Friday, December 28, 2012

A quick note about the rape

My friend Jess has been covering the backlash in India after a college student was brutally gang raped on a bus in New Delhi. The bus was crowded and no one stopped it.

Protests at India Gate have escalated by the day. 

After reading Andy's blog I realized I have something to say, too.

Some politicians are verbally attacking protestors rather than the assailants. On this list of sexist remarks made by Indian politicians, one politician opposed the long-pending Women's Bill saying it only benefits urban women, whom he called "par kati auratein" (women with short hair).

Another article came out to say that hundreds of politicians running in Indian elections have been charged with sexual assault, including 30 charged with rape.

Supposedly this is a country that takes care of its women. Supposedly, in Hindu tradition, women are revered and respected. I heard the same thing on the Rosebud Native American Reservation when I lived there. It seems that the places that laud their cultural traditions of respect for women are the same places where women are afraid to go outside.

For the past few months I have been interviewing women in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi about sexual and gender-based violence. I am writing stories about the lack of protection and care for refugee women. They all say the same thing, as do the men, "Refugee women are in the same boat as the Indian women–no one is safe." It's not that "this neighborhood is not safe for Chin women," it's "this neighborhood is not safe."

Delhi is a city where nearly every woman friend I know–Indian or foreign– has a story of being groped, grabbed, intimidated or worse.

Then I head up to Kashmir for a holiday. And the man who owns the houseboat simultaneously says that the men in Delhi are pigs and that the women in Kashmir are safer because they dress like modest Muslims. So, he was essentially saying Kashmiri men are no better, they just have less to lust over. Besides, a quick Googling of "rape statistics Kashmir" came up with this article that said of the 1,336 rape cases since 2006, only one rapist has been convicted. And one has to wonder why more women won't report it. Beyond reported rapes in Kashmir crime statistics are broken down into categories such as; cruelty by husband, molestation and dowery death

Thank God my boyfriend stepped in and gave the usual spiel about educating young men and responsibility the older generation in the community should burden and blah blah blah or I might have lost it... and then I would have been just another short-haired, American woman making the argument.

But Kashmir is a single state. And this instance of the bus rape in Delhi is just one that happened that day. A woman is raped every 22 minutes in India.

Perhaps this is not my fight. Rarely do I identify as being a woman. I have not attended any protests. And yes, as an American I should take the plank of wood out of my eye before commenting on India. But since this blog is my soapbox, I can say this to all of the men out there making jokes, all of the politicians refusing to lift a finger, and every piece of shit who gropes or leers or scares a woman in the streets just for fun: Fuck you, you fucking fucks.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to walk to the metro alone. Hopefully I'll slip safely into the "women's only" car because women aren't safe in the presence of men. Incredible India indeed.

All photos by Jess Letch

Christmas in Kashmir Part One: Held Hostage

The houseboat was designed for a king... or perhaps a colonizer. The stove was warming our hands and toes until bedtime. As-salamu alaykums and Merry Christmases were shared throughout the week. But still, this Christmas was not picture-perfect. Set on Nageen Lake and at the foot of the Himalayas in Kashmir, think of this Christmas blog as an adventure story rather than a holiday story, with capture, intrigue, romance, escape, a clash of religions and -yes- Santa Clause.

The story starts as any tourist tragedy begins. We touched down in a conflict zone, their airport decked out in barbed wire and camouflage, ready to rock and roll at any minute. We, on the other hand, we neither rocking nor rolling seeing as how none of us had bothered to Google Srinagar, Kashmir, beforehand. So what happens? We – Louis, Andy and myself – are greeted by a pleasant Kashmiri tout referring to himself as "Fish and Chips," no joke. Our second tragic tourist mistake? We shook his hand and let him lead us to his car to show us some houseboats.

And the next four days became an epic game of trying to escape the clutches of his family, from which we had rented an epically beautiful houseboat. We were told we were getting a great deal. But wood for the fire in the freezing cold nights would cost extra. Plus a service charge. Private cars and drivers became more expensive. We couldn't get away for a free moment to even book a taxi. They refused to let us visit "Tourist Information" in town.

Being too cheap to pay for wood and too trapped to find our own, my better half and I shiver-cuddled under five blankets at night, wrapped in three or four pairs of socks, gloves, hats, and my phiran. The only thing to keep us warm, aside from our bulky clothing, was our loathing for the family holding us hostage in this 5-star boat. Ohhh, how difficult ones life becomes when the hot water runs out, no matter how many chandeliers there are hanging throughout the house.

I melted my scarf on the fire. Louis accidentally drank gasoline when reaching for a water bottle during a power cut. Andy was left without heat or a cuddle buddy. Raj had to sleep in the cold living room due to his snoring. And I took the coldest shower of my life.

