Friday, March 31, 2006

Tragedy in the high seas

Tragedy struck Bahrain last night. A dhow carrying nearly 150 people capsized, and 57 people perished and 60 were rescued and the rest were declared missing. News is still trickling in and it is apparent that any further news will not be very encouraging. That's the nature of disasters. They are not meant to make us feel good or feel positive about life. They are meant to connect us with our vulnerable side. And most of us are uncomfortable with such connections.

However, it is much easier to philosophise, rationalise or even argue the moral complexities of such disasters, but if such an event claims someone we know and care about, then, the discussions acquire a different tone altogether. Statistics no longer become a series of numbers to consider but a measurement to quantify the scale of personal tragedy. Numbers become a tool to seek answers for that heart wrenching question - WHY?

I wish I had answers to explain why my dear friend Samir Thorat perished in this disaster. I wish I could have some easily digestible answers to help understand why such a disaster should happen to someone I know. I wish I could have some satisfying answers to calm the storms of doubt and bewilderment.

Sadly, I don't.

It would be wrong to assume that it is possible to have pat answers available at the tip of one's fingertips. Tragic equations do not operate with such emotional precision. They compel us to go beyond the obvious and scrape at the barrel of the certitudes we are familiar with.

And in such cases, it is always better to look at facts that are available because only these have the kind of tangibility we are looking for. Hence the facts available in this case may help provide some answers. It seems that the dhow was capable of carrying only 100 people and the tour operator insisted on cramming the boat with additional passengers even though the captain objected. It seems that the dhow was not meant for such a trip. It seems that the dhow was not insured. It seems... well, these are just some of the 'facts' that are trickling in. They may or may not be true, but they form part of the loud whispers we are hearing. Human error, human apathy, human arrogance, human indifference appear to be the prime culprits in this terrible tragedy.

These 'facts' may help fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, and may enable us to find some kind of closure. At least, in the short term. But, in my opinion, it would be far better if this tragedy forces authorities to introduce curbs to prevent recurrence of this disaster. It is obvious from the 'facts' that the accident could have been avoided, and so it would be in the general interest that strict legislative measures are introduced to reinforce safety as a guiding principle for any future pleasure cruises.

If this is done, then, at least, Samir and others wouldn't have died in vain.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Power games

Power does strange things to some people. A meek lamb suddenly turns into a fierce dragon. The backroom boy elevated to a managerial role quickly acquires despotic traits. The genial assistant pushed up the corporate ladder slowly begins to show traces of arrogance and conceit. Sometimes it happens in a matter of days, and at other times, it is a gradual slide. It shouldn't happen this way but it does.

One is, often, left wonderstruck at the way power morphs people's personalities beyond recognition. It seems as if some internal button is suddenly switched on and the attitude changes along with the position. Most often, the question that lingers in most people's mind is, "Can this be the same person who was such a sweetheart not too long ago?"

Sadly, it is the same person. The only change is the inability of that person to handle the trappings of the position. Insecurity is, most often, the prime culprit behind displays of arrogance because after being thrusted to the ionosphere the person is unable to fathom the possibility of gravity. Hence, he or she would do anything to maintain this comfortable perch upon the peak. Even if involves defying logic and common sense.

It might seem that I am making a fat assumption here because, obviously, there are many people in powerful positions who do not behave in this fashion. That's true. But we are talking about insecure, unqualified and immature people pushed up the ladder. It only takes a rare soul to recognise his or her limitations, work alongside one's subordinates, capitalise on available strengths and be aggressively focused towards a vision. It's a rare soul who does that. And it would do most corporates a lot of good if they keep a sharp eye on the lookout for such rare souls.

Or am I simply making assumptions?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Republic of Assumption

Humans love assumptions the way a dog loves a bone. Or a drunkard loves the smoky ambience of a darkened pub. There is comfort in assuming things that one cannot have anywhere else. One can avoid long and serious deliberations over issues at hand and come up with pat answers. Quickly, easily and instantly. It can even make one look like a smug intellectual who has an opinion on everything under the sun at the snap of a finger.

If maps were ever drawn to trace the contours of our mental landscape, then, there is no doubt assumptions would resemble Russia. Not tiny Luxembourg or marginal heavyweight Brazil or big boy Australia but super giant Russia. Wide, expansive and gobbling the lion’s share of the topography, assumptions have a way of sprawling all over our mental atlas and shamelessly encroaching itself into our belief systems, language, perceptions and decision making.

Especially decision making.

It's amazing how we are so dependent on some of our pet assumptions when it comes to making decisions. It's as if we feel it's the most natural thing to do. All we have to do is select some of our readily available, neatly labelled, attractively packaged ideas from our cognitive shelf, and mix it up a little bit and create - what we think - is an individual opinion. It wouldn't be wrong to say that assumptions are the intellectual equivalent of instant coffee.

