Interview With Rita Banerji: Award-winning Author, Photographer, Gender Activist

Rita Banerji is an author, photographer and a gender activist from India.

Her book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies was released by Penguin Global in 2009. Her book is the culmination of a 5-year, in-depth, social and historical study of sex and sexuality in India, was long-listed for the 2008 Crossword-Vodaphone Non-fiction Award. In 2009 the book reached the no.1 spot on Crossword’s best-sellers list in Kolkata. Banerji also received the Apex Award for Magazine and Journal Writing (U.S.A.), 2009. She is also the founder and chief administrator of The 50 Million Missing, an online, global campaign working to stop the ongoing female genocide in India.

Alam Bains interviews this change-maker.

You are a trained conservation biologist and ecologist, but the majority of your work is on women and gender issues. Is there any particular experience which encouraged you to do the work you do today?

Yes the gender perspective has always been important to me. So even when I was in the environmental field, my research and many of my projects had a gender focus. I cannot think of any one particular experience as such, that sensitized me to gender issues other than my own experience of life as a girl/woman. I compare it to how black people are sensitized to race issues, growing up in racially prejudiced societies.

So from my own life I can draw for you scores of examples. When I was 11, I remember in school, I had scored the highest in Math, and the math teacher told the boys, “I am very disappointed in you. You should be ashamed a girl beat you in math.” I was furious. Why did it matter so much to this man whether it was a boy or a girl who scored highest in Math? Was there any reason — other than my gender that I shouldn’t have had that top spot? In my family too, in theory, girls and boys were always supposed to be equal in terms of study and opportunities. Yet, at family get-togethers, as a girl I was expected to help, cut vegetables, or remove or wash the dishes, but not my cousin brothers. And I used to think — why shouldn’t they? Is it beneath their dignity as males to do these “dirty” jobs of serving and cleaning? And then the general remarks about a man who is weak, or ineffective, “He is like a woman.” If our social stereotype equates weak and incompetent men to women, how am I as a woman supposed to take that? As a compliment?

Most people in India, even women, think these are inoffensive. I think that is because of the internalization of gender subordination. If you take the racial equivalent of these examples, and substitute male with white and females with black in the instances I speak of above (and racially it does happen in some countries), that’s when you can really feel the bigotry in context of gender in our society. Of course the greatest evidence of what it means to be female in India, is evidenced by our systematic annihilation of females!

My work with the 50 Million Missing Campaign, stems from my own outrage and compulsion. I’m an Indian woman, and my country looks me in the eye and says, “You and your kind mean nothing to us. You are like little flies. We’ve swatted 50 million females like you!” There have been genocides in the world based on race and religion, but no human group has been subjected to this kind of hatred and annihilation on such a massive scale as this gender based genocide in India. Think about it — India technically houses 1/5 of the world’s women. And in 20 years, 20% of women in India — and in the world, will have been systematically eliminated. We as a nation evidentially have no humanity? But do we also have no shame? You kill a cow, and a riot breaks out in the city. Here we have young married women and new born girls killed every few minutes in this country. Why does that not evoke the same response from Indians?

Your book “Sex and Power” is an in-depth, social and historical study of sex and sexuality in India. It has been widely acclaimed and you have been compared to Simone De Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem. What was your motivation behind writing a book on an issue which is still considered a taboo?

Sex here means two things: one is gender and the other is sexuality as in the biological drive. And what I establish in this book, is that there is a power hierarchy in society in how we deal with both gender and sexuality, and that it is this power hierarchy that is driving what I call the sex-related catastrophes of India: female genocide, AIDs, and over-population. And unless we directly address this power hierarchy which is culturally and historically defined, we are not going to see any change.

