something in the process, perhaps our humanity. And ultimately, isn't that what matters above all else?
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I. Gender is a Cage

From the moment children learn how to speak, they learn how to differentiate between genders. Pink is for girls, blue is for boys, Barbies and kitchen sets for girls (I loved playing with them), action figurines and cars for boys (I adored those, too). "Boys don't cry," "Girls don't sit like that, straighten your frock," "Man up and wipe those tears, it is just a scratch!" We are told what is appropriate for our gender, and if we behave otherwise, we're weird and strange, and people skirt around us and our choices. Which gender does the child in this photograph belong to? What is the child going to grow up to be? What is, therefore, this child's space? The moment I use a qualifying pronoun like he or she, am I not caging this child within all that its gender is supposed to encompass? Is this indecent behaviour for a girl, but mischievous behaviour for a boy? Gender does not matter, how we shape up as individuals, does. Society has far too many cages that need breaking, but this is one that needs to be avoided right at the start.
Image: Ambarin Afsar

II. Be a Man

I think those are the most loaded words I have ever heard. Why do we deny our men their sensitivity? It is only in moments of isolation that I have observed men such as my father breaking down and lowering their guard, only to be ashamed and gruff about it later. This young boy, for instance, was jeering at his other friends who were outside the compartment, and a few moments after the train moved, he looked a little less cocky, and a little more lost. Being emotional is a woman's domain... this assumption is an example of a colossal gendered space that throttles any chances of men expressing themselves emotionally, or thinking that they are not going to be judged for doing so.
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III. Entry Prohibited

Recently, I heard a priest give a sermon, and he said something along the lines of "Women talking to their fiances before marriage is an illegitimate and unlawful activity." The idea that two people belonging to different genders communicating will lead to sin, is something that dictates our religious spaces as well. Wouldn't it be nice to pray alongside one's father, mother, brother, sister or significant other? Wouldn't it be nice to witness your friends and family on a much more personal level? However, women are kept out of men's prayer areas, and vice versa. The debate comes back to modesty, lessening opportunities for distraction during prayer and upholding purity. It is galling to think that when people belonging to different genders come together, they only do so to commit 'sins'.
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IV. Be Macho

Men are always under so much pressure to act macho. They have to be manly men regardless of when they're walking, talking, eating, interacting with other people or opening jars. They aren't really allowed moments of unsurity, self-doubt, hesitance or even shyness. Everything must be done with a swagger, and every action must scream, "MAN!" From the way they dress to the way they carry themselves, men are under this constant scrutiny that exists only to validate their maleness. This young boy, with striking green chappals and a ganji with bright red borders, was the object of some ridicule from his fellow vendors moments after I moved.
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V. Secure

I have tried to make images that are devoid of gender. Security, stability, comfort and the ability to express oneself should be available to everybody, regardless of gender. My issue isn't just with the fact that there is no country for women, but the fact that there is no country for any gender. My ideal world would have a gender fluid society, where someone's worth does not rest in their gender, but in who they are, as people, as well as in their ability to do something.
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VI. Taking a Breather

Very often, the only comfortable male-female interaction I observe is between young children, parents and their offspring, or relatives and siblings. Let me rephrase that: The only male-female interaction that society is comfortable with is between people who are related to each other in some way. This moment of a boy slumped against his mother, who is also staring vacantly into space, is a prime example of one of the many equations that can exist between two people of different genders, regardless of whether or not they're related to each other. Why is there a certain amount of dirt associated with inter-gender relationships? For that matter, is it becoming of us to term any kind of affection between two people of different genders as being dirty?
Make me a roti. Image: Ambarin Afsar

VII. Make Me A Roti

We've all heard this innumerable times—some of the world's best chefs are men. My father would make great omelettes, street food vendors are almost always men, and yes, most chefs are also men. So, why is it that a daughter-in-law's place is in the kitchen? Why must girls learn to cook while boys are sent off to play or do other chores during a festival or the arrival of a guest? If you are in a pinch, you would rather that you could cook, instead of wait for the nearest mother, daughter, sister or girlfriend to come along and save you from starvation. What has cooking got to do with gender? Those 'must make perfect rotis' matrimonials never cease to amaze me. During Ramazan, the streets are lined with men cooking practically all day—kneading huge parathas, making skewers of kebabs and even sandwiches. Nobody thinks any less of them for doing all this, so it is very strange when women who can't cook or aren't great cooks are ridiculed on account of their gender.
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VIII. You Don't Need to Go to School

