Tuesday 16 January 2018

Feminist Dr Ranjana Kumari confesses falling into a ‘patriarchy trap’

"Mayawati fears to share a sofa with other men because of the infamous guesthouse kaand. If things like that could happen to women politicians at that level, can you imagine how much work needs to be done at ground level? There is a reason why she puts only a single chair on the dais and makes everybody else stand outside. These are survival techniques," says Dr. Ranjana Kumari in an interview with Shreeya Kishanpuria Agarwal, an IWB blogger. Read on: 

It isn’t new, you know? These thoughts, ambitions, and ideas that the young female brigade burns with today have been here before us; ignited by rebellious spirits who simply couldn’t take a “not allowed” for an answer. One such woman has been spinning the wheel of change for 35 years, and her threads are slowly enveloping women in strong, beautiful weaves.

I was in conversation with Dr. Ranjana Kumari, the well-known crusader for women’s rights. She currently leads the Centre for Social Research, New Delhi as its director and is the Chairperson of Women Power Connect, a national level organization of women’s groups. Winner of Lotus Leadership Award (2015), Dr. Ranjana Kumari has continually strived for the cause of women. She is also the author of several published books that carry out an in-depth analysis of lives of women at work and home.

Excerpts from our conversation
“The whole idea of feminism emerges from understanding the way women are discriminated against and why they have a secondary status in the society. This is a kind of activism or an advocacy where women are fighting on the grounds of equality. A huge socio-political movement has developed around this ideology which is challenging the patriarchy. And here we are not just talking about women. The term includes men, women, and the LGBT community. Everybody in the patriarchal system has rules defined for a way of life. Women are subjugated, subordinated and the real power is vested with the men; the property, the progeny – it’s the men who take the call. As a result, women suffer. So feminism is challenging this and trying to bring about equality. I want to bring about another aspect here. The men also live under the burden of masculinity. This after all their lives and yet keep quiet because ever so often they are asked to man up. So the men also need feminism. The entire society needs feminism to bridge the gap to bring about equality of sexes.”

How to make feminism a more relatable term to, say, my mother, who never thought to challenge the existing way of life? 
Now when it comes to our mothers, they have given so much love to the entire family, they have lived their lives caring for others but how much right did they have in the decision making process? Be it in matters of properties or finance. All the major social-political-economical decisions of the families are taken by the men. For the longest time now men have enjoyed the power of politics and mobility. The women continue asking for permissions to step out of households. Wake up first, eat last, make tea… why has it always been a woman’s department?

That is because they were raised in an environment where they internalised patriarchy. They were born thinking that this is what they have to do all their lives. For example, my friend Sumitra Devi from Mahipalpur, a Jatt woman, was beaten black and blue and thrown away in a Gowshala. When I brought her into my office and we discussed the possibilities of filing an FIR against her husband, who beat her everyday after drinking for 18 years, she stopped us. Main samaaj ko kya muh dikhaungi… This is extreme internalisation. This woman was beaten, spat upon and insulted for 18 years of her life and yet she continued to believe that her husband was her God.

A lot of women continue calling their husbands Swami, Patidev. The feminism is an ideology that began questioning all of this. I don’t think I’m wrong in supporting Kamal Hassan who said that we worship a book like Mahabharata which speaks of a woman being stripped on gamble the of her husbands and being presented naked to all the men in a durbar. It was the first time in Indian history and mythology where a woman was treated so cruelly. This was an extreme form of subjugation. Everybody was shocked when I said something like that. The so called protectors of our culture, these senas call me and send me all sorts of nasty things. They think I’m insulting Mahabharata but this is the truth of our society and I am saying it as it is.

I have to say that my daughter can wear whatever she wants to and you better shut your eyes if you have a problem with that because I am not going to ask my daughter not wear something because you don’t like it.

