Cityscapes

‘We are harmless and nice’: The Miss Africa Bangalore pageant breaks racist stereotypes

Nineteen college students will participate in the finale next week.

Jessy Thetkoech, 21, a student of computer application, has lived in Bengaluru for three years now, a time during which the city has become her “home away from home”. But she finds that Africans are often victims of racial stereotyping. They are either cast as violent people, she said – or in some cases, reportedly as drug dealers or criminals.

“I think we should try telling people in a confident way that Africans are harmless people and a nice people,” she said.

In a way, the Miss Africa Bangalore, in which Thetkoech is a contestant, is doing that. The pageant, which is being held for the first time this year, is an attempt to turn the spotlight away from this hate and onto the intellect, culture and camaraderie of African women in the city, according to organiser Rossy Mayunda.

Miss Africa Bangalore began with 19 women from colleges across Bengaluru who heard about the competition through word-of-mouth or social media. Over a series of elimination rounds, the participants competed through cultural performances of song and dance, debated gay marriage and economic issues, and modelled in a fashion show.

Now, only 12 women remain for the finale on December 25 in Banaswadi, a suburb in the northeast of Bengaluru.

Photo credit: The Miss Africa Bangalore/Facebook
Photo credit: The Miss Africa Bangalore/Facebook

Course-correcting

Almost two years ago, a 21-year-old Tanzanian student was assaulted and stripped by a mob in Bengaluru. Before that, a Congolese man was struck, apparently for playing music too loudly. Multiple attacks on African students have attracted global attention and highlighted harmful racial attitudes in India.

India has been known to draw foreign students for higher education, because of factors such as affordability and ease of admission in its favour. The 2015-’16 school year saw 45,424 foreign students in the country, according to the most recent data for the All India Survey on Higher Education. The most foreign students in India come from the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan, followed by Nigeria and Sudan. Data also shows that Karnataka has the highest number of foreign students per state.

Mayunda, 22, a Congolese student, has lived in Bengaluru for almost two years. Though thousands of African students come to India to study, he found that most of his friends in Bengaluru were from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through the pageant, he hoped to create an event “where Africans can come together,” he said. The countries represented in the competition include Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Kenya and Namibia.

Photo credit: PTI
Photo credit: PTI

Fears back home

After the attack on the Tanzanian girl in 2016, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called on Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to “ensure safety and security of all foreign students and stringent punishment for the guilty”. Protests and vigils were held across the country to denounce violence against African students.

Laurenne Ano, 22, who studies at BMS College for Women, said that though there’s a large African community in areas like Kamanahalli, there are only four other African women in her college. She has often had to field anxious phone calls from parents and friends in her home country. “When our parents see that kind of news, they keep calling us,” she said. “[They ask] ‘are you safe?’” Friends are also fearful of following Ano’s path and travelling to India for their education. “They feel it’s a racist country.”

But despite the attacks, Ano encourages her friends to come here – “You cannot say all people are bad because of one person’s actions. I always tell them to come.”

Ano was initially unenthusiastic about taking part in Miss Africa Bangalore. But once she learned that no other woman would be representing the Ivory Coast, she decided to try out. “It’ll be an experience,” she recalled thinking.

For the cultural performance, wearing a traditional outfit and dancing was no problem for Ano. But when it was time to speak in front of the audience, she grew more and more nervous. “I was so stressed. I forgot all my words,” she said. Fortunately, she didn’t get eliminated and will be heading to the final on Christmas Day.

Photo credit: The Miss Africa Bangalore/Facebook
Photo credit: The Miss Africa Bangalore/Facebook

Breaking stereotypes

For her part, Thetkoech has loved the experience of meeting women from various parts of Africa, including some from French-speaking nations. During the finale, the women will take part in a swimsuit competition as well as model in different dresses and gowns. Participants will be eliminated until only three remain. Those finalists will each be asked a question, which will only be revealed at the competition, Mayunda said. Aside from the judging panel, there is also an online poll that accounts for 20% of the vote.

Though none of the pageant participants interviewed by Scroll.in said they had personally faced a racist attack in Bengaluru or felt unsafe, all expressed sadness and frustration over the instances of Africans being targeted in India. Both Ano and Thetkoech often see female friends receive unwanted attention from men, mostly through social media. Ano said African women are sometimes stereotyped as prostitutes. She sees the pageant as a way to highlight the value of the African woman.

“They will show that the African woman is intellectual, smart,” she added. “It’s a challenging experience. It makes you face your fears.”

After college, some foreign students hope to stay in India for internships, while others look to continue their education or head back to their home countries. Ano, for example, hopes to attend graduate school in Australia, Canada or the United States for a master’s programme, while Thetkoech wants to do an internship and then go back home to Kenya.

Photo courtesy: Dorian Selma Magano.
Photo courtesy: Dorian Selma Magano.

Dorian Selma Magano, 22, a Namibian pageant finalist who is studying journalism, believes that being in India is good for a lot of African students. She is keen on staying for an internship, but worries that the job market is particularly challenging for foreign students. The experiences of foreigners in India have motivated her to interview these students about their life in the country and how they have been treated in India.

“Until today, I still don’t understand how some people can be racist,” she said. “Only the outer colour that is covering our skin is different. But we’re all human beings.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.