So take for e.g. the issue of population/ birth control. Go through any number of projects by NGOs or the government, and they will talk about ignorance, education, etc. etc. But they will NEVER address a very fundamental issue about reproduction in India. That women do not have ownership of their own bodies. They have no choice or say over their sexuality or reproduction. And this has nothing to do with economics. This is entirely culturally and psychologically driven. Most women in slums and villages are the ones who are economically sustaining their children, while their husbands are waywardly, drunk, drugged and sporadic with their earnings. Yet, women are ultimately only commodities for their families. So their parents decide who they will marry. Their husbands decide when they will have sex and how many children that woman will have. When women try to resist sex or get birth control they get brutalized by their husbands! I know of one case where this woman was beaten with a red-hot stick from the choola because she had got her tubes tied quietly, and she was burnt all over. These kinds of stories abound. And of course the in-laws decide what sex those children will be — so they decide which child lives and which child dies.

Often in villages and slums, a man will migrate to the city or another part of town, leave his first wife, ‘marry’ some other woman with whom he will have another batch of children. And if you go through India’s slums and villages — there are thousands of such women, who are abandoned (without divorce) by their husbands, and are trying to feed and house the children by themselves. Otherwise too, the man treats his earnings as his play money. So he may throw a little in the direction of the wife. Or not. There is no sexual and reproductive responsibility expected on the part of men: And this is a very important point to note about Indian social norms. Even in middle and upper class families, when in cases of domestic violence the wife finally leaves with the kids, I have very, very rarely seen the men assume economic responsibility for the children, leave alone parental responsibility. His family will get him married again. And the divorced woman struggles to raise the children by herself usually with the help of her parents. The woman had no choice in the children she had, and even later she has no choice but to take care of them alone.

Therefore, I think it is very important, particularly in view of our present and future, for us to know our history, in terms of how the issues of gender, sex and sexuality have played out in context of social power, in different periods of our past, and how they continue to be a part of our thinking and social behaviour. Unfortunately, our treatment of history in India, be it in school books, or oral history, is very selective and highly censored particularly so in context of sex and sexuality. So most young people in India grow up, partially blind, to their own history and sociology. And so it is this aspect of India’s past that I explore in my book — openly and frankly.

I thought it was interesting, that at my book launch in Crossword, Kolkata, a number of college students came up to me and expressed complete disbelief at some of the things I discussed. For e.g. the Shiv-Lingam and Yoni, the idol which almost all Hindu households worship, is a leitmotif in my book, and represents the union of the penis and vulva. I ask the question how and why the religion came to worship such a blatantly sexual symbol. So I asked the young people at my book launch what the Hindi words for penis and vulva are, and not one of them knew. See, they may know the dirty words, which they won’t dare say aloud. But they do not know that actual anatomical words! And they are Lingam and Yoni! A female professor in the audience who spoke to me later, told me that it was not unusual, and that she herself did not know of the words till after she was married in her late 20s. It is incredible — this social conspiracy that conceals the most fundamental words of our own bodies because they deal with sex!

But it also heartens me because especially in younger Indians, I see a curiosity and openness to know, to ask, to discuss. Over a year ago, I was a guest for an online live chat by India Today. And there were so many young people who I am assuming were college aged, who came online to ask questions — really basic questions about sex and sexuality, issues of rape, sexual abuse, sex protection, etc. And they did not know the answers, which shocked me! Even today when I approach high schools for talks, they are not keen to have me talk. Our social and educational systems have these huge psychological mental blocks, which in the end are harming society. Sex and sexuality are the very basis of our existence as an individual. It is one of our fundamental biological drives — along with hunger, thirst, sleep etc. It is there whether you like it or not. All other identities, familial, cultural, social are built on this very basic biological identity. How do we as a society, try to impose a cultural identity, on individuals by blocking their basic biological identity from themselves? It is like trying to erect a sky-scraper of ideals and notions, with half the foundation missing. How can we have a society of whole and healthy individuals, if this is our social building process?

What is the 50 Million Missing campaign? What inspired you to start the campaign?

The 50 Million Missing Campaign is online global campaign that works to raise awareness about the ongoing female genocide in India, and all the factors that are responsible for it through our blogs, presentations, Voice of the Campaign project, and social networking sites like twitter and facebook.

