The Jaipur Literature Festival is supposed to be a happy, inclusive, and safe space for everyone–men, women, or whatever gender you identify as. You are supposed to be recognised, to be heard. This holds true, for the most part. But there is no denying that sexism lurks in the shadows of Diggi Palace, making appearances on the Front Lawn, at Samvad, at the Mughal Tent, at Charbagh, at Baithak, and at Durbar Hall. Call me idealistic, but I didn’t see this coming. With the number of strong, powerful, influential female speakers, and the number of liberal, incredible men they had on panels, I figured that maybe the Jaipur Literature Festival was the one place the evils of sexism just wouldn’t exist. But of course, I was very, very wrong.
The festival seems to have become just another place for men to discriminate against and dismiss women, since we don’t have enough of that already. Mansplaining at the Jaipur Literature Festival manages to make headlines nearly every year, and this year was no different. Vir Sanghvi, an Indian columnist and television journalist, was called out for his rude behaviour when he was moderating a panel with Kota Neelima, Sarah Raven, and Lathika George on “Glimpses from ‘Food for Thought’”. The women on the panel had written entire books about gender issues and the political climate in India, and had to sit through Vir Sanghvi, who was supposed to be moderating the session, constantly interrupting them, undermining their knowledge on subjects they are experts at, and mansplaining his way through concepts and ideas they had published books about. His behaviour was unexpected, but unsurprising at the same time. It has become a trend at JLF for women speakers or moderators to be talked over, talked at, and ignored by their male counterparts. They have to struggle to be a part of any conversation being had, no matter how qualified and knowledgeable about their subject they may be. A woman in the audience called Sanghvi out for his behaviour and he responded saying, “I don’t need to be told off by anyone–man, woman or animal.” Him casually brushing off a valid concern spoke volumes of how men in positions of power tend to behave, and how they treat women.
The closing debate this year focused on one of the most important developments of 2018 so far–the #MeToo campaign. The question up for debate was “Do Men Still Have It Too Easy?” The answer seems quite simple and straightforward. Of course, men still have it too easy, or we wouldn’t be in a world full of Weinsteins and Nassers and Ansaris, a world where women are harassed every single day, a world where women live in a state of constant fear. I understand that the topic that is debated in the last session of the festival has to be important and relevant, and what is more relevant right now than the #MeToo campaign? What I fail to understand is why they were discussing a question with an extremely obvious answer, an answer that has only becoming clearer and clearer as more and more allegations against several men have come about in the past few months.
Of the six people participating in this debate–Bee Rowlatt, Pinky Anand, Ruchira Gupta, Sandip Roy, Vinod Dua and Manu Joseph, moderated by Namita Bhandare–four of them more or less agreed that men definitely do still have it too easy. And then there was Manu Joseph, the living embodiment of the #NotAllMen movement. During his opening statement, he rambled on about morality, homosexuality, about being viewed as a sex object, and about being hit on by powerful homosexual men. Namita Bhandare had the perfect response for him–“Manu, this is a debate not a confession.” However, he went on to express his sadness about men not being allowed to make a pass at their colleagues in the workplace, how it is becoming difficult for men to be casual in social spaces, and how there are “too many rules and too little fun”. He also said that the sentencing for rape should be reduced from seven years to one year so that judges who felt that the case was not serious enough could still convict the rapist.
Rowlatt defined feminism in the simplest way possible–“If you respect women, you are a feminist,” but Joseph shot back and said that her definition was setting the bar too low for feminists. And when Rowlatt was trying to get him to listen to a point she was trying to make as he went on and on, he said that felt like he was married to her. Rowlatt finally managed to shut Joseph down, and straight up told him, “Manu, darling, you don’t have to be a feminist. You just have to not be a dick.”
At the end of the debate, Bhandare pointed out what had been on my mind the whole time—that there really wasn’t much of a debate at all on whether or not men still have it too easy. It’s clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they do, but what matters now is how we come together with ideas and changes to make a difference.
