Jaya Posts

Celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Baudelaire

On 9 April 2021, I was invited by the French Institute in India to moderate a panel discussion on Charles Baudelaire. It was to celebrate the French poet, essayist and translator’s bicentenary. His dates are 1821 – 1867. It was a daunting task as the panelists included poets/writers such as Jeet Thayil, Amrita Narayanan, Ranjit Hoskote and Anupama Raju. Nevertheless the conversation went off beautifully. It was almost magical. Here is the link to the recording. It is available on the French Institute of India’s Facebook page. Take a look:

https://www.facebook.com/IFInde/videos/762611194439425

In anticipation of the event, I had prepared a bunch of questions to pose to the panellists. Fortunately, the need never arose since many of the points were addressed in the individual speeches everyone gave. Anyhow, I am posting the list of questions here as well:

  1. Love is a significant portion of Baudelaire’s poetry. Would you say that it is a crucial element in your own writings? If yes, what is the ideal form of treating love as a subject in poetry, assuming that there is an “ideal” notion to be achieved.

2. There is a very modern quality to Baudelaire’s essays and poems especially in his emphasis on the present. It permeates the style of his writing and the vocabulary he chooses. It is not what you expect in nineteenth century literature, especially French literature, with its emphasis on the formal. Would you say that this “modern” tenor is to be emulated and if yes, is it harder to do so than it seems? (Of course, I can only access his works in translation.)

3. In his essay on “The Universal Exhibition of 1835”, he asks, “What are the laws that determine this shifting of artistic vitality?” It seems to be a question that he ponders over even in his poetry. What do you think? Are there any such laws governing “artistic vitality”?

4. For a poet, how important is the imagination and how important is it to remain alive to events, stories, people etc? These could be contemporary or historical.

5. Role of a poet/critic as a social commentator? Is it essential to communicate with readers in the language that they will understand and appreciate or deign to create flowery poetry? 

6. What is the function of a critic? What should be the nature of his/her criticism? Is this reflected in your poetry and prose?

7. Playing with form comes naturally to Baudelaire, as it seems to all of you. Is it a natural progression for a poet to prose or are there a different set of rules governing each form? Are rules meant to be broken as exhibited by Baudelaire?

8. Does art have to be useful or can it focus upon being aesthetically pleasing?

9. What is the responsibility of the poet/writer in defining the cultural landscape? Or do they only create for themselves solely?

10. What is the purpose of art? Is to create beauty, pursue truths? Be concerned with the ethics of goodness and morality?

11. For Baudelaire, a work of art was measured by the impact it had upon its subject rather than how it conformed to objective standards of proportion. Do you agree with this statement vis-à-vis your own works and its impact upon readers?

12. Baudelaire believed that the poet and critic within him are inseparable. Would you agree with the statement while analysing your own body of work?

13. Do you think technology has in anyway impacted the speed of movement and execution it imposes upon the artist? It is a conundrum that Baudelaire addresses in his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life” where he advocates time is spent fruitfully in creating something of beauty as it will make it more valuable. Yet, external factors do not necessarily permit this to happen. This was in the nineteenth century when technological advancements such as the printing presses and mass production were happening at a very rapid pace. It is much like what we are witnessing today as well. Almost like a second Industrial Revolution, if you will. So has the speed of the Internet dissemination, affected your creativity?

14. Always Be A Poet, Even In Prose!

9 April 2021

In conversation with Sandeep Dutt, Kalinga Literary Festival

Here is the link to the recording:

20 March 2021

“Impetuous Women” by Shikhandin

Shikhandin’s new collection of short stories called Impetuous Women is a slow, quiet, exploration of the relationships, situations, experiences that many women find themselves in. It is “slow”, not necessarily in the pace of the storytelling, but the nature of the lives the women live. The incidents that are focussed upon in the stories are so ordinary and yet Shikhandin, gets the tiny twists brilliantly. She gets their scheming, viciousness, spunkiness and sometimes the despairing loneliness of the women very well. These are stories of women who mill around us all day, or perhaps is one of us readers too. Who knows? There are always little jolts of recognition, in terms of characterisation, attitudes, comments, scenarios and reactions that make one wonder if these stories are truly figments of Shikhandin’s imagination or not?

