Gloria Steinem with Ruchira Gupta during the city leg of the Learning Tour. Picture by Rashbehari Das
Gloria Steinem, the 78-year-old feminist pioneer, was on a six-day Learning Tour in Delhi, Bengal and Bihar earlier this month, inspired by Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots movement to end sex trafficking. In a freewheeling chat during her stay, Steinem opened up to Ruchira Gupta, founder president of Apne Aap, on her latest tryst with trafficking victims in Calcutta, Obama’s re-election, Monroe’s loneliness and more. Excerpts.
Ruchira Gupta: What brought you to India this time?
Gloria Steinem: I came to India on a Learning Tour with Apne Aap, an organisation I feel close to because I’ve worked with them in the past. I came here to see their work twice before, three and four years ago. The Learning Tour includes 10 other people — from Peter and Jennifer Buffett, their NoVo Foundation does work focused on girls, to Sarah Jones, a genius performer who can inhabit people and their stories when she performs.
I’d been to Bihar and Sonagachhi before, and I wanted to see more people and learn more — to see the reality, not academic descriptions of the reality of being prostituted, but the experiences of the women themselves. Apne Aap’s approach is a woman-centred one with workable solutions because women organise themselves in small groups and support and rescue each other. Anyone who has experienced something is probably more expert in it than the experts.
RG: What did you learn from this trip?
GS: It was very life-changing. It’s going to take me a while to think more deeply about it, but I would say the main thing I learned from the girls in Bihar is that the human spirit can be even stronger than everything designed to suppress it. Here are girls from a group, the Nutt community, that has been prostituted for generations, with every girl made to feel she has to sell her body to support her family, never be educated, and face beatings and physical danger if she doesn’t. Despite all that, the girls in Forbesganj I talked to have their spirit intact, and with even the slightest encouragement, fight for themselves and fight for each other. The one I spent the day with wants to be a social worker, and others wanted to be lawyers because they’d seen just how unjust the system is.
Now that I have come four years later, I’ve seen Aap has grown to 3,000 members in Bihar. They held a rally at the demand of the members, and their chant was, “If we are not free, India is not free.”
Gloria Steinem at the Apne Aap girls’ hostel in Forbesganj, Bihar
I think they’re right. They know from real life what we should know from history and study, that democracy in daily life, democracy within a family, is the predictor of democracy in the rest of society. Democracy has to grow from the bottom. Like a tree, it cannot grow from the top. If you have violence in the family, violence will also seem normal in public life and even in foreign policy. These young women understand that, and an abstract concept was no longer abstract.
In Calcutta, I saw members of the Apne Aap self-empowerment groups of 10 women each — for instance, Mumtaj and Fatima. Under the worst circumstances, they carry on and they make change. Mumtaj is the second wife of her husband, and he already had three children, so she treated them as her own, and as she said, worked hard and “turned them into people.” But he was violent toward her, and only stopped when she not only stood up to him but became a leader in their community. She is a rag-picker and they were living under the bridge and facing eviction, so she organised the other rag-pickers to oppose the eviction — and they won.
Fatima is from the Nutt community, and was trafficked into prostitution in Sonagachhi when she was only nine years old. Now she is an organiser building bridges between women who’ve been prostituted there and poor women outside. Both of them were not only saving themselves, but they were organising many other women to save themselves. They are people who theoretically have no power. I can’t imagine that anyone could put them in a novel and be believable, you could only put them in a documentary. You have to listen to them to know how extraordinary they are. The people who are at the bottom of society are at the top in terms of courage, innovation, problem-solving, energy.
RG: What are your initial impressions on sex-trafficking from your Bihar-Bengal trip?
GS: It’s very hard to look at girls and women lined up like objects in the huge red-light area of Sonagachhi, being inspected and purchased by any passerby, with no real power to reject any customer. When I and other women looked them in the eye as human beings and smiled, said namaste, treated them with respect, they seemed surprised at first, but then they smiled back. I didn’t think about this because it just seemed normal, but afterward, one of the men in our group commented on watching these exchanges, and on how hard it was for him to be regarded warily, always as a buyer.
It’s very hard to look at women — or men — treated as if they were objects, as if they have no feelings, no will of their own. Their phrase in many countries is “survival sex”. It’s very painful to watch. I feel guilty as an American because I know the Gates Foundation has been paying huge sums — at least $500 million so far — to AIDS control programmes in India that pay salaries to brothel owners and pimps and traffickers in Sonagachhi and Sangli to become “peer educators” and distribute condoms, though there’s no proof that women have the power to make men use condoms, and there is proof that men pay more to have sex without a condom.
I know there is an academic position that all this should be legalised, and it’s tempting to believe from a distance it would somehow protect the women — especially since now, they are way more likely to be arrested than the pimps and traffickers. Certainly, legalisation is what the sex-trafficking industry, which is now close to the profits of drugs or arms worldwide, lobbies for in both our countries. But in real life, legalisation has tended to bring huge and tragic problems.
If prostitution is a job like any other, then women can be forced into it. Holland pioneered legalisation, but the mayor of Amsterdam now regrets it because there’s no way to keep out organised crime. The more customers, the more need for illegal trafficking because there aren’t enough women who want to do this by choice; an understatement.
