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RINITA MAZUMDAR

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |





SONGSOPTOK: What is your earliest memory about being a girl?

RINITA MAZUMDAR There are many memories; one of my earliest is my usual roaming under a siuili tree in our garden. It was an usual late Spring morning, an usual crow hovering over. Suddenly it swooped down picked up a garden geico and flew to the medium sized wall and sat; another crow came and there was a tussel, then one flew away and the other ate the geico bit by bit. I was about 10 or 12; I read about nature’s food chain but did not experience anything so real and vivid before this.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you remember any incident(s) from your childhood where you witnessed gender discrimination? What are your thoughts about that? Do you think gender discrimination starts right through our home? A lot of studies indicate that the gender segregation starts in school. What is your experience?

RINITA MAZUMDAR There were many; but I remember when my maternal uncle visited our house for the first time with his girlfriend (my now aunt, whom he married a year later), my mother, grandmother (paternal) and my mother’s younger sister (my aunt) talked to her about her job (my uncle and she worked in the same office). After they left my mother and aunt had a huge argument about whether she (the new bride to be, after she, my uncle’s girlfriend would become his wife), would still work after they got married. I wondered how two individuals can decide another person’s life and why no one talked about this issue about my uncle who was also part of the marriage, why is the sole responsibility on the future bride and not the groom to maintain a “good working family”, one of which was to leave her paid job. Later at night (I use about 8 years old and I used to sleep in my grandma’s bedroom), I asked my grandmother this, and she said, “God has killed women, men don’t have to bear children!”

SONGSOPTOK: Now going on to college / university – what according to you were the advantages / disadvantages of being a woman? Do you think that women were treated fairly by the educational institutions?  We would like to know your experiences both in India and in US.

 RINITA MAZUMDAR When I grew up in India/Bengal things were probably harder for middle class women; as for lower classes it was probably unbearable. The reason why I said it was harder was there was no discourse surrounding gender discrimination, which of course is changing now. I visit India every year and I think some things are still there, a lot has also changed. One advantage of going to college is that one is getting an education by which one can have some kind of social mobility and access to self sufficiency and empowerment. One disadvantage is that there are more restrictions and contradictory messages. A bright young female student is told to achieve high in school, and yet there are mobility and other restrictions imposed by her family that are contrary to those achievements; for example, if she has to travel to a conference far off to another city or outside of the state, there will be more restrictions, even if it is contrary to her career. In some sub cultures there will still be the idea that despite her freedom and achievement, her real goal is to get married; so the venues of autonomy are opening up, and yet they are not fully being implemented. Society is changing fast and women are given opportunities, and yet due to cultural hegemonies, they are given contradictory messages, they can achieve, but they are ultimately not the owner of their own destiny. This is the middle class; from what I understand amongst the lower classes there is a compounded oppression coming from class and gender position. The primary goals of parents are to get young women married off and refuse to accept the widespread violence in their lives.

 Further, it is also a fact that violence and harassment on campus do exist and there are emerging laws; the implementation and the discourse surrounding it needs to be stronger. As a feminist while the laws need to be stronger, the primary goal ought to be consciousness raising amongst the people, for example, women ought to be aware about abuse and what to do in case of abuse or harassment, where to find support, how to build communities, and how to stand up for their rights. For this, as Gramsci says, passive revolution is needed, that is, when women are NOT going through violence, in other words, during the time when no revolution is going on, door to door grassroot consciousness raising has to be done.

