Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India that was launched on October 13 is essential reading for anyone interested in Indian feminism. Writer, activist and publisher Ritu Menon talks about the volume of essays
(A version of this article appeared in Time Out Delhi
It was your first job interview. Things seemed to be going well and the portly man in the dark suit who was conducting it was sweet and avuncular.
“But why should we take you on?” he asked suddenly, “You are going to get married anyway”. After a brief silence you mumbled something about being “just 20… not planning on marrying just yet.” Perhaps you were very convincing because you got the job.
In the decades since that irritating experience you have come across a fair number of sexists at the workplace – men who think it’s okay to make suggestive comments under their breath and men who try to have a serious discussion with your breasts. You don’t know if it’s the result of growing older and therefore more inclined to snarl than giggle nervously every time the office jerk makes an inappropriate joke, but you did notice that sometime during the early noughties, Indian men started behaving better at work. Perhaps it was the natural reaction to the influx of many more qualified women, women who were as articulate, aggressive and driven as they were. It was also the result of the growing visibility of the Indian women’s movement.
“The difference between when discrimination is socially acceptable and when it’s not is very major,” says feminist writer and activist Ritu Menon. “Today, there is no single political party that doesn’t have the women’s issue on its agenda. And as you say, no one can pass derogatory comments at work. These are huge changes,” she says.
Menon herself has experienced overt sexism of the sort that you have happily never had to confront. When she gave up her green card and her job in publishing in New York in 1970 and returned to India “infected by the idealism of the 1960s”, she had expected her life to become more meaningful. Instead, six months later she was bitterly regretting the decision. Madras, where her husband got a job with a firm of architects, was a conservative town and Menon, despite her excellent credentials, was unemployed. The oldest and most venerable paper in the city (no prizes for guessing which one) told her it had an unwritten policy not to employ women.
Menon went on to cofound India’s first feminist press, Kali For Women, but that memory rankles enough for her to mention it in her essay in Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India.
Brought out by Menon’s publishing house, Women Unlimited, the anthology includes essays by Indira Jaising, Vandana Shiva, Ruth Vanita, Ilina Sen and Menon herself, among others.
Quite naturally, the classic feminist idea of an individual’s experiences being shaped by political forces was the book’s guiding principle. “The big question in my mind was, ‘How do you write the biography of a movement?’ Because this business of the personal being the political is a major feminist contribution to analysis, I thought of doing a book of personal-political memoirs,” she says.
As it happened, 2009, when the idea began to germinate, was the 25th anniversary of Kali for Women, the publishing house Menon founded with Urvashi Butalia and with which Women Unlimited is still associated. “So the idea of asking women who had been active for a quarter of a century to do a “looking back-looking forward but through a memoir seemed like a good one,” she says.
The brief was to write about how many women’s lives had been transformed by their involvement in feminism and in the women’s movement. Since she wasn’t looking to create a hagiography of the movement, Menon actively encouraged the essayists to examine their doubts.
“Doubt is a very important part of any struggle, when you question something, not just the ideology but your own role in it, your own response to it. So there were contradictions, personal as well as ideological; there were differences; there were fallings out. I thought all that should form a part of this record,” she says adding that these sorts of personalised accounts are often completely erased.
“This is true not just of women in movements. No social movement -- the environment movement, the fish-workers’ movement, the right-to-housing-and-shelter -- has had, in my view, a satisfactory recounting,” says Menon who wanted the book to catch moments of transformation.
“Anyone who has taken part in a movement knows how significant that is. From the accounts you will see that everyone has made that leap into consciousness,” she says easily admitting that many contributors had to be coaxed.
“Some were hesitant: some didn’t have the confidence; others just didn’t have the time,” she says. “And to write a memoir which is personal… not everybody wants it all in print. Really, it’s not an easy thing,” she says.
Some of the writing is more personal than others. So while Ruth Vanita writes about the slow process of coming to terms with her sexuality, Gabriele Dietrich gives the reader snapshots of the different streams within the movement.
