The Empire Strikes Back. With Ice Cream.

I’d interviewed the Desert Chill team last August while I was interning with Time Out Dubai. I re-wrote the piece and added the British element to it as part of my module submission for my MA Magazine Journalism course.


An integral part of British culture is an ice cream van cruising the streets playing its tunes and selling its chilly wares. When British expats in the United Arab Emirates noticed the lack of ice cream vans in a country that’s known for hitting 50 degrees on the thermometer, they decided to take a little bit of Britain with them.

There’s not a cloud in the sky. The breezeless streets are empty. Surrounded by cream houses and royal Poinciana trees on either side of the narrow street, we want something, anything, to relieve us from this heat. Then we hear ‘Greensleeves’ in the distance. An ice cream van. We’re home.

Or not.

Contrary to what you might think, we’re not in a street in Britain over the summer months. We are in Dubai, where the temperature can cross the 50 degrees mark in the summer. And we have just spotted their first ever ice cream van.

One would imagine that a city like Dubai needs ice cream the way Britain needs wellies. But they didn’t have a single ice cream van in the whole country. Not until a year ago.

When Dan Furlong left Essex to visit his parents in Dubai last year, he noticed something: Malls? Check. Beaches? Check. Skyscrapers? Check. Ice cream vans? Not one.

As we scramble into the back of the van – which is expectedly cooler than the sauna outside – Dan says, ‘You often see ice cream vans in the UK. I asked a few friends if they’d ever seen one in Dubai and they said, funnily enough, they hadn’t.’

Indeed, the English would find it odd that a country as hot, dry and humid as U.A.E. did not have an ice cream van when their wet and chilly country did. It’s almost a ritual when growing up in England – to buy ice cream from a van.

Dan was used to having ice cream vans in the street in Essex, especially during the summer. Dan consulted Google and did some research. “I saw a niche in the market and since I’ve always wanted a family business, me and my brother, Nathen, decided to go ahead with this plan.”

Fast forward nine months of the setting up process which included getting necessary permits from authorities, finding the right van, pimping it up and selling their concept. Finally, Desert Chill was born.

The only stumbling block they faced was explaining their concept to people who had only ever seen ice cream vans in British movies and read about them in Enid Blyton books.

Now, with 8 months of experience under their (air-conditioned) belt, they have an established customer base in the areas that they serve. 

Although the very concept of ice cream vans is alien in the country, Dan informs us that their customer base is very wide. Not only do the British, perhaps longing for a touch of home, flock to the van, other expatriates and Emirati nationals have taken to Desert Chill like a camel to sand.

Speaking of camels, their official logo is an image of a camel licking an ice cream cone. Dan, who eventually wants to produce their own ice cream, explains the logo, “I wanted to create a brand that was culturally sensitive. Also, I wanted to create something I could take across the Middle East. Anywhere there are camels and deserts, the van is going to go.”

Months have passed since their launch in Dubai, yet they still encounter shocked and incredulous looks.

Dan says, “There is definitely an initial shock factor. We often get people who approach the van and ask what we’re doing. We explain Desert Chill to them and they’re fascinated by it.”

People are also curious about the tune that blares out from the van’s speakers as it cruises on the green, leafy streets of the Meadows and the Springs – the gated complexes meant to mimic the suburbs of Wisteria Lane. It is the inherently English tune ‘Greensleeves’, which so many people from England identify with.

Apart from the Furlong’s homage to tradition – or psychotic, gouty kings, as the case may be – Desert Chill also has a host of other music.

“The van is stocked with over 60 tunes. We even have a happy birthday tune, so when we go to children’s parties the van plays the happy birthday music. That’s a good surprise for the children!”

The brothers love catering for parties. “We do a lot of parties – it’s one part of the business we really enjoy. We provide ice cream cake, play music and serve all the children ice cream from our regular menu.”

One wonders if the extreme heat conditions of the desert city pose problems to their business, the very core of which is centred on being cold. Dan says, “No, it’s not a problem at all. Obviously we’ve got everything in place to deal with heat in terms of van conversion. And as you said, it’s hot; it’s the perfect treat for someone to cool down.”

What’s next for the young entrepreneurs? Desert Chill currently services all the EMAAR and Nakheel properties and are now moving into the streets of the capital – Abu Dhabi. 