In the USA there are in general more opportunities for women and men to achieve. In colleges there are more State aided funding for people of lower socio economic status to get an education and succeed. I shall bring in the issue of diversity, like race and class, later but first some other points. Since women have been part of the market and the educational process for a longer time and since the discourse on women’s empowerment have longer in place, access to education in ALL classes is easier. For example, the vast discrepancy between someone living in New York and in rural New Mexico is less than some living in New Delhi and a rural place in Manipur. There is more equality and uniformity in general of which gender is one factor. Second, sexual harassment and violence against women in campus does exist probably on the same level as in India, but the difference is that in general the law works a little better. Now, in the USA, like in India, the law does not work equally for all, for example, a Hispanic woman in New Mexico will have less access to the law than a white woman in New York in case of violence. Nonetheless, in general the law works a little better. I, however, think that the real plus point in the USA over schools and universities in India/Bengal is that there is a vast formal and informal network (extra legal). For example, in every college and University there is a counseling center, in the universities there are “women centers” where one could go and talk about one’s problems. In most public and private universities these are free services. In addition, outside the university there are non profits like the rape crisis center, the domestic violence center and so forth. What I think is much better than India is that both the law as well as these centers are accessible to a large number of poor women of color (non white women). My experience in New Mexico is that most cases of violence and abuse happens in the Native American communities and there are separate centers in the Universities for them. I think these services are missing and I believe the reason is that in India the total democratic structure and civil society is still weak. That does not mean that all women have equal access in the US, but all I am saying is that there are more access and it is spread across class, race, and region.

What is similar though, between India and the USA, is the reluctance of women to come forward and speak about intimate partner violence; for this a wider thorough going revolution is needed. The reason probably is that the idea of family, romance, love, motherhood is so much promoted and disseminated in the public culture, it becomes hard for anyone to go against it.

SONGSOPTOK:  A lot has been written about the unsafe environment in India for women, especially on public transports. What is your personal experience? How does it differ from the environment in the US, your present country? Are the streets of your city is safer for women? If so, what is your analysis of the differences?

RINITA MAZUMDAR Almost all women I have met in India, when this issue of being violated in the public transport comes up, recall their experience of abuse and harassment. I myself am certainly not outside this, I did face and what bothers me is that when we were growing up, as this was such a “private Discourse”, women who are seeing other women being harassed in the public transport, would keep quiet. I would not blame this on the woman who never speak up, but on the general culture that blames the victim, no one wants to have a spotlight for what they would be later called bad names and discriminated against. For in most cases, from what I saw, the subsequent discourse was, “She could have done such and such to avoid….”

Women’s movement in the USA started in the 1970s in response to all the things that are happening in India right now. So, while there are cases of harassment in the public transport and so on, it has lessened and there is in general an awareness. Now, one of the fault lines of the movement of the 1970s is that it was an “all white middle class movement”, and it came under attack from African American and Chicana and Latina feminists in the 1990s. I would say that women of color, the much politically charged term, are still facing these public harassments but again, the law and the support system is better. One example, indirectly related to the above. Recently cases have sprung up about abuse, violence, harassment amongst star athletes and celebrities, like the National Football Association (NBA, the “football” in the USA is not soccer, it is a different game) and it is in the open a little bit where the problem is still being hidden. The other place is abuse of women in the military, which is still not being talked about. So, while some of the issues are the same, there is a difference, in terms of access to law, access to social support network, ease of getting counseling, and of course, the access is much more widespread across race, class, ethnicity and region in the USA.

SONGSOPTOK: According to you, to what extent is the patriarchal society both in India and USA, responsible for the status of women? How does it works, evolves and shapes the individual woman.

RINITA MAZUMDAR This is huge and complex question, and my books on feminist theory can answer that. Both systems are patriarchic, as per the definition of “patriarchy” as the centralization of power in the male head. As the market has expanded in the USA and there is in general more democracy, access to legal and other resources are more easily available in the USA (there are class, race, and ethnicity issues here too, but much less than in India, which is why there is a 40% more chance for an African American male to be stopped by a cop than a white male even though they are both driving over the speed limit, same with gender, a white woman of middle class has more access than a struggling poor native American woman in the reservation, but in the USA, overall there is much more equality). Patriarchy pervades in ALL cultures via the State, media, everyday discourse, and religion. The spread of the market and the law and its implementation and the spread of civil society has lessened its impact on most women in the USA. I would not say it has broken it, but it has given women more bargaining power, more autonomy, more access to legal resources and most of all access to networks and non profits (class, race, ethnicity certainly matter, for example, in Albquerque, where I live about five years ago 12 Mexican women of lower class were found brutally murdered and their bodies dumped in a parking lot, there has yet been no justice, but overall there is more access).