“Some essays have a subtext. They are ‘a curtained autobiography’ where you have to read between the lines. And some people are extremely forthright,” she says revealing that she left each writer to find her own thread. “It’s not for me to tell them how to write. Each one has written the way she wanted to present one facet, one partial part of the story, because it’s never the whole story, nor can it be,” she says referring to the near impossibility of condensing years of activism, thinking and reflection into a single essay.
Things have come a long way since she was refused that newspaper job but Menon believes the Indian woman is now caught in a “two steps forward, one step back” conundrum. Yet she remains optimistic about the future. “One has to be optimistic, otherwise you just give up,” she said, firmly. “You can’t do that!”
Menon spoke about the shifting power dynamic within sexual relationships, the difference between feminism and the women’s movement, women’s participation in communal movements and how difficult it is for a man to stay married to a feminist when you met her at her tastefully spare office in Delhi’s Hauz Khas Enclave.
In your essay, you say it’s difficult for men to stay married to a feminist. That was something that stood out for me.
It is very difficult to give up privilege. For men and women both. In a relationship like a marriage, which is extremely intimate and is a long term commitment, to believe and to have the conviction of equality and respect is not easy. It’s much easier for women because they have something to gain. It’s much more difficult for men because they have something to lose. And what are they losing? Privilege. To reconcile to that requires a great commitment. And to maintain that commitment in order to make that relationship sustainable is a very remarkable thing. That’s what I meant when I said that for men to be feminist in conviction is a very remarkable thing. It’s not that common but it’s not that uncommon either. One has seen, over time, that many of the men who have whole heartedly committed to it are also the ones who have some social commitment. There is a sensibility there which respects equality; it is something that they believe in as a value. It’s not easy; not everyone does it. I’ve always wanted to do a book of interviews of men who have lived with feminists. But there are very few men who are willing to be interviewed! It is very difficult to lay bare a personal life. And to speak about something that is so, so very personal, you have to have tremendous maturity and confidence. But it’s something that I think would be very worthwhile. So that’s a project. It will happen one of these days but it will take a little time.
What do you think about the great involvement of women in communalism? We’ve seen women being active in riots.
That whole idea of sisterhood being global, which was the slogan of the 1970s, which was part of the international women’s movement… that came up for questioning early on. The first people to question it were the black women in the US. They said this is not something which can be adopted wholesale; it has to be unpacked. And then, of course, once we started dealing with issues of caste, class, community, it became very evident that not all sisters are united across the board. With rising communalism and with the great involvement of women in such movements, it has always been clear that not all women were…
Women as women cannot be assumed to be united. It’s not just your gender that is the prerequisite. Some consciousness has to be there, some ideological persuasion, which is why we say there’s a difference between being feminist and being just part of the women’s movement. Anyone can be part of the women’s movement but being a feminist is a slightly different thing. It assumes a certain political or ideological awareness. And that is actually what lies at the heart of that questioning of that sisterhood being global, all women being united across the board, that there are disunities. Unless we recognise the differences and those distinctions, it won’t be possible to analyse and respond to the issues, whichever issues we’re dealing with. That has become clearer and of course, it hits home much more on certain issues than in others.
So, for example, we may all more or less be united on the issue of violence against women but when it comes to violence against Dalit women or against minorities, or against tribals, then you have to acknowledge that there is a question of dominance among women, between women. It’s that kind of understanding I think that has certainly made the analysis much deeper. And it has been refined I feel. The international women’s movement doesn’t have to address caste but we do. We may not have to address race in the same way as black women do. But many have said that there is a similarity between caste and race, because these are historical discriminations based on descent. They are not exactly the same but the outcome manifests in the same way. That has inflected women’s movements all over.
