Making up for lost complexity


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ALTHOUGH a woman (Susanna Camusso) has been elected as leader of the largest trade union in Italy, it is by no means easy for us to conceive of the power and particular characteristics of a union independently pursuing the interests of a million women – a union that negotiates with the government in favour of women who lack job security, that sets up a bank supplying hundreds of thousands of small loans to its account holders, and that fights for new rights for mothers.

The union, which is also an organized feminist movement, is called SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), and it was through this union that I got to know the real India, not only the country known to tourists and intellectuals, but the India of the villages, of solidarity and active civil society, where I lived for about a year. Emerging as an offshoot of the Textile Workers’ Union in 1981, under the guidance of Ela Bhatt, a legendary leader endowed with extraordinary charisma, it rapidly became a unique model of an independent organization by women, its great success an object of study and research.

And yet the impact on the western media has been practically nil. Why is this so? Is it, perhaps, that when we Europeans turn our attention to the South of the world, we remain trapped in our own stereotypes, seeing only what we expect to see? We tend to focus on the poverty, the weaknesses and caste differences, while the speed of change somehow escapes us. In some, more recent cases, and in particular looking at Asia, we are fascinated by the irresistible rise of new, powerful figures, amazed at their youthful determination.


We fail to grasp the complexities of the warp and weft of the real society, of what we call – at times simplifying the intricacies with an expression that has become part of our jargon – civil society. This, in India is, I believe, the most important arena for the power and authoritativeness of women. Nearly every social movement has a woman as leader: from Medha Patkar, who has been waging a twenty-year battle for the rights of the tribal peoples living around the vast reservoir of the Sardar Samovar dam on the River Narmada, to Aruna Roy, a social activist from Rajasthan and prime mover of the law of 2005 on transparency in the public administration, thanks to which the poor peasants have been able to find out about their property rights and to assert them, and there are countless other examples.

We may take the pink sari movement, growing in a region as unpromising as Uttar Pradesh, in the form of a constellation of women’s self-defence groups around a socially discriminated but fiercely determined woman – Sampat Pal. I may add the civil commitment of world-famous women writers such as Arundhati Roy, who has long taken a stance alongside the tribal peoples and recently took a courageous stand on the tremendously thorny issue of independence for Kashmir, or Mahasweta Devi, whose choice of the Bengali language and the evocative tones of the stories sharpen her focus in tracing out the salient lines of life in the world of the most deprived. Again, there are publishing houses like Zubaan, unflagging in their cultural commitment to women’s liberation over the years.


The conference we held in Delhi last October also offered evidence of this particular trend in Indian society; here I am thinking in particular of the contribution by Ruchira Gupta. Her commitment emerged and developed in 1992 over the issue of the ‘temple of Ayodhya’ and the destruction of the Babri Mosque . As a young Hindu woman journalist, Ruchira was roughed-up for fighting for the rights of Muslims, and for India to remain a tolerant, multireligious society. This idea of a thriving democracy, endowed with greater substance and depth, where the diversity of religions remains part of the country’s natural scene, as has been the case in India for centuries, quite naturally gave rise to her subsequent commitment against trafficking and exploitation of women and children in prostitution.

Just like Zakia Soman, an eyewitness to the Gujarat anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002, who has given life to a movement of tens of thousands of women, including Hindu and Christian women, in various states throughout India, while at the same time fighting against the intolerant communitarianism and patriotic, fundamentalist forces within the Muslim community: ‘Concretely,’ she stated in an interview in Civil Society, September 2010, ‘we are fighting against the burqa and to assert our rights; apart from the odd fanatical mullah and a few exceptions, most men are with us. It’s a positive legacy of the tragedy of Gujarat.’

In the time I spent living and working in India, I came to realize that there, especially for women, it comes more naturally to say we rather than I, than it does in Europe. Watching Indian women at work and sharing their sense of commitment, the thought that most often crowds my imagination is: a forest is different from a sum of trees. By virtue of their sense of organization, the satisfaction in combining forces through rules, codes of behaviour, memory and shared values, they are recognizable in their united action just as the forest can be identified by the harmonious clustering of trees. Thanks to the care they take over bringing up and educating the very young and the motherly watch they keep over them, their young girls can engage in ever wider-ranging exploration, like the child with the good mother described by Winnicott, while they remain both confidently assertive and flexible at the same time.


For many long years they have had to cope with the informal labour market with all the consequent insecurity, and this has taught them to take a more creative approach to constructing their welfare, often rough and ready and hardly sufficient but based on that old and most noble principle of mutual aid and economic and moral responsibility of each towards all the others, and all towards each, given that unfortunately, as an old Indian proverb has it, ‘The state is always there when you don’t need it and never there when you do.’

India offered me an encounter with a special kind of woman leader based on tolerance, social inclusion, nonviolence and personal commitment of a markedly ethical nature.

Particularly useful, I believe, in interpreting this capacity to enhance democracy from the bottom up – not taking politics as an autonomous sphere separate from society – is the theoretical approach taken by Martha Nussbaum in a text deriving from a long investigation among the women in India: Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach.


