The fight for women’s equality is not between men and women, it’s a fight between two ideologies — one says patriarchy is better, the other says equality is
Can men and women ever be equal? This question has been raised many times, but it seems rhetorical somehow. Women have achieved so much more these days, but it doesn’t seem enough. Why? Let’s answer this with a question. There is a married working woman, her husband is working too, but who cooks after reaching home or in the morning?
Such a disparity seems like a daily routine and the roots have been clawed in such a way that perhaps women who are exhausted after work may not even realise the reason. And the worst part — if they voice their opinion, they may end up feeling guilty as ‘she is the caregiver’. Then there are those who have realised their worth and gathered the courage to say enough!
One such living example is Kamla Bhasin, who was in the Capital recently to attend a programme organised by Sangat and One Billion Rising (OBR) Nepal.
Bhasin was born in a small village in Pakistan, but lived in Rajasthan, India as her father was a medical doctor practising in Rajasthan. After completing her Masters from a government university in Rajasthan, she went to Germany. “I got a fellowship, there I lectured for a year then decided to come back to my own country and start working.” In 1972, she joined a small NGO in Rajasthan called Sewa Mandir. She started working there with the poor — “Dalits and Adivasis. There I realised much more that among the poor, women were the poorest; among the Dalits, women were the most Dalit and that is when I became a conscious feminist”.
She began writing about women’s issues and songs related to that and after four years in the field, she was invited by the UN (FAO) to work with them. “That’s where my journey started in South Asia in 1975.” She worked with the UN for 27 years. Through the UN, she brought people of different countries together, to learn from each other, to build capacities and to build networks.
Bhasin is now known as an activist, feminist, social scientist by training. At present she is working as the Advisor at Sangat, a South Asian Feminist Network and is the OBR South Asia Coordinator and Nepal Civil Society.
Women’s movement: Much older, much larger
Certain names flashed in media may be mistaken as women’s movement. But there is more to it than meets the eye. Where does it actually exist? “It exists in the villages where there are literacy classes, self-help groups, and women fighting for their rights. I believe women’s movement is really spread out in the villages, in small towns of every country in the world and there is this desire for equality. Our countries have said all men and women are equal but there is not a single country in the world that has that equality yet.”
Irrespective of where women come from, they have always been victims of some kind of abuse or assault, is Bhasin different? Yes and no. She never suffered just because she is a woman, but at the age of “62 or 63, my husband who was mentally ill was violent to me, so I divorced him because at that age I couldn’t take it”. You tend to look for some heart wrenching story, but there is none. “For 30 years we lived together without any problem.” However, like any woman if you ask her, have you been free of fear of rape? She answers, “No.” Bhasin then points out a reality, “We must also realise that being from middle-class or upper-middle-class she can face violence any time, but a poor Dalit woman is much worse than me or you, because she is — poor, Dalit, and a woman.”
Fear of rape shows how far equality has been achieved. It is still embedded as rapes are taking place is every part of the world and “in patriarchy men don’t have to rape every woman, they rape a few and the rest become fearful”.
Feminism and patriarchy
If a woman doesn’t succumb to the societal pressure, fasting on Teej for instance, she is questioned. It’s atrocious to even accept that that can be her choice and rightly so. ‘She’ will never be just she, she will always be someone’s something — daughter, wife, daughter-in-law… going against this makes her a feminist (of course the word here is not taken for what it actually stands).
This term has been twisted in such a way that it’s unfortunate. Being a feminist means being against patriarchy, sexism, and discrimination. How is that wrong?
“People are not happy with feminism, and even if I call it XYZ, they will still be against. It is because they mind the fact that we want freedom, we want equality, and there are lots of people, customs, and traditions who don’t want to give women freedom.” Why? “For the last 4-5,000 years, women have been dominated. Men have domination over parliament seats, in the Supreme Court, even in South Asia if you look for an editor in a daily newspaper, it will always be a man. Also at home if you are working, you will be the one to take care of everything irrespective of how hectic your workday was, you will have to look after the children… all these are benefits for men and they don’t want to lose that.”
Does this mean it’s easy to do this because women are vulnerable, they are emotional, and they compromise? “Not at all, this all started when private property came into existence. People wanted to pass on their legacy, but men did not know who their children were, only women were known as mothers because there were no families. That is when patriarchy came. Men were the ones who used weapons to control animals, salves et cetera and the same violence could be used against women. Before patriarchy came, women were worshipped all the over the world.”
Not convinced with Bhasin’s explanation a thought arises — it could have been the other way round. “It could have been, but women are the ones to bear children and are more creative with their bodies. We never played with weapons and never went hunting. We are the founder of agriculture, of handicrafts, so we have been creative. It is not a physical fight. You think western civilisation controlled the world with bodies? It was weapons. Why did they have weapons? Because they had science and technology before us.
Similarly, it’s not that all men are stronger than women. It’s just the desire to control.” Notice the irony? God, the creator is worshipped and women who are in the same league, in terms of creation, are suppressed for the very reason!
What we need to fathom is asking for equal rights doesn’t mean being against men. “The fight for women’s equality is not between men and women, it’s a fight between two ideologies — one says patriarchy is better, the other says equality is. We (feminists) are not against men, we are against men and women who are for patriarchy.”
“I believe in addition to religious and traditional patriarchy, there is now capitalist patriarchy like pornography, and cosmetics. This thing of women to look pretty, is another patriarchy, item numbers in movies, toy industry — guns for boys and Barbie for girls. Today Teej for me is a form of patriarchy happening in five star hotels, it is the same with Karva Chaudh in India.”
One cannot deny that women nowadays have proven as competent in every field — there are women prime ministers, Nepal has 33 per cent reservation in the Parliament and so on. Regardless of the achievements, these questions say it all — can she walk alone on the road at night? Can she say no to traditions that require women to compromise? Can she say no to have a child without raised eyebrows? Can she ever feel safe irrespective of where she is?
When women work together
KATHMANDU: When women from different walks of life come together, it brings life to the venue. This was the scene at Tewa, Dhapakhel on October 2. The event was organised by Sangat and OBR Nepal to pay tributes to the people who lost their lives on April 25 and also salute the ones who are contributing to the commitment and resilience of the people who have devoted to work for relief and rehabilitation.
The event also witnessed the celebration of solidarity with the participants of Sangat’s 20th Asian Feminist Capacity Building Course, a month-long course where women from different South Asian countries participated.
Meeto Memorial Award for young south Asians was also a part of the event. This award is to celebrate social commitment of young people. The award was “started in the memory of my daughter Meeto Bhasin Malik, who passed away at the age of 27 in 2006. At the time she was doing her PhD at Baliol college, Oxford, UK. She was a scholar, a human rights activist and a dancer,” informed Kamla Bhasin.
Like any award it was expected to be given to someone who has contributed to the society, there would be roar of applause, but it was more than that. Sabeen Mahmud, a young Pakistani woman working for peace, human rights, and harmony in Karachi was honoured with the award. Instead of the roars, there was silence and every heart was filled with respect. She did not come to collect the award, but she must have witnessed the change she fought to see in some way. She was shot on April 24, 2015. “We honoured her for her work,” Bhasin added.
The South Asian Launch of One Billion Rising 2016 was also announced on that very day. One Billion Rising or OBR is a global campaigning against violence against women and girls, started three-four years ago. “On February 14, 2013, 2014 and 2015, in over 200 countries men, women and children rose against violent against women. We rise dancing and singing. We rise as survivors. In 2016, we will focus on climate justice and on marginalised women and communities.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 11, 2015 of The Himalayan Times.