SONGAOPTOK: Do you think that social status (caste, class, affluence) plays a significant role in how women are treated in India and elsewhere?  Are there significant differences in the status of women in India & USA? If so, then to what extent?

RINITA MAZUMDAR Absolutely, one cannot talk of gender without race and class. What is great about the feminist movement in the USA is the coming out of African American feminists like Bell Hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Chicana author like Cherri Moraga, who talk about this. For example, as Barbara Smith, an African American feminist says, that the problem with the “pro choice” movement (the right to choose legally to keep or abort the fetus), happened, the white middle class women never realized that women of color in the USA never had a choice over their reproduction as the State was always invasive on their reproduction. One more example, mothers on Welfare have to report their sexual histories to the State case manager every month and are on State mandated birth control. This is the movement right now in the USA, the woman of color feminism, which African Amerian author Alice Walker calls “womanism”. In the large anti rape rallies in the 1970s women of color were invisble. Angela Davis, the socialist African American feminist and author says that there is a historical reason for this. After slavery went away and white men had to compete with Black men for jobs in the “free market” one phenomena increased, the lynching of African American men on the grounds of raping white women! The public ideology still sees the quintessential rapist as the BLACK MAN. This again goes back to what I wrote in my “A Feminist Manifesto” the rape laws were property laws, that is, they were formed to save a man’s property not a person’s dignity. That is why people are outraged when a middle class woman is raped and abused, but there are hardly media outrage on the hundred of daily violence on poor women, sex workers and so forth. For this law would not work, thorough movement and consciousness raising is needed. I was astounded when I heard about the women’s stories in Sutia and was more surprised when women in Kolkata heard those stories from me. This is exactly the problem that Black and Latina feminists talk about.

SONGSOPTOK: Has the position and status of women evolved at home compared to your mother’s generation? Do women today have more decision-making power within the family structure? Can you explain your answer? Yes, both in the Indian and the American context!
RINITA MAZUMDAR  I cannot give a blanket answer to this. I think it varies, but certainly there is an awareness that has evolved. For example, it was considered “natural” during my mother’s time that parents would put daughter’s through a marriage regardless of the daughter’s choice, now probably in the middle classes that awareness (from what I saw in Bengal) has come, although I do not know how widespread it is. With negotiation and bargaining within the home, I think women did it during my mother’s time in all kinds of ways, from overt to underhanded method. The difference is there was no politics surrounding this. This is what Mary Wollstonecraft in her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women is saying that women (of the middle classes), have no overt power, which makes them cunning, manipulative, and they use under handed methods to get what they want. My experience is that in most cases, women use or exploit other women to advance their agenda within the family; this is how patriarchy and most systems of power works. In the USA again it varies greatly, but as more women have access to the law and the market, probably overall it is decreasing. For example, a white middle class woman would accept spousal abuse or cheating less than a woman (again class and ethnicity specific) in India. Subaltern use of manipulation and underhanded method is widespread, women used to do indigenous methods of abortion even when the medical procedures were legalized, hence the question has to be answered in a more complex and nuanced way. Feminism is a political movement that must bring these to light, for example, mother’s abuse of children and State support of mothers as well as children, both of which are much more accessible in the USA.

SONGSOPTOK:  According to you, what needs to be done to improve the situation of women not only in India but all over the world? How can women contribute – at home, at work, at social & political levels? How can they establish the right equilibrium between the state power and feminism because state power is basically patriarchal in nature?
RINITA MAZUMDAR There are several ways to empower and it works different in different places, some of them as as follows
1)    Overall democracy and accessibility of the law
2)  Implementation of the law and its awareness
3)  Overall State support for women, like affordable day care and crèche for infants so that women can get educated (this is missing in the USA, probably better in Europe).
4) Support network like access to non profits who would help women work through the systems
5)  Free compulsory education for those who cannot afford quality education
6)  Gender awareness at all levels and in fact making it part of the curricula
7)   More organizations working for awareness and more accessibility to them.
8)  More women’s groups where women can talk about their problems
9)  Grassroot rallies and consciousness raising sessions

SONGSOPTOK: Violence against women is a global problem today that manifests itself in different forms in different societies. And the problem seems to be growing every day in spite of preventive measures. What, in your opinion, should be the priority especially in India? How do you see the role of the civil society in this context? Do you think women are still marginalised in our civil society, which is the actual stumbling block to advance further or making any significant improvement?

