Thursday, 20 August 2015

How I Realised I am a Feminist

When the Women's Reservation Bill was first introduced in the Lok Sabha in September 1996, the morning after we were gathered around breakfast and the newspaper at home. I was busy eating and wasn't paying attention to what the elders of the family, it was the men who were basically discussing this, had to say until they hurled a question at me: 'What do you think, do women require reservation to make it to the Parliament?' I was a little surprised that they asked me, a student in Class X, and not the other women present (who were mostly housewives). I cleared my throat with as much importance as I could considering kids in the family were generally not allowed their opinion in matters of the state or family when elders were discussing it. And I said what came to me naturally, that women are strong, meritorious and capable enough and do not require quotas to succeed. All of them applauded my statement. And I felt very good. And that was the truth for me at that time. I knew nobody at home supported reservations. I often heard elders complain of how somebody from a scheduled caste, scheduled tribe or other backward class had managed a promotion ahead of them because of the quota. Also, all around me I noticed women who were doctors, engineers and teachers. All doing good. What I didn't take into account was the social background they came from. All of these accomplished women I knew of were from middle class families with fathers mostly as engineers (because my father was an engineer with a state department in Assam so I knew many of his colleagues who had daughters doing very well), doctors, professors, bureaucrats, geologists and upper scale employees at Oil India Limited or the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). So while in school, these were the families I knew and their daughters were invariably doing well and also went on to marry well, successful husbands from similar 'good families'. And yes, nobody in my family had heard of feminism till then, nor had I. 

In Hindu College, Delhi University and JNU, New Delhi, where I pursued a Bachelor's, Master's and an M.Phil. in Sociology, I became aware of India's caste system for the first time. I devoured the books by stalwarts M.N. Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Yogendra Singh and declared to all I knew how 'safe' Assam has been for everyone. Weren't we lucky we had no caste system or its perils ever? And my non-Assamese friends always marveled when I told them this because they could not fathom a world without the caste system. Where they lived, who they interacted with, dined with and married was always dependent on what castes you came from. I was shocked and enlightened them about how we can marry just anyone other than the 'tribals' because the tribals are not like us, we are like the rest of the Indians (although at that time I only meant the Hindus when I said 'rest of the Indians'; also my idea of how the rest of the Indians were was limited to what Bollywood showed me). Also, I had no idea how I was using the word 'tribal', placing them lower in the social hierarchy as if it was alright. And I hated the sight of the feminists - the fabIndia kurta wearing, kohl-eyed women who aggressively shut you up, or rather shut me up. They would never listen to me and dismissed me like  a non-entity. Not just me but everybody else like me who had no interest in discussing what the state was doing, how oppressed women were, etc. etc. And they talked so much about 'gender' issues that I skipped opting a paper on gender studies for as long as I could. No, I didn't want to be like them. And I am glad I am still not like them. I can listen to your opinion calmly even if it is bang opposite of what I have to say.    

In 2007, for the first time in my life, I came face to face with the caste system right at the heart of my beloved Assam. I was at Patbaushi, a village in Barpeta district for my PhD research. There I saw how the lower castes are not allowed entry into the homes of the upper castes. I came across a few cases where two or three Scheduled Caste women had married upper caste men. These women were not allowed entry into the kitchen and prayer room in the household, and were given rooms further or cut off from the rest of the household. I was stunned. These women were also outcasts in their own communities. I had never lived in the villages of Assam and I realised how protected a life I led. I just had no access to anyone who wasn't from my social background or who actually came from rural Assam. Yes, I interacted with many people in school, the prestigious convent Holy Child school precisely, and Cotton College (for my XIth and XIIth), but who spoke about caste and communities at school? We were talking mostly about crushes, textbooks, film stars, fables, films, music, and the paranormal.

At Patbaushi, I had gone to study the changing socio-religious status of the Xatras (vaishnavaite religious establishments) in the village and stumbled upon the persistent caste dynamics instead; and how it always manifested in how the women were treated. Which is why I could not finish my PhD perhaps because my focus just shifted! Where was I living all this while? How was my world so different? And why did I think my world is everybody's world too? I felt so bad for these lower caste men and women who thought it was fine, and not their right to question, if they were not allowed entry into the upper caste households. And that was when I started to think about what marginalisation meant.

