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Fighting sexism – 30 years on


International Women's Day in Omkareshwar, India. Nevil Zaveri under a Creative Commons Licence

I grappled painfully with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in college and read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French without putting it down. They left me livid at the world in general, and men in particular.

I was working as a flight attendant through the mid-1970s – at time when no-one had coined the term ‘sexual harassment’. When men in the workplace made lewd comments, we survived by ignoring their remarks if they were sexually loaded, supposed ‘jokes’, and by telling them to f--- off if they were personal attacks. If you tried to fight issues like sexism you were told to grow up, deal with it and not to blow things out of proportion.

Three decades later, when dealing with a sexual molestation case, I realized grimly that nothing I ever read or wrote had prepared me for the reality on the ground. A 21-year-old adivasi woman, Badichi (name changed), reported a sexual molestation by a forest guard. Horrified, young women colleagues rushed to her aid, only to find the village wanted nothing to do with it. A protest march was planned. The adivasi village refused to participate. ‘She has had two kids, by two different men. She gave her kid away. She is not a decent girl so why should we fight this case?’ the community asked. The young women on our team were aghast.

Were people in the community really turning their backs on an adivasi woman? They were not normally judgmental about sexual mores. They were, however, outraged that the woman in question had given away her baby to a non-tribal person. That went against adivasi tradition.

Or were they being coerced by the forest department into backing out of the fight, because many of them depended on the department for employment and livelihood? A colleague who supported Badichi was thrashed by her drunken husband because forest department bosses asked him why he couldn’t keep his wife in line.

Talking to angry young women colleagues, I tried to think coherently. How best could we move this forward? Think strategically, I advised. I remembered advocacy lessons from Giant Killers author, friend and mentor, David Cohen. ‘Use the NIMBY factor.’ Not In My Backyard. All your anger and moral conviction won’t win you battles.

An angry woman says: ‘Why should these young girls go out after six? They are asking for trouble.’  We reply: ‘your daughters, sisters, walk to the hospital for night duty. Shouldn’t our roads be safe for them?’ Forget about arguing that the girls should be able to walk into town for a coffee if they want to. We are cultural aliens here. We cannot bring our western-educated baggage on board if we want to win gender battles. We are taking one small step at a time, fighting merely for safety for these women. Fighting against wife-bashing, domestic violence and alcohol related abuse.

A feminist friend, Kamla Bhasin, once said wearily: ‘I’ve been fighting dowry deaths and violence against women almost all of my life – 45 years or more. Abortion of female foetuses has almost eliminated the girl child from Haryana and Punjab; dowry deaths continue unabated. But we must go on.’

I remember how 30 years ago, I raged, raved and ranted when I heard that a drunken husband had kicked his pregnant wife in the stomach, causing her to lose her baby. I waved an article at the group of women and asked them to form a vigilante team to beat up drunken men who entered the village, as women in Nagaland had done, according to a newspaper report I had read. An old woman calmly said to me: ‘You are very young. But don’t say such (silly) things to our women. If a woman joins a mob to beat up her husband, how will she face him the next day? How will life go on?’  

And so we continue. Thirty years later.

The July/August 2014 issue of New Internationalist will focus on feminism around the globe.

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