There can never be enough of women’s writing. There are always more and more spaces that need to be explored. The true beauty of these stories lies in Shikhandin’s acute observation of her womens’ characters personalities and the manner in which they act with other women. She gets their pathetic snarkiness in trying to playing one upmanship, the friction other women can create within a man-woman relationship, the physically and emotionally exhausting lives women lead without ever being able to truly comfortable in their marital homes — “wondering how your position was any better than that of a refugee”.

Impetuous Women will make a perfect companion volume to Shikhandin’s previous short story collection called, Immoderate Men“. The ease and yet, intensity, with which she inhabits the minds of her characters and flits between genders, creating characters with empathy, is probably explained by her strong belief and the selection of her nom de plume, Shikhandin, that “the writer in me doesn’t have a gender, or is made up of all the genders“. ( 12 Sept 2017)

Impestuous Women is a remarkable collection. Read it.

9 April 2021

“A Ghost in the Throat” by Doireann Ni Ghriofa

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ni Ghriofa is an extraordinary book. It is the Irish poet’s debut as a prose writer. Some call it auto fiction. Some a memoir. I doubt it can be classified as anything except what it proclaims itself to be, “a female text”. It defies being boxed in. It defies boundaries. It evolves. It is unashamed to detail the domesticity involved in bringing up children. The peace and calmth she finds in picking up the mess of toys or even having bathed, scrubbed and neatly combed babies. It is with equal frankness that she talks about her body, breastfeeding the kids or expressing milk for a bank of premature babies. Or even talking about her sexuality and her desires as if it is the perfectly normal thing to do and does not deserve to be shushed for being unladylike behaviour.

It is graceful yet intense, it is elegant and yet brutal with its single-minded focus on telling the unwritten story of the 18th century Irish noble woman Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill who is credited with composing the greatest poem of its century from.Brirain or Ireland — Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire. Eibhlin composed this keen for her murdered husband , Art O Laoghaire, and after drinking some of his blood. Art was a member of the Gaelic gentry of County Kerry and had been killed at the hands of the Anglo-Irish official Abraham Morris. If I have understood correctly, the caoineadh or lament is usually sung by women and passed on from generation to generation, rarely written down, but transforms ever so slightly depending upon the singer/storyteller.

A Ghost in the Throat is about Ghriofa’s research and putting together Eibhlin’s story. All the while, Ghriofa was mother to an ever expanding brood. The grief is searing when she describes the premature birth of her fourth child, her only daughter, and the days they spent together in the hospital. It is the channeling that deep and utter sadness of Eibhlin’s experience that also seems to well up from an unexpected depth within Ghriofa. It shows in her writing. This is one particular moment in the book that despite it being a slim chapter, the sharpness and clarity with which it is written, makes it an unforgettable incident. It sears itself in the reader’s mind just as good poetry always does. Ghriofa brings the poet’s skill of using minimal number of words to convey layers and layers of meaning to this prose text.

Ghriofa has also translated the “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire” and it is included in the book. The act of translation is also powerful as it makes the translator intimately familiar with the writer. It is a kind of closeness that rubs itself onto the translator possibly in more ways than one. In all likelihood, Ghriofa understood Eibhlin better than anyone else has so far. It is not just the very act of displaying her intense grief by commemorating her recently deceased husband in a poem but as women, mothers, poets, separated across centuries too. These are points of commonality amongst the two women. Sadly, there is little trace of Eibhlin’s existence and this is exactly what Ghriofa hopes to rescue and create a patchwork of. And she does a phenomenal job of it.

The Ghost in the Throat won the best Irish Book of the Year 2020 Award and was on the Rathbones Prize 2020 shortlist. It will probably make its way to more award lists but for now, read it.