Do you ever get tired? Do you ever feel like banging your head against a wall?
Ranjana Kumari: You know I will be very sincere and honest, all these issues around me give me a lot of energy. Firstly I’m working with a team that is really young and as committed as I am. And secondly, I have seen a change over the years. So how can I stop now? The same Sumitra Devi today travels at two in the night and 4:30 early morning. She calls me from Rohtak, Panipat or wherever and says please, let the police department know that if something were to go wrong with me they will be held responsible. 35 years of my work and I’m seeing the change. There is a whole new generation of no-nonsense girls around me. They aren’t scared of coming out and registering complaints of sexual harassment anymore. You see the change? And this is my energy. You are my energy.

Very honestly, the kind of women issues we have as girls from cities is vastly different from the kind of women issues that ladies from rural areas have to deal with. We perhaps cannot even imagine what it would be like to be in their place. And your work is helping bridge that gap of understanding.
Ranjana Kumari: You know this whole issue of Kanyadaan… When I spoke about it a lot of people were taken aback and criticised me for pulling our traditions and cultures into debates but the fact is girls are not questioning this practice. Do you understand we are donating the human body. This is such an illogical practice; how can we give away a living thing. Then, of course, it will be treated as a property. So misogynists are everywhere, they exist in our families as well and the problem is they don’t realise it.

It’s funny you should mention this because I was married last year and I did have a very long discussion with my dad on this subject. Somewhere, in the end, we bow down because it’s family.
Ranjana Kumari: And, that is okay. That is absolutely okay. The point that you did have a discussion is what matters. This is what I am saying… girls have begun questioning. So when the time comes you are the decision maker, the decisions will be different. We have to understand that social change is a generational matter, it will not happen overnight. Patriarchy is centuries old tradition, it wasn’t built overnight or in the past hundred years. So we will need generations of patience to bring about change. But, we have to not give up.

Talking of generations, you too are a mother. You have a son and a daughter. Do you always stand the feminist ground in your parenting approach?
Ranjana Kumari: You know there is a little secret. I told my young girl to fight back. Always. The thing is she does not even spare me. If there is something that she disagrees with, she says it to my face.

After all, I am also a product of this society. I come from a small town of Banaras where I lived in a conservative, joint family. The grandparents were the rulers and our parents had hardly any roles to play. So there are times where I am scared for her and really I don’t understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. So there would be times when I would raise questions but she would have her answers. She is a rational girl and you cannot emotionally blackmail her. She’s a strong girl and I am proud of both my kids. The fact that my son listens to me on a lot of shows in a lot of debate where I am continuously talking against some men and despite that he continues to respect me and respects all the values is very important for me.

There have been times when I have left home early mornings even when they were very little. When my son was six months old, I left for Bastar to start Chattisgarh Mahila Jagriti Sangathan. I witnessed the exploitation of tribal girls by all these bureaucrats who were posted there. In those times, the girls from these tribes walked about bare chested. They did not use cloth to cover their chest. But the bureaucrats exploited them for their own pleasure. The fact is sex wasn’t even an issue for these tribal people. They practised the ghotul rituals which normalised the process of mating to find the desired partner. Times have changed now and they understand better. But earlier nobody objected. That was their culture. But what was happening to the girls by these men outside of their tribes was pure exploitation.

It mustn’t have been easy, though, living the life of an activist and being a mother.
Ranjana Kumari: It is not easy. There is no saying that it is going to be breezy. It involves sacrifice, compromise… this is despite having chosen a partner for myself. I was rejected by my family because I decided to marry out of caste… Nobody from family attended the ceremonies.

Wow! You have been a rebel since a young age.
Ranjana Kumari: *laughs.* The burden was very high on me, too. It’s a burden on your emotions… because soon we have kids and the kids need to be dropped to school, PTA meetings that need to be attended… there will be many such things. The important thing is to develop this understanding between man and wife and to appreciate the work each is doing. I will tell you the secret. Keep calm. In every situation. Because the society is made of men and women. Ardhanarishwara is the foundation of marriage, partnership, and love. Men and women complete each other. But of course, it takes a toll on you.

