Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Free Speech

Friday, February 27th, 2015

A blogger (Avijit Roy) was hacked to death in Bangladesh. He had received death threats. He and his wife were attacked in public as they left a book fair.

I had never heard of him until now. I have not read anything that he has written and I have no idea whether I would have agreed or disagreed with any of it. But this doesn’t matter.

It makes no difference whatsoever what he wrote or how he wrote it. It makes no difference if he was American, Bangladeshi, or anything else. It makes no difference whether he was an atheist or religious. It makes no difference whether he was critical of Islam or anyone or anything else. It makes no difference whether he had brown eyes or blue, black hair or blonde, whether he was male or female, old or young, rich or poor.

Absolutely nothing justifies this horrendous act. All violence is wrong. All killing is wrong. All persecution and creation of climates of fear is wrong. Free speech, regardless of what it is, is absolutely vital. It is crucial that we all have the right to freely say whatever we want to say. It is also important that we use this right wisely and with care for others. I deliberately censor the writing that appears on this blog for very many reasons. But that is due to discretion and not fear.

Very few people read my blog. And I don’t imagine that anyone really cares much about what I say. Not to the point that anyone would think it worth threatening me to stop me saying what I want to say. But stories like this make me want to shout from the rooftops!!!

There are things that I say that might upset people. Some of my writing is critical of religion. Some of my writing is critical of different aspects of different cultures. Some of my writing is controversial.

There are things that other people say that I disagree with. There are things that other people say that offend me. There are things that other people say that I simply don’t care about at all. But I will defend their right to say it. The only way we can move forward and solve the myriad problems that plague our planet is through education, discourse, patience, tolerance, understanding.

So today I stand with all bloggers, speakers, writers, opinion-holders, commentators, journalists, educators, thinkers. We all should be able to say/write/think whatever we like without fear for our lives and our safety.

Why we need V-Day

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

V-Day is February the 14th. It is a day to raise awareness of violence against women and to support survivors of violence.

I’ve posted on my blog and on Facebook about violence against women and about women’s rights. And I usually get quite a bit of support about the issue from most of the men and women I know. Which doesn’t surprise me. Most of the men and women I know are intelligent, lovely, good-hearted, wonderful people who fundamentally care about equality, peace, justice, dignity, human rights.

But sometimes I get challenged regarding the focus on gender. And challenge is always welcome. I get challenged about the focus on “women’s rights” rather than a focus on “rights”. I get challenged on “violence against women” rather than “violence”. I get questioned on whether it is useful to disaggregate by gender since that exacerbates the segregation and just highlights differences. I get asked whether violence is in fact a gender issue at all. And these are valid points to raise – though I disagree with them. And I don’t think any of them negate the requirement for a focus on issues relating to violence against women and women’s rights.

V-Day is about violence against women. It doesn’t preclude any other focus on violence against men. And yes, violence against men is an issue. However, in most cases the violence against men isn’t because they are men, while in most cases the violence against women is because they are women. More men die in war, more men commit suicide, more men die violently than women do. All of this is true. None of this negates the fact that violence against women (because they are women) exists and is systemic and is culturally accepted (and in some cases encouraged) and is widespread and must stop.

Violence against women includes domestic abuse, rape, female genital mutilation, battery, murder. It includes dowry murders, honour killings, stonings (e.g. as punishment for adultery), forced marriage, child marriage. It is committed by boyfriends, husbands, brothers, uncles, sons, fathers, other family members and strangers. In rare cases, it is committed by women.

UK statistics that explore the gender differences of domestic violence show that domestic violence against women is more likely to recur. It is more violent. It has more severe psychological consequences. It is more likely to be associated with a culture of fear. Domestic violence is the major cause of miscarriage and stillbirth. 40% of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner whereas only 4% of male homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. Women in the UK are affected by female genital mutilation, forced marriage and domestic violence. Violence against women in other parts of the world is much, much worse.

So we need V-Day because there are very many women around the world in fear for their lives. One billion women will be beaten or raped in their lifetimes. We need V-Day because in many cultures women do not have the same rights as men and that makes them vulnerable to violence.

But we need V-Day because there are men in the UK who don’t think that violence is a gender issue. They think that because men suffer that this means that violence affects everyone (which is does, but not in the same way). They think that women in other countries suffer but that this is not the case in the UK. So V-Day is a day when we can offer support to the women who have survived violence. And V-Day is a day when we can educate people (men and women alike) that violence is a gender issue (even in the UK, even in 2015).

And V-Day is a chance for all of us to celebrate the freedom, the security, the safety that we do have.

