GURPREET – Story of a survivor of dowry abuse in Australia

“I didn’t think it would be this hard. I wouldn’t have gotten married at all if I knew..” says Gurpreet, her voice trailing off. It’s a bright day. The sun is out and it is warm, save for the nip to the breeze that’s blowing softly. She’s sitting on the grass, takeaway coffee cup in hand, looking over at the small lake next to us. She looks back at me with a determined look in her kohl laden eyes and asserts, “I wasn’t that keen on marriage anyway. It was mostly Mom and Dad.” Of their attitude about marriage, she says in Hindi, “Bas, kar hi do.” Just get it done and dusted.

Gurpreet has a Masters and was working in Chandigarh at the time of her marriage. She was content: she hung out with a close circle of friends, went out shopping, and loved watching movies. She lived with her parents, and had her own money to spend as she chose. “I didn’t really give marriage much thought”, she says.

Her parents though, had been trying to find her a groom for a while, but it was proving very difficult. “There is a lot of dowry giving and taking in Punjab,” says Gurpreet. “People ask for 30 – 40 lakhs (3 million to 4 million rupees) even before they start talking to you.” Gurpreet’s parents had a modest income and couldn’t afford that kind of money. But they were under a lot of pressure. “Our relatives, neighbours, friends……they would all ask them about when they would get me married. My mother’s friends would say ‘we’re praying for her everyday’. My parents also wanted it. Marrying off your daughter is something you have to do in Punjab. Everyone just follows (this tradition) blindly. It is not something you can escape.”

Gurpreet’s parents found a suitable match for her on a popular marriage website. Jasraj was an Australian citizen and worked and lived in Australia. She spoke to him a couple of times on Skype and thought that he seemed nice. Jasraj and his mother Manjinder visited India and met Gurpreet’s family for the first time. Jasraj’s mother said they wanted nothing by way of dowry from Gurpreet’s family, but insisted that they marry immediately. Gurpreet and her family weren’t keen on rushing it, but they caved in to pressure.

Once the wedding date was official, the demand for dowry started. “She came up with a big list,” says Gurpreet. “Jewellery and expensive clothes for her brothers, sisters, you name it. And we had to take Jasraj shopping. He bought all sorts of stuff.” And that wasn’t it. The soon to be mother in law, Manjinder, said that Gurpreet would have to re-qualify in Australia in order to work, so she demanded money for this. Gurpreet’s parents gave her 15 lakhs (1.5 million rupees) in cash. These demands did raise alarm bells in Gurpreet and her parents’ minds, but her parents believed they were investing in Gurpreet’s future. “There aren’t too many opportunities back home, so Dad thought at least I’d be able to work and then earn money in Australia”. “Overall we spent 50 – 60 lakhs (100,000 – 120,000 AUD) on the wedding”, says Gurpreet. “Aaram se.” Easily.

Wedding done, Manjinder started taunting Gurpreet and family about the wedding and how it wasn’t up to her standards. She complained that the food served at the wedding wasn’t good enough, that the jewellery her extended family were given wasn’t ornate enough, the clothes not expensive enough. “It seemed so strange that they started criticizing us so early on. But Dad thought that once I move to Melbourne, it would get better.“

Jasraj and Manjinder returned to Australia a few weeks after the wedding. Before the wedding they said they would take care of the spousal visa application and fee, but wedding over, they went back on that promise too. Gurpreet’s parents were left with no choice but to pay for the spousal visa application (INR 400,000) and Gurpreet flew to Australia to be with her new husband on a tourist visa. Her parents paid for the ticket.

In Melbourne, Gurpreet found that her new mother in law was incensed that Gurpreet didn’t come with more gold for them. “You don’t have any common sense; you or your parents! How can you come empty handed?”, she berated Gurpreet. “She almost tortured me over this,” says Gurpreet of the verbal abuse. “And they’re so stingy!” she exclaims. “They have their own house but they rent a room out. Jasraj works as an engineer and then drives a taxi on weekends. He was never home. Me and my mother in law were home alone all day. He never took me anywhere. The first time I went to the city was when I went to court to apply for an intervention order”, she states.

Not only did Gurpreet suffer verbal taunts and escalating demands for money, including a share in Gurpreet’s family property in India, but she also faced extreme scrutiny. “If I took an extra spoonful of curry, she would berate me. They actually counted the groceries they bought. One day I ate a banana and she came to me and said ‘there were 6 bananas, now there are only 5, why did you eat one?’ I mean, it’s just a banana!” she exclaims. “You’ve never seen people like this,” she asserts. “So petty, and so cheap. I didn’t even understand what was happening.”

Gurpreet’s tells me of her isolation, and it is chilling. She came to Australia with a phone, but her husband refused to buy her a SIM card. Her parents had to call her husband’s phone, and Gurpreet was never allowed to have a private conversation with them. Even her email was monitored because her husband demanded she give him her password. She was held captive in the house, deprived of any sort of contact with the outside world. “They were very controlling. They wouldn’t let me go out, not even to the park right in front of the house!” she cries. “They knew what they were doing was wrong. And they were worried I might tell someone.”

Gurpreet got lucky one day. She managed to call her mother when both Jasraj and Manjinder were out. When she told her mother of her abuse, her mother reacted with concern about the effect it would have on the marriage prospects for Gurpreet’s unmarried siblings if Gurpreet’s marriage broke down. She told Gurpreet that these kind of things happenedin a marriage, and that Gurpreet shouldn’t take it too seriously. After all, what is the worst they can do?

