“Patriarchy is just five per cent of human history”
Gloria Steinem says for the first time in human history, women do not constitute half the human race
Vandana Shukla

When Gloria Steinem says, "Worldwide there is a daughter deficit and son surplus," the world listens. Especially in India, where the daughter deficit has touched dangerous proportions.

Steinem, 79, recognised as feminism’s most influential voice, is not new to India. Aged 22, she came to India to escape marriage. Instead, she found herself involved with Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement and with M N Roy’s Radical Humanists, for which she worked as a volunteer in Tamil Nadu’s riot-affected areas, travelling in third–class compartments of the Indian Railways. Her interest in tribal cultures of India grew and later her association with Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay influenced her feminist ideology.

Founder of Ms magazine, Women’s Action Alliance and a range of other organisations, including the latest Women’s Media Centre, Steinem struggled as a freelance writer in New York, finding a footing with the "girl reporter’s assignment" of profiling celebrities. She had to go through the arduous grind of organisational work, before she was able to break gender-related stereotypes through her writings and organisations.

She recently participated in Zee Jaipur Literature Festival. Apart from being a well-known feminist, activist Steinem has authored several best-selling books, including Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. For the first time in human history, she says, women do not constitute half the human race. The world sex ratio has dwindled to 100 women for 101.3 men due to different forms of femicide. More girls have been killed in the last 50 years because they were girls than men have been killed in all the battles of the 20th century combined. The violence that one witnesses in the battlefields is bred in homes, where gender violence is normalised through cultural sanction. Excerpts from an interview:

Gender inequality is cultural

Oppression of women also dehumanises men in their limited roles. Men didn’t invent violence against women, they inherited it as a cultural legacy. That is why it is hard to fight domestic violence which has come to be associated with masculinity. Since violence against women enjoys cultural acceptance against nations, races and castes it becomes more desirable. A man has often not seen a woman in authority beyond the age of eight. This man feels baffled seeing a woman in authority, and takes it as an encroachment of his space. In most cases, gender inequality is experienced first as children at home among people we love, that’s why, we’ll accept it anywhere. We have begun to raise our daughters as sons, but we don’t raise our sons as daughters, which inadvertently re-affirms the same old gender notions.

Violence and oppression

If you add up the women who’ve been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in America since 9/11— and then add up all the Americans killed in 9/11, in Iraq and in Afghanistan combined, more women have lost their lives to domestic terrorism. And this is happening in a country the world views to be liberal to its women. Sex and World Peace - a 2012 book by Valerie Hudson and three other scholars has documented current rates of violence against females in 100 countries. They believe the best predictor of violence within a country and also a country’s willingness to use violence against another country is none of the usual suspects of poverty, natural resources, religion or democracy. If the society has norms of violence rooted in gender inequality, it is more likely to use force when in a conflict situation rather than states that foster gender equality through laws and enforce those laws.

India is not the rape capital of the world

The rate of sexual assault is not higher in India compared to the other developed countries like the US and the UK, which report a much higher rate of sexual violence against women. In India, women have now started to report sexual assault. You have to keep the cultural context in mind, as Churchill said, "A Dalit woman can’t be raped," the social factors need to be looked at with sensitivity. Some progress has been made in making the victimiser accountable rather than the victim under the new rape laws. The Nirbhaya case changed the entire viewpoint because the girl was absolutely blameless, so it became the match for the dry tinder which was already there. Empathy for such crimes is hard to come by from men, except in such rare cases. I came across a rape convict in Nevada state who was sexually assaulted in jail. He told me, "Now I understand what physical violation is all about". We need to humanise the masculine role to humanise this world.

Indian roots of feminism

In India, the feminist movement has been far more strong and has been linked to grass- root level work. The perception that feminism came from the West is a result of the colonial mindset. I learnt my first lessons from Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay, founder of All-India Women’s Conference, who believed feminism was not separable from socialism. Ela Bhatt, should have been given the Nobel. She pioneered micro-financing and offered employment to 1.9 million women through SEWA. In India, feminism moves in cycles — it comes and goes. Traditional history doesn’t tell us the role played by women. Women fought against Sati and child marriage, people were already radicalised, thanks to these million small movements in the hinterland when the legal reforms came about. Apne Aap Women’s collective has 80 thousand women-commissioned work. Whatever happens to men is political what happens to women is cultural. So, it doesn’t make news. Also, women’s economic movement remained confined to feminist academics, but India has experienced a lot more change than being documented in academia. Political empowerment has come through Panchayati Raj institutions. Women got many benefits, thanks to the silent work of these feminists — abortions were legalised and family planning was first introduced in India, you had political leadership from a woman prime minister. I wonder if Indira Gandhi had a brother, could she be the PM?

Because of their fertility, women were divided into two groups — a section of them was to be kept ‘pure’ for the purpose of protecting caste and race, the other section was to be used for sex, as prostitutes, or to produce slaves. Both can change only when women have more options. In the first case, there is complete right over fertility and in the second, more openings for work, other options for economic activity.

Existence of matrlineal cultures

When no gender is deprived of realising full potential of human quality. The closest humanity came to realising this was in the matrilineal societies, not matriarchal because that would be reversing the patriarchal. In the US, among the Native Americans, 500 or so matrilineal cultures existed where women participated in decision making. Treaties to give up their lands to the Europeans were signed by clan mothers. These were the cultures of balance where the paradigm was the circle. In India, matrilineal cultures existed from Kerala to Himalayas before colonialism and Christianity arrived. Patriarchy arrived between 500 to 5,000 years back. Patriarchy makes only five per cent of the human history. And it has caused tremendous damage to the balance of nature.


Other voices of dissent

Three women writers — Namita Gokhale, an Indian writer of English, Zeruya Shalev, Hebrew writer from Israel and Salma, a Muslim Tamil poet, talked about. "Burdens of identity" at the Jaipur Literary Festival on how the process of writing made them shed the burden of gender identity first and later of caste, race and [email protected]@Namita Gokhale: "I come from a Kumaoni Brahmin family, the burden of pride for the Brahmins, because they were poor, was overwhelming. I was married to a Marathi, and the comfort of the middle class — not a recognisable terror but terror all the same — of conformity had to be challenged, which I dared to do through my writing in Paro, and ever since I was stamped as ‘bold.’ @@Zeruya Shalev, writer of novels like Love Life, Husband and Wife, Late Family found herself resisting the walls between the sexes rather than the walls between the countries — Palestine and Israel. Hated for writing erotic novels in a politically charged atmosphere, she refused to acknowledge the violent attack which incapacitated her for six months. She says, "It felt like a victory to resist political situation and its tragic consequences, defying imposed expectations by refusing to admit its very existence." Salma, her pen name, wrote poems and short stories, now translated into several languages, in a toilet when her husband went off to sleep. They were published to her surprise. She wrote about a woman’s erotic desires and dreams, unacceptable to her society. @@She was ostracised, but it turned in her favour and made her famous. Now, she no more dons a burqa.