THE TEXT OF A SPEECH delivered as the chief guest at the International Women’s Day celebrations at the Hyundai plant in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, on March 8 2010.
International Women’s Day is many things – a cause for celebration, a reason to pause and re-evaluate, a remembrance, an inspiration, a time to honour loved and admired ones and in several countries – including China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, but clearly not India! – a public holiday. So I’d like to extend, first of all, a note of thanks to all of you for taking time out of your work schedules to come here, as well as to Hyundai, for inviting me to speak.
On this day, all over the world, we consider both the steps forward toward better lives for women that have been taken in recent times, as well as the progress still required. Necessarily, we name our enemies: patriarchal structures, perhaps, or more specifically, legislative and political decisions, corporate entities, criminal menaces, culture-based ignorance and economic disenfranchisement. They are all significant things, and I am not suggesting that they are not. But I have felt for a long time now that something else is at the heart of female disempowerment. Something that isn’t as easy to deconstruct or dismantle. Something that is difficult to even name, and at times feels bewilderingly counter-intuitive.
What, to me, is at the heart of female disempowerment is the profoundly painful fact of how women can be each others’ worst enemies.
One of the most famous things that former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has gone on record to say is “I think there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” A special place in hell – can you imagine what torment that would be, and how deeply wounded a person has to feel to condemn someone that way? When you think of what she said, that such a special place is reserved for women who don’t help other women – what associations come to mind? I don’t know about you, but my heart burns to remember the countless times I have been betrayed and even sabotaged by women I loved or looked up to – teachers, relatives, peers, friends and colleagues. Haven’t men done the same? Of course they have – but somehow, it stings worse coming from another woman, because of how deeply counter-intuitive it feels. This is the sort of heartburn that makes me think, yes, Albright was right – there is a place in hell for women who don’t help – who hurt – other women. There has to be. Even if there is no Hell – how could there not be such a place? How could such treachery be left without retribution?
There are big ways and little ways to this treachery. The little ways I hardly need to enumerate, because the best examples of these are empirical ones, and you know them in your own life. The big ways tend to be a matter of collusion: for instance, it may have been men who created archaic and repressive social codes, but is it not women who pass them on, who ensure that their families function within and continue to carry forward the same logic? To choose to not break a chain is to choose to propagate it.
We can begin by taking a look at the very fact of us all being in this room today. How did we get here? Each of us have overcome difficulties in our own lives, each of us has dared to dream, and fortunately, has been born in a time where we were able to pursue some if not all of these dreams. We have had access to resources and options which were denied to women of just a few generations ago – resources and options which are even denied to other women today, in this country and elsewhere. Some of us have endured bad luck, made bad decisions, or failed at things we tried our hands at – but we haven’t been ruined by these misfortunes. We have alternatives. We have second, third and ninety-third chances. We have more autonomy than our foremothers may have been able to imagine.
In short, we are all so lucky. And this is only because of the brave women and men who fought for certain rights and equality, who went against the tide of what was acceptable, who challenged the status quo, who refused to take as an answer that “that’s just how things are”. We are here because they did not think of themselves alone. They did not relegate their abilities to simply securing a better life for themselves, but put the vision of a better world above their own personal journeys, and in doing so secured a better life for millions.
I am asking you today if we too can demand a better explanation than “that’s just how things are”. I believe that as women, we are conditioned on a deeply embedded level to be wary of or threatened by, and consequently cruel toward, one another. Perhaps there are biological or evolutionary reasons for this. But I refuse to accept that we cannot evolve female rivalry out of our systems. Larger systems of power, yes, but more importantly, smaller microcosms of the same.
In our own lives, can we get over our mistrust of other women? Can we leave cliques and factions behind in our school years and embrace a greater loyalty? Can we see that another woman’s success need not necessarily mean our own failure? Can we cease to be judgmental or jealous? Can we cease to be threatened by other women, for reasons of our own insecurities, and can we stop acting out of that sense of fear?
