‘If the shoe doesn't fit, must we change the foot?’
Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and editor, is a most uncommon woman. An untiring activist for women’s rights, a ceaseless campaigner for social justice, this poster girl of the feminist movement and the ‘It’ girl of the 1960s has mellowed into a seasoned yet influential writer and thinker. However, over a career spanning five decades she has remained steadfastly non-traditional, always thinking outside the box, consistently refusing to conform. Co-founder of New York Magazine and Ms, she has been a prodigiously prolific writer and speaker, drawing attention to issues of race, sex, ethnicity, conflict and abuse in its many forms; but her prism for viewing the world has remained a feminist one. On a recent visit to New Delhi, to deliver a lecture on ‘Feminist Approaches to Combatting Sex Trafficking and Prostitution’ organised by a women’s self-help group called Apne Aap, she spoke to Rakhshanda Jalil about the compulsions and contradictions of the feminist movement today.
Feminism today is a house divided. Feminists are clashing and disagreeing on most issues that face those who are campaigning for equal rights. These disagreements occasionally seem like a generational gap, but sometimes they appear as a clash between academics and activists, or between liberals and radicals. What do you make of these differences?
That hasn't been my experience. On the contrary, there is probably more agreement within the global women's movements than in other global movements. For instance, women may want to give birth or limit birth, but they join forces for reproductive freedom as a human right that's at least as important as freedom of speech. After all, whether women can decide when and if to give birth is the single greatest element in whether we're healthy or not, educated or not, active outside the home or now, and how long we live. There's also a majority shared belief that decisions about our bodies should be made by us and not our governments.
Ending violence against females is also a common cause, whether this means ending honor killings and dowry murders and female genital mutilation and son preference or sexual assault and domestic violence and body imagery that creates eating disorders.
Access to education is a widely-held goal, whether this means literacy or professional schools. So is equality in the media. Also, women in elected and other public decision-making positions is a big common cause, from Congress in Washington, which is way down the world list for female representation, to Liberation Square in Cairo.
As a path to these goals and more, women gather together in small groups to discover shared experience and support each other -- that's as tried and true in the India of SEWA and Apne Aap as it is in the villages along the Zambezi River or teenage activists and healthcare professionals and women executives in New York. We've learned that humans are communal creatures who need to form alternate "families" for support, that someone who's experienced something is probably more expert than the experts, that the personal is political, and that change grows from the ground up like a tree. Women often tell me they're surprised at the similarity of struggles in dealing with male-dominant systems -- even very far away.
Maybe language differences need bridging. For instance, academics may say "agency" and "discourse" when they just mean free will and talking. I'm always threatening to put a sign on the road to Yale or Harvard that says, "Beware! De-construction ahead!" But just as we ask physicians to describe our health options in words we can understand, activists can ask academics to make their work actionable; otherwise it won't get off the page and into real life -- which is also what academics want. And academics are giving us the huge gift of our history, learning from the past, less reinventing the wheel.
One major point of conflict among feminists appears to be on the issue of sex trafficking and prostitution. While one group is clamouring for legalisation of sexual labour and unionisation of sex workers, another set believes legalisation. What is your view?
We've mostly passed the polarization into "criminalization" versus "legalization." I don't know any feminist groups that want to arrest the women or men -- and certainly not the children -- who perform sex acts for money -- which of course is the surrealistic and unjust punishment that still happens in most of the world. I also don't know any feminist groups that think traffickers who buy, kidnap and deceive human beings into sex slavery shouldn't be arrested.
To state a complex issue in an everyday way: An adult may have the right to sell her or his body, but nobody has the right to sell somebody else's body.
In the U.S., we've also learned a lot from the ten Nevada counties where prostitution is legal -- as it is in, say, Germany. The women's movement had to march to keep the state government from denying welfare, unemployment and other benefits to women who wouldn't take this job -- because it was presented as "work like any other." In Germany, too, legalization turned the government into a procurer -- until there were massive objections. Traffickers also use legalized areas to "break in" new captives with drugs, beatings, the Stockholm Syndrome. In the U.S., the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen; just a little older than in India. Our girls are less likely to have been "sold" because of poverty, but between 70% and 90% of prostituted females have been sexually abused as children, and so often have come to believe they have no other value.
