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Feminism changes everything else: Gloria

Gloria Steinem at The Telegraph office on Friday. She was accompanied by Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap. Pictures by Rashbehari Das

Gloria Steinem. The feminist icon and one of the prime leaders of the womenís liberation movement in the US spent a good part of Friday afternoon at The Telegraph office with Ruchira Gupta, friend and founder president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide. Tall, slim and gentle, the 82-year-old spoke to a group of reporters and students the day before she inaugurates the Kolkata Literary Meet at Victoria Memorial.

Mohua Das: Violence against women, from the streets of Calcutta to the villages of Birbhum, seems to be at its peak at present. Why do you think the cases of reported crimes against women are going up? Is there a socio-economic-psychological trigger behind it with more women stepping out into the world?

Gloria Steinem: I donít think any of us know for sure. It seems to me that itís not so much increasing as itís being reported. I think it has always been at a very troubling deep level. Probably in your situation as it is mine in the state, first it wasnít considered serious to report or considered too scandalous to report. Then women were afraid to come forward because they would be stigmatised. And now at least itís getting reported and weíre more realistic about it, which is a step towards diminishing it.

Ruchira Gupta: I also think thereís much more sexual violence and that is because two or three things seem to have got normalised in the last 10 or 15 years. One, the commodification of women has become more intense, the sex industry has got more legitimisedÖ. More women are holding jobs in public places and while the overall job situation is shrinking, men who are migrating to cities looking for jobs think women are replacing them. They donít realise that the overall pie is shrinking. So that backlash too is happening.

Then there are those who feel they should be mothers, sisters and daughters again and again. Although after Indian Independence there was a building towards modern India where women were participating in everything ó from movements to political parties to teaching. This has changed. Weíre told we shouldnít go out late at night, wear certain kinds of clothes. This kind of conservative backlash being promoted by the new television serials, conservative political parties.... And in Bengal, a super structure being imposed with lumpen elements is also creating more sexual violence against women and girls.

Mohua: How can women safeguard themselves?

Gloria: First we need to recognise that itís not the fault of the victim. Anybody could be assaulted. It doesnít have anything to do with how we dress or where we go. I think we want to think that because we want to be able to be safe so we almost always blame the victim for doing something specific because if we donít do that specific thing, we wonít be attacked. But I think a part of the reason why the December rape (in Delhi) was such a rallying point that itís hard to say if she was with a man, just coming from a movie or getting out of bus. She was a person trying to be educated and progress. Itís very difficult not to say ĎI could be herí. And that may have contributed to the attention. Sometimes public attention is like a cup. It fills up enough and then just a teaspoonful and itís all so close.

Mohua: What can the administration do?

Gloria: You had a step forward with the new legislation that addresses sexual assault and sexual harassment. Thatís a huge forward and in bringing the police to put that into effect you need a combination of very clear punishment in the short term and prevention in the long term. And in the long term the reason for sexual violence against women is the masculine role that man did not invent. They get born into this too. But the stupid idea that to be a real man you have to be superior or dominant especially to women and other men is a major cause of individual male duct, collective duct, pursued by governments who have to persuade men to go to war against their own interests.

We are violent in self-defence, thatís human instinct but to be violent on behalf of some cause, which isnít your own, they have to sell the masculine role to get men to go out there and rescue lives. Then that masculine role says to them, youíre not a human being unless youíre dominant and superior especially to women. So it becomes like a drug.

Actually rapists speak of it that way. ĎI needed a fixí. Itís why 80-year-old women and six-month-old children get raped. Most rapes are conducted by groups of men. Most or many rapes involve objects and not penises. Itís about violence and dominance in proving masculinity.

Abhinanda Datta: Many young women today are uncomfortable with the term Ďfeminismí as they feel it represents anti-man. What is your opinion on that? And how would you explain feminism to young women in order to make them less uncomfortable with it?

Gloria: Well, the simplest thing is to read the dictionary because feminism is the belief in the full social, political, economic equality of women and men and I understand why the culture at large uses it as anti-male. The culture tends to feel that a normal male-female relationship is 70-30 or 60-40. Weíre talking 50-50 but that to some people is so unusual that the idea of taking away male privilege is viewed as being anti-man. We have the same thing in the US with the civil rights movement, which was viewed as being anti-white. It wasnít but it was called militant because the white folks were so used to privilege.

Ruchira: But why are women so scared of the word feminism?

Mohua: Maybe because they donít want to get branded as man-hating activistsÖ

Ruchira: But nowadays all young people like to be activistsÖ

Mohua: Since the word Ďfeminismí is so much under attack, do you think itís time for some new words to take the movement forward? What could some of those words be?

Gloria: Any word that has the same content will have the same problem. We all get to use whichever word we want. At home we not only say feminism but say Ďwomenís liberationí, Ďwomanismí that African-American women often say, ĎMujeristaí which is Spanish-speaking, Ďgirrrlsí which I love. But it isnít a public relations movement. Itís a revolution. So whatever word you use will be opposed by the same people.