Gurpreet got pregnant. She says both her husband and mother in law were ‘baby crazy’ and that she bowed to pressure. During one of the routine medical checks, doctors found that Gurpreet had a condition that if not managed properly might effect the health of the baby or cause a miscarriage. Instantly, Gurpreet was now considered effectively of no use to the family because they believed she couldn’t produce a healthy baby. This became one more weapon in their arsenal, with her husband taunting her that she had deliberately hidden a condition, and that he would have never married her if he knew. One day he flew into a rage, shoved Gurpreet to the floor and kicked her in the stomach. In extreme pain, she begged him to take her to the hospital. He refused and eventually relented when she promised not to tell anyone that he was violent with her. She suffered a miscarriage and lost the baby. “Maybe I should’ve told the doctor what he did to me. But I was worried that he might go to jail…that would be an extreme thing to do to someone.”

A few months later, Gurpreet got the opportunity to accompany Manjinder on a trip to India. Gurpreet was thrilled at the prospect of going back home, even if it was temporary. What she didn’t know was that it was a ploy. When she checked her email from the airport en route to India, she saw an email from Jasraj. He accused her of lying about her health, damaging his property, and said he had withdrawn spousal support for her visa application.

Gurpreet’s parents called Jasraj from India to talk to him about the email, and Jasraj made a new demand. Cough up 30,000 – 40,000 Australian dollars or else he wouldn’t reinstate Gurpreet’s spousal visa application. Gurpreet’s parents were spent, they could afford no more. At this point, Gurpreet and her parents decided to contact Jasraj’s first wife. They had discovered while filling out Gurpreet’s spousal visa application that Jasraj was married before, and had applied for a spousal visa for his then wife. When they confronted Jasraj about this, he claimed it was a wedding on paper only, and that it didn’t come to much. Amazingly, because Gurpreet had already married him, her parents didn’t investigate. But now, backed into a corner, they did. They discovered that Jasraj’s first wife was similarly abused for dowry, and managed to get a divorce and return to India.

Gurpreet flew back to Australia to try and talk to Jasraj. Reconciling with him was still her parents’ preferred option despite the abuse, isolation and exploitation. They had invested so heavily in the marriage that there was no turning back. They hoped that Jasraj might be reasonable without his mother around. They were wrong. He didn’t answer any of Gurpreet’s calls. When she went to the house, he didn’t even open the door. Sobbing, Gurpreet pleaded with him to let her in but he simply reiterated his demand for money. As a last resort, Gupreet called the police, but her husband claimed that they were separated, and that she was on a tourist visa so he has no obligation to let her in. Gurpreet had no idea how vulnerable she would be on a tourist visa. The police referred Gurpreet to a shelter.

Gurpreet spent 4 months in three different shelters. About two months ago, she moved in with an obliging family. At the time of writing this piece, she was waiting for a protection visa. If she gets one, she can stay in Australia and start to rebuild her life, and start to heal her mental and emotional scars. If she doesn’t, she has to return to India, where in addition to her own trauma, she faces the intense stigma of being a divorced woman. Plus her in laws spread lies in her community that her health problems prevent her from having children, so marrying again will be difficult. “Plus in Punjab,” she says, “no one will marry you if you don’t give dowry. That’s why my parents agreed in the first place.”

There is a long pause. “They should’ve simply given the money to me, I would’ve studied or maybe bought myself an apartment,” she says. But now she’s stuck in an alien country with no job, money or support. The system in both countries has failed her. “The police in India should try and warn people not to marry their girls off to people they hardly know overseas. And here, they don’t understand dowry or dowry abuse. They think of it as a gift, and say we can’t do anything because you gifted it to them.” She hopes that the new dowry laws to be implemented in Victoria might help others. For her though, it might be too late. “I was in such a better position when I wasn’t married,” she says matter of factly. “Now my life is totally ruined.”

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I won’t ‘settle’

12048617_10153125812046762_1882443973_n (1)She walks onto stages and fluidly occupies it. Her clear, strong voice is marked with an expressive lilt. Her presence is electric, her voice commanding, and the connection instantaneous. Suddenly, it feels like I’m sitting comfortably at a dining table, watching an old friend hold court instead of at a theatre, attending a spoken word event.


“The conversation started at half past six,

when my strength would be tested as a practicing Sikh.

They saw a picture posted of me, parading denim shorts:

‘This is NOT appropriate clothing, please give it some thought!!”


Spoken word poet, Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa was born and raised in Perth and performed at ‘Common Ground’, a multilingual and multi-faith spoken word and poetry project by Multicultural Arts Victoria. The first poem she wrote, ‘A dress/Address’ reflects the double standards applied to men and women and the gendered expectations in the Indian community. Feminism is something that resonates deeply with the 21 year old, who moved from Perth to Melbourne six months ago pursue a career of her own making. “People think your 9 to 5 job has to suck!” she exclaims. “It doesn’t’. If you love something and are good at it go for it. I’ve been told that when it comes to boys and career, I have to settle. I won’t.” She didn’t, and she made into the finals of the National Australian Poetry Slam in 2014 with ‘A dress/Address’. Referring to the incident that inspired the poem, where she was pulled up by someone from her community for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ in shorts at the beach, she says that it made her realise how deep the gender divide was, and how many double standards exist for men and women. “When you’ve been given such a loud voice, and when you have the confidence, you need to speak up for the voiceless”, she says, explaining her motivation.


Photography by Beanbo Design & Photography MUA Make-up by Britanie Dyer Makeup Artist Clothing by @skylarkthelabel

Photography by Beanbo Design & Photography
MUA Make-up by Britanie Dyer Makeup Artist
Clothing by @skylarkthelabel

Sukhjit wasn’t always the confident, self assured person she is now. “There’s a Punjabi word, ‘poonch’, which means tail,” she laughs, “everyone in our community knew me as my mum’s tail because I would hide behind her clothes. I cried if anyone talked to me!” That changed because of a drama teacher who encouraged her to do drama in year 6. “I hated it because it was so scary. But I realised that it was through drama that I could be whoever I wanted to be, and I started doing public speaking, became head girl, and put myself out there.”


