Louise Raw discusses India’s ongoing genocide on women and how this tragedy is often perpetuated by women themselves with the founder and direcor of 50 Million Missing Rita Banerji
IN THE first of this two-part special for International Women’s Day, we looked at the traumatic childhood of Karishma, born to a wealthy family in Bengal in 2008. Because of her sex, her paternal grandparents had rejected her from birth, starved her, tried to kill her and subjected her to frequent and brutal beatings.
Her mother, Roopa, came to the attention of gender activist Rita Banerji whilst recuperating at her parents’ house after her in-laws tried to kill her by forcing her to drink acid. It was Rita who named Karishma: at two years old, she’d never been given a name.
Roopa was given counselling and support but, despite attempts to prevent her, she returned to the marital home, seeing this as her duty.
When I interviewed Banerji, I knew Karishma’s story up to this point but no further. There was nothing I wanted to know more than what had happened to her. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear the answer.
But the coda to the story was quite unexpected.
“In a way she has been lucky,” Banerji told me, “and so has her mother.”
Banerji had expected that, should Karishma not be killed, she would probably be sold — as young as five or six — into the sex trade. This is frequently done with unwanted girls. It spares families the expense of having to provide a dowry from them.
Against all the odds, however, and due to twists of fate, both Roopa and Karishma survived.
“Karishma’s father developed a spinal problem,” said Banerji, “and is confined to bed. His parents are aged and very unwell. So Roopa’s mother is taking care of all of them but they are too incapacitated to hurt her now. I speak to Karishma (now aged nine) as well as her mother.”
Far from a fairytale happy ending but Banerji is right. Karishma is, compared to many, lucky.
Fifteen million Indian females are believed to be murdered in India every generation. Foeticide, infanticide, dowry and “face-saving” murders with the excuse of “honour,” the killings take many forms but are all carried out with hatred and contempt for the female at their root.
This isn’t, of course, entirely unknown territory to us in the West but speaking to Banerji and reading her work highlighted how little I knew.
Louise Raw (LR): We tend to have a default belief in the West that education leading to increased wealth and modernity are the answers to most social problems.
We seem to accept this even in the teeth of the evidence. In theory, women here are freer than ever to live their own lives, albeit within the confines of a patriarchal system. At the same time we have seen a growth in covert, and increasingly overt, misogyny.
You say the same thing is true of India, and educating women and giving them better access to employment etc has not proved to be the answer to female infanticide.
In fact, you suggest middle and upper-class families are the worst offenders?
Rita Banerji (RB): “Louise, the reason the middle and upper-income strata have higher rates of femicide is simple: it benefits the wealthier patriarchy economically to do away with women. The reason poorer communities have much lower rates of femicide (in fact the poorest 20 per cent are the only strata with a normal sex ratio for girls and women) is because it benefits the poorer patriarchy economically to let women live.”
Women’s lives hanging in the balance as financial assets or liabilities was something I’d read about in Banerji’s writing. I’d found her explanation of the iniquitous dowry system chilling in its calm logic: “What is this driving compulsion to be rid of daughters, particularly with upward social mobility?
“The answer is dowry — the insidious, misogynist, patriarchal politics of wealth ownership and distribution. The more wealth a family accrues, the more invested it becomes in the patriarchal retention of that wealth and it views daughters as a threat to that goal.”
The wealthier a family and more educated the daughter, the bigger the dowry she was expected to provide: “Dowry is seen as a way of dispensing with a daughter who then can make no further claims on the family’s inheritance, but because of their education daughters are increasingly fighting for their legal share of parental property.
“On the other hand, a man not only has an inherent right to his own parents’ property but to his wife’s parents’ wealth too. A son is an easy means of wealth acquisition; the more educated he is, the larger the dowry the family feels entitled to demand.”
Despite overt insistence on female morality, sexual exploitation of females is also rife: “Millions of girls are leased or sold as domestic help in urban areas, as labour in fields and factories and to the sex industry.
“Another thriving business involves the sale of thousands of girls as brides through a network of agents to wealthier states with low sex ratios.
“These girls are kept as slaves, to sexually abuse, to bear babies and are abused and exploited by all the men of the house, before they are resold as “brides” to another family.
In Hyderabad, there’s a flourishing business where wealthy paedophiles from Gulf countries pay poor Muslim families handsomely to arrange a temporary “marriage” with their underage daughters, who they enslave, abuse and divorce before returning to their countries.
There was no condemnation from religious leaders: “The mullahs have said feminists should not complain and think about how this arrangement is so beneficial to these girls’ families.” These overwhelming and seemingly intractable horrors are the background to Indian women’s lives — and the stuff of Banerji’s work every day.
I wondered how she, and they, coped psychologically. How did she stop the anger she must feel from becoming corrosive?
RB: “‘Anger’ is the hardest emotion to explain in this. We grow up hearing stories of girl babies abandoned or killed after birth and women hanged or set on fire like it is all normal. It’s just local gossip, nothing that’s meant to outrage anyone. I can personally respond with anger to misogyny that I witness or experience. But the lesson I have learnt, after much frustration, is that I can’t dictate to others how to feel, even to women who are victimised.
“I find that when women are abused, they are rarely angry.
“The women if they seek intervention are simultaneously protective of their abusers and just want intervention to stop the abuse or the threat to their life, not punish. They get upset with me, if I get angry with their abusive families and stop sharing with me.
“So I have had to learn not to show it. That does not mean that I have to normalise or accept it for myself. But if I am dealing with a case, I’ve had to learn to retain my anger and either vent it or come to terms with it in my own personal space, and ‘unemotionally’ stay focused — in as neutral and empathetic a manner as possible — on the case.
