Oct 4 2010

Niqabitches turn heads while covering their own!

What is it about our society that says wearing tiny hot pants that just barely cover your buttocks is not scandalous for women? Women exposing themselves is all part of their freedom and expression while those who might chose not to show their legs and other parts of their anatomy are repressed and not living in our modern times? Why is it considered scandalous for women to cover themselves? Western society seems to be fairly at home and comfortable with women in bikinis and g-strings compared to a woman who covers her face and head, a thing I find incredibly similar to Catholic nuns habits.

a Catholic nun's habit

Recently two twenty something french students made a short film as their response to the French Government’s ban of the ‘niqab’ and the ‘burkha’. Nikolas Sarkozy says that it has nothing to do with religion and finds the Islamic garment in opposition to French ideals of secularism and freedom. The ‘Niqabitches’ as they call themselves walk around in Paris parading in a ‘niqab’ and hot pants to the delight of the public. This tongue and cheek act is brilliant in its subversion. Orthodox radicals would of course consider the outfit obnoxious but it’s delicious to see how the public responds to this outfit. I’m guessing probably with a lot of shock and surprise and also a lot of titillation as seen when the construction workers want to have their pictures taken with the women. Are we truly being liberal when we impose a ban on women wearing the burkha or niqab? Or is it a sign of our being incapable of accepting a religion and it’s people as they wish to be?

And lastly I’d say that many who chose to wear this garment are not even the Islamic fundamentalists that many would like to consider them. They are free thinking, independent, individual women who make an informed choice to wear them. Sadly many of these moderate Muslim voices fail to be heard amongst the sharp political cacophony of the liberals and conservatives. Frankly the right to chose what to wear getting chewed into rhetoric in the mouths of the political elite leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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Apr 8 2010

The Taxi Takes video on Worldfocus- Give your Take

A video about Sameena, a female taxi driver in Mumbai was recently published by Worldfocus. Here is the link to the piece.
The video can also be viewed here:

There are several interesting comments on the site which I have decided to copy and paste here to allow the discussion to continue and evolve. And in light of the rulings in France by Nicolas Sarkozy and his Government there is a lot to be said about this Muslim lady and her decisions. Go ahead and give your take!

04/01/2010 :: 02:47:09 PM
Secretary Says:

One day she will learn that wearing a burka is similar to being branded with a large M on her forehead. It took a long time for American slaves in the 1860s after Americas civil war to lose that feeling of being a slave. So will this lady to get rid of the past and step into the world where she can be free. She is very brave to put her face on the world stage since she is going against her fellow Muslims belifs.

04/01/2010 :: 04:53:59 PM
Steve Says:

I am fully aware of oppressive, patriarchal history and culture that led to various head coverings and “hiding away” of women. And before I came into contact with so many women who wear head covering, I probably would have said precisely the same thing as “Secretary” above.

But, while I still believe such coverings are oppressive, I also see that the actual lives and narratives of the women I know who wear them completely contradict the idea that this oppression has been fully successful.

I know proud, stubborn, fully empowered women who– for their own reasons — do not feel it to be a contradiction to wear a head covering. Or, if they do see the contradiction, many of them seem so comfortable and confident in their independent identity, that they simply live with the contradiction.

This does not mean that I am comfortable, either with the contradictions or with the head coverings themselves. I know the history that they represent.

But if and when various cultures evolve past the need to hide and imprison women and cover their faces, it will not simply be the removal of those head coverings that will lead to full liberation as human beings.

I’m afraid that internal struggle is not so easily and directly related to external garb.

04/01/2010 :: 08:58:14 PM
David Jamadar Says:

Change are slow but inevitable. As time passes either we adapt or get left behind. I never like to see women wearing that covering is hides their true beauty. And when you can see really see things. I think that women soon would realize that the world is moving on. These small clips about independent women makes me feel proud.

04/02/2010 :: 11:02:10 PM
Azizah Says:

Lovely, I love this, women getting employed, owning business and taking economic independence. Cheers to the future!

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2 Responses to “The Taxi Takes video on Worldfocus- Give your Take”

  • marc Says:

    I live in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country where, though it is not obligatory, many Muslim women choose to wear headscarves (locally called Tudongs)covering their hair, ears and throat. Many perhaps do so out of ‘peer pressure’ merely to conform to some perceived cultural norm.

    My own personal opinion is that, from a purely aesthetic point of view, it is a pity to see these women covering their natural assets.