“We’ve got quite a big footprint,” Dan says. With three vans, the brothers still drive a few times a week and plan to keep doing so when they expand their business. “My brother and I have always taken an active role in the business and it’s also very good to keep in touch with our customers.”

Desert Chill is also launching a home delivery service. Customers can order packs of ice cream, ice cream cakes, normal cakes and desserts to be sent to them at their convenience. “Instead of them melting when you buy ice cream at a supermarket, we send it in a freezer truck right to your door,” says Dan.

It’s time for us to descend from the cold heaven to the bath-tub of sweat outside. Perhaps seeing the sheen of sweat already forming on our brow, Dan takes pity on us. As the van drives off with its welcome treats, we stand there watching it go with music blaring from its speakers, clutching our Magnum Classic.


Britishers Reminisce

Amy McNichol, 23, from Wakefield, says that she was about 3 years old when she first bought ice cream from an ice cream van. “There used to be an orange one on my street called ‘Johnny’s ice cream’ and was run by an Italian woman,” says Amy, with a touch of nostalgia. Amy, who is currently based in Sheffield, said it would be odd for her to go somewhere in the UK that didn’t have ice cream vans. “I wouldn’t like to go, for example to the seaside, and not see an ice cream van. It would be a bit weird.” 

Khadijah Rawat, 21, from Preston, says her father used to take her to the local park every weekend, at the end of which he would buy her and her sister ice cream from a van passing by. She says that every single day in the summer months, the same ice cream van with the same driver passes her house. “I still buy ice cream from him: a 99 – with nuts, chocolate sprinkles, some blue sherbet and strawberry sauce!” Khadijah admits though, that she buys less from ice cream vans as she’s grown older. “The sparkle you have as a kid – it’s just not there anymore.”

Aadil Kazi, 24, from Leicester, says, “I think I was about 6 or 7 – I remember hearing the music and running out to buy a 99. If I go to the park, I always have ice cream from a van. Now, my nephews are doing the same thing I used to do many years ago – run out to catch the ice cream van.”


Fourteen diaries and a Funeral

This was my real life piece for my portfolio last semester. Written in December 2009.

When I was seven years old, my grandfather gave me my first ever diary. It was a hard-bound book, brilliantly coloured, aimed at young children with fascinating facts and games inside as a bonus. “Write in this”, he said. “Write about what happens in your day. You’re a smart girl pora, you will write well.” I started writing in it because he wanted me to. I continued because I loved it. Initially, all my diary entries were focused on the different foods I’d eaten that day. And during term-time, they revolved around how much I hated Maths. And the girl who sat behind me. But every single year, my grandfather would buy me a diary and encourage me to write.

Next year, he won’t be able to.

I was shopping with my mother in a market one hot morning in Dubai. We were not looking forward to the summer ahead; it was my brother’s last day of school and this was the final morning we would have free for ourselves. My brother is autistic, so during his school holidays it proves very hard for my mother and me to find some free time for ourselves. As we were browsing through a section of ugly Crocs shoes, my mother’s mobile phone started ringing, its Bollywood tune drowned out by the hum of the other shoppers.

After the call ended, my mother said: “It was Gummy. She said Gappa had fainted.” I call my grandmother ‘Gummy’ and my grandfather ‘Gappa’ – a remnant of my young, toothless days when I could not say ‘Grandmummy’ and ‘Grandpapa’ in full.

We were not too worried; even though my grandfather had been recently ill with breathing problems, he had been discharged from the hospital on that account and was recovering.

Yet five minutes later, the phone rang again. My mother listened intently, her brow creased into an anxious frown. “I don’t know what’s happening. He’s not waking up and they’re calling an ambulance”, she explained frantically after she finished talking. We hurried back to the car and I drove like a maniac towards my grandparents’ house. My heart sank when I saw a police car stationed outside – in the U.A.E., a police car stationed outside a home when an ambulance has been called is not a good sign. I dropped my mother off and drove to another part of the city. Just moments after I entered the big and pretentious shopping mall where my brother was waiting to be picked up, my mother called.

“They’ve taken the body away,” she said.

I was expecting the words, but it didn’t prepare me for the stomach-clenching effect it had.

With one stroke, my grandfather had become a body. He was gone.