It was this willingness to put herself out there and embrace opportunity that took Sukhjit to a global leadership exchange in Prague, where a friend introduced her to the world of spoken word poetry. She was hooked. “I though, OMG, this is amazing. I have a politics degree – which is where all the advocacy and activism comes from – and I thought I could use spoken word poetry to address issues. There are a lot of hard things to talk about”, she says, “like domestic violence. It happens a lot. How do you address it without pointing fingers? Humour and satire; that’s the thing Australia uses to get messages across.”


Sukhjit also tackles issues of race. Her poem, To Advance Australia Fair, tackles what is it to be an ‘Australian of caramel descent’.


“Rockin’ up for my first job at Coles,

was like a scene out of Border Patrol.

Her plastic tag read, ‘Dorothy’.

Glasses corded, she hawked,

‘Do you have a VISA, honey?’

Caught in the truck’s light, I was like a squirrel, digging for my ‘MASTERCARD?’

12007180_10153125812041762_956322535_n (1)

Talking of this poem, Sukhjit says she was scared to perform it. “It sounded like I was complaining about people.” She was also intruding on male domain. “Women in comedy or theatre or spoken word talk mostly about love and sexuality. But ‘To Advance Australia Fair’ (about race) is what men tend to talk about. A lot of guys,” she continues, “get intimidated by my masculine traits. I’ve been influenced by my dad and brother”, she explains. Her comic timing though, she gets from her mother. “My mum’s very animated. She knows how to work a room”, she grins.


At twenty one, Sukhjit has already done a wide variety of work. She’s written for magazines, given talks, modelled for a body positive publication, presented her work at multiple spoken word competitions, raised funds for charity, and most recently facilitated 8 weeks of workshops with budding spoken word artists that culminated in the Common Ground performance. What’s next? “VCA”, she grins. A formal qualification seems redundant, but given her talent, versatility and passion, it only be another accomplishment for someone doggedly determined to never just ‘settle’.



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Freedom Without Fear


Bekhauf Azaadi! Freedom without fear! This chant reverberated in the streets of Delhi following the horrific gang rape in 2012 that shook India. Politician and activist Kavita Krishnan was one of the first to join the movement. Soft spoken and unassuming, she is the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a member of the CPI-ML. In 2013 she responded to the prevalent victim blaming culture and accusations of victims’ ‘adventurous’ behaviour with a fiery speech: “Women have EVERY right to be adventurous! And we WILL be adventurous! Don’t tell us how to dress, what time of night or day is safe, how many people need to escort us. We shouldn’t need to take measures to protect ourselves (from rape). We want freedom without fear. Bekhauf azaadi.” The speech went viral. Kavita Krishnan toured Australia in June on a speaking tour on the movement against sexual violence in India. Indian Link caught up with her in Melbourne.

She begins by explaining the movement and AIPWA’s involvement. “There was huge anger amongst people”, she says. “Everyone was demanding the death penalty. People were getting sexist rubbish from politicians and self-righteous stuff about rapists being put to death. But there was something new; slogans against victim blaming: ‘Don’t tell me how to dress, tell them how not to rape’. We felt we could deepen and expand this conversation.” Of her speech that went viral she says, “People were looking for something like that.”

“We need to keep working on it. There is no room for complacence”, says Kavita of the momentum of the movement. She cites Muzzafarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu where right wing political parties have mobilised support demanding that Hindu women be protected from Muslim men and upper caste women be protected from Dalit men. “This is a political attempt to turn the awakening last year on its head”, she rues,  “so that we start imagining that instead of safeguarding women’s right to be free, we need to safeguard them from certain communities like Dalits and Muslims.”

On what we can expect from Narendra Modi’s government, Kavita states, “It’s early days yet.  Instead of predicting, let’s see what the government does.” She makes three demands of the government: One, to acknowledge and criminalise marital rape. The second demand is to remove the impunity that the armed forces enjoy against rape complaints. Third, decriminalise homosexuality. She goes on to talk about the impunity that organised right wing groups have in limiting the freedom of young people, especially women. “The Bajrang Dal, a Sangh Parivar outfit close to BJP, and their student body ABVP very regularly attack young people on Valentine’s Day and threaten that they will force them to tie Rakhis”, she says. She hopes the government will rein them in. She reflects, “Modi can’t say ‘good times for Indians’ if they are not democratic times.”


Democratic or not, Modi’s popularity is unquestionable. “People are very glib,” says Kavita matter of factly, “in saying that the Supreme Court SIT (Special Investigation Team) didn’t find him guilty, but we must ask questions. Why were the dead bodies from the Godhra train fire allowed by Modi to be displayed in the procession by the VHP? On the next day, why did Modi mention the Hindus that were killed but not the Muslims? He told the SIT that his police officers didn’t tell him. So why didn’t Modi take action against these police officers?” She also talks about the Modi government in Gujarat conducting illegal surveillance on a young woman. “Was it Modi who is referred to as the ‘Sahib’ in the Snopegate tapes?” demands Kavita. “We deserve to know, but instead we are pretending none of this matters; which is very dangerous for the country.” About the BJP’s popularity amongst the Indian diaspora, Kavita ventures that Indians overseas do not see and experience the social change in India, and hang onto a textbook version of Indian and Hindu culture. “They don’t realise that the freedom they enjoy here wouldn’t be available to them in say, BJP ruled Karnataka when the Shri Ram Sene was around. Women in Mangalore have been attacked going to work with a male friend. If they (Indians overseas) were living in India, their perspective would be different.”

