Gender and modernity


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GENDER is perhaps the most restrictive force in Indian or western life and goes beyond the question of who must be in the kitchen and who could be in the House. This is true across the board in Hindu, Muslim, Christian or even secular societies.

In the West, a woman is groomed to accept that she may get fewer job opportunities than most men, would need to look after the children and cook and care for the home by herself even if she was working outside like her male partner, may get lower wages than her male colleagues, and hit a glass ceiling when it comes to promotions in the job or in politics.

In India, women are unequal in more stark ways. A woman is not safe from birth to death. She could be the victim of amniocentesis when she is conceived; of feticide when she is born; kept at home and given food last, while her brother gets the best education and food; be married off as a child; might die of maternal mortality from early pregnancy; be widowed and thrown out of the house so that she would not inherit property; end up begging in our pilgrim towns and then simply fade away and die.

In both India and the West, women are severely under-represented in political parties, in state assemblies and in Senate, Congress or Parliament. Women get power in spite of their sex, not because of it, by de-sexualizing themselves, donning the mantle of daughterhood/widowhood or simply by serving their husbands. In India, Mayawati represents the first category, Indira Gandhi the second, and Rabri Devi the third. Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher have faced similar challenges in the US and Europe. There are hundreds of women who do not want to play this role but take this road to power as the winning formula. It’s a moot point that while this may get more women in decision-making positions on one hand, it may also entrench patriarchy on the other.

The other similarity of the experience of Indian and western women is that when they bring these issues to the table, they are invisibilized, marginalized or trivialized. An example is the pressure in India, the USA and many parts of Europe, on the women’s movement to accept the normalization of their sexual exploitation as ‘sex work’, making it convenient for different states and governments to ignore the structural social, economic and political policies that force women into prostitution.

Many neo-liberals even argue that these rapists actually help women earn an income by buying sex and, therefore, should not be punished by law. They ignore the fact that surely women have the right not to be dependent on such ‘obliging’ men to earn a livelihood and instead be able to earn an income in an equal, dignified and sustainable way.

They focus on the ‘agency’ that women exercise within prostitution as a survival strategy but ignore the fact that servitude is servitude, whether imposed or accepted. They never discuss the obvious fact that the man who buys the woman must have more agency than she does in terms of purchasing power or physical power through body penetration.


I have often been asked, and most often by men, ‘What about women who chose to be prostitutes?’ Nobody chooses to be born poor, nobody chooses to be born low caste and nobody chooses to be born a girl. But, nobody asks why the choice between prostitution and hunger is considered a ‘real’ choice. Is it to absolve our government of responsibility to its female citizens? What about the responsibility to ensure that female citizens get equal access to jobs and education as men do, so that prostitution is not the only option available for women?

Even our testimonials that add weight to the other movements around inequality, like movements against religious, caste, race or class discrimination, are taken less seriously. In Egypt or Iran, initial reporting of the movements simply ignored the large contingent of women standing shoulder to shoulder with men asking for their rights. In Iran, in fact, women’s images protesting on the streets against the Shah were actually obliterated from photographs and film footage in national archives.

My own testimony, as a Hindu woman in India, to the Liberhans Commission of Enquiry, set up by the Indian Parliament to investigate the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 on the religious atrocities committed by Hindus against Muslim men and women, was marginalized and pushed into the annexes of ‘serious’ documents.


On 6 December 1992, the Babri Masjid was demolished in India. I was covering the event for a magazine. While covering that event, I was nearly strangled to death and thrown into a ditch by supporters of the political party orchestrating the demolition. I deposed before the Press Council, the Bahri Tribunal and the Liberhans Commission on the role of one of their national leaders leading up to the destruction of the mosque. The moment I went public about the violence done to me, the failure of the political leader to act on it and his leadership of the very violence itself, I was subjected to hate mail and had to face character assassination through whisper campaigns.

I was cross-examined, fairly and unfairly, by a battery of lawyers from this political party and its affiliate organizations who tried to insinuate that I was a ‘bad’ woman who smoked, cursed, acted in TV serials, did not feel ashamed about my ‘lack’ of clothes and was not feminine enough to be silenced by fear. All the insinuations served to create an image of a woman who deserved what she got. The questions ranged from:

* ‘You had been assaulted and your clothes were torn off. Despite that you did not deem it proper to first change your clothes and then proceed towards Ram Katha Kunj where all the leaders were staying?’

