Women and toxic families

Women dealing with toxic family – a topic that comes back to me every week, even at work after others become familiar with my writing. And these stories are overwhelming shared to me by women from the eastern part of the planet (doesn’t mean it only happens there). In popular culture, many times we easily call women “crazy”. Ignoring psychiatric illnesses, how often is it that someone who might seem “crazy” has been dealing with a ton of shit in life. Stress can easily break down any human being.

One of the most common effects of dealing with toxic family is that women have to live a double life if they ever want to create any sense of self. Families, especially who immigrated to the West in the 80s or 90s, still have the same social attitude as they had back home because they never immigrated. They try to control and mold every aspect of their daughter’s lives – for sake of control, sake of “honor”, and for her “marriageability”. In more conservative families, they have to give a “pure”, quiet, and obedient girl for marriage with the understanding that “you can do anything you want after marriage”. Which usually depends on future husband and in-laws and how liberal-minded they are.

All this control leads many women to start living double lives outside their home. It is like a person divided against themselves. How they want their lives to be vs how their parents or relatives want their lives to be. From clothing to activities to relationships, it is a life either hidden from everyone or from more conservatives friends/family members. But how long can a person live a double life? Some give up and accept their fate. Some know what their parents will never accept and never stray from the path decided for them. But some rebel and their everyday existence becomes a hell. Yet nearly all of them accept it as “love”.

For those living a double life, every moment is spent in fear of being caught. For those rebeling, every day is spent fighting. And when someone isn’t obedient, even if they are in their 30s, the constant criticism is what breaks them down. And that is the story I hear often – every cruel thing their parents or sibling tell them just because they didn’t follow the line. This happens even if they are married. And that makes me sad because I see the shit women deal from toxic relatives slowly trickling down in their behavior to their own children. It is said that abuse exists as a circle. Seeing that circle of abuse breaks my heart and boils my blood because another generation starts suffering. All because for too many people on this planet women are still objects and properties to be controlled. Somehow women represent their family’s honor. And finally, women are seen as an extension of their family/parents – not as an individual with her own agency and personhood.

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The Tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits

This is a very charged topic, especially in India, but I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time because Kashmiri Pandits are one group of refugees that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Having Kashmiri Hindu friends in New York City who themselves or whose parents had to leave Kashmir, gave this topic an added importance to me. Finally, I want to make clear that talking about tragedies isn’t a zero sum game. Just because I am talking about Kashmiri Pandits doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other refugee tragedies in the world. And just because I am focusing on Kashmiri Pandits in this essay doesn’t mean that other communities in Kashmir or elsewhere in India haven’t also suffered terrible tragedies. Discussing one tragedy shouldn’t minimize or take away the importance of other tragedies. It isn’t a competition. And it is impossible to give equal weight to every single tragedy in the world in any one essay.

Kashmiri Pandits are Hindus belonging to the Brahmin caste. The Indo-Iranian peoples who would go on to practice Hinduism came to the Indian subcontinent 4000-5000 years back. As such, Kashmiri Pandits have been dwelling in the Kashmir Valley since the Bronze Age. Although Arabs, Turks, and Persian armies started invading India from the 8th century onward, Kashmir didn’t completely fall into Muslim hands till around the 14th century. Inevitably, subjects in any land start following the beliefs of their rulers. As such, through force, necessity and choice, Hindus of the Valley had started converting to Islam, or had started leaving the Valley. Incidentally, it was Akbar – one of the most tolerant rulers of medieval India, who gave the Kashmiri Brahmins the title of “Pandit” – a learned scholar. And when Akbar’s son Jahangir saw the Valley for the first time, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the land to utter his famous words – “If there is ever a heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