In Amsterdam where legalization was pioneered, the Mayor reports that there's no way to keep out organized crime. Demand for prostitution creates trafficking, and many now regret it. Legalization is what the traffickers want. They put a lot of corrupting cash into lobbying for it, and also hide behind such titles as "peer AIDS educators" or "facilitated migration." Inside the women's movement, I've noticed that household workers are the most worried by efforts to legalize prostitution -- because they feel the most vulnerable if it's "a job like any other". Body invasion plus the exchange of bodily fluids makes it a job unlike any other. In South Africa, I met village women who compared prostitution to selling organs in order to survive, but then changed their minds after many body invasions a day.
But at least now, we know what works: de-criminalizing the women, men and children, offering them services and real alternatives; prosecuting the traffickers, pimps and brothel owners to the full extent of the law; and educating customers on the realities of the global sex trafficking for which they are the demand. That's what has worked in Sweden and other Nordic countries. They are the only ones in which trafficking has decreased. This approach is also beginning to work in places like Atlanta and Chicago.
Obviously, the long term answer is creating economic alternatives. Where ever there is the most equality between women and men, there is the least prostitution and trafficking. Where ever there are strong race, class and caste hierarchies, prostitution is also greater because so-called "superior" groups of women are sexually restricted, and so-called "inferior" groups of women are sexually exploited.
The really long term answer is Eroticizing Equality -- at least that's now a slogan on T-shirts! Also, young men are more likely to understand that cooperation is pleasurable, domination is not.
It has been a long battle. Looking back, tell us, briefly, what have been the highs and lows?
The highs have been the successful contagions of mutual values and brave actions among diverse women -- and some men, too. The lows have been seeing that majority support for issues doesn't mean they triumph. We don't yet have democracies. Money often trumps majorities, and religions are often patriarchal politics that can't be criticized.
In your memorable ‘Address to the Women of America’ (1971), you had said: ‘Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups…’ Would you not add religion to sex and race as a way of putting people into easy and visible groups? I am asking this question specifically in the context of Islam and the way the West, in particular views Muslims?
Yes, that's often true of religion, but I would still say sex and race -- and often caste and class -- are still different because they are much less likely to be changeable than are our religious beliefs or even our religious identities. There may be huge differences within one religion. Think of the difference of, say, Sufis from much of Islam, or the difference between such Christians as Quakers -- who reject violence and hierarchy -- and fundamentalist Christians who "beat the devil" out of children and even murder abortion doctors.
In the Indian sub-continent, we have had a long history of discrimination against women and the girl child. Activists in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have, in different ways and different degrees, been waging a war against gender-based discrimination. Legislation, no matter how gender-sensitive, can only go so far. What are the other issues in our part of the world –apart from unequal sex – that appear urgent to you? And how best can we tackle them outside the realm of legislation?
I wouldn't attempt to judge which issue is the most important for anyone else; each of us knows what hurts the most. I would just say that inequality in the family normalizes inequality everywhere else, including by caste or class or race or ethnicity. Cults of gender are relatively new in human history -- from 500 to 5000 years old depending on what part of the world you're in -- but that's still less than 5% of human history. They arose gradually with patriarchy and its control of reproduction and the bodies of women.
Sometimes, a reporter will ask me: Aren't you interested in anything other than the women's movement? I always say: Tell me something? In forty years, no one has ever been able to come up with anything that wasn't transformed by an understanding that human beings are linked, not ranked, and are also linked, not ranked, with nature.
Now that new Doomsday Weapons have coincided with hierarchical beliefs, I think we all wonder if it's too late for us on this Space Ship Earth. But if even one generation of children were born wanted, loved, and raised without hierarchy and violence, I think we have no idea what might be possible.
(My interview with Gloria Steinem appeared in The Herald, Karachi, June 2012)