The Red Elephant Foundation Monday, May 18, 2015

Kamla Bhasin, a renowned social scientist and an advocate for gender equality and feminism, is a fiery force to reckon with. With a wholesome perspective of the myriad nuances of gender and feminism, her books have added fuel to the fire of many of the world’s activists. She talks about her journey so far, her vision for the future and her work as an advocate for gender equality in this interview.

–     What got you into gender advocacy? Your foray into the field came at a time when it was still nascent, and was not seen as a “profession” as medicine, engineering and teaching were.

I got into gender advocacy after becoming a social activist. I started working in 1972, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, as a social activist working with the poor. I was 26, then. I had grown up in rural India. My father was a medical doctor, and worked in rural Rajasthan. Once I began working with the poor, I came to understand consciously that women were poorer than the poor, more dalit than the dalit, and more discriminated than the discriminated. At the conscious level, this realization happened when I worked with the poor in Rajasthan. At the subconscious level, I guess I always knew this to be the truth. It is impossible for girls and women not to know the truth about how women are worse off. I did take to gender advocacy at a time when very few people were in the field. Of course, there were prominent people such as Gandhi and women in politics who talked of the need for gender equality. It was the general atmosphere – I was born on the eve of the partition of India, in 1946. Equality and Justice were in the air back then!


     Could you talk about some of the key challenges you encountered in your journey?  What were some of your strategies in dealing with the challenges?

I started working on the basic needs for the communities that I worked with. The organization said that we had to help with literacy for women and men, saying that they needed it. We tried our best, and I realized that there was no response. When the women built a fair degree of rapport with me, they came up to me and said, “Look at the place around you. Are you all blind? We are poor, and we are in the middle of a drought – what we need most is water. And here, you are all trying to give us literacy – it is not our top priority. Can you find us a way to make a well?” These were people from the Adivasi community. I went back to the organization with what they told me and asked if we could use the same resources to dig a well. It made me realise that social workers tend to come up with plans of action that pivot around their idea of the priorities for the communities they work with – which don’t align with the actual priorities of the communities themselves. I started working with the women as providers of water. Slowly, it expanded into agriculture and other avenues. Meanwhile, I started writing about women in society. I don’t remember having faced any challenges in my work, though. We were doing our work for gender equality and no one stopped us. The Adivasi women were strong and forthcoming. They were helpful all the time. It was really about going from one step to another. The main challenge that I did face was personal – it was about my having to change myself to understand them, and to dispense with my misconceptions about the poor. I suppose I managed! 


–    As a gender equality advocate, what do terms like Feminism and Gender mean to you?

I work with women, rather than for women. As I work, I realise that I change all the time. Everyone needs to be ready to change all the time. In my work so far, the term feminism has not been difficult to comprehend. Just like we learned words like democracy, human rights, mobile, internet, and even Skype, so too, we learned the term feminism. We came up with a simple definition of feminism: anyone who accepts that girls and women are discriminated against in the domestic setting, in the workplace and in society, and takes action  against such discrimination,  is a feminist.. If a man does it, he can also be a feminist! In other words, feminism is Looking at the World Through Women’s Eyes because for much too long everything has been looked at decided through men’s eyes. Feminism is and ideology and action programme against patriarchy and for gender equality. VERY SIMPLE! Feminism, as some have tended to misunderstand, does not mean that women claim superiority. It only means that we want equality,our dignity, choices, spaces and freedom. After 1947, when India gained independence, the Constitution guarantees it for us. We are, therefore, only asking for what we are already entitled to. However, Gender was tough to understand. It came up after about 15 years of working in the field. We are familiar with the concept of men and women, and not gender. Initially, I was resistant to the term gender – it came across as being very academic. Gender discrimination tends to be used to denote discrimination against women, but in reality, it can be denoted to mean discrimination against men, too.  


      Is gender really a social construct? Or is it much more than that?

