Sex and sexuality have always been central to the works of Hoshang Merchant
Women issues in India are different from western countries
Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to shape a separate identity for feminism in India
The fallacy of male-dominance and women’s role in society tell that feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west. Our history books are filled with references of women being forced to partake in Sati or self-immolation, cases of wicked oppression by the male gender, countless crude examples of coercion into child marriage, among myriad other social evils that persisted during the middle age. There are several issues which damper women empowerment in India- dowry, sexual abuse, gender inequality and many more.
Although, there are several communities in India, such as the Nairs of Kerala, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families with the head of the family being the oldest women rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral.
According to Firstpost.com report, the retired professor emeritus of the University of Hyderabad was one of the first men to come out as openly gay in independent India. Yaarana (Penguin, 1999), a collection of gay writings from India edited by Merchant, remains a significant intervention in queer studies.
Sex and sexuality have always been central to the works of Hoshang Merchant. His Forbidden Sex, Forbidden Texts (2009) discards the understanding of homosexuality as a monolithic identity emphasising on its heterogeneity in the Indian context. Merchant has authored several collections of poetry and his latest commentary is titled Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant (OUP India).
In an interview with Rajorshi Das, published on firstpost.com, Hoshang Merchant said, “Indian feminism is for the maid who is working for those bob-cut walis for 30 rupees a day. That woman needs feminism. When that woman is empowered by that bob-cut wali, that will be Indian feminism”.
No doubt women issues in India are different from western countries. Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to shape a separate identity for feminism in India. And sadly, the truth is that we still exactly do not know what feminism exactly stands for. The definition of “being feminine” has been moulded by people for either a purpose or they simply abide by the so-called rules set by the society.
When asked about the future of the [Queer] movement, Merchant said, “Firstly let’s recognise class in urban spaces. What does gay liberation mean for that chakka who has to show his organs for 50 rupees? What movement are you talking about? Thirty years I have fought and taught for them. Did I deserve this? They came yesterday. Where were they when I was screaming in the wilderness?”
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalises ‘unnatural sex’, which include gay liaisons. It says, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
He confronted the tag of the “anti-national” as homosexuality is criminalised by the IPC by saying, “What is anti-national? Homosexuality is doing the greatest service to an overpopulated nation. Else I would be labelled as the mother of this nation. I would have been given a gold medal! We are imitating the West. Our society is different. That’s why Ashley Tellis does not go to these Pride Marches because he feels our society is poor. We are not a consumerist society [like the West].”
When asked about the purpose of writing and poetry in general, he replied, “Poetry sweetens human beings. It gives hope to the defeated. The first sentence of my new book Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant is from (Martin) Heidegger –“What are poets for? Poets are there to sing the night of the world”. Coming to the second part of your question, writing is to change the mind and heart of these stupid people. They reject me because I don’t use jargons, read (Jacques) Derrida or conform to labels like Queer.”
-This article is compiled by a staff-writer at NewsGram.
"Feminism is when a woman has her full voice, and her full decision-making authority wherever she is in her life, in her home, in her community and in her workplace. If she has her voice and can take any decision, then she is fully empowered. And if you believe that, then you are feminist, in my opinion"
VOA Africa Division’s Linord Moudou spoke to Melinda Gates about women’s empowerment, work in Africa, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and how men can benefit from women’s empowerment. The interview also touched on the pay gap between men and women and the anti-vaccination movement.
Q: Melinda Gates, thank you so much for joining us on the Voice of America.
Melinda Gates: Thanks for having me.
Q: You just released a book, The Moment of Lift. First of all, you are well known as a accomplished businesswoman and a philanthropist. Why was it important for you to become an author and write this book?
Gates: Well, I have met so many women and families over 20 years of foundation travels to many, many, many countries, and the stories these women have shared with me about their lives have called me to action. And I wanted to write a book that would call others to action, because I believe that equality can’t wait. When we make women equal in society, it lifts up their family and society, and we need to make sure that we really get to equality for women all over the world.
Q: So when we talk about equality for women, how would you describe it? What are some of the basic steps?
Gates: To me, equality for women shows up when they have their full voice and their full decision-making authority in their home, in their community and in their workplace. If we can make sure women have that, you will have true equality in society for all women.
Q: So, why did you think of this title, The Moment of Lift? What is the moment?
Gates: Well, when I was a little girl my dad was an Apollo engineer, and he worked on that first mission that went up to space, and my sister and I would get to be in our jammies late at night, watching that that rocket take off. And I love that moment when the engines were ignited, and the Earth was shaking and rumbling, and that rocket would lift off against the forces of gravity that pushed it down, and head off to the moon. And I thought about women. I have thought about all the barriers that hold us down in various societies, and if we could remove those barriers, we would get this moment of lift for women and men all over the world.
Q: And let’s talk about some of those barriers. You’ve traveled around the world, working and empowering women and girls. What are some of the commonalities you were able to see, to witness?
Gates: Well, I see so many women that if we allow them, as a world, to have access to contraceptives, what we know from society after society around the world is once a woman has access to contraceptives, she can time and space the births of her children. She can continue her education, she can work in the workforce if she chooses, her kids are healthier, she’s healthier, the family’s wealthier and better educated. So that barrier — every society has to make the transition through contraceptives first. If women have access to contraceptives, and their kids and they have good health, the next barrier you have to remove is education. Because when women are educated, it changes absolutely everything in their family, and even the decisions they make and what they go do in the world.
Q: So you went to an all-girls Catholic high school. So did I, actually. And one of the things I can remember is contraceptives are not a part of discussion — not very often, at least. So what prompted you to really turn your interest into enabling women to have access to contraceptives, as well as family planning? Why is it such an important part of your work?