Nussbaum maps out the ten different capacities that can characterize the life of women and their quest for freedom. They cover a different area from that of rights – one that implies dynamism and a certain priority for subjectivity. The question is not whether you are or are not satisfied or how many material resources you hold, but what sort of human being you are able to be or to become, and what you are able to do by making use of the opportunities offered:

Life; physical health; physical integrity; sensibility, imagination and thought (including religion); sentiments (emotional development); practical rationality (freedom of conscience, awareness of good and evil); belonging (acknowledgement of the humanity of others, capacity for compassion and friendship, being worthy and not humiliated, in family life and at work); capacity to relate with nature and other species; capacity to laugh and play; and control over one’s own world (through political participation and property rights).

This map of capacities can, of course, be extended in various directions, theoretical and empirical. Suffice it to consider what it means for a baby girl to have the capacity to live, not discriminated against with selective abortion, infanticide or malnutrition. However, not all capacities have necessarily to work at the level of concrete functionality. For example, a woman can opt for chastity if it accords with her religious sensibility; the important thing being that no capacity be thwarted by an external authority.

Not all capacities are equally decisive from the point of view of survival, but some, apparently marginal, touch a particularly tender spot when contemplated with attention and compassion. It is hard for the parents of a privileged family to realize that close to a third of the little girls in the world never get to play.


However, it is not the intention that my picture of India give the reader an impression of something idealized through the exotic experience of an Orientalist. India, too, runs the risks typical of an international political panorama shaken by post-democratic winds. The great ‘foundation myths’ representing the background of the postwar ruling class, independence from the British and the markedly dialogic heritage left by Gandhi, can be overshadowed and overtaken by rapid modernization in the direction of technology rather than humanism, just as in Europe the ‘foundation myths’ associated with the antifascist, democratic values represented by the first generation of postwar leaders risk falling into oblivion.

In India, too, anti-political feelings are high: here, too, the legitimacy of the ruling class has declined since independence; corruption is widespread, as is the arrogance of many politicians. All this is well captured in the writings of the celebrated historian, Ramachandra Guha.

Nevertheless, those strong charismatic women whose energy is fuelled by the faith of the oppressed do not stop short at demonstrating their contempt for the powerful in the streets. They cultivate democracy with their daily actions. They do not take it simply as a system of rules accompanying development of the market, but as practice of a creative life such that respect for the others prevails over the will to dominate. Here lies the difference between Indian democracy and ours: an extraordinary element of vitality – it is far easier to discuss and wax passionate over how to change society than to dwell fretfully on the faults of the powerful and the shadow of fear and disillusionment they cast on the future.

As I see it, this difference in attitude has to do with demography as well. According to the 2 October 2010 issue of the Economist, India is still growing rapidly from the economic point of view and challenging China on an issue that had, paradoxically, been seen as a weakness in the past, namely a high birth rate. More young Indians than Chinese will soon be entering the productive age: 136 million in 2020. Among the young people between 24 and 35 years of age, the rate of literacy is fairly high (over 80%), and although the difference in opportunity between men and women in terms of education and training remains all too great in many Indian states, especially in the North, the gap seems to be narrowing.


From the point of view of the future facing young women, this creates an enormous difference between India and Europe, and in particular Italy, which has for years had the continent’s lowest birth rate.

Our countries are rapidly ageing, the over sixty-five-year-olds overtaking the under twenty-nine-year-olds in quantitative terms. Of course, this swing in the balance can also be viewed in terms of well-being, greater life expectancy and improved health services, but the fact remains that the opportunities and expectations available to the young, and to young women in particular, are dwindling. Despite a fairly solid tradition of women’s emancipation, the female rate of employment is falling in Italy (although, as a result of crisis over the last two years, the male rate is also on a downward trend), as had not been seen for several decades. The new forces are coming from the immigrant workers: in 2009 a million babies born to couples from overseas were living in Italy – a large figure for such a small country.


With economic stagnation coming alongside demographic stagnation, the fear of the foreigner grows and fuels prejudice. Throughout Europe unscrupulous political entrepreneurs feed the flames of conflict between homebred citizens and immigrants. Propaganda targeting the elderly plays on the sense of fear and insecurity in the urban context, while for the young the emphasis is on the uncertainty of the future and lack of job security. This is the fuel feeding anti-Muslim prejudice among us.

Demographic issues are also exploited for propaganda in India: for its political campaigns the more chauvinist wing of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has exploited the actual or alleged higher birth rate of Muslim families to prejudice Hindu public opinion.

Italy’s Muslim community is relatively minuscule, smaller than the Christian communities among the immigrants: the former consists of about 1,300,000 persons while the latter amount to nearly 3,000,000 if we add the members of the Orthodox church from the ex-Communist countries (very often not practising) to the Catholics of the earlier migratory wave coming in particular from the Philippines and Cape Verde. With the exception of southern Spain, Sicily and certain parts of the former Yugoslavia, Europe has no historical tradition giving pride of place to Muslim culture.

