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?

MOUSUMI: Yes, I think that there is a ‘cult of silence’ in my country unlike in many other countries I have lived in. Girls are culturally taught at home to be like the Mother Earth and bear the fruit growing trees and all the “shit”! Excuse my French here. But, that’s how it is. Needless to mention our education system further silences the voice of any curious student eager to raise any question- irrespective of gender differences. It gets worse is the questioning student is a girl in a co-ed school with a male teacher. Even in many girls’ schools, traditional Victorian English and mainstream Indian morality of either elevating the woman as a “Mother Mary”/” Bharat Mata” figure or bringing her down as a deviant slut is dominant. A “pedagogy of subservience” for women to take subservient role in society is still practiced in the schools. The humanity of the girl child is often ignored. That is why I can differentiate between women’s rights and human rights.

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

MOUSUMI: This question is not applicable based on my answer to the first question.

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.

MOUSUMI: There has been always a “cult of silence” in many human societies around the world with respect to non-dominant groups of people of in society. Unequal power relationships between the colonizer vs. the colonized, men vs. women, heterosexuals vs. LGBTQ community, religious majority vs. religious minority, linguistic majority vs. linguistic minority etc. As a global human society, we are in different stages in our struggle for equality and liberation from such unequal power relationships. One of the ways we can take this struggle forward is to let the “subaltern (those who have less power in society) speak” and “doing the act of hearing”, as scholars of subaltern studies would say.

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?

MOUSUMI: Yes, I know that there is a very lively and strong feminist movement in various regions of India. Organizations, such as All India Progressive Women’s Association, Nirantar: A Center for Gender and Education, and public figures, such as Kavita Krishnan, Kamal Bhasin and Archana Dwivedi are at the forefront of this movement.

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?

MOUSUMI: Women receive unequal treatment with respect to every aspect of society and it starts from home when the grand-mother exclaims and sobs seeing the grand-daughter “Hai Ram Ladki hua” (Oh my God – it’s a girl!) as if someone died in the family. The entrenched patriarchy within the Indian society often makes women in comparatively powerful position in social institutions, such as family, educational institutions, office etc, oppress other women, who are perceived as timid and less powerful. This oppression of women by women is perpetuated by the power struggle to hold on to whatever power the older/senior woman gets through the man, who actually wields real power in the society. This power struggle plays out both in family and in workplaces as most of the leadership (decision-making) positions are occupied by men.

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?

MOUSUMI: Of course there is a strong and invisible ‘glass ceiling’ for women in every workplace within India and abroad. I have been working within academia since 2001 when I landed my first teaching job in Kolkata. It has been a long arduous journey for the past 16 years within India and in many countries around the world. I have left many jobs in between and have balanced higher studies with work. The struggle still continues. Based on where I am located in this world, I have experienced multiple layers of ‘glass ceilings’ based on my gender, class, caste, race, nationality etc. Though I know that, I am comparatively privileged for being a girl child with a Hindu Brahmin last name within the Indian context. Though this name does not make much difference abroad, as I have experienced being stereotyped as a Brown-skin Bangladeshi Muslim! Yet, this position of privilege seems slippery when I come across sexist or patronizing comments from male peers and even junior co-workers!

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?

MOUSUMI: For me the feminist movement is the struggle for equal rights of all citizens of this world, irrespective of gender differences. Without the feminist movement- both global and local, I would not have probably been writing answers to these questions today. My own access to education and pursuit of higher education was not just because of a doting feminist father and a strong mother. It was the fruit of a long struggle for women’s education in Europe and in India- a radical movement for women’s education in Europe, as well as in India (irresepective of caste and class differences) led by pioneering figure, such as Savitribai Phule and European missionaries, who inspired her.

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?

MOUSUMI: In the recent years extremist feminist movements, such as “pussy-riots” have often made many younger generation women resist being identified as feminists, though they believe in equal rights for all human beings. I think that the extremist feminist movements have created a negative stereotype about feminism in contemporary times, especially in the West.  It would be good to conduct a follow-up study in the context of President Trump and his statements about women, as the feminist movement particularly in the US has received new impetus.

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?

MOUSUMI: I often wonder about this objectification issue, when the first comment I hear from male acquaintances of school/college days when they discover me on social media or in any event after many years. The comment is almost always about my looks at this stage of my life! Rather than any comment or statement about my higher education and professional accomplishments. My reaction on social media is to ignore or delete their comments. In real life, I simply avoid such men. Of course, there is a ‘cult of silence’ about this issue particularly in this region of the world, ie. India. Though in recent years, young actors, such as Kalki Koechlin is trying to challenge this through provocative videos. There is also a strong on-going movement against objectification of women, especially on media in the US. The 2011, American documentary “Miss Representation” is a good example.

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

MOUSUMI: In this polarized era of Trump and extremist “Pussy Riots” feminism is now more relevant than ever before. We (irrespective of gender differences) need to work together for resepectful relationships and an equal society. I would like to end with a favourite quote of mine from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Chitrangoda”, which is I think is a quintessential feminist line written by a man, who was the product of a deeply patriarchal society. But, he sought freedom, dignity and equality for all through his creative and educational work:

"I am Chitrangoda. Neither goddess nor servant am I. If you let me stand by your side at your darkest hour, let me be the friend of your soul, let me share in your joys and sorrows, only then shall you know me."

 “A feminist (irrespective of gender) is someone who respects everybody as a human being with equal rights”

My name is Dr. Mousumi Mukherjee. I am the first woman in my family to pursue higher education and research within India and abroad. I am a life-long learner, educator, researcher, administrator and consultant. I have received Fulbright fellowship for teaching, and several awards for research and contribution in the area of international education. I am a Congress Standing Committee Member of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies (WCCES), a global NGO affiliated with the UNESCO. Right now I work as Assistant Director of the International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building (IIHEd) at O.P. Jindal Global University, India.

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



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