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Other Articles of the Series
PART I Half of india doesn’t even have access to the judiciary. what do courts mean to them?
PART II Regulation is my favourite word. It scares Pepsi and Coke
PART III The next truly imaginative thinker will be a woman
PART IV I don’t want to live in a society where one-third of the people go to bed hungry
PART V Our constitution limits our right to religious freedom. Secularists forget that
PART VI Feminism in India has no integrity. You can’t trust it
PART VII All the news we get is killing and getting killed

'Feminism in India has no integrity. You can’t trust it'

Madhu Kishwar is a fearless and provocative thinker, unafraid to ride againt the wave. In part 6 of the Tehelka series on public intellectuals, she discusses her controversial positions on dowry, sati, the family and feminism with Shoma Chaudhury

You were a pioneer. But you are seen to have taken a very divergent route, of having moved away from your own ideas to arrive at some problematic positions on dowry, sati, etc.

The funny thing is my views have not become different. When I started Manushi, the people who now express outrage at my supposed non-feminist stands attacked me then for being a feminist and for being anti-men. As Miranda House president I ran a campaign against the college beauty contest. Leading feminists of India today fought for the beauty contest. They thought it was a glorious symbol of liberated womanhood. Then they went abroad and realised beauty contests were not fashionable and came back with ultra feminist ideas. There were others who attacked me for being a bourgeois feminist — these were the ones who’d turned leftist after going to Columbia and Cambridge. Others called me a radical feminist who was teaching women to become lesbians and rape each other. (Laughing) All this simultaneously. But right from the beginning, I’ve been very averse to label warfare. I found my freedom by saying I’m not a feminist. I’m not any ‘ist’. Isms work like an aids virus on your brain. You don’t evaluate issues on merits. You brush inconvenient facts under the carpet because everything must fit into this very neat ideological framework. Even before I disowned the label publicly by writing my most controversial essay — Why I’m Not A Feminist — I never used the feminism mantra to prove my bonafides. I believe your politics has to be pro people, pro women — and you have to demonstrate this concretely.

What is your position on sati?

The whole discourse on sati is so colonial minded, I’m appalled people don’t give up bad habits. Firstly, take the word sati. Its literal translation is one who is so possessed by ‘sat’ (the spirit of truth), her body self ignites. Such a case might happen once in a thousand years. For even the most conservative and rabid Hindu, it does not mean a woman dragged and thrown into her husband’s pyre by force or fraud. There are five mahasatis in the mythological tradition — Draupadi, Kunti, Mandodari, Sita, Tara — none of them burnt on their husband’s pyres. So what I say is this: if you are saying a Roop Kanwar or Charan Shah was dragged on to their husband’s pyre — it’s murder, why call it sati? The British made that mistake; Ram Mohun Roy made that mistake. If a woman jumps into the pyre without provocation, it’s suicide. But Romeo and Juliet’s suicide for each other evokes awe, and it remains one of the most celebrated love stories of all time. Why resent the same thing in Indian people? Learn to distinguish between crime and culture. Murder is a crime. If it’s suicide — especially if there’s no fanfare like in the case of Charan Shah, the 55-year old widow who jumped into the pyre after everyone had left — you can feel sorry she was so depressed. But her poor family didn’t even know she’d jumped in. They were so poor they couldn’t afford his TB treatment. None of these feminists were there when this woman was nursing him. But at his death, they agitate to get her whole family and village arrested! This colonial minded aggression of the elite against the poor — they don’t dare do that when Natwar Singh’s daughter-in-law jumps to her death, god knows under what circumstance. No feminist dared to yell and scream there —

What about the glorification of these deaths?

Glorification shouldn’t happen, but you can’t prevent people from glorifying. Look at Princess Diana, the most stupid woman in the history of womankind, who flung herself at the most worthless men in the world — she’s glorified by the British people. Should I send them to jail? People glorify the Kali-Chandi roop of the Devi. I hate blood and gore, should I send them to jail? The beauty of traditional society in India is that it allows you to worship women in diverse manifestations. You can pick and choose your own role models. Why do feminists assume the right to tell people, don’t worship Sita because she’s not a feminist favourite, don’t worship Radha because she’s besotted by male love. Worship only the ferocious versions of the goddess. Venerating a sati sthal doesn’t lead to women jumping on pyres. How many satis have there been — 40 or 50 in the last 60 years? Many more gruesome deaths happen for other causes. The women’s movement is so fascist minded, the need to fall in line is so intense, I feel choked. You can’t speak the truth: they want lies. I say a large part of feminist reports are half lies and exaggerated falsifications.

