Thursday, 20 March 2014

Gender Knowledge as important as General Knowledge

The Academic Congress on Understanding Gender held at Lady Shri Ram College for Women from March 5-7, 2014 proved that in today’s age “gender knowledge” is as important as general knowledge. The three day event probed into Questions of Justice and Freedom and gave a gendered analysis of the present context. The Congress brought together experts and activist in an attempt to have an enriching discussion around women’s issues and included the interconnected themes of law, media, voice, marginalization, sexuality and the rise of the free-spirited woman in an era of backlash and conflicting choices. What set the LSR event apart from the norm was that gender was located within the larger context of rights and freedom for all aimed at humanizing women. The following snippets give a glimpse of Day 2 (March 6) of the event:

The morning session included a panel discussion on Gender and Marginalized Voices supported by UN Women. Gopal Guru, Anand Patwardhan and Vimal Thorat led a discussion on the intersection between gender, caste and religion. The question of dalit politics and caste were discussed. The speakers clarified that while gender is linked to caste, the women’s movement has not contributed substantially to the caste debates in India that emerged in the post-Mandal era. It was also pointed out that in the current scenario; violence against women (VAW) in rural India and violence against dalit/ Northeastern women tends to get less attention as compared to VAW in urban India. In this context the role of media and selective reporting was debated.

The panel discussion was followed by a conversation with women who exemplify empowerment and breaking the glass ceiling.  

The first speaker was Baby Haldar who narrated her inspiring life story. Baby works as a domestic worker and is an author, whose autobiography Aalo Aandhari describes her harsh life growing up and as a domestic worker and has been translated into several languages.

Baby’s struggle began at a very young age. She was raised by an abusive father: an ex-serviceman and driver and her step-mother in West Bengal and was only 12, when her father married her off to a man 14 years older than her. Finally in 1999, at the age of 25, after years of domestic violence, she left her husband and came to Delhi with her children. Urvashi Butalia, who Baby considers to be her mentor, told the audience that when a woman like Baby decides to speak up, her story will invariably give many others courage and start a revolution of courage and strength.

Sunita, India’s first female auto driver and the two cab drivers from Sakha (Saroj, Lalita) shared how a woman driving on the streets reassures people- women, children, families, whereas, a man doing the same would give rise to fear in certain circumstances and yet women do not take up similar occupations. They hope that their work will inspire more women to challenge the norm and step out of their homes. Meenu Vadhera, Director of Sakha cabs shared how mobility is a very important tool in the struggle for women’s empowerment.

The afternoon session began with a Lecture by Mary E. John from CWDS. Ms. John spoke on ‘Gendering Violence: Rethinking Sexuality and Violence’. She traced the discourse on gender violence and outlined how while the movement on VAW began in the 1970s, it wasn’t till the 1990s that the language of sexuality emerged. She said that the 2000’s saw a very rapid shift as women now articulated sexuality through means such as the ‘pink chaddi campaign’ and ‘slut walk’ which not only challenged gender stereotypes but also led to a backlash.

She said that the gang rape of Nirbhaya was a ‘genuine event’ that marked another shift in the gender discourse. Although, several cases in the past like Mathura rape case, Ramiza B. case, Bhanwari Devi case had also led to protest and outrage, what was different about Nirbhaya was that the protests didn’t originate only from the women’s group and were not restricted to only women. The rape also changed the direction of the discourse as the ire of the public turned towards the state and ‘demanded’ better laws and safer cities. She said that the placards she read during the protest had slogans such as ‘Meri skirt se uchi meri awaaz’, ‘my dress is not a yes’ carried by both men and women and was an indication of the change being brought on by the event.

What she found discomforting about the December rape is that the incident has reinforced the false stereotype of the danger lying outside the house. She showed with the help of NCRB data that in more than 97% of the cases, the victim is known to the accused. She said that it was in this context that the backlash of violence against women was disturbing and needs to be challenged. The advancing of women’s hostel deadlines, canceling night shifts for female employees, parents refusing to let their daughters to go out after dark are just some of the obvious ways in which the backlash works. More subtle ways exist and impact our daily life, making women fearful, breeding mistrust and straining relationships between the sexes.

The discussion led to a debate about gender roles and how while women are now juggling work within and outside the house, the roles of men continue to be static. The rising expectations from women often lead to them having to make a choice between two worlds and the need to challenge this stereotype.

The session also included the screening of ‘Safe City Dialogues’ by Shikha Trivedi from NDTV. Safe City Dialogues is a short documentary which captures the urgent need for city plans to have a gendered perspective. It looked at the lives of young women in slums of Mumbai and how they struggle for access to basic sanitation. The slums are poorly lit, suffer due to a shortage of public washrooms and other amenities and the streets are congested along with poor garbage and human/ animal waste disposal. The documentary explored how women become victims of both, poor planning and violence against women. The documentary recorded lives of young women living in these slums and questioned whether their voice was ever taken into consideration while planning cities? It raised questions such as ‘are technological and safety measures the solution to build a safe society or do we need to initiate a dialogue to heighten gender sensitivity’? 

The day concluded with an interaction with Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan. Bhanwari Devi worked as a ‘Sathin’ in Rajasthan and was part of the Women's Development Project (WDP) run by the Government of Rajasthan. She belongs to the ‘kumhar’ (potter) caste and her village is dominated by the upper caste Gujjar community. Her training as a Sathin enabled her to raise her voice and take a stand against child marriage happening in a rich Gujjar family in her village in the early 1990s.

Bhanwari narrated how despite her protest, the marriage of the two girl children did take place, with the police attending the wedding celebrations.  Yet, the men from the Gujjar community felt insulted and in a bid to take ‘revenge’, gang raped her. Bhanwari then had to struggle to get herself examined medically in order to register a FIR. Yet, Bhanwari refused to give up. She fought for her justice and continues to do so. Her case at the moment is pending with the High Court.

Ms. Kavita Srivastava translated Bhanwri’s narrative for the audience. Speaking of Bhanwari’s struggle, she said that the reason why Bhanwari’s initial FIR was not entertained initially was because of patriarchy. She said that the police, medical examiners, Magistrate and all others in authority did not believe Bhanwari because they bought into the patriarchal stereotypes of:

1)       Old woman are not raped
2)       Old men do not rape
3)       Upper caste men would not want to have physical relations with a low caste woman

It is this thinking that got challenged when Bhanwari refused to stay quiet about her rape. She decided to persist for justice and continues to do so, despite all the obstacles that have come her way. While the accused were released on bail, Bhanwari’s struggle led to the Vishakha Judgement which became the foundation for the Sexual Harassment Act passed in 2013.

Bhanwari’s struggle, according to Ms. Srivastava shows that people need to stop looking at women’s bodies in the framework of shame and honour. If women continue to think that way, they will feel victimized, but if they decide to step out of the mould they will identify themselves, as Bhanwari does, as a survivor. This concluded the final session of the second day of the Gender Congress.

The overall theme of the “Genderknowledge” held at LSR made the audience pause and reflect upon why gender is so important today. It highlighted that gender doesn’t only concern women; rather questions of women’s safety, greater mobility, freedom of occupation, the struggle for rights are reflection of our society and therefore concern us all. As the day concluded, questions regarding what is and what is not acceptable to women today, gender roles, family as a unit of safety and many others sprang up, leading to an internal debate and change of thought, both for the audience and the participants.

Divashri Mathur

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