On Activism, And The Man Who Came In My Eye.
Seated on Mumbai’s bloated shoreline, a man called Omar told me he wanted to be a Bollywood star. “But not all wishes become true,” he said sadly, already afflicted by the soap-opera insincerity of his supposed vocation.
A fish was strangled in a plastic beer-ring barnacle and its swollen and blanched body was beating itself against the rocks that a mobster ordered the government to purchase. Or so he said.
See, Omar was a liar. He said so many things to me that were untrue. That his father was an obscenely wealthy tycoon: Omar lived in a slum on the edge of the city, in a room shared with three other men. I did not care, but he did, and he lied. He said, foolishly, that he loved me. He had known me three days. He loved the idea of me, perhaps. Perhaps not. He told me the people photographing him holding the hand of a white girl were paparazzi. That in some circles, he was already a star. I asked, for what. He winked conspiratorially. Omar’s tongue was wound tight around stories he had told so many times that he almost believed them.
But he embodied my experience of his country: a man trying so vehemently to be something other than he was, in the hope that by pretending hard enough, it would come to be. I never held his desperation to be something other than himself against him. We all tell ourselves stories.
But a year after saying goodbye, I wish I hadn’t been so careless with his phone number. There are things I do not forgive, and I wish I could tell him. We slept together the night before I left Mumbai and I slipped his business card into the wastepaper bin as he pulled on his clothes, after ejaculating in my eye. This was one of many acts within our sexual encounter that made me feel used and filthy. His idea of sex was what he had seen in porn, which so often portrays women as existing purely for the pleasure of the man in the scene. He even requested that I reenact a scenario from one such film, and was aghast when I refused, as it crossed my personal boundaries. This is far from the first time I have experienced this: sexually liberated as I consider myself to be, there is much that I am not willing to do, and know that I have the right to say no. In my experience, however, there are so many ultimate fantasies inherited from the screen, which have little to do with my conception of making love.
I was angry at the way he had used my body, expectant of flesh as slippery and white as the lightless interior of a rose. My cheeks, blushing as petals. As he writhed about in the bed of one of the only hotels in Mumbai that would allow Indian men and Western women in the same room, I realised I could be anyone at all. I felt as prized as a blow-up doll, and became aware that our whole week of whisked romance had been orchestrated for this, the only finale he had written for a script he, alone, knew from the start.
I have tried very hard to believe that Omar is not a bad man. In the same way that I try very hard to believe that there is no such thing as a bad man, or indeed a bad person. I recently had a discussion with three of my male friends about rape culture, in which one of them tried to claim that with young men’s raging hormones, it was very difficult to restrain themselves around women. I don’t believe this for a moment. But I think what he was actually trying to say (before his argument became confused and afflicted by doctrine) is that blame does not lie solely with the man performing an act, but with the wider societal view around the treatment of women. The fact that a man commandeered a discussion around rape culture to speak in support of a man’s supposed inability to contain his rampant sexual desire is indicative of this.
Omar’s attitude to my body was inherited, and there is a part of me that wonders whether I could have expected more from him. While I would never condone sexual abuse or, as in this case, making a person feel uncomfortable and pressured during a sexual encounter, I don’t know what can be gained from hating him. What I hate is the historical, societal and cultural context that created a man who, despite many other good traits, sees a girl as a sex toy. I am angry that this was acceptable to him, but far angrier at the reasons why it became acceptable in the first place.
The problem, however, is that I don’t know what to do about it.
Lately I have been frustrated by what I term Facebook activism. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. Hey look, I’m blogging about misogyny. But it seems that in this day of broadcasted identity in which #justice is trending, we are all seeking to publicize our political standpoint. Even the term feminist, a label many once shirked, is now a status symbol. We like and we share what we feel we should support, but often do not leave our computer chairs to act upon it. It is much the same in the spoken word poetry world (of which I am a part, also): we sermonize tolerance to a crowd that agrees with us and validate ourselves with their applause.
A good friend once shared a poem about his sexuality with me, presented as a war between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It was a great poem. But I asked him where he would be performing this piece, and he said in front of his regular poetry crew. I said to him that most of these people already fully supported him, and agreed with his standpoint. In much the same way as I filter my news sources by following those who lean almost horizontally left on twitter, he would be offering his audience an argument that he had already won. And when a post goes viral amongst people with similar world views, are we changing anything? Do the politicians read out Facebook walls? Do poetry audiences really join the rallies?
Sure, we all differ, even within similar circles. There are a great number of fierce activist poets, who do make a difference from and beyond the stage. We do not all know how to be allies, even if the intent is there. And no doubt Big Brother is watching our Facebook walls and alerting the policy makers. There is certainly something to be said for the building of awareness. But to whom are we spreading awareness? Or are we simply preaching to the choir?
I do not know a single person who voted for Tony Abbot. And yet, he is the prime minister of Australia. I do not know a single person who supports his party’s refugee policy. And yet women and children are suffering in Nauru. I hear a whole lot of poetry about how we should fight wars with our pens, rather than our swords. And I know a lot of people who have been inspired to write activist poetry by listening to activist poetry. But I am yet to have met many who were inspired to act.
I am wondering what activism means without action. I don’t know how to change a system when I only occupy the far left corner. Our worlds are only as wide as we choose to make them, and when our identities are so intertwined with our social networking, I am wondering if what we share is more fashion statement than fundamental belief. Or if it is fundamental belief, why are we content with statuses and likes and posts, instead of action? I also think we are so immersed in it that perhaps we do not even know what it is that we are doing. And I think it is embarrassing to admit that at least a part of what we offer to the world is actually all for show. Perhaps I am wrong. I know there are people to whom this does not apply. But I think there are people to whom it does apply, because I think, at times, I am one of them.
If I had not left Omar’s details in the bin, I would have written to him to say that I am sorry. I am not sorry for they way he treated me. I am not sorry that I allowed him to, because I do not blame myself. I, too, am a product of my society, my upbringing, my culture, my gender and the politics held therein. For all my claims of empowerment I am forging my own path as shakily and misguidedly as anyone else. I am not, as the old trope goes, merely a ‘strong woman.’ I am a woman, a flawed one, a seeking one, and a trusting one. I am a outcome of my society, and am damn lucky that I was offered the tools to question it. This doesn’t mean I have the tools to change it. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
So I would tell Omar that I am sorry that he has been raised to think the way he treated me is okay. I am sorry that he doesn’t know any better. And I am sorry that my attempt to change his mind would fall on deaf ears. I am sorry that one man, one person, one moment, one like, one share, one viral post, one news story, one arrest, one jail sentence, will never be enough. I am sorry that I do not believe that this post will change a thing.
I would go back in memory and say I’m sorry, Omar, for not believing you. Your apartment is almost ready. The paparazzi are here, pose, my superstar, take my hand. The world is an oyster we’ll slurp from a Bondi-beach bistro when we love each other but for now, I’ll lie back and let you beat your body turgid against me. I will run a single finger down your spine and take you home and put you to bed, my little boy dressed like a full-grown man, I will save you, Omar, India, men, Omar, even if we, the mobster, the dead fish and the children who pick at its swollen flesh still doubt that I can.