SONGSOPTOK:  What is your earliest memory about being a girl?

ANCHITA GHATAK: I have always known I was a girl. I grew up with my younger sister and many girl cousins. However, my earliest memory of exclusion is having to read a book called ‘Chheleder Ramayan’ in school. Chheleder means ‘for boys’. I was unwilling to accept that ‘chheleder’ meant ‘for children’. In my view, the book should have been called ‘Chhotoder Ramayan’ or ‘Bachchader Ramayan’. Bachcha means children. Very literally, chhoto means small but is also a synonym for child.

SONGSOPTOK:  Where did you go to school? Was it a girls’ school? If yes, then why do you think your parents send you to a school for girls? If not, why?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Most of my school years, from the age of 9 to 18, were spent in Modern High School for Girls in Calcutta. I have also studied in co-educational schools in Malda, Darjeeling and Delhi. When we came to Calcutta, after Delhi, I told my parents that I wanted to go back to Modern High School, where many of my cousins studied, and where I had studied before we moved to Malda.

SONGSOPTOK:   A lot of studies indicate that the gender segregation starts in school. What is your experience?

ANCHITA GHATAK: I am not sure what exactly you mean by gender segregation here. What about children who don’t go to school – don’t they experience gender segregation? Gender discrimination starts long before school. In a society with such strong son preference as ours, gender discrimination begins even before a child is born. I feel there is much gender stereotyping in co-educational schools as well. Both my sons used to go to a co-educational Montessori school and come back and tell me that Aunty X has said, “Boys can be doctors and girls can be nurses.”

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you remember any incident(s) from your childhood where you witnessed gender discrimination? What are your thoughts about that?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Of course, I noticed that the world expected different things from boys / girls, men / women. In our childhood, when results of public exams were declared, the newspapers and people in general would say, “So and so is first among girls”.“Do they have a separate exam for girls?” I would ask myself.

SONGSOPTOK:  Now going on to college / university – what according to you were the advantages / disadvantages of being a woman? Do you think that women were treated fairly by the educational institutions?

ANCHITA GHATAK: I studied in the English Department of Jadavpur University. There were more women students in the Department than men. Of course, in our days, the general feeling was that men who studied the Humanities, were less than the men who made it to the IITs or other engineering colleges or  the medical colleges. Malini Bhattacharya, a beloved teacher, wrote Meye Dile Sajiye (To Give A Daughter Away) in Bengali, during our student days at JU. I think, this was one of the earliest anti-dowry plays in post Independence India. I am always proud to say that I acted in this play. At the same time, we did not have adequate drinking water facilities for students and the less said about the toilets in JU, the better. Even in women dominated departments, like ours, the issues of drinking water and toilets did not come up for serious discussion. When I joined JU, in 1981, there were no women students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The first woman student of Mechanical Engineering in JU joined in 1982.

SONGSOPTOK:  A lot has been written about the unsafe environment in India for women, especially on public transports. What is your personal experience? Has the situation deteriorated over time? Are the streets of your city less safe today than let us say a decade back? If so, what is you analysis of the situation?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Street harassment, which is euphemistically called ‘eve teasing’ in India, has been a reality in Calcutta for at least 40 years now. Stares, comments and taunts on streets, molestation on buses and trains, men bumping into you ‘accidentally’ in cinema queues, in shops and markets are par for the course. In our younger days, women were expected to ‘deal’ with it. Somehow, there was not much talk about men changing the way they behave.

Even today, the state, families, educational institutions and many more, would much rather lecture women about ‘dressing decently’ and ‘not taking risks’ than tackle the issue of street harassment against women . Despite that, people are now talking much more about street harassment. Some feminist organizations/NGOs are working on women and girls’ right to mobility, about the freedom to travel without restrictions, academics are writing about women’s (and girls’) right to the streets and their freedom to take risks. We have a long way to go from victim blaming to making the right to mobility a reality for women, but at least the silence around the issue is breaking and the discussion has begun.

If governments in India, both at the Centre and in different states, are serious about women’s safety and mobility, they should focus on proper street lighting, on providing toilets for women, and make comfortable, accessible , affordable public transport available round the clock. This will not completely eliminate street harassment and violence against women and trans people but will make it easier for women to travel and will be far more effective than CCTV in curbing harassment and violence against women.

SONGSOPTOK:  According to you, to what extent is the patriarchal society in India responsible for the status of women? Do you see any reflection of the patriarchal control in your own/extended family?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Patriarchy is rule of the father. In India, in most communities, children have their father’s surnames. Legally too, in India, there is the concept of ‘illegitimate’ children. So, patriarchy devalues women, doesn’t it? Also, patriarchy exists almost all over the world and in most cultures.

My view is that the family, as we know it, is inherently a patriarchal institution. I have my father’s surname and I am in a heterosexual marriage. You tell me whether my family is patriarchal. Also, it is important to understand that patriarchy manifests itself in different ways. 

SONGSOPTOK: Do you think that social status (caste, class, affluence) plays a significant role in how women are treated in India? How? Are there significant differences in the status of women in urban & rural India?

ANCHITA GHATAK: There are many factors that contribute to marginality/ inequality. Caste, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, (dis) ability – all of these contribute to putting you in your place. Compare being a Dalit, hearing impaired, heterosexual, 20 something, married, saleswoman in a shop in Delhi with being a Brahmin, lesbian, wheelchair bound, college lecturer in Delhi. Compare their lives and see the kinds of difficulties they face, the kinds of support they receive, the opportunities and resources they can access ….

Are you asking about differences between rural women and urban women? Or comfortably off / rich women and poor women? Women living in slums in cities or on the streets are very poor. Yet, a street dweller woman’s life in Calcutta is different from the life of a landless woman agricultural worker in Parbotipur village in south 24 Parganas.