Gender is a socio-cultural definition. I have been doing gender workshops for over 30 years now, and 50% of the people I work with, do not know how to define the term. It is not about men and women. It is a socio-cultural construction. The concept of patriarchy is very clear, and has tended to call a spade a spade. On no uncertain terms, it goes about clarifying that it is a male dominated world, in which  men are considered to be superior to women. This is something that the term “gender” did not convey. We were initially resistant, but there are many advantages to using gender as a concept. The concept of gender clearly differentiates between wahat is biological or Nature made and what is socio cultural and Society made.There is a big difference between the biological and the socio-cultural construction. Nature does not discriminate. These discriminatory attributes are a human creation. Since humans created it, humans can change it, too. It can be a powerful thing. Many tend to look at it narrowly, and as independent of other elements. Gender inequality ties in with caste inequality, with racial inequality and with class inequality. It is impossible to tackle any of it in isolation if we want sustainable results.  

      One of the biggest misconceptions is that men are only perpetrators of patriarchy, and cannot be victims of it. Could you weigh in on this statement with your thoughts?

Men do undoubtedly benefit from patriarchy. Of course, all men seem to be born with so called privileges because they are men. They have advantages – 90% parliamentary seats go to men. 95% of the judiciary goes to men. Men inherit property – and all of this, because they are men. Simply because of these privileges, men tend to look at themselves as being in a better place. But let’s look at the other side. Although men are only 50% of the population, 100%  rapists are men,. 95% of the world’s suicide bombers are men. Instances of rash and drunken driving see more men as perpetrators than women. According to one statistic, 40% and another, 60% of married Indian men are violent to their wives. To me, a man who rapes is far more dehumanized than a woman who is raped. A man who beats his partner is not  human. Patriarchy does not let men cry. Patriarchy forces men to become breadwinners. The fact is, patriarchy helps and serves no one. Men should recognize that they can be fully free only when women  are  free. Fathers and brothers have to protect their daughters and sisters, earn and put money in the bank for their daughters’  dowries. Boys in the family are forced to join the family business when they may be much happier writing poetry or doing art. We should come to a state where sisters should be welcome to join the family business, so that they can tell their brothers that they are free to pursue what they want. Women should be able to come home to their husbands and say that they will go out to work while the husband really can sit back and take care of the kids. If the roles remain fluid, it is so much easier to enjoy a happy life. I have been working on masculinity for over 15 years now, and have written a lot about it. I brought out a CD for the One Billion Rising campaign, with four songs that talk about men and masculinity – to some extent, with humour. Using slogans, workshops, art and music, I am working against the established notions of patriarchy to make people realise that it serves no one’s interests. Most of all, it is against the Indian Constitution. Patriarchy really needs to be buried or cremated now just as caste and race need to be out of our lives. This is an era of equality and these unequal and unjust systems have no place here.


      Do you identify with the terminology “masculinities of violence”? Is violence inherently a masculine element? Should we worry so much about classifying violence thus? 

The terms masculine and feminine are social definitions. It is not a biological definition, but rather a social definition of what men and women are supposed to exhibit as characteristics. Society defines men as overpowering, controlling and violent, and keeps teaching them to be violent. Boys are given guns to play with as their toys. All men are not masculine. Many women are masculine, too, and can be violent, too. Violence is not a biological attribute. Man is not inherently violent because he is a man: if that were so, the world would not have had a Buddha or Guru Nanak. It is important to promote non-violence and peace in the way we bring up our children. Masculine and feminine traits are a social notion of how men and women should be, and what characteristics they should exhibit. Society encourages men and boys to be violent. There is a whole industry that works overtime to encourage this – encouraging boys to fight wars in the army, play competitive  games , play with guns and the like. Look at all the films that release today. Boys who are gentle are ridiculed and called sissy. .  In addition to our religious and cultural patriarchies today we have  capitalist patriarchy: pushing for everything from pornography to the world of cosmetics. On the one hand, women are commoditised –  the shape and complexion of their body is focused on. As if we women don’t have character and intellect! To add to it, since women are bodies, they effectively come with a shelf life. On the other hand, men are also victims of patriarchy, and spiritually, men suffer more. A woman who is raped can and will move on – true, what happens is horrible, but the fact is, that she can move on. But the man who rapes, he comes from a psyche that has been built on for years. He is not human, he is finished, virtually. Men should realise that they have so much to lose by being violent.