Coming to marginalisation, at a recent screening of the film 'Meena' on a prostitute who comes from a community that practices inter-generational prostitution in India, a lady came up to me and remarked how everybody is talking about the marginalised these days. Are there so many marginalised people? Who are the privileged then and where are they and why is no one talking about them? she asked me. And somehow I found myself answering her although I had no idea who she was. 'It is only in the arts, movies and books that people are talking about the marginalised,' I said. 'Do you talk about yourself or somebody else with a nice house where maids and domestic help cannot sit on your sofas or eat with you at the dining table? That's because you are in the privileged lot and what's there to talk about it? So we talk of what's happening to the marginalised who cannot sit with you or eat with you, among other things. Have you ever considered what caste or communities they came from? And if this is something regular in their castes/communities? And if ever one of them sat with you on the same sofa, then you would talk about it! The beggars that we see at Delhi's red lights - you drive by, stop at the red light, you give a rupee or maybe not to them. What's there to talk about this? But yes, there is a lot to talk about them because they are mostly from the Sansi community in Rajasthan who are nomadic tribes, and who have been practicing beggary since ages as livelihood because they cannot think of any other livelihood option. Their children do not go to school, they do not own land and houses, and most of the freed/denotified and nomadic tribes in India are not even enumerated by the Census, which is why they are neither scheduled castes, scheduled tribes or other backward classes and thus remain outside the realm of benefits provided by the state. So should we be talking about you and I who are entitled to provisions and benefits primarily because of the social and cultural capital we have been born with, or should we be talking about them, the marginalised who are not equipped in the first place to compete for these provisions and entitlements? You may ask why, and I may say 'what about the social and cultural capital which has helped you, me and the rest like us.' She looked at me a little bewildered and said, shrugging her shoulders, well I don't know maybe I will think about it, and walked away. But I am grateful she listened to me. And after she left, I pondered, if I were born in one of these communities, would it have been possible for me to be where I am today? In that case, would reservations for my education and employment have improved my life? I had goosebumps all over.   

I have seen how reservations have indeed improved the lot of many men and women. They don't have to emerge as world class leaders, but as Shweta Katti says, 'For the women of the community I come from, healthy childbirth and raising their children in a way that they can access education is a huge success.' Shweta Katti grew up in Kamathipura, Mumbai's red light area, where she spent the first 17-18 years of her life. As a child she went to the day care Apne Aap Women Worldwide set up in the neighbourhood for the children of prostituted women, where free tutions were provided to them. Today Shweta is at Bard College, New York and is one articulate, confident young woman. Her story is actually the story of how meaningful intervention and education can change people's lives. You can watch her talk in a video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nR8KarGOAoQ&feature=youtu.be 

Yesterday, I was at the launch of a report on women police in South Asia by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and learnt that of the total strength of Indian Police (Civil and Armed) - 22,83,646 - women constitute only 6.11% (1,05,325 in numbers). There were reports about how women are thought of as unfit for policing jobs! How they are perceived as physically weaker (when there were many women officers in the gathering who looked as physically tough and at times tougher than some of the men around). But the bigger question is: Would a larger number of women in the police force imply a greater sensitivity to how cases are dealt with, cases particularly related to women? We can only wait and watch, like how we can only wait and watch if a greater participation by women in the Parliament would bring a change to law and administration. But at our hearts, we know it will, because in all of my 36 years now I have seen how women can rescue other women, how women can understand other women, how across all sections, certain issues that women face are the same, and when women talk about these to each other they listen with an inherent sympathy. It is not to demean men and say they don't want to understand these issues, but the thing is they cannot understand these issues simply  because they have not faced them. 

Now some might say what kind of an argument is that! But the fact is until the time I started living in a Muslim ghetto, I had no idea what could the insecurity of those who lived in a ghetto be like. Today, when I often face the scathing remarks of autorickshaw and cab drivers about how 'dangerous' Muslims are and how 'dangerous' these colonies are, where they are either picking me up from or dropping me at, I feel the pain of all those who live in these ghettos like me. I am a Hindu, yet I feel the pain of all those who live in the Muslim ghetto where I live. And I wonder, had I still been living in the protected shelter of my home at the upper middle class neighbourhood in Guwahati, would I still feel the pain? Maybe not and I am ashamed to admit it today. But the question is, where are our policymakers, who shape the country's 'growth,' from?  Are they mostly from such upper middle-class neighbourhoods and have they ever lived in a ghetto or in a neighbourhood where communities like the Sansi live? In that case, do we understand the implications of this? 

So, I have now realised, quite late in life, that I am a Feminist, but surely not the kind I hated in the university. I am a feminist like hundreds of others who believe in an equal world, a more compassionate world, a world where everyone is given equal opportunities, be it a man or a woman or a transgender, a world which allows greater freedom for everyone, where there is equal access to life opportunities for everyone, and a world where everyone feels safe and secured. This is because now I understand that being a feminist primarily means an alternative perspective to look at the world. And I know, like we all do, the world I contemplate is far from the truth today. So until it becomes the truth for each of us, I will support reservations to bring marginalised people to a level from where they can set off to creating such a world. But in the end, I do realise how tough it is to explain why I am a feminist and how such enormous changes are possible.    

(This piece was reprinted by The Thumb Print in August 2015 http://www.thethumbprintmag.com/how-i-realised-i-am-a-feminist/)
           

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