I was left with a fake smile plastered on my face as I took my brother from the care of his teacher, only breaking down when I went back to my car. My whole life I had been loved by Gappa. Now he was no more and I had never felt so empty.

Gappa had been a freelance journalist for The Indian Express newspaper for a few years, so perhaps he knew a passion for writing was lying dormant in my genes just waiting to be nurtured. What his reasons may have been, he released something in me very precious…my love of writing and expressing myself.

As I grew older, the nature of my diary entries changed; they were more about my life than the food in it. When I was 14 I asked him to stop buying me the diaries. “These are too childish for me Gappa. Also, I want to write more than the space these books give me”, I said. He nodded his head, as if agreeing with me, but said nothing at the time. But before I could buy one myself, he bought me a hard-bound book, with just pages and pages of lines waiting to be filled. No trivia and no crosswords. I had grown up. “Here,” he said gruffly but kindly, “No need to buy a diary yourself. What am I there for?”

When I was 19, two things happened. I was in the hospital for a week after an appendicitis operation that had all the potential to go wrong. It was Gappa who sat with me every day, coming straight from a long day at the office. He would sit in a corner, read the newspaper and tell me what topics were being talked about that day. After I recovered over a month later, I started working as an intern at a newspaper. He bought the newspaper every time I was published with a by-line and told the local grocer his granddaughter was a journalist. Then he told the vegetable market trader, then the sweet shop owner. His pride in me was evident and I felt embarrassed but quietly pleased. Now, quite a few people who work in various kinds of shops know I write, thanks to him.

Years slipped by. I was accepted to all the universities I applied to for my Masters degree (“No surprise”, he said when I told him. “You’re my smart girl”) and had zeroed in on Sheffield. He was excited for me, at the same time worried about how his first grandchild would handle herself alone for the first time. He told me to concentrate on my studies and said: “Don’t forget me. Send me photographs.”

Even months before I was due to leave, he would say: “You need to write more. Write to the newspapers and magazines…write beautifully and you will get published.” As if telling me was not enough, he would call me frequently and say that he had something exciting to show me. The next time I’d meet him, he’d hand me writing competitions along with a bunch of cuttings, either involving articles or comment pieces he thought would inspire me. It sometimes seemed as though he was more desperate than I was to get me published. But I never minded. It was just his way of showing me he thought I was good enough. No one else showed as much faith and love for my writing career as he did.

Less than a month after that fateful phone call, I got an internship with Time Out Dubai. It was the pinnacle of my writing career so far and I should have been ecstatic. Instead all I could manage was disappointment and regret. This was what Gappa wanted. He was the first person I wanted to tell. Now I couldn’t. All because his heart had given out with no explanation.

After he passed away, my diary entries came to a full stop. I wrote about the funeral and that was it. It was as if my will… my need to write in my diary had died along with him. It had never been a chore to write in my diary every single day before that. Sometimes I’d go on for pages and pages and still feel like I had more to express.

Eventually, my not putting my thoughts to paper had an adverse effect.

The first time I had a panic attack, was a few days after he died. One night, I was in my room, trying to sleep. The thoughts of Gappa were in my head and after my sobs receded, my chest started hurting. My head started hurting too and my breathing turned to shallow gasps. I slipped out of my room and bullied my mother into sleeping in my bed. I held her tightly and eventually slept.

I found out I was having panic attacks. That was only the beginning. They became frequent and debilitating. A flash of understanding hit me after the first time I shared my thoughts with a friend; he mentioned that it looked like I needed to talk to somebody. I was about to answer that I tell my diary everything, however corny that might have sounded.

But I didn’t tell my diary anything anymore. It struck me that the lack of being able to express myself led to the onset of the severe panic attacks. I’d used my diary as an outlet for any troubles or dilemmas I’d had. But my diary had been empty after June 2009…pages waiting to be filled, waiting to hear my voice. The attacks, while in existence before, had never been physically painful. However, the chest pains began only after his death and when I stopped writing.

I think my Gappa was a smart man. Maybe he didn’t just want me to write better. Maybe he just wanted me to be able to talk about my problems and not let them interfere with the daily routine of my life.

