Unbecoming

A Memoir of Disobedience

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About The Book

Brimming “with the ebullient Bhagwati’s fierce humanism, seething humor, and change-maker righteousness,” (Shelf Awareness) a raw, unflinching memoir by a former US Marine Captain chronicling her journey from dutiful daughter of immigrants to radical activist fighting for historic policy reform.

After a lifetime of buckling to the demands of her strict Indian parents, Anuradha Bhagwati abandons grad school in the Ivy League to join the Marines—the fiercest, most violent, most masculine branch of the military—determined to prove herself there in ways she couldn’t before.

Yet once training begins, Anuradha’s GI Jane fantasy is punctured. As a bisexual woman of color in the military, she faces underestimation at every stage, confronting misogyny, racism, sexual violence, and astonishing injustice perpetrated by those in power. Pushing herself beyond her limits, she also wrestles with what drove her to pursue such punishment in the first place.

Once her service concludes in 2004, Anuradha courageously vows to take to task the very leaders and traditions that cast such a dark cloud over her time in the Marines. Her efforts result in historic change, including the lifting of the ban on women from pursuing combat roles in the military.

“Bhagwati’s fight is both incensing and inspiring” (Booklist) in this tale of heroic resilience and grapples with the timely question of what, exactly, America stands for, showing how one woman learned to believe in herself in spite of everything.

Excerpt

Unbecoming Introduction
Your parents need the crap kicked out of them for raising such a disrespectful little terd.

A disgruntled Army veteran sent me the tweet on August 10, 2015, while I debated a retired three-star general on Fox News. It was the most colorful response I had ever received from a brother-in-arms. The general and I had been discussing how much to open combat roles to women. My take? All the way.

My fellow veterans had a habit of throwing the worst insults at me in order to defend the military’s sacred status quo. In part, the troll was right. General William “Jerry” Boykin was a warfighter several times over (I most certainly was not). I had offended all sense of military decorum by talking back to an officer several rungs up the chain of command, without any hint of shame.

In the heat of the segment, Boykin said, with more than a little flourish, “You cannot violate the laws of nature without expecting some consequences . . . The people that advocate for [women in combat] have never lived out of a rucksack in a combat situation.”

I hit him hard. How else were you supposed to hit a general? “I think the general is just wrong. Thirteen years of warfare have proven that women can live out of rucksacks in completely horrendous conditions in combat alongside men . . . They have fought and died in combat, in fact. And we should remember that.”

Of course, my words out of someone else’s mouth might have been less shocking. I was a woman. With brown skin and a name that certainly did not hail from the Bible. Boykin himself was not your average general, having made a hard-core turn to evangelical Christianity after retiring his uniform. He was now the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group. All of this was supposed to bolster his assertion that women had no place in the infantry.

Boykin’s military background and his Christian creds made him a beloved Fox guest, the kind who inspired nods and Amens all across America. His voice had the deep, weathered bellow of someone who had made a lot of people run for their lives. (Truth be told, the junior officer within me wanted to Sir him up and down, even while I ripped apart his arguments.)

Where did that leave me? On Fox News, I was a Brown female target with a name no one could pronounce and loyalties no one trusted. A former Marine, I was possibly the only activist around who would speak to the conservative masses about what the military needed to do for women in uniform. For Americans who saluted the flag no matter what the state of the union, it meant that my words often amounted to heresy.

Being an ex-Marine gave me some cover when talking about things like sexual violence in the military, or, in this case, integrating women into combat arms jobs. It meant that my trolls had refrained thus far from sending me rape and death threats, the kind usually sent to my civilian women counterparts when they spoke their minds. Still, what I did receive was unnerving, and sometimes terrifying. Women were not supposed to say what I’d been saying for years now. It was unruly. It was unbecoming.

A former Army Ranger, Boykin had recited a series of not-so-relevant talking points from the nineties about women in combat, including the propensity of uniformed men to lose their marbles at the sight of a nubile woman. All his claims had been debunked this week by the first two women who had graduated from Ranger School, the Army’s grueling combat leadership course.

Taking on an evangelical Christian general and ex-Ranger who’d served as an Army infantryman more years than I’d breathed oxygen took gumption. A year earlier, the organization I led had joined forces with four uniformed women and sued the Pentagon so all jobs in the military would be open to women. And it worked. The floodgates opened, as service women who wanted to see what they were made of entered all-male schools and assignments, and the defenders of the fiercest old boys’ club in America dug in like their lives depended on it.

The military’s culture wars had been brewing for decades. Hundreds of thousands of women had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And back at home, we were ensuring the military did right by them. It meant confronting some of the nation’s most precious myths about men in uniform. It meant exposing truths about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the daily humiliations women had to suffer through in order to wear the uniform. I’d seen it all firsthand. And there was still no end in sight.

I knew the military was better off when women succeeded, and no decorated Army general was going to convince me otherwise. The days when no one was listening were over. We had organized and spoken out years before #MeToo made headlines. And we had convinced an entire nation that service women were worth caring about.

These changes didn’t happen by chance, nor did they happen overnight.

As for me, it took joining the Marines to find my voice. Once I realized I could trust it, there was no turning back.