 But in between the knocks on the windows from everyone in that household and their cousins, we had some beautiful moments. Andy going to jail three times at the beginning of Monopoly, only to come back to win the whole kit and caboodle. Louis stuffing Christmas stockings. Peas and potatoes for dinner. Mutton. Chicken drumsticks. More mutton. More chicken drumsticks. Photogtaphing around the old city. Getting death stares from old burka-ed women whilst I smoked a cigarette and held hands with a man in public. Watching the sun come up over the lake on our private boat ride to the floating markets.

Christmas Eve, Andy and I managed to sneak away from our captors under the cloak of darkness into a taxi to take us to midnight Mass at the only Catholic church in the city. Done up in birthday balloons, Christmas decorations and a giant crucifix, this was one Mass I'll never forget... and never fully remember since it was 90 percent celebrated in Hindi. One part that needed no translation was the fireworks. Yes, fireworks on the church grounds at 2 a.m. Merry Christmas.

But we still had to come home to the same crazy family.

It eventually came down to all of us scheming on Christmas Eve, figuring a way out. So there I was, sitting with my friend Andy, in the living room of this pleasant family, lying straight-faced to a pious Muslim man in front of his 90-year-old, mustachioed mother. And let me tell you, my friends, he wasn't buying any of what we were selling. His grandfather was also in the tourism biz, so squeezing us for money is a family tradition. And the conversation would not end, any time we asked the price of something they would mumble to each other in Kashmiri before giving us "the best price." Eventually, as they were all finishing their dinner, wrapped in their phirans, protected by their "winter wives," Andy just blurted out, "Our good friend has come into some money so he is paying for a driver and a night at a resort..." And that was the end of that. They didn't so much as look at us once more before we parted ways the next day.

As we walked down the narrow road Christmas morning, heading for a taxi stand, giant backpacks on our shoulders, stuffed elephant in my arms, we were all thankful to be free once again. But the next stage of our trip, we would also be trapped. This time not by a family, but by central heating and a bathtub...

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Your life must be so good

Whenever I meet new people, I am hell-bent on finding common ground. Whether it's a rooftop party in New Delhi or an NGO meeting, or a wedding, or a trip to the field, I am always looking for some sameness to connect me with who I'm talking to. That's how we all make new friends, I guess, so it's nothing special.

So I was laughing and eating cake with two girls around my age on the balcony of the JRS tailoring center on the outskirts of New Delhi. They are refugees from Burma's Chin State. And they dress like me and speak good English and we were talking about Christmas (Chin people are Christians while most of the rest of Burma is Buddhist). We were laughing about roommates and talking about homesickness.

Then they asked me about my job. I told them I am only in India a little while because I have to travel a lot for work. But I get to go home for a short time and see my family.

Then silence.

"Your life must be so good," one said.

I didn't know how to respond. All of our sameness was gone for a moment. Didi and her friend were back to being refugees, living with seven people in a studio apartment, unable to find a living wage, subject to harassment. Not eligible for resettlement, unable to go back to Burma.

"I'm lucky," I said. 

And I forget that a lot. 

The moment passed. and we went on talking and laughing. We had lunch and they took me to a Burmese grocery store to get Burmese tea leaf salad (pretty much my favorite food in Asia to date), and exchanged numbers and Facebook information.

I think I just need to remember that while always looking for common ground, I need to recognize the differences that make the people around me exceptional and realize that my own privilege plays a role in my relationships. It doesn't mean that I can't be friends with everyone. I just need to be aware, and eternally grateful.

Friday, December 14, 2012

My crime in New Delhi? Love pollution.

I am guilty of love pollution. Write me up. Lock me away. Try and get me, coppers. You'll never catch me alive.


See, awhile ago, Saadia sent me an article about Delhi's newest form of pollution, fogging the air and putting the city's children at risk. No, it's not auto and truck exhaust. It's not the smelting or burning trash in the streets. No, my friends, this pollution is much more serious. It's the pollution of love, and that cannot be tolerated. I should know. I've been caught–and scorned–for it.

This article she sent stated that more and more young couples are kissing freely in the streets and parks. This, of course, is creating mayhem for the older generation in India.

I know how conservative Delhi is. Three people were arrested in June for kissing in public under a colonial “decency law” (Thanks a lot, Brits). Last Valentine’s Day, there was an effort to catch young people kissing on camera and put it youtube to publicly shame them.

When I walk down the street with my what-have-you holding hands we get stares. It could be because I look like a boy, or because we're so cute, but I know the real reason. We are billowing love smog in everyone's faces. We might as well be disrobing right there in front of the chow mein stand.

Anyway, here's what happened.

After living in my new apartment for all of 20 minutes the aforementioned what-have-you and I stepped out on the balcony for some fresh air. While enjoying our cigarettes, we did what we do all other moments of the day, and what I would argue all "lovers in love" do – we laced fingers and whispered into ears and touched lips.

That's right, I admit it, ok? We kissed. We were polluting, right there where any woman or child could see us… if that child looked five floors up from the street or was standing on a rooftop with a set of binoculars.

Well, this was too much for the gentleman who lives across from us and was apparently watching. As a concerned citizen and the purveyor of the moral high ground, he stepped in. So imagine me, eyes closed, pressed up against a certain young man, mind cloudy and heart fluttering, to hear scoffing and noises of disgust coming from the rooftop across the street.