Girls cannot go to school. Say that sentence a few times. It is incredibly saddening for me to realise that a school is an inherently male gendered space. I have been aware of it all along, but it is only now that I have felt the true weight of that realisation. Oh, there are plenty of whys and hows and excuses and arguments, but the point of the matter is that if there are two children, one male, one female, it is more likely that the boy child will be educated. My mother went to a Hindi medium school just so that her brother could be sent to a convent. There is nothing wrong with a Hindi medium education, it is much better than having none at all, but why are these compromises and sacrifices sent our way? And so, I am always heartened when I see a little girl in a uniform, taking her slightly unsteady, unsure steps into the world of words and books. Knowledge is power, and empowerment is something women have always had to seize.
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IX. I Want to Be Like Her

I found this schoolgirl on her way home, leafing through an Urdu women's magazine. The cover featured a beautiful bridal model, and her demure, sculpted face contrasted strongly with the simplicity of the schoolgirl. There is a ridiculous amount of pressure on women to look good, neat and tidy, with every hair in place. Print and online publications alike are filled with unreasonable and in certain cases, unattainable body images. I see more and more young women insecure about their bodies and their appearance, and while there are also plenty of posts and lists that attempt to show us 'real beauty' or 'real bodies', there is plenty of glamour rhetoric that makes unnecessary pressures seem like a quest to find individual style.
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X. Let Me Be Free

Very often, I've seen young boys on the streets, playing cricket or tackling their friends or generally running around, screaming loudly, chasing something or the other. And the girls? Those I usually find in building compounds, sticking to one area, not venturing too far from home. So, it was refreshing to see this group of girls playing unconcernedly on an empty street. It was Eid, there was festivity in the air, and it reflected in the sheer joy that these girls felt in spinning their friends around, playing fugdi. It was so good to see them revel in sheer abandon, uncaring about where they were, or who was looking... I wish for such times to be available to all people of all genders, where we can simply celebrate being human, instead of fettering ourselves with inadequate pronouns.
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XI. Grace

I had boarded a train from Andheri, and this lady stepped into the compartment, carring a folder paper cone of bhel. It was slightly breezy, and her kurta swayed slightly. There was so much peace and contentment in that moment. Sure, it was noisy—there were people shouting and announcements being made, and trains pulling in or pulling out, but this woman seemed to hold peace inside her, it was like her centre of gravity, and it drew me to her. If we'd just leave these gendered blinkers behind, we'd see people for who they are, for who they can be, instead of who they should be.
Image: Ambarin Afsar

XII. This is Who I Am

How I choose to dress, or how I choose to do my hair are my choices, and that is how they should be treated. There are far too many people passing judgement on other people's attire or their appearance. If it isn't fashion telling us how to get smaller or bigger,  it is our neighbourly neighbours attempting to do us a favour by telling us exactly what they think about that skirt, those jeans, that dress, that neckline. I  think it all comes down to respecting someone's choice. If you do not like what someone else is wearing, then don't look at it, or ignore it. Not everything requires a (very) vocal approval or disapproval. Gender has nothing to do with dressing demurely, flamboyantly, conservatively or outrageously. At best, these are all unnecessary classifiers.

Image Credit: Ambarin Afsar

[Ambarin Afsar lives and works in Mumbai, India. Professionally, she writes and shoots for Better Photography magazine. She is an avid reader and is still cataloguing all the books she’s read so far on GoodReads. Her virtual shelf houses more than 700 books. She likes travelling as much as she can, and while she has not ventured too far from her city, she considers it fertile ground for many adventures and serendipitous meetings. She believes that her images are little messages sent by her heart to her hands. You could say that they are romantic in nature, just as falling in love with a moment, a passing stranger or an untouched vista is romantic. She also enjoys baking biscuits, cookies and cakes, and considers her images as a collection of savouries and sweetmeats that leave an unforgettable taste behind. She mostly shoots on the street—spotting unusual moments and catching people unawares is something she enjoys doing. From cityscapes to urban grunge, her body of work is probably as hard to pin down and describe as a city that is as large and dynamic as Mumbai.]

[NCFW & Homegrown would like to involve all of our followers and readers in a campaign to spread awareness called 'Gendered Spaces.' This is a call to action for the beginning of a digital photo campaign that explores the intersection of Gender and Space. When was the last time you saw a woman peeing in public, or walking into a liquor store without cold stares, or a man ironing clothes in your home perhaps? The prompt is broad, take the idea and run with it. Then mail us your photos along with your thought behind it, and your contact details to with the subject 'GENDERED SPACES SUBMISSION.' At the end of 3 weeks, we'll be publishing the best photos/ submissions on Homegrown.] 

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