The third edition of Kolkata Literary Meet 2014 was inaugurated by none other than the iconic Gloria Steinem. Those who are well-versed with Feminist scholarship or closely follow the feminist movement must know what Steinem means and adds to the movement. An octogenarian Miss Steinem is a repository of enthusiastic energy which transmitted to the audience who listened to her ideology with keen interest. She referred to this meet as “campfire” that would give birth to new ideas, dynamism and beckon hope amidst cacophony. Miss Steinem shared with the audience her journey in India, her work with Vinobha Vabe, her intimate engagement with the feminist movement in both USA and India and most importantly shed light on the feminist discourse.
I would like to abstract snippets from the session by Steinem that made a personal impact on me. A strong crusader against prostitution, Steinem noted that prostitution is not just the oldest form of occupation but oldest form of oppression. Sex trade or flesh trade intensifies the commodification of women in a culture which is already misogynist and thrives on a one way representation of women. In her country, USA, girls at an early age of 12 often succumb to prostitution as a means of survival mechanism. Ruchira Gupta, founder of the NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide (that works for the rights and rehabilitation of the sex workers) was also the delegate along with Steinem for this session. According to her, often women permeate into the sex trade in the scarcity of other occupational choices. Her grassroots involvement further informed her that these women, provided the opportunity, would like to switch to alternate career options.
Steinem recognized rape as “supremacy crime”, as the perpetrator doesn’t enjoy financial leverage, sexual pleasure or anything else. They commit rape and sexual assault for that transient feeling of superordination by overpowering a woman. It asserts and entrenches a patriarchal concept of masculinity that advocates violence. She strongly felt that violence against women is a consequence of masculinity endorsed by patriarchal culture which believes in the subjugation of women and allocation of role play for men and women. Women are unfettering the shackles of traditional roles and making their presence visible and pronounced in the public sphere. This lacerates the masculine ego of some men who have till now enjoyed privileges in the public domain. Hence, these increasing number of rapes and sexual assault to counter the autonomy of women. But she is optimistic that violence against women would be bleak when men become loving and nurturing fathers. She went a step further adding that this would lead to world peace.
Regarding the discomfiture with the term ‘feminism’ she contended that it’s not the term but the content of ideology that produces discomfiture. Feminism advocates equality of women and men. Hence, reading it as anti-men is a strategy by the beneficiaries of patriarchal culture to perpetuate their unimpeded reign. She made a pertinent observation that women have always faced the challenge of being able to do man’s work however, men were never challenged to do women work or asked, can you do this like a woman!
Steinem is a firm believer of global sisterhood that emphasizes upon the subsuming of women under one umbrella and the recognition that women across barriers irrespective of caste, class, race, age and sexuality are tied by the common thread of womanhood. For her, the indices of caste, class and race have been socially constructed to forge separation among human and hence, ‘global sisterhood’ helps women to connect on a common podium.
For me Gloria Steinem is an incandescent flame who ignited the fire in many of us and pioneered a new direction for some of us. Long Live Steinem!