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April 16, 2019

Karla Bookman On The Webby Nomination For Her Website The Swaddle

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The editor-in-chief of The Swaddle, talks to Verve about her experiences in Indian society and how to combat internalised patriarchy

A few days ago, The Swaddle – the feminist health and culture website – found itself nominated for a Webby award this year. The winners will be announced on April 23. Karla Bookman who spearheads The Swaddle moved to India more than a decade ago, after her marriage to industrialist and businessman Pirojsha Godrej. After her first daughter was born (she has two now), Bookman – who is a former litigator with an eight-year-career in the field – launched The Swaddle, initially focussing on the pre- and post-natal health of a woman. Subsequently, the website grew organically to embrace a host of other issues that concern women. Bookman, the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Swaddle, speaks to Verve about the Webby nomination, her website and the concerns that impact girls and women in our society.

Firstly, congratulations on being nominated in the Magazine category for the Webby Awards – what The New York Times calls, ‘the internet’s highest honour’…. What was you first reaction on hearing that you were nominated?

I didn’t believe it. I definitely refreshed the page a few times to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

What would you say makes The Swaddle stand out amongst the other nominees – Emergence Magazine, Argot Magazine, The New Yorker’s website and Believer magazine?

Well, we’re the only Indian publication in the running. But each of these nominated publications is an incredible contender – we’re in great company. It’s a huge honour to be alongside so many publications we’ve always admired.

But mostly, we’re excited that a publication that is trying to push social change in India is receiving international recognition of this calibre.

When and what prompted the launch of The Swaddle?

I was baffled by the lack of online maternal health resources here when I was pregnant. The more I paid attention to what the women around me were saying about the health advice they were getting, the more I recognised a huge opportunity to provide unbiased, non-judgmental women’s health information. And that’s how we started: as a transparent, open-minded health resource for Indian women.

From spotlighting parenting concerns, you soon expanded it to look at gender issues, health, familial, cultural and other issues. How would you describe the growth of The Swaddle?

It was a very natural evolution of examining the concerns and realities of the world around us. You can’t talk about parenting without examining the enormous burden of unpaid care work that women shoulder all over the world, but especially in India. You can’t talk about education without asking why we’re not doing better on inclusivity for children with physical or cognitive disabilities. We can’t talk about gender stereotypes in Indian homes without implicating conversations on sexuality, gender, and everyday sexism. We can’t talk about the provision of healthcare without uncovering patriarchal taboos that prevent transparent, unbiased access to information. And we can’t talk about feminism anymore without taking a serious look at how various forms of privilege intersect to shape women’s experiences. You start pulling on one thread and it’s hard to know where to stop.

You are half-American, half-Serbian, you grew up in three places, studied and worked in New York, and are now living in Mumbai. How would you say living in different cultures has shaped your outlook?

It has made me adaptable and given me perspective. I’ve lived here for 11 years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, so I wouldn’t call myself an ‘outsider’. But I also recognise that I’m not tethered to any societal expectations of my behaviour, and that perhaps gives me the privilege to speak up without fear of consequences.

The Swaddle is Mumbai-based, so it reflects the social and cultural issues we see in India today, but much of what we cover is – and should be – universal. Women’s reproductive rights, for example, are a major human rights issue of our time. Evolving notions of gender and sexuality are being reshaped everywhere. We just happen to be engaged in the conversations that are happening here and now, and it’s a very exciting time to be talking about these issues in India.

In the 11 years that you have lived here, what is your perception of the change in the way a woman thinks – and is perceived?

I first came to India 20 years ago, and the changes in young women’s attitudes in two decades are astounding. I have such enormous respect for the young women I work with who – in their early 20s – have the self-confidence and brazenness to push back against societal expectations in the context of marriage, sexuality and gender roles. This generation of young Indian women has enormously progressive values, and I think it is forcing social change faster than in the West.

What is your editorial vision that guides the curation of the content for The Swaddle?

It has to be smart, and it has to be original. But mostly, with The Swaddle, I wanted to break what I felt was a very constraining mould in media. Women’s issues have somehow always been treated as ‘niche’, which is hilarious given that nothing could be more mass than 50 per cent of the population. But I also wanted to step outside the trifecta – fashion, beauty, celebrity – that’s always been pegged as women’s media.