24 March 2021

Anita Agnihotri’s”The Sickle”, translated by Arunava Sinha

The Sickle by Anita Agnihotri, translated by Arunava Sinha is a very powerful story. It is hard to believe that it is pure fiction. There are far too many instances in the book that seem like a thinly veiled account of reality. For instance:

The sugar mill owners had in fact opened up a toddy shop right here inside the toli. There may not have been taps or toilets, water for bathing, or a dependable roof over one’s head, but the men still dropped in to drink on their way back to their shanties. It was the only way to get rid of their aches and pains. …The men weren’t concerned about how the women managed to keep their households running in the toli. No matter how hard they worked, they would never have hard cash since they had taken their payment in advance. And yet they needed flour and rice, vegetables and kerosene. And it was the women who would have to do the cooking. What they did was save the tips of the sugarcane stalks, which had no juice but only leaves, from the acquisitive hands of the farmers and sell them for a little money. The inhabitants of the districts on the West turned up here to buy cattle fodder and kindling. From sugarcane leaves to slices sugarcane bristles, all of it could be sold. …

The kitchens in the banjari households are under the control of women. It is the men who say this proudly. Of course, they’re the ones who continue to keep the women behind the veil. From leaving the house to going to high or college, it all depends on the whims of the menfolk. But their writ doesn’t run in the kitchen. Many banjari kitchens don’t allow meat or fish. The men are not permitted to bring any home, though they can eat it elsewhere. But they cannot enter the house immediately after eating meat — summer or winter, a man’s wife must upend a bucket of water over his head first to purify him.

The kitchen’s in your hands — this is how the banjari men boast. In behaviour, rituals and modes of worship, they have fashioned themselves after the Maratha community. Which is hardly a tall order. Running the kitchen means that everything from fetching the water to getting hold of kerosene, vegetables, flour and rice is the headache of the women. They are shackled for life in exchange for the privilege of being able to pour a bucket of water over their huabands’ heads now and then. The implication? Whether at home or in the toli, the husband will never check on whether there are enough provisions, or where the kindling is coming from. The woman calls the man malak, for malik, her lord and master.

Somethings never change. Anita Agnihotri, an ex-bureacrat, is known for depicting social realism in her novels. One of the responsibilities she held was member secretary of the National Commission for Women. She retired in 2016 as Secretary, Social Justice Department, Government of India.

The Sickle is set in the Marathwada region of India. This novel about migrant sugarcane cutters emerged after extensive conversations with farmers, activists, women leaders, students, researchers and young girls from Marathwada, Vidarbha and Nashik. She also consulted Kota Neelima for her research on farmers suicides. The details that are in the novel range from the horrors of sexual violence where women are preyed upon by the men as the shanties that they live in are flimsy structures and do not provide any security. Another form of sexual violence is that the women are actively encouraged to have hysterectomies, so that they do not impede the work flow by absences due to menstrual pain or more pregnancies than are necessary. The drought afflicting the region, the corruption that runs so deep that economic exploitation has become a way of life, even if it is unjust, are narrated in all their brutal honesty. As Anita Agnihotri said in a recent interview to The Mint:

In our profession, we were told, ‘If you see something, don’t carry it back’,” …. “But I followed precisely the opposite advice as a writer.” Just as there can never be a “non-committal bureaucracy,” she adds, “there is no non-political writing.

The Sickle can only be read in small doses as it is extremely disturbing in the truth it portrays. This is not going away in a hurry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the anger welling up in the ongoing farmers protests in Delhi ( on other farming related issues) is summed up by the image of women farmers on the cover of TIME magazine. It was published to commemorate Women’s Day. But the equal rights and liberties that women seek is a long time coming as Anita Agnihotri shows — the patriarchal attitudes towards women are deeply embedded in society. Such systemic violence can be combated but for it to be completely done away with is still a distant dream. It is a long and at times a debilitating struggle, but it is worth fighting for.

Read The Sickle. It has been translated brilliantly by Arunava Sinha .

25 March 2021

Tisca Chopra’s “What’s Up With Me?: Puberty, Periods, Pimples, People, Problems and More”

At the best of times parenting can be exciting, thrilling and challenging. It is a heady cocktail that is a constant but wow! It can get explosive, unpredictable and at times, unmanageable, when the kids transition from childhood to adolescence. For no fault of theirs, their mood swings and irascible temperament coincides with their hormones kicking in. It requires immense amounts of patience and emotional reserves that no sane adult ever thought they were capable of possessing. Inevitably, there are moments when parents and child clash. It is all part of growing up.

