It’s not often that feminism and India are mentioned in the same breath but Gloria Steinem’s visit to Delhi to launch her latest book “The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader” has put the two subjects together in the spotlight.

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Photo courtesy of Apne Aap Women Worldwide

That evening at the India International Centre, three inspiring Indian women deeply involved with feminist activism in India  were present on stage. They were Ruchira Gupta, Devaki Jain and Ela Bhatt.

Ruchira Gupta is an anti-trafficking activist and founder of the NGO Apne Aap Women Worldwide. Gupta has addressed the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on trafficking, produced an Emmy-winning documentary titled The Selling of Innocents, and teaches at New York University. She has worked with Gloria Steinem and has collected and edited Steinem’s writings as a tribute to the woman she calls her guru.

Devaki Jain is a noted feminist economist, studying economic issues in ways that overcome patriarchal biases. She has served on several UN advisory committees on gender and poverty. Steinem considers Jain her oldest friend in India. They often shared ideas during their younger days and gained inspiration from each other for their separate but parallel works.

Ela Bhatt is a lawyer, Gandhian, and founder of the very successful trade union, SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association of India). You could say that with SEWA, Bhatt has put Jain’s academic concerns into practice.

The fourth woman on stage was, of course, Gloria Steinem.

Steinem knows India well. She spent two years here as a young woman, traveled extensively in the country, and had a very Gandhian experience. Nearing 80 years of age, part of the lasting power of this woman is her intelligence, charm, and good humor. The subtitle of the book reflects this—As If Women Matter is both serious and a touch ironic. It is also complex and inspiring: “Because we don’t know what we do will matter, behave as if everything we do matters.”

But Steinem knows how to make the complex simple. At the heart, feminism is about very fundamental feelings. She laughingly used the example of how young children often say, “It’s not fair!” or “You’re not the boss of me!” The quest for equality is natural and present from an early age. “We are linked, not ranked.” And things could work out for the better if women were a bit more like men (standing up for their needs and desires) and men were a bit more like women (putting other people first).

The evening’s audience was telling.

Of the people on stage, Steinem, Jain, and Bhatt were near 80; Gupta was the youngster at 50. Most of the audience was middle-aged. The young were conspicuous by being few in number. When three high school students stood up to ask for advice, Steinem encouraged them to be in the company of others who shared their beliefs, so they didn’t feel alone or get disheartened. This related to something Jain also mentioned: You have the family you’re born into, but you can also have another family of your own choosing—the family of supportive women around the world.

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Photo courtesy of Kalpana Iyer Mohanty

On the recent criminalization of homosexuality in India, Steinem mentioned how all movements are intertwined and made two incisive observations; the right wing seems to be “against any intercourse that can’t end in procreation;” and “our sexuality is a form of expression as well as a form of reproduction.”

On women’s support of the right-wing movement in both India and the United States, Steinem said she understood how some women would make the trade-off to accept a subservient or dependent position in exchange for acceptance, support, and protection. But to counter that, she said, “We need to increase safety together with adulthood.”

A young man stood up, said he came from a family of strong women. Steinem said, “Be thankful.” The audience broke up laughing.

In a revealing aside one young woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, said, “My mother was right. All this is nice talk, but if you want a family and don’t want to end up alone in your old age, you have to compromise these ideals of gender equality.” It is a legitimate concern for many young desi women. Living in an old and deeply ingrained patriarchal tradition with religious sanction of son-worship, it’s often difficult to imagine that a more equitable way forward is really possible. Had Steinem heard this young woman’s comment, she would no doubt have talked about the dire need to democratize the family: family members need not agree—they just need to respect each other’s views.

There are many battles ahead on the feminism front. The biggest and most difficult are likely to be against ourselves and our families—those nearest and dearest to us. Then maybe one day to say “I’m a feminist” will be as noncontroversial, as unthreatening, as obvious, and as acceptable as saying “I’m a humanist” or “I’m anti-racist” or simply “I believe in equality.” But that day is a ways ahead.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer and editor, based in New Delhi.

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