It all seems rather petty and harmless but it's not always so. If we are in a decision making position or situation - doesn't have to be a position of authority or a management role - it is highly likely that our assumptions will play a key role in the way we decide things. Not always but most of the time. And when it happens, it can be quite damaging to the general well-being.

If we rely solely on our assumptions, then, we are bound to believe that all men want to take advantage of women, or for that matter, every woman means 'yes' when she says 'no'. We are likely to believe that a fashion conscious woman just wants to get laid, or a metrosexual man is all style and no substance.

Assumptions will convince us that all white people are racists, middle eastern people are terrorists, Asians are poor and corrupt, and all religious people are, essentially, narrow-minded fundamentalists. We will be even prepared to take our broad generalisations to another level and pay low wages to our maid servants because we assume they won't mind or we'll suppose that workers from some countries appreciate low salary or that workers from another set of countries deserve higher salary plus benefits. Or we'll devise ideologies that state rich people are out there to exploit poor people and poor people are basically lazy.

It gets worse.

Assumptions can provide the philosophical groundwork for war or terrorist attacks. It can create a climate of fear and intolerance, and establish a social order composed of 'us' and 'them'. History has shown (and modern politics continues to show) how such a social order nearly brought humanity to near extinction. But we don't learn. We never have and we never will.

Our assumptions will drag us to hell and damnation unless we do something about this 'tragic flaw' as soon as possible. Inaction is not an option, not even an alternative, because it will lead to death.

Question is, what will we do about it?

(Note: assumptions were used in writing this article to point out that not everything is what it seems. More about this in another post)

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Cityscapes

Space. Captain Kirk called it the final frontier but for many women on earth space is an elusive spot in the urban landscape. In some countries, it doesn't even exist while in others it is carefully rationed and available either within a stipulated time-frame and/ or, only at some designated areas of the city. Somehow women are expected to negotiate their sense of belonging within these carefully demarcated lines and expected to be grateful to the city fathers for this privilege.

While the constitutions of most democratic countries regard "Freedom of movement" as an important right for its citizens, nevertheless, it is a right that many women can only admire but not take very seriously.

It is one thing to have the freedom to go anywhere one wants but another thing altogether to be afraid of being attacked when one walks 'freely'. What's the use of this freedom when the threat of being leached at and groped at lingers? Something is not quite right if a significant section of the population suffers discomfort about being alone in the open.

If I sound so negative, it is because I have been reading some of the articles posted for the Blank Noise Project, and I've also been reading some of the global statistics on sexual harassment. Both readings made me uncomfortable because it revealed some unpalatable truths. I realised the world was not that safe a place as I thought it was or as I thought it should be. Some of the stories and anecdotes were frightening because the situations described were not something bizarre and super-dramatic but ordinary regular events that shouldn't even raise an eyebrow. After all who would expect, for example, going to a shop to buy a loaf of bread or going to the office can produce a litany of horror stories on a daily basis? But sadly, that's exactly what women have to go through every day, and, hence, their paranoia and self-defence is quite understandable and quite expected.

A glance at the statistics adds numbers to this scenario and gives a whole new quantitative dimension to the frightening picture.

In case, you thought that this problem was peculiar only to South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, think again. A glance at some of the statistics compiled by the United Nations, Amnesty International and other organisations reveal that western countries do not emerge like squeaky clean angels as well. Tales of abuse, harassment, rape and the uncomfortable 'glass ceiling' seem to be commonplace everywhere. Something is rotten in our world. Something needs to be fixed. Something needs to be addressed soon.

It is, definitely, not an East and West cultural issue because it would be presumptuous to imagine that eastern men have been taught to demean women or for that matter western men have been trained to treat women as sex objects. These are simplistic arguments that might win the debate at the local pub but nowhere else. There is, however, enough evidence to indict both east and west as far as disrespect to women is concerned and I might look into it later but not now.

The need of the hour is not to blame cultures or any particular gender for the situation we are in, but to look for solutions. A proactive approach that tackles the root cause would, somehow, help in reducing the impact of the problem and make it easier for women to live in our cities.

Perhaps it is high time that city-planners, municipal officers, ministerial highups recognise that the present architectural setup of most cities is way too male-oriented. If there are some women who cannot walk anywhere freely or have to protect their bodies from being 'touched' in crowded places, then, some adjustment needs to be done so that women don't have to live in fear. And no, I totally disagree with the Saudi solution of segregating women from men because that does not addres the core issue but only suggests throwing the baby with the bathwater.

