Well-known feminist Kamla Bhasin says that Indian men will have to change, not to support women but to save themselves from being brutalised by centuries of exposure to patriarchy.
“Mian, aap mein kuch kami hai” (Gentleman, there is something wrong with you).” Some months ago, when Kamla Bhasin, well-known feminist from Delhi, came up with this retort to Aamir Khan on his headline-grabbing tele-show Satyameva Jayate on saying that he often cries, a roar of laughter brimmed up among the studio guests and home viewers alike. An outspoken Bhasin, with decades of studying gender orchestration in our society, was in fact holding up to the public there a long-established notion: men are not male enough if they have tears in their eyes. What Bhasin said there is no laughing matter though. Looking back at her reaction then, the feisty gender trainer, in a conversation at her house in South Delhi, strikes at the seriousness of the matter by making a fundamental observation, “We talk about what our women have to go through because of the society, but it is equally sad what our men have to go through because of the way society wants to perceive them. Unless men change, their humanity would be destroyed.”
She notes, “Our men don’t need to change to support women, but to save themselves from being brutalised by centuries of exposure to patriarchy.” Bhasin draws out instances from what is in news these days to pad up these thoughts. “Look at all these rape accused, they knew they would be caught. Who can run away from the law these days? Yet they did these crimes, because they are brutalised human beings, the result of what patriarchy has done to them.”
Bhasin, who conducts gender sensitisation sessions not just for women across South Asia (see box) but also for our parliamentarians, bureaucrats and police officers, thereby draws attention to a commonly accepted idea which is now developing chinks — that education will empower our girls to break the manacles of a repressive society which in turn will help build a milieu where a boy and a girl would be seen as equals. “More and more women are now getting out of their houses, educated, working, earning money, and yet when you look at the statistics, gender-based crimes are on the rise. Female foeticide is increasing across the class barrier, so are dowry deaths and instances of domestic violence. These statistics tell us that education is not the only answer for a gender-just society,” she points out.
Words like swami, pati, husband, kanya daan will have to go for an egalitarian society to come. “What do these words and concepts mean? Swami or pati means maalik. Husband means controller; that is from where we got the word animal husbandry. How can you have two equal human beings when one is the other’s maalik?” she asks a basic question here. “According to me,” Bhasin, with her trademark throaty laugh, adds, “Kanya daan is against the Constitution of India. Slavery is long finished. So how can a father give away his daughter, an 18-year-old Indian citizen, to somebody? It should be illegal.” The father gives the hand to the bridegroom, “which means a full human being is handing over something to another full human being. So whatever has been exchanged is now owned, so she has to change her name, dress and behave the way the owner wants.”
No economic development will bring about change either. “Neo-liberalism rather increases all these paradigms — mainstream versus those in the periphery, rich versus poor, upper caste versus lower caste, men versus women, rich verses richer, because this becomes a fight for resources,” she highlights.
“What India needs today is a cultural revolution,” states Bhasin. “Also, we need to work on religion because all of them justify patriarchy.” There is a point to ponder here. “Often religion is used as a shield to justify patriarchy. When you question something, you are told, ‘yeh toh hamara sanskar hai, riwaaj hai. And when this is done, it means logic has ended, belief has come in. So how does one argue with belief?”
It turns out Bhasin, in her personal life, has given it a jolly good fight. She narrates that she argued where arguments worked; kept quiet when silence was needed, fought court cases when required, to get out of a “great relationship” that eventually went sour. “I met my husband in Rajasthan (her home State) when I was working with an NGO (Seva Mandir in Udaipur). Till this day, I have not met a greater feminist man than my husband,” she says. It was him, she recalls, “who thought our children should take both our surnames, didn’t ask once why when my mother, a widow, moved in with us. In the ’70s, we used to ride a motorcycle, sometimes me, sometimes him.” The same man “became a wife-beater, brought home another woman.” Concurrently, she also had to grapple with the death of her grown-up daughter, who she calls her “biggest loss”. Because “she was not just my future but my son’s too.” (Her son is disabled because of a vaccine that reacted in him as a child.)
Bhasin, eldest among five siblings, gives credit to all of them for helping her deal with her pain, emphasising that a “woman can come out of terrible situations if family stands by her.”
Talking about her long journey in gender training, Bhasin says she got into it by fluke. “After I finished my M.A. from Rajasthan University, I got a fellowship to study Sociology of Development at Muenster University in West Germany. On finishing it in mid-1970, I taught at the Orientation Centre of the German Foundation for Developing Countries in Bad Honnef for about a year.” It was then she felt she should return to her State, “implement what I learnt there to better some lives and soon joined Seva Mandir which worked on water issues.”
“In a way, I belong to the midnight’s children generation (she was born in 1946). I had the desire to do something for my own people,” she says. Soon, she learnt how caste functions, even in life-taking drought situations. “How Brahmins’ wells would never go dry because they receive State funds for drilling them every year.” Soon, the fact hit her that women are worse off across castes.
“I began to work with them before I got a job offer from the Food and Agriculture Organisation to go to Thailand to do gender training for women from South Asia,” she recalls. Four years later, FAO posted her in New Delhi, giving her ample scope to focus on gender issues, leading her to found the South Asian feminist network SANGAT, co-found some women’s organisations, drive movements like “1000 women for the Nobel peace Prize” in 2005, write dozens of books and songs celebrating womanhood. These are now used by many NGOs to help people understand gender issues.
Just recently, her book, Laughing Matters, co-authored with Bindia Thapar, has been republished. “It first came out in 2005. We have a Hindi version now (Hasna Toh Sangharsho Mein Bhi Zaroori Hai). It is a book of jokes, has words and illustrations of feminist humorists from different parts of the world,” she says. The book has been republished to mark the 20th anniversary of Jagori — a women’s resource and training centre in Delhi of which Bhasin is a founder member — and also 25 years of feminist activism in India and South Asia.
So what would she call achievements of 25 years of gender activism in India? “Achievements are a lot. Today, no government can make any policy without putting the word gender ten times in it. There are lots of laws too. Our women have proved that they can excel in every field.” Yet, the gender divide keeps them away from certain jobs, she says. “For instance, no national newspaper has appointed a woman editor even after so many years of Independence. Mrinal Pande was the editor of a weekly newspaper. One should wonder why?”
Clearly, it is only a battle half won.
Kamla Bhasin, through SANGAT, has trained about 500 South Asian women from different walks of life on gender issues. “The method of our capacity building course is multi-dimensional and participatory. For one month, the participants try and understand what patriarchy is. Since patriarchy is in all of us, we do self awareness sessions, also with clinical psychologists, to help them identify what they have in them. We bring in the best of feminists from the region to discuss these issues and also show them their personal lives to drive home points like how there can be many versions of marriage, etc.,” says Bhasin.