For generations, Indians have gone through various stages of life, without any conversation revolving around the body and of course, sex, as taboo. It is simply not spoken about. So the dangers of experimentation and being ill-informed can lead to disastrous consequences. Or even hilarious instances as I discovered years ago while reading a newspaper report. The article was about precisely this — starting a helpline for youngsters to educate them about sex. One of the girls who called in was terrified that she may become pregnant as she had worn her brother’s trousers. This was an anecdote printed on the front page of the morning newspaper. The level of ignorance is abysmal. Fortunately, this scenario is changing slowly and steadily. Misinformation continues to exist but at least middle-class parents are actively seeking literature meant for youngsters that talks about bodily changes and sexuality. Schools too have taken the initiative to conduct sessions with students, in the presence of their counsellors and parents, discussing the body. Interestingly these classes are organised for children of upper primary onwards. Of course, the information is graded according to the level of the children. Even so, the point is that it is becoming a tad “easier” to introduce these topics of conversation rather than facing a complete shut down. The classic argument being that we do not talk about such things in our culture. And God forbid if these topics are to be introduced or discussed in the presence of girls or even about girl sexuality. These are conversations that lurk in the background, even now.

This is why books like What’s Up With Me?: Puberty, Periods, Pimples, People, Problems and More by Tisca Chopra are created. ( Published by Westland Books.) The author is a young mother. Realising that her daughter would soon be hitting puberty, she decided to create this book. It is written in a fun style. Flip any page and there are short entries that speak clearly to the young reader. There is no shame in talking about the body. In fact, Tisca Chopra actively encourages viewing one’s body and being familiar with it. It is an integral part of self-love and self-care. Of course, the book focuses upon personal hygiene, discusses the various kinds of changes the body will undergo such as sprouting hair and bleeding, describing the menstruation cycle etc. There are other aspects too that address the emotional and psychological changes that will occur such as friends drifting apart, emotional roller coaster, crushes and matters of the heart, its okay not to be okay, shout out the doubts, maintaining one’s mental equilibrium, developing good physical habits, exercise, being disciplined about using digital devices, and of course the big one —- (mis) understanding parents. Essentially communication is the key to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence and trusting the advice elders, especially parents, impart.

This is a slim book and for some inexplicable reason, very pink. But that should not deter children and adults alike to pick it up, read and have frank conversations. Sometimes it is easier to leave accessible literature lying around conveniently at home or in schools for kids to browse through. It is easier to read and glean information than have “embarassing” face-to-face conversations. Hence, it is imperative to have well-made material. In this case, the book has been created with inputs from gynaecologist, Dr Mala Arora, and practising counselling psychologist, Malavika Varma. No wonder the tenor of the book is spot on. So much so, when my eleven-year-old daughter browsed through the book, she asked in amazement, “Mum, have you been giving the author inputs on what to say?!” Err, no, I had not. But that is where the value add lies in this book. It validates what parents, especially mothers, have to say to their daughters. When they are at the cusp of childhood and adolescence, kids begin to shut their parents out. So a book like this is helpful as it speaks directly to the kiddos and enables constructive conversations within the family. Akanksha Agnihotri’s illustrations are smart and not girly at all. Yet, very expressive and never distracting from the text. The illustrations, in fact, complement the text beautifully.

It is a good book.

Having said that it may be apt at this juncture to recall an absolutely fantastic book on the female body that was created by Kali for Women in the 1990s. It was called “Shareer ki Jankari” ( “About the Body”). It was written by 75 village women and sold at a special price. It was a very simple paperback that discussed the body, especially menstrual taboos. It had these little paper flaps that you could lift and see the particular part of the body beneath and the changes it underwent. It was a phenomenal bestseller and if I am not mistaken, was translated into multiple regional languages as well. It was a path breaking book and if still available, continues to be relevant.

All in all, I would certainly recommend Tisca Chopra’s book for girls on the verge of becoming young women.

18 March 2021

“Baby Doll” by Gracy, translated by Fathima E.V.