    This is a dangerous form of reasoning, based purely on my own personal preferences. I could just as easily apply the same reasoning to say that it is a pity women cover their shoulders or cover their legs or… i think you see where this is going – it’s a slippery slope.

    I used to live in Europe where, though it is not obligatory, many women choose to smear coloured pastes over their faces and paint unnatural colours on their eyelids, cheeks and lips. Many perhaps do so out of ‘peer pressure’ merely to conform to some perceived cultural norm.

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Oct 30 2009

Meeting Malalai Joya and Made in Pakistan

I had the great fortune of meeting Malalai Joya, a wonderful voice against the occupation in Afghanistan. She is against the warlords and drug lords in Afghanistan who she says are just as bad as the Taliban and are becoming stronger and more corrupt with the support of the US. A good account of the talk, written by Ellora Derenoncourt can be read here on the South Asia Solidarity Initiative site.
It was an honor to stand by this incredible human being.

In solidarity with Malalai Joya at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

In solidarity with Malalai Joya at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

On a separate but related note, this Sunday The South Asian International Film Festival SAIFF is screening ‘Made in Pakistan’ which appears to be an interesting documentary posing a fresh un-stereotyped view on what Pakistanis themselves feel and are doing in their country. Possibly some good post Halloween realism.
Tickets can be purchased here

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Oct 26 2009

Malalai Joya – ‘A Woman Among Warlords’ speaking in NYC

Malalai Joya is speaking tomorrow at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.

This extraordinary woman and her story of courage and spirit is just what the World needs! During the Taliban rule Malalai Joya started underground schools in defiance of the oppressive militants. She spoke out against the war criminals and drug Lords of Afghanistan and at the age of 27 stood for parliament elections while facing death threats. Her enemies call her a ‘dead woman walking’. “I am young and I want to live. But I say to those who would eliminate my voice: ‘I am ready, wherever and whenever you might strike. You can cut down the flower, but nothing can stop the coming of the spring.” The Independant has done a great story on her while The Gaurdian features her message to the British people. After being deposed in 2007 for publicly denouncing the corrupt war Lords in the Aghani Parliament her voice sounds a signal of truth and justice at a time when words like democracy and freedom are being misused to send more troops into Afghanistan.

Malalai Joya

Malalai Joya

Watch Wide Angle’s documentary about this Woman Among Warlords. It’s an incredible story about about one woman’s conviction and strength to stand against deadly wrongs and believe in her power as an individual. If this doesn’t move you and Hollywood’s heroic tales do, then we all might as well ask Will Smith to save the World. Because according to me the cards are on the table and increasing troops in Afghanistan is America trying to star in Hollywood’s next version of ‘The Declaration of Independence.’

Come hear these women raise their voices.




Malalai Joya, Minister of Parliament in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. She is the author of A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice (Simon and Schuster, 2009).

Awista Ayub fled Afghanistan in 1981 for the U.S. After the fall of the Taliban, she returned to Kabul and founded the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange, dedicated to nurturing Afghan girls through soccer. Her work is the subject of However Tall the Mountain (Hyperion 2009).

Nasrine Gross, founder of The Roqia Center for Women’s Rights, Studies and Education in Afghanistan. Professor Gross’ work is profiled in Walking the Precipice: Witness to the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (Feminist Press, 2009).

Moderated by: Laura Flanders, GritTV

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Oct 2 2009

Blessings to the Women Taxi Drivers from Mahatma Gandhi on his 140th Birthday.

Today, October 2nd 2009 is the hundred and fortieth birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Today I will place a flower at the feet of his wonderful statue that stands at Union Square in New York City. His legacy and life will influence the World forever. I have always been in awe of him.
Another fact which always astounded me was that at the same time in history there lived a man who managed to compel masses of people towards non violence while another being provoked them towards genocide. Mahatma Gandhi and Hitler were contemporaries. Imagine a movie with a split screen showing the peace and self will involved in non violence (ahimsa) alongside the holocaust, simultaneously in India and Germany. A horrific image that makes my heart beat faster. I wonder what it is that can drive one human being towards peace and humanity and another towards the extreme opposite? But then again, why must I look back in time with a sense of disgust and horror when the World around me still hasn’t yet blown out those demonic fires of terror and violence.

