Social Activist, IN

Published Date: 4th April 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

Social Activist, IN

April 4th, 2011

Patriarchy in India not only informs the way we live, but it also dictates it. A woman can excel in education and her profession while handling multiple talents in life, but the fact is, her fate is sealed at birth. She is expected to play a role—wife, mother, daughter, sister—established by patriarchy where she must conform to the framework of class, caste, tradition, etc. By relegating her to second-class status, patriarchy can reinforce her status within the family and society.

Dr. Mohini Giri, the Founding Chairperson of the War Widows Association and an internationally renowned social activist, has dedicated five decades of her life to addressing women’s issues and fighting for gender justice. In my conversation with Dr. Giri, she reaffirms the importance of education and reminds us that harvesting a negative attitude towards women hampers their progress while facilitating violence against women.

Dr. Giri, you have been working with women in India for five decades, actively addressing issues and demanding reform. Do women in rural and urban India face different problems?

As far as women are concerned, all issues relate to all of them, whether they are in urban areas or rural areas because patriarchy is all-pervading. The patriarchal mindset of man is the same. Thus, she has to face the same problems wherever she is. Maybe because the urban woman is educated, she can assert herself a little more than her counterpart in rural India who is illiterate and has stigma and superstition attached to being a woman. Otherwise, the quantum of subjugation is the same everywhere.


So, in spite of education, the urban Indian woman faces many hurdles?

Sure, even education does not take away all the stigmas that are attached to women, and it does not take away the patriarchy that is prevalent in men. So, she has to go through all the hurdles that any woman goes through in a patriarchal society.


What makes the small percentage of financially sound, urban women confuse ownership of consumer goods with independence, equality, and liberation? At the end of the day, their voices are a mere echo of the patriarchal society.

It is a myth to say that if you have got all the consumer goods and all the facilities you are independent, or you are empowered. This is a myth because these are not the things that make you empowered.

Empowerment means self-confidence.

How many women have the self-confidence to make it on their own? It is having that measure of confidence. That is the time I would say she is empowered.


My research suggests that women who marry into wealthy families often have it harder than their counterparts in lower socio-economic families. An accountant monitors her expenses, and she is controlled and directed on who she can mix with and what she should speak. Moreover, this silent prisoner must put on a face each day and play the part of a happy wife who enjoys equal status. Is this accurate?

What you say is very true. You have done your homework well. Women, whether it is in an affluent society or a poor society, are all victims of male patriarchy. The rich Indian urban woman suffers a lot too—there is just as much domestic violence against her. And even though she is educated, she dare not speak out, even today. She suffers silently.

In India, single women, young adults, divorcees, and widows are denied a favourable status. Her discrimination takes place on numerous levels—securing a place to live, traveling alone, and being left out of social gatherings. With married women, their visibility and value are limited to either that of being a wife or an employee with a fancy title under the patriarchal umbrella of the father or husband. Her role is superficial, and the respect she is extended, from domestic help to office staff, is based on her association with patