My He(ART)-Full Life

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Interview with Rita Banerji-Part 1

This is the first part of my interview with Rita Banerji. I can't believe she actually agreed to answer my questions (thanks Rita!) and I would like to share them with you. I know this is an extra long post but I hope you will read it through...within her words lie gleams of truth and strength that we can all apply to our individual lives. And since today is International Women's seems perfect to post an interview with a woman who is a tireless and brave advocate for us all!
(Rita Banerji)
Ms. Banerji, this is a quote of yours from your blog.
“For this is what we really need to know. What goes on in the head and heart of that woman who grows up in and survives such violently misogynist societies? Societies where daughters are unwanted. Where women are brutalized and killed. A girl growing up even in the most progressive family on the Indian subcontinent still lives in context of a culture where the mindset says that being female is like being nothing.The strange thing is – you will hardly find any such books. Why? Because in south Asian societies it is taboo for women to speak out. Family and community are sacred – and what happens within must remain hidden. As girls grow up they are taught to tolerate pain and rejection. They are taught to hide the abuse they suffer or witness others suffer, from the outside world. It makes them the “good” daughters and “ideal” wives!”
Can you share with us how you challenged the socialization process of being raised in such a culture. Have you personally experienced rejection and criticism from your family or community for speaking out against the misogyny in Indian society? If so, how have you dealt with it?
When people see the women of my family – they always think of them as the prototype of the “strong” Indian woman. I think in an odd way I do get my resolve and strength from the women of my family. They have big, powerful personalities. They are resourceful, and come across as very confident. They have strong opinions and they articulate them openly and forcefully. They are often intimidating to people because they seem so authoritative and invincible. You will see women like this all the time in the public sphere in India – running corporations, in the media, in politics, and even in villages and in the market-place. But many of these women, like the women in my family usually use their strengths, their power, to buttress the patriarchal power structures and gender hierarchies. Every time there was a particularly violent incident in any marriage in my family, and the brutalized wife tried to leave, it is the women who would rush to the spot and prevent the wife from leaving. They would then blame her – that she’s difficult, demanding, or neglectful of the house and children, something like that, but never, not once have I heard any one of them say one word against the brutality of the men! Or confront the men. Never! An aunt, a couple of years ago, actually boasted to me of how many marriages she had “saved” in our family. Her own mother had been almost raped by her brother-in-law soon after she got married (something that’s very common in big, joint Indian families). And this aunt says, “Oh my mother was young and pretty, and she must have behaved flirtatiously.”

I find these women use their strengths strategically (and I personally think also in a lazy and cowardly way) to create a niche for themselves within the patriarchy. At some level they submit to the violence they are subject to early, because they see it like an initiation process. Like they have in fraternities and inner-city gangs. They rough you up and brutalize you – and you need to bear with it to prove your loyalty to them. And once you are initiated, then you have your own special niche – a designated place of honor within the family. It gives these women the license to unleash the patriarchal brutality on other women. If they have patiently born the violence that was inflicted on them, and still proved their loyalty to their husband and in-laws, they now have permission to exercise that same violence on other women in the interest of their marital family. And that is why most of the stories of dowry related extortions, violence and murder involve the mothers-in-law and the sisters-in-law as major perpetrators. I also find that it is these women who are also particularly harsh and even abusive towards their own daughters, and that much more indulgent of their sons.
What has been different for me I think has been that I have refused to support the status quo in my family. I think the resistance was always there even when I was a child – not just to incidents within the family, but also in society. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. So I would sulk or get quiet. Sometimes I would act out.
For me a critical breathing space in my life, unquestionably, were the four years I spent in college in the U.S. I attended Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a women’s college with strong, liberal, feminist leanings. I have actually often wondered how much that environment contributed towards the shaping of my own perspectives on gender equity, without being sure. Mount Holyoke did not teach me anything I didn’t already have. What it did was –it provided me (for the first time in my life) with a safe environment to come into myself, to examine and express my beliefs without fear, and to discover and define myself without having to explain or justify it to anyone. It’s something I don’t think I would have got if I had stayed on in India. It is the kind of environment that I needed, and found I think at a very critical time in my life – the late teens, when the concept of self and personhood emerges. And once you have experienced your ‘Self’ freely, fearlessly, there’s no going back into the box!
(go here to read more about the genocide against India's girls)