Gates: Yes, so I was meeting so many women around the world, and I would be there to talk about vaccinations for their children, which they were thrilled to talk about. They said, “You know, I walk 10 kilometers in the heat to get them. I know the difference.” But when I turn the questions and let them ask questions of me, they would say, “But what about my health? What about that contraceptive that, at this little clinic, I can get vaccines and I used to be able to get contraceptives and now I can’t?” And it was through these rallying calls for women saying, “Why isn’t the world allowing us to have these anymore?” that I came to learn and realize the difference they make in women’s lives. And 200 million women are asking us as a world for contraceptives. It’s a very inexpensive tool. We use it in the United States. More than 90% of women use it in the United States and in Europe, and yet if we don’t allow women to have that tool, [if] we don’t provide it, they can’t lift themselves out of poverty. And so I started to realize that was a really important piece of the work.
Q: And you say in the book, as you work to empower women, others have empowered you. How so?
Gates: I think by other women sharing the stories of their lives. I would often be coming back from various countries in Africa — Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Senegal — and as I was flying home I kept thinking of all these barriers I would see holding women down in Africa. And I would think, “If women could only have this barrier removed or that.” But it was then their stories that helped me turn the question back on the U.S. and say, “How far are we really in the United States?” OK, we’ve made some distance, but less than 25% of people in Congress are women. Less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. If a woman wants to start a business in the United States, less than 2% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses. So they helped me see what needs to get done around the world, not just in their own countries and where we can help and intervene, but really in our own country, too, in the United States.
Q: So you talked about stories of women in the book. You also bring some of your stories in the book, and you are known to be a private woman. Why was it so important for you to share your own stories? You talk about abuse and other stories — why did you do that?
Gates: Yes. So in this book, even though I’m incredibly private, I decided to be pretty vulnerable, quite vulnerable. That was not an easy decision, but I do. I share stories of my own personal journey because they are the stories, also, of millions of other women. So this story that I do tell of abuse that I experienced — it silenced me. I lost my self-confidence. And we know millions of women around the world are in relationships where they’re being abused. Women tell me about it when I go in villages. I hear about sexual harassment in the workplace in many places in the United States. It’s a spectrum, but any type of harassment holds a woman back. It pushes her back into her corner and she doesn’t get her voice or she doesn’t feel confident to take a decision. So I choose to share a story like that, and my own climb to equality, to let everyone know it is possible.
Q: I would like to read something from the book. You write, “The first time I was asked if I was a feminist, I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t think of myself as a feminist. Twenty-two years later, I am an ardent feminist.” Feminism is a word that is celebrated by some and makes others cringe, even some women. So, what is feminism to you? How are you a feminist?
Gates: Feminism is when a woman has her full voice, and her full decision-making authority wherever she is in her life, in her home, in her community and in her workplace. If she has her voice and can take any decision, then she is fully empowered. And if you believe that, then you are feminist, in my opinion.
Q: Great. Now, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has impacted the world. And particularly, you have worked on the continent of Africa. More than $15 billion has been invested in projects related to Africa. Would you tell us about the impact that you were able to see that has really transformed people’s lives?
Gates: Yes, so the foundation has been in existence now for over 20 years. I think the most important thing for everybody to know is we work in partnership. There is nothing the foundation has ever done without being in full partnership with others, and particularly with governments and citizens on the ground in various countries. And philanthropy is just — all it can be is this catalytic wedge. We can try things; we can experiment where you wouldn’t want a government to do that with taxpayer money. But if we can prove things out and measure it, then we can ask government to scale it up. And so I think one of the foundation’s biggest successes has been in vaccinations. Why is childhood death down, cut in half since 1990? Two enormous reasons: vaccinations and malarial bed nets. And we’re part of two large-scale partnerships to try — that we have done, worked on — to scale up vaccines, in many countries in Africa and all over the world, and to make sure that malaria bed nets through the Global Fund are distributed.
Q: So speaking of vaccinations, vaccines have helped the world get rid certain diseases, like smallpox. Today we see a resurgence of measles. And one of the reasons is because some parents in the United States refused to vaccinate their children. How does it make you feel?
Gates: When I hear that there are cases of measles in the United States, I’m incredibly frustrated. And I’m saddened to think that a global health issue that we have solved in the United States has come back because parents have believed misinformation. And, you know, no child should have measles in this country. No person who is in an immune-compromised situation in the United States should be affected by someone else because a parent has chosen not to get the measles vaccine. These are lifesaving tools. Women tell me all over Africa they walk 10 miles in the heat to get vaccines because it saves their children’s lives. So I’m saddened to see this in the United States and I hope it makes people realize how lucky we are to have vaccines in our country.
Q: Now, working on the African countries, on the African continent, as well as other countries in the world, there are some changes that cannot occur without abandoning certain cultural practices and beliefs. So how do you get people to embrace new ideas in such circumstances?
Gates: Well, everywhere we work, for instance, on the continent of Africa, you know, each country is different and then there are many, many cultures inside of each country. So what you can do, the way to work, is to go — or what we’ve chosen to do — is to work with partners who’ve been on the ground often 30 or 40 years, living with villagers, and people from the community are part of those partners. And what you do is you come in and see where the community’s at, what they’re trying to learn, what their requests and needs are, and then you start to bring in some education — educating around the things they care about and some education about tools we have here in the United States, like contraceptives. And when you’re in a trusting relationship where the villagers start to believe and understand some of the education you’ve brought in, they will start to ask for those tools. And so we do all of our work in that cultural context, [that] hopefully appropriate way.
Q: So to go back to the family planning — why is it so important? What is the message behind family planning?
Gates: Family planning is the greatest anti-poverty