January 19, 2014

Gloria Steinem and Ruchira Gupta Mesmerize the Jaipur Literary Festival audience, January 2014

Steinem 1Gloria Steinem, whose powerful work has been inspiring feminists across the globe for 50 years, along with Ruchira Gupta, who founded the anti-trafficking organization Aapne Aap, led a session at the Jaipur Literary Festival on January 17and were welcomed by a warm and enthusiastic crowd. I enjoyed how the pomp of the session’s title “The Essential Gloria Steinem” was toned down by the very warm and approachable Steinem immediately clapping for the audience’s presence. Steinem began by saying that the women’s movement was not her, and instead “The women’s movement is wherever we are.” She went on to say the movement is too often put into a silo and instead our challenge is to help people see how ideas of equality are all around us and becoming ever more compelling. She was quick to mention that men’s roles have also been restricted which diminishes their humanity. I also appreciated her reminding the audience that she had walked with followers of Gandhi as a young woman, and that India had been a crucial part of her awakening to non-violent and yet uncompromising activism.

She challenged the audience to judge a country by the treatment of its women, saying that one of the greatest predictors of whether a country will wage war against another nation was the degree of violence experienced by its female citizens. She went on to mourn that “what is toxic in the west is often exported to the east” from pesticide to Playboy bars (about to open in Goa). Both she and Ruchira Gupta are currently focusing on how the violation of women – from verbal slander to physical and sexual abuse – reinforces the tired lie that men can only prove their integrity by dominating another group of people and carrying out brutal actions. This flows over to women and to children, they were quick to point out, as “not all men can get enough submission from another adult and thus they turn” to another vulnerable target. Stressing that “the power of others stops at our skins” and continuing her life-long refrain that “our bodies belong to ourselves,” the speakers went on to talk about Aapne Aap, which is recommending the decriminalization of sex workers along with supplying true alternative work. The organization also seeks to penalize not people engaging in sex work but their customers and to inform these customers precisely how they are complicit in a trafficking system that is now bigger than the illegal drug industry and almost as big as the sale of illegal arms. Gupta announced that France and Sweden have just voted to adopt this kind of model and explained how Aapne Aap was able to convince the Gates Foundation to change a program that ended up focusing more on educating the male consumer of transactional sex than protecting the women who had multiple male partners. From a scholarly perspective I am familiar with disagreements between those who favor legalization, decriminalization and abolition of sex work, and a short speech could not answer all my questions, of course, so I look forward to engaging with their argument and evidence in very-soon-to-be-available  As If Women Matter: the Essential Gloria Steinem Reader edited by Ruchira Gupta, published by Roopa (English) and Rajkamal (Hindi).

Throughout the conversation I especially appreciated the way Steinem was careful to state that men are socialized into violence andSteinem 2 do not themselves choose to be born into a social system that demands displays of dominance. Reminding us that our adversaries seek to depoliticize our current dynamics by suggesting that violence is inevitable and unstoppable, Steinem gave an impassioned plea for societal structures to enable more men to spend time nurturing children because children teach us that being emotional in the moment is “human rather than bad.” She ended the session by reiterating, “The art of behaving effectively is the art of behaving as if everything you do matters.” The audience broke into a huge round of applause as she declared, “The flap of a butterfly’s wing is supposed to change the weather. We make one hell of a butterfly here.”


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