Veteran social scientist and feminist activist Kamla Bhasin recently paid a visit to Bangladesh. The main person behind "Sangat," a South Asian feminists network, Bhasin is also the South Asia Coordinator of One Billion Rising.
Since 1984, Sangat has developed the capacities of more than 650 women activists from South Asia and offered a greater understanding of concepts related to gender, justice, poverty, sustainable development, peace, democracy and human rights.
As a United Nation’s representative, Bhasin first came to Bangladesh in 1976 and worked with Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a rural health care organisation. Dhaka Tribune's Promiti Prova Chowdhury engaged in a conversation with the iconic Indian feminist over the issue of sexual harassment of women.
Some feminists debate about the definition of a true feminist. What are your views on the matter? I don't talk about feminists, I talk about feminism. There is not one Islam - there's Shia and Sunni. There's no one Christianity - there are Catholics and protestants. There is no one socialism and there is no one socialist political party. Similarly, feminism is different from place to place. According to me, feminism should be like water. Water is H2O everywhere, but it takes the shape of the container it is put into. So feminism for a Bengali woman in Dhaka will be different from a woman living in the rural areas. In the rural area, her struggle is perhaps to go to a literacy class being run by BRAC. For you, it maybe going to a hostel, living there or even going abroad. Why should there not be debates between feminists? As soon as I have a debate with a feminist, the non-feminist will say “Ah! feminists are debating!” All political parties debate, journalists debate. Do all journalists think alike? Do all Muslims think the same way? No.
What is feminism against? Feminism is against patriarchy. In the urban areas it is against patriarchy, in rural areas it is against patriarchy, in the US it is again patriarchy. But in the USA, they don’t fight against dowry. Feminism is a response to patriarchy and the form of patriarchy is different from place to place. However, there are some common forms of patriarchy. For instance, rape takes place all over the world. So women all over the world fight against it. Feminism is a response to particular forms of patriarchy and also our understanding of patriarchy.
There are debates between feminisms, which I suppose is healthy. For example, there's a huge debate over sex work. Some feminists say, selling sex cannot be work. It's prostitution. Other feminists are saying that it is like any other work. There's a discussion on reservation. Some feminists are saying that women need reservation, while others say that they do not need it.
We are not against any sex, we are against certain actions and systems. I am also born in patriarchy, I am also born in a certain religion. There are days when I find that a particular action or word of mine is still patriarchal. So it's a long journey and nobody is a perfect feminist in my eyes.
Are feminists anti-men? No, we are not anti-men. We are anti-patriarchy. If you are patriarchal, I am against you and if I am patriarchal, I'll criticise myself. All men are not patriarchal. All men do not say patriarchy is good. And all women don't say that patriarchy is bad. Women are also patriarchal. In my country either by force or agreement women decide to abort girls. They want boys not girls. Women give dowry to their daughters either by force or because they believe in it.
We are against people who are against equality between men and women.
The first person a feminist has to criticise is herself. We women also play games. When we like, we become feminine, when we like, we become feminists. We want the male colleague to pay for our tea. We want them to give away their seats, what for? If we are weak, then yes. But if he is weak, you give him your seat.
In India, we have seen more media coverage of rape incidents in recent times. Are these regular happenings? Women who survive rape are reporting their incidents more than before because we have spread the message that the “izzat” of women is not lost. It is the rapist who is losing it. The media reports it because more women are going to the police stations and filing reports. The Delhi rape case is only one incident. But if a girl is raped by her boss inside her office, there's still a chance that she might keep quiet.
Women are speaking up because there is law and women's movements have made these laws. Nobody gives you your rights. However on one side, there is more reporting to police, while on the other side, there is more anger and frustration in society. There is more violence, so there is more reporting. The stronger our movement grows, the stronger is the possibility of a backlash. There are thousands of women who have jobs. They are not wearing sarees, they are wearing panjabis by breaking the so-called cultural norms. So men are not happy. They have no opportunities for legitimate sex. Where can our boys go for legitimate sex? Our society doesn't allow them to unless they get married. They seem to like a woman, she talks to them nicely, and they think, “now she should sleep with me or she should marry me.” And when she says no, they can't take it. Because he is a “rajabeta.”
He buys some acid and throws it on the girl's face. It happens because of the sense of entitlement, frustration and lack of emotional intelligence. There is no training given by the family. When they cry we tell them: “tumi chhele, tumi kanbe na.” So, we stop their emotional expression. Men can talk about everything except themselves. They cannot say, “I am not happy, I am depressed.” because as a man, they always have to be powerful. No human being is always powerful.
How effective has the “One Billion Rising” campaign been so far? OBR is just four years old. It is neither the beginning nor the end of our struggle. It is just another campaign. We have been fighting for women's rights for decades. With this campaign, we chose to give it one more push. People already working on this issue across the globe came together through this campaign. Somehow it worked very well in 207 countries. I suppose in every campaign there is something new; although the basic remains the same which is, “to stop violence against women.” Today we say rising as “survivors” instead of rising as “victims.” OBR got us connected to artists, dancers, musicians. Before, many wouldn't join because it was boring with all those crying and negativity. But a campaign cannot change the situation. It can create awareness. A campaign can tell women that you don't have to accept it and tell men that “see how you are becoming dehumanised,” or, “you are violent against women you will get nothing out of it except jail,” and “no woman would like to be close to you.”
In India, a lot of colleges invited us to talk about it. NGOs got more media coverage and social media helped a lot. But that doesn't mean violence has gone down, it may even increase as a result. Because people are not happy by our questioning them. Also, we are not the only one acting here.
Seeing a woman in short sleeves, men are thinking of raping her on excuses like, “why is she outside?”, “Why is she wearing short sleeves?,” “Why is she not wearing a burqa?” But a six month old daughter is raped as well. What was she wearing?
Then, there is the billion dollar cosmetics industry telling women that they are only bodies. So ten other anti-feminist things are happening which have more power and money.