Back in the UK

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

I’ve been back in the UK for a day and half at time of writing. And what a day and a half it has been.

I’ve brushed my teeth with tap water. I licked my fingers when I was eating cheese on toast. I ate cheese on toast. I ate cheese and it was even better than I remember it! I have used idioms and slang and spoken quickly and mumbled. I have worn socks. I have used toilet paper. I have had hot showers. I have clean feet. I chopped vegetables and a piece of mushroom feel from the chopping board to the bench and the bench was clean enough that I could pick up the piece of mushroom and throw it into the frying pan with its mates. I have lain in bed rejoicing in the peace and quiet (no ceiling fan, no monsoonal rain, no dogs, no shouted arguments, no religious observances). I have walked along the pavement and looked up at the buildings rather than down at my feet to see what I’m standing on. I’ve made myself cups of tea whenever I wanted them (with no sugar). I’ve drunk soy milk. I’ve been to a pub. I’ve washed clothes in a washing machine and they smell wonderful! I’ve watched crappy TV in English!

And most importantly, I’ve met up with some of the most wonderful people in my life. I’ve talked, I’ve laughed, I’ve joked. I’ve made new friends.

And I’ve danced. And words fail completely to express how incredible it was to be dancing again.

I loved my time away. I’m looking forward to going back again next year. But I’m really enjoying being back.

One of the wonderful consequences of my exceptionally transient lifestyle is that I spend a lot of my time rejoicing in the newly remembered wonders of my current location. And it has the added benefit of giving my friends something to laugh about each time I get giddy about drinking tap water! 🙂

How to Be a Superhero

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

There are a lot of ways to become a superhero. This is one of them.

If you want to be a superhero, all you need to do is decide to come to India to do a voluntary teaching project. You’ll need to work hard in the UK to raise/earn enough money to fund the trip. You’ll need to think about the cultural differences and the teaching before you come.

Once you get here, you’ll need to live with a host family and teach in a school for about 3 hours a day, 5 days a week.

And, if you don’t make a complete mess of it, then you’re automatically a superhero.

What you don’t need to do is to make things any harder for yourself than they already are. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone.

We had a volunteer out here recently who did well with her teaching. But she put far too much pressure on herself. She expected the kids to be silently hanging off her every word. And let’s be honest, that doesn’t happen to any teacher! Of any age, in any subject, in any country, anywhere! And it certainly doesn’t happen with lower primary in India when the teacher is a foreigner with white skin who only speaks a strange and funny language.

Now putting pressure on yourself can be a good way to ensure that you’re working to a high standard. Some people perform better under pressure. Some people enjoy the challenge of taking things to a higher level. And all of this is admirable.

Unfortunately in this case, the volunteer put too much pressure on herself and ended up not coping well. She lost her patience in a lesson, and the team leader, who had been observing (and helping a bit) asked her to leave the classroom. Which she did.

We spoke to her afterwards about what had happened and why. And she admitted that she does put too much pressure on herself.

The really great thing for her is that she has this amazing learning opportunity. She now understands, in a really practical way, how badly things can go when she demands too much of herself and doesn’t ask for help and support when she needs it. And this learning opportunity is one that very many other people don’t get.

This one incident doesn’t make her less of a superhero. It doesn’t erase all of the other lessons that she had taught. It doesn’t make her a failure.

India is tough. It pushes you to breaking point and beyond. Those of us who have done it before don’t get off any easier, if anything, India has a much better sense of which buttons she can press to break us. But for all of us, we have to concentrate on the reasons why we are superheroes. Focus on the good stuff that we do. Learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on them.

And that goes for superheroes all over the world, not just the ones that come out to India to teach.

Strangling Cats

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Note: this post is not about actually strangling cats.

The aesthetic sense of different cultures is interesting. Music, dance, visual arts, fashion, etc. in different cultures have different aesthetics to my own culture. And that diversity is quite amazing. It can be very enlightening, educational, interesting, enriching, etc. to discover these art forms. Some have a beauty that resonates despite (or perhaps because of) its difference to my own culture’s art forms.

But in some cases, the differences jar or grate or simply annoy. Sometimes I don’t mind them: I just don’t derive pleasure from them.

