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Sohaila Abdul Ali Essay Outline

The woman is in her 20s and hopes to have a husband some day. But until she attended a workshop conducted by Nidhi Goyal, she had no clue about penises. Are they round, flat, huge, tiny, slimy, fuzzy? She had never touched one, never seen one, never glimpsed a cartoon or a photo or a shadow on the bathroom wall. She was born blind and it had never occurred to anyone that she might care.

How do you know your period has started if you’re blind? How can you tell that your partner is turned on? If you’re paralysed from the neck down, can you still have an orgasm?

Nidhi was diagnosed at age 15 with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that involves the slow, progressive, unpredictable degeneration of the retina. By the time she was 21, she had lost all functional vision.

“I feel fortunate that I have seen for a while, because the ideas still remain with you. If you say something is pink, I know what you mean by pink. On the other hand, people who are born blind develop their other senses more than those of us with acquired blindness. I have had to work to develop my tactile senses.” I have never before heard a disabled person tell me seriously how NOT starting out life disabled is a disability, and I’m fascinated.

Nidhi is hot stuff, as far as I’m concerned. She might lack sight but makes up for it with truckloads of hard-won insight. She was one of the masterminds behind the website Sexualityanddisability.org, produced by Point of View and CREA, two non-governmental organizations with which I have had a long association.

The website explains itself thus:

“Welcome to www. sexualityanddisability.org, a website that starts with the premise that women who are disabled are sexual beings—just like any other woman.”

Women who are disabled are sexual beings just like other women? Don’t these ladies know that in our country women are barely considered sexual beings, and now they want to talk about the sexual rights of women with one leg or no ears or a face burnt off by acid or a brain not like most of those around them?

Yes, they do. And it’s worth listening to them.

When Nidhi was diagnosed, her father’s friends (“Educated people!” she explained. Why do we persist in the delusion that educated people are more enlightened?) advised him to hide her disability until he got her married off, otherwise nobody would have her. That way he could make her somebody else’s problem. Luckily, this column is not about oppression, but about empowerment. Her father thought that was ridiculous and offensive at every level, and did nothing of the sort. Nidhi’s is not a tale of family rejection and hand-wringing victimization. She carried on, she carries on.

“I have all sorts of friends—the fantastic ones who supported all my college crushes; and some others who would only recommend men with rock-bottom incomes for me when we’d check out matrimonial sites. According to them, less money meant a disability and they would match it with mine. They assumed nobody with means could possibly want me. I don’t think they were particularly trying to hurt me or put me down, but it’s just so embedded!”

When Nidhi starts talking about the way a disability acts as a filter through which people always look at you, it sounds very familiar. All of us know about filters and use them all the time. We’ve all been someone’s gay friend, fat friend, short friend, Indian friend. We all know what it is to be defined by just one thing. If Nidhi fails her documentary film class, it’s because she’s blind, not because she just failed, like any student. “Any student has the option to fail,” she says. “Why not me?” She topped her class, by the way.

Added to the prevailing stigma and ignorance about both blindness and disability in general, there’s a distinct discomfort with the idea of disabled people having, needing, or deserving sex. The creators of Sexualityanddisability.org came out swinging in this regard. Starting with a basic understanding of bodies, they tackle everything from masturbation to giving birth. Here’s where the Internet shines. Where else could you find this information, perhaps discover, to your delight, a link to “The Mad Spaz Club: Where all the cool wheelchair people hang out”?

Nidhi ran a workshop for visually impaired women and men in Mumbai. It was a day-long event, with 30 attendees. They passed around mannequins, talked about condoms, safety, and myths and facts about sex.

Now she and Point of View want to take this work to the next level. They are about to embark on a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for taking the work into homes and schools, and helping disabled women and girls reach their potential, sexual and otherwise. This can only be good for the disabled community, and an amazing gift to society at large. The more citizens can participate fully in life, the better off we will all be.

I recently watched The Way He Looks, a beautiful Brazilian film about a blind gay teenage boy. I was struck by its universality. Leonardo, the main character, was as confused, rapturous and bursting with hormones as any of us at that age. If it’s not visual impairment, it’s something else: In the crazy awkward chaos of adolescence, we are all groping in the dark to find meaning and to discover ourselves. The blindness in the movie is real, but it is also a metaphor.

The blind leading the blind isn’t what you thought it was. There is power in difference, and there is pleasure. Maybe it’s time to open our eyes to both.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns here.