Kavita’s activism against gender violence, caste and communal politics has attracted vicious trolling. She was threatened with rape on a live chat about gender violence. “It’s crazy!” she exclaims and explains that trolling isn’t limited to social media, it happens on live television. Politician Subramanian Swamy said she stands for ‘free sex’ during a debate on national TV. “It took me a while to develop a thick skin”, she says. About how she copes, she says, “I read a lot of detective fiction! Ian Rankin, Sara Peretsky, Kate Ross. I also listen to Hindustani and Carnatak music..I love the veena!” I mention that I do a bit of Carnatak singing and her eyes light up. “Have you read T.M. Krishna?” she asks enthusiastically. “I’m reading his book about how Brahminism is pervasive in Carnatak music. I’m hooked!” she laughs. We talk a bit more about music and I promise to send her a link to a folk rock rendition of Tyagaraja’s ‘Bantureethi’ by a band called Agam. “I’d love that,” she says warmly. “And you read T.M. Krishna,” she says with a conspiratorial smile. “His writings should be mandatory for (privileged) Indians everywhere.”

Originally published by Indian Link.

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Profile – Amoghavarsha: From programmer to filmmaker

Bannerghatta National Park, Karnataka, India. A crimson sun sets over a herd of Samba deer, and a young, aspiring wildlife photographer captures an artful shot of the setting sun between the antlers of a deer. It’s a turning point of sorts for Amoghavarsha, software engineer turned photographer, storyteller and filmmaker. “There were 20 other photographers there, and I was the only one to get that shot. Even today, people identify me by that shot.”


Today, Amoghavarsha is a successful, full time wildlife photographer and filmmaker. He was part of the Indian delegation for the Australia-India Youth Dialogue in 2013, which gave him an opportunity to visit Australia for the first time. ‘When I knew someone was picking up the tab, I decided to make the most of it”, he says cheekily. And he did. He travelled for 5 weeks, from the Tarkine rainforest to the Great Barrier Reef, filming remote wilderness and urban landscapes. The result is a 4 minute independently funded video called ‘One Australia’ that he released, to perfect timing, on the 26th of January, 2014: Australia Day and Indian Republic Day.

It’s not been an easy journey. Amoghavarsha quit the comfort and stability of a job in software programming in Bengaluru, and plunged headfirst into wildlife photography. “The first six months were really, really, REALLY difficult, even to just make ends meet,” he says. “Though, the biggest issue was not money. One copes by making lifestyle changes. What was harder was finding and building a market for my work. Then the financial crisis hit in 2008. I questioned myself, wondering if I was good enough. That was the hardest bit.” Commercial opportunities like wedding photography came along, where Amoghavarsha had the opportunity to make quick money. Tempting though it was, he didn’t give in. And it paid off. In six months, things started falling into place. He started teaching short term courses in photography, and got opportunities to work with Karnataka tourism and the Centre for Environment and Education. “With photography, I realised that there was a lot of focus on the tiger. So I started photographing snakes and frogs, some of which are so rare, only 4 or 5 photos of them in the wild exist!” He landed an assignment with Natural Geographic, where he worked on a film called ‘Secrets of the King Cobra’. And this was another turning point of sorts. “I realised that I love telling stories. Film as a medium seemed very natural to me.”

The apostles

And so a film of his Australian travels was the obvious choice for Amoghavarsha. A riveting montage of his travels, the films plays more like a fast paced thriller than a travel film. The music – contemporary, fresh, and laced with a sense of mystery – was composed for and inspired by the film. Covering 7000 kilometres, the film features Philip Island, Apollo Bay, the Great Barrier Reef, the Tarkine rainforest, Bruny Island, Airlie Beach, South Stradbroke Island and much, much more. Amongst the urban landscape is a time lapse feature of Sydney Opera House. Amoghavarsha laughs and recalls shooting it from the 18th floor of the Shanghai Hotel in Sydney with friends. Yes, there was beer involved. And yes, he does mix business with pleasure.


Talking of beer brings us to Melbourne, and a beer shop he visited in St. Kilda that stocked 600 types of beer from all over world. “I love beer”, he says, “and the sheer variety at this place was amazing.” He chuckles, “I guess I work hard and I party hard!”. He goes on, “Melbourne’s a bit like Bengaluru. Very arty and cultural.” When asked about Australia in general, he says he was captivated by the beach culture. “We don’t have this sort of a coastline in India”, he explains, “I loved the beach, and the sea-focussed culture. I loved the Great Barrier Reef, it was something I had always dreamt of. Plus I did diving for the first time. I’m now hooked!”


Asked about achievements, he says taking his work across India in different mediums and reaching a mix of people is very satisfying. Amoghavarsha’s work was exhibited on a mobile train exhibition organised by the Indian government which aimed to reflect India’s biodiversity and spread awareness about conservation. “2 million people saw my photos and were able to connect with the Western Ghats. To think people in remote parts of the world know me through my’s humbling.”

You can watch ‘One Australia’ at and contact Amoghavarsha at

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She’s NOT India’s fucking “daughter”

we're sorry

Heinous. Grievous. Horrific. I sit here, blankly looking up trying to find words to describe the horror that was the ‘gang rape’ that occurred on December the 16th. I find nothing suitable. They are all woefully inadequate, all pathetic substitutes that we use because none of the language we know can capture the mind numbing, excruciating brutality inflicted upon “India’s Daughter”.

My blood runs cold, my insides turn to water and the hair on my body stands up as I read page after page of coverage of this horrifying assault. She was alone in her fight. She fought 6 fully grown men who raped her, thrust a metal rod into her vagina and tore out her uterus and intestines. She died of horrific injuries. India was never there for her, or for the thousands like her. So don’t call her India’s fucking “Daughter”. She never was.