In Australia, it’s the aborigines. I’m saying is that this understanding has informed the movement as it has gone along. And I see it as a phase. I certainly think that one has to first recognise that there is subordination worldwide. The terms of the subordination, its manifestation, its specific attributes may differ. But the fact that there is subordination, there is patriarchy, that is universal. As one of our authors says, the first globalisation was the globalisation of patriarchy. That’s at the base. Then you build on that. That’s the difference between the feminist and the women’s movement. The feminist does acknowledge patriarchy as a primary contradiction, not class.
But it is.
Yes, but lots of the Marxist feminists don’t fully subscribe to that. They say its class and patriarchy. Of course, surely, but which comes first is the question. That’s been one of the discussions in feminism: Is it class or patriarchy?
Is it impossibly idealistic to believe women can break through the barriers that divide them?
They do on issues. There are a whole lot of issues on which there can be consensus, there can be agreement and there is ample evidence of that across the world. But I don’t think there’s any movement in which there is unity for all time. We don’t even expect it. So there’s no intrinsic reason why the women’s movement should not also have it. It’s a good thing. It’s a very healthy thing to have differences because it is only when those distinctions surface that you have more complexity and a much clearer understanding of what you are up against. No point being lulled into something that doesn’t exist.
Do you think things are getting worse for women? There has been, for instance, a higher reporting of honour killings.
This is one of those yes and no situations. I feel it’s becoming worse now than it was 20 years ago. I’m not sure that there are more honour killings than there used to be. We hear about them more; they are reported more. They were not reported earlier or so one can surmise. There’s no way of knowing for sure but I would say there’s a good chance that those killings we may not have known about. Now we do. On the other hand, look, there are a million women in the panchayats. It’s a huge thing. It’s a giant change. Can you imagine 1 million women?! We cannot even imagine the kind of change that will come about 10 years from now as a result of that. So I’m saying I can’t say it’s got worse; I’m saying there are many things that have got better. Women in the informal sector are now recognised; they are acknowledged; they are counted. They never were before. Violence against women has been acknowledged, legislated against, all of that. These are major changes, but yes, over the last 25 years there has been a greater commodification of women at the same time. I think that whenever there is a shift to the right whether it’s in economics or in politics, it has an impact on women that is detrimental. Many people will say, ‘But women are so much better off’. Yes, of course, there is a whole generation of women that are much better off, sexual mores have changed. But the mean age for marriage for women in India is still 15-and-a-half. What do you say about that? Among a certain section of women, age at marriage is increasing and going up to 27-29, but if we look at it across the country, it’s still two-and-a-half years below the legal limit. So it’s not possible to say categorically that it’s very much better or very much worse. It is really that two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back kind of situation. I think the amount of problems has increased across. Look at the increase of militarisation across the subcontinent. Surely women are going to be affected by it.
How does one react to women in Kashmir, and to those in the areas where the Maoists are influential?
Unfortunately, these things remain impressionistic. It would be a good idea to do some kind of serious inquiry into that. Instead, what we have are snap polls. Although the issues are of great import, somehow the response to them is less serious than it should be.
So you think there’s a dumbing down of the discourse about these things?
Either that or it’s given space in a very superficial way. Maybe it’s better that it’s given some kind of visibility… I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder: that kind of visibility, does it actually make visible or does it conceal more than it reveals? Both things can happen. Unfortunately, the situation is so complicated it’s very difficult to speak about it in general terms.
Is it possible at all to escape the power dynamics in a heterosexual relationship? Actually, in any relationship?
You’d have to ask a lesbian couple that.
I have and have been told power dynamics play out within lesbian relationships too.
Gender relations between the sexes are one thing and human relationships are another. One could say hypothetically, can a relationship between parent and children ever be equal? Of course, there are power dynamics in every relationship. I really think that it is very rare to have a completely equal relationship but it doesn’t mean that whoever has the upper hand or whoever is “powerful” is powerful for all time. It keeps changing. It’s a very fluid, volatile relationship; it’s not fixed in time. Things change, people become dependent; people become vulnerable; people gain confidence. All sorts of things happen in the course of a relationship. What we’re talking about is structural discrimination, those discriminations that have been given sanction, that have been given social acceptance… that it’s okay to beat your wife.
