New Internationalist

Fighting sexism – 30 years on

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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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  1. #1 priya thomas 23 Jun 14

    Rightly said mari-thirty years on and the scene is just as bleak for victims of domestic violence -only difference today many of these victims are educated AND self reliant and have the means to live independently -i guess societal/familial pressure and the stigma of being a divorced woman in our conservative society is what makes them stay in the abusive relationship-truly terrible

  2. #2 david cohen 23 Jun 14

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara's powerful blog brought lots of associations for me.

    In the 70s I flew only domestically in the US. But I wish I had met a flight attendant to have the stimulating conversations Mari leads us in.

    In these stories that Mari reports, I think it is important that the young women stood and stand with the Adivasi women who was being so disrespected and abused within her community. Those young women are the future and with it major changes in culture that would not allow the behavior towards the young Adivasi mother that occurred.

    Here we witness the rise of people centered and values based action. It uses critical thinking (whether it's called that or not) and popular education to begin to change the culture within communities. Here the seminal thinking of the great Latin educator and reflective activist Paolo Freire comes into play. Those Adivasi women understand deeply, and act on their understanding. That marks liberation and freedom.

    Each week for approximately 40 weeks I read a chapter of the Exodus story, the Israelites journey to freedom as they broke from their slavery. Three not well known characters have become favorites of mine. Their lessons are applicable here.

    Nashon was the first to put his toe in the Red Sea before the Israelites crossed. He tested the waters and that encouraged others to come in, to not be afraid of the unknown. Lead by example. What a powerful lesson!

    Eldad and Medad who were among 72 people chosen for leadership responsibilities with recognition. In the end only 70 could serve. Eldad and Medad had to stand aside. But they served and led without formal recognition. They had much to contribute. The lesson is serve the community without the ego gratification of prestige and standing. By doing so you contribute and that contribution will be recognized by people who respect people who don't need their ego massaged constantly. That makes possible a people centered leadership and advocacy.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    June 23,

  3. #3 Sarita 25 Jun 14

    In answer to that old woman, who said that to you thirty years ago, I would have said, 'how will the husband face his empowered wife the next day, after having received a beating from her'!!

  4. #4 dr shylaja devi menon 03 Jul 14

    Dear Mari,
    This is very unlike you!..
    The gender bias is not an easy thing to break. I think the only way is really to make the women more and more powerful; independent; get them to realise that they can get on with out their protector!!
    Its a slow process, very frustrating indeed. Until the day comes when the women themselves feel that they need a fair deal, no amount of pushing from our side will make a difference. Even today, a lot of the tribals are not upset by the way they are treated. We are!

  5. #5 mari 03 Jul 14


    Thanks for taking the trouble to write in.

    I'm sorry, I seem to have given the impression that either I dont support the young tribal woman or that I am giving up. Its not the case at all.

    Just wondering how best to move the issue in particular and womens' rights in general forward. So many complex issues.

    I'm pleased there are feisty young non tribal women on the team to push barriers and challenge patriarchy. Even if it ruffles feathers

    May the force be with them and all the women in our country and everywhere else the world over


  6. #6 Glenn 08 Jul 14


    Can I just be clear about what you are saying in the last part of this article? A drunken man beat his wife so that she had a miscarriage -- which I think we can all agree is a terrible enough thing. So you, as presumably a good left-leaning, violence-abhorring person, advocated forming a ’vigilante team to beat up drunken men who enter the village’. So, to be clear, that's *other* men, not the man who beat his wife, but *any* other man, whose only 'crime' was to get drunk. You think women should get together and violently beat men for doing nothing more than drinking? Because one man was violent when drunk, therefore others *might* be violent when drunk? Kind of a pre-emptive strike?

    It certainly seems like this is your position, and you seem to be bemoaning the fact that the older lady persuaded the others that it was a bad idea to persuade wives to team up and beat their husbands simply for drinking alcohol -- you seem to suggest her lack of enthusiasm for your vigilante-violence mobs idea is the kind of unassertive inaction that has prevented progress in dealing with levels of, er, violence in that community?

    Please, I really would like an answer, as I find this rather and odd and disturbing idea to be reading about (and gathering support in comments) in 2014 on the website of a magazine that supposedly promotes equality and non-violence.