Traditional dancing in India is a good example. I find the costumes to be bewildering in their ornateness. They don’t offend my aesthetic sensibilities; I’m just overwhelmed by them. The dancing itself is fascinating (for the most part). I find some movements to be beautiful and interesting and laden with meaning. I find some movements to be cumbersome, inelegant and ugly. But overall, I quite enjoy watching it. Though, not for too long. About 5 mins per dance and about half an hour per dance form is probably enough for me for one sitting. 🙂

But the music that goes with the dancing I find much more difficult. It involves drumming (cool), singing (not so cool), and sometimes a flute (cool) or a violin (not so cool). And I find the singing and the violin sound like someone strangling a cat. Or multiple cats. Quite loudly. For long periods of time.

Now, I’m no fan of cats. However, I still don’t want them to be strangled. And if they are to be strangled (heaven forbid) then I don’t want to listen to it. So I find a music form that to me (and I understand, not to others) sounds like a tribute to cat strangulation somewhat difficult to appreciate.

And it’s not just this music. Malayalam music (and Hindi music) on the whole sound very screechy and whiny to me. This is in part because the women sing about two octaves higher than their voice or my ears can comfortably cope with. It is also an interesting aspect of Malayalam (and Sinhala too) that there are short and long vowel sounds that are identical except for the length of the sound. So if there is a word with a short vowel sound in it, you can’t hold that note while singing (it would then make it a long vowel sound which would change the word). So often singers in these languages hold a consonant (e.g. n, l). And this sounds so very strange to me. And probably contributes to the quality that I interpret as whinyness.

So I find myself listening to music that I like (Pink, for example) in order to top up my musical aesthetic appreciation. And when I do listen to Indian or Sri Lankan music I try to focus on the drums or the dancing and to ignore the cats!

Killing Puppy Dogs

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Note: this post is not about actually killing puppy dogs.

Note: some of the examples in this post have happened to other volunteers rather than me, but they all apply in general.

I read in a book recently a phrase that I quite liked. Unfortunately, I can’t now remember the book or the author. But while I can’t give credit to the author, I can certainly not claim credit for their phraseology.

Anyway, the phrase was: “She looked at me as if I’d just killed her favourite puppy dog.”.

I like this phrase because it explains some of the looks I get here.

It’s a look of infinite sadness and silent condemnation. It’s a look that inspires guilt in all but the most callous.

  • I get it every time I say no to seconds (or thirds, or fourths) at mealtime.
  • I get it every time I say I don’t want tea or a snack.
  • I get it every time I say I’m going somewhere else for lunch or dinner.
  • I get it every time I say I’m going to go away for the weekend.
  • I get it every time I say that I’m going out and will be home late.
  • I get it every time I say I won’t wear a sari.
  • I get it every time I say I don’t want to go to church.

And you’d think, that eventually, they’d run out of favourite puppy dogs. But no, it seems the supply of puppy dogs, and of disappointed looks, is (for all intents and purposes) infinite. 🙂

Another Crazy Day

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I’ve already posted about one of the crazy days I’ve had here.

Here is a brief run-down of another day I had. And yes, all of this did happen in one 24 hour period. 🙂

  • Being told by my host father’s brother that “In India, family is important”. This was in response to me saying that I wasn’t married.
  • Being told by my host father that I want to be a man. This is because I suggested that since both he and his wife eat the food that both he and his wife should cook sometimes, and since both he and his wife wear clothes that both he and his wife should wash clothes, etc.
  • Being told by my host father that “You only have a reason to cry when you have a family”.
  • Teaching 1st standard (4-7 year olds – by far my least favourite age to teach, though this class was quite good fun).
  • Helping a volunteer with a 2nd standard class that was really quite out of control (through no fault of the volunteer).
  • Team teaching a 4th standard class with difficult behaviour. This included having to put myself between two students who were fighting. (When students fight in India, they really fight. They want to hurt each other.)
  • While I’m trying to break up the fight, the volunteer who I was teaching with was hit with the cane by one of the students – not hard, but that’s not the point.
  • Continuing to hold the students apart while we waited for the teacher to come – she just laughed when she was told about the fight and took several minutes to slowly pack up what she was doing and walk the 5 meters over to us.
  • Watch that teacher tweak the ear or a student and then slap her arm (presumably because she had an answer wrong).
  • Being asked by a student whether I was a boy or a girl (to be honest, from primary students, this really doesn’t bother me at all).
  • Being told by my host father that his son acts like he is from my culture: he has no respect for his parents. I then proceeded to launch a mighty defence of my culture.
  • Being told that I’m lying because I say that the food is good.
  • Being told that I should have a religion.


I was still smiling by the end of it though! 🙂

You Know How Crazy It Is

Friday, September 12th, 2014

I was expecting an email from a friend. He said to be patient because I know how crazy things are there. I smiled and replied to say no rush. And, much as I was looking forward to hearing from him (and now have), there was no rush.