I waver between despair, horror, rage and sobering grief. I’m not asking why. I’m not asking how. I’m asking what now? Thousands of years of oppression, prejudice and injustice have fuelled this monster which freely roams our streets and now stands at our doorsteps, promising to brutalise us into oblivion. And it IS a promise. And it is being fulfilled on a chilling scale: a rape is reported every 20 minutes in India and many more go unreported. But the veil has been lifted. This event has branded the nation’s consciousness, shoved our faces into the toxic venom that courses through our country’s veins everyday – silently mutilating, maiming, torturing. She wasn’t the first, and she won’t be the last. India, we failed her. So what now?

The silence must go. Rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment must no longer be invisible. Talk about it at home, at work, with your friends, parents, relatives and children. Don’t tolerate sexual harassment. If you see it on the street, say something. I was 15 when someone brazenly yanked on my dupatta (scarf) as I walked down a bustling Hyderabad street at three in the afternoon. I stopped and stared at the perpetrator, engaging in a battle of wits as his hand provocatively held tight onto one end of my dupatta, and my hand held onto it on my shoulder, protecting my breasts from the ‘uncovering’ he was threatening. Not one person stopped. Not one person stepped up to help me in my fight with this unabashed offender. Never, bar once, in the many cities in India that I have lived – Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad – has anyone EVER stood up for me. This needs to change. This is our duty, our responsibility.

Stop blaming the victim. If you do, you’re part of the problem. Get an education. Google rape, rape myths, sexual harassment, women’s oppression, sex selective abortion, acid attacks. The current environment blames the victim, and look where that’s gotten us. We need to change.

Don’t wait for others to do something. Be the change. Our leadership is primitive and outrageously patriarchal at best, callous and apathetic at worst. They’re not going to make this happen.  In fact, they’ve LET this happen. You need to change it. WE need to change it. Blog, write, read, rally, protest, educate, lobby. NOW. And don’t stop till Indian women have freedom, dignity and opportunity. Then we would have earned the right to call her ‘India’s Daughter’.

Sign the petition:

Online Resources:



© Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation, 2005 – 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Profile: Nasser Burdestani

Cross posted from the ICAN website. For the original profile published on the ICAN website, click here.

ICAN gets active in Bahrain

11 September 2012

Nasser Burdestani, 37, wears many hats. He is a banker by day and an activist, father and husband the rest of the time. Burdestani’s passion for human rights led him to establish Amnesty International in Bahrain in 2002, and since 2012 he has become the regional campaigner for ICAN in Bahrain. His interest in human rightscame to the fore in 2001 when a package of political reforms paved the way for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy.

In 2002, he and five colleagues established Amnesty International in Bahrain – a first for a Gulf country. Asked what his motivation was, he says, “I felt responsible as a human being to make a contribution in improving human rights conditions in my region and the world. The biggest motivation is to put a smile on the faces of human rights victims.”

As part of ICAN, Mr Burdestani’s focus is to raise awareness in Bahrain about the dangers of nuclear weapons, build partnerships with local non-government organizations and lobby the government to play a larger role in the campaign to abolish nuclear weapons.

One of the challenges, he says, is “how to make the abolition of nuclear weapons a priority for local civil society which believes that the issue is marginal in our region, and that resources and efforts should be allocated to other problems”. In addition to this, “the biggest challenge is the ignorance of government officials to our efforts, even though we are in agreement that there is a need to abolish nuclear weapons in our region and in the world”.

To address ignorance and put the issue firmly on the agenda, Mr Burdestani and other activists launched an Arabic translation of ICAN’s Learn Peace book, to mark Nuclear Abolition Day in June 2012. The book educates children on the threat of nuclear weapons, and is to be made part of the academic curriculum in private and public schools in Bahrain.

“Young people who have grown up since the end of the Cold War have had little exposure to nuclear weapons issues in the media,” he says. “As a result, many are ignorant of the dangerous legacy of close to 20,000 nuclear weapons. This must change now. Disarmament education is the best possible foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons.”

The Arab Spring has given hope to people who had lost hope, says Mr Burdestani. “Civil society can raise their voice and ask for immediate action. Governments are now more aware of the power of non-government organizations and they are paying more attention to their demands.”

“Hundreds of debates are happening through social media and other forums. Thousands of youth are now involved in social issues, when earlier they were far removed from them. It is through this awareness,” he says, “that people become aware of their rights and start to regain power.”

The jury may still be out on the Arab Spring, but Mr Burdestani has had many successes. He organized the Human Rights Film Festival in Bahrain in 2008, which qualified Bahrain to be a member in the Human Rights Film Network – the first and only country in the Middle East and North Africa to join the network.

Volunteering for Amnesty International, he successfully ran the “One Million Faces” petition to support the “Control Arms” campaign, which calls for a binding treaty to control the global arms trade. He is also a member of the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition that works to eradicate cluster bombs.

Being a full-time professional and human rights activist makes balancing work and family difficult, says Mr Burdestani, who lives with his wife and two-year-old boy. “I believe I separate my personal life from my activist life, but my family never agree!” he says with a laugh.

Regarding a nuclear-weapon-free future Mr Burdestani is an eternal optimist who believes that human beings do learn from mistakes made in the past. “But I am also realistic,” he says. “There is huge opportunity for peace, but there is lack of confidence, awareness and political will. Dialogue is the only solution to conflict, but it will take time for all involved to realize this.”


© Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation, 2005 – 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Brown Skin and Blistering Experiences

Is Australia a racist country? I’ve been confronted with this question, and debate accompanying it, over and over again over the past 12 months since the attacks on Indians in Australia began. I believe it is simply the wrong question to ask. It’s too black and white (pardon the play of words) to be anywhere close to reality. It assumes everyone in Australia is racist all the time, and that is clearly not the case. The correct question to ask would be, ‘is there racism in Australia?’ And that, I can answer. And the answer is a resounding yes.

