All unjust systems, whether based on caste, class, race, or gender, exploit oppressed people, their resources, their labour. Take the labour of women. In 1995, at the international conference on women in Beijing, China, it was estimated that the entire unpaid work of women is worth 11 trillion dollars per year. Who has benefited from this? Families, communities, society, capitalism – everybody is benefiting from women’s work.
Much of this oppression comes with violence. The dalit community, for instance, could not have been exploited for over 3,000 years without violence. Violence is integral to such oppression. I have never been violated, but I have also never been free of fear and because fear is so integrated with the oppression of women from time immemorial, it has been one of the most important issues for women across the world.
In India, the modern women’s movement began with the Mathura rape case and dowry killings. So we have been mobilising on the issue for a long, long time and we really had this dream that such violence would end. Yet, somehow, it has only increased over the years. It has become part of the paradigm of capitalism. Over the last 40 years, pornography, including child-based pornography, has become a multi-billion dollar industry. The cosmetics industry – which continues to tell women that nothing is as important as their faces and bodies – has become a multi-billion dollar industry. The film industry, whether Hollywood or Bollywood, is also a multi-billion dollar enterprise, which makes constant use of women’s bodies.
Within the women’s movement we have tried to fight violence in many ways. We have done theatre, we have sung songs, we have used the new media. You know I write songs. My songs are popular. But they may reach only a few thousand at best. ‘Munni badnaam hui’ (a poplar Hindi film song) reaches millions, with that one gyrating woman in the middle, surrounded by 20 men lusting after her. I see a direct link between this and what happens on the streets of Guwahati, Assam, or anywhere else where mass molestation and rape take place. It is perhaps scenes like those shown in film songs that are playing out in the minds of the young men who assault women. We, as the women’s movement, do not have the kind of power that would end this violence, because it involves big money, big networks, powerful people.
Interestingly, I understood the power of big media when Aamir Khan contacted me to come for his show, ‘Satyamev Jayate’. I mulled over taking part, and then agreed. It demonstrated to me the power of the media and the power of celebritydom. I have worked so hard for 40 years as a women’s activist but nowhere did I get the response I got after those eight to ten minutes on that show. I was stopped at coffee shops, at airports, on the streets, everywhere. Over 22 women wrote to me to say that they were in violent situations at home. There were literally hundreds of emails. I also got responses from men. The editor of a television channel said, “Kamladi, I was sitting for a brunch on Sunday with 11 men and we watched you and I was amazed that none of us was offended by anything you said.”
All I did was to explain patriarchy as a social system that considers men to be superior to women, and in which men have more control over resources and decision making. The men who control religion have laid down that the husband is ‘lord and master’. The word in English for husband translates as “controller”, “domesticator”, “manager”. In Hindi, Bangla and Tamil, the words ‘husband” and ‘god’ are synonymous – “pati-parmeshwar”, “swami”. Every day we repeat these words. The moment a woman gets married, according to Hindu rites, she has to touch her husband’s feet and he puts signs on her forehead – of his domination over her. In the Christian marriage, the father “gives away” the bride.
Patriarchy is about hierarchy. If a man is upset with something his wife does, he will beat her, just as a parent thinks it is his or her right to beat their child. This is basically about the powerful lashing out against the powerless in an unequal relationship. It is important to state here that there is nothing biological about it. As soon as you say men can’t help beating women, you are insulting men, because many men don’t abuse their wives. Lately, as I have become a little more inward looking, I find that perhaps men are being harmed by patriarchy much more than women. Think of the man who decides to rape a woman. What is his relationship with his body? If a man can come home and beat his wife, what is his relationship to his life partner? These are men who are dehumanised.
Today, there are also millions of men all over the world who know what patriarchy is doing to them, how it is undermining them, how it is hollowing out the best that is in them. So I would say that the women’s movement, fortunately, is no longer a movement only of women. It is a movement of men, women and children.
We need to spread that idea; we need to stand up against violence, including patriarchal violence, using all the imaginative and cultural resources at our command. There are cultural activists like Mallika Sarabhai doing just this, through her one-woman dance drama, ‘Sita’s Daughters’. Globally, there is Eve Ensler, a US-based playwright. Based on her experiences she made the word ‘vagina’ speakable by writing the play, ‘Vagina Monologues’. It became so popular that it has been translated into over 140 languages. It has been translated into Urdu and staged in cities in Pakistan. It has been staged in Dhaka. It captured the imagination of the youth, and impacted their attitudes, so that they could then say, “It is our body, what is so dirty about it?”
Ensler has supported work in the most difficult and most patriarchal of societies – in places like Sudan – for years. Some months ago she came up with the idea of a global campaign called ‘One Billion Rising’. I thought this was a great idea, because global campaigns infuse a lot of energy into movements. Normally when I work, I feel like a drop of water. But once I am part of a global campaign, I suddenly feel like an ocean.
The ‘One Billion Rising’ campaign will see women and men in 140 countries rise up together against this civil war between men and women going on in their midst, the violence against women within families, communities and countries. We in South Asia will also join in. No matter what the issue is, honour killings in Pakistan, acid throwing in Bangladesh or domestic violence in India, we will take on and defeat the forces that make such assaults possible.
We see this as a rainbow coalition. Over the last three months, we have been visiting trade unions in Sri Lanka, talking to women’s groups in Bangladesh, encouraging organisations in every country to identify and bring on board political leaders – not parties – with a record of having stood against violence, or who hope to stand against violence in the future. I was so happy to see that in the UK, the organiser for the campaign is a British labour member of Parliament, Stella Creasy.
The time has come for large alliances of people to come together and say violence against women will not be tolerated any longer.