* ‘Despite the extreme misbehaviour, the attempt to kill you by throwing you into a ditch from which you were later rescued, you chose to proceed to Ram Katha Kunj Manch rather than leaving the site altogether out of fear?’

* ‘Have you ever acted in a TV serial or a drama?’

* ‘Did you see any woman journalist smoking or saying anything derogatory at the spot?’

The disturbing fact is that these questions were actually asked by lawyers representing a responsible political party whose members are in Parliament. Such a party could never create or guard the rights of women. They would define laws for women based on the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women rather than on the principles of equality.

Worse, the ‘neutral’ judge in charge of the commission did not bring an end to this misogynistic line of inquiry. An even greater betrayal was that he finally downgraded my testimony by simply annexing it to the report though it was the only eyewitness account of the culpability of a national leader.


The greater betrayal is that while the women’s movement in India or elsewhere tries to locate itself in the social justice movement in the new world order, the very men who fight for equality on all other counts, perpetuate the divisive fiction that protesting against sexism detracts from protesting against imperialism, globalization, capitalism, religionism, casteism, classism or racism.

Routinely women in the West or in India are asked to sacrifice their own desire for equality in the interest of ending class, race, religious or caste inequality. I will give examples from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and secular societies.

In the face of global threats to Islam, Muslim women, frightened for themselves or/and their families, are made to believe they are the custodians of their culture and can protect themselves and their families by wearing the veil. They are conditioned and groomed to say this is their ‘choice’. In France they clash with a government which forces them to take off the headscarf and in Iran, they clash with a government that forces them to wear the head scarf, whereas the real restriction is the fact that governments are deciding what these women should wear.

‘Good’ Hindu women in India allow their freedom to be curtailed, suppress their sexuality, have limited access to contraception and abortion, agree to remain in social isolation and hand over control of reproductive decisions to their husbands, religions, governments or all three in ‘defence of their culture.’ These women agree to be socially controlled so they will give birth to and raise heirs to power, while women of the ‘inferior’ group ‘agree’ to be sexually exploited so that they will give birth to and do the work of raising cheap labour – as well as being cheap labour themselves. Witness the silence of women in spite of the spate of honour killings, amniocentesis/ foeticide of girls and the sex trafficking of at least three million females as per CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) figures.


Men in Christian societies too want to control the most basic means of production, the means of reproduction and perpetuate the myth of the ‘good’ woman as one who is against abortion. These societies end up producing US Presidential candidates like Sarah Palin who believes just like her Hindu sisters do that a woman’s chief role is reproduction. Even in secular societies in the West, female authority is granted most legitimacy in the domestic sphere, primarily ‘confined’ to childrearing, to be easily accepted as capable of playing any leading role in public affairs. Indeed, the mere prospect of a powerful woman seems to make many men feel regressed to childhood, and often even some women cannot imagine such a possibility. Comfortable with considering the male head of the household as the only decision-maker, women tend to replicate this when voting for representatives in government or inside political parties. In prewar Germany, this led to households wanting to replicate a similar structure at the national level and both women and men ended up voting in a fascist like Adolf Hitler to power.


Why is the gender barrier not taken as seriously as the one constituted by caste, religion, race or class? Is this because sexism is still seen as natural just as casteism and racism once were; because anything that affects men is seen as more serious than anything that affects ‘only’ the female half of humanity; or that what men do will always be considered ‘political’, while women’s experiences and articulations will always be dismissed as cultural? Why do women’s issues around gender have to be presented as clashing with other movements against inequality (caste, race, class, religion)?

What’s worse – being Scheduled Caste, Black, Muslim or a Woman? Such questions seemed especially surreal when directed at a woman of low caste or a woman of colour. After all, women of low caste in India experience casteism and sexism in combination, just as Black women do in the West, and casteism or racism tends to put everybody in a social prison, even those who happen to live in better cells. As an anonymous Scheduled Caste woman said to her upper caste sisters, ‘A pedestal is as much a prison as any other small space.’ In the last interview that the ‘bandit queen’, Phoolan Devi, gave before she died, she said that if she ever had another life she would choose not to be reborn a girl, in a poor family, of low caste.