On one hand, there is this tragic flaw in most humanity that makes bullying, controlling and attacking others almost second nature, and then there is the unsophisticated 'man' who just doesn't know when to stop talking with his crotch. Between the two strands flows the possibility of a solution. It may seem elusive, it may seem impossible, it may seem hopeless but it's there...

Here are some links to some of the global statistics that I was talking about:
Fourth Anniversary of the Security Council Resolution 1325
Women and Global Human Rights
Understanding Prejudice
Eliminating Sexual Violence Against Women

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sexual Harassment

A group of bloggers in India have come up with a commendable blog-a-thon initiative called the Blank Noise Project. The idea is to get as many bloggers as possible to write about sexual-harrassment-on-the-streets and post it by Tuesday, 7th March. It is hoped that the coming together of so many different voices - cutting across gender, race, culture, language and countries - will, somehow, raise greater awareness of the problem as it exists, and succeed in painting sexual harassment for what it really is - a criminal offence.

It's a great idea but the problem is, the boundary lines of sexual harassment are not clearly defined as we would like it to be, and this creates its own difficulties. If one has to define it as a criminal activity, then, one has to know the (immoral) parametres within which it resides. Not an easy task if one probes the issue under a microscope and ask some unsettling questions.

Where does admiring a girl end and sexual harassment actually begin? What is that thin line that divides the terribly romantic from the hopelessly depraved? When does a seemingly innocent touch become a humiliating gesture? Why do women erect these barricades of self-defense when a man looks at them admiringly? And why - on earth - do men inspire such low confidence when they approach women with hearts full of love and passion?

The last question is easy to answer because men, in general, have had such a miserable track record as far as promoting gender equality is concerned. Somehow we have goofed up so royally that women have no choice but simply misunderstand our motives. After all, some of the most vocal men have proved to be those who allow their crotch or their hands to do the talking, and others who may not be so explicit in their gesture but are those who firmly believe that a woman's place is at the bottom rung of the ladder.

So where does that leave the rest of us who think differently? Do we have to first apologise on behalf of our gender and then state our case? Sometimes it may seem we have to do just that to make our presence and argument palatable but I disagree. I don't think we have to adopt this 'poor-me-am-just-the-oddest-man-alive' approach and say that we are sorry for all the scums of the earth. Why should we apologise for them? Why should we bear responsibility for their actions? Why should they be our definition?

Alright, I just needed to get that off my system.

But going back to those other questions, I guess, we need some clarity or we'll continue wading through the muddle till kingdom come. Or will we really?

At the end of the day, it's pointless for us to break our heads and try and come up with a precise answer because it is simply not possible. There is bound to be someone who'll take offence at something or the other. Codes of conduct usually have that kind of effect upon those who are obsessed with legalese. And the end result is a petrified society that's afraid to fully and freely express itself emotionally. At least, in the matters of love.

So what is a man going to do if he is interested in a woman? What methods would he have to adopt to impress his heart-throb without running the risk of being accused as a lecher? Is it possible to be hopelessly romantic without being perceived seriously annoying?

Yes, it's possible. And the one word to make that happen is, respect. A man - any man, really - must learn to respect not just the woman he is interested in, but all women who manage to inhabit his vicinity. Respect is not a complicated word or one that requires a PhD in behavioural psychology to figure out its intricate details. Respect is all about 'doing to others what you want to be done to you'. Respect is all about treating a woman like the human being she is, created by God in His image and worthy of honour. Respect is knowing that giving space to the other person is as much important as the need to draw the person closer.

Respect is all about...
not grabbing a woman's breasts just because they are there,
not undressing her with one's glares and crippling her confidence in the process,
not pinching her buttocks because one feels like it,
not stalking her on a 24/7 basis and leaving her a nervous wreck,
not making cat calls or wolf whistles at her for one simple reason: she is not a dog but a person,
not assuming she is an easy lay just because she turns you on,
not making any presumptions inspired by wet dreams.


But most important of all, respect is ALL about knowing when a woman says no she means no. Period. A woman's 'no' is not 'maybe' or an orgasmic 'yes' but it is a down-right categorical NO. Quite simple to understand, right. Sadly it isn't. Most men have trouble understanding this concept and, hence, they resort to harassment as a way to reach out to women. Of course, some men harass because they are basically warped and looney or both. But there are many others who don't have a clue about how to behave themselves in front of a woman. They need the fear of God put in their hearts, and to be constantly reminded that their actions are a criminal offence and inexcusable.

Will this bring about change? I am not sure but I hope it will because the present situation is very frightening for millions of women to whom this is a reality they have to endure everyday.

Shame. Shame. Shame.