Racism in Australia is subtle and insidious, and rears its ugly head often enough for it to never be far from the mind. Events over the past year have brought this issue to the attention of both Indian and Australian governments and the spotlight has been shone on race. A month after I first came to Melbourne (in 2005), I wandered into Myer, Australia’s Shopper’s Stop, looking to see if something would catch my eye. I, obviously, didn’t catch anyone’s eye amongst the army of staff present that Saturday. To them, I simply wasn’t there. None came forward offering to serve me. Invisible I walked around. Incensed, and still invisible, I walked out.

I travel on work very regularly to different cities in Australia, but mysteriously, stewards on airplanes, with amazing regularity, miss the opportunity to greet me as I leave the plane. Ever so often, I am either ignored, or get just a minor acknowledgement, not the extended ‘Thank you, have a nice day’ with the generous smile that everyone else seems to get. I know it is not my business suit which is one of the best in the market that puts them off. I also know that the issue is the colour of my skin and my typical Asian features.
From air transport to public transport. Routinely, I find that white fellow passengers sit next to me only if there is no other vacant seat. Or I find that all the seats around me are occupied with people who belong to ethnic minorities. Very few white people choose to sit with me if there are other white people they can sit with. What’s that about?

Being ignored hurts, but unmasked dismissal is disturbing. I volunteered at a major charity event for a leading animal rights charity in Melbourne. I was part of the team at the gate, directing people to the registration counter. One after the other, women and men, young and old, cheerful and grumpy, completely ignored me. I was difficult to miss, a brown face in a bright blue and white t-shirt with a volunteer name-tag, and a neon megaphone hanging from my shoulder.

Keeping away

I was prepared for, and I dare say, used to being ignored. But the unremitting dismissal I faced made me want to explode in an avalanche of swearing and tears. Over and over I walked up to people offering help, and they simply kept walking away. Not so much as a casual glance in my direction. The ones who did stop to ask a question would simply walk away the moment they got the information they needed. It’s as though they were programmed, with great precision, to spend as little time around me as possible.
They walked away even as I was speaking, something nobody in any culture does without being seen as rude in the extreme. I tried everything, being loud, soft, bold, timid, eager. Nothing worked. It seemed I was in the middle of a storm of naked hostile indifference, and unconcealed arrogance. It made me sick to my stomach and… broke my heart.

And then there are the stupid, ignorant questions. The best one was from a doctor, no less. “Do you have fridges in India?” he asked. I stared, half amused, half puzzled. Smart-ass responses about India being a nuclear power and launching 10 satellites in one mission were whizzing through my mind, but I refrained. And avoided the practice he worked at.

Of course not everyone in Australia is racist. I don’t face it all the time, from everybody. I’ve met lovely, friendly people. Like the beautiful couple who, while walking down the street, stopped and offered to take a group picture of my friends and me. Or the lovely lady at the pathology lab who, in spite of me being late for the appointment, put me at ease, and regaled me with stories of her visit to India to distract me from the three syringes of blood she was taking from me. Or the guy I regularly buy coffee from, who throws in a chocolate bar once in a while for free, appreciating my business.

Of course there are people who treat me with kindness and respect, like they would treat anyone else, irrespective of whether they are white, brown or black. But does my skin burn sometimes, smouldering with the ignominy of being ignored, dismissed, considered insignificant, not worthy of attention? Hell, yeah.

Originally published in the Deccan Herald.


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The big fast

I was on the corner of a street, waiting for the walk sign to come on. I was ploughing frantically through my purse for some chewing gum, enviously eyeing the latest bead collection in ‘Bizarr Beads’, all the time sub-consciously listening to my friend talking about fasting for Ramzan. I craned my neck, looking at what I thought was a ‘SALE’ sign, and emptied half the contents of my purse into one hand in my determined pursuit of sugared rubber. Barely listening, I absent-mindedly hmm-ed to her wistful reminiscence of fasting with her family, back home in Malaysia. I put my hand into the growing hole in the lining of my purse and out came the gum! Somewhere between popping the mint-flavoured gum into my mouth, looking out for errant drivers before crossing, and vowing to splurge half my salary on shiny red glass beads, I found myself saying, “Relax, I’ll fast with you…”

She squealed with delight and I was quietly stunned at what I had just gotten myself into. I’ll fast with you? Was it too late for me to take it back and admit that I had suffered from temporary insanity — a combination of the sugar hit from the chewing gum, the noise of the traffic, and the dangerous and irresistible lure of red glass beads? Who had ever heard of a beef-eating atheist Hindu fasting for Ramzan in Melbourne?

But my word is my word, I thought, wryly wondering if I should have been a feisty Rajput princess instead of an expatriate business analyst. Aishwarya Rai didn’t fast with Hrithik Roshan in ‘Jodhaa Akbar’, did she? But Dipanjali Rao shall do so with Jill Kamaruddin.

Day Zero

“Can I drink coffee?”, I asked Jill later in her apartment. “No”, she said, “not even water”. “What? How do you expect me to survive?”, I countered with a hint of annoyance. “It’s ok lah Dipa”, she said, using the Malaysian equivalent of ‘re’. ‘You can drink because it’s your first time; you’re not used to it’. And so even before the holy month of Ramzan was upon us, I had given myself two allowances — coffee and water. I was getting excited. I would be part of the Muslim world for a month, it was a good opportunity to practise self-control and I just might lose some weight. My feminist self angrily chided me for the last thought… whatever… I was going to fast for Ramzan!

