Gloria Steinem with Ruchira Gupta in Calcutta last year
Ruchira Gupta: How much is non-violence a component of the feminist movement?
Gloria Steinem: Non-violence has not been enunciated by the women’s movement because it’s assumed. Not because women are better or different human beings or intrinsically less violent than men but because we haven’t been raised with our masculinity to prove, we haven’t been encouraged to be violent towards others. Indeed, we haven’t even been encouraged to defend ourselves. We could use some more encouragement towards, I wouldn’t call it ‘violence’ exactly, but ‘forceful self-defence.’
How do you define ‘non-violence’?
I’ve never tried to define it. But I would say that ‘non-violence’ also includes non-humiliation, not depriving an individual of the basics of life, and using non-violent language. Language shapes not only our alternatives, our interactions with each other, but also our idea of what is possible. It has to do with the way we communicate with each other. Therefore I would say that a form of non-violence that, though not as urgent as stopping people from being killed, is still a means by which to stop people from being killed.
It is to listen as much as we speak and speak as much as we listen and to try to keep that in balance. To override someone constantly with speech and thus disallowing them to have a voice is a less obvious but still a basic form of violence. So in general I think that the groups who have been marginalised or discriminated against — whether it’s a racial group, or women, or children, or a lower caste group, or whoever it is — have to learn to speak as much as we listen.
You have mentioned that violence takes away basics of life. What do you mean by basics of life?
I would say that ‘the basics’ go in ascending order depending on the time span. So air comes first, then water, then food, then free body movements, shelter, and community. By ‘community’ I mean being listened to as well as speaking; having some sense of support and value rather than being used as an object in some way; being allowed, encouraged, and nurtured to be your unique self.
Non-violence was not explored enough in the women’s movement, it was more a part of the peace movement. However, it was implicit in the women’s movement: we were never going to meet violence with violence. We did not even think of it, although in the peace movement there was a consciousness whether one should or should not respond in kind. The idea was to transform the energy directed at you into positive energy. So women marched against the Pentagon, they marched against troops and muzzled their guns with flowers. Most men raised in masculine culture are more likely to feel weakened or defeated by not meeting force with force. But here were women who were putting daisies in the barrel of the rifle.
The other opportunity for us (the women’s movement) was the civil rights movement. When being dragged by the police, we were taught to go limp. Mostly in civil rights movements and endlessly in peace movements, we were trained in civil resistance; not so much in women’s movement. It is creative and interesting to think of transforming an act of aggression that is directed at you into a different energy that evokes different thoughts and different responses.
Joan Baez used to say that people constantly challenged her about her pacifism. On being asked what would she do if somebody threatened her with a gun, she said she might throw up. What I am most attracted to as a transformed response is to make a human connection with the person perpetuating violence.
The good thing about self defence is that you know there is a self worth defending...
Everything about the feminine role is self-sacrificial; denial of self. A ‘good’ woman is selfless. Femininity means supporting masculinity, so we share the guilt that comes from supporting violent or aggressive behaviour in our sons that we would never accept in our daughters. We have to look at the ways in which femininity accepts this cult of masculinity.
When it comes to the idea of male aggression or dominance being natural, you mythologise the idea of pain and domination. Till recently sadism and masochism were considered something women craved for — so people would blame you for your own hurt. Your own will and experience were rendered invisible and rape became something women invited. This makes it difficult to talk about prostituted women, sex trafficking, child abuse, rape. The judge will say the child had a revealing playsuit.
If prostitution was not about dominance, men would not have to pay. It explains why such a large number of prostitutes have been abused as children and think it is natural.
One of the hallmarks of cooperative sexuality is humour and playfulness. Eve’s garden is a feminist erotica shop — different from a male pornography shop, which is full of whips and chains. This feminist erotica shop has creams, feathers, massages — it is all about pleasure not pain.
Maybe lesbians should teach love-making techniques to straight men. Tiresias — a minor Greek god — was incarnated once as a man and once as a woman and he was asked in which form he had more pleasure and he replied ‘as a woman’. When I heard that I thought it was because women are more multi-orgasmic.
What is structural violence for women?
It’s a system that normalises violence and criminalises opposition to it. So (Sigmund) Freud was a system of violence against women. Because he declared as abnormal the only kind of orgasm that women have which is clitoral and declared normal a basically non-existent form of orgasm, which is vaginal. There aren’t that many nerve endings there. No one would ever give birth if there were so many nerve endings there. So he pathologised something normal. That’s a system of violence. We saw that replicated until systems of feminist and family therapy came into being.
Marriage can be a system of violence against women if it legitimates violence and pathologises any sexual activity before marriage or punishes that activity and if it enforces standards of behaviour for women that it doesn’t enforce for men.
Certainly child-rearing has systematised violence. Just to put the theory out there flatly, children are little animals that have to be tamed. They have to be beaten as wives have to be beaten. All of that assumes the normalcy of violence that is not at all in self-defence, which makes it a system of violence. Anything that normalises injustice and punishes those who object to injustice is certainly a system of violence.
To talk more about prostitution, how do you see it as violence against women?
It’s the economic or physically forced entry into a body. Body invasion is right up there in the category of serious violence. To be in a physical fight is probably less traumatic than it is to have to smile and have your body invaded while you’re unable to fight back; to be used as an object; to be humiliated; and to have to pretend to enjoy it in order to get paid. It is a rape of your body, your emotions, your sense of self, and it’s so intimate. There’s nothing that could be any more intimate.
If we think of violence as violation, should the violator be treated violently?
No. I can’t think of an instance where violence towards the violator would be justified. If you repeat the violence, you have chosen means that do not represent the end. You might imprison that person, or fine that person, or socially censure that person but for a stated reason.
There are two kinds of violence that are much-talked-about these days — one is terrorism and the other is state-sponsored violence. What role can women play in stopping these forms of violence?
Well, I don’t mean ‘all women’ because I would never say there’s such a thing as masculine and feminine, but culturally women have been raised without the idea that we have to prove our masculinity. And that makes us very valuable as peace negotiators and as people who are maybe 80 percent or more of every peace movement. So yes, women have a definite role to play. In original cultures you couldn’t go to war unless the Four Mothers said so. They voted and especially because the women had to make the food supplies and so on. If they didn’t do it, there was no war. As far as I know, it was the female elders who decided when to go to war.
I can’t ever understand why women let the power go?
They didn’t. They fought. The whole Amazon culture was a backlash culture. The backlash against the patriarchal cultures went on for centuries.
Do you think transcending gender is a way of overcoming violence?
It supposes that there is the power to transcend gender. There may be individual ways to escape the system by living as the other gender but there’s not a collective. I think we can strive for a double consciousness. We can strive to be as free from gender as possible by making parallels. For instance, ‘If I were a man, how would I respond?’ We can try to free our minds from gender as much as possible. At the same time we recognise that’s the way the world is organised.
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Gloria Steinem is the pioneer of the feminist revolution Ruchira Gupta is the founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide
[The interview is an excerpt from a collection of writings by Gloria Steinem, edited by Ruchira Gupta. The book will be published and released by Rupa in January, 2014.]