SONGSOPTOK:  Would you say that there is equal treatment of women in the workplace? Are women given the same opportunities as men? Has the situation evolved compared to the earlier generation?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Article 39 of the Constitution of India states that the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing (a) that the citizen, men and women equally shall have the right to an adequate livelihood and (b) that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women. This is also supported by different legislation, for example, the Minimum Wages Act.

In the organised sector, on paper at least, men and women in India, have the same rights. For example, there will not be any difference in pay or benefits for men and women Chartered Accountants working in public sector companies. Women employed in the organised sector are entitled to maternity leave. Is there a glass ceiling? Officers of the Indian Administrative Service will tell you that women officers are usually given ‘soft’ portfolios like Social Welfare or Health, at the Secretary level. Again, till quite recently, the Foreign Secretary of India was a woman.

Rights of workers in the Unorganised Sector continue to be unprotected, despite legislation and many efforts. Employers, including the government, often find loopholes not to pay workers minimum wages. If you don’t pay workers the minimum wage, are you likely to pay men and women equal wages?

India was proudly Socialist till the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s. Many gains of labour movements are getting eroded with the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and the withering / weakening of the public sector. While labour unions may not have been the epitome of gender equality, they succeeded in gaining rights for several sections of workers, both men and women. The growing power of big corporations is inimical to a vision of equality and in such a climate, can you possibly have gender equality?

Sexual harassment of women at the workplace is a vexing issue. The Vishaka Guidelines (1997), came into force after a long struggle by several women’s organisations and sexual harassment was defined and measures for preventing and redressing sexual harassment were put in place. Now, we also have the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013

SONGSOPTOK: Has the position and status of women evolved at home compared to your mother’s generation? Do women today have more decision-making power within the family structure? Can you explain your answer?

ANCHITA GHATAK: The privileged castes/classes have gained greatly from struggles for women’s equality in India. I don’t see my mother’s generation as a homogenous powerless or powerful generation of women.

Maybe, I should tell you a bit about my mother. My mother is a post graduate in English.She married my father, who was her classmate, and like her, a Bengali. My parents belong to the same caste. My mother changed her surname after marriage. She is religious, wears sindur and does not address my father by his name.

My mother worked as a primary school teacher from 1970 to 1998. She is diabetic, has serious mobility problems because she has had several falls. She is almost 78 years old and still continues to teach voluntarily at a centre for underprivileged children. She also has some private pupils, most of whom don’t pay.  Till last year, she also volunteered at another school. She is a great cook, a fabulous organiser and loves to invite people over for meals. She is also the chief organiser at most events involving her immediate and extended family. 

SONGSOPTOK: If you’re the parent of a girl child, how are your concerns different from your mother’s generation? If you’re the parent of a boy child, do you take initiative to discuss matters of gender equality with him?

ANCHITA GHATAK: I have two sons – both adults now. Yes, we often discuss gender equality. My younger son, aged 21, was one of the organisers of HysteriaFemCon, a feminist conference, voluntarily organised by young people, which was held in Calcutta (Kolkata) in January, 2015.

SONGSOPTOK:  According to you, what needs to be done to improve the situation of women not only in India but all over the world? How can women contribute – at home, at work, at social & political levels?

ANCHITA GHATAK: I am not content with visioning an improved situation of women. We need to change the way we view the world. Is a gender equal world possible if we believe in wars? Your magazine, too, is named after an army.

Also, I am uncomfortable when you ask how women can contribute. The issue often is that women’s contributions are not recognised. Let us take housework. It is still considered women’s responsibility but not ‘real work’. Wages for domestic workers, consequently, are low and they have no rights or benefits. Women’s agricultural labour is often unrecognised or undervalued. We can keep adding to the list.

SONGSOPTOK:  Violence against women is a global problem today that manifests itself in different forms in different societies. And the problem seems to be growing every day in spite of preventive measures. What, in your opinion, should be the priority in India? How do you see the role of the civil society in this context?

ANCHITA GHATAK: Yes, violence against women (VAW) is a serious global issue. If we look at VAW in India, we have to understand it in connection with violence against various groups of powerless people – indigenous people, Dalits, Muslims and other religious minorities, differently abled people, LGBTQI people, people having different political opinions and so on. The state has to ensure that all people can live a life free of violence.

If as a people, we want to stop VAW, we have to recognise the problem and admit that the reasons for the violence lie with the perpetrators of such violence, who are largely male. Let us stop blaming women for the violence that is inflicted on them. The issue is not so much about what we should do when there is violence against women but whether we want to do anything? Or are our consciences salved by pointing fingers?

SONGSOPTOK:   What are views on women’s empowerment? What should be the priorities here (economic / social / cultural/ educational…

ANCHITA GHATAK: This requires a long discussion. I am not competent to do it in the scope of this interview.

SONGSOPTOK:  Do you think the situation of women in India can evolve in the years to come? What is your vision for the future?

ANCHITA GHATAK: When you say ‘evolve’, I am assuming you mean change for the better. Many of us in India work on women’s rights and other issues of social justice because we believe we must work for transformation. Our understanding of women’s rights and gender issues has also changed from our experiences. At present, many of us in women’s movements are learning to think of gender beyond binaries and seeing how we can most effectively bring this to our work. In other words, we can no longer say that there are only two genders, namely, male and female. We have to recognise that there are people with varied gender identities and we must be in solidarity in our struggles. Also, personally, I would love to see the end of militarism and the end of the institution of marriage. That would make patriarchy crumble!

[ANCHITA GHATAK, women’s rights activist and independent development professional ; Secretary of Parichiti – A Society for Empowerment of Women.]

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

(EDITOR: Songsoptok)


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