Baby Doll by Gracy is a very bold, sparkling and forthright collection of short stories, written over a span of thirty years. The stories have been translated by award-winning translator, Fathima E.V. The stories have been arranged chronologically, so there is a sense of the evolution of Gracy as a writer. These stories delve into the ordinary lives of ordinary people but go a little beyond. Gracy unearths and makes visible thoughts, conversations, describes actions of women that would otherwise be unheard of in the written word. In these stories characters are persuasively drawn, irrespective of whether you agree with their thoughts, words and deeds. These are very unexpected stories but I am glad they have been made available in English. It is time that storytellers like Gracy were eligible to participate in literary prizes such as The Women’s Prize for Fiction whose longlist will be announced next week, on 10 March 2021. There needs to be a broader literary landscape to be made available to readers worldwide.

Fathima ‘s translation is superb. It reads effortlessly in English while recreating the local landscapes beautifully. Unlike some translations where there is a constant struggle between the original and destination language, it does not occur in Baby Doll. The translator’s note is exactly how it should be — written with care and deep understanding of the writer’s body of work, a textual analysis of the short stories included in this anthology and contextualising Gracy’s style of writing within the world of Malayalam literature. Also, without forgetting the significant contribution that these stories make to feminist understanding of being a woman and making visible to the lay reader the many, many ways in which women are oppressed in the name of tradition and social norms. This is truly an excellent collection.

5 March 2021

Chris Power’s “A Lonely Man”

Chris Power’s debut novel, A Lonely Man ( Faber and Faber) gets a little tough to read in the middle due to the complexity of keeping pace with the Russian drama but as a literary construct trying to make sense of this very bizarre new world is fascinating. The clever literary device of distancing oneself from the actual action while naming very real names who have been at loggerheads with the Putin administration is very well done. It is an artifice that enables the narrator/ghostwriter to continually distance himself from the ugly world of Russian mafia and more. Yet, the unsettling ending to the novel leaves the reader gasping with the realisation that there is actually a very, very thin dividing line between reality and fiction.

Seriously, what is there not like about this debut novel. It has all the masala of a staid, boring, writer, a family man, who is pulled into telling the life story of another man, a ghostwriter. Roles are reversed and the original writer, Robert, who is facing writer’s block, suddenly recovers his writing abilities when trying to retell Patrick’s story. One that is unclear whether it is true or not but it is certainly fascinating. So while it has been established through the course of the novel that Robert himself can be prone to exaggeration while ghostwriting biographies that turned into bestsellers, it becomes increasingly hard to prove the truth of his current story. Robert claims to have been hired to ghostwrite the story of a Russian mafiosi, except that the man is discovered dead in a suspected suicide. Ever since then Robert has been on the run fearing for his life. The entire action of the plot takes place in Berlin and Sweden. Also, if one is familiar with the Russian exiles and more, as has trickled into many newspapers and documentaries, it makes this book much easier to read. But no harm done if you are unfamiliar with the names. It is just that then the reader will spend some excruciatingly distracting moments googling for the names.

This elegantly-told thriller, very gently turns a humdrum middle class reality into a sinister, dark world, and needs to be optioned for film pretty soon. Till then, read it. Enjoy it.

Update:

Update: Today, soon after, filing this short review of “A Lonely Man”, news broke that the US says Russian intelligence agencies were behind the poisoning of Alexey Navalny and will impose sanctions on multiple senior government officials.

It is at times like this that it becomes difficult to diffrentiate between truth and fiction. Alexey Navalny is one of the Russian figures mentioned in the novel, as being one of the severest critics of Putin and having to suffer consequences like many others have in the past.

1 March 2021

Books discussing being a Muslim

A tiny, tiny drop of the literature being published currently discussing what it means to be a Muslim. Or even bringing up a Muslim child. Or being a lawyer and dealing with cases where identity becomes the crux rather than the major issues, such as xenophobia, at play. Or what it means to be a Muslim when you are also a woman. Then the issues are twice as complicated as they are for men since you are also combatting gender inequality. These are some of the very powerful fiction and nonfiction books, published or about to be released, discussing the fundamental issue of being a Muslim. Ultimately, faith is only one aspect of one’s identity. Creating literature that discusses in detail the multiple acts of microagression and racism that Muslims face on a daily basis, perhaps is one of the constructive ways to combat the prejudices of others. It will help to a certain degree to being understood rather than othered constantly.