After nearly 500 years of Muslim rule, and as the Mughal Empire was on its downward spiral, the Sikh Empire conquered Kashmir. But only a few decades later in the Anglo-Sikh war, Kashmir was annexed by the East India Company and then sold to a Hindu dynasty. By the 19th century the demographics of the Valley had changed, where Muslims now comprised over 90% of the population. Between 1948 and 1950, in inter-religious violence after independence and other land reforms, led to a huge exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Alleged vote-rigging in local elections in 1987 in favor of the ruling party disillusioned Kashmiri youths and was a primary motivator for the rise in militancy against the Indian government. As the Soviet retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, militants and resources used to fight the Soviets were in turn directed towards Indian-held Kashmir, and also for the creation of the Taliban. Deadly attacks against Pandits increased in 1989, and in early January 1990 Urdu newspapers in the Valley asked the Pandits to leave. On the night of 19th January 1990, messages from the mosques blared out across the Valley – convert, be killed, or leave but leave your women behind. Within a few weeks, somewhere from 100,000 to over 160,000 Kashmiri Pandits had left Kashmir and become refugees in their own country and around the world. By many accounts, from 1947 to 1990 nearly half a million Hindus had migrated from Kashmir. Today there are only a few thousand Pandits left in the Kashmir Valley. The tragedy is the Indian State’s inability to protect its own citizens in its own country. Nearly a quarter million Pandits are living in Jammu in refugee camps. Many have moved to Delhi, elsewhere in India, or abroad. Even after 26 years, successive Indian governments have failed the Kashmiri refugees. And worst, having over half a million people and their descendants living as refugees in India seems to have been forgotten from the national conscience.

This story isn’t unique. This has been happening throughout our history, and will keep happening in the foreseeable future. The well known example is the plight of Arabs who became refugees in the partition of Mandatory Palestine. One problem with the creation of countries based on identity politics or beliefs is that it makes indigenous people refugees or second-class citizens in their own land. 700,000 Arabs became refugees in their own land. Similar number of Jews were made to leave Muslim lands. 7.5 million each Hindus and Muslims became refugees in the Partition of India. People had to leave lands their ancestors had been living for centuries or since the beginning of civilization. Yet this is human history. Every group has been conquerors, and unfortunately it has led to a loss of the indigenous culture and beliefs. Today Christianity is nearly gone from the Middle-East. Jewish kingdoms no longer exist there. Indigenous Arab and North African religions are extinct. One of the great ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, that has influenced Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, is nearly gone from Iran. European colonialism has led to the decimation of indigenous religions in the Americas and Africa. Even the propagation of Hinduism in South Asia came on behalf of conquerors from present-day Iran. Outsiders come, start calling the land their own, and it slowly erodes away the beliefs and cultures of the conquered peoples. As someone who loves pluralism, I find that to be a great loss of history. But no one is to be blamed except human nature. Everyone has been a conqueror, and everyone has been conquered.

We cannot change the past. But we can learn from it, and we can definitely be more aware so we don’t forget tragedies. And such awareness can prevent us from having a false sense of reality where the only story we read is that of victors and conquerors, who glorify themselves and dehumanize or erase the conquered people. I don’t see a realistic pathway for over half a million or more Kashmiri Pandits to return to Kashmir. It becomes harder with the passage of time. But we can at least remember their tragedy and not forget it in the dustbin of history.

Finding meaning, purpose, and beauty in life

How do I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life? This question has been asked of me many times over the last few years. Considering the fact that I come from a conservative culture, many people still wonder how one can not label himself after a theological doctrine. Being a ‘non’ is still scandalous for many people, who cannot imagine how someone can get morals or the desire to be good without a punishing (and rewarding) deity, even for someone like me who is a deist without following any organized beliefs. This week’s detection of gravitational waves is a good time to explain how I find meaning, beauty, and purpose in life.

All of us, and everything we know, come from the stars and supernova. The nuclear core of a star can only create elements up to iron, and any higher elements (including basic elements in our body like zinc, copper, or iodine) come from the extreme energy created when a star explodes as a supernova. To paraphrase Carl Sagan – we are all stardust, born in the cosmos from some of the most violent events in the Universe. When compared to the history of the universe, we are a very young species. Heck, we are extremely young when it comes to life on Earth. Our civilization is only about 10-12 thousand years old. Not too long back we used to sacrifice virgins to seek favors from the gods. Today we can detect gravitational waves. We can fly into space; we can create organs in the laboratories; we can detect viruses; we can predict hurricanes. Science now has explanations for which women were once burned and killed. It is amazing to know how far we have come as a species, but it is even more humbling to think about how far we have to go – how much we have to change, improve, and learn about reality and our universe.