Just as our palette of big life choices continues to expand the more society develops, I would like to think that in our day to day interactions, we should also become more mindful of how we choose to treat one another. Can we make choices that deprogramme the way we have learnt to feel about other women – learnt from all the ways we ourselves have been hurt – and choose to say, “This stops with me. What has been done to me by girls I went to school with, women in my extended family, superiors I worked under or any other situation, incident or environment that fostered in me a sense of female rivalry or mistrust will no longer control the way in which I respond to individuals now.” Will we choose to undermine other women, in ways big and small, or will we choose to embrace a less cynical view? Can we work together to create new environments in which all of us can feel free to meet our highest potential without being hindered by unhealthy competition?
You may be wondering why I have taken a less festive approach to International Women’s Day and am asking these potentially uncomfortable questions. I promise you I didn’t start out this cynical. In fact, I started out quite the opposite – if I could have had feminist slogans on my diapers, I would have! Throughout my teenage years I volunteered with women’s NGOs, and continue to do so in some capacity today. I was one of those girls who would rather have a tee-shirt that said “the revolution is my boyfriend” than have an actual human one. I think I limited my own literary forays for some years by refusing to read anything by authors I derogatorily labeled “dead white men”. I was proudly, radically, obviously and – I must admit, perhaps a little obnoxiously – feminist. And then the disillusionment set in.
At some point in my life as a young activist, I began to see that polemics and politics only go so far. How far does philosophy translate accurately into one’s practical realities? One’s fundamental humanity and compassion are all that really matter – it is of no consequence if this can be backed up by proselytizing or theory. You know how this works. I am almost certain that there is no one here today who would not name her grandmother, mother, aunt or sister as her personal inspiration – a woman who did not necessarily know of or say that she subscribed to theoretical ideals but nonetheless manifested the best of them in her life and across the lives of all she touched.
Today my feminism is nuanced by the understanding that as with all great adversaries, the most significant challenge to female empowerment comes from within. From within our ranks, from within our own hearts, from within our own inability to look beyond a reactionary and defensive stance.
But there is something else that also comes from within. And that is strength. Women have always regarded as being strong, and we are, but in modern times we are also powerful. I think of power as originating from an external source, from the validation of being in a certain position of influence. But strength has a far more esoteric source. It manipulates less, and moves more. There is a difference between strength and power – which do you operate from?
And I ask these uncomfortable questions not because I am above reproach but because I also deal with them in my day to day life and work. Sometimes, I frown on the actions of teenage girls because they do not seem as empowered as I was at their age. Or I might secretly judge someone of my generation for having had an arranged marriage, letting her in-laws dictate her career choices, or not realizing how beautiful she is because TV commercials tell her otherwise. But who am I, really, to judge? How would I know what those girls or women have been through and what has shaped their decisions? Why can’t I just respect that they are different, but no less equal? Concurrently, I struggle to undo and unlearn traumas imprinted on me because I am a certain kind of woman, born into a certain kind of culture, in a certain era. I struggle to not be manipulated into being pitted against other women in social and professional situations by those who know just how to push those buttons. I struggle to deal graciously with female associates who have backstabbed, cheated and even plagiarized me without having to descend to petty conflict that would only satisfy those who believe that women cannot evolve out of our habituated enmity. Because I believe we can.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year (and celebrate it we should!) let us also bear in mind that the struggle is far from over. Women’s empowerment should never be reduced to individual success stories. It should be about collective well-being. As long as women continue to operate from that deeply embedded place of suspicion and resentment, we will never be free. No matter what material, social or intellectual heights we scale, we will never be free unless we learn a new paradigm with which to see other women. With which to see ourselves.
There are two ways to light a second lamp: you can do so by snuffing out the first as you ignite the second, or you can allow the flame of one wick to touch another, and inspire its own flame. You are a luminous being. Be secure in this knowledge. Let your light illuminate as many lives as possible. It will not diminish your own.
I would like to end this talk with a quote from an anonymous source that I came across on the Internet. I find it comforting – and I hope that you too will be inspired by it. “Blessed are the women, who have grown beyond their greed, and put an end to their hatred. They delight in the beauty of the way things are, and keep their hearts open, day and night. They are like beautiful trees planted on the banks of flowing rivers, which bear fruit when they are ready. Their leaves will not fall or wither, and everything they do will succeed.”