We Can Be Superheroes, Burkas And All

One wouldn’t generally expect Pakistan to produce role models for women – not since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, and not the kind for Birkin bags that a certain foreign minister is famous for.

So Geo TV’s animated kids’ show Burka Avenger has been nothing short of a revelation. It is set in a picturesque green valley, where the arrival of a villain with a long beard who shuts down the local girls’ school casts a pall of gloom. Until, that is, the appearance of a figure in a flowing black burka, who takes on the religious zealots and corrupt politicians alike. Turns out – spoiler alert – it’s a teacher, who wields the chalk by day and displays her considerable martial-arts skills by night to protect the girls’ right to education, clad in a black burka.

There are so many facts about this one could focus on, especially when the young Afghan schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for daring to go to school is being touted for a Nobel Peace Prize. Amazingly though, some of the conversation about the Burka Avenger has centred – not on the brave, new stance of Geo TV or the much-needed focus on education or the hopes for change in depicting women on TV and as superheroes – but on her burka, and the fact that it’s a symbol of oppression. Really.

That’s a debate worth having, yes. But picking on this series for just this reason is a bit disingenuous, surely. And hey, maybe just maybe, the show’s creators meant to show the burka as also being a symbol of power. Why must superheroes everywhere conform to the Western ideal of one, including their dress code? Is it more inconceivable to have a heroine clad in a saree, a kimono, an ao dai – or, indeed, a burka – than it is to imagine one with cat’s whiskers?Image

When Constitutions Collude to Keep Women Out of Politics

Aung San Suu Kyi has just concluded a five-day visit to Singapore, her first to the city state. In her many meetings and speeches – all warm, witty and carefully delivered – she asked companies to invest responsibly in Myanmar, invited Burmese nationals in Singapore to participate in the country’s transition, and reiterated her demand that the constitution be changed, so she can run in elections to be held in 2015.

Myanmar’s constitution gives the military a lot of power in the political system and prohibits anyone with children who are foreign nationals from holding the posts of President or Vice-President. That is clearly aimed at Suu Kyi, whose two sons are British nationals.

That the military has no interest in giving up its cushy position is hardly surprising. That a woman is deliberately being sidelined from the political system in Asia is also, unfortunately, not surprising.

Women’s political participation in Eastern Asia, Southeastern Asia, South Asia and the Pacific Islands is well below the global average, according to research from Monash University. In all these regions, “there is strong resistance to women’s participation in public life evidenced in the formal statements of leaders and politicians and in the mentalities of the broader societies. Cultural, customary and religious discourses are frequently used to moralize that the ‘rightful’ place of women is NOT in politics,” the researchers wrote in a paper last year. Violence against women in politics or those seeking political office is very common in these countries, the report noted.

While gender quotas and reservations have significantly improved women’s political participation in some Asian countries, others are dragging their feet over such legislation. In India, a women’s reservation bill in India, which proposes to amend the constitution to reserve 33 per cent of all seats in the lower house of Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies for women, has languished for more than three years in the lower house. Women’s political participation in India is 11 percent.

Elsewhere, women do slightly better. In China, where Mao famously said ‘women hold up half the sky’, their political participation is about a fifth of the total, whereas in South Korea it’s 16 percent. The Philippines – where President Aquino, whose mother was once President, and who has recently appointed women to key posts including Chief Justice and Tax Collector – the participation rate is nearly a fourth, while in Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra is Prime Minister, albeit a mere puppet of her brother, the rate is 15 percent. Myanmar – and this should come as no surprise to Daw Suu – has the lowest score of all Asian countries measured, of less than 2 percent.

Investors rushing in to cash in on the gold rush that is Myanmar would do well to remember that statistic alongside the numbers on Myanmar’s gas reserves and its potential for mobile phone users and credit-card holders.

That’s Not Fair: on Nina Davaluri and Miss America

I never pay any attention to so-called beauty pageants. But it was hard to miss the tsunami of tweets on the newly-crowned #MissAmerica, Nina Davuluri, who is of Indian descent. The majority of those tweets were not congratulatory.

Rather, they focused on the fact that Davuluri is of Indian heritage and therefore “cannot be regarded as American.” The fact that she has dark skin and dark hair. The fiction that she’s Muslim and a terrorist. And the speculation that she must run a Seven-Eleven store.

In fact, Davuluri’s American and from New York. She’s not a Muslim; she wants to be a physician, like her dad. The only intractable fact is that she’s dark-skinned.

Our fixation with fair skin and light hair is alive and well in the 21st century, rearing its ugly head from Zurich to Dhaka, and targeting women in particular. Cosmetics companies have built billion-dollar businesses hawking wonder skin-lightening creams to desperate women who are made to believe being a couple of shades lighter will give them a better chance in the world that places such a premium on fair skin. You will do well in school, land a plum job, score with a good-looking guy, make your parents proud – if only your skin’s lighter.

Award-winning Indian actor and director Nandita Das recently launched a campaign called Dark is Beautiful to “campaign against the toxic belief that a person’s worth is measured by the fairness of their skin.” Davuluri-haters should sign up for a lesson in being fair, regardless of skin color.

