Feminism & the cult of silence

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that there is a ‘cult of silence’ in the country and the society you live in, especially for issues involving women’s position in society and their rights? If yes, then what are the specific issues? Is it harmful? In what way?

ARIN: No, I live in New Zealand. NZ has a long and well-established tradition of equal voice for men and women. NZ was the first country in the world to give women power of suffrage. In New Zealand, the workforce participation for women is at 64% (2015 data) and the gender pay gap is one of the lowest in the world (12%, 2016 data, source: Ministry for Women Page, Government of New Zealand).

New Zealand has a long and well established history of equal participation of women in almost every walk of life. Women first started to vote in 1893 (the Maori voted in 1868 following the establishment of the NZ Constitutional Act in 1852). It was the first country in the world where all of the highest offices in the Government were occupied by women: Queen Elizabeth II (Crown Sovereign), Dame Silvia Cartwright (Governor), Helen Clark (Prime Minister), Dame Sian Elias (Chief Justice), and Margaret Wilson (Speaker of the NZ House of Representatives). Much of  There is no "cult of silence" in New Zealand in terms of issues involving women's posi-tion in society in general. However, that said, it is also a multicultural society and an increasing number of people arrive and settle in this country.  While the gender balance is well established in the country as a whole, there are isolated areas and communities (such as Afghan, Pakistani, Indian, and other communities) where a "cult of silence" may prevail and to which the mainstream NZ society may not pay much attention.

SONGSOPTOK: In case you think that there is no such cult, can you please explain why you think so? With some examples, if possible

ARIN: In order to achieve high levels of human development, a society would have to ensure gender equity, also see here this Chart ; a society that would aim at higher levels of development would necessarily have to address gender inequity for their own growth. For some countries and societies it is a natural state or process. Also, specifically in those societies, where indigenous communities prevail and not been influenced by loss of their traditions, these societies traditionally have stronger gender roles.

According to a UN document, ‘In indigenous communities, men and women have different gender roles and responsibilities and for that reason they also often have different needs, desires and interests. Traditionally, indigenous women were generally respected by indigenous men and had equal access to and control over collective land and natural resources. However, with the gradual loss of collective ownership of lands and other natural resources and the introduction by dominant outsiders of institutions of private property, indigenous women progressively lost their traditional rights to lands and natural resources. The following has been a familiar pattern in many indigenous communities: As the indigenous economy, guided by the values of generalized reciprocity , symbolic complementarity and customary laws that cherish gender equity and equality, weakened, male members of some indigenous communities became sole inheritors of lands and other property. As a result, female members have been deprived of their rights of traditional access to lands and other resources’ (Source: UN Briefing Note on Gender and indigenous people)

In New Zealand, both these conditions prevailed. New Zealand started as a British Colony but they soon had their own distinct identity as a separate nation and virtually broke away from Britain although they retained the monarchy. Besides, the Maori population and social practices continue to play a very important role in NZ society today.

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that there has always been a cult of silence in human societies regarding certain issues? If yes, then for what reasons? Do you think that it is actually a good thing to perpetuate such a practice? Please tell us know why.

ARIN: I tend to think of the "cult of silence" in many different perspectives as they manifest in many different ways. In some situations, it is bystander indifference: it is viewing another viewing in terms of "otherness" and this prevents many people to take action when one experiences discrimination. It is hard to explain the case of discrimination against women and attitude of men and women. Sometimes, it is power role that men and women play in different situations (one may feel powerless to protest). At other times, people seem to be bullied by other people and feel too weak to protest. Yet at other times, "Stockholm Syndrome" like situation prevails. Some people, specifically women in this case, tend to develop a psychological alliance with dominant males as if in a captive situation and would not protest, or worse, behave in a way that makes the situation worse for women who suffer as a result of male oppression.

SONGSOPTOK: Is there a feminist movement in your country? If yes, then what are the specific objectives? In your opinion, is it necessary? If not, then what are the main reasons for its absence?

ARIN: Yes, and it has largely been successful. In 1852, NZ passed the Constitution Act, and in 1893, the women's suffrage movement resulted in voting rights for the women. In 2005-2006, NZ was the first country in the world where women occupied the top positions in the government. The Maori have a strong element of equality of women's rights.

Stewart-Harawira (2007) for example writes,
I am also of northern Scots descent. Hence I approach this chapter conscious of my dual heritage yet positioning myself as neither hybrid nor of multiple subjectivities. I am simply both. Both descent lines were once strongly matriarchal. Neither can be described thus today. Historical forms of imperialism and colonialism have contributed to the rewriting of Indigenous histories and the re-gendering of our societies.’

(Citation: Stewart-Harawira, M. (2007). Practicing indigenous feminism: Resistance to imperialism)

SONGSOPTOK: What, in your opinion, is the position of women in the country you live in? Do they have equal rights in every domain as men? If not, then which are the main areas where they receive unequal treatment?