An important session this year was called “Women and Power”, with Helena Kennedy and Margaret Alva in conversation with Arati Jerath (no men on this panel!) on the skewed relationship women have with power. Against the backdrop of a world where women have increasingly started speaking out and fighting for their rights, it has become imperative to discuss the growing need for women in positions of power. All three women on the panel agreed that in order to see more women in power, it was important to break through power spaces that have traditionally empowered and favoured men. Alva talked about how she was often taken lightly even when she was in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet since she was a woman. Kennedy stated that, as a result of power structures being male-made, everything was from a male’s perspective and “women have learned to play the game by male rules”. Power has been coded as masculine and women are expected to “de-feminise” themselves in order to become powerful and be taken seriously. They talked about the Weinstein effect that appears to have taken the western world by storm, but asked an important question–“Where are the Indian women post Harvey Weinstein? Why don’t we hear from them?” Alva stressed on the point that female victims in India become the accused and are seen as troublemaking and attention-seeking. Women are reluctant to call out their perpetrators for the fear of being victim-shamed, a real, valid issue that must be dealt with. A male audience member who was of the belief that focus on feminism and women’s reservation were not the right things to be talked about was shut down brilliantly by all three women, who stressed the point that women being equal to men was the ultimate goal, and could potentially solve a lot of global issues. Jerath emphasised that moving forward, men and women have to work collaboratively and that the “battle of the sexes” has falsely pitted men and women against each other. There is rising consciousness amongst both men and women over gender inequality, disparities in pay and sexual harassment at the workplace.
The powerful, strong, brilliant, opinionated women who managed to make their voices heard over all the misogyny that was trying to drown them out were undoubtedly the best part of the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Suki Kim, a Korean-American writer, talked about her book “Without You, There Is No Us”, which describes her time spent in North Korea. She lived undercover in North Korea for six months, and is the only writer who has ever managed to do this. She worked as an English teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology where she taught the future leaders of the country.
Suki Kim faced a lot of criticism for her book for putting the boys she talked about in her book at risk, even though she never took their names or spoke about any of them individually. She raised an important point – “When men go undercover, it’s called investigative journalism. I went undercover and it was called a memoir”. Her book was called a memoir by critics and described as the story of a woman who discovered herself during her time in North Korea, instead of being called a piece of investigative journalism, and a brilliant one at that.
Political writer, Nayantara Sahgal, spoke fearlessly about the current atmosphere in the country, and broached topics that most people try extremely hard to avoid. She was the first speaker I saw at JLF who not only acknowledged the caste issue in India, but talked about it at length. She said that Dalits are the strongest and most organised voice of dissent in the country right now and that she had nothing but admiration for them. She went on to say that as a Hindu, it disturbed her that the Hindutva mentality had divided the country and distorted Hinduism completely, a point Tharoor stressed on his session as well. India is a deeply religious country with several different religions which is why it is all the more important for us to not have a religious identity. “When the atmosphere in the country is what it is today, there are only two options: One, to get drunk, and the other to write a novel and that’s what I have done,” she said. Sahgal spoke about her beliefs fiercely and was unafraid to voice her concerns about issues in the current political climate, something not a lot of people would have the courage to do (for the fear of being lynched, perhaps).
The Jaipur Literature Festival has come a long way since its inception in terms of inclusivity of women on panels, sessions about relevant and pressing issues, diversity in terms of race, and bringing in brilliant male speakers, who not only have wonderful expertise in their fields, but also the ability to treat women as equals. But the festival still has a long way to go. The reality is that the world is a changed place for both men and women post-Weinstein. It’s only a matter of time before India catches up, and we’re getting there. Women are no longer going to silently tolerate sexism and misogyny in any form. We need to become more aware of how sexism manages to manifest itself into our daily lives, and do everything in our power to make it stop. Internalised misogyny due to conditioning of the way we think is a huge culprit, and it is going to take a long, long time before women are treated as equals, but we need to make a start, and the Jaipur Literature Festival is as good a starting point as any.
The goal of the festival should be to be a safe space for people of any gender, race, or religion, to be inclusive, to not only be tolerant but also accepting, to be what people expect it to be. The powerful female writers, filmmakers, and journalists in this year’s line-up of speakers was a great way to start, and the several discussions that were had about the issue of gender equality and feminism at the festival were a huge step forward for our country. Clearly, more men are starting to understand and support the feminist movement, and that is progress. Bee Rowlatt ended the closing debate at the Jaipur Literature Festival with a quote by Mary Wollstonecraft that seems quite fitting:
“I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves.”