Ruchira: Feminism makes a girl insecure because itís a journey and they also have to give up some comfort, which is not having to take decisions, not controlling their lives. Dependency also has its own comfort.

Gloria: The joys, excitement, pleasure, fun and the discovery is so much bigger than the problems. Feminism makes everything else boring. And it changes everything else. We should not be able to do a story on economics without including women. But if youíre not a feminist you may marry someone who thinks youíre inferior. This is a big risk. Itís not fun! (Laughs)

Mohua: Was there a personal trigger that made you vocal and active about women's rights?

Gloria: There was. In retrospect it was gradual. Itís true that when I moved to New York, I had a hard time finding an apartment because the landlord thought that I could either not afford it or Iíd get married and leave. And if I could afford it, I must be a prostitute. Even getting assignments was difficult. I had lived in India and I was mostly interested in politics. I could not get those kinds of assignments.

Whatís shocking is how long it took me to understand but the kind of match that lit the illumination was that I went as a reporter for the New York magazine in which we had started with a group of journalists and I was the only girl journalist and I was drawn to cover a hearing in New York City on the question of abortion. Our Supreme Court ruling had not yet happened so our state legislature was trying to decide whether or not to liberalise abortion laws. They invited to testify 14 men and one nun. You canít make this up, right! (laughs) So a group of early feminists said letís hear it from women and they had a hearing in a church basement in Manhattan and for the first time in my life I heard women stand up and tell the truth and be taken seriously, something that only happened to men.

I had had an abortion on my way to India. In London. I never told anyone and I said Ďwait a minuteí if one in three women at some point in her life in the US has needed an abortion, why is it illegal, why is there a criminal underground and why must you risk all kinds of sexual pressures? That made it coalesce in my mind that there was a reason why I had always felt an identity with out-groups but I never knew I would be one. I think that happens to a lot of women.

Mohua: How much do you think youíve been able to accomplish of what you set out to achieve in your campaign against the violence against women more than 40 years ago?

Gloria: I donít think weíre even half way there. But even if you take in India and in my country, whatís called the first wave of womenís independence ó movement against child marriage, sati, the suffrage movement, they were asked in a hundred years to gain a legal identity as a human being rather than an object to be possessed. That took a hundred years. Okay! Now weíre striving for a legal equality. Thatíll probably take another 100 years. In fact, right now our standards are too low, still. We donít understand that men can raise children, be as loving and nurturing. And thatís what allows men to develop the human empathy we all have.

Mohua: What do you see as the need of the hour?

Gloria: Itís about what I can do or you can do in the next hour. I donít think the agenda is made outside of ourselves because that makes us not do what we could do. It could just be changing the language in storywriting, initiating a story, telling your parents Iím not taking less education than my brother, saying you were sexually abused as a child and naming who did it. Itís about looking inside, not outside. Then you will acquire people who have similar hopes and experiences.

Disha RayChaudhury: With reference to the undercover stint you did as a Playboy Bunny, which we read about in t2 today, as a former journalist what advice would you give to a budding female journalist, about a few such things in todayís world that you feel need to be laid bare?

Gloria: Maybe unequal pay, safety on the streets, domestic violence at home, child sexual abuse which is big in the world around, not always about a problem but also about inspiring a reader by showing them a human being who is positively working for equality. Just do it wherever you can print it. We have a responsibility of being accurate about facts and we have a responsibility to say what we see. I donít think we need to hide behind the impersonal old journalism. You have a great gift to make the invisible visible.

Disha: India has been a part of your life since you were 22, when you also spent some time in Calcutta. Tell us about your Calcutta memories and what brings you back here.

Gloria: Itís Apne Aap that brings me back to Calcutta. I hope you understand here how important Apne Aap is to those of us in other countries. Itís provided a third way which makes more sense and practical. Not only is Ruchira 100 per cent comfortable on the ground but she also helps us lobby with our Congress. Itís rare to find someone who can do it from the bottom to the top.

What I remember most about Calcutta in the early years is that I was hanging out with writers and it seemed to me that wherever two or three people were gathered together, a poetry magazine was being built, there was a political argument, it just was very appealing! (Laughs) I came here (India) when I was 22. I lived in Miranda House and went to the University of Delhi but at that point if you wanted to learn about India, all the courses were English so that kind of discouraged me from going for courses and I started to travel. I stayed here for two years and I was lucky enough to wander into many things that I didnít forget.

Doing caste trails with Vinoba Bhave, seeing what organising from the grassroots looked like from people who were working on land reform. And being told that if you want people to listen to you, you need to listen to them first. It was very useful in retrospect, I did not realise at the time. It helped me understand that change is like a tree. Now I know on this trip, itís a banyan tree. I think the banyan tree is a much better symbol of social change.

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