      Religion has been seen to justify patriarchy, although a lot of this justification stems from misinterpretations of religion. How can this be tackled?

 I feel in their practice all modern religions  are patriarchal. The fact is that the ownership of religion is in men’s hands.  The men who started these religions were extraordinary – the Buddha, the Prophet, Jesus, all of them – they were extraordinary. But, look at what is happening today in the name of their religion. Gender equality is not at all possible if we are going to continue practicing religion in the way in which it is practiced. All modern religions – and by modern religions, I mean Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and everything else – were created in a post patriarchal setting. Patriarchy was created first, and then came all these religions. In these religions, there is a supposition that God is a He. Therefore, if God is  He, He or man is God. That is where words like pati-parmeshwar, husband and swamy come up. All our stories and legends come from this hierarchy. Theoretically, most religious texts do not mention equality. All 10 of Jesus’ disciples were men. No religion has yet accepted women as heads of these religions.. Therefore, they obviously declare 50% of humanity as inferior or second class.. Religion and culture are huge carriers of patriarchy. Very few take up the challenge. There is a lot of work that has been done, of course, but more needs to be done. Religion creeps into life during important moments – such as during a marriage. The practice of “kanyadaan” or giving away the bride is an example. According to our Constitution, No father has the right to give away his daughter. The notions of having an ‘owner’ or pati is wrong! I remember, recently, I read an article in a newspaper about how in a Swaminarayan Temple event  and a woman  journalist who sat in the front row was asked to  go back because  the priests of this Sect are not meant to look at women. It was such a display of crass discrimination, to treat a woman thus. Another example is how a woman is not allowed to do the last rites for her deceased parents – of course, back then, a few of us did defy it, such as Mallika Sarabai and I, for instance. But the bigger issue is that many follow these things quietly. We should be questioning these things. 


–     Could you talk about Sangat, and your role in it?

I co-founded the Sangat  Feminist Network with 25 others. After working in the grass root level in India, I moved onto working at  the Asian level. I was invited by the Food and Agricultural Organisation in 1975, to join them in a project where I was given the duty of handling a Regional Project on the Role and Training of Change Agents, which supported NGO initiatives. I worked on organising regional and national workshops, participatory training programmes for field level  workers and decision makers mainly from non-government organizations, people’s organisations, women’s groups on issues related to poverty, development, environment, gender and human rights and to facilitate linkages and networking. The scope of my work here was centered around Asia. For about 27 years, I continued in this position. After resigning from the UN, I moved onto founding Sangat, with 25 other women and men. So in all, for almost 40 years now, I have been working at the Asian level. My aim is to identify groups and individuals doing innovative work to promote equality, gender equality, justice, democracy, human rights ad peace  bring them together for building their capacities and connect them in the process of capacity building. We organize short and long workshops.. Every year we organize a one month long course in which we bring  30-40 women together from different countries and for learning and sharing.,  We start as early as 6:30 AM and go on until 10-10:30 PM. They start with Yoga, and end the day with films, song and dance.  I teach for 5-6 days and we have other feminists who come by and teach, as well. By the end of it, these women have a massive network that they are part of, making friends in countries they never knew they would make friends in. This is, in effect, also action towards peace. Women make friends in other countries, and know enough people in other countries not to be afraid or to stereotype communities unnecessarily. For instance, in the recent Nepal Earthquake, our network was abuzz with activity as women reached out to their friends in Nepal to see if they were alright. Sangat is in effect a small organization comprising 4 people, including me. We have a network of over a thousand women.

      What do you see as the future of women? What are we ignoring in our fight for equality?

The future of women lies in equality, justice and freedom. Theoretically, we have it. Our Constitution and the UN conventions guarantee these rights. Everyone who made these documents was a visionary, but the people are not visionaries. We need to have a cultural revolution, and some amount of social change. We need to be worthy of being called human.