'Some Women Do Not Believe in Equality'
Rather than a day to address issues that still plague women, it has become a day to get discounts at malls and spas, says Tamil poet Rajathi Salma
Here are excerpts from an interview where religion, caste, sexuality and patriarchy and also women’s liberation in a social construct were discussed
What does Women’s Day mean to you?
I’m not sure if people understand why Women’s Day was created in the first place. It has become a day to hold fashion shows and kolam competitions. Not dismissing any woman’s choice to indulge in herself, but it cannot be about frivolity. Women’s Day should be about men accepting equality between the genders. As women, it must be a celebration of self-realisation of our rights — from being ‘allowed to’ do anything to ‘choosing’ to do whatever she wants. But both have not happened.
But there has been growth over the past several decades in the women’s movement.
Yes, but it has come after a lot of struggle. The society, which is ruled by patriarchy, views social and economic freedom of women with contempt and derision. It goes so far as questioning a woman’s character if she has a successful career, as opposed to man’s achievement being celebrated without question. Also, violence against women is still prevalent. When women are attacked – physically, mentally and morally just because of gender, it proves chauvinism, misogyny, sexism and discrimination exists and is widely accepted. Even respect to women comes with labels such as mother, sister, daughter, which have distinct characteristics of behaviour. Unless we break that cultural stereotype, I’m afraid the struggle would continue.
Do you think gender discrimination differs with religion or caste?
No, gender stereotyping is common across all religions and castes. People say Muslim culture is regressive and that’s why it treats women badly, Dalits speak crass language, those in the slums have no class…these are things we hear every day. I’ve grown up listening to people telling me cherithanama pesathey (don’t use slum-like language). Let me ask you this — what was so classy about the ‘Beep’ song? The person who wrote the lyrics and the guy who composed music hail from the so-called upper strata of society. Weren’t the lyrics sexist and disrespectful to women? It’s not just the men. Recently, a woman leader made a very sexist statement about our Chief Minister. It’s unfortunate that even women believe in gender stereotyping — a woman must know to cook and clean the house, care for her kids and husband, and also manage the household — the thought is prevalent among women as well.
But isn’t the struggle different with religion and caste?
Yes, it is. For someone born privileged — whether it’s economics, religion or caste, women’s lib has a different meaning to a woman who is born in a backward community with very limited economic means. That’s why we have reservation — it not only gives more opportunities, but also opens more avenues for them to choose from. This is something that the privileged class takes for granted.
So you believe education is crucial to women’s empowerment?
It’s certainly a first step! Education paves the way for financial independence, which gives her confidence to question things she doesn’t believe in. It can also make her more self-aware — of her rights and choices, and fight the unreasonable demands made on her, simply because she’s a woman! But it doesn’t end there, as men are still considered to be the ‘head’ of a family. It implies that a woman’s salary or at least a significant part of it is managed by or even forcibly taken by the man.
Okay, but does education guarantee freedom of choice when all decisions are still taken by men?
No, and that’s unfortunate. Whether to send a girl child to study depends on the father. Her husband decides whether she should work. And of course, married women should always become mothers… sacrifice their careers to take care of the kids — this is decided by men too. That’s why I don’t understand the way in which Women’s Day is being celebrated. Rather than creating awareness about the issues that still plague us, it has become a day to get discounts at malls and spas.
In your poems, you address sexuality…why that subject?
Why not?! It’s one of those subjects that are not discussed. There are no strong female voices in Tamil language that addresses sexuality…at least not that I know of. It’s still taboo for women to talk about it, which to me is absurd. When Andal and Avvaiyyar have written on sexuality, why is it such a shock now?
Was there a backlash?
Of course, and it got personal too! When I wrote about a woman’s body after delivery, and how her need changes, and about a love affair, people assumed it was about me. Would it have been the case had a man written about it? But those poems got me a lot of appreciation and respect too.
Finally, what would you want Women’s Day to be celebrated for?
It must be a day to reflect upon the choices women have (or don’t), analyse the ways in which awareness can be created on their rights and the role men play. I would like to see the day when we don’t have one day to celebrate womanhood, and make it a way of life. I wonder if it would happen in my lifetime!