Yes, particularly now, I do experience rejection and criticism from my family and the Indian society for speaking out against the misogyny in Indian society. Within the family there is a sense of unvoiced uneasiness around me I think. I am sometimes like a cat among the pigeons. As a child I could be controlled. But as an adult I am in charge of what I think and say, and how I respond.
There is a similar discomfort I find when I give public talks. There was a talk I gave at the Rotary club here – mind you to what is considered a civic minded audience, doctors and lawyers, and “philanthropists” that received a particularly hostile response. People are often in denial. And I think what they don’t really like is that I convey that every individual in the auditorium needs to take personal responsibility for how they act, react and respond not just to incidents in their own lives but how they respond to whatever they witness around them among family, friends and community. I regard this as a positive response. Because, you see it is so easy to point a finger elsewhere – maybe at the slums and villages of India (mind you, the biggest gender gap is among the educated, urban classes!) – and do the rah-rah rally cry, “save the girl-child.” Who is going to save the girl child? From whom? How? There is a lazy, feel-good, complacency in that approach – that’s going nowhere! The discomfort means somewhere the conscience is uneasy and responding (it is the first and most crucial step to change) – and I’ve learnt to take that as a sign of a positive impact on my audience.
                                                                 (Rita's book here )
I believe that for each of us, challenging the gender socialization process (or any other kind of socialization) is ultimately always an individual choice. Every one of us, at some point in life, is faced with two options: You either go with the model that society provides you with, or you challenge that model and push for change. The reason that most people go with the first choice, is because it is the easier one! It automatically guarantees social approval and support. The second choice is harder, because firstly it requires you to make your choices and justify them. That’s effort, as compared to a cultural formulae you just swallow. And there’s much to lose --- social approval and support. You can also face isolation from the community, rejection and even persecution. The question is, how important is social approval for you personally? And can you learn to live with rejection? To me these are not as important as the legitimacy of my own conscience, and so I chose the latter. I’ve always felt that I can live at odds with society, if it comes to that, but I cannot live at odds with myself.

What advice would you give young girls who are growing up in such families and cultures to believe in themselves, to follow their hearts and dreams? To stand up for themselves in a way that won’t jeopardize their physical safety?
I think safety should always be the number one concern. And the instinct for safety is inbuilt in us – it is the most powerful biological instinct. We always know what is safe and right, for us and what is not. The challenge for girls growing up in India is how to keep that instinct alive. Because we are socially conditioned to over-ride it. We are taught to absorb violence quietly – whether in our parents’ homes, or our husbands and in-laws homes, and even in public spaces, and this is not just unnatural, it is wrong, and it is dangerous! So the advice I’d give girls in India is:
• No one ever has the right to abuse you in any way – physically, emotionally or verbally. Not your parents, not your husband, not your in-laws, not your boss or anyone else. Life and safety are your most fundamental human rights that no one can take from you.
• If you are in an abusive situation with your family, it is foolish to tolerate the situation to prove your loyalty to them. Your first sense of loyalty is to yourself. And in allowing others to abuse you, you are being dishonest with yourself.
• Always take note of the people and environments in your life that you feel ‘safe’ and ‘happy’ in. Where you feel you can say whatever you want. Where you are listened to and understood. Where you can discuss things without fear. Places and people with whom you feel you can breathe. Spend as much time as you can in these environments.
• Every time you take a step in the direction of your dreams and goals, be prepared to face resistance and rejection. Don’t keep looking for acceptance and approval from people who reject you. Learn to embrace the rejection as an indication of your strength and ability to reach your goals. Those who truly appreciate you and what you are doing will accept you and celebrate you just as you are. In the end there may be only handful of such people. But know that that’s all you need.
Thank you so much Rita for answering these questions with courage, conscience and clarity. You are a brave woman and inspire me, and so many others, to reach for the same!
*I will be posting part 2 of our interview in the coming weeks ahead.