In 1950, the great Jewish physicist, Albert Einstein, a genius and noble being in his own right recorded an interview in his study in Princeton, New Jersey. In this United Nations radio interview he said about Mahatma Gandhi, “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth. ”

These words ring like a loud Buddhist temple gong reverberating into the air for minutes. These are my favorite words about Gandhiji. They are inscribed in stone at the Gandhi museum in New Delhi. They came to my mind when I spoke to taxi drivers in Bombay. I had earlier thought of calling my project, ‘If Gandhi were a filmmaker.’ I wondered what his insights and documentary recordings would be while driving around the country. What would he make out of this fine Nation of ours that he had strived so hard to keep from partitioning into Pakistan and Hindustan.

Mumbai Taxi drivers said that if the great man had existed in today’s day and age, no one would give him the time of day. Materialistic, superficial people would laugh at his ascetic lifestyle and flimsy loin cloth and no one would heed his call to non violence and ‘satyagraha.’
Taxi drivers cursed the current politicians and literally spit on them as they were driving around. They spoke of how not one politician had it in them to lead a country to Independence from 200 years of British colonialism like Gandhiji yet alone help us get out of the shackles of terrorism that India is facing now. In fact it is the people in power, they said, who have brought on these acts of terror and violence for the common Indian citizen.

I know that Mahatma Gandhi, may his ‘great soul’ rest in peace was a great champion of women’s rights and empowerment. In 1940, reviewing his twenty-five years of work in India concerning women’s role in society, he had said:
“My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance truth and ahimsa (non-violence) in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this women will be the unquestioned leader and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex.”
“…Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. And who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure?… Let her translate that love to the whole of humanity… And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man… She can become the leader in satyagraha..”

I know he would find great solace in the young breed of women taxi drivers who can be seen on the streets of Mumbai nowadays.

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Sep 16 2009

Make Way for Women in Trains and Taxis.

My first text message for today was from my friend Alci telling me about a cover story in today’s New York Times. Something about Indian women and women only compartments in trains. “Indian Women find New Peace in Rail Commute” talks about how the Indian Government has started ‘women only’ compartments in trains in the big urban cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai as a way of providing more safety to larger numbers of working women who have entered the work force in a country that is patriarchal and gender dictated in many ways.


Now I know that ‘Ladies Specials’ as they are also called have existed for a while in Mumbai local trains and some seats are even reserved for ladies in buses in different cities. When I was in Bombay I would travel by the general compartment, only if I had a male friend along and even then I got glares and stares my way. The one exception was one late night after filming when I got on and started taking pictures with my camera. I ended up making friends with two mothers and their children on their way back from a wedding which is a separate incident all together.

So to be perfectly honest this cover story on the New York Times front page comes as a surprise to me. Yes I admit that many westerners might find this story shocking and news worthy in many ways. Being victimized and asserting their rights is an issue that Indian women face on a daily basis thanks to a legacy which consists of traditions like ‘sati‘, where women would burn themselves along with their dead husbands on the funeral pyre, female infanticide and foeticide, notions of purity and pollution from the caste system that lead to maternity deaths, dowry and even dowry deaths. The fact that Indian women are empowering themselves, becoming financially independent and standing on their own two feet to get to work and earn for their family is a step that is in effect a giant leap across decades of norms and traditions. So yes I think it’s a positive step to ensure ladies have a safe commute to their workplace.
And why not?! It’s what the New York City MTA is trying to enforce through their new anti harassment ad campaign that I saw the other day in the subway. Enough ladies in New York have a hard time in public spaces and this too in a country that championed female empowerment and suffrage half a century before India even became free of the shackles of colonialism.

MTA sexual harassment AD

So I still wonder why the NYT’s put this story on it’s cover today and that too without even mentioning the efforts made by it’s own Mass Transit Authorities to ensure a peaceful commute to ladies. The ‘white man’s burden’ was what the British called their efforts to help educate and empower the masses in India. Under this guise of charity work they enacted a subtle and enslaving colonialization. Talking of the distress and oppression of women in India or Afghanistan can also be the perfect PR war cry to ensure independence to Afghanistan and its women. History has proven that women are often used as pawns in some man’s game of power politics.

Which makes me think of Sameena, a woman who plays by her own rules. She is 23 years old, Muslim and divorced her husband because he would beat her. She stands up for what she believes and wears a burkha most of the time. Except for when she sits in the front seat and drives a taxi in Mumbai. A woman that represents great independence and shatters many stereotypes in one drive. You’ll hear more from her soon.

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5 Responses to “Make Way for Women in Trains and Taxis.”

  • Don Briggs Says:

    They follow the same practice of segregating the women in Japan too, but only during peak hours when the trains are jam packed. There is also a big problem with women being fondled in the trains that are so crowded that the conductors on the platforms actually shove people into them. I guess there is a sense of anonymity in these trains that are so full. Even in one of the most “civilized” countries in the world this problem exists.

