The Fear of Fundamentalisms
by Anasuya Sengupta
My day (and sometimes night) job is working with police officers in India on issues of violence against women and children; I coordinate a UNICEF partnership with the Karnataka State Police. One of the most critical aspects of this work is, as Anindita so succinctly described elsewhere on this blog, analysing the impact of our socially entrenched gender-based norms. The lack of value for our girl children – and if they’re lucky, for the women they grow up to be – has meant that we have lost, in our female population, the size of a small to middling European country.
But this post is not about genderocide. It is about that and more. It is about asking our governments – particularly the all powerful G8 – that in this context of ‘terrorism’, of an almost universal culture of production and consumption around ‘fear’ and ‘mistrust’, they analyse honestly and courageously their own contributions to a growing set of fundamentalisms: economic, religious, cultural, social and sexual. Women (and children) are often hit hardest by these fundamentalisms.
Identities are complex; we acknowledge that readily but seem willing to sacrifice that complexity for simplified categorisations and easy classification. More than ever, our language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ divides us over and over again, in the conversations we have, the advertisements we watch, the TV series we devour. And our politicians, our priests, our ulemas, our leaders – those who claim to represent us in all our complexity – speak the language of divisions, of fissures, best of all.
A young Muslim friend of mine lives in Gujarat, India. She explores, every day, what it means to be a woman, a Muslim, a young person, an artist, in the maelstrom of fundamentalism that is the Gujarat of today. She struggles with what it means to be a citizen: either of this country or of the globalised world. What does citizenship mean if you live constantly in the shadow of fear? Not just the fear of physical abuse, but worse still, the violence attached to labels? For her, wearing the hijaab is both an act of courage and a unintended performance: she is just never quite sure of her audience or its response.
There is complexity in hate-mongering too. In India, as possibly elsewhere, it seems as though the language of ‘empowerment’ for women has been claimed and reconstructed to mean ‘power’ rather than ‘dignity’ or ‘equality’ or ‘pluralism’. Not all our women politicians are feminist, and not all our fundamentalists are male.
These are not only issues of government. But they are issues for governments; our states are contributing, in no small measure, to these voices of fundamentalisms, of alienation. And worse still: sometimes it is they who create the vocabulary.
Anasuya Sengupta works on issues of gender justice in Karnataka, India. She blogs at Gladly Beyond Any Distance.
Picture via FlickR
Sexual and reproductive rights in South Korea
by Aurelie Placais – journalism student in China
Being a foreign student in China where 70% of the international students are South Korean, I have learnt some very interesting details about South Korea ; especially concerning sexual and reproductive rights in this developed country.
The first questions I asked were really simple to me, but the answers I got were quite surprising. Amongst the topics that come on the table, the conception of the wedding came first.
For the majority of the older generation, the arranged marriage was the norm. No matter if the married couple loved each other, they had to come from the same social background and it was usually chosen when they were only children. “My husband’s mother got married at 18 years old, she didn’t choose her husband and didn’t know if they would like each other; they never did and she has suffered a lot”; told me Jin Ya, a married woman in her 30’s with two children.
For the new generation things have changed, but not incredibly so: tradition is still a very heavy burden where marriage is controlled by the parents. If they don’t agree with their children’s choice, the wedding won’t happen. They also consider that there should be no sexual relation before marriage, let alone unmarried couple living together or having children. When I pop up the question, Han sounded so astonished: “of course your parents won’t agree if you live together before getting married! Maybe some people do so now, but it is a secret, they wouldn’t tell anyone.” She is 22 and has been with her boyfriend for two years now. He came to China with her and they want to get married but even thousand miles away from their parents, they don’t dare living together.
When it comes to sexual relations, things are a bit different. Although their parents would not tolerate it, most young students already had experienced it. Most of them already had several boyfriends and had sex with some of them. According to Han this evolution was made possible by the television that broadcasts series showing examples of young unmarried couple having sex: “it is very easy to know that you can do it and how to do it”.
I then asked for the contraception they usually use and this is where I was surprised: condoms are not easy to ask for in the pharmacy, birth control pills are “dangerous for the health” and they don’t trust them and last but not least they did not know if abortion was legal or not. Of course they cannot ask this kind of questions to their parents: “it’s very difficult to talk about this problem, we can only talk with our closest friends, and the information is so hard to get” told me Kim and Yu. Even at school, they don’t have any any available information.