First Published: Sat, Mar 21 2015. 12 18 AM IST

I write for love and to have a voice. But mostly, I write for money. Writing pays the bills, and paying the bills depends on my bills being paid on time. Too often, that doesn’t happen. And the bigger the client, the less efficient. Occasionally I work for a large UN agency that shall remain nameless. They usually pay within a couple of weeks, but one recent payment took five months after I billed them, and another took three; after an endless stream of emails from me asking for my money. Nothing quite equals the humiliation of repeatedly asking someone for money, even if it is your money.

Economists have studied the financial effects of money not going where it should on time. Interest gained, interest lost, etc. But I wonder if anyone’s researched the time, energy and emotion that goes into dealing with all the ripple effects of the delayed payment. In the case of the UN job, the interest hardly mattered: This is the US, where my checking account makes something like zero-point-zero-zero-zero-zero-one per cent. But lots of other things do matter.

First, I earned the money and was counting on having it. I was not going to starve without it, and didn’t need it to buy either gobi (cauliflower) or lifesaving medicine, but our family doesn’t have endless reserves. Also, my partner and I were trying to convince a bank to give us a mortgage, and I needed to show that I was employed. You just try convincing a banker that the cheque is in the mail, when they’re trying to figure out whether to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars to you.

Then there was the subcontractor I hired to do part of the job. It seemed unfair to delay her payment because mine was late, so I paid her, further lowering my already unimpressive bank balance.

Then there was all the ridiculous agonizing I went through, straddling the fine line between keeping myself on the UN’s radar and becoming such a pain that they got irritated and wilfully delayed my payment. And there was the indignity of feeling like a beggar, and receiving either frigidly polite responses or no responses at all from the women who hired me. I don’t know why I stupidly assume women will be more sympathetic, but of course they’re not.

“And the worst thing is, you end up badgering the wrong people,” my friend Cynthia points out. “You can only complain to one or two people, and they’re usually not the ones who are holding it up.”

I was fine. The money came eventually. The bank, bless its trusting heart, gave us the mortgage. Gobi flowed unfettered into the kitchen. But this kind of thing takes up a huge part of the freelance life. While it’s true that I get to sit in the sunshine in my pyjamas and eat truffles and listen to loud music on a workday, it’s also true that I spend too much time asking for money that should have come already, and reading things like the email thread that the UN accounts department accidentally included in an attachment to me: “This is urgent! Consultant is really mad.” You’d be mad, too, if your pay cheque was three months late, dear Ms. Diplomatic Immunity.

When you’re an individual who owes money to a company, you’re liable for charges if you’re late. If I pay my mobile bill one day past the grace period, I owe the company $5. The credit card company would charge me interest if I weren’t neurotically on time every month. A late electricity bill would affect my credit rating. But if someone is late paying me, often all I can do is complain. If I sent an overdue notice to the UN, whoever received it would probably have a hearty laugh and post it on their Facebook page as the joke of the day.

The irony is that I’ve hardly ever had trouble collecting from individuals—people like me, who do not have the vast monetary reserves that international organizations do, tend to quickly pay the person they hired to write a story or a leaflet or a report.

Most of you reading this in India have servants. Do you pay them on time? Does your maid have to ask for her money? If she does, that’s just wrong. And if her asking annoys you, that’s even more wrong. Remember W. Somerset Maugham: “He had heard people speak contemptuously of money: He wondered if they had ever tried to do without it.”

Just as there’s no excuse for the UN to take months to pay me, there’s no excuse for those of us with nice homes and FDs and cash in the cupboard to ever, ever be a single day late in paying our domestic staff or our dress makers or the doodhwalla (milkman). I have had a relative’s mali (gardener) beg me for his monthly pay because his employer didn’t bother to pay him on time. Imagine not being able to pay your child’s school fees. Imagine having to ask for credit for your kerosene.

The US government has a Prompt Payment rule that mandates timely payments to contractors. In New York State, there are guidelines for how often different types of labour are paid. Prompt payment is an obligation, not a favour to consultants and employees, whoever they are: The person who manages your company, or the person who cooks your gobi.

The first of the month is coming. Let me end with some wisdom you can groove to, from Donna Summer:

She works hard for the money

So hard for it, honey

She works hard for the money

So you better treat her right.

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

First Published: Sat, May 16 2015. 12 06 AM IST

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