Wednesday, December 18, 2013

REF Dialogue Diaries I: Equal Voices

Part of making change happen is to ensure that it does: and the first part to making change happen is to open doors to dialogue. Oftentimes, the male side of the rhetoric remains forgotten – or isn’t even given a chance to be heard when it comes to women’s issues and women’s rights.

Taking a leaf out of our 16Days2013 journal, we brought three of our Real Men together to talk about men being linchpins in effecting a change in mindsets towards women.

Ashay Abbhi is an analyst in the field of contemporary energy issues. His interests also lie in nuanced issues of war and conflict. With his specialisation in tow, Ashay has explored different angles of energy sector, one of which includes the comprehension of the geopolitics of energy.

Faruk Waja left the corporate world in 2004, to pursue his interests in Indian art music, photography and writing.  He travels between South Africa, Mauritius and India, where he has business interests.

Rex Arul is an Energy Consultant living and working in Atlanta, Georgia. He is a Child’s Rights activist, community-worker, speaker, and a micro-blogger. Mr. Arul is a voluntary Court Officer with the Juvenile Courts of Georgia. He loves his daughter Rhea Arul more than anything in life. He is also the President of his Toastmasters Club and works assiduously to lend his voice for the voiceless: namely, children and the marginalized.

Why do I support women's rights?
Rex Arul: "Conditioning is true for both genders."
Beginning the conversation with his opening statement, Rex Arul explained that his interest in being a cause-fighter was something innate, something that thrived within him since the earliest moment that he can recollect. In his words, “Women have often been perceived as chattel, like I described in my article, “chattel is how the traditional meme of women has always been”. Most legal instruments tend to augment that notion, and each of these hoary notions then gives way to the newer reality of equality of sexes culminating in gender wars. There is a sense of male superiority that comes from an enforced mindset – and because of that, an aggressive sense of male dominance exists in society, and that tends to bolster gender crimes. Much of what is happening in India now is similar to the Sexual Revolution in the US in the 1960s. In my article, I used the word ‘condition’, and I want to take this opportunity to say that conditioning is true for both genders. Society tends to view things according to what it is conditioned to view – and emancipation is almost often hindered by victimhood and aggression – which in turn are nothing more than mental shackles. I think it is important to start by sensitising the work force and the education system – I remember when I was in school, when the boys were hit and tended to cry, the teachers would ask them why they cried like a girl. That reinforced the notion that you cannot be man enough if you cry – and to be like a girl is not ‘right’. My daughter would ask me if a boy or a man could cry – and I always tell her that it has nothing to do with being a boy or a man, but about being human.”

Faruk Waja: "Discrimination was something society
was taught to accept."
Faruk Waja shared his thoughts as coming from personal experience with discrimination. “South Africa has been in the news a lot in the past few days – what with the tributes to Nelson Mandela. One of the key things about South Africa is that we have always been a male dominated society – and because of apartheid, at points of time, discrimination was law. When I was courting my wife, we could visit the park, but we could not sit. Discrimination went that low. Male domination automatically came in because the police were the ones that were vested with the duty to enforce the law. Young men had to serve in the army for two years – it was compulsory service – and as Rex said, it led to very aggressive male domination. Discrimination was something society was taught to accept – and people actually did think of it as moral. Subservience of women followed suit. Back then, we were issued cards in keeping with the grade of citizenship we had – and I was a fourth class citizen. The Mandela legacy changed it. To be black today in South Africa is almost heavenly – the change he influenced has permeated all aspects. My thoughts right now are on what role legislation played in making the change happen – that which is not okay needs to be changed forthwith, and it is interesting to see how legislation can play a role in making it happen. Politicians should do a lot to really fast track the changes.”  

Ashay Abbhi: "Women are equal to men –
we have to learn to see and recognise that.
It is not about men giving women the space to be equal –
this space is not ours to give
Ashay Abbhi’s opening statements really hit home at the root of the issue. “Rex and Faruk have made some really great points – and I’d like to weigh in with my thoughts on the prevailing mindset that needs a lot of changing. Why is a girl or a woman looked down upon? Why is it always that we see a woman or a girl as someone needing help? I would not go out of the way to help a woman because she is a woman – All of the women I know are incredibly strong people and are not in any need to be “helped”. The damsel-in-distress syndrome is all about looking at women as the weaker sex, and victimising them before they are even victims in the first place. We need to check ourselves and not think that. The sexual revolution might accomplish the paradigm shift – but the problem is at all levels. We come from a historical backdrop where women have always been taught to be subservient – and if she refutes it, she faces flak. If you ask me, there should come a time when organisations like the Red Elephant Foundation should not exist – or at least, for the cause of gender equality. We need to run the cause aground by making it redundant through changing mindsets. Women are equal to men – we have to learn to see and recognise that. It is not about men giving women the space to be equal – this space is not ours to give.”

Giving activism a sensible direction

Building on Ashay’s opening statement, Rex explained that activism is also about inclusion. “I come from an activist background, where people are viewed as survivors. Some men talk about being stigmatised as the perpetrators – rather than as being seen as supporters of the cause. I think the first part of the shift must really take place in the activist’s mind: why would you view me as someone out of touch, when I am the one you should be including in the rhetoric? Why would I have to traverse your cause on your terms as a litmus test for your activism, when we could be side-by-side and effect change together? It is only when perspectives change that we can facilitate change – and as more and more men are included into the fold of activism for women, we can make the change sustainable. Otherwise, it is just a loud decibel exchange.”