But since then I have been thinking about how crazy it is there. And how crazy it is here. And yes, things can get a little crazy there, but to be honest, I think his crazy isn’t even as crazy as my normal at the moment! 🙂

Here is a run-down of one day last week.


Becky and I went to watch one of the volunteers teach. We watched her for two hours and spent an hour working out what feedback/support was appropriate. We then went to her place to give her that feedback.

I get a phone call from my ex host mother: “We are at the function waiting for you” “What function?” It was her brother’s mother-in-law’s memorial mass (one year since she had died) and they were having lunch too. I declined since our host families were all expecting us home for lunch. Plus, I never feel comfortable being taken to a funeral (or memorial) for someone I have no connection with, especially since we are the white foreigners and will therefore get a lot of attention from everyone. This does not seem right to me.

I walk home to have lunch. (Rice, an omelette and some beetroot.)

Then deal with a phone call from a volunteer who is unsure what to do about a local boy at the bus station who is behaving exceptionally inappropriately (she wasn’t in danger, she just wasn’t comfortable). The local restaurant and shop owners intervened to shoo him away.

I walk to the ATM (which doesn’t have any cash) and get a bus to meet the other volunteers. The next cash machine does give me cash.

I meet the volunteers and have a rather uneventful couple of hours drinking iced coffee and chatting. Though I did rant quite a bit about dowry. It is not just illegal, it is evil.

We squashed four of us into an auto to go back to the bus station to get the bus back to the villages.

We walked to meet up with a volunteer to get him sorted out with an evening class he is doing. On the way, I twist my ankle and crumple in the middle of the road skinning my knee and stubbing my toe. (No gushing blood or anything, and no serious ankle damage. Just annoying.)

Then a series of phone calls with Johnson while we try to work out where he is and where we are and what needs to be done and whether he is coming or not. (The plan was that we would meet him to visit each of the hosts, anyway, the result was not meeting him but visiting the hosts anyway.)

We left the class and walked to the first volunteer. We interrupted the women praying, but the father was happy to look after us. We had juice and fruit and paid the family and chatted to the volunteer.

We walked to the highway and ran to catch a bus to the next volunteer. More chatting. We paid that family. We admired a sari. We then walked to the next volunteer. During which time the rain set in. We managed to huddle under a tree for enough time to get the umbrella out and my raincoat. But we still got wet. Monsoon is like that.

We continued walking to see the volunteer.

As we arrived, the host’s opening line was “I’m angry with you because you didn’t come for lunch.” Sigh.

We were offered tea but declined but did take a cupcake.

Part way through the cupcake Becky starts signally to me. Something about ants I think. Then I realise. My lip starts to tingle then to sting then to swell up. I had been bitten by an ant on the inside of my top lip.

We made our excuses and tried to leave before anyone in the family noticed my ever-increasing lip.

We got an auto to the next place. The auto was going to wait for us to take us to the last place and then to take me home.

There was a complication at this family so Johnson had to speak to the host. As we were walking up the driveway Johnson called me. I said that it was perfect timing. But he said he couldn’t talk to her now, he had an email to send, he was just calling me to ask about the location of a file he needed. He said he would call back in two minutes. (It is already after 9pm by now.)

I get a text message from my host asking where I am.

Becky gets a call from her host asking where she is.

I get a call from the person who arranged the auto. The auto driver (who is waiting for us) isn’t feeling well and wants to leave. So I run out to pay him and collect my umbrella and raincoat and let him go.

Twenty minutes later (after chatting to the volunteers and have them laugh uproariously at my swollen lip), I text Johnson back to ask if he’s free yet. He is so I pass the phone to the host so that Johnson can clarify the issue. Done.

We walk to Becky’s place where we manage to refuse payasam (it’s a bit like rice pudding, but it’s cold and wet (like a soup) and insanely sweet).

I walk home.

The two dogs fighting in the street seem to be more interested in each other than me (though I did have my umbrella ready to wave at them menacingly just in case).

I get home. My family doesn’t notice my fat lip (which is a relief because I didn’t want to have to explain it).

I have dinner. (Another omelette, rice, beetroot.)

I collapse into bed.

And as days go, this is probably towards the normal end of the spectrum!

A Strong, Educated Woman

Friday, September 12th, 2014

She is educated. She is a lawyer. She is currently spearheading a dispute against her brother. She is a strong woman.

Her husband says that her brother is not a real man because he doesn’t beat his wife.

Her husband beats her.

How can a strong, educated woman stand by and support a husband who says that beating his wife is his duty?