Now seems to be a good night as any to start talking. Even though I wasn’t writing in my diary, I carried it around everywhere. I looked at the back of the drawer in my room and pulled out the brown, wooden journal. As I opened the pages, I was scared as I wondered if I was ready to write again. I had empty pages where my life in the last six months should have been. But apart from being scared, I was relieved that I would finally have an outlet for my highs, lows, frustrations and joy again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and poised my pen over the blank sheet of paper. ‘What should I write?’ I thought. I persevered and as the clock ticked on, the pen began flowing over the paper. Two hours and 10 pages later, I stopped. I felt free again.

It’s been 6 months since Gappa died and while I will always miss him I no longer think I have lost him. Every time I pick up my diary I can picture his face telling me to: “Write more pora, write more.”

The Freedom Express

Search for ‘Voltaire’ on my blog. Go on. It will now show up in three posts. I really must stop quoting him. Well, not him exactly. The quote which actually comes from The Friends of Voltaire (1906), written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre is so apt, how can I not use it when the concept of free press or freedom of expression comes up?

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

According to the Press Freedom Index 2009 list released by Reporters Without Borders, India ranks 105th out of 175 countries (Read this detailed report on the country).

In celebration of World Press Freedom Day, the project India Unheard was launched on May 3 2010, according to Times of India. This video gives us a brief introduction to the citizen journalists who have been trained in using technology like mobile phone video cameras to bring stories to the mainstream media.

Currently the website looks a bit bare, but if the correspondents keep at it, this concept does look promising. On one hand, a handful of people try to report on lesser known stories of the country. On the other, reporters get attacked by mobs because something they printed didn’t sit down too well among certain factions. A certain level of self-censorship does reek through the ranks of the press of the world’s largest democracy. This article in the Telegraph outlines the rife religious undercurrents in the country that can erupt at the slightest provocation or what seems to be one. A line from this article that hit me:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for press freedom. But when you know the possible outcome, it’s best to be practical and avoid these situations.

Practicality vs Truth. Safety vs Physical harm. What would the rest of us do? What would I do? I refuse to be a hypocrite and say I’d print whatever I want without thinking of the ramifications – I would definitely think of the outcome and work accordingly. But if that’s the case – if journalists everywhere have some semblance of self-censorship, then how can ANY country claim to be truly free?

I may want to defend the right of people to speak freely; that doesn’t guarantee I’ll speak freely myself. Will World Press Freedom Day ever see the press completely free? Should it even be completely free? Playing devil’s advocate – if the media published anything that caught their fancy, then what’s to stop hate speeches or incitement-of-hatred articles to get out there?

But who decides what is okay to publish and what’s not?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Or to put it in the words from a 2009 movie, “Who will watch the watchmen?”

Soaps of our Indian lives

Many years ago, the mailboxes of a television network crashed. Newspapers were writing of the tragedy of someone’s death. People were in tears. Why? Because a character on a television soap died (eventually the makers of the series had to bring the character ‘back to life’ under immense public pressure). The power of television in India was paramount (I say “was” because I no longer believe Indian television arouses mass hysteria as it used to. I may be wrong though; I gave up watching most Indian serials a few years ago).

I read an interesting story on research on the positive aspects of soap operas a while ago and I was a bit aghast. While the article mentioned that soap operas helped in furthering education and development in their respective countries of origin, I sat stymied.

The Indian soap opera boom started in the late 90s-early 00s when the typical saas-bahu (mother-in-law — daughter-in-law) serials were born. In the story I’ve linked to in the previous paragraph, here are the excerpts about Indian soap operas:

Others have found that in India — where soaps dominate the airwaves — villages where people watch more TV give more responsibilities and rights to women and girls.

Researchers have found a similar effect on the other side of the world, in rural India. Two economists, Emily Oster at the University of Chicago and Robert Jensen at UCLA, looked at surveys on a range of social attitudes in five Indian states from 2001 to 2003, a time of rapid expansion in access to cable TV. As with Brazil’s Rede Globo, Oster and Jensen found that the spread of cable brought down the fertility rate, but they found other changes as well: Women with cable access were less approving of the idea that a husband could justifiably beat his wife, and reported having more autonomy and more of a role in household financial matters. Their daughters were more likely to be enrolled in school.

I read this and scoffed. Pardon me for doing so, but the mindless contraptions that dominated the Indian airwaves during this period were nothing short of regressive (in my opinion anyway!). I found this blog post on Reuters that I agreed with on the state of television serials in India.

