Posts Tagged With: Politics

What it means to be a girl in Afghanistan?

KabulTitle: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Published on: September 16, 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics, Social Sciences
Pages: 368
ISBN: 978-0307952493
Rating: 5/5

Life, for a woman in Afghanistan, is unlivable. Here, as is commonly known to the rest of the world, women are confined to their homes, with little or no interaction with the outside world, often illiterate and under the spell of demonising husbands who do not allow them an iota of daylight. What’s frightening is that nearly three-fourth of the woman population live this way: forced into marriage at a young age, subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands who see it as their duty to beat their wives up and pushed to accept the role only that of a child bearer — even the child is the father’s and the woman has no rights on its future whatsoever.

Through The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an altogether different point of view on what it means to be a girl in Afghanistan: a rare glimpse into a distinct life many girls are forced to lead, not as the oppressed sex, but as one who resists the patriarchal norms set by the society.

At the centre of the book is the rise of ‘bacha posh’ — where girls are made to dress like boys — grown as much out of the need for women to be included in the fabric of the society, as of the circumstance where a family is unable to conceive a male offspring. In such families, a girl is ‘designated’ to act like a son of the household, even allowing them freedom to study, work, roam around and mingle with other boys. When they reach puberty, unequivocally most of them are made to revert to their innate girl-status, which for many Afghans is an innocuous process.

But as Nordberg points out, it can have serious repercussions. Through the transformation of Shukur, a bacha posh to Shukria, a married woman, Nordberg reveals how traumatic it is to switch roles all of a sudden. After years of being liberated, not many are prepared for the docile role of housekeeping or child bearing and hence face a bitter future. As Shukria herself puts it, after her failed attempt at getting into the shoes of a woman: Her parents should never have made her a boy, since she ultimately had to become a woman. Nevertheless, there are other contrasting cases. Many families, eschewing societal norms, are much more open to continuing the charade for an indefinite period. For instance, Shahed (Shaheda) and Nader (Nadia), who have revelled in their bacha posh status, hope to continue as a male member of the family and “be out of the marriage market for good.”

Through her portraits of women from various strata of the society in Kabul and the less popular and underdeveloped Badghis province, Nordberg proffers a gripping take on the politics of gender identity in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (the ‘Russian times,’ as one former bacha posh and parliamentarian Azita puts it), the Taliban era and more recently, the US ‘war against terrorism.’ These are tales of determination and grit, of struggle, of rise against oppression, which, in a pertinent manner, offer a glimpse into the never-ending struggle of a woman in the country.

In the course of the book, Nordberg highlights that the practice of bacha posh is not specific to Afghanistan alone. While in the present day, it has risen out of the idea of maintaining a social status, she alludes to similar practices elsewhere in the world — of women masquerading as warriors in Europe and many other places. But is it a violation of human rights? Will it lead to a dysfunctional society, more than it already is? Will the concept of bacha posh perish if the Taliban comes back to ruling? As long as a strict patriarchal society prevails, Nordberg states, there will be resistance. She adds, “Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to make an effort to resemble a man, or to think like one. Instead she can speak a language that men will want to understand.”

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The Great Asian Game Changers

Title: Makers of Modern Asia
Author: Edited by Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 978-0674365414
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biographies & Autobiographies, History and Politics, Geography
Published: August 2014
Pages: 400

The economic progress that Asia has witnessed in the last few decades has made the Western world sit up and take notice. The 21st century belongs to Asia and especially to India and China, which are seeing an increased prominence in world affairs. In fact, this century has been dubbed the Asian century just like the 19th century belonged to Europe. However, according to historian and eminent thinker Ramchandra Guha, it is limiting to see this development in solely economic terms and assess it in terms of the gross national product, per capita income and global trade alone. His idea is to broaden this understanding of development by focusing on the political game changers who have charted the path to growth and progress. His latest work is a testament to this fact.

Makers of Modern Asia 

Makers of Modern Asia (Harvard University Press) edited by Ramchandra Guha is a collection of 11 essays that aims to provide a socio-historical context to Asia’s economic advancement. “The essential thesis of the book is that in this fascination, obsession and enchantment with the economic growth of specific Asian countries, we have forgotten the political preconditions of that economic growth,” says Guha.

