‘Silence like a cancer grows’ sang Simon & Garfunkel in their ‘Sound of Silence’ back in 1964 and the line was in my head when we chose the topic this month about Feminism and the cult of silence. The question we asked ourselves was whether Feminism is a highly relevant and burning topic even today because of the conspiracy of silence around all issues relating to women’s rights and the position of women in the highly patriarchal and largely male dominated societies in the world. While preparing to write this article, I became aware of a lot of other things as I read about the experiences of women who, since the middle of 19th century have fought relentlessly for what, by definition, are fundamental human rights – education, healthcare, right to own property, right to work, to bring up children, to vote etc. for women. I suddenly realized that silence is not the only obstacle they had to fight against. Equally important were the cults of ‘deafness’ and what I call ‘noise’, which, in communication theory is defined as ‘irrelevant or meaningless data or output occurring along with desired information’ that pollutes what is intended to be communicated.

It is important to state, at the outset, what I understand by ‘feminism’. The word has been used and abused in many ways and colored by different interpretations. A feminist is a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. This is the simplest definition I could find. So a feminist is not necessarily a female. All females are not feminists. A large number of men are feminists as well though they did not burn their bra. Feminists do not proclaim women to be better or greater than men but want equal rights and powers in all spheres. Feminism is not a battle of the sexes – it is a fight for equal rights.

A quick recapitulation of the feminist movement that started in 19th century and continues today is necessary to develop my arguments. The ‘First-wave’ feminism that started mainly in the UK and the USA and continued till early twentieth century focused on the promotion of equal contract, marriage, parenting, and property rights for women. By the end of the 19th century, activism focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women's suffrage. The word ‘suffragette’ evokes images of women dressed in long gowns hectoring passers-by in street corners in dingy 19th century streets of London or New York. We often forget that a host of countries around the world, and in Europe, accepted women’s suffrage late into 20th century – the notable examples in Europe being Switzerland (1971) and Portugal (1976). Women in many African countries did not obtain their right to vote till the early 1990’s. Feminists campaigned for the reform of family laws which gave husbands control over their wives. In many continental European countries married women still had very few rights well into the 20th century. For instance, in France married women did not receive the right to work without their husband's permission until 1965.

The ‘Second Wave’ feminism was largely concerned with issues of equality beyond suffrage, such as ending gender discrimination. Second-wave feminists perceived women's cultural and political inequalities to be closely linked. They put forward the theory that different aspects of women’s personal lives were deeply politicized by patriarchal societies and sexist power structures. “The Personal is Political’ is the slogan that sums up the objectives of the second wave very aptly.

The ‘Third Wave’ feminism started in the middle of 1990s in the USA and distinguished itself from the second wave around issues of sexuality, challenging female heterosexuality and celebrating sexuality as a means of female empowerment.

As can be seen from the very succinct description of a movement that is only about two centuries old, it becomes obvious that the main objectives of the movement evolved constantly according to the position of women in the (mainly occidental) societies, always with a view to achieving equality irrespective of gender. Maybe this is the major difference of feminism with many other ‘isms’ that have become obsolete or lost all impetus over time. While feminists in the developed Western countries militate for perfect gender equality, those in other parts of the world are still fighting for equal access to education, healthcare and property rights. In this context, it is interesting to note that in the economically developed countries like USA, France or UK, the presence of women in high executive posts in public and private sector companies, in national and local government bodies, political parties and in almost all other types of institutions remain extremely low. The rising rate of domestic and conjugal violence, date rapes and acquaintance rapes in these countries where the majority of victims are women project a somewhat different picture of the level of gender equality actually achieved. Discrimination, blatant and subtle sexism, and sexual harassment continue to plague the workplaces that most women have to fight on an everyday basis. So those who think that feminism is passé should think again, or think differently.

This is what brings me to the heart of this discussion – the influence of silence and deafness and noise that systematically distorts the reality of women in today’s society. From a very early age, girls are taught a specific set of values that gradually gets imprinted in their mental makeup. Whatever the country and its level of development, girls are treated differently from the moment they are born. They are offered dolls, kitchen and dinner sets, and doll’s houses with all the accessories to play with. The Barbie dolls in their different incarnations are their favorite companions. They are taught to be docile and polite. They may not swear or fight or come back home with a bloodied nose and torn school dress. They are encouraged to learn to sing, dance, paint, play musical instruments. By the time they reach puberty, the mental pattern is firmly in place. Emulating their mothers and other older women, girls start thinking about starting families and raising kids and keeping house – a direct transposition of their doll’s houses to real life. How do girls learn about all this? Through their elders – parents, teachers, family members – and through what they see around them. Media, mainly television, objectifies women in all possible ways. Women are portrayed as desirable objects, as obsessed house keepers, as perfect mothers…they are fitted into role models defined by society – in this respect the level of economic development of different countries have practically no role to play. This is the ‘noise’ I want to highlight – instead of teaching and treating girls in exactly the same way as boys which is the fundamental requirement of gender equality, a whole lot of direct and subliminal information is passed on as girls grow up into womanhood that makes gender discrimination almost normal.