She knows that it is illegal. She knows that it is wrong. She knows what it does to her.


But the answer is quite clear when you look at the context.


The following is based on these Christian, fishing communities here in Kerala. It is the same for Muslims. It is the same for Hindus. It is the same in Orissa. It is the same in Maharastra. It is the same in Tamil Nadu. It is the same for farmers. It is the same for shopkeepers. It is the same for professionals. It is the same in lower castes. It is the same in upper castes.

Indian women are taught that women are inferior.


Their religion teaches them that women are the source of sin. Women are a temptation. Women exist only to serve men and to give birth to more believers. Women are frail. Women are not worthy.

Their mothers teach them, through the example of their lives, that women exist to bear children, to be beaten, to keep silent, to serve, to cook, to clean.

The media teaches them that women exist to look beautiful, to bear children, to cook, to clean, to suffer, to serve.

The education system teaches them not to think, not to question, not to argue, not to stand up for what they believe in.

Their culture teaches them to eat after the rest of the family has eaten, to cook, to clean, to suffer silently, to bear children, to support their husbands.

Their culture teaches them that they can’t do anything on their own, that they are not safe alone, that they need a man.


The Indian woman gets married to a man she barely knows.

He takes her to his family house.

She is removed from the only support system she has ever known.

He and his family then begin to tear her down.

Any self-respect or self-esteem she has are whittled away or simply stamped out.

She is treated like a slave.

She is repeatedly told how worthless she is.

She is told how worthless her family are.

She is beaten.

She is told that she cannot look after her husband the way his mother does and that makes her a failure.

She gets pregnant and is forced to give up her job and her friends.

She is forced to look after her children with only the support of her in-laws.

She is systematically broken.

If she survives this sustained torture then her husband’s family will start to rebuild her.

They will rebuild her as someone who takes pride in being able to look after him.

They will rebuild her as someone who takes pride in being able to look after them.

They will rebuild her as someone who exists only to serve him and his interests.

And as she rediscovers strength, it will be a strength that they have implanted.

She will rejoice in that strength.

She will nurture that strength.

She will use that strength against others.


And this is how a strong, educated woman can stand beside her husband and brothers and support them when they say that the strength of a man is to beat his wife.

This is how a strong, educated woman can manipulate her family to cause maximum detriment to the brother she has taken against.

This is how a strong, educated woman can allow her husband to beat her without sanction or censure.

This is how a strong, educated woman will teach her sons to beat their wives and will teach her daughters to be beaten by their husbands.


And her story is one of the happier ones.


She is a strong, educated woman.

The strength a woman needs to fight against all of this and maintain her identity and sense of self-worth is way, way beyond what most human beings possess.

Education in this culture is not effective.



And the violence and the bitterness and the injustice and the disrespect and the misery and the suffering will continue.

When A Phone Rings In Class

Friday, September 12th, 2014

Here’s a dilemma for you all.

You are a volunteer who is visiting a school.

You are scheduled to teach a lesson with a particular class every day at the same time.

You have been doing this for a few weeks.

The class teacher is usually in the room during the lesson.

Sometimes he helps.

Sometimes he just watches.

One day he takes a phone call. In class. During your lesson.

He asks you to keep the noise down because he is on the phone.

In class. During your lesson.

You have several choices at this point as to how to react.

  1. You can tell him to take the call outside, you’re teaching a class.
  2. You can ignore him and just carry on teaching as before.
  3. You can get angry, shout and him and storm out in disgust.
  4. You can ask the students to start whispering the next bit of the lesson so that you can continue teaching, but not disturb his phone call.

There are lots of other options at your disposal too.

Option 3 is definitely not the best of the four. Option 4 is my personal favourite.

If you choose option 1 then there may be some repercussions.

The teacher in question may decide at some later date to reassert his power.

(Don’t forget that the main reason why most people go into the teaching profession here is so they can get respect and have power.)

He may decide that on another day he will have a competition during the time that is usually set aside for your lesson.

He may decide that this competition cannot be done at any other time and that you are not to teach his class today.

He may tell you that he had already informed the head teacher about this (though there is a chance that he didn’t because he is in an ongoing power struggle with the head teacher too).

But it is always best to remember that we are guests here. And while the guest is god and there is a certain amount of liberty that we can take as guests, we are still only guests. We are not qualified, local teachers. And we are often younger than the local teachers and we are usually female. And all of these things mean that we should remember our position in the respect/power hierarchy here. So a polite, friendly smile and gentle acquiescence is usually more effective than any form of confrontation, no matter how gentle/justified it may be.