November 19 was observed as International Men's Day in some quarters. Indulekha Aravind asks Harsh Sethi, consulting editor of Seminar and a life member of the Centre for Women's Development, about the relevance of having an International Men's Day or Women's Day and whether the movement for gender equality is bypassing those who really need in it. Edited excerpts:
Do such days, even Women's Day, have any kind of relevance or is it just another opportunity for brands to market their goods?
All symbolic play creates opportunities for a variety of actors, and some are better positioned to make use of it. For example, it's nice that young people should be able to express their affection for each other and there is something called Valentine's Day around which you create a whole commerce. Now, because there is a huge amount of commerce around it, is it a bad idea to have such a day for young people who are otherwise unable to express their affection freely, without looking over their shoulder? I'd say no. But all symbolism loads too many different things on one event or day and becomes, in a sense, a caricature.
One might say men are getting a bad deal, the new rape laws are 'funny' because they overturn the idea of Anglo-Saxon justice as we understood it and the accused is guilty unless proven otherwise. And because it's all getting a bit much, let's have a men's day. But to talk about what? Pride in men? In a situation which is so strongly biased in terms of the male principle, does it make any sense? (And) I don't disregard the idea of an international women's day, but having watched the getting together at Jantar Mantar for 35 years, I do ask: why do the numbers not change? Why does the composition not change? Why are the set of actors who come together more of my age than of my age when I first saw them? Why does a movement of solidarity have 25 different banners? So, I think I am entitled to feel a little less than enthusiastic.
Time magazine recently had 'feminist' in its list of words to be banned. Is the term misunderstood today?
I get very worried when people use words like feminism, Marxism, nationalism... any 'ism'. These are capacious words, large trends that span many decades carrying a range of views that are often in fairly sharp distinction from each other. Now, to take this large mix of views over long periods of time by a multiplicity of actors and then say "feminism has caused problems" is a statement that makes little sense to me. These are all rhetorical devices to signal one's current approval or disapproval of something that has bugged whoever has used these phrases. When Madhu Kishwar writes something called "Why I am no longer a feminist", all she is saying is that many other fellow travellers who are not unhappy with being described as feminist are people that I disagree with. That is about all what these words mean. Anybody who would take half a second to think things through would not take any of this posturing seriously.
Is the movement for gender equality bypassing those who really need it?
The brunt of my argument is, any effort at reform, if successful, is criticised by those who don't think of it as radical enough. They ask it to do more and more till you say, "Sorry, we can't do this" and then they say, "We told you you can't do it". The desire to be overly radical then defeats the purpose of limited reforms. And instead of arguing for extension or expansion of reform based on your ability, with some pushing from the outside so that we don't become complacent, it is then seen as never being good enough. At a certain level, talk to anyone who runs anything, such as a school. You make the school open to others, not just to those who can afford it. But if you are going to deal only with those who are the first in their family to get a formal education or who will not have the wherewithal to get any kind of backup from the community or from home for a variety of reasons, it will involve a lot of effort. So you might be able to take only 10 of these children. You would still be accused of not actually promoting the idea of equality, of not taking people from xyz tribe over the past 10 years, which, as a statement, may be factually correct. But how do you understand it? Is it about loading too many expectation on any given single effort?
Do you think men feel left out of gender equality movement?
I'm over 60 and I've been seeing this for 30-40 years. So I'm a little wary of excessive posturing and excessive expectations. In our country, the big game about women's equality all starts with the 1975 report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India, which is used as a marker. In preparing this report, male social scientists had a central role, which you will see in the first pages of acknowledgements.
But then, should these men, and not women, be taking the lead in the women's rights movement? Probably no. We play with symbolism. For instance, anything to do with Ambedkar studies, if you can get a Dalit to head it, it's somewhat superior to getting a Brahmin to head it, to put it crudely. It doesn't mean that Brahmin intellectuals cannot be sensitive to the idea of caste inequality. But you do many things with symbolism, and you hope like hell that you've got the balance right.