Coming back to kids, I want to understand that in a world where the dangers that lurk for a girl and a boy child are so different, how do we treat them at par?
Ranjana Kumari: Certainly this danger is real. So I don’t want to create any illusions by saying be brave and let your girl child out. We all have to collectively work to change the mindset to let the girls enjoy their freedom. But until such times we have to be watchful, and we have to be careful. We have to educate them about good touch and bad touch from a young age. And when they grow up we need to ask them to be brave and to be told, not to scare them but to keep them up with the current times.

Surely, All this is going to change. How long can this nonsense of safety and security go on? How long can a video camera protect you? How long can we depend on policemen for our safety when most of these crimes take place in familiar situations by people close to us? We do blame the police a lot but the society needs to change, and feminism can bring this about. We need to turn feminism from an ideology into a part of the social organization.

Feminism across generations… How different have your life experiences been from those of your mother’s?
Ranjana Kumari: First and foremost, the opportunities that I have had in my life. My mother loved to study and she believed that in whatever circumstances, one must never quit studying. When I decided to join BHU which was a co-ed university after having studied in all-girls institutions until that time, she was the only one who stood behind me. My entire family was against it. My grandmother believed I would run away with a boy. Later when I chose to come to Delhi, huge protests were staged. I had to use every  Gandhian method – crying, not eating to convince everybody to let me come to Delhi and study. This is something that my mother passed on to me, this confidence, this attitude towards learning which would give me a platform to pursue what I wanted to.

Had she received these opportunities in her life, she would’ve been a great scholar today. She wrote beautifully, she was such a loving lady… She worked so hard for her family. I do nothing in comparison. As a young lady, she desired to travel the world.  As a grown-up, I took her along on my travels. So she has seen a lot of the world, but it would have been different to travel as young girl. The big difference is that her desires were totally suppressed because of family… This is something that I never got to experience.

Talking about women’s Reservation Bill, do you think this is something that can see the light of the day?
Ranjana Kumari: 1996, the bill was first introduced in the Parliament. 2006, Rajya Sabha passed it. We are talking about power here. It’s not about making more money, and it’s not about income. When we earn well, it suits everybody: the men and the family. But it’s not just the economic power that we are talking about… Not just about acquiring a skill or about deciding how many children we want to have. No, it’s about real power to design the destiny of this nation and the destiny of women. This is the real seat of power that the men have continued to hold in majority. When women get their share, that’s when women’s issues will get a quantum jump.

50% women in the panchayats were willing to take leadership! There is a flood of women in the political system today. More women are voting than men, more women are willing to contest than men and there are more women in Panchayati Raj institutions than men. In the past 17 years, women’s political aspirations have really gone high. So has their preparedness. We ran a program called IWIL-Indian women in leadership, designed to create women leaders. You can see some of them have gone on to become mayors or MLAs. Women are better skilled, maybe, because of their perseverance and patience. You know people love to give examples of Mayawati and Jayalalitha but we have to understand that these are women surviving in a man’s world. Mayawati fears to share a sofa with other men because of the infamous guesthouse kaand. If things like that could happen to women politicians at that level, can you imagine how much work needs to be done at ground level? There is a reason why she puts only a single chair on the dais and makes everybody else stand outside. These are survival techniques.

Do you think we are returning to an era when the church exerted control over the decision-making process of the government? Times when Gallelio was imprisoned for questioning religion? We have the recent UP election results in front of us and we have a religious leader becoming a political leader and somebody who has nasty things to say about women.
Ranjana Kumari: Anybody who has such things to say about women needs to have his or her mind re-engineer. We need to understand today’s times and mindsets.

There definitely cannot be a collision of religious and political power. They need to be kept separate. We need to learn our lessons from history. Church control over Parliament never worked. It was always counter-productive. So if we are walking the same path that people have previously walked to discover that this is the wrong path, then we are making a grave mistake.

And it astonishes me that people with vulgar mindsets can go on to become leaders chosen by people. He spoke of digging Muslim women out of their graves and raping them… Such minds are full of filth, dirt and ugliness… All I can say is people like these will be dumped in the garbage of history. The society will never forgive them in the long run.

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