(Rita Banerji)Ms. Banerji, this is a quote of yours from your blog.
“For this is what we really need to know. What goes on in the head and heart of that woman who grows up in and survives such violently misogynist societies? Societies where daughters are unwanted. Where women are brutalized and killed. A girl growing up even in the most progressive family on the Indian subcontinent still lives in context of a culture where the mindset says that being female is like being nothing.The strange thing is – you will hardly find any such books. Why? Because in south Asian societies it is taboo for women to speak out. Family and community are sacred – and what happens within must remain hidden. As girls grow up they are taught to tolerate pain and rejection. They are taught to hide the abuse they suffer or witness others suffer, from the outside world. It makes them the “good” daughters and “ideal” wives!”
Can you share with us how you challenged the socialization process of being raised in such a culture. Have you personally experienced rejection and criticism from your family or community for speaking out against the misogyny in Indian society? If so, how have you dealt with it?
When people see the women of my family – they always think of them as the prototype of the “strong” Indian woman. I think in an odd way I do get my resolve and strength from the women of my family. They have big, powerful personalities. They are resourceful, and come across as very confident. They have strong opinions and they articulate them openly and forcefully. They are often intimidating to people because they seem so authoritative and invincible. You will see women like this all the time in the public sphere in India – running corporations, in the media, in politics, and even in villages and in the market-place. But many of these women, like the women in my family usually use their strengths, their power, to buttress the patriarchal power structures and gender hierarchies. Every time there was a particularly violent incident in any marriage in my family, and the brutalized wife tried to leave, it is the women who would rush to the spot and prevent the wife from leaving. They would then blame her – that she’s difficult, demanding, or neglectful of the house and children, something like that, but never, not once have I heard any one of them say one word against the brutality of the men! Or confront the men. Never! An aunt, a couple of years ago, actually boasted to me of how many marriages she had “saved” in our family. Her own mother had been almost raped by her brother-in-law soon after she got married (something that’s very common in big, joint Indian families). And this aunt says, “Oh my mother was young and pretty, and she must have behaved flirtatiously.”
What has been different for me I think has been that I have refused to support the status quo in my family. I think the resistance was always there even when I was a child – not just to incidents within the family, but also in society. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. So I would sulk or get quiet. Sometimes I would act out.
For me a critical breathing space in my life, unquestionably, were the four years I spent in college in the U.S. I attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a women’s college with strong, liberal, feminist leanings. I have actually often wondered how much that environment contributed towards the shaping of my own perspectives on gender equity, without being sure. Mount Holyoke did not teach me anything I didn’t already have. What it did was –it provided me (for the first time in my life) with a safe environment to come into myself, to examine and express my beliefs without fear, and to discover and define myself without having to explain or justify it to anyone. It’s something I don’t think I would have got if I had stayed on in India. It is the kind of environment that I needed, and found I think at a very critical time in my life – the late teens, when the concept of self and personhood emerges. And once you have experienced your ‘Self’ freely, fearlessly, there’s no going back into the box!
(go here to read more about the genocide against India's girls)
Yes, particularly now, I do experience rejection and criticism from my family and the Indian society for speaking out against the misogyny in Indian society. Within the family there is a sense of unvoiced uneasiness around me I think. I am sometimes like a cat among the pigeons. As a child I could be controlled. But as an adult I am in charge of what I think and say, and how I respond.
There is a similar discomfort I find when I give public talks. There was a talk I gave at the Rotary club here – mind you to what is considered a civic minded audience, doctors and lawyers, and “philanthropists” that received a particularly hostile response. People are often in denial. And I think what they don’t really like is that I convey that every individual in the auditorium needs to take personal responsibility for how they act, react and respond not just to incidents in their own lives but how they respond to whatever they witness around them among family, friends and community. I regard this as a positive response. Because, you see it is so easy to point a finger elsewhere – maybe at the slums and villages of India (mind you, the biggest gender gap is among the educated, urban classes!) – and do the rah-rah rally cry, “save the girl-child.” Who is going to save the girl child? From whom? How? There is a lazy, feel-good, complacency in that approach – that’s going nowhere! The discomfort means somewhere the conscience is uneasy and responding (it is the first and most crucial step to change) – and I’ve learnt to take that as a sign of a positive impact on my audience.
(Rita's book here )
I believe that for each of us, challenging the gender socialization process (or any other kind of socialization) is ultimately always an individual choice. Every one of us, at some point in life, is faced with two options: You either go with the model that society provides you with, or you challenge that model and push for change. The reason that most people go with the first choice, is because it is the easier one! It automatically guarantees social approval and support. The second choice is harder, because firstly it requires you to make your choices and justify them. That’s effort, as compared to a cultural formulae you just swallow. And there’s much to lose --- social approval and support. You can also face isolation from the community, rejection and even persecution. The question is, how important is social approval for you personally? And can you learn to live with rejection? To me these are not as important as the legitimacy of my own conscience, and so I chose the latter. I’ve always felt that I can live at odds with society, if it comes to that, but I cannot live at odds with myself.
What advice would you give young girls who are growing up in such families and cultures to believe in themselves, to follow their hearts and dreams? To stand up for themselves in a way that won’t jeopardize their physical safety?
I think safety should always be the number one concern. And the instinct for safety is inbuilt in us – it is the most powerful biological instinct. We always know what is safe and right, for us and what is not. The challenge for girls growing up in India is how to keep that instinct alive. Because we are socially conditioned to over-ride it. We are taught to absorb violence quietly – whether in our parents’ homes, or our husbands and in-laws homes, and even in public spaces, and this is not just unnatural, it is wrong, and it is dangerous! So the advice I’d give girls in India is:
• No one ever has the right to abuse you in any way – physically, emotionally or verbally. Not your parents, not your husband, not your in-laws, not your boss or anyone else. Life and safety are your most fundamental human rights that no one can take from you.
• If you are in an abusive situation with your family, it is foolish to tolerate the situation to prove your loyalty to them. Your first sense of loyalty is to yourself. And in allowing others to abuse you, you are being dishonest with yourself.
• Always take note of the people and environments in your life that you feel ‘safe’ and ‘happy’ in. Where you feel you can say whatever you want. Where you are listened to and understood. Where you can discuss things without fear. Places and people with whom you feel you can breathe. Spend as much time as you can in these environments.
• Every time you take a step in the direction of your dreams and goals, be prepared to face resistance and rejection. Don’t keep looking for acceptance and approval from people who reject you. Learn to embrace the rejection as an indication of your strength and ability to reach your goals. Those who truly appreciate you and what you are doing will accept you and celebrate you just as you are. In the end there may be only handful of such people. But know that that’s all you need.
Thank you so much Rita for answering these questions with courage, conscience and clarity. You are a brave woman and inspire me, and so many others, to reach for the same!
*I will be posting part 2 of our interview in the coming weeks ahead.