Through each of its essays, the volume draws a portrait of nationalists who helped craft their respective political systems, which in turn provided a fillip to their economic struggle. Listed in the book are outstanding exemplars of 19th and 20th century political change in Asia.

The book includes Chinese stalwarts like Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Revolution, Zhou Enlai, his close ally and confidant, Deng Xiaoping, who was purged by Mao and went on to reshape Chinese economic history with his revisionist policies and Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang party formed the basis of modern Taiwan. Other portraits come from India and cover Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, all of whom played crucial roles in guiding India toward independence. Then there are essays about Vietnam nationalist Ho Chi Minh, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

The book opens with an excerpt from the work, The Problem of China, which was written by philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1922 after spending about six months teaching philosophy in China. Russell had declared, “All the world will be vitally affected by the development of Chinese affairs, which may well prove a decisive factor, for good or evil, during the next two centuries.” At a time when China was desperately fragmented and fraught with conflict-ridden relations with European powers and Japan, this seemed quite far-fetched. He ended the book by outlining three reforms — the establishment of an orderly government, industrial development under Chinese control and the spread of education. And true to the precocious prediction, a few years later, China was on the way to dominance after the nationalist movement started by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek and continued by Mao Zedong’s communists culminated with the unifying of China.

And this is equally relevant for other countries as well. Guha adds, “Younger Indians think that the Indian story began in 1991 with Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. But what these visionaries did was open up the economy. The benefits of opening up the economy would never have been possible if India was not a unified nation and did not have a democratic political system.”

The territorial unification of India in a democratic template with religious and cultural pluralism was the work of the leaders, without whom none of the economic growth of the last 20 years would have happened. The same is the case with Vietnam, Indonesia and other erstwhile colonies who had to recover their sovereignty before they could even think of meeting the social and economical challenges of the modern world. Of crucial importance is the inter-Asian understanding espoused by many of the leaders that is brought to the fore in the book. This idea has significant urgency in the current times. “There was a constant exchange of ideas by leaders visiting different nations. Nowadays, we hesitate to look to our Asian counterparts. Instead, we rely on the west. I hope that this book leads to some reflection on inter-Asian understanding in each of the countries. As we move forward, I believe that it is very important that there is increased intellectual and cultural exchange between different Asian countries and I hope this edited volume makes a small contribution on this front.”

Unlike Guha’s earlier work, Makers of Modern India which was an anthology of original writing, the current book is a compilation of biographies put together by Pakistani, Australian, British and Norwegian historians who are experts in their fields. He adds, “I also chose to go with biographies because it a massively under-appreciated genre in the country.”

When he edited Makers of Modern India, Guha had faced a barrage of questions regarding the selection. He recalls, “The leftists were very angry that I hadn’t included any Marxists. A friend told me that when I visited Bengal next, I would have to wear a helmet because there was no mention of Subhash Chandra Bose as one of the architects of modern India. And although there were as many as six Maharashtrians in the book, they were not satisfied. Because Agarkar and Savarkar had been excluded from the treatise. This, I think, is an occupational hazard while creating an anthology.”

Armed with this experience, Guha knows that questions will be raised this time around too. And he is prepared for the inevitable. “For instance, I know people will ask me why I haven’t included Tagore. Well, it is because he did not run a state despite having a great intellectual impact and shaping the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. People will also wonder why there is no mention of Jinnah. It was essentially because he died very soon after independence. The Pakistan of today is very far from the Pakistan Jinnah envisaged.” In the same breath Guha also mentions that although the India of today has directly diverged from what Gandhi hoped, in some recognizable features, Gandhi would perhaps have been glad to be a part of India today — he would have given his stamp of approval to the rise of the Dalit movement and freedom of the press among other things. “But in the case of Pakistan it is different. It is much better shaped by people like Bhutto,” he adds.

Then Indira Gandhi is the only woman profiled although he had considered including an essay on Aung San Suu Kyi. “However, the last chapter of her career is not yet written. Again, the only person profiled in this book who is alive is Lee Kuan Yew,” Guha opines.

Another controversial point, he notes, is that there is no Japanese leader, though Japan is colossally important to the continent. “There is no Japanese leader because the politics of Japan post World War II is massively dominated by America. Their political system, their constitution was written by the Americans and there has been no Japanese politician who has stamped his authority on the nation in the way Nehru, Sukarno or Bhutto did and including a pre-war fascist did not seem appealing.”