We come up with beliefs when we have no other way of explaining nature. We came up with rituals and incantations when meteorology or medicines weren’t available to us. The universe has had 14 billion years to evolve. Our planet and life itself has had nearly 4 billion years to evolve. In a quantum universe with infinite probabilities, any outcome is possible (steering clear of parallel universes in this essay!). We are just one of those outcomes, selected by nature through trial and error. Natural selection keeps improving us, but we still aren’t perfect. I find that to be beautiful and humbling. Through billions of years of trial and error, we have developed concept of love and empathy. Not just us, even other species have evolved to have emotions. We aren’t even the only hominid species to have evolved. Others have come before us who have gone extinct – others with their own rudimentary beliefs about themselves and the afterlife. The fact that they have gone extinct makes me appreciate our existence even more. It makes me want to work hard to make sure our species survives any natural or self-inflicted calamities.

Yesterday we would call people ‘crazy’. Today we have a greater understanding of mental illnesses. We are trying to treat depression by balancing chemicals in the brain. We are learning about microbiota and how it affects our health and body. Despite all the advances we have made in science, we have barely scratched the surface. If we look back and see how far we have come from superstitions, we should be able to appreciate how far we will go in the future. We are not limited to our present. One of the debates I have had with friends over last 5-10 years is about social progress. Many think the beliefs/practices/understanding we have today is how it will be forever. Yet the same people have progressed a lot in the last few years. Doctrinal beliefs had made them homophobic and they had strict ideas about gender roles. Yet today most of them have changed. Unfortunately, the idea still persists that how the world is today will always be in the future. That is something I am trying to change. If we can only see how far we have come as a species, we should not limit ourselves to the past or the present. The future will not be what it is today. And that idea is humbling to me.

When we consider our place in the universe, our parochial attitudes and differences feel too small. Many of our beliefs feel too small. We are more than our regional allegiances. We are more than our beliefs, race, ethnicity, or nationality. In the vast arc of time and history, we are all one and the same. We all came from the stars, and we are all going to the stars. Isn’t that information humbling? We belong to the human race. We share the same building blocks of life with every living being on planet Earth. Life has survived through extinction events. Life from this planet has the potential to spread in the galaxy. Considering we are designing artificial chromosomes, would it be shocking if we in the future become ‘gods’ and create different building blocks of life itself?

I have a Hindu Brahmin background, and I was quite religious most of my life. I believed I was quite special, that my Best Friend Upstairs was listening to me and doing everything for me. Childhood was good times, living in a happy and protected bubble. Religion, prayers, meanings, and purpose was a lot about me, me, and me. In a way similar to Buddha, growing up and seeing reality started changing things. I remember telling someone 10-11 years back while I was still very religious, that “I am not interested in heaven until hell is empty and everyone is in heaven”. The notion of eternal damnation was unacceptable to me. Finally, seeing all the suffering in the world, especially of children, knocked me off the notion that everything in the world was just, fair and that everything had a divine purpose. I got to realize how lucky I have been where I was in life and how much I have in life. There are adults and children who have known nothing but misery and abuse. Parents bury their kids. Children are born with painful deformities. Old people die in pain and neglect. With so much suffering in the world, I felt very guilty and selfish in my beliefs. Just because things were great for me doesn’t mean it must be great and fair everywhere. Whenever I hear “there is a reason behind everything”, I ask – what is the reason a child is sexually abused for years? If a leaf cannot move without the will of a deity, what is the reason a child would suffer that torment? Around this point in my life, religion was no longer about me. It was about what was good for everyone throughout space and time. And with countless dead and living religions, and every person having their own interpretations of the same doctrine, there were no singular meanings or purpose to existence.