Secondly, it is also lobbying for public support for an online petition that demands that all existent laws — pertaining to female feticide, infanticide, dowry, dowry murders, and honor killings, be forcefully and methodically implemented across the board — in a manner that makes all government offices, the police and judiciary legally accountable. We are asking for a time-line within with this will be accomplished and includes the setting up of fast-track courts for all issues pertaining to female feticide and all other female homicides. There also needs to be an aggressive communication with the public and direct, no-nonsense messages sent out by the government about legal parameters and consequences (Part II I think I’ve already answered on top).

How has the campaign been received in India and what do you wish to achieve through the campaign?

The campaign has been covered by various newspapers and magazines etc. But in terms of the public, and even other NGOs, the response is still impassive. I should emphasize an important point here. Of all the NGOs, campaigns etc. that are working on what is called the ‘sex-ratio’ issue, The 50 Million Missing Campaign is the only one that is focused on the implementation of existent laws and is demanding official/ government accountability. And this is what I think is not palatable to the public and to NGOs. That is because this approach does 3 things (and it is what we intend to achieve through this campaign):

  1. It attributes legal responsibility — this is a human rights violation.
  2. It demands methodical and effective action. Which means, if an approach is not working you don’t keep pushing it, but change the course of action to get the results we need to see.
  3. It demands to see the results and hold those in positions of power, in government, police etc. responsible.

With the public I think it is a horror of what they are seeing, but as of yet, refusing to recognize it as self-image. The thing is that when you have violence on such a massive scale, it is because of the participation of society at large. Just as it happened with the Jewish genocide in Europe. We keep saying Hitler, but really everyone knew, and either looked away, or reported they had Jewish neighbors, and many participated in the violence on their fellow country people. We are doing the exact same thing. We are all involved: we either look away, or keep quiet, or participate or justify it and explain it in one way or another. We are all responsible, and we each need to acknowledge our role in this. I think that is what makes this discomforting to Indians.

With NGOs, or even governmental, and I’d say even international projects, that focus on “Save the Indian girl,” there is another issue. One of my concerns is that these ngos and projects are popping up like mushrooms everywhere, because this is a great money garnering tool. There are tons of money going into these projects. [I should point out that The 50 Million Missing is a zero-fund campaign]. But there is no accountability. No one is going to say: are these projects really having an impact for all the money that is going into them? Or where is the money really going? The numbers of female feticides are increasing, so are dowry murders. Our census shows we are going from bad to worse. But all these projects have to do, is say, we tried, and throw up their hands. They may hold up a handful of examples of children and say, ‘See we sent 20 girls to school.” And everyone nods and smiles and says “Oh that’s wonderful!” See even companies have to give an accounting of their funds. But with NGO or these kinds of ‘save the girl’ projects, you are not required to justify anything in terms of results.

Besides, do we even ask if this is really the practical way to address this massive nationwide, humanitarian crises — by setting up ngos, each of which will house 20 odd girls and teach them to read? Because the highest rate of elimination of females is in the upper and middle educated classes. These are people who get the best education that money can buy — and the best jobs that gets the money! So clearly education and jobs are not the reason that Indians are eliminating girls. So why don’t we challenge government and ngo projects who totally illogically claim they want to ‘save’ girls by offering, what is, frankly, substandard education to girls of poor families?

Secondly, how many orphanages or homes do we plan to set up? According to government records there are about 10 million abandoned girl children in India. Are we going to set up 9 million plus homes and shelters for girls? During the Jewish genocide there were Jewish people being rescued, put in shelters etc — but was that the real solution to stopping the killing across the board of millions?

Thirdly, do we ever ask what happens to the handful of girls who are raised in these homes and shelters? From what I’ve been seeing for myself, it seems most orphanages try to marry off the girls they’ve raised by the age of 18. That is their method of disposal! And since most middle and upper class Indians are so concerned about respectability etc., these marriages are arranged into poor homes. And in many cases the young girls after marriage face dowry related abuse and violence!!! There was one documentary on the ‘Missing Girls’ of India by the National Geographic. They focused on this NGO in the south, where parents who don’t want their baby girls can come and just leave them on the steps of this NGO. I think they had about 20 or 30 girls. Well, the camera followed one of these girls, who was married off, into what looked like a poor, shanty or village family. And guess what — she was under pressure to abort the baby she was carrying because it was a female!! How could that happen? How could an NGO raise a girl who is unwanted and throw her into a situation where she is carrying a girl who she is being pressured to get rid of? That question was never asked in this documentary, and we need to ask it!! It is like trying to rescue a girl from the trash and throwing her right back into the trash! Why bother?

