Less than a month back, feminist writer and social activist Gloria Steinem received America’s highest honour—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—from President Barack Obama for this year. In India, she has been involved with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots organisation fighting sex trafficking. In an interview with Outlook’s Saba Naqvi, Steinem discusses the changing face of feminism, women’s assertion of their rights and men’s reaction to it. Excerpts:
Following the Dec 16 gangrape in Delhi last year, there has been a raging debate in India, stringent laws have been passed, and rape, sexual harassment etc are now issues discussed widely. Would you call it a feminist discourse? How is it different from the western feminist movement?
Yes, part of what is shared by my first and second countries—the United States and India—is the energy and tradition of great populist debates. I can’t imagine this happening in, say, Switzerland or China. And it’s a feminist debate as long as some voices are free to speak up for women’s right to be free, safe and equal as human beings. We may have more in common than would feminist movements in some other countries in the West because we, too, are very big, very diverse, with many languages and cultures. This is both a blessing because it allows us to see different examples, and a barrier because sexism is always increased by bias based on race or caste. Obviously, reproduction—and therefore women’s bodies—have to be more controlled to maintain such unjust divisions in the long run, and conflict among hierarchies of men is played out on women’s bodies.
There is a fear that when we talk so much about rape (recent cases involve a high-profile magazine editor and a retired judge of the Supreme Court) we may be falling into the trap of mass titillation rather than rights assertion. Is that a valid fear?
First of all, nearly half that “mass” is female and unlikely to be titillated by its own suffering. Second, if males are titillated by the pain and endangerment of females, it’s a judgement on them. One reason so many rapes and other sexualised acts of violence involve groups of men is because they are proving their “masculine” superiority to each other. Also a reason why so many involve objects that tear apart a female body internally—unlike a penis or other vulnerable part of the human body that might experience pleasure—is because rape is about violence, not sex. It’s about proving “masculine” superiority to females, or superiority to the male group that the female “belongs” to. They may even rape a boy or man to reduce him to a female status. That’s why most rapes of males are committed by heterosexual men, not gay men. For instance, the letters I get from men who understand rape the best are men in prison who’ve been used as women in the absence of women.
Many men (and some women) argue that new laws mean the end of seduction, as a woman can now accuse a man of rape even if causes are personal vendetta or the desire to entrap someone in a position of power. One politician even suggested that people will stop hiring women.
Ah, yes, he’s one of the men who thinks it’s all about him! Believe me, there is still punishment for bringing a charge of sexual assault—the women who do it often have a fierce sense of fairness plus a desire to keep him from attacking other women. In any case, the charge is subject to all the rules of evidence. Failing to hire women—besides being illegal—is like failing to hire the poor because they might steal—though, of course, the poor are more likely to steal if they don’t have jobs. I don’t know who that politician is, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the gender gap in voting patterns sends him home. I hope he might think to himself: suppose I were exactly the same person, but born a woman? Then how would I feel? Empathy is a very revolutionary emotion.
Is there a disconnect between women’s struggles in rural India, and the shrill rape debate in urban spaces?
I don’t feel I can answer that, only village women can. To the extent that I’ve been able to listen—for instance, talking to women like Mukhtar Mai who survived a gangrape in her rural Pakistani village, but fought back and created her own debate, urban and global—rural women seem grateful for support. She and others have gone on to become feminist activists, and work for women’s human rights. Also, “shrill” may be a judgement in itself. I don’t think a debate about sectarian violence of men against men would be called “shrill”, do you? If we call it “brave”—or just “a debate”—the response is greater.
Although it is hard to generalise about different sections of society, from the feminist viewpoint how far have Indian women travelled?
What should be the big concerns for women (and men) in India?
I don’t believe in “shoulds”. Each person or group finds their authentic answer.
What are women in the West grappling with today?
Patriarchy is the same lie about male supremacy, it just takes different forms. For instance, in the US, if you added up all the women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11—and then added up all the Americans killed in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan—more women have been murdered by their husbands and boyfriends. Yet we pay a thousand times more attention to foreign terrorism than to domestic terrorism. Yes, women are sometimes in powerful positions in the West, but the average woman is still not paid equally to a man for the work she does, and if it’s work in the home, it has no economic value at all. Especially in the US—which will soon no longer be a majority white or European American country—there is a huge backlash against reproductive freedom, immigration and everything else that’s bringing this change.
So we who share values across parts of the globe need each other all the more now. I have hope because I’ve seen huge changes. And besides, hope is a form of planning.
35 D Ramki
Only a low-life, like you can keep coming up with abuses.
Truth Pains where It should.
33 D Ramki
A hate mongering idiot like yourself, cannot write a simple sentence about male rights, and yet lecture others!
What a hate-filled scum you must be!
Anti Male hatred is also expressed occasionally by you - now and then you jump on the gun expressing your extreme hatred towards some men because they openly declare themselves to be Conservative Right of Center Indians and support BJP/NDA. Hope you change on that and understand even if you dont agree on the Conservative POV
30 D DC
Antimale hate is increasing by the day, and you will soon realise that you are neck deep in it too. As Rod ( Washington Uni ) says: "Feminism is about hate, not equality, and proving (progressive) female superiority." But of course, you are unlikely to read and learn from, people like Rod, but more likely infleunced by the anti-male media.
As Chittranjan has eloquently pointed out - dont get blown away by the feminist hate propaganda. If you really want to support victims, support REAL victims. There are victimised males who are fighting losing, feminist, court battles for 'non-violent rape'. Genuinely raped males ( in jails, colleges and war ) simply dont have a voice.
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