  7. #7 Anu 04 Aug 14

    You are assolutely right Mari. The issue is indeed very complex difficult and has so many ,many layers. It is very frustrating for those of us who work in the field with these women. It takes a lifetime to understand all the issues, biases and different cultural contexts involved. But fight on, we must!

  8. #8 mari 04 Aug 14

    Dear Glen,

    Your comment did make me stop and think. Sorry - I was trying to express the anger and helplessness I felt 30 years ago, when we were so desperate that giving the men a taste of their own medicine seemed like the only solution.

    But to clarify a bit more, the alcohol issue is complex. Its important to understand it from a local perspective and not from a western cultural standpoint. For you, it is very possibly the norm that many men are drunk, but harmless. In most villages here, where alcohol is not historically part of the culture, drunken men ARE violent. In many of our adivasi villages, alcohol directly causes almost ALL domestic violence.

    In a community where most people live below the poverty line, and alcohol is expensive, men getting drunk also translates into less food for the family, often kids having to drop out of school.

    Its also important to understand that alcohol has been introduced to these communities by outsiders, and is a massive cause of indebtedness. Alcohol was given to indigenous communities in lieu of wages.

    A good book to read to understand more about tribal society and how alcohol was deliberately introduced to gain control is Paraja.

    So no, while I'm not seriously advocating vigilantism (perhaps I used the word too flippantly), there are times when it seems like the only solution that worked. Here is just one of many articles to give you a sense of how desperate the situation is. A quick Google search will throw up many more. I find it impossible to condemn the women for doing this

  9. #9 Betty 04 Aug 14

    Don't be such a WUSS Glen.

    Pre-emptive strike - collateral damage - behaviour modification.

    No one enjoys having a drunken husband at home.

    And Shyla - Slow and steady - I don't advocate that - Folks don't relinquish power voluntarily, women have to get proactive to effect change. The ’rape epidemic’ in India isn't going to go away by passive resistance.

  10. #10 Jyothi Neelaiah 05 Aug 14

    A person who has experienced and undergone the problem will only be able to understand the intensity and negative implications of a problem.

    My sister who was an agricultural labourer and a dalit woman has all along suffered for 40 years of her married life because of arrack. There was not even one day in my brother-inlaw’s life without taking liquor. My brother in-law used to beat my sister almost every day and my poor parents could not do anything about it. The first result of drinking is- wife beating. Domestic Violence Act will not be affective unless liquor si restricted and banned in the villages.

    Our economists say liquor brings in lot of revenue to the state exchequer. I strongly feel that kind of revenue has no meaning when women suffer and men enjoy. There are several cases I have seen in Rural India where men prefer spending on liquor to giving food to their children.

    The saffron color Govt which is planning to ban the cow slaughter should focus on prohibiting the liquor. The Govt should realize that Welfare and Development programmes to the poor and needy do not have any meaning without stopping liquor.
    When a man thinks that he has a right to beat his wife after taking liquor, why can't we beat that fellow who drinks and destroys the family and the society? I have any number of cases who spoiled their lives JUST BECAUSE OF LIQUOR.

    My solidarity to all the movements that bring dignity and respect to women, particularly Dalit and Adivasi Women.

    Neelaiah Jyothi

  11. #11 mari 05 Aug 14

    Thanks Jyothi Neelaiah

    Only folks who have worked closely with the womens movement in India will understand why there is a movement to ban alcohol or why peaceful shy women have joined the anti alcohol womens movement and resort to vigilante action.

    thank you Jyothi. Our hearts go out to women like your sister who weep tears of blood every day of their lives.
    All power and strength to the sisterhood of Indian women who fight for their children, their families and their very lives


  12. #12 anita 05 Aug 14

    As always Mari writes from the heart and opens many unlocked doors in the hearts of others.

    Of course countering violence with violence never solved any problems - but when you are fighting that one battle which can never be won in one lifetime - there is some joy in giving it back, bit child like one might say...Probably the only thing that Nirbhaya took to her grave - she fought back.

    Alcoholism and a constant pressure to conform - be like the rest - has indeed left indigenous people only a shadow of their former selves.

    Mari writes as it is, not always leaving us comfortable, and if we care enough to explore the several layers that cover problems like alcohol abuse and domestic violence the reality rooted in history, culture and present day policies would leave us feeling lost - where to start, where will it end??

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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