The book in its entirety helps the reader understand the rise of Asia by offering an insight into its history and political lives — the anti-colonial revolutions, the process of consolidation, the sustainable political systems envisaged, their economic strategies and the attitude of the post-colonial state and its leaders to traditional beliefs which provided a backdrop to the economic growth we have seen over the last 30 or 40 years.

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First published in The New Indian Express on September 2, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Culture, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

In conversation with graphic artist, Seth Tobocman

A few days ago, I got a chance to talk to Seth Tobocman, the brain behind the comic magazine – World War 3 Illustrated. Of course I was nervous. I was going to talk to one of the most renowned graphic artists from America, the one who has championed many radical causes, whose comics delve into subjects that are real — be it political unrest, global warming or monetary crises. The interview was in relation to a visual demonstration he was going to conduct at the Rangoli Metro Arts Centre. The performance, he told me over the phone, was going to be based on the cultural concert (Cartoon Concert) method developed by cartoonist and illustrator, Vaughn Bode. Which meant that he would use comic strips and fuse them with PowerPoint slides and perform the text. And the themes would include “various issues of importance at the moment like the Palestinian conflict, global warming, social justice and homelessness in the USA, among others.” 

During the conversation that went on for over an hour, he held forth on his stay in Bangalore, his comics, his comic creation process and the medium in general. 

On life in Bangalore

Seth travelled to Bangalore over a month ago as part of the T.A.J Residency programme, a collaborative project between visual artists and gallerists. This gave him a chance to showcase his sketches on his upcoming comic book entitled A biography of Leonard Weinglass, an illustration of the life and works of a US criminal defense lawyer, and also interact with other artists from the country like Orijit Sen and Appupen. He also took part in a demonstration against rape that took place at Town Hall, a few weeks ago.

“The people in Bangalore are very fascinating. They did not hesitate to come up to me and talk about my work. For instance, two days back, I was drawing the street life around a temple at around 1 am.

Three boys came up to me and struck a conversation,” he says.  Of particular interest to him is the traffic in the city. “Maybe I will plan a comic piece around my life in Bangalore, ” he says.

On his creative process

“I sometimes complete a piece overnight, that is if the deadlines are stringent. If not, it takes atleast a day or two for me to complete a page. I first think of a plot, then come upon a structure. An important aspect is the rhythm which is akin to that of poetry. A comic artist should also pay attention to the visual construction, representation, of how much you can extract from the plot.”

On art that stirs reactions

The political comic book ‘World War 3’ marked the start of his career as an artist. The book came to fruition in 1979 after he and his friend, Peter Kruper decided to self publish a book that became a beacon for anti war propaganda. “I grew up reading comics and was fascinated by them. But then, there came a point when I realised that all comics were similar, they didn’t have any new plotlines. This compelled us (Seth and Peter) to create our own comic book.” Over the years, the magazine evolved, becoming a series and encompassing more than just it’s initial premise which was ‘concern over nuclear war’.

Seth is of the belief that comics are a great way to communicate with absolutely anyone and hence tries his best to ensure his comic books highlight relevant subjects and highlight his social observations. “Comics are very simplistic in nature and easy to understand,” he notes. And hence, like World War 3, Seth has gone on to publish many other radical works like ‘Understanding the Crash’ — a meditation on the sub-mortgage crisis that crashed Wall Street, ‘You don’t have to f**k people over to survive’ which is an attack on the morality, politics and social conditions of the Reagan era. Then there’s ‘Disaster and Resistance’, describing the disastrous events of the 21st century: 9-11, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine and many others. And all of his comics have one common goal, epitomising these very words that described the 43 edition of World War 3– “No idea should be unspeakable. No emotion can be forever repressed. No one is above criticism. But critique, speech, and expression, are only meaningful in relation to the goals of liberating humanity and preserving nature.”

On the future of comic books

Where does he see the comic industry heading towards in the next decade? He is sanguine as he answers, “It is a very interesting period for this medium. Back in America, I find a lot of artists from Kyro and Lebanon making interesting stuff. There is a whole new wave of comic expression which is only good for the industry.”


First appeared in The New Indian Express

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Culture, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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