Officially, abortion is legally permitted but only up to the eighth week of gestation, and only in cases of transmitted or genetically diseases, incest, rape or when the health of the mother is at great risk. However, abortion is routinely used as a form of contraception. Between 1.5 and 2 million abortions are performed annually; it is the second highest number of abortions in the world. That may explains why the women I asked didn’t know if it was legal or not. Legislation is disconnected from reality.
It is true that the other means of contraception are not as well spread as they should be, and some efforts to teach women about safe sex, condoms, pills and other birth control methods have to be made – especially since information on sexually transmitted diseases is lacking.
But more importantly, eighty percent of abortions are done for gender-selection purposes – to abort female fetuses:
Many women in South Korea are torn between demands of age-old social tradition that obligates them to bear sons and growing appreciation of females in Korean Society; approximately one of every 12 fetuses is aborted each year because of its sex (NY Times, reg. req).
South Korea indeed shares the same catastrophe as India and China: according to their tradition, women are better off giving birth to boys, and abortion is a very discrete way to get rid of unwanted female foetus. Currently being the opposite of what it is supposed to be, abortion is not a way to emancipate women and to give them the choice to decide by themselves wether or not they want to give birth; it is a way to perpetuate masculine domination through the control of the child’s sex.
TALKIN' 'BOUT A REVOLUTION – A FEMINIST LOOK AT CLIMATE CHANGE
by Mona Bricke - G8 NGO Platform Coordinator - who works with the German NGO Forum on Environment and Development and is member of Genanet (Gender, Environment, Sustainability)
Everybody is talking about Climate Change. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is no exception with her decision to make it the number one priority at this year’s G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. Since the Stern Report has made it clear that there is a slim margin of only a few years to address a host of pressing issues such as global warming and the ensuing increasingly catastrophic weather conditions, melting of the polar caps and rising sea levels, even tabloids such as the German „Bildzeitung“, not formerly known to be the avant guard of progressive thinking, are painting alarming pictures of a world-wide climate catastrophe in their headlines.
Heads of state and of business have suddenly awoken to a threat that has been building up for decades. It is not as if climate change were a new problem: the scientific community has been making dire predictions about climate change for a long time, with only a few environmentalists heeding them. What seems to have awoken the powers that be is the threat climate change poses to the world economy. Suddenly, insurance companies are siding with environmentalists and UN-commissions in a bid to limit the global increase in temperature to two degrees Celsius through binding emmissions reductions on the part of industrialised countries.
This can, of course, be seen as a good thing. One might argue that only if the outcry about climate change reaches the highest national and international levels, will true changes happen. But as a feminist I am keeping a wary eye on these new-formed coalitions. Are they truly going to address what is needed: a crucial turning around of the political agenda instead of the adjustments we are witnessing at the moment, such as emmissions reductions and efforts towards „adaptation to climate change“, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is a sop offered to developing countries, as they and their poorest inhabitants (still overwhelmingly women and children), are the ones who will bear the brunt of climate change. I don’t want to be misunderstood here: adaptation is important, in order to keep millions of people from dying in floods and droughts during the difficult decades we are facing. But it is not enough by far!
We need to start thinking outside the box, if we really want to change the world in a way that will make it livable for all, not only for those who can buy themselves protection from the consequences of climate change. If we muddle on like we have been doing, adjusting one thing here, tweaking another there, there will be no systemic change towards a sustainable lifestyle for all. And here is where I see a feminist agenda as crucial: feminists throughout the centuries and especially since the eighties of the 20th century have fought for a sustainable lifestyle and for an economic and political system based on solidarity instead of what it is based on at the moment: the neoliberal dogma of economic growth and privatisation at whatever costs to humanity and future generations.
The political and economic system we are living in and working with now is blind: blind to injustice, blind to the welfare of the underprivileged and, most esentially, there is no place in it for taking the future into account – it cannot, because putting economic gain before all other considerations is innate in the system. The whole world, even up to the air we are breathing (emmission certificates) and the information we are sharing (intellectual property rights) is being turned into commodities. Some, like the German Ministry for the Environment, present this as a step forward, because only what has a price can be protected within a market economy (or capitalism, to use the oldfashioned term).
Why do we accept this? Why is there so little talk of a true revolution, an energy revolution and a social revolution in the best sense – a turning of the tide, another world? Because we have been suckered into believing that there is no alternative to the neoliberal dogma of the supremacy of market forces. Most nongovernmental organisations no longer dare to think outside the box. Many think that, as Communism and Socialism are dead, there is no use in thinking about alternatives as we are seemingly living in the best of all possible worlds, as imperfect as it may be.