The mindlessness of some of these serials suck people into a vortex of impossible mind-numbing plotlines and never lets them go. For some insight into a handful of preposterous plots, think of characters who have died a gazillion times, yet always come back; think of the innumerable shows where, in order to prolong the series, they kill off the main characters and re-incarnate them. How can I not assume India soap operas are insanely hyped and wrongly held in esteem when I read news like this?

Of course, articles such as these give a voice to the proponents of these serials who believe that they are truly trying to do good. That their serials are contributing to the development of the nation. A line from this article:

…the show is among a growing number that use their influence as an occasional platform to educate viewers, most of them middle-class women and housewives, about a variety of social causes, from treating diarrhea to the rights of women and the importance of donating to tsunami victims.

Yes, I agree that Indian soaps do manage to seep in causes that need to be highlighted in the country. This article highlights how some TV serials can do that.

But not always.

Most of the serials are based in metropolitan cities of India, which have become westernized in their own way. So ‘traditionalists’ viewing these serials become infuriated by the “independence” shown by women going to offices and divorcing their husbands and goodness knows what else. Perhaps it is because of this reason that serials introduced elements to their shows that did not contribute to the improvement of social situations in the country but worsened them.

Thanks to these serials, this is what the people of India absorb: cheating husbands are constantly forgiven for their behaviour by self-sacrificing wives, mother-in-law’s are invariably conniving evil souls (if it’s not the MIL case in the evil role, it’s the sister-in-law), women who wear western clothes are loose/uncaring/cold/adultresses/the Kraken (Okay, I kid about the Kraken. Or not.), women who marry those their parents oppose eventually turn out to be cads, and so much more.

Or am I just a victim of media imperialism where I  find locally produced shows inadequate? No. Because really, how can anyone take television seriously as a medium of developmental journalism if it perpetuates social inequalities and damages your brain cells?

  • Read this article about how India is influencing Brazilian soaps – Sepia Mutiny

Twitter, Dubai and Journalism

Note: I’ve included this post in “Journalism, Globalization and Development” because I felt it related to the question raised in the presentation I did last week on whether social media has led to any changes in journalism or not. While I’ve focused on India till now as the subject for my JNL6027 posts, this time I digress. 

On Tuesday, 11th May 2010, I rolled out of bed, looked at my Twitter feed and froze. I got on a phone call with my mother and said: “Mom, there’s a fire in Sharjah and it’s huge. Expect traffic after you pick Karan up from school.” What’s so weird about that? Not much, other than the fact I was calling her from the comfort of my room in Sheffield to tell her about a fire that started in the United Arab Emirates. That is the power of Twitter.

Twitter is an important part of my life now. Apart from my official account (Shameless plug: @DevinaDivecha), I also handle the account for the magazine the MA Magazine Journalism students created for election week (yet another shameless plug: @SoapboxMagazine).

Two weeks ago, I was part of a group that gave a presentation on blogging and new media activism (you can view it here if you’re interested: JNL6027 on Prezi) and one of the questions that cropped up was whether new media technologies like Twitter, Facebook etc can contribute to responsible journalism or are they a threat.

The incident Tuesday morning made me think of Twitter’s contribution to journalism in the U.A.E. I distinctly remember that it was August 2006 when I first noticed newspapers using blogs as a source for stories. Now, using blogs to hunt for story leads is passé . Twitter is la mode du jour.

The earliest I remember Twitter ‘breaking’ a news story was in August 2009. Then 21-year-old @MaliZomg tweeted that a building had collapsed in a certain part of Dubai. That was enough to get the newshounds on the trail of the story. He was quoted as a verifiable source in reports on news websites because he twitpic’d the scene in front of him (also view this for a timeline of his tweets on the subject). The photo he took was also used in aforementioned stories with due credit. As for the fire in Sharjah on Tuesday, another Twitter user @albertdias, who was on a call on Dubai Eye, gave an eyewitness account on radio and uploaded pictures of the blaze on Twitter. His version of events was the first thing to appear on news websites for the story (Read more about the fire here).