Yet, the debate over choosing an upper class white woman vs. a black man during the American Presidential campaign was reminiscent of the debate over choosing caste equality against gender equality thrown up by the Women’s Reservation Bill. Both debates reveal that forcing a choice between caste and sex or race and sex only conceals what’s really going on. It is that familiar competition for one piece of the pie, while guess who keeps the rest?


The larger question then becomes: Why are we focusing on potential allies and ignoring the opposition? We can accomplish much more if all of us, in our quest for equality, act as a coalition. The parallels between being a chattel slave by caste or race and chattel as a wife, daughter or indentured worker are easy to see. A division between low caste or coloured groups and women’s groups would cripple the movement for social justice in India or in the West for decades to come.

The answer lies in the fact that caste, race and gender equality are unmet dreams for all of us. In fact when the two Yadav’s – Lalu Yadav and Sharad Yadav – voiced their opposition to the Women’s Reservation Bill in Parliament, I felt, at first, as if years of effort to link issues were going down the drain, even though they were right in pointing out that we are some distance from eradicating caste inequality in India. The two Yadav leaders know how power and inequality work. Kafka-style, they’ve had it inscribed on their skin.

If only men of colour or low caste would realize that gender digs a trench in our brains for caste, class or race to fall into. Accepting birth-based superiority only makes it easier to accept another. Gender roles at home create a pattern for class, caste and race roles outside it. Gender tends to be our first lesson in dividing human beings into active and passive, subject and object, the leaders and the led. We learn early on in life that it’s fine for one group to eat while another cooks; for one to get paid for work outside the home while another works just as hard, but is neither paid nor counted as a worker; and for one to set the rules for others.


We should know that reproductive politics make racism/casteism and sexism inseparable in our history. Scheduled Caste men can be lynched for even speaking to an upper caste woman, but upper caste men are rarely reprimanded for sexual relations with a Scheduled Caste woman, even by force. These responses reflect a casteist obsession with ensuring upper caste dominance, while growing and maintaining a work force of low caste people. Neither could be done without controlling female bodies.

In fact, perhaps the least discussed issue is that casteism and racism also restrict upper caste women and that this has to do with the history and politics of reproduction.

Meanwhile, the reproductive lives of low caste women are also controlled: as reproducers of cheap labour, they are to be sexually available, or when more workers aren’t wanted, even sterilized without their consent and knowledge. I know of a group of Other Backward Class women in Khawaspur village in Araria, Bihar, struggling to give up prostitution but being forced back into the profession by upper caste men who tell them it is their destiny to be sexually available. The same is true of devadasis who were put into prostitution by temple priests for the pleasure of upper caste landlords.

Class, which might be called artificial caste, confines some women and exploits others for parallel reasons, but wherever there is casteism, sexism is necessary to reproduce it, literally. You might say that wherever one group of women is sexually restricted, another will be sexually exploited. We need to warn each other of this fact, and understand that ending casteism or racism is in the self-interest of all women and low caste men and men of colour. There are, of course, major differences in the way racism and casteism is experienced by upper caste and low caste women or white and black women. But the undeniable truth is that casteism and racism punishes all women because our bodies reproduce it. In the long run, sexism, racism and casteism can only be uprooted together.


Many in the women’s movement in India and in the West understand that our movement operates in a context and this context is the intersection of religion, caste, class, race and gender inequalities. Very often we may allow the erosion of our rights to defend other competing rights or risk losing friends and allies if we stand for our rights alone. This was true when we first fought against classism and casteism. We thought we would tackle caste and class inequality first and, of course, our male allies who believed in equality would then stand shoulder to shoulder with us in ending gender inequality in the private and public spheres. After all, the parallel between women and low caste men is among the deepest truths of Indian life, for together we form the unpaid or underpaid labour on which India runs.

But to my deep disappointment, I have found resistance from these very male friends and allies. Our very friends who are now policy-makers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, public health specialists, economists and social scientists and designing programmes that are supposedly pro-poor, pro-colour, pro-immigrant and pro-low caste, have left women out of the equation.


In the challenges thrown up by the global economic crisis, women both in the West and India are once again being asked to accept their own exploitation as work. We are told as home makers and mothers that it is our duty to sacrifice even the few rights and entitlements that we have succeeded in gaining, i.e., agree to lower wages and accept worse working conditions so that we can continue to take care of the home and rebuild the nation.

