India Protests Provoke a Personal Rethink

31 Dec

I have to admit I’m not terribly fond of feminists — the one I know best having thrown her ill husband out of the house at the same time she was legally trying to claim his pension.

Nor do I really pay much attention to feminism as a political pursuit although its dictionary definition (which I just looked up) — a doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women — is something I not only agree with but find patently obvious.

I know that statistics from Canada and the United States show that women now make up half the workforce, that more than half of all students of higher learning and that equal pay for work of equal value is increasingly common. And so, I’ve long thought, who needs feminism anymore?

Yet the death two days ago of a young woman in Delhi after a horrific rape on a bus makes me want to devote my final posting of the year to this issue. The ensuing protests after this brutal crime — one that could only have been perpetrated against a woman — give me hope that in those many, many places where lower status rather than equality for women is taken for granted, some major rethinking and soul searching is going on, among both men and women. They make me realize that while the struggle for equal rights has been largely successful here in the so-called first world and may even be thought to have been completed, millions of women in other countries are still treated in ways no human being should be subjected to.

And it also makes me realize that, academic as I often feel the feminist argument is, and unsympathetic as I find so many feminists, the movement itself has been extraordinarily important. It has not only righted a plethora of wrongs but saved lives and made ‘our’ world, let’s say, a better place.

But it needs to continue. It clearly needs our support and attention in all these other contexts.

A few years ago, I spent some time with members of a women’s organization in Mumbai called Mahila Milan, or Women Together. It is affiliated to the National Slum Dwellers Federation and part of the larger grassroots social movement of the urban poor called the Indian Alliance. At the end of that day I returned to their small office in Jhulla Maidan, where a group of little girls were playing, and I later wrote:

‘These little girls are dressed in salwar kameez of dazzling colours, but noticeably second-hand. The heat has pressed strands of hair against their foreheads and pinked their cheeks. They seem bright and happy, but anyone might wonder what kinds of lives they will have, growing up in a society where being female counts for so little, where only rarely will they have a say in important decisions, access to a proper education or any recourse if the male authority figure in their lives mistreats them.  And then the true immensity of what the women of Mahila Milan have attained strikes me. The leap from illiteracy, dependency and super-exploitation to essentially running their own bank, negotiating with authorities and building their own apartment buildings is so vast, the simple listing of all they have achieved can never be sufficiently indicative of what that really means.’

Now I know I might have added that no matter their circumstances, they also might at any moment be physically attacked, raped and beaten, and that no authority would come to their aid or seek justice for them. That being considered second-class citizens means unthinkable humiliation, injury and death.

The appalling event that took place on that bus in Delhi illuminates yet again, for me, the courage of woman like those in Mahila Milan and like those now protesting, alongside their male counterparts, throughout India as they demand change.

So this post is written in solidarity with them, and in recognition of the fact that while equality for women is lacking anywhere it is lacking everywhere.

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