Day one came, and it wasn’t that bad at all! It was 11 in the morning, and the last meal I had eaten was more than 12 hours ago. I closed my eyes and tried to get ‘in touch’ with my body to see what it was telling me. After a couple of seconds of intense concentration, it told me that that people would think I was dozing at work. My eyes flew open and I got back to work. Six hours, two cups of coffee and three bottles of water later, I was feeling fine. No gym tonight, I thought, as the combo was a recipe for disaster. Talking of recipes, I was looking forward to dinner, my first ‘iftar’.

Day Three

I felt smug at my self control. But suddenly, my insides tightened, and I froze. My stomach growled, and my digestive juices responded even before I could think — cheese sandwich! The heady aroma from the office kitchen almost overcame me. I tiptoed to the kitchen, looked around guiltily, and took a breath. My lungs full, I tiptoed back. Is smelling food the same as eating it during fasting?

I had a few other ‘brushes’ with such temptations in the month, but resisted all. I soldiered on. Hunger came, and hunger went but I went on forever… err, two weeks.
Day 15 came and I called Jill, my one point reference for all fasting-related things. “Jill, I need to eat breakfast and lunch tomorrow… I’ve got a presentation and I will be talking all day… I won’t last without food.” She gave me permission. I had only one other lapse in the entire month — a temptation called biryani! I weighed myself a week later and cursed the machine when the needle on the scale barely moved a kilo. As the month drew to a close, I knew I would miss fasting and the sense of purpose, of discipline and of achievement. Fasting had changed the way I felt about food. Food no longer seemed to be about fulfilment, taste or pleasure. It was something basic I needed to survive the day. It was somehow, liberating.

D-day came, and Jill and I went out to celebrate and break our last fast. We went to an Indian cafe, ordered food, cheerfully wished the Indian Muslim cafe owner ‘Id Mubarak’, and proudly announced we had fasted. We talked about our ‘lapses’ during the month. I told her guiltily about mine. “Yeah”, she said, “a few days I too didn’t fast, I’m so sorry lah Dipa.” “A few days?!!! Why, you…” I chastised her. Kabab in one hand, a glass of water in another, I told her how it takes true determination, commitment and purity of soul to achieve what I had.

Originally published in Deccan Herald.


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Street Harassment: My name is not ‘Hey Baby’!

My name is not ‘Hey Baby’

Stop Street Harassment campaign in Chicago, Illinois

Picture this: It’s a bright sunny afternoon and you’re standing outside the entrance of a shopping mall. You see a woman walking down the sidewalk. She’s going to the supermarket perhaps, or going to meet a few friends. As she a passes a group of men, one of them looks her up and down and remarks loudly ‘Oooh; sexy legs!’ She doesn’t react, just keeps walking. Now, I want your reaction. What do you think about what happened? Do you think it’s just a bit of harmless fun? Funny, perhaps? Or better still, a compliment! After all, he did say she had nice legs.

Think again. Start by putting yourself in her shoes. You’re walking down the sidewalk, and as you pass a group of men, you see one of them look you up and down. He remarks loudly, ‘Oooh, sexy legs!’ Your face burns, your pace quickens slightly, your heart beats faster and your grip tightens on your handbag. “Should I say something to him? He’s with a group, what if they get aggressive? What if they follow me? What if they hurl insults at me? What if I see them again when its deserted? Dammit, I should’ve crossed over when I saw them.” Feeling angry and helpless, you decide its best to let it go. And you keep walking, vowing you’ll cross the street the next time.

It’s not a compliment, it’s not harmless, and it’s certainly not fun. It’s called street harassment, and women and LGBQT around the world face it on a daily basis. Holly Kearl, founder of ‘, a campaign and online resource centre dedicated to the cause surveyed 800 across 23 countries in 2008 and found that 99% of women had experienced it by the age of 19. And this is not limited to the developing world or patriarchal cultures; 80 percent of Canadian respondents reported street harassment. A survey conducted in London put it at 41% of young women.

So what is street harassment? defines it as ‘Unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.’ Harassment ranges from low severity like leers, whistles and catcalls, to moderate severity like sexually charged comments and propositions to severe severity like groping, flashing, stalking, assault, even rape and murder. Most women (more than 80% worldwide) and members of the LGBQT community will experience such harassment in their lifetime.

Campaign by ‘’

Holly Kearl, founder of testified in the first ever city council hearing on the topic of street harassment in New York City in October, 2010. She said, “Street harassment is a form of sexual terrorism. They (women) do not know where it could happen by whom or how far it could escalate. Women learn public places are male territory, they learn to limit the places they go and try not to be alone in public spaces at night and when they are alone, they learn to be on guard. It is a human rights issue. It teaches them that public spaces are male territory, and that they need to navigate it carefully.” And this is the crux of the matter. It affects a majority of women and is a human rights and a gender violence issue.

“Wait a minute”, I hear you say. “I’ve never heard of this. And calling it gender violence and a human rights issue is a bit extreme, isn’t it?” And that is the biggest problem that street harassment campaigns face. One, it is not considered a ‘serious’ problem, like say, sexual harassment, and hence is largely normalised and trivialised. And two, it is invisible.

Normalisation of street harassment is aided by widely held misconceptions and stereotypes. A common misconception is that women should consider it a compliment. Says Jessica Valenti, author and executive editor of, “While I’ve heard the argument that street harassment is actually a compliment – you know, because we’re supposed to be flattered that strange men are screaming at us about our asses – it’s really a super-insidious form of sexism. Because not only do perfect strangers think that it’s appropriate to be sexual toward any woman they want, but street harassment is also predicated on the idea that you’re allowed to say anything to women that you want – anytime, anywhere.” People at the receiving end of such behaviour routinely say they feel angry, ashamed, violated and dirty. A 45 year old woman from the UK felt ashamed when someone groped her, and then felt ashamed that she was ashamed.