Paradoxically, if we accept this proposed erosion of our rights, we are told it is our choice. And then, the most dangerous of all, we are told that we are not exploited at all because, after all, we ‘chose’ it. Our empowerment then is defined as finding ‘agency’ within exploitation. A telling example of this is the debate over prostitution and related public health policies. We are being told, both in the West and India, that prostitution is inevitable, simply because it primarily involves poor, low caste or coloured women.

The CBI in India recently admitted that there are more than three million prostituted girls. They live in absolute terror. They are raped by nine or ten men every night. Many of them are between the ages of nine and thirteen. They die by the time they reach their thirties. Yet, we have not been able to amend the Indian anti-trafficking law to punish the rapists and protect the young women and girls. If a similar number of men were killed or violated in an ethnic massacre, India would have found the resolve to pass an ordinance through Parliament immediately. Is this because anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects ‘only’ the female half of the human caste?


Only last year, a Supreme Court judge observed that if so many girls and women are prostituted, maybe we should just legalize prostitution and regulate the sex industry. Nobody considered the plight of the little girl while making the observation. In the recent Commonwealth Games, when thousands of young women were trafficked to Delhi to supply the male demand for prostituted sex, nothing was done to prevent the violence to the girls, but hundreds of condom vending machines were placed all over the city to help the buyers of sex.

My NGO, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, has been running a campaign in India to have a law that punishes the johns and provides education and jobs to the girls and women. Expectedly, in running this campaign, Apne Aap Women Worldwide has come up against some entrenched interests. Ironically, the opposition to punishing johns and protecting the girls and women has come not from the sex industry but from civil society foundations working to reduce HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS management projects funded by these international foundations work in red-light areas and hire pimps and brothel managers as ‘peer educators’ to gain easy access to the brothels for the purpose of condom distribution. They turn a blind eye to the little girls and adult women kept in a system of bondage and control who cannot refuse unwanted sex, let alone unprotected sex. They are more interested in protecting male buyers of prostituted sex from disease rather than protecting women and girls from the buyers. These are the same solutions that colonialist powers used to control syphilis in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Such programmes in India have further enlarged the sex industry, legitimized brothel managers and pimps as ‘peer educators’, increased the demand for prostituted sex by making condoms the only criteria of male responsibility to women and girls and in the process led to the increased trafficking of young girls.

For as long as I can remember, I have longed for equality. Over the last twenty five years, I have been volunteering in political campaigns, an addiction I owe to my Gandhian socialist father. His stories of victorious struggles of Indian women and men against British imperialism before I was born, and his own participation in political movements against Indian feudalism subsequently, resulting in the emergence of leaders like Karpoori Thakur, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, convinced me that equality could be achieved through political action.


All that I overheard at the meetings between my father and his socialist friends on class and caste inequality led me to believe that one day we would also tackle gender inequality. As I travelled all over the world working to end sex trafficking, I found women friends in the West with a similar longing for equality. Women, who had participated in struggles to end apartheid, bring down the Berlin Wall, end the Vietnam and Iraq wars, fight for fair labour standards, believed, just as I did, that the men they had stood shoulder to shoulder with, would one day join hands with them to challenge the last frontier of universal inequality – gender inequality.

I discovered that the disappointment of my women friends runs as deep as mine. Not only did we share commonalities in our inequalities, especially in political participation and economic access, but had to face similar resistance from allies from the very social, economic and peace movements we had participated in. To change all this will require a greater role for women outside the home, and for men in it – especially in childrearing – and that will take time.


The current recession throws up an opportunity. More men are unemployed and more women are getting less than standard wages than ever before. The stress and the backlash is manifested in the anger against immigrants, women, and people of colour or caste. This is the time to examine what we mean by choice and what we mean by agency. How are choices made and agency exercised in fundamentally unequal situations? A choice without real options is not a substitute for rights. Accepted servitude is still servitude. Agency among unequals only reinforces inequality.

If we truly believe in equality, we must work to create a world in which women do not have to face conflicting choices between sacrificing their rights to equality when faced with demands of the caste, race, religious or class struggles to keep the home fires burning.

To turn the world around, we must reclaim a common purpose, a truly democratic ‘we’: we women of all countries, we men in all families and homes, we migrants of all states, we people of all races, we citizens of all classes, so that we could finally turn to the issues that each of us brings to the table and recommit ourselves to that collective better future, however many early mornings, late nights and urns of coffee into the future it may take. The history of social change may begin at the bottom, but it must transform the top.