The internet has proved to be a very useful resource for journalists to get leads. However, I must stress that while it’s all very well to find amazing sources online, it doesn’t replace getting out in the field and getting your hands dirty. It has been drummed into me during my MA that we need to combine using real-time information with actual journalistic work. I personally feel that new media technologies can only contribute to journalism but only if used right. Breaking news based on tweets or blogs is acceptable if you can verify that the information is true (for example, more than one person tweeting/blogging about it, pictures) but then what? Following up on the story is important – you can’t just stuff your piece with quotes cut-and-pasted from online without getting some work done yourself.

New media technologies have simply brought sources closer to the journalist – it hasn’t made the sources journalists themselves. Well…not yet anyway.

Soapbox – Magazine produced by MA Magazine Journalism students

As part of election week, the University of Sheffield hosts a production week where classes are not held and budding journalists do something for election week in their specialization. The Print students produced two 12-page newspapers, the Broadcast students did TV and radio packages on election night, and the Web students were handling the JUS News website.

The Magazine students created a 60-page political magazine called Soapbox. I’m really proud of the effort and work that’s gone into this magazine…Added to the praise we received from our tutors, publishing this magazine feels like an achievement and adds to everyone’s portfolio of work.

Hope you like it! (Find us on Twitter: @SoapboxMagazine)

Read Soapbox!!!

Cover of Soapbox

Interviews with Anna Arrow-Smith, Bridget Phillipson, Rod Rodgers, chasing the BNP, hobnobbing with the Greens, a hilarious TV debate round-up, dabbling with the Monster Raving Loony Party, a poem by Ian McMillan and so much more!

Honour (?) in the modern world

As is my wont to ask random questions, I once put forth this query to someone I knew: “What is your take on honour killings?

He replied: “I think it’s acceptable under some circumstances.”

I was – and still am – aghast that an educated person could think that a ritual as barbaric as honour killings was not wrong.

Sadly, this is the case in India – honour killings are common and practised by rural and urban people alike. In a case that’s been in the news over the last few days, a man killed his sister’s husband because their family did not approve of their marriage. Another case: a female journalist was found dead and her mother has been arrested on the charge of murdering her. What was the motive? Apparently, Nirupama Pathak (the 23-year-old journalist) made the mistake of falling in love with a boy from another caste. That was enough to have the family in an uproar. It also seemed a good enough reason to kill her rather than have the “shame” of the daughter of the house marrying someone from a different caste (Coverage in TimesOnline).

The crime shows yet again how ‘honour killings’ cannot be considered the curse of rural India where panchayats often order the execution of young couples who dare to cross caste borders.  Nirupama’s father worked at a bank, her brothers were PhDs, the family had helped Nirupama to move far from home to follow her dreams.

Read about similar cases:

At this point, I digress towards the critiques of the modernization paradigm of developmental journalism. According to Servaes (1999: 17), the modernization paradigm…supported the transfer of technology and the sociopolitical culture of developed societies to “traditional” or “underdeveloped” societies. The problem many found with this paradigm is that Western ideologies were imposed on an undeveloped nation or developing nation without taking into account the socio-political and cultural situation of the country that needed to be “modernized”. Also, the way of “modernizing” the indigenous population employed a top-down approach rather than involving them in the development process.

In my last post, I discussed the concept of digital divide as it applied in India as well as the aspect of how the modernization paradigm doesn’t always work as technology and development should be adapted to the needs of the country in question. However, there is another way to look at it.

On one hand, it can be argued that countries resent a Western ideology being imposed on them and the Western way of thinking is definitely not the be-all and end-all goal to reach. However, if practices such as honour killings and dowry have seeped into the “culture” of a country, then do we keep quiet? Does it mean that those who oppose the modernization paradigm stand back and sit quiet because hey, let us not foist our ideas on the indigenous population? Do we tell the people who think it’s alright to kill someone for the protection of their inflated and false sense of “honour” to keep thinking the way they do? Do we not even try to change their minds? It’s sad because those who practice this kind of behaviour will turn around and tell those who want to change their minds: “Don’t try and talk to us about how what we’re doing is wrong. This is how we do it in our culture. Keep your Western ideas out of it.”

While Western ideas are NOT all there are…there are some concepts that transcend the East and West. The concept that killing people because they married someone you didn’t like is wrong. The concept that dowry is not acceptable in any circumstance whatsoever. The concept that murdering female babies/children is barbaric. These concepts are not Western. They’re humanitarian.