Do read these books. If not all, at least a couple.

1 March 2021

Christina Lamb, “Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women”

In 2005, I had worked as part of a global team on a seminal report published by UNRISD called Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. The particular section that I had researched was “Gender, armed conflict and the search for peace”. It was an extraordinary eye-opener for it highlighted the horrendous levels of violence perpetrated upon women and girls, across the world. Somehow conflict situations become an arena where the wild lawlessness thrives and the stark reality of the violence women experience is gut-wrenching. The women are treated worse than animals. Just flesh  They are easily dispensed with once the women outlive their utility which in most cases is that of being sex slaves. The UNRISD report went a step further than merely discussing the violence but also documented the various methods of peace that were initiated by women or with the establishment of institutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and of course, the International Court of Justice.

Award-winning war reporter Christina Lamb in her book, Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What War Does to Women reports from various war zones around the world. She travels far and wide meeting women who have been victimised, abducted, raped, sold by one soldier to the next, etc. She met people like the Beekeeper of Aleppo, Abdullah Shrim, and Dr Miracle or Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr Denis Mukwege, who have helped women. Or the incredible Bakira Hasecic, Association of Women Victims of War, who said her hobbies were smoking and “hunting war criminals” and she was not joking, having tracked down well over a hundred. Of these, twenty-nine were prosecuted in The Hague and eighty in Bosnia. Abdullah Shrim has rescued hundreds of women who were kidnapped by the ISIS and reunited them with their families. He has run extremely dangerous operations and created a vast network of safe houses and carriers who would help bring the women to safety. It has been at great economic  cost to the women’s families, who at times have had to fork out sums as large as US $70,000. Dr. Mukwege, meanwhile, has helped reconstruct and fix women victims of sexual violence.

…either suffered pelvic prolapsed or other damage giving birth, or were victims of serial violence so extreme that that genitals had been torn apart and they had suffered fistulas — holes in the sphincter muscle through to the bladder or rectum, which led to leaking of urine or faeces or both.

In twenty years of existence, the [Punzi] hospital had treated more than 55,000 victims of rape.

He is recognised as having treated more rape victims than anyone else on earth. As a trained gynaecologist, he had set up multiple maternal hospitals around Congo so as to tackle the growing menace of maternal mortality, where women uttered their last words before going into labour as they were never sure if they would live. Once the Rwandan genocide occurred, Dr Mukwege, he began to help women victims.

Each group seemed to have its own signature torture and the rates were so violent that often a fistula or hole has been torn in the bladders or rectums.

‘It’s not a sexual thing, it’s a way to destroy one another, to take from inside the victim the sense of being a human, and show you don’t exist, you are nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s a deliberate strategy: raping a woman in front of her husband to humiliate him so he leaves and shame falls on the victim and it’s impossible to live with the reality so the first reaction is to leave the area and then is totla destruction of the community. I’ve seen entire villages deserted.

‘It’s about making people feel powerless and destroying the social fabric. I’ve seen a case where the wife of a pastor was raped in front of the whole congregation so everyone fled. Because if God does not protect the wife of a pastor how would he protect them?

‘Rape as a weapon of war can displace a whole.demigraohic and have the same effect as a conventional weapon but at a much lower cost.

The accounts in this book are meticulously documented. Christina Lamb even manages to speak to some of the victims. One of them, Naima, who had been abducted by the ISIS recalled the name of every single abductor she was sold to. It even astonished Christina Lamb that Naima was able to recall in such detail. ‘The one thing that I could do was know all their names so what they did would not be forgotten,’ she explained. ‘Now I am out I am writing everyting in a book with everyone’s name.’ Lamb travels and meets people in Argentina ( the Lost Generation and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo), Nigeria and the Boko Haram, Bangladesh and the birangonas or brave/war heroine, the ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in Bosnia, the Rohingya camps of those who fled Myanmar, the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and the Tutsis, the women abducted and kept by the ISIS, the former sex slaves of Japan or the rape of the German women by the Red Army during the Second World War etc. The list is endless and exhausting.

