India's Battle Against Sexual Violence Gathers Steam

by Bidita Debnath on  January 20, 2014 at 12:27 AM Lifestyle News
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Veteran US feminist Gloria Steinem says that India has a new intolerance to violence against women sparked by the fatal gang-rape of a student in Delhi but the deeply patriarchal nation still has a long way to go to overcome injustice.
 India's Battle Against Sexual Violence Gathers Steam
India's Battle Against Sexual Violence Gathers Steam

The brutal attack in December 2012, which touched a raw nerve in the country and sparked mass public protests, "lit a match to the movement opposing violence against women", Steinem told AFP.

"People found their voice," she says, referring to the seething public anger over the death of the 23-year-old, which prompted parliament to toughen laws against rapists and other offenders.

"It's heartening, but there's a long way to go," Steinem cautions, referring to the battle to overcome sexual injustice entrenched through India's ancient caste system, religious beliefs and ideas of female "honour".

Stark evidence of the problems India faces was provided last week with the gang-rape of a 51-year-old Danish woman in the capital -- the latest incident to shine a spotlight on the country's record of sexual violence.

Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine in 1972, which became a powerful voice for the women's movement in the West, is in India to headline Asia's biggest literary festival, which began on Friday in the city of Jaipur.

The American, who is nearly 80 and has spent a lifetime fighting gender injustice, first came to India on a fellowship in the 1950s.

Her Indian experience -- studying land reform -- taught her "there's no grass without roots" and that "change is wrought by people on the ground".

Crucial to change, she says, "is developing a consciousness and getting a critical mass to believe in it. That's what I think is happening here".

Steinem, who hit fame in 1963 when she wrote an expose on life as a Playboy Bunny, is attending the Jaipur festival to talk about her new essay anthology bearing the tongue-in-cheek title "As If Women Matter".

Today's women 'more feminist'

She insists during the interview in New Delhi that younger women are "more feminist" than her generation and have better "bullshit detectors" in spotting injustice.

After years of writing about and railing against inequality, what angers her most is when people say the world has entered "a post-feminist era".

"I say: 'Are you blind? Can't you see we still don't have equal pay for equal work?'"

"When you look in the power closets (corporate offices) the occupants are mainly men," she adds.

And she rejects the notion that women can have it all -- marriage, career and children.

"No way," says Steinem. "That means we women do it all. We can't be superwomen. We've got to come up with better family-friendly work situations."

"Of course, we've made a lot of progress," she adds, saying she believes former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a fair shot at becoming the first female president in US history if she runs.

"People saw her every day as Secretary of State, they got used to her in a position of power. Making her president would not be such a big jump in their minds."

Steinem had a tough childhood -- her mother suffered from depression, which meant she became her carer at 10 after her parents split. But later she won entrance to the prestigious Smith College in New England.

Reflecting on her early years as a feminist, she confessed she was "naive".

"I thought injustices against women are just so great -- if we just explain them to people, they'll get rid of them. I was wrong. It's been much slower progress," she said.

Regularly lampooned as a "feminazi" by conservative US talkshow host Rush Limbaugh, Steinem says she understands why some women shy away from describing themselves as "feminists" because it's a word "mocked by men".

Steinem, who turns 80 in March -- "I feel like a Russian doll with my 20-year-old self inside" -- remains feisty and funny and remarkably youthful, which she attributes to yoga and keeping perpetually busy.

How does she plan to celebrate her 80th birthday? "I?m going to ride elephants in Botswana!" she says gleefully.

Source: AFP

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