    Your take on the story seems a bit hyperbolic. I don’t know who the author is (he is listed as Hari Kumar, but who knows what his real name is – the actor Kal Penn comes to mind – real name Kalpen Suresh Modi), but Mr. Kumar has written several other stories from India so I would assume that he is a regular correspondent for the Times. As to why they put it on the cover, I might guess that it was because of the photo. If you look at the other stories on the front page, none of them have the compelling visual that the train picture offers. A gifted photographer like yourself should recognize this appeal.

    I really enjoy your blog entries and found the tone of this one to be a bit knee jerk. I could say more, but perhaps this is a blog entry that would have benefited from a day of reflection.

  • Don Briggw Says:

    I am sorry for making my comments on your previous post. I think I might be a bit sensitive to a perception of US bias when there is so much current internal distortion of US domestic political discourse that troubles me so greatly.
    Please don’t make the assumption that I dismiss your observations so cavalierly.

  • admin Says:

    Don, you have a valid point and criticism. Tying US policy into the story is a little way out of a connection but then again I do believe that the US foreign policies come up with great causes like the weapons of Mass destruction etc. to carry out their own vested interests.

    Yes women all over the World face harassment, Indian women more so because of the history of social traditions I mentioned. The author, Hari Kumar has done a good job of stating the facts but with little background into the larger issues surrounding the status of women in India. And that’s something which should not be overlooked in a story of this nature I feel.

    Yes the images in the NYT’s story are great and thanks I’m taking your comment as a compliment about my own amateur photography. :)

  • D. Karnani Says:

    I guess you Gen X and younger Indian women have not travelled in buses much in Delhi – back in our days (the late 60′s)we used to call them “massage machines”- when you are packed in like sardines – you never know who is going to touch who where – most inappropriately. And if a girl complained, instead of helping, the other passaengers laughed at you or smirked. Not much has changed in 40 years – ask your mom about her bus rides in her school/college days – I’m sure she will have a few good stories!

  • admin Says:

    I have traveled in Delhi buses though I’ll admit not many times and yes I think all women in Delhi know to some extent of what you talk of.

    I’ll have to ask my mother about her take on all this soon!

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Jul 8 2009

A woman in a Taxi

Being a woman sitting in the front seat with a male taxi driver is something else.

But before I talk about getting into the front seat and driving along with taxi drivers you need to understand and explore the stage itself. The stage is Bombay, a city that merges both diamonds and dirt in one stroke. I discovered this city with my new friends, the drivers. And who better to help you discover a city than a taxi driver, who spends his life navigating the streets.
Coming from New Delhi it felt like quite an accomplishment to be in this very male dominated space and feel respected. A recent study conducted by the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science at the behest of the Indian home ministry’s Bureau of Police Research & Development showed that 80 percent of women in New Delhi feel unsafe. So of course my mother warned me against any filming at night and even my male friends advised me to get a car to follow us at night.

In the process of creating the Taxi Takes design behind a taxi and starting filming.

Well I didn’t hire a taxi to follow me around as you guessed but one of the many things I learnt about Bombay was how women felt safe and could travel late at night without worrying. One taxi driver even went to the extent of telling me that if a woman was walking naked on the streets of this city, no one would even try and touch her. And he took his hand off the steering wheel and pointed his finger straight ahead when he said this. Several drivers made similar comments and after a month and a half I think I shed a lot of my Delhi inflicted influences and came to settle into a very comfortable and commanding position in the front seat with my camera.

I know that several people will think that the power of the camera might have also played a role in demanding that respect and yes it probably did to some extent. But being an Indian woman sitting in the front seat with the male taxi driver, with a camera in my hand, in Bombay will have to be another post.

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4 Responses to “A woman in a Taxi”

  • ALCI Says:

    Who took the photo? Looks like a National Geographic shot.

  • ALCI Says:

    I prefer Mumbai. Bombay is a colonial name. It could be Bambai for Hindu, Urdu, and Persian speakers but that sounds too much like Bambi, the legendary baby deer from the American animated movie.

  • Christina Says:

    Keep te blog entries coming! It’s really nice to read them now I’m in the city myself. :-)
    Take care, Christina

  • admin Says:

    Thanks Christina. Keep me posted of your experiences with taxi drivers and Mumbai! :)
    Alci, Philip Urech took this picture.

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