The graphic descriptions in the book are vile but most likely tamer versions of what was really said, shared or documented since it is impossible to collate it as is for a lay readership. The anger and revulsion that Christina Lamb feels and conveys in her documentation regarding the sexual crimes perpetrated against women is transmitted to the reader very clearly. The mechanical manner in which the women are raped over and over again, leaving the women numb and injured is blood curdling. It is also imbued with a sense of helplessness trying to understand how can this wrong be ever corrected — Why are women pursued in this relentless manner, used and discarded? Or even seen as war trophies. What is truly befuddling is the ease with which men rape women or conduct mass rapes. It is not only the systematic violence that is perpetrated upon the women but the horrifying thought that this attitude probably exists in a daily basis. Men see women as dispensable, as a sex that they have limitless and unquestionable power over and the authority and prerogative to do what they like. War crimes only bring to the fore that which already exists already. It is not a gargantuan leap of imagination by men that requires such methodical violence perpetrated upon so many women in this brutal and agressive manner. What is even more chilling from the facts Lamb unearths is the despicable manner in which the rapists are rarely convicted, and if they ever are convicted it is usually for war crimes. Their convictions are carried out on the strength of the ethnic cleansing that they perpetrated. The absolute lack of respect or value accorded to a woman survivor’s testimony, if some of the victims agree to testify, is atrocious. Instead as Bakira points out that if you do not testify it’s as if it never happened. “Women should be allowed to say things the way she wants, tell the story how she wants.” Unfortunately what emerges is that even the institutions of justice and remedial action are so patriarchal in their nature and construct that they do not wish to acknowledge the ghastly trauma women suffer. Chillingly “in Bosnia it’s better to be a perpetrator than a victim. The perpetrators’s defence are paid by the state while we [the women] have to pay our own legal costs. And there’s still no compensation for victims.”

Our Bodies, Their Battlefield is not easy reading. There is a visceral reaction to reading the accounts. But as Lamb points out  that this is a very dark book but she hopes that the reader too will find the “strength and heroism of many of the women inspiring”. She continues, “I use the expression ‘survivors’ to emphasise the resilience of these women, as after all they have survived, rather than ‘victim’ which has a more helpless connotation and some see as a dirty word. Meeting all these women, the last word I would use about them is passive. However, while I do not want to make ‘victims’ their identity, at the same time they are victims of an appalling brutality and injustice, so I do think the word has some validity. In some languages, such as Spanish, the word ‘survivor’ means survivor of a natural disaster. Colombian and Argentinian women I met told me it made no sense to refer to them as survivors. So I have used both where appropriate. In the same way, Yazidis told me they did not object to being described as sex slaves, as long as that was not seen as their identity.” Gender divisions are an age-old phenomena. Seeing women as loot, especially at times of war is also many centuries old. But the fact that these ugly, ruthless, mindless, violent practices continue to exist despite there being so many conversations about gender equality and sensitivity is extremely painful. It is as if those who believe in the dignity of women and in gender equality are expending energy on a losing battle. When will it stop? Will it ever cease? And surely these are learned behaviours and attitudes towards women, so how and when are the younger generations of men being indoctrinated and encouraged to behave in this abominable fashion? It is true that many men still believe firmly in the idea of masculinity being that when you prove your supremacy as an individual upon women, but seriously, can this old-fashioned attitude not stop? War zones are a stark reminder that these attitudes are not going away in a hurry.  My only objection is to the cover design of this book depicting women wearing head scarves. Thereby signalling that the violent behaviours documented by Lamb exist more or less within one specific community, ie. the Muslims, who are equally conveniently seen as terrorists. This is wrong. The cover design should have been either an illustration depicting conflicts and different scenarios or had a montage of images from different regions and communities. This striking black and white image does a great deal of disservice not only to the community it represents but also to the book.

Nevertheless, please read this extremely powerful book.

25 Feb 2021

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