So what to do, if we decide not to accept this? Where can we go from here? We are facing a crisis of immense dimensions and we have to begin at the beginning: What social movements, radical environmentalists and feminists all over the world are trying to do is to rethink the relationship between human beings and nature and amongst each other. How do we change our consumer patterns in order to reach a just worldwide distribution of energy, power, money and goods? Raw materials and energy have always come at a high price to the producing countries and the poor in developing countries. They have payed for the extremely energy intensive lifestyle in industrialised countries with wages that were not enough to live on, ecological devastation of their countries and now, with the consequences of climate change, they are paying double.
It may be that a radical shift away from centralised sources of energy such as oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy towards sustainable and decentralised sources such as renewables (wind, solar energy, water) will lead to the paradigmatic shift I am hoping for. Incidentally, this shift would also favour women in developing countries, as energy sources such as windmills and solar panels strengthen their participation in decision making and ownership. Our world economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, so much so that wars like the one in Iraq are being fought in order to gain or maintain control of certain areas with a wealth of fossil fuels.
But even this shift away from fossil fuels may not be enough to assure the necessary structural changes. Maybe, just as I am sure that we have to decentralise energy production, we also need to decentralise our thinking: the kind of revolution I am talking about may have to be a gradual revolution, which begins at many points at once, be it a the protests against this year’s meeting of the G8 in Heiligendamm, be it with the budding women’s movements in Africa I witnessed at the World Social Forum in Nairobi in January of this year.
I want to close with the adage of the Mexican Zapatistas: „We learn while we are walking“. What we need, is the courage to make this true – to never stop believing that another, a just and equitable world is possible and that we have to go on striving for it, even though we may not yet know exactly when we are going to arrive there and what this new world is going to look like. After all, what have we got to lose? If we do nothing, we are truly doomed, so the only way out is forward.
For information on G8-activities and protests click here
Stop India’s Gender Cleansing
by Anindita Sengupta, freelance journalist and writer, India
There are plenty of murmurs but not enough people are talking about it. Something deeply horrifying is happening in India: Gender Cleansing. India is systematically wiping out her female population. This is not an exaggeration. This is not a joke. I am not being clever. According to a 2006 UNICEF report, 80% of India’s districts have recorded declining child sex ratios since 1991. Thousands of girl-children are killed before or at birth. The all-India sex ratio is 927 girls for 1,000 boys, which puts the country right at the bottom of the global charts, worse off than countries like Nigeria (965) and neighbour
Gita Aravamudan whose book Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide has just been published talks in her book about how our hugely skewed sex ratio is due to advanced pre-natal diagnostic techniques. But the real revelation is that educated people are more likely to kill their female fetuses, not less. According to Aravamudan, two generations of girls in India have already been murdered in the womb. This is not “family planning”. This is organized genocide, aided and abetted by sophisticated medical technology.
“The only women likely to keep their daughters are the truly independent-minded women, not just the financially independent”, she told me over coffee when we met to discuss the book. “Often women have abortion after abortion, even when they don’t want to” she said, recounting her meetings with women in different parts of the country. Mostly, this is because of pressure from the husband and in-laws. Women are scared of facing anger at home. They are scared of being thrown out of their houses. They are tired, defeated and trapped by the need to retain a modicum of peace in their domestic lives. It is tragic that in a country where God is often female, there is no place for girls in the home. Dowry is a large part of the problem, but so are issues of lineage, family name, inheritance, social attitudes towards women and the deeply ingrained belief that women are inferior.
“This is genocide. This is gender cleansing. There is no doubt about it,” said Donna Fernandez of Vimochana, an organization that works against violence against women, and a stalwart of the women’s rights movement in India. Fernandez believes that we need to begin by referring to it truthfully instead of euphemizing the problem. This does seem a necessary first step—to accept the magnitude of the problem and find the words that will adequately express the tragedy, evoke the horror and the devastation. This is as bad, or worse, than any holocaust that humankind has known. Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why aren’t world leaders declaiming it? Why isn’t there visible the shock, the fury, the sadness that usually accompanies any mass murder? Why is it important only to a handful of academics and development workers?
India needs to be taught, encouraged, cajoled, coaxed and, if necessary, compelled to value its women. It is imperative that we the Indian woman’s self esteem, her strength, her ability to feel safe, to live, to thrive is built. Every tool we have at our disposal—art, entertainment, popular television, media, religion, spirituality, law, policy and education must be marshaled to say just this: the woman is important. She is necessary. Value her.
India must be stopped from killing her women.
Anindita Sengupta is a freelance journalist and writer in Bangalore, India, and blogs at Noah’s Ark Broken.