Experience now reveals that what works — and has worked in Nordic countries, where trafficking has actually diminished — is to de-criminalise the women or men who are prostitutes, offer them services and practical alternatives, and prosecute the pimps, traffickers and brothel owners to the full extent of national and international law. After all, there is a greater percentage of the world’s population in slavery now than there was at the peak of the slave trade — with sex slavery about 80% and labour slavery about 20%, according to the UN, though the line between the two is sometimes academic.
The point is: you may have a right to sell your own body, but you have no right to sell the bodies of others. We must stop arresting the victim. In Nordic countries, they fine and educate the customer, not just to embarrass him, but to give them the facts of human trafficking for which he is part of the market.
The good news is that though the trafficking lobby and a few academics tell us there are only two alternatives, legalisation or criminalisation, we now know this Third Way actually works. It’s not about being moralistic and anti-sex — on the contrary. It’s pro-sex and mutual pleasure. We have a T-shirt that says, Eroticize Equality.
The US seems to have greater social equality for women while they have seldom held positions of political power. The reverse is true in India. Why do you think that happens?
I think a variety of reasons. Family is more important here. If Indira Gandhi had a brother, would she have been Prime Minister? Also, we don’t have any real affirmative action in political life. Also, running for political office requires much more money, and women in the US don’t yet have equal pay, much less equal control of a family fortune. There’s a lower voter turnout partly because there is less confidence that if you vote, it will change your daily life. In India people still believe that the vote can change something, that voting is the one place where the poor can equal the rich.
A final reason may be that very powerful positions are more attractive and there’s more competition for them. Since the United States has an unfair amount of power in the world, there is more competition for it. And this is a circle. We do what we see, not what we’re told, and because there was a woman Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi), more women may be able to imagine themselves in political work. So far, we haven’t had that at the top. However, I do think that Shirley Chisholm, who ran symbolically as a black woman, and then Hillary Clinton, who almost won, changed that. I never thought she would win in 2008, but her brave and intelligent example has changed the molecules in the air.
You have worked extensively on Marilyn Monroe. What fascinates you about her?
She’s a mythic figure, as famous now as when she was alive, yet she was often trivialised, exploited. As a child, she was abandoned and sexually abused in foster homes. As an adult, she was treated as a “dumb blonde,” though she was a talented, intelligent woman who wanted to be taken seriously. At the end of her last interview, she said, “Please don’t make me a joke.” She was also made to feel her acting life was almost over at 30, and that despair may have contributed to her committing suicide.
I think like many people, perhaps especially women, I have a rescue fantasy about her: If the women’s movement had been around then, might she still be alive? Might she have felt alone in being sexually abused, trivialised, and valued only for youthfulness? She had been written about in exploiting ways by Norman Mailer and many others. I don’t know how much difference my book (Marilyn: Norma Jeane) made, but I was proud that her closest woman friend told me it reflected the real Norma Jeane, her real name.
You have expressed support for US President Barack Obama in the upcoming elections. Comments?
He is a good person, very intelligent. His heart and mind are connected — unlike, say, Reagan and the second Bush, neither of whom was very smart, and seemed to have very limited empathy…. He has greatly improved the image of the United States in the world. He also personifies the fact that in a few years, we will no longer be a majority European American, white country, which to me is a good thing because it means we will look more like the world.
However, among some accustomed to having their way as a racial majority, there is an underground backlash. Given their economic and media power, we will have to work very hard to make sure Obama is re-elected. The alternative is unthinkable. The Republican Party platform no longer represents even the majority of Republicans; it is the property of religious extremists and rich corporations that want no government regulation…. It’s imperative that real Republicans take their party back instead of just leaving and becoming Independents. Until then, the great danger is that, if people are angry or disappointed with Democrats — or if unemployment numbers are high — they will vote for the other party. And we only have two.
I hope that American voters of Indian descent will help re-elect Obama. For instance, he has a huge gender gap of 20 points among women voters, and voters of colour also favour him greatly, because he is so much more supportive of equality than any of the possible Republican candidates. To put it mildly.
From the days when you were a student in Delhi to now, how have you seen change in India?
It hasn’t changed in that the familiar things are still here, yet it has everything modern, too. There are still the same groups squatting around a kerosene lamp at night, selling strings of jasmine, making paan, smoking bidis, telling stories. I love that. Also there are still more newspapers than anywhere else on earth. I love that, too. But at the same time, there’s Internet leadership and theatres and shops that people in Los Angeles and New York would be jealous of. India performs the miracle of adding, but never subtracting!
How would you compare the way the feminist debate has changed in India with the way it has in the US?
At an individual level, I think women feel much more free to behave whatever way they want to and be taken seriously, which I think is great. But in neither country have we solved the problem of women having two jobs — one inside the home and one out — whether they’re members of SEWA or big executives. We have to change our job patterns so both parents can have jobs and family lives if they choose them. We’ve had the courage to raise our daughters more like our sons, but not to raise our sons more like our daughters.
In general, I would say that the US has more changed consciousness in the majority of people and India has more changed policy. Perhaps for both of us, social justice revolutions have to last a century before being absorbed into the culture. We’re not even half way there.