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A world where women matter

No one can say it quite like Gloria Steinem does. She proved it once more at the first session of the Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) on Saturday afternoon as she glanced back at herself and smiled, “I constantly see my 22-year-old self wandering around the same places, not knowing what I was doing. You know the Russian dolls that are in layers? I think our younger selves are still with us in layers and layers. I don’t know what good luck I can attribute my coming to India but it changed my life. I never would have understood that deep social change came from the bottom.”

If on Friday evening she had told The Telegraph about how “feminism changes everything else”, on Saturday evening she took the thought forward at the KLM session titled Why Feminism Needs to be Strident in India at Victoria Memorial. The discussion, also featuring Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, was steered by Ritu Menon, scholar and activist.

The session marked the launch of As if Women Matter, a collection of essays written by Steinem and edited by Ruchira with short prefatory notes by Ruchira comparing the situation in India with what was current in the US when the essays were written.

While Steinem dwelled on how “over time this heart connection has continued”, Ruchira recalled the time when she first connected with the icon seven years ago. “Through a mutual friend she had heard about my work in prostitution and how I was trying to organise women in red light areas and slums in small groups. She emailed me and said ‘Would you have time for me to take me through your work?’ And I was like Gloria Steinem is emailing me to find out if I have time for her! The deep friendship over time has come from a commitment to a movement.”

Hoping for a session that would send everyone home with “one new outrageous organising idea that will make tomorrow and the next day more just and kind,” Steinem spoke about the women’s rights movement as it exists in America, the tragedy of 14 as the average age of girls being forced into prostitution as “survival sex”, and more.

As questions of patriarchy and masculinity floated in, Steinem explained, “The masculine and feminine role did not exist in many of our original cultures and languages. In Native American languages for example, there’s no he or she. People are people. Yet we got so crazy to give gender to tables and chairs!”

(From right) Gloria Steinem, Ritu Menon and Ruchira Gupta at the inaugural session of KLM 2014 on Saturday

While Ruchira felt that the women’s movement was getting “bigger, active and alive than ever before”, Steinem was quick to point out the time of “great crisis” we are living in. “Whether it is son preference, female genital cutting, domestic violence or sexualised assault, violence against females is so severe that females are no longer half the people on this spaceship earth”.

Questions flew fast and furious, with more men armed with questions for Steinem.

“I think the whole idea of supremacy is based on inferiority complex and insecurity in men. Is there any corner in the world where men have gotten over this inferiority?” asked Javed Akhtar seated in the front row with wife Shabana Azmi. “Yes, absolutely,” came Steinem’s reply. “Especially in families that have had nurturing fathers.”

“What do you think could be a taming influence on masculinity and what kind of training to boys would suppress their violent traits,” asked a man. “There’s nothing more important than men raising children as much as women do. We have not convinced even ourselves that men can do what we can do. A man can be feeling, nurturing, loving and patient too. Men raising children can be the key to world peace,” signed off Steinem to claps and cheers.