The family that throws these girls out or tries to kill them, would treat a boy in the same place like a prince! They have the money to feed and raise a boy! It is not like they are in the middle of a famine and people are dying of starvation. See this story of baby Karishma, who we tried to save. Her grandfather was a village sarpanch. He had orchards, and his grandson was raised like a prince, but little Karishma was almost killed as a baby, beaten so badly she could have died later, and the paternal grandmother also tried to starve her death. India does not treat its littlest girls as citizens with all the rights of a citizen of India including the right to life and safety. We treat the little girls as commodity — their family’s commodity and the family has to right to let them live or die.

The bottom line is that every form of systematic annihilation of females in India is illegal and it is criminal, be it female feticide, infanticide, dowry murders or ‘honor’ killings. The reason these have escalated and are out of control now, is because our system of law and order and governance has allowed for it to reach this stage. Just as it has happened with the systematic and targeted killing of a group of people anywhere in the world — with the Jewish genocide, the lynching of blacks in the pre-civil rights U.S. or the Tutsi genocide. And if you want it to stop, there is only one way, you will have to make our government, criminal and legal system act and be officially accountable. We hope that other NGOs and the Indian public will join The 50 Million Missing Campaign in this endeavor.

How can the general public become involved with the campaign? What is your message to the masses?

I think the first and easiest thing that the public can do, which takes 10 seconds, is go to our petition site and sign it. Tell the government, we want you to act and be accountable.

Secondly, if you can spare say 20 minutes, make a brief presentation to your class in your school, college or university. See our Voice of the Campaign project.

The third and most important thing is something that everyone can do and needs to do, but most of us don’t, because personally it is also the hardest thing to do. That is to be personally accountable. I know that people who are reading this are not the types who will personally practice dowry, or female feticide etc. I think the people reading this, are the Indians who are ashamed about this mass femicide in India, and ideologically they want change. The question is, what do you personally do or how do you react or what do you say when you witness it — either in your family, or among your friends or community?

For e.g. if one your uncles gets married, and then he and say his parents, that is your grand-parents start harassing the bride to get this and that, or abusing her, etc. what is your response? Or if one of your friends says, “You know we already have a daughter, and my parents and I don’t want my wife to have another girl,” how would you respond to your friend? If say for instance you gather the courage to tell your dowry demanding uncle, that you don’t support what they are doing and it is illegal, and you say the same to your friend who says he doesn’t want another daughter, what would you do, if they still persisted? Would you continue to socialize with them? Would you report them? Are you more worried about how they will think about you than about what is being done and so you keep quiet? Because if you continue like nothing happened — your silence, your inaction, your weak convictions, or your indifference are a part of the humanitarian mess that India is in now.

Myself, I do not associate with people who I know have violated another person’s dignity or life, who have demonstrated misogyny in the many ways that our society permits. I have urged women I know who are being abused to leave their husbands and refused to accept the standard excuses. In one situation where this professional woman, well educated, wanted to return to the house of her husband and in-laws, where an attempt was made to kill her 6 month baby girl, I told her I could not legally stop her, I could not choose for her, but I could choose to stop associating with her. I don’t care, how ostracized she felt by society, as a woman and a parent, she is as responsible for the choice she makes for her daughter, as the in-laws who tried to kill the baby! I say the same if there was violence being inflicted on a woman or girl. There is nothing to explain or contend with here. This non-negotiable. There is no excuse for it.

As a society we need to send out the message that this kind violence, in any form, is not allow under any circumstance. And as individuals we need to personally send that message to our closest ones first: our relatives, friends, family!

Relevant links:

My website:
Sex and Power:
The 50 Million Missing Campaign:
Karishma’s story:

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