Hot and cool (depending on which way you measure attitude) feminist icon Gloria Steinem discusses women, violence and the male ‘fix’ with Bachi Karkaria.Shakti is primordial feminism. Observing Gloria Steinem, 80, in action, it was clear that she embodied an energy that was gender neutral. At the Jaipur litfest and the Kolkata Literary Meet, she was near omnipresent, a distinctive lean figure, dressed in black-knit clothes offsetting her pale skin. She was on the dais, in the audience, on the bus to the sessions, gamely responding to the unstoppable procession of those wanting to engage her in conversation or simply be in the presence of this totemic persona. Mornings, evenings, afternoons, she measured out her experience and wisdom in far more than coffee spoons.
If you have tried for decades to make the world a more equitable place, you could end up very angry and frustrated. Gloria’s ‘anger’ is what in another context Osho described as a ‘hot state that is cool’. Frustrated? Change agents cannot afford this luxury. Hope and optimism are the necessary foot soldiers of revolution.
So, is a sense of humour. Responding drily to my struggle to recall a name, she said, “At our age, remembering something rightaway is as good as getting an orgasm.”
Steinem reiterated her symbiotic relationship with India, “Certainly, I learned most of what I know about organizing from living here.” She had come in 1955 on a Chester Bowles student fellowship. This time, she was always in the company of her best friend in India, Ruchira Gupta of Apne Aap who recently edited As If Women Matter: The Essential Gloria Steinem. “Ruchira felt that some of my essays might be useful in India – and that’s my hope.”
Gupta had organised a ‘ women’s movement road show’ , and apart from the litfests, the two of them held meetings large and small in Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Patna, and Forbesganj, a remote Bihar village where Apne Aap runs a project. They wound up in Kerala, with a brief R&R at an ayurvedic spa.
Across half a century of conceptualizing and stewarding, would Steinem concede that the feminist movement had significantly changed its contours? She chose to alter its definition: “The women’s movement is wherever a woman reading this is. She may just have realized that human beings need not be divided into the leaders and the led. Or she may have figured out that the current system is only about male control of reproduction. Or she may have gone further and realized that violence against females is what we see first, and normalizes all other violence that isn’t in selfdefense.”
“Of course, what we call the first worldwide wave of feminism took a century to gain for females of all races, a legal identity as human beings and citizens. Before, we had been owned by fathers and husbands as legal chattel. In a few countries, we still are. But to gain legal and economic equality in most of the countries in the world will probably take at least another century – and we’re about 40 years into it,” she adds.
Steinem pinned on her often-expressed prescription: “Also it will probably take still longer for men to do what men and women need most – for men to raise children as much as women do. That’s what men need to develop all their human qualities. It’s also what children need if they’re not to grow up imitating old gender roles.”
In her tireless intercontinental crisscrossing, had she found a ‘model’, evolved country? “It’s hard to compare,” Steinem replied. “Think of Saudi Arabia, where women can’t drive, or Swaziland, where the average woman only lives to be 34. The U.N. invented the Gender Development Index, which measures literacy, life expectancy, and income – but there are huge differences, even within India. Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and a normal sex ratio, yet in North India, technology has combined with prejudice to create a daughter deficit and a son surplus.”
Steinem notes that there are campaigns against this, “but right now, the imbalance is huge and threatens security – just as it does in China,” she adds. “As a traveller, I would now be more careful in, say, New Delhi than I was when I was a student there, but it’s also true that in southern India where I just was, I feel safer than I do at home.”
So, would there never be an end to violence against women? Like Shylock’s ‘sufferance’, was it ‘the badge of all our tribe’? Gloria denial was swift and emphatic.
“There’s nothing inevitable about violence against females. It comes from the artificial creation of ‘masculinity’ – which was invented so men could control reproduction by controlling women’s bodies, and also so leaders could get men to go to wars in which they had absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. Some males get hooked on this like a drug, and when they are feeling down, they need a ‘fix’ of proving their superiority by being violent against females. That’s why so many involve a group of men who are proving their ‘masculinity’ to each other, and destroying female bodies with objects, or raping even female children and babies.
Rape is not about sex or pleasure, it’s about violence. There’s usually nothing to gain not sexual pleasure or money – just ‘masculine’ superiority. I call them all – from domestic violence to murdering strangers – as Supremacy Crimes. The safest societies are those with the most equality between women and men. They also have the least sex trafficking and prostitution.”
To create safer societies, she cited another mantra: “We need to not only raise our daughters more like our sons, but our sons more like our daughters – and each person as a unique and respected individual.”
What about our long tradition of class and caste queering the pitch further? Steinem responded, “If you mean that crimes against upper caste people are taken more seriously than those against lower castes, then that has its version in my country and others with race and class. Class – like caste and race – always makes sex inequality even worse. After all, reproduction has to be controlled in order to maintain class, caste or race in the long run. The women of the supposedly more valuable group have to be sexually restricted so that their group remains ‘pure’, while the women of the supposedly ‘inferior’ group are sexually exploited to produce cheap labour. That’s why there is no such thing as being a feminist without also being against caste, race and class – and vice versa. You can’t defeat caste, race or class without being a feminist.”
Did she buy into the trend of pinning all ills on the door of media? “Media can convince us that image is more real than reality. We think we should look like computer altered images – in magazines, online or in movies – but if we look at real people in the street, we feel much better. Because narrative and imagery have such power, the media have an obligation to be more honest.”
Gloria Steinem still believed. She said, “Nation states are new in human history, and they are fast disappearing. If corporations and religions are creating global hierarchies, then cooperation among social justice movements are our hope for democracy and the environment on this fragile Space Ship Earth.”