In highly patriarchal societies like India, girls learn to be ashamed of their bodies and their femininity as soon as they reach puberty. Menstruation, as natural as growing teeth or hair, is treated as a ‘curse’, to be hidden from everyone and borne in silence. The natural desires brought about by hormonal changes are curbed severely, both for boys and girls. They are initiated naturally in the cult of secret and silence, where all natural sexual desires and urges are considered ‘unnatural.’ Society dictates them to be modest, both in behavior and in attire, concealing their bodies to avoid tempting men – whatever their ages or positions in the family or society. Girls are molested and sexually abused by close or distant family members frequently that are kept under the wraps by the women of the family. The victims, mostly young pubescent girls but sometimes boys are well, are made to feel unclean and blamed for triggering off the sexual lust in adults. And in this cult of silence thrives the oppression of the patriarchal society – where women are made to feel guilty because of their bodies. It is not surprising that only a very small percentage of sexual harassment in schools, universities or workplaces is ever reported or the perpetrators brought to justice.

In these societies, religion and social customs are predominantly responsible from creating the ‘noise’ that prevents girls and women from ever realizing that they are before and above all human beings. The Hindu religion, with its pantheon of powerful female deities, purports to view women as an object of worship and reverence. Women are lulled into believing that they incarnate the supreme force (Shakti) which rules the human world. The Hindu mythology abounds with tales of virtuous women, the prescribed role models, who made incredible sacrifices for their husbands and bore valiant sons who then went ahead to stamp out the evil and rule the world. In short, the main fulfillment of women’s life came from being a good wife and an even better mother. Growing up with this litany from earliest childhood, girls don’t even question its veracity but enters the mold almost willingly.

Domestic and conjugal violence is another area where the cult of silence endures with horrific results. Women almost everywhere in the world are brought up to be ashamed of imperfect marriages or relationships. Obedience, forbearance, tolerance, combined with a dogged belief in keeping up appearances are some of the reasons attributed to the cult of silence around domestic violence. There are other and more complex reasons as well – total dependence – emotional, sexual and economic – on husbands or partners, dogged determination to protect the children, the primal fear of being discarded and left alone – the list can go on and on. I have seen interviews of women beaten black and blue who still defend their partners, putting the blame squarely on their own shoulders or on the children. Women who lock children in cupboards or in the basement for a measure of domestic peace when the man comes home and slurps his pint of beer or his glass of whiskey and switches on the television. This is not a caricature – I promise you. This is what the social workers dealing with conjugal violence report.

So in a world where men and women are still not equal in their everyday lives, how can a movement striving to achieve equality be considered outdated? Yes, most countries have now passed laws designed to protect the interests of women, but to what extent are they implemented? To what extent are the violations reported or redress sought by women? A very small percentage, it seems, according to the reports published by different international organizations. Mainly because women themselves do not want to seek judicial redress in public courts mainly out of fear – fear of scandal, shame and sometimes even bodily harm. So it is not the number of cases reported that reflect the status of women in any country or society. It is the everyday incidents at home, at school, at the workplace and in all other spheres of public life that tell the true story of gender equality. Herein lies the cult of deafness – the refusal of people to listen to the stories that are recounted every day both by men and women. The story of the little girl beaten up by her big brother, the young girl groped on public transport, the woman colleague complaining about rowdy inappropriate jokes, the woman next door hiding her face to conceal the bruise –the real indicators of the position of women in any given society. It is the collective deafness and dumbness that ensures the continuity of gender gaps, fed and nurtured by the noise relating to the status of women.

I was recently reading an article written by Abigail Rine, professor of literature and gender studies. She teaches and conducts workshops in different universities in America on gender equality. A convinced ‘feminist’, she laments ‘I'm tired of doing this myth-debunking dance [about feminism], and, weirdly enough, the conversation often goes more smoothly if I just avoid the "F-Word" entirely.’ She and her colleagues reckon that there is a severe problem about the brand image of feminism. In a TEDxEuston conference, the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described the stereotype associated with the word ‘feminist’ : ‘You hate men, you hate bras, , you think women should always be in charge, you don’t wear makeup, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humor, you don’t use deodorant.’

Feminism, whether you like the word or not, is here to stay. Because the goals of the movement is yet to be achieved; because billions of women all over the world are still fighting for their basic human rights; because women are still systematically oppressed even in the most developed societies; because women, irrespective of their level of education or the social stratum they come from, are discriminated against in almost all male dominated societies. The following quotation by Dale Spender provides the essence of this article:

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’, I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”



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