For many feminists, getting along with a mother-in-law, or even having a happy marriage is a sign of mental slavery! I was repelled by this insistence on joyless, confrontational living

You have unpopular arguments against the Domestic Violence Bill and dowry laws.

Firstly, I say laws must reflect social consensus. Secondly, they must work like small, judicious antibiotic doses. Targeted at specific points of infection and never overused. Antibiotics can’t become food substitutes. Thirdly, anyone imposing a law must prove the law can work. Workability and acceptance, these are very important.

When I believed dowry needed to be abolished, I took a vow that I wouldn’t go for any dowry wedding. For 13 years, I didn’t attend a single wedding because no wedding qualified. Feminist friends, lawyers, ias officers, mps, everyone exchanged elaborate gifts. That’s when I realized the real issue here was that women had no inheritance rights, daughters are not treated as equal members viz. family property. I was again accused of bourgeoise feminism by feminists who themselves would not part with ten rupees. What I say is, if you will not live by your own ideas, how dare you presume to legislate for one billion and a half people? You have no moral right! Morning shout slogans outside other people’s homes, evening wear your kanjeevarams and go…

But hasn’t the debate created deterrence?

Has dowry decreased? It has spread horizontally to groups that never practiced it before. Communities that were bride price paying till the last generation are today practicing dowry. What is the point of this wonderful awareness? I don’t like the form and shape dowry has taken. It is a caricature. I still stand for stree dhan: the inalienable property given to a woman at the time of her marriage. A share of property no one could touch, not even her husband. From there we have moved to groom price. It is no longer anything to do with a daughter’s perceived share. So what I’m saying is restore women’s inheritance rights. Not draconian laws that can be abused.

Feminists are only sensitive to a woman in the role of a young bride. In every other role — a mother-in-law, sister-in-law, bhabi — we think of her as a tormentor. Where does this conception come from? We have to focus on strengthening bonds within the family.

How do you do that? Those are private spaces.

If your idea of a family is only the western nuclear Americanised family where everybody else is a nuisance — well then you can’t. The strength of our culture lies in strong family and community roots. You can’t strengthen women’s rights by breaking down the family.

Don’t joint families impinge on individuals?

You need to sort that out. I’m not for oppressive families. In a traditional Hindu joint family, every member had an inalienable right to the property. This made women secure. As for adjustment, that’s a process of give and take. You adjust with everyone. Bosses, colleagues, neighbours. Yet, working out healthy equations with family has somehow become a sign of mental slavery. A child who lives in a joint family deals with a range of people from 85 years to eight months every day. What else is eq? What else is human skill learning? But for many feminists, getting along with a mother-in-law, or even having a happy marriage is a sign of slavery! That’s where my emotional break with the movement came from. This insistence on joyless, confrontational living. The least you owe to yourself is to have lives that other people can look at and envy! Feminism is inviting such disdain and backlash in India because it lacks both fighting power and integrity. In the west at least, women fought bitter battles. Here, men led the way. The Gandhis, the Phules. I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that.

Your are now intensely focused on street vendors. Where do you stand on issues of liberalisation and globalisation?

I’ve never been what I call a compulsive womaniser! Right from the start, we’ve had a commitment to tribals, dalits, the farm sector. So in 1991, when economic reforms were adopted in India, I was shocked to find that those who claimed to be pro-poor turned anti reforms. As if de-statising, de-bureaucratising the Indian economy is quintessentially anti-poor. I think in this sector Manushi was the only organization who stood firmly to say the poor need economic reforms far more urgently than the rich, that we need a bottom up approach to liberalisation. For the poor, it is a life and death issue; for them corruption routinely takes the form of human rights abuses — beatings, extortion, violence, terror. We made a film on the street vendor and cycle rickshaw sectors. Our work showed in Delhi alone, these two groups of self employed poor pay at least 50 crore per month by way of bribes. In addition there are beatings, harassment, confiscation of goods, jails. So began the whole campaign.

The policies of the government against vendors is bizarre! They stipulate the numbers allowed, then they don’t issue licenses for 5-10 years. We said, let the market dictate the number of vendors. And if you are prejudiced against their hygiene, we will create a model to show how they can be accommodated into the economy of a city. Finally we were given 159 vendors in Sewa Nagar and we have created the first completely bribe free zone; stalls, toilets, public spaces all made by the vendors themselves. We’ve gone through hell - but we’ve done it. We will soon be ready to make it public. Then I think there will be a real ground swell.


Dec 31 , 2005

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