Our editorial mission is rooted in challenging people’s perceptions and assumptions, and in this respect, we try to push the boundaries on the issues we write about. I also think we can push boundaries when it comes to some of the editorial restraints of traditional media. We believe that you can put great reporting alongside news analysis and opinion; you can put serious cultural commentary alongside lighter pop culture takes; and you can put basic health primers alongside breaking science news. Media should evolve past the strict definitions of journalism to offer readers the variety of perspectives they want in one place. Readers are savvy enough to know the difference.

How do you deal with the many issues that are still swept under the carpet in our homes, workplaces and within Indian society?

It’s so troubling that people sometimes don’t seek help for their children’s disabilities because they don’t want them to be ostracised or labelled. Or that people don’t get treated for mental health issues because of fear of workplace discrimination or family shame. There are so many taboos: menstruation, sex, mental health, gender and sexual orientations, gynaecological health – these are things that people don’t even address with their own families because of internalised shame.

If we can write about some of these issues in a way that is open, non-judgmental, and matter-of-fact, we think we can start to normalise some of these conversations.

In recent times, especially after the #MeToo movement, women have begun to speak out more about matters that concern them. What issues have you perceived to be ones that women have been speaking out about?

#MeToo has forced us to introspect and try harder, to re-evaluate our own behaviour and how we’ve internalised patriarchy. Women speaking up and reporting sexual assault and harassment is a vital step. But I’m grateful for the conversations that have spun off from that as well. We need a larger discussion around consent and communication, and why some voices are always presumed to be telling the truth. We have to face the facts: that the world – our governments, laws, corporations, societal norms – have been framed according to the perspectives of powerful men for a long time. It’s high time we shift that lens so our societies reflect a more equitable view of the world, one where everyone’s voice counts.

Despite all our talk about women’s empowerment, would you agree that Indian society continues to remain patriarchal?

Yes, hugely so. But this is not just a problem in India. What’s important is that, as a society, we start to develop the vocabulary to talk about the problems that patriarchy creates, that we share these ideas, and that it becomes the norm to question and evaluate the way things have always been. As an editorial team, we strive to unpack these issues constantly, and we hope to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to seeing these social norms shift in India.

The gender bias is seen at the micro and macro level. How can one deal with it on both levels?

No one person can change the fundamental inequities at the macro level. But we can chip away at those by calling out the ones at the micro level. We can decide which products to buy, which establishments to patronise, which people to surround ourselves with. When a child is sick and a parent needs to stay home from work to care for them, we should reject the prevalent default assumption that the mother should do it. When a woman reports sexual harassment at the workplace, we must start from the default position of believing her. When someone dictates to our children how to dress or behave because of their gender, we should give them the confidence to push back on these arbitrary definitions. For those things we have control over, we can make conscious choices to support businesses and people who demonstrate a commitment to inclusion and equality. The collective power of those seemingly small choices is enormous.

The safety factor is yet another concern that women face in different parts of the country. How do you feel that can be addressed?

I don’t have a quick and easy answer to this because it is such a vast, complicated, and diverse problem across the country. But the first step is recognising that the burden of keeping women safe has always been on them; if they are harmed, the first instinct is to pick apart their clothing, their behaviour, their character. This needs to stop. No one is responsible for violence except the person perpetrating it.

Addressing the sources of toxic masculinity seems like an important and universal piece of this. We need to stop pinning definitions of masculinity to strength, force, aggression, and lack of emotion. If we can, as a society, start to prize compassion, empathy, and kindness, we might get to a point where women can walk down the street at night without anxiously peering over their shoulders.

What is the one lesson that girls and women in India must never forget?

Don’t listen to the people who underestimate you.

In what way have the advent of social media and the reach of the internet impacted thinking – especially of women?

First and foremost, of course, social media has amplified and connected voices that didn’t have a platform before. It has made people feel less alone if they didn’t conform to the mainstream norm. This has been vital for connecting the pockets of feminist activism around the world.

But social media is also a great tool to bring issues into the mainstream and normalize them. Take our collective silence around TB (tuberculosis), for example. India has the highest TB burden of any country in the world, and about 50 per cent of Indians carry a latent form of TB. And yet, no one talks about this openly because it’s a disease that is shrouded in so much stigma. TB can be eradicated in our lifetimes, but we are going to have to start talking about it. Social media can help to normalise conversations from survivors and strip this disease of all the secrecy that accompanies it. We’re only going to address a major public health crisis like TB if everyone is open, engaged, and galvanised to address it.

As the mother of two young daughters, what is the advice that you would give them on the importance of being a girl here?

It’s the same advice no matter where you’re giving it: you’re a human being, just like everyone else. No worse, no better. Act accordingly.

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