Drawing from his own cache of experiences, Faruk pivoted the discussion towards stressing upon education. “If you read the stories coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the first thing that strikes you is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1976, my mother wanted to drive. It was unheard of in the Indian Community in South Africa, and as a response to her choice, my grandfather convened a family meeting. My father was called aside and told that if his wife was given the chance to drive, the other daughters-in-law in the family would make similar demands. My father was very quiet and subservient, and didn’t quite oppose it. That made me realise that there are a lot of gaps in people’s lives – we are often confined by a closed upbringing that tends to allow a lot of wrongs to thrive. Coming back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – it was an experience of a different sort altogether. Families got closer, and the stories that came out did not fail to shock people. I think part of the process of effecting change is to have a unified direction in governmental rule – progress is only at snail’s pace with legislation. The greater part of the process of effecting change is to give importance to the way the younger generation is educated. Children today are a lot better than their predecessor generations – they are colour blind, they are tolerant, and they have a lot of ambitions and dreams. A lot of what is happening in India today in terms of development is largely because of the foundation that Nehru set in the 1940s.”

Looking back on his own experiences, Rex recollected that many young girls, back when he was still a little boy, would often be married off early. The education of girls needed a place in society, but has long been denied it’s due. “In Tamil Nadu, where I grew up, many girls faced a lot of discrimination. My mother was a primary school teacher. I remember she would tell me about intelligent girls in her class, most of who were married off when they were only eleven, twelve or even thirteen. This was in the 1980s, and all of these girls had tremendous potential to boot – had they been given the education they deserved, they could have been engineers, doctors, lawyers and whatnot. With the 1990s, the government began to make changes, and girls were beginning to be educated as compulsory rules came into place. There were staunch reinforcement endeavours to ensure that more girls would be given their place in schools, but I suppose it is still not enough.”

Concerned about the dilution of education, with his understanding of the situation in Northern India, Ashay explained that the need to standardise the kind of education that schools dispense is imminent. “Education is definitely important – but we also need to understand that the kind of education we are giving our girls and boys, isn’t up to the mark. If you went into the interiors of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra or Bihar, it wouldn’t take much time to see that there is a glaring gap between the private schooling standards and those that we give to disenfranchised communities through the instrument of government established schools. Many schools lack infrastructure, there aren’t enough teachers – the teacher to student ratio is dismal to say the least. The problem stems from the fact that we are governed by leaders who are yet to be sensitised. To provide education is one thing – but we need to be sure that we give them quality education. By quality education, I don’t mean just the regular examination-based curriculum that deals with academics, but also education that makes people well-rounded individuals that are capable of a good value system.”

Building the big picture

But how far can education make a difference, if the children go back to homes that reinforce parochial thinking? Should we be working with parents too?

Faruk opened comments on this question with a few thoughts buttressed by experience: 
“When my elder daughter, Razeenah, was growing up, I remember how she would come back home every evening with her head full of ideas from school. They were formative years, and in those times – as it is common in many cases today, many of the teachers were women. Razeenah would come home and begin nearly every sentence with ‘My teacher says’, and we couldn’t argue with what came after. Parents must agree and see the right things for what they are: positive influences on their child. Parents entrust their children in the hands of outsiders even when their wards are at a very young age, and it is important to never underestimate the power and influence that that kind of exposure has on children.”

To Rex, the onus seems to lie upon the family to ensure that children are given full freedom to question and to indulge in meaningful conversations: 
“It is important that parents should have candid conversations with their children. It is very important to introspect, to ask and to reflect – and to ask the right questions and reflect in the right manner. Families must get their children to focus on the bigger story always, and must seek to complement and supplement the efforts of schools in widening the horizons of children.”

Ashay emphasises that it isn’t just the parents, but also the teachers. Given that we entrust children in their hands, it is important that they be sensitised towards gender issues, and be equally competent in infusing a state of respect for equality: 
“Start talking to your children, and be open to communicating. It isn’t of any use to shy away from infusing gender in the rhetoric – tell your sons not to be violent, tell them not to harm, and not to inflict violence on girls. At the same time, tell your girls not to be the victims that society tends to slot them as, tell them to let go and to speak out against any violations and trespasses. The greatest crime is silence – and we have to be practical in our education of our children.”

Winding down

An hour sped by faster than we imagined – and our version of “Three Men and a not-so-little-Lady” had some very poignant thoughts to take home for each of us. Rex gave the group a simple message, that we must seek to be the change we want to see, and allow the fragrance of that change to emanate from our every deed. Faruk believes in the ultimate goal of peace, and left the group with a simple message to be proponents of peace – and to discard the word “against” from our rhetoric, for all change simply must be positive, and it can’t happen if we don’t work together. Ashay’s closing comments pretty much summed up the insightful subliminal text of the entire session: that women and men are equal, and that it is high time that we begin treating them both as equals.