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A new consciousness

Feminist activism is a vision for a safer, non-violent, non-militaristic world, based on respect for diversity and an egalitarian sharing of resources, says NIGHAT GANDHI

AFP

Lighting the way to a new world ... feminism holds out a beacon of hope.

AN unexpected and unwelcome late night phone call provided the opening sentences for this article. I wondered if I should get out of bed. But then the thought that some friend or family member might be in an emergency prevailed. At the other end was a man who wanted to have phone sex.

Of course, I did what most women do when such unwanted harassment takes place. I resorted to silence. I behaved as if it hadn't happened. I let the phone stay off the hook and went back to bed. We have several euphemisms for such forced infiltration into the private domains of our bodies and psyches — crank calls, eve-teasing, ched-chad. As if such intrusions can be dismissed as the doings of a cranky, ill-mannered boys, who don't really mean any permanent harm to the women they target. We don't think of it as a violation of our right to privacy, our right to bodily and mental dignity and integrity. This call from this unknown man made me question how far we have come in changing gender biases, but more seriously, how far we still have left to go.

Most violence against women is gender-based. It is perpetrated simply because women are women. Whether it is rape, domestic violence, dowry deaths, female genital mutilation or sex-selective abortions of female foetuses, most of these don't usually happen to men.

The United Nations Women's Development Fund (UNIFEM) estimates that domestic violence is the leading cause of death and injury among women worldwide. It is not a disease or natural calamity, but unchecked violence that is most responsible for women's deaths. Sexual violence is a fact of life for most women, even for women in the industrialised, affluent West. According to one estimate, one in five women in the United States is going to be raped in her lifetime. If a person is always on guard with respect to her body, can she be truly free in her mind? Women lead restricted lives, unable to realise their full potentials. Let us not be comforted into believing that the much-touted success of a few professional women is the reality of all women.

What is frightening is the benign attitude even women take towards the every day occurrence of sexual violence. This is because the media, our culture, religious practices and our legal system normalise this violence. What is perceived as the "norm" comes to be treated as normal. Popular media depicts women as mindless bimbos who really mean "Yes" even when they say "No". A woman's consent or lack of it is irrelevant, because, she has yet to convince men that she means what she says. Some of the accepted "truths" of our culture are: "good" women don't get sexually harassed. And the "bad" women who do are usually behaving in a way where they invite sexual advances from men. The division of all women into good or bad is problematic. How then, are we to categorise infant girls, or the mentally ill women who get sexually abused? Many religious texts legitimise keeping wayward women under control through the use of physical violence. Our legal system is replete with gender bias. For instance, the 19th Century laws against rape are enforced to this day. A woman's "character" can be used against her; sex workers can't be raped; a wife can't be raped by her husband; so marital rape as a crime doesn't exist in the Indian Penal Code.

This brings me back to my unknown caller. Fed on a daily diet of women depicted as willing slaves of men's whims and fancies, (watching any Bollywood romance would validate this), he wasn't acting in a perverted or undesirable manner. It must be perfectly acceptable to have any woman who answered his call, to either be an accomplice in the enactment of his desires, or hang up and let him try his luck elsewhere. He was simply performing a role that he has been socialised into from childhood. He had not been socialised into exploring and enjoying his sexuality in healthier ways, more respectful of the rights and desires of others.

We may be born male or female, but we become men and women. This process of "becoming" is gender. Our gender is a social construction. It is not a product of our biological sex. Men are taught to act in masculine ways. And women are taught to act in feminine ways. It is important to appreciate that gender is a performance. It is not an innate biological characteristic. It is social construction that pronounces all women as natural mothers, and all men as natural providers. A woman who displays the gender characteristics associated with a man is ridiculed and even marginalised in society. The man who shows gender characteristics of women is seen as effeminate. The binary and fixed construction of masculine and feminine gender identities is strictly enforced through history, religions, and popular culture. Ambiguity regarding gender identity is not tolerated at all. We can only wonder at what a wonderful world of possibilities and diversity we are depriving ourselves of by not accepting a more fluid and less restrictive approach to gender.

Where can feminist activism lead us to in our quest for a more gender-democratic society? Let us first agree that feminism is not a western import, nor is it a synonym for man-hating women, or family breakers. There were feminists in the East long before they heard of their sisters in the West. There are feminists whose lovers are men, many feminists are devoted mothers, and love their families. The feminist demand for non-patriarchal families, equitable marriages, or their criticism of men for not participating in house work or child care, should not be distorted as being against marriage and family. The desire for remoulding an institution to make it more egalitarian is not the same as destroying it.

The feminist struggle over "women's issues" such as gender equality, violence against women, and reproductive rights are also struggles against globalised feminisation of violence, poverty, homelessness and malnutrition. A feminist activist believes that development is not just about industrial growth, but also about the growth of the human race. That human beings can't be lumped as "human capital", and treated as just another parameter of economic growth. Feminism is a vision for a better world — a safer, non-violent, non-militaristic world, based on respect for diversity in all walks of life, and an egalitarian sharing of the world's resources. It is the philosophy and politics of transformation-of transforming the world from the dynamic of authority and domination to a participatory, egalitarian, democratic, and dialogical leadership style. Feminists believe that sexual violence that women suffer in their personal lives is directly related to the violence in society. The inequalities in the home, the violence in the streets, the glorification of the military, the building of nation-states, the blind promotion of national identities, patriotism and war, are all tools of a patriarchal leadership.

In direct opposition to such patriarchal domination of one nation or community over another, feminism proposes a participatory style of leadership, where equitable sharing of power takes place among all citizens of the planet. We are witnessing unprecedented levels of violence in the world. The United States led invasion of Iraq is the most immediate example of this kind of patriarchal greed for dominance. In such dark times, feminism holds out a beacon of hope.

It is acting out of this vision as a feminist and activist that makes me extend the wand of friendship to my unknown caller. I would like him to know that his freedom is really bondage — his mind utterly chained and captive to the ideology of inequality practiced by the society in which he lives. I would like to show him an alternate vision of the world. A world where women and men are truly free, truly equals.

If he were to live in such a world, he wouldn't feel the urge to solicit forced sexual attention from women. He would think it utterly ridiculous, if not downright rude.

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