Tshirts by ‘’

Another misconception is that harassment was provoked by the woman because of the way she was dressed. Consider this – 90% of women surveyed in Yemen had experienced harassment, and most women in Yemen dress modestly. Bloggers on the StopStreetHarassment website report facing it irrespective of whether they were dressed up to go out or dressed in track pants to buy groceries, or in a full length winter coat.  A blogger from Australia reports routinely being harassed when in her work clothes – a loose work shirt and pants and steel cap boots. It’s not about clothes, people.

The most insidious of these misconceptions is that street harassment is harmless. Again, not true. Nearly 75% of respondents were followed by strangers, 62% had their path blocked, 57% were touched or grabbed in a sexual way, 37% have had a stranger masturbate in front of them, and 27% have been assaulted in public. Also, street harassment starts early. 25% of the 800 people surveyed by StopStreetHarassment had faced harassment by the tender age of 12. This teaches women that public spaces are not safe, and that they must be on guard at all times against unwanted, violating attention. Victims feel unsafe and violated. Quentin Walcott of Connect, while testifying in New York said street harassment “is a phenomenon that compromises the safety and freedom of women and girls. It is rooted in sexism and misogyny. Alice X, from New York city, tells of how harassment affected her on “I was sexually harassed on a regular basis from the year I turned fourteen until the year I left for college. I tried so hard, every day, to ignore it. But I couldn’t. It changed me. The irrepressible nervousness when a stranger approached. Being afraid to look any man on the street in the eyes. Worrying I was being followed…Crying. Not crying until I got home, then crying. Hating myself for crying. Playing the faces of dozens of men back in my mind—I remember them all. Wondering what would have happened if I had bumped into them in a deserted area. The rape nightmares. But the worst part was how it warped my own view of myself. Maybe it was my fault, I thought. Maybe I was asking for it. It was because I was small and weak, I thought. I hated myself for my own helplessness. Hated myself every time the snappy retort, the “leave me alone,” the “stop,” bubbled up furiously in my heart only to wilt in my throat. The tiny, illogical, and unshakable fear that no matter how hard I worked, I would never amount to anything more than a body. That my feelings—my disgust, the anger and loathing written all over my face—would deter no one because they simply did not matter. That it would only get worse as I grew older. That my only worth was sexual. That I was less than human. That I was nothing.”

Campaign by ‘’

While misconceptions and myths need to be exploded, they are not the biggest problem faced by street harassment campaigns. It’s invisibility. Misconceptions and stereotypes can be dealt with once there are discussions and conversations happening about it. Unfortunately, there have not been too many. There is very little research or media coverage on the topic. Victims rarely retaliate or report the problem and bystanders very rarely intervene and express outrage. And the harassment persists. Hollaback! is looking to change all of that. It is a campaign that aims to end street harassment by, well, hollering back! To break the silence, Hollaback! encourages people to post their harassment stories and pictures online. They believe that facilitating the telling of these stories will lead to people taking action against it. ‘MustBol’ in India (roughly translated to ‘Must Speak Up’) has the same aim. It is a “call to young people to examine violence in their lives and speak out against it. To recognize it, to talk about it, and to address it.” The founders launched a website called ‘GotStaredAt’ which allows people from anywhere to upload pictures of what they were wearing when they were harassed to break the silence around it and dispel the victim blaming culture around street harassment.

To bring street harassment into focus, organised the first ever Anti-Street Harassment Day in 2011 – the response was so overwhelming that it was increased to a week in 2012. This March 18 – 24, 21 countries participated in the first ever Anti-Street Harassment week. People rallied, launched publications and local anti-harassment campaigns, website to share harassment stories and access resources and discussions were had about the intersection of racism, sexism and homophobia. Overall it was a huge success, and UN Women listed the week on their calendar. Another success that StopStreetHarassment has had is with an anti-harassment Public Service Announcement campaign at 28 subway stations in Washinton DC. The announcements state that harassment is not ok and gives information about how to report it, which is a huge step forward in making public spaces safer for women.

Now that it is out there, what can you and I do about street harassment? Firstly, don’t ignore it. This is precisely why street harassment persists, because victims don’t react to it. lists responses one could use to talk to a harasser to hold them accountable for their behaviour.

Secondly, if you see it happening to someone, don’t look away. Taking a stand against it is makes it clear that it’s not ok, and will inspire others to take action. You don’t have to be female or part of the LGQBT community to take a stand. There are campaigns specifically for men to help stop violence and redefine conventional notions if masculinity.

Thirdly, get active. If you see something objectionable, find out how to report it. Get online and add your voice to campaigns. organised a petition to protest against a sign at a construction site that condoned street harassment. The sign read ‘We apologise for the whistling construction workers, but man you look good!’ The petition received 1500 signatures in just over 24 hours and the Mall took down the sign almost immediately. This is the direct result of an online campaign, so you can help make the change.

Fourthly, and most importantly, share your story, whether you are a victim or an observer. Post your story on or Hollaback! and talk about it. Invisibility is the biggest problem street harassment faces, and your story will educate people in your network and break the cycle of silence. DM from Tasmania, Australia witnessed patrons sitting in a pub harassing teenage girls as they walked past. Inspired by the StopStreetHarassment campaign, she called the pub to report their behaviour, and the management asked them to leave. Posting her story online, she says she was bowled over at finding an ally. DM now thinks of the pub as a ‘safe zone’, and supports it as often as she can. So you can make a difference. Join your local street harassment or gender violence campaign. If you don’t have one, create one. Take a stand and take action. You need your community to be a safe place for everyone, equally.

To start, visit or They list additional resources on their website you can use. Or just google “Street Harassment”. If you’re interested in resources aimed at men check out,,

 Written for; awaiting publication.

References used:

 © Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation, 2005 – 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Dipanjali Rao and Infrequent Articulation with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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