The myth and fascination of the Mughal tradition in India has also provided arguments to those who espouse certain chauvinist positions, painting the Muslims as looters and invaders. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that an emperor of the stature of Akbar addressed India as a nation, not merely, nor even mainly, appealing to the Muslim community’s sense of identity. This may to some extent account for the prejudice and fear widespread throughout much of Europe with regard to the Muslim community. Many forms of prejudice are to be seen in countries with various different cultural traditions, such as Spain, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

This difficulty in accepting difference, a tendency – hardly conscious in some cases – to consider the European model as mono-cultural and mono-religious, has much to do with the very concept of democracy and the issues it raises today.


As Amartya Sen writes in The Argumentative Indian, India has an open, centuries long tradition of accepting difference based on roots, language and religion, and conceiving of forms of inclusion that take them into account. The European liberal tradition, in contrast, favours a more abstract and theoretical concept of what a citizen is. In not recognizing difference, we may practice social inclusion only when the citizen becomes an abstract model, an exact copy of ourselves.

In India the Muslim minority is a great community with a rich cultural tradition. And yet here, too, we come up against much the same sort of problems – discrimination, violence and political parties that trade on prejudice. During the liveliest and most turbulent period of its modernization (1992-2002), India saw fierce outbursts of violence against the Muslims. On 22 December 2007, when Narendra Modi was re-elected, despite his ‘responsibility’ for the massacre of 2002, I happened to be in Gujarat and remember the pain and disconsolate concern for the future on the part of my Indian friends.


As many intellectuals and some of the more aware politicians argue, modernization by no means enhances social inclusion if it is not accompanied by democratic commitment and deeper motivation. However, if we take a global view of democracy with all the gender implications, we cannot shy away from the issue of the body and what we mean by its freedom.

Nilüfer Göle has given us brilliantly insightful warnings against secularist reductionism, standardizing values on the simplified model which is the legacy of 1968: contraception, abortion, jeans and short hair. She adds that we can learn something about ourselves by wearing the veil; for example, that the body is not only material.

What, however, is most striking about today’s western culture is not so much the heritage of radical secularism as the powerful influence of the media in moulding the dominant model for women. Obviously, it is not a matter of formal constraint but rather of an extremely pervasive conditioning closely connected with the interests of the advertising, entertainment and leisure markets. Lorella Zanardo, an Italian filmmaker, has made a significant documentary titled Il corpo delle donne. With telling images, it illustrates how cruel the exploitation of a young female naked or semi-naked body can be, displayed every day – every hour, practically – on our television.

The simplistic argument that we are facing a clash of civilizations, and not a clash in each of our civilizations, for the values of inclusion and tolerance to prevail, tends to separate cultures and break down into various stereotypes the bodies of women and the collective symbols constructed around them. In the western countries many men not only believe that freedom has to do with their opportunities to exploit a woman’s body from the sexual point of view, but equally that women approve of this point of view. In other cultures, and above all in prevalent Muslim cultures, most men conceive of freedom as having to do with the protection and modesty of women, and assume that the women share their point of view. In both cultures it is ultimately always about the freedom of men.


Is that really how women see it? My answer is decidedly negative in both cases. The need is for a third perspective that does not involve the reduction of women to bodies.

Our understanding must build on the inviolability of the female body, a sort of gender habeas corpus. The inviolability of the female body, the right of every woman to self-determination, must become a non-negotiable value. The fight against trafficking in women for prostitution or slavery, genital mutilation, the forced marriage of daughters, infanticide practised on female babies and the stoning of adulteresses must become global democratic battles, beyond the borders of the individual countries. Many of these issues are now on the agenda of immigrant communities throughout Europe: they divide public opinion within the communities, especially between generations.

The veil or burqa represents quite a different issue. Prohibitions of a political-juridical nature often reflect forms of chauvinism more than authentic, albeit debatable, stances in favour of freedom for women. It is no mere coincidence that around the same time in October 2010, both the right in Italy and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, motivated by the same spirit of ethnic partisanship, presented similar proposals for laws to ban the burqa. I continue to believe that most women do not wear a burqa purely as a matter of individual choice, but on account of the, often heavily authoritarian, patriarchal pressure they face.

On the other hand, especially after my experience in India, I now have a rather different understanding about the light veil worn in many Asian countries: I have seen women wrap the dupatta or the pallu of the sari round their heads as a matter of style, grace, modesty – in any case a choice of what they feel as desirable – according to the circumstances, made on their own initiative and not imposed on them.


When violence can be ruled out and choices are not seen to be irreversible, and when no self-damaging behaviour is involved, we must get used to accepting – with true conviction – different choices and divergent points of view, while firmly keeping the focus on freedom of conscience for women and their ability to control their own environment. Legal prohibitions cannot ensure freedom for women: what counts far more is for the arena to be kept open to women at the level of public life and for them to be able to express themselves, bringing their own ways of thinking and living into the debate and the open exchange of ideas.