Women and Access to Technology
by Veena Hassan, Human Institutional Development Forum (HIDF) in Bangalore, India
It is rather a coincidence that I have been thinking about women and technology from past few days. Actually, the process began with filter paper for making coffee. Here in India, we were using a piece of cotton cloth specially kept for filtering coffee. Later came the percolator and the most popular metal filters. The metal filters, manual or electrical are a kind of permanent(or at least for a decade!) investment. After the use it is cleaned and kept ready for the next use.
Recently, I discovered that there are filter papers available for the same purpose. In this filtering is faster and washing is much much less. But every time I make coffee, I shall be throwing away a piece of paper without being able to contribute towards growing trees in any way.
This led me to thinking how do we arrive at technology for women? (Coffee making is not an exclusive technology for women!). I believe that how do we percieve physical action and mental activites guides our invention or for a lay person, selection of particular tecnology. The attempt here is to arrive at a balance. Balance between the body and the mind.
From times immemorial, housework has been mostly a women’s domain. A spere where most of the “reproductive” activites are carried out. First of all these reproductive activities were called “drudgery.” This definition, according to me has largely misled our approach to technology that is so-called related to women.
Reproduction as in procreation has been the essence of human existence on this earth. So are other reproductive activities. The question here is that how can an essential activity be termed as drudgery? As I have to use more and more of electrical appliances in the kitchen like mixer grinder, I am getting more and more nostalgic about how much I enjoyed grinding in the stone! Use of electrical appliances especially in the kitchen in the beginning used to be a matter of choice. With increased demand for physical space, increased importance for the activities that bring returns in financial terms, and the lifestyle resulting from it, there is no choice, it is inevitable!
As I am I writing the above lines, another thought crosses my mind. Haven’t women moved out of the kitchen long ago? Does technology for women essentially mean kitchen appliances? The anwer is ‘yes’ to the first question with a slight correction. Women who have moved out of the kitchen are very few. But most women if not all have moved out along with/despite kitchen. So how do we consider the entire topic of “women and technology” matters most.
Women handloom workers facing the brunt of economic reforms in India
by D. Narasimha Reddy, Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy
Note: One of the points high up on Angela Merkel’s agenda is the development of three-way economic partnerships between G8 countries, African countries and ‘emerging economies’ like Brazil, China and India. Is this a good idea? Here, Narasimha Reddy from the pioneering Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy in India describes how this unique woman-dominated industry is affected by globalisation, liberalisation and economic reforms, adverse government policies and discriminatory competition…
The handloom sector is unique in India. It has been the most popular manufacturing sector in the previous centuries, and has been the mainstay of rural industrialisation in India. Handloom sector has been catering to the clothing needs of India, and various other countries for centuries altogether. Modern textile industry has grown on this sector, through mechanization and modernization. However, the most modern industry follows the principles of weaving set by the traditional handloom weaver. Unlike any other industrial endeavour, handloom sector still continues alongside the most modern textile machinery.
There are number of factors that have contributed to such resilience. Principal among them is that the weaving is household profession, passed on through generations. In these households, women play an important role. Women weavers have been the principal stabilisation force through years of crises and problems for the handloom sector.
The handloom sector is only the manufacturing sector wherein one finds large number of women producing products which are worn by large number of women. Women producing for women is a unique feature of the handloom sector.
Despite such features, which are outwardly unique, women weavers were never given the primacy they require. Their role in production was never acknowledged beyond the confines of the home. Their work most often went unpaid. Governments never recognised formally as a target group. Even the private initiatives of NGOs, or fashion boutiques, tend to ignore their contribution and role. The most radical to rightist political mobilization structures in handloom sector are devoid of any issues and participation of women. Women participation in political mobilization is completely nil.
Women constitute a major workforce in the handloom sector. Also, most of the handloom products are meant for women. Thus, handloom sector is the unique sector, wherein 60 percent of the women produce almost 70 percent of women products. However, their working, living and wage conditions need to be improved. They need to be empowered in various ways. Almost all the government schemes, projects and programmes on handloom sector have been and continue to bypass this major workforce through various means. They do not have identity cards, which are the principal means through which government welfare measures are sought to be implemented. There is no scheme, or project, or programme which addresses their needs.
Women weavers have been subject to domestic violence and victims of violence in many places. They have also been at the receiving end of discrimination of all types. Whenever handloom sector is in crisis, the burden of carrying through the crisis is the most on women weavers, through increase in physical, psychological and social pressures. Their health condition is a major concern, as also their role in relations of production and also the future of girl children. While performing critical functions in production, their role in decision-making is rather poor.