RINITA MAZUMDAR As I said before, civil society has a huge roll for the spread of democracy. Yes, civil society does have a role in spreading awareness, doing gender sensitive sessions and workshops (free), but ultimately the State has to support all of these efforts, for without State support private organizations cannot survive.

SONGSOPTOK: What are your personal views on women’s empowerment? What should be the priorities here (economic / social / cultural/ educational….) especially in the context of our patriarchal society where women are considered to be the reproduction machine denied of dignity and liberty?

RINITA MAZUMDAR All of these, but for me two things are most important (a) consciousness raising, why this oppression is happening, and see how the oppressed incorporate her behaviour into the system and support network. For example, do most women know that simple rituals are way of brain washing women to comply with the system? These awareness, support groups, communities which provide support groups, and of course education.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think the situation of women can evolve in the years to come? What is your vision for the future?

RINITA MAZUMDAR It depends on where society is going. We know that more or less secular democratic societies have gone the other way and women lost all access to legal rights and so forth. In general, I think as the market progresses, there will be a spread of civil society and democratic institutions and the legal due process. If it goes in this way, then women as a class can think of more empowerment. Nonetheless, the reverse can happen too. In some ways, according to some theorists the feminist movement has failed in the USA, for the movement of the 1970s failed to take All women across race and class, so only a group of women gained some who in turn collaborated with their oppressors in terms of getting institutionalized privileges. This is very dangerous indeed! This seems to me an enactment of the power play in the domestic sphere, where the matriarchy once she is a little more powerful, acts as the agent of patriarchy by oppressing those subordinate to her. This has to be countered, the vision has to be continuous critical thinking and revolution and critique power at all levels and learn from the mistakes of our predecessors.

[Rinita Mazumdar is a Full time Instructor of Philosophy and Culture Studies in Central New Mexico Community College and an Affiliate Prof of Women Studies at the University of New Mexico. She got her Ph.D from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in Philosophy, and her M.A in Philosophy from Brock University, Canada and Calcutta University. Her published books include A Short Introduction to Feminist Theory, A Feminist Manifesto, Feminist Economics, Understanding Gender, Feminine Sexuality and a book of poems, Presently she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S.A.]






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  1. sexual harassment and violence against women in campus does exist probably on the same level as in India, but the difference is that in general the law works a little better. Now, in the USA, like in India, the law does not work equally for all, for example, a Hispanic woman in New Mexico will have less access to the law than a white woman in New York in case of violence. Nonetheless, in general the law works a little better. I, however, think that the real plus point in the USA over schools and universities in India/Bengal is that there is a vast formal and informal network (extra legal). For example, in every college and University there is a counseling center, in the universities there are “women centers” where one could go and talk about one’s problems. In most public and private universities these are free services. In addition, outside the university there are non profits like the rape crisis center, the domestic violence center and so forth. What I think is much better than India is that both the law as well as these centers are accessible to a large number of poor women of color (non white women). My experience in New Mexico is that most cases of violence and abuse happens in the Native American communities and there are separate centers in the Universities for them. I think these services are missing and I believe the reason is that in India the total democratic structure and civil society is still weak. That does not mean that all women have equal access in the US, but all I am saying is that there are more access and it is spread across class, race, and region.

    Madam, I adore & salute your great achievements & shall desire to read your esteemed books . Kly share the links or intimate the availability venues.

    As a respectable citizen of USA, who has grown with them & seen the society metamorphose over decades, how do you justify the violence, torture, discrimination & subjugation of women in a society , where boys n girls have grown up liberally at least out of homes, in schools n colleges? Miniskirts cannot be an issue like medieval Indian society there, be it Reds , Hispanics / Indians... What, as per you , is the lacuna & what is the solution to overcome?

    --CA ANINDA GHOSH

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