About The Author

Photograph by Seher Sikandar

Anuradha Bhagwati is a writer, activist, yoga and meditation teacher, and Marine Corps veteran. She founded the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), which brought national attention to sexual violence in the military and helped overturn the ban on women in com­bat. Anuradha is a regular media commentator on issues related to national security, women’s rights, civil rights, and mental health, and is the recipient of numerous awards. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic. She lives in New York City with her service dog, Duke.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 3, 2020)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501162558

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Raves and Reviews

“Anuradha Bhagwati chronicles with admirable candor the examination and reconstruction of her identity, a journey taking her to Yale, the Marine Corps, and eventually the halls of Congress. If you want to understand the seismic changes in US military culture over the past decade, read this book.” —Elliot Ackerman, author of Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing

“An insightful story about a daughter of immigrants who tries to find her place in this country, all the while enduring racism, homophobia, and sexism. Anuradha continues to fight for what is right so everyone can achieve the true American Dream: equal rights for all.” —Specialist Shoshana Johnson, US Army, ret., author of I’m Still Standing

“In her memoir Unbecoming, Anuradha Bhagwati powerfully depicts the forces that shaped and drove her as an unrelenting advocate for women in the military, fighting to expand opportunities and to reform the military’s treatment of sexual violence. It is a testament to the Herculean effort needed for progress to happen, and of the work that is yet to be done.” —Phil Klay, National Book Award-winning author of Redeployment 

“Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming addresses the proverbial dilemma of confronting traditional expectations as a South Asian daughter. But Bhagwati—who grows up in the heart of the West and comes-of-age in New York City where popular culture holds sway—reckons with bouts of self-hatred, as she comes to terms with the complexities of identity. She renders a vivid examination of sexuality, education at Yale, the brutal rituals of training at Quantico as an officer in the United States Marine Corps, sexual harassment and disrespect coded into the military machine, yoga and meditation, reentry into civilian life while dreaming as a Marine, and psychological struggles in a VA hospital whose staff is ill-trained and unprofessional. Bhagwati delves into gut-level truth, and a reader is wholly engaged. The memoir’s narrator is fully initiated, and her one-of-a-kind voice plumbs multiple avenues for social justice. Unbecoming is an act of becoming.”— Yusef Komunyakaa, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet of Neon Vernacular

"Unbecoming is so much more than your typical military memoir. As an advocate who led the charge on exposing military sexual assault and supporting women's access to ground combat assignments, Anuradha sheds light upon how change actually happens in Washington, especially when resistance is fierce and the stakes are high." —M.J. Hegar, American Air Force Veteran and bestselling author of Shoot Like A Girl

“A raw, fearless, openhearted chronicle of one woman’s journey through the center of white male violence and out the other side. In confronting herself as unsparingly as the military powers she took on, Bhagwati has written the rare page-turner that will not only make you want to be a better person but also teach you how.” —Jaclyn Friedman, feminist activist and author of Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power, and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All

"Anurada Bhagwati has written a captivating and vital book, one that seamlessly marries compelling, insightful personal narrative with her astute critique of how the systems that shape our lives are failing us. It’s a must-read."— Soraya Chemaly, activist and author of Rage Becomes Her

"First-time author Bhagwati pulls no punches with this uncompromising memoir . . . [Her] candor and razor-sharp writing are in full evidence throughout her gritty and well-paced memoir." —Publishers Weekly

“[An] honest and unflinching memoir…[Anuradha’s] candid story pulls back the curtain on a hidden world in which highly capable women who thrive on the challenge of being a soldier are hindered by the men who surround them.”— Kirkus Reviews

"Unbecoming is stunning meditation on what the process of becoming a gentle but commanding feminist badass actually looks like. I was, by turns, floored, amazed, inspired, educated, and uplifted as I joined Anuradha on a journey of what it means to be a queer Brown person navigating new and fraught paths to the American Dream." —Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

"[Anuradha] Bhagwati’s book stands out most as a chronicle of overcoming psychological trauma...The book is at its most powerful when she writes about who she became in response to the violence the military trained her to commit." —The New York Times Book Review

"While reading a book to review, it’s usually useful to fold over a page's corner to make it easy to come back, to reflect on each noteworthy passage...But then you find yourself folding down the next page, and another, and another, until more than half the book is folded down, rendering the tactic useless as a reference but testimony to the story's potency." —Los Angeles Times

"Bhagwati’s fight is both incensing and inspiring." —Booklist

"Her powerful memoir is about pushing yourself beyond your limits." —PUREWOW

"Remarkable and radical in all the best senses." —Barnes & Noble (BN.com)

"Unbecoming brims with the ebullient Bhagwati's fierce humanism, seething humor and change-maker righteousness... Anuradha Bhagwati's fiery memoir is about serving her country—both during her Marine Corps days and through her activism afterward." —Shelf Awareness for Readers

"Every person interested in how the military should recruit, train and retain women must read Unbecoming. And every leader in the armed forces should pick up a copy to better understand how misogyny, sexual harassment and sexual assault hurt the all-volunteer force." —MILITARY TIMES

 

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