What is scary – to me anyway – with regard to honour killings is that when even educated people (cases in point: the family of Nirupama Pathak and the person who made the comment at the beginning of this post) think that this is a sanctioned way of behaving, what hope do the proponents of the modernization paradigm have in bringing light to these misguided souls?

Bridging the Digital Divide

Every morning, I’m on my Chrome 4.1 browser checking my many email accounts (of which I have 7. Or 8. I can never remember), looking at my Twitter feed on Seesmic and Skype-ing away simultaneously. All this before my breakfast, mind you. Yet some people haven’t even seen a computer, forget knowing what a ‘trending topic’ is.

Globalization and the digital divide are such paradoxical concepts but manage to exist side-by-side in many parts of the world. On one hand the reach of the internet breaks down geographical barriers, while on the other there are a vast number of people who don’t even know what the internet is.

In this map of Internet users worldwide, you can see the internet penetration in India  as of February 2008 is only between 4.9-13%. Many schemes have been in the pipeline to bridge the digital divide between the urban and rural areas and I think a trend is emerging where mobile phones have been shown to be more useful to the people than laptops and computers. Here’s a look at some of the efforts:

This article by the BBC highlights the methods by which SMS activism is used by villagers in India to talk about issues that are most important to them.

CGnet Swara (Chhattisgarh Net Voice) is an attempt to cater to people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, says Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist-turned-activist and the brain behind CGnet Swara. “We are providing a new platform which the villagers can use to talk to each other and the outside world about issues that are important to them,” he says.

Another point: would the internet even be useful to people who cannot read? There are, in India, a large number of illiterate people. According to the India Literacy Project, the literacy rate in India as per the 2001 census was 65.38%. Male literacy rate stood at 75.85%, while the female literacy rate was a measly 54.16%. It will be interesting to see what the next census results will reveal. This article on India Today shares news that a PhD researcher is trying to make mobile phones text-free – the idea is to make them visual not textual. Definitely an interesting development to look at in the future.

Statistics showing India‘s education level on tells us that as of 2007, only 7 out of every 100 Indians were Internet users while 20 out of every 100 had phones – another point in favour of using mobile phones. With this regard, read an interview with Gurudath Banavar, the Director of IBM India Research Lab on the promise of the “Spoken Web” in bridging existing gaps. He said:

This is compelling for people who don’t have access to the Internet, or are not able to read or write. Anyone with access to a phone–mobile or landline–will be able to access the Spoken Web.

Perhaps in an effort to encourage further innovation and development with regard to reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots of the digital world, the Manthan Awards ceremony was set up 7 years ago to recognize strides in the South Asian world that have contributed towards lessening this gap.

Even in 2002, covered this phenomenon where people carrying mobile phones travel the villages of India in order to connect the villagers to the rest of the country.

This does imply, to me, that the modernization paradigm of developmental journalism doesn’t work – what the western world thinks of as ‘modern’ isn’t necessarily so. Luis Ramiro Beltrán pointed out that the definition of modernity…was one elaborated by the USA and implemented by experts trained in the USA (Sparks, 2007: 41). Internet users all over the world, where penetration levels are at its highest, cannot imagine their life without it. I certainly can’t. But is the internet the be-all and end-all for everyone? Not in the least. Do villagers need the internet? Or do they simply need better connectivity? If mobile phones give them that, with more ease than the internet does, then who are we to argue?

As I’d like to say … whatever floats your boat.

Of Pink Pants and Eve-Teasing

July 2003: I was 16 and for the most part, ungainly and awkward. I had volunteered to assist the school librarian during the summer vacation to re-organize stacks of books in the library. My trade-off was getting books to read. One day, I took a shortcut on my walk home which meant passing through a sports club. That day a huge group of young boys, kicking their footballs around, was in the area. As I soldiered through, a few of them deliberately walked in my path, heckled, laughed and started blurting out obscenities aimed at me. I kept my eyes down and continued to walk steadily, completely flushed. What did I do when I got home? Tell my mother how I felt? Talk to her about what I should have done instead? Wrong. I did absolutely nothing and told no one. Instead I felt dirty and ashamed. Currently however, what can women do if this – or worse forms of eve-teasing – happens to them? Apart from legal action of any kind, they can just go online. Confused? Keep reading.

