Gender Equality in Our Lifetime?

Charlotte, 26 May 2013. Outside the conference room, S. Hiremath greeted me and said, “Congratulations to you and Sunita and the others for that session on gender issues. The way people spoke up and shared their experiences, I did not think I would see it in my lifetime! Really, hats off! How long can women endure this injustice in silence?”

The Survey, the Skit, the Session and the Silence
AID Conference 2013 at Charlotte, North Carolina

Daughter reads _The Art of Freedom_

The Survey

In January, the AID Publications team sent out a survey on gender issues. More than 100 volunteers responded to the survey, and many conversations followed. Some of these are reflected in the recent newsletter aka KoolAid:

Gender Issues Timeline
My Story
A String of Jasmine
Whose Name is it Anyway?
You Said What?

While the publications team worked on the newsletter, another group planned a conference session on gender issues. Some of the questions in the survey concerned experiences with sexism, harassment or assault, and the personal stories that volunteers shared in response to those questions were printed out and displayed on two bulletin boards in the front of the conference hall.

The Skit

To bring some of the issues to the fore, volunteers also presented a skit called ”December Revolution” written by Sonika with inputs from others and performed by Asti, Archana, Dushyant, Sonika, Pavan and Aravinda, with Dr. Ilina Sen serving as the narrator and with Pranhita and Debolina joining in afterwards to lead the song, Tod Tod Ke Bandhanon.

December Revolution begins at home.

December Revolution begins at home.

Synopsis: After seeing the news of the protests in Delhi following the rape of a young woman, a family discusses the issues of women’s roles and rights in society. A chance encounter shifts their discussion from general ideas to the specific experiences in the family, galvanizing all of them to take a stand along with the protestors.

The Session

Following the skit Aparna, Asti, Sonika and Aravinda facilitated a discussion among the volunteers – first hearing responses to the skit and also relating the issues to our own personal experiences. Though the characters and experiences portrayed in the skit may not all be found in a single family, salient features were drawn from real life experiences and observations of one or another member.

Some volunteers spoke about the difficulty of dealing with gender bias and harassment, both within the family and in public places. Asti asked for a show of hands from anyone who had been sexually assaulted. Many raised their hands and one woman shared her experience of being molested on a bus. She felt angry not only about having experienced this violence but for having to carry it silently, ashamed to talk about it as if she had done something wrong or should have done something different. A recent article “I Was Groped on the Subway” sums up what goes on the mind during and after an incident like this, including the haunting question, “why didn’t you fight back?”

Though it is painful to bring back these memories and speak them aloud, people felt the need to bring these issues out in the open forums like this. Sometimes we may think our experiences were not as severe as the violent incidences that make the headlines, and even feel it is easier to keep silent.

But it is important to release ourselves from the burden of carrying them and when we acknowledge them it also deepens our solidarity with others, regardless of the degree of severity.

The issue of dowry once again reared its head, as a woman shared an experience in her own family related to dowry demand. Sunita called upon all the men in the room to take a pledge never to give or take dowry. Following that pledge, Aparna led the entire group in taking a pledge to oppose all forms of discrimination.

Some raised the point that dowry was a way of giving a daughter her share. In response, the question arose, why would the question of dividing the property arise while the parents are alive? Another point that came up is the structure of the family itself, and how sons and daughters are considered part of the family – the son being an integral member of the family for his entire life, regardless of his marital status. In contrast, the daughter’s role is affected by her marital status, and this is reflected in the concept of “giving her share” at the time of marriage.

Furthermore, the pressure on women to marry impacts their ability to challenge a tradition like dowry. One woman rose and said, that given the falling ratio of women in society, she would likely have the upper hand in marital negotiations, as more than 10% of men would be unable to marry (women). We noted that both men and women had other options, including same-sex marriage as well as remaining unmarried.

We also noted that although we had focussed on violence against women, the problem also affects men, who perhaps have even fewer avenues to seek support, and also children, both boys and girls who experience the fear of speaking out at multiple levels. While most of the personal experiences posted on the bulletin board came from women, one women had shared that her husband had faced molestation as a child.

The Silence

Later in the night volunteers talked again about gender issues and how difficult is it to talk about our personal experiences and struggles.

In the morning when Neela from Boston had stood and told everyone about her work attending a crisis hotline for with women facing problems of domestic violence and sexual assault, I recalled brief conversations I had had during the two days of the conference. A volunteer approached me and said he was touched by the article “A String of Jasmine” because he had seen his mother go through the pain of discrimination when his father passed away. I could tell that he had felt this pain and perhaps not told anyone about it. Another volunteer called me to the bulletin board where the personal stories had been printed out and pointed out to me which one was hers. A third volunteer told me that he was aware that his sister had been groped at some time in the past but he had not ever brought it up with her and did not know if he should. On the one hand, it will be an opportunity to break the silence rather than carry the pain alone for so many years. On the other hand it is painful to relive those experiences and one coping mechanism is to pretend they do not exist. I really don’t know what is better but I could tell from these short conversations that there are more crises going on that can ever be reported to the crisis hotline.

Could all of serve as a kind of crisis hotline, to create safe and supportive spaces like the one that came about at the conference? If people who have been carrying around these painful experiences can share them then then that would neutralize the weapon of shame that is so often used to silence those who would otherwise speak out against sexism, sexual violence and oppression. Though many of us keep these experiences buried and almost forget about them, others carry the burden silently and never know how much it weighs upon them till they speak out and feel the sense of relief and acknowledgement. (This reminded me of an article Kavita Krishnan wrote about her mother’s experience with a stalker, which she never reported to the police: Stalking, Delhi Police and Memory – Another Encounter.)

With this in mind, some volunteers thought of having gender sessions at the chapter level, creating a space of trust for people to speak and share their experiences, struggles and success stories of overcoming unfair, oppressive or violent situations.

What progress on gender issues can we hope to see in our lifetimes?


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