Rita Banerji said...

Thank you for the wonderful interview Soraya. These are such important questions -- and they've never been asked of me in any interview before! I am so glad you did!

aseknc said...

What a wonderful interview!
Shukriyaa to you both.

Rita Shukriyaa for sharing your experience, for calling awareness to this awful reality and for standing up against it...and helping others stand up against it as well!

Soraya...Shukriyaa also for visiting my blog and for your sweet words. I was not familiar with Holly's BYW e-course...I am going to check into that!

You said, "Guess 50 million + girls being killed is not as important as say, Lindsey Lohan!," true is that...and how crazy! ...and it amazes me the things/causes people will stand up and fight the animals...don't eat meat...blah, blah, blah...but they hide their eyes to the abuse and murder of other humans...and helpless babies and young girls at that. (don't get me wrong...I myself am an animal lover, this is just an example of peoples distorted priorities).

Thank you both again.
Much love,
I would rather walk with God in the dark than go alone in the light.
-- Mary Gardiner Brainard

flyingbeader said...

Soraya and Rita...thank you so much for this interview. I think all cultures world wide have this problem with patriarchal ideas put into our heads as young girls. You've open my eyes & I'm going to share this interview with other women.

And Rita, your advice to girls, young women, and even ones my age are to be shouted from the roof tops. Be true to yourself

kelly said...

Wow. I am overwhelmed. Thank you so much for sharing this!

Gosia said...

Your choice of words "angry", "sad", "heart-broken" resonates in me exactly with the same shrilling note. Thanks for this post and, with it, answering my earlier inquiries about the origin of your art. Learning this bit of info explains it why I feel such a tug at my heart every time I look at your paintings.

patty said...

Soraya and Rita, thank you both for standing up and courageously presenting this disturbing information. Those of us who have grown up in middle class America have absolutely no idea. It is so true that our priorities in this country are SOOO (for the most part) WHACKED!! If a tiny fraction of the time and energy that is spent on obsessing over celebrities could be spent on making changes in the world... well... thank you both for taking a stand and maybe a start on making this happen!!!

Carola Bartz said...

Thank you, Soraya and Rita. There is so much food for thought in this interview. Thank you for sharing this.

Lis said...

I too am grateful to both of you - Soraya and Rita - for this interview which brings to light what is sadly under discussed and even ignored. i work in a university environment and it has been disheartening to see the trends among young women in our country. And i feel like i am constantly correcting my 6 year's perception that being a boy is better. she has received this message already! so much work still to be done ...

this really leapt out at me: "Don’t keep looking for acceptance and approval from people who reject you. Learn to embrace the rejection as an indication of your strength and ability to reach your goals."

i look forward to the rest of the interview!

so proud to call you a sister ♥ and to learn from you as a mother raising a daughter ...

xo lis

Wini said...

Dear Soraya & Rita, what an amazing, interesting and thoughtful interview! My heart goes out to all the women and girls suffering injustice. Thank you for speaking out and encouraging other girls to do the same. The advice for young girls is excellent! Wini xo

Niila Keshava said...

Thank you for this great post. Rita told me you are an old friend. I have only known her a few years. It is an honnor to know such a woman and fighter for women's justice and social equailty.


Jen @Sadie Inspired said...

Wow! What a powerful interview. Thank you Soraya & Rita for sharing. It amazes me what continues to be tolerated...around the world. My heart, thoughts, and prayers are with those beautiful women of India.