Real pollution in New Delhi. The white is low-hanging pollution. 
The black is what the sky should look like.

I didn't turn to face him, ashamed that I had dirtied this pristine city with my affection. But my partner in crime turned to see him brushing us off and shaking his head. As one would do in any large city with neighbors, we more or less ignored him… until there was a knock on the door.

As it turns out, this Dudley Doright, this Boy Scout, this citizen watchman, called our landlord to tell on us. She sheepishly walked into my unlocked apartment and beckoned me in the hallway. Embarrassed as all get-out to be put in this situation, she told me a neighbor was complaining that I was acting "inappropriately.” In my defense, how inappropriate can I be when my boyfriend is wrapped up in a thick cotton sweater–sorry, jumper– and busy smoking?

Well, the situation has gone unresolved, for now. But Molly and Louis have a new sworn enemy. And Church Road in New Delhi now has someone to answer to if they are caught enjoying their lives and being in love. There's a new sheriff in town, and this town ain't big enough for the both of us.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grandma Clare's best Thanksgiving

Fr Doll said –what feels like a million years ago– that photographers should always practice on their families. I think it's that sentiment (and getting a C on my first few assignments) that lead me to borrow a camera and digital recorder for our Thanksgiving dinner in 2008.

I recorded everything, including most family members telling me to put down the camera and help with dinner. I have the sounds of Mom boiling mushrooms, Dad carving the turkey, me pretending to wash dishes. But more importantly I got the real sounds of Thanksgiving – Abby and I trying to rig who picked who for Christmas presents, Dad giving the prayer, chit chat about Nebraska, and Grandma Clare's laugh.

I've listened to these recordings about a dozen times since leaving home and I'm so happy I have them. And since Grandma Clare has died, I am comforted to know that I get to hear her voice whenever I need a little Irish Catholic guilt humor.

I made this little slideshow from the photos I have from that day and my favorite parts of the evening. I hope you all enjoy it. 

In this Christmas season, between Thanksgiving and New Years this video reminds me of how grateful I am of my family. And I hope you all know that while I won't be home for the holidays I'll be thinking of you and talking incessantly about our wonky Christmas trees, games of Cranium and my distinct lack of "baby's first…" ornaments.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Seeing Saint Francis Xavier in Goa and the ongoing Catholic conundrum inside the mind of Molly Mullen

 Thousands line up for Mass and to see the tomb of Saint Francis

I did it. I booked my flight. My first solo adventure ever. I had always had a companion on my travels but this religious pilgrimage I was going to make alone… or so I thought.

I recently met a young gentleman who I have spent every waking and non-waking moment with. And even through his devotion to atheism he bit the bullet and came to Goa with me. I tempted him with beach time and drinks with umbrellas.

But this blog post isn't about him. It's about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Actually, it's not about Him either.

It's about religion.

I booked flights, found hotels, took days off work all in the name of being at the Basilica of Bom Jesus for the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, where he is interred.  And after all that fuss, what did I do? I left the Feast Mass early, grumpy and in the need of gin. 

The Mass started with some 'hymn' to the tune of a Dusty Springfield song. That was the first warning. I was sitting there thinking to myself, "Where on Earth is Roc O'Connor to save the day with some real music?" Oh yes, Fr Roc was in Omaha celebrating the Feast with my father and my favorite Jesuits in my favorite chapel singing songs like "Be Not Afraid" and "Glory to God" and "Sing to the Mountains." And I was here, in tropical paradise, with the Goan Jesuits and a family of mosquitoes about to get an earful.

The music wasn't the worst part. That I could take with a chuckle. It was the homily. Ohhhhh, that homily. In 20 minutes he managed to offend me, my family, the man I love and all my nearest and dearest back in Omaha. I should have taken it as a warning when he began talking about the evil hegemony the United States is inflicting upon the world, forcing us into a more secular lifestyle.

He continued, "Whatever group you belong to, be it Youth for Christ, Families for Christ, Singles for Christ (huh?!) it is your responsibility to set the world on fire, living fearlessly as Christians and bringing people back to the Christian faith like Saint Francis Xavier…"

I don't mean to be a thorn in the side of our Mother Church, but I don't want to bring my friends back into the Christian fold. They seem pretty content scooping secular ice cream, preparing secular felafel, making secular spreadsheets and taking secular photographs. Since when is Christianity under attack anyway?

But I made it through the homily with little more than an eye roll. It wasn't until after the Eucharist when there was an impromptu prayer to turn every nation into a Christian nation that I had to quietly gather up my things and retreat back into the secular world. And all I could think of at the time was, "I bet Dad got a killer homily back in Omaha. Fie, Fie on Goa!"

And as I sat in my secular restaurant, smelling the secular gin on the breath of my secular boyfriend, enjoying a secular cigarette I thought, "God bless the atheists."

Secular room service to take the edge off