Hand-in-hand with the reality of the Internet exists the concept of globalization. According to Sparks (2007: 126), there is no single theory of globalization that commands common assent. As Held and his collaborators put it … : “no single coherent theory of globalization exsits’ (Held et al., 1999:436). Apart from a consensus that globalization implies being more connected with people and areas at a distance, various theories differ in ‘fundamental ways’. The Internet has played a huge role in increasing that sense of inter-connectedness, lending further credence to the concept of ‘global village‘ as put forward by Marshall McLuhan.

When the internet was invented, could the founders have envisaged that it would become, not just a way to share information, but a tool for social change? Sparks mentions (2007: 198) that the Internet provides ‘an important tool which is usable by radical movements as part of their drive towards self-organization.’ But even as a way of bringing about change, how effective is it? When I try to think of movements in India that were propelled further because of the power of the internet, only two come to mind: Blank Noise and the Pink Chaddi Campaign (to those readers who have no idea what ‘chaddi’ means, it means ‘pants’ if you’re in the UK and ‘underwear’ if elsewhere!).

Pink Chaddi Campaign

Members of a right-wing Hindu group called Sri Ram Sena stormed into a pub in Mangalore on 24 January 2009 and attacked a group of people, mostly women, justifying it with their warped belief that the women were destroying all traditional Hindu values by sitting in a pub and therefore deserved to be humiliated. They dragged the women out into the street, hit them, kicked them and revelled in it.

The attack, which was widely publicized on news channels andclippings of which could be found on YouTube, was denounced by many. A group of women, led by Nisha Susan, decided to use the internet to call for shaming the leader of the Sri Ram Sena, Pramod Muthalik. Using a blog and Facebook (they formed a Facebook group called “Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women”) they rallied to send pink chaddis (pants/underwear/whatever you call them) to Pramod Muthalik and send messages of love and peace to him on February 14, Valentine’s Day (Note: right-wing Hindu groups in India, like the SRS believe that celebrating Valentine’s Day is a defacement of Hindu values and often resort of hooliganism to stop any sign of celebrations of the same).

The movement was a success in that people (men included) sent thousands of pink chaddis to Muthalik on Valentine’s Day and in so doing, garnered a lot of attention in the media, further highlighting their cause.

However, after Valentine’s Day, their Facebook group was hacked into and insulting messages posted all over it. Facebook had to take the group down and the founders have decided to not use that social networking site again.

In addition, after the furore the pink chaddi campaign caused, as with most well-meaning campaigns, it slowly ebbed out of the news and hasn’t been repeated again.

  • View the current blog of Pink Chaddi founder, Nisha Susan
  • Read the article ‘Why we said pants to India’s bigots‘ in The Observer
  • View the official blog of the Pink Chaddi Campaign
  • View the TV news coverage of the Pink Chaddi Campaign

Blank Noise

Being eve-teased is a form of sexual harrassment. Tired of women being told ‘they asked for it’ because of the clothes they were wearing, Blank Noise was launched in 2003 by Jasmeen Patheja to strike back. In 2009, they joined with other organizations and individuals to form the Fearless Karnataka/Nirbhaya Karnataka coalition in order to respond to instances of street violence against women. The movement holds public events and interventions in different parts of the country to raise awareness on the issue.

This campaign, unlike the previous example, is still operational and regularly posts updates on its blog.

  • View the official blog for the movement Blank Noise
  • View the official Facebook profile for Blank Noise and official fan page.
  • Read an article in the Telegraph about the beginnings of Blank Noise
  • Read an article in The Christian Science Monitor about Blank Noise

How effective are these two campaigns, both of which used the internet and social media resources to get their messages across? The Pink Chaddi campaign was, in my opinion, a flash-in-the-pan – it came, it dominated for a week or two, it went. If the campaign had held steady and kept updating its blog, interacting with its followers (of which it had amassed many), perhaps the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women would have still been around today. As for Blank Noise, its growth may have been less flashy but more effective.

However it might be said that even with increased accessiblity to the Internet and the World Wide Web in recent times, there is a ‘digital divide’, or the ‘haves and have-nots’ when it comes to technology. Would these movements garner support in areas that have limited connectivity to the WWW? Probably not. The internet is a tool to push ideas further, but until the digital divide is breached, social change has a chance only in the case of the ‘haves’.

Nevertheless, this is a start – if there are more avenues where women can get help, a lesser number will remain quiet the way I did.