Surveys in India often show women saying they think it’s okay if their husband beat them.
Since the National Family Health Surveys began this has been established. That’s what I mean; those are the structural imbalances, discriminations, power equations that one is talking about. In that sense, I’m not sure there’s been enough work on lesbian relationships to see whether there is a structural foundation or whether it’s individual equations that are worked out. One should do an inquiry on that.
To get back to the book, what was the most difficult thing about it?
It was a wonderful experience. It was just so heartening to read and be able to look back and also to see where we are now. When some of the women weren’t able to write, that was disappointing… But I can’t say it was difficult. It was difficult to edit, to make sure everybody has equal space, that some are not very much more expansive than others because you don’t want that kind of imbalance. Mostly it was very heartening. Writing is a very cathartic thing and I think a lot of the women experienced that. It’s not easy but it’s also cathartic so I was happy about that. It had to be spontaneous; it had to be willingly done. I understood perfectly the ones who said they could not do it for whatever reason but the fact that so many did and the fact that it was cathartic, that’s something to cherish.
There are a lot of women who may not be able to write their stories but whose recollection may be very important. So maybe we’ll do one of interviews next. It’s on the agenda but when it will happen is a question of time and availability and people’s willingness to lend themselves to that.
Personally speaking did you ever face discrimination?
Of course, in so many subtle ways. And you internalise it a great deal. It doesn’t even come out as an experience as such of active discrimination but it’s there all the time. There are two ways of responding: either you allow it to overwhelm you or you can acknowledge it and resist it. Personally, I became aware when I went to get a job at this newspaper in Madras and I was told they didn’t hire women. They said it’s an unwritten thing; they would never have advertised it as such. But it was there. Very often, you are not surprised by it in a sense that it is so much a part of the general lie of the land. Just like when you put down your father’s name. It is a form of discrimination, isn’t it? It doesn’t change your life but it does establish a hierarchy. That’s what gender relations are about. It manifests in many ways; maybe harmless maybe not. There’s no way that you don’t register difference and difference that is to your disadvantage. I have met very few women who’ll say that we’ve never had such an experience. That’s how you experience it. Even if it’s not overt, concrete, that knowledge is there.
Then there’s the knowledge that the ‘honour’ of the family is vested in you.
You don’t go for a walk alone in a park at night no matter how liberated you are. It’s got to do with vulnerability and is entirely a consequence of your gender. Insecurity on the streets has become much worse, by the way. I’ve grown up in Delhi and I have never felt this vulnerable. There was never a time as a young girl when I was not running around, going to friends’ homes and walking back at 10 o’ clock as a teenager. Of course, some people tried to misbehave and they were roundly dealt with but there was none of that threat of violence, which is now a knife, acid… That’s become real now. People coming in a Qualis and picking you up, that was unheard of! There is much greater violence now. I don’t remember being afraid of going out after dark with friends. It was a simple life I have to say. That’s changed.
So, on the one hand, Indian women have greater choices and on the other, there’s increasing selective foeticide and more violence.
One doesn’t cancel out the other. It doesn’t mean that just because you have greater choices, the other doesn’t exist. If you look at the beauty business, for example, there are huge pressures. Sure, you have much greater choices, you can make a lot of money, you can be a public face… And then look at the flipside as well.
Yes, and also the pressures on young women. Though there are greater choices, is there a possibility of exercising that choice? It’s all very well to have lots of options but can you actually exercise your choice? There are lots of pressures as well that come as a consequence. People speak about the double burden: the choice to work is there but you still have to do everything else as well. But these are not either-or situations. These are negotiations and everyone negotiates them differently.
Making a Difference, edited by Ritu Menon, Women Unlimited, Rs.350. The book launches on Thur Oct 13.