Yet we as a species have evolved to ask questions about our place in the universe. Every indigenous group in every corner of the planet came up with their own beliefs. Despite what science can answer, and we have unimaginable years of scientific discovery ahead of us, there are questions about the natural world that we can never answer. For some people the universe has always been, without any creator or reason. For many others, god is the reason for everything. But neither can answer – why is there something rather than nothing? Even if we invoke a deity, ‘why is there a god?’ cannot be answered. For me personally, god is the end-answer to why is there something. I know that doesn’t answer who made god. But all of us will reach a point where we cannot answer why is there something rather than nothing. I have seen and learned enough about the natural world and life around me that belief in a personal god has become impossible. Such ideas seem childish to me, like it did to Albert Einstein. And I don’t even know how to explain a god. Maybe the universe or multiverses itself are god. These spiritual questions can never be answered. And even if we have figured out the function of every pathway in the cell and every neurotransmitter, even if we can design a human being on a computer and build it in a lab, we will always have these spiritual questions about the meaning of our existence.

The difference between science and organized religion is that science cannot provide black and white answers. Our technology and knowledge of the universe is still too rudimentary. And in a quantum universe with infinite possibilities, it is impossible to come up with “reasons” for something. Yet our brains haven’t evolved to accept probabilistic answers. We desire Truth. We want Yes or No. We want to know what works and what doesn’t. In a universe governed by random errors and mutations, by probabilities and chances, giving absolute answers about the natural world is impossible. Such answers might feel hollow when we crave certainty. Yet, isn’t it humbling and beautiful to see how small we are in the vastness of the cosmos, how small we are to come up with absolute answers? I certainly consider myself lucky that I exist, even if I don’t know why. I consider myself lucky to be able to experience reality, friendships, love, kindness, compassion, and laughter. Considering my uncertainties about any afterlives, I feel a great obligation to fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Knowing how lucky I am to be alive, I have tremendous motivation to treat everyone right. Any and all negative emotions aren’t worth it anymore. Hatred, bitterness, and jealousy is a waste of emotions and time when we only have this one life. I cherish every moment that I am with someone, knowing I might not see them again. When justice is uncertain in an uncertain afterlife, it is paramount to fight for justice today. It has become extremely important to understand the human body so we can have a world without mental illness and pain and suffering in this life, not a hypothetical afterlife. Reducing human beings, their emotions, and ‘sense of self’ to neurotransmitters, epigenetics, genes, and environment might take away the sense of ‘specialness’ we have about ourselves. And I accept that scientific reductionism isn’t for everyone. But my emotional pain and intellectual pursuits over past 10 years has led me on a path where it is less important to feel special about my personal existence and more important to understand ourselves at the molecular level. This can lead us in providing better quality of life for generations to come – for humanity and any other species.

I hope I have shown that those without any organized beliefs can still find a lot of meanings and beauty in life. We aren’t dead inside nor living a life without purpose. Our morals come from having a sense of empathy. I care about the happiness and suffering in this life. The scientific method has brought a lot of understanding to our lives and our place in the universe. If we look at the exponential growth of discoveries over the last few decades, just imagine where we are going to be a few hundred or thousand years from now. I hope we can come to an acceptance that whether we are theists or atheists, agnostics or deists, or whatever else we want to define ourselves – that all of us are capable of finding meanings, purpose, and beauty in life. I hope it will lead to all of us accepting each other for who we are because we are all on the same path to the same place. We are all evolving in our beliefs and values. So let us accept each other and support each other – our friends and parents, children and spouses, and everyone else. Let us celebrate and accept our differences, knowing no one has the right answer, yet everyone has something to teach us.

CDC, Quackery, and the Habit of Blaming Women

Recently the CDC posted guidelines telling women that drinking too much alcohol can result in violence/injuries, getting STDs, or getting unintentionally pregnant. Although intentions might have been in the right place, a lot of it came across as patronizing and somehow taking away the sense of agency – that women need to be warned to watch out for the unintended consequences for their actions. And it falls under benevolent sexism, something I have written about before. Under the pretext of protecting/saving women, we continue to chain them and/or hinder them. I understand the sentiment of the guidelines, it could have been done in a better way by removing a few points that perpetuates assumptions or gender stereotypes regarding women.