Love Our Goddesses, Hate Our Women

A print ad campaign in India with images of battered Hindu goddesses seeks to highlight a disturbing dichotomy in the country’s culture: a reverence for goddesses and female deities on the one hand and rising numbers of rapes and abuses of women and girls on the other. You can see the images here.

How to explain this twisted double standard? Is it the patriarchal mindset, the centuries-old preference for boys, repeated reinforcements of chauvinism in the popular culture, the lack of strong legislation, or feeble political will to take a stand? All of these and more, perhaps.

There has been a 16 percent jump in the number of reported rapes in India in the five years through 2012, and a 902 percent jump since 1971, Bloomberg reported, citing police records. In the first six months of 2013 alone, reported rapes in New Delhi soared to 806 from 330 in the same period a year earlier.

An ad campaign, no matter how striking, is not going to put an end to it, even if the men charged in the horrific Delhi gang-rape were found guilty after a speedy (by Indian standards) trial. But the campaign it has at least got people talking.

There may be fewer goddesses in Bangladesh and China,  but that doesn’t mean there’s less violence against women in these countries. Almost a quarter of men surveyed in Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Sri Lanka, said they had committed rape at least once, according to a survey of more than 10,000 men. The survey, published in The Lancet Global Health journal,  is said to be the first multi-country one on the prevalence of rape, and is part of a UN report on violence in Asia and the Pacific.

One in 10 men said they had raped a woman who wasn’t a partner; with partners included, that number jumped to 24 percent. Just under half said they had raped more than one woman. Nearly three quarters of those who committed rape said they did so for “sexual entitlement”. The second most common reason was rape as a form of entertainment. In other words, they were bored. Makes for chilling reading.

Dig my daughters? Vote for me

It’s not unusual for politicians to parade their families before voters to drive home the point that if they have managed to raise a family with few calamities, surely they can be entrusted with the task of running a country – or a constituency.

But Tony Abbott, leader of Australia’s Liberal-National coalition and the country’s freshly-elected prime minister takes the biscuit.

In a video message that lead candidates were required to send to participants in the Big Brother house (I know, but let’s focus on the matter at hand for now), Abbott appeared flanked by two of his daughters and proceeded to say: “If you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad looking daughters.” To the credit of the contestants, even they appeared taken aback.

It wasn’t the only sexist remark Abbott has made. During his campaign, he also made reference to the housewives of Australia doing the ironing and described virginity as “the greatest gift” a woman could give someone. There’s also, of course, the infamous “breast” menu for a party fundraiser that set new standards in sexism Down Under.

But of course, Mr. Abbott’s biggest claim to fame is being the subject of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s completely inspired — and totally unscripted — diatribe in parliament, in which she described him as the very definition of misogyny in modern Australia. If you haven’t seen that video in full, I urge you to do so. It’s worth all 15 minutes of your time.

Sadly, nothing’s changed since that speech. Going by the campaign and the repeated, vicious attacks on Gillard — not just from politicians but even radio personalities — it would seem that that brand of misogyny is not going anywhere in Australia. Is it any wonder then that so few women take the plunge into politics.

When getting home safe is all that matters

Stunned by yet another report last month of yet another gang-rape in India, this time in Mumbai, where I lived and worked for eight years, and which I believed to be the safest city in India, the most woman-friendly. It’s hard to wrap my head around the facts of the story, given that the mill-area where the 22-year-old was raped in the presence of a male colleague is where I went into work for nearly six years. The former textile mills now house media companies and private-equity firms, malls and restaurants, and is a bustling bee-hive of activity in the centre of the city. A city that doesn’t feel safe anymore, like dozens of other Indian cities.

What’s also worrying is that recent attacks on women – including the horrendous one in New Delhi last December – appear to be targeting a certain kind of woman, in particular: educated and working, usually in the city. This is not to belittle other attacks on women that occur every day across India, where a rape reportedly takes place every 21 minutes. But it seems that the more Indian women break with tradition and embark on careers and independent lives, the more determined men are to bring them down – sometimes violently.

The blowback also targets women: following the rape and eventual death of the young woman in New Delhi last year, some offices banned women from working overtime, while others barred women from certain kinds of jobs including at call centers, which may require working night shifts. Women are being unfairly discriminated against at the workplace and denied equal opportunities, and they have no one to turn to, not even the police or lawmakers, who rather than pledge to address the security issues, have said women should not stay out late, dress provocatively or take public transport.

India has a lot to lose should its women be forced to quit work because of concerns over safety. Already, despite rising levels of female literacy, labour-force participation by women fell to 16.8 percent in 2011 from 22.4 percent in 2005, according to data from the Asian Development Bank. In the World Economic Forum’s ranking of gender parity in economic participation, India languishes near the bottom, ranking only above Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Yemen, a gap that “will be detrimental to India’s growth,” WEF said in a 2011 report. This is not progress.

Since the attack in Mumbai, women journalists – and even visitors to India – have been speaking out about their own experiences with sexual harassment and violence on the job. They are not the only ones being targeted, clearly.

I fear for my young niece’s future. What good is having your country counted among the economic powerhouses if she must one day make a career choice based on how late she must stay at work or whether she will be required to travel? When women across the world are debating issues including the glass ceiling, leaning in and pay parity, women in India are worried simply about getting home safe from work.