ARIN: This has already been answered in the above passages.

SONGSOPTOK: A ‘glass ceiling’ is a metaphor used to represent an invisible barrier that keeps women from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy. Do you believe in this concept? What is your personal experience in your personal and professional life? In the country you live in are there glass ceilings in different professions?

ARIN: "Glass Ceiling" effect for gender does not exist in New Zealand. Unfortunately, "glass ceiling" in the metaphorical sense of an apparently clear/transparent/non-obvious barrier is a reality for women and suppressed or minority groups in many countries in the world. In first world countries, such barriers exist for women professionals and people of colour or non-dominant races (such as people from indigenous races, and African-Americans for example, and migrant or refugees for most countries). Even within communities, such barriers exist. While documentation of such barriers is very difficult to establish, partly because people who never have a chance to represent themselves in position of power can never demonstrate that they were denied, and there is a culture of denial from those in the position of power, it is nevertheless a reality when viewed from the perspective of those who suffer from its existence. Such stories are not always dominant stories in media, and more often than not, they are denied.

I have personally not experienced this "ceiling effect", although I have observed deserving colleagues who suffer; in geopolitics, these examples are not hard to find.

SONGSOPTOK: What is your opinion about the feminist movement? Do you think it is necessary, both at a global and a more local level? Why? In this context, what do you think are the major achievements of the Feminist movement, if any?

ARIN: There is a clear and present need for feminist movement worldwide, even in those countries where feminism is well established. One way to view this as a natural balance towards human tendency to tilt power in favour of those in power and gender imbalance in many countries is a matter of serious concern. Therefore, feminist movements are not only needed globally, but should be organised locally and if possible, at grassroots level, in as micro-settings (in small communities for that matter), as possible.

Having said that, there have been a number of achievements of the feminist movement, both globally and in the context of individual societies. In my opinion, the greatest achievement of feminist movement is in raising the awareness of the importance of equity and equal participation of women in every walk of life, and increasing support against "masculine" societies. Also, feminist movements have encouraged other disenfranchised communities worldwide, such as the LGBTi (the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, intersexual) communities that have increasingly found voice and encouragement to express their opinions. So, not only have feminist movements been able to shift the perception of women's position in societies worldwide, they have also empowered other people and other communities to find their voices. Yet the battle is far from over and therefore it only need to be strengthened in every way.

SONGSOPTOK: A recent study (conducted by HuffPost/YouGov) concluded that only 20% of Americans identify as feminists, even though a whopping 82% believe that "men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.” Do you find this contradictory, and if so, why? What, according to you, would be the result of a similar study in the country you live in? For what reasons?

ARIN: This is a matter of individual perspective. I'd not say this is contradictory. On the one hand, one could view this on a spectrum: at one end of the spectrum is the idea that men are "more equal" than women and therefore should prevail. On the other end of the spectrum are people who would support that feminism in the way it has allowed women voices, should indicate that "female" voices should prevail over male voices. People who would vouch for equity of genders (parity of genders in this case) would be somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, perhaps more towards the feminist side of the spectrum. If this study were to be conducted in New Zealand, I'd expect that a higher percentage of people would identify themselves as feminists and a much higher percentage (about 95%) would voice their opinions that "men and women should be social, political, and economic equals".

SONGSOPTOK: One of the main areas of the feminist movement is sexual objectification of women almost all across the globe, especially on media. What is the reality in the country you live in and / or your country of origin? What is your opinion about this? Do you think that there is a cult of silence around this issue? Why?

ARIN: In New Zealand in particular, both in media as well as in real life, sexual objectification of women is not much of an issue; men and women in this country dress similarly, use similar tattoos (although among the Maoris, the tattoos have connotations in gender), and "pretentious" over dressing is generally not practiced at all. Also, being a largely agricultural and farming country (where sheep, pasture, livestock, and agriculture is a major source of economy and people hold land), almost all jobs are shared among men and women.

That said, is there a cult of silence worldwide around this issue of portrayal of women? You bet. This silence may be awkward for some, and for many people, fear of being drowned out in the cacophony of angry responses keep them from raising their voices.

SONGSOPTOK: Finally, according to you, to what extent is feminism relevant in today’s society?

ARIN: 100% (Totally) relevant. Please refer to a previous response.

I am a medical doctor and a Professor of Public and Environmental Health at the School of Health Sciences, University of Cantebury, in New Zealand. I am interested in migrant health, environmental health, and in studying how our genes interact with our environment to produce our health and well being. You can find more about me from my University Home Page at http://www.education.canterbury.ac.nz/healthsciences/people/basu.shtml ; I blog at http://medium.com/@arinbasu.

We sincerely thank you for your time and hope to have your continued support.
Aparajita Sen



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