Over the last few weeks, society’s habit about blaming women, and pseudoscience, have been bothering me quite a bit. And I am going to point out how both can be inter-related. Throughout history, women have been burnt and killed as witches, or for bad omen, among many other things – for issues which can today be explained by meteorology or microbiology (paraphrasing from Carl Sagan). Human beings used to be sacrificed to please gods or nature. Women have been blamed, even killed, for having daughters and not sons – when it is the sperm that carries the X or the Y chromosome. Women still get killed for ‘dishonoring’ their families. Women’s bodies, independence, and voices are still controlled – many of it under the ‘good intention’ of benevolent sexism. Heck, women are still seen “unclean” when menstruating. And we as a species have still not grown up about breast-feeding in public. As a 200,000 year old species, I think it is about time we became adults about human sexuality and biology.

Society decides what constitutes a woman’s ‘modesty’ – which is invariably covering up as much skin as possible. Isn’t that objectification of women too? When someone says ‘covering up is modesty’, what does that say about women who do not cover up? Aren’t the societies with that kind of attitude suffering from misogyny and violence against women? Someone can show just their face and still be dressed ‘immodestly’, while someone walking naked might not get a second look. Modesty is subjective, and a woman’s character should not be decided by how much skin she shows, but by her empathy, compassion, and kindness (and intellectual curiosity…for me).

As much as we have lived in a patriarchal society, what I still struggle to understand at the age of 30 is how so many women enforce so many sexist rules and chains on other women. Be it sisters or mothers, aunts or friends, it has been enraging to me to see so many women hold back other women – especially from the culture/world I am from. I have seen mothers threaten to kill their daughters she brings ‘dishonor’ to her father’s name. I have seen brothers prevent their sisters from going outside in jeans because it shows the shape of legs. I have seen fathers call their daughters naked for wearing a skirt and leggings. And in all of this, I have seen women – sisters, mothers, friends – defend the sexism, I have seen them defend the brothers and the fathers. I just don’t understand why. Women getting raped get killed by their own mothers. Little girls getting sexually abused are not protected by their own parents if the abusers are family members – lest it brings dishonor to the name of the family. When we complain about our society, what are we teaching our sons when we always blame or try to control women. If we keep women inside the home because she will get harassed outside (or because women don’t belong outside), how are we teaching the men not to harass? If we allow brothers, fathers, and husbands to have veto power over a woman’s life, what message are we sending our sons and daughters. And it is even more frustrating when I see how many women are the enforcers of these rules.

So what about quackery? I will be writing a different article where I bring the hammer down on pseudoscience, something that has bothered me for last few years. But the level of pseudoscience is becoming too extreme for me to stay quiet. I am going to be writing something like I did with religion and spirituality. The problem with tolerating quacks and quackery is that the same concept of quackery has been used to punish women throughout history. We tolerate a lot of quackery and pseudoscience because we term it harmless. But I absolutely believe that tolerating one kind of pseudoscience allows the propagation of other kinds of pseudosciences. Take the example of anti-vaccination movement. It exists in a society where anyone ‘knows’ science without even understanding the scientific method. Be it the anti-vaccination mothers, or not understanding the placebo effect nor anecdotal evidence, I don’t deny the sincerity of the people. I do agree that the tears of a mother on TV complaining about vaccines are real. But that doesn’t mean she is right scientifically. Over the long-run, these feelings and pseudosciences hurt us as individuals and as a society (take climate change denial as an example). Even societies who have killed women as witches think they are doing something good. As Mark Twain once said – “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” (because of feelings, confirmation bias, and other psychological reasons I won’t go into here). So it is important to teach people how the scientific method works and how to ask questions so we don’t get conned by quacks. It is easier to prevent quackery when it is trying to take hold than to eradicate quackery. At least in many developing parts of the world, quackery and women’s rights is still a very inter-related issue.