LR: This normalisation of terrifying crimes must take a psychological toll on women, even if subconsciously?
RB: “Yes — it’s not a normal human response to violence and abuse. Flight or fight is a normal, psychological response when your life is in danger. I think the impact on women in India compares to Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. Women collectively have internalised cultural misogyny.
“What’s terrifying is how they ensure its perpetuation in how they raise their daughters and respond to each other as women.
“The killing of girl babies after birth is almost always planned and executed by the paternal grandmothers and aunts who see themselves as the flag bearers of the male “name,” the patriarchy, and gang up on the daughter-in-law for dowry and for bearing girls.
“Depression in women is one of the highest rates in the world and within India it’s 50 per cent higher in women than in men.”
LR: You’ve said before that you think the only answer for India is a feminist revolution. Can you see this coming about and what can you and 50 Million Missing do to assist it?
RB: Unfortunately, I don’t see one coming. The one thing Indian women are averse to doing is bringing the revolution home. But that is where misogyny is born, learnt and reinforced. The issue of bodily autonomy which is so fundamental to human rights not just of women, but anyone, is first squashed at home. And that’s why home is where the rebellion must begin.
“Social feminist revolutions everywhere — including the West, South America, and even Saudi Arabia (right now the issue with male guardianship) recognise that. Rapes on streets, on buses by strangers cause public outrage in India.
“But rapes and other horrendous forms of violence on women and girls at home don’t evoke the same anger and outrage. In fact there’s hardly any response. It’s just another female child killed. Another woman burnt or hanged for dowry. The 50 Million Missing Campaign tried to broach this issue through the blogs but there wasn’t much of a response.
“Ultimately it’s something women have to want in their personal lives before it will have any collective impact and a revolution can’t be forced if women are not willing or ready.
LR: It’s incredibly frustrating. How do you explain governmental inaction?
RB: “So far, both the supposed leftwing government that was in power till 2014 and the right-wing government thereafter haven’t seemed interested in dealing with this systematic, mass extermination of women as a human rights crisis. They won’t take the definitive action that’s needed, through the criminal, police and justice system.”
LR: What about your own family; how do they feel about having a famous gender campaigner in their midst?
RB: My family isn’t traditional or conservative in the Indian sense but my issue has always been with an underlying sexism.
“They would never condone dowry or female foeticide. I think Indians or even westerners probably see them as ‘progressive.’ I was encouraged to study, work and travel, free to choose whatever I wanted to do, marry or not, wear what I wanted.
“When I went to the US on a scholarship in the late ’80s, I was 18. This was very unusual for a young Indian woman.
“I worked part-time, waitressing and so on and Indian immigrant parents there were shocked my parents had ‘allowed’ me to come by myself, and work and live on my own. But the question of ‘allowing’ had never come up.
“My parents might not like my choices, but I was free to make them.
“But still, I’ve always been sensitive to an underlying, sexist, gendered environment in the family, which is not overt, so is hard to pin-point or explain. My mother always looked to her father or husband for advice.
“After they both passed away, she would go to other men in her family, or professional men she knew — and I’ve often discovered these ‘advisers’ taking advantage of her financially. I can tell her that, but unless she hears it from a man, she doesn’t feel at ease. This is so conditioned within her. She denies it and resents it when I catch her at it.
“My sensitivity to violence on women comes from having witnessed it within my own family, including my mother and grandmother. I have resented it, extremely, and stood up to it.
“After one visit with a male relative and his wife, who had only been married two years, I picked up on signs he was abusing her. I warned him. Later I told my mother I was sure this woman would dump him soon, and she did, within a month. But this man’s mother told mine: ‘Don’t let Rita know.’ So she didn’t tell me I had been right!
“They don’t comment on my work with women’s rights, but things like that show they’re wary in how they deal with me.
LR: What about the rest of society; do you receive negative press attention in India for your work?
RB: The campaign does get hate mail on social media sometimes but I don’t recall getting any negative press from the mainstream media in India. I respond with information to those who seem ill-informed. And with a firm and repetitive assertion of my stand that this is a global human rights issue that has to be addressed, to those generally interested in shutting us up.
“That’s why I set up 50 Million Missing as a multi-faceted, zero-funds campaign, rather than an NGO (nongovernmental organisation). That would make it harder to harass us or target our funding and close us down, as has happened with NGOs with ‘unpopular’ causes.
LR: Is there anything we can do from Britain?
RB: “There’s a petition on change. org on femicide. Another one we need urgent help with is for justice for Uma, who was burnt to death for her dowry. Her family fears that with police corruption, Uma’s in-laws who are influential will go scot-free, as is often the case.”
LR: Finally, Rita, having spent 12 years in the US, what’s your advice on what Western women need to do to fight misogyny?
RB: “I think the biggest challenge to women everywhere is to overcome the misogyny we are socialised and conditioned to accept as normal. So normal, that we often don’t recognise it even when it hurts us individually and/or collectively.
“So the question to always ask is this: if this violence was happening to a person because of their race or religion, would we accept that explanation or solution?
“If someone told us that the genocide of Jews couldn’t be stopped because anti-semitism was so deeprooted in society and that the solution was education and economic empowerment of the Jews, so that they would not be mass killed, it would be ridiculous.
“As women we need to ask ourselves why we accept these facetious explanations and solutions for such widespread and systemic male violence against us and our sisters the world over.”
Louise Raw is author of Striking a Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and Their Place in History and organiser of the annual Matchwomen’s Festival. For more information visit facebook.com/Matchwomen. For more on the 50 Million Missing campaign, follow them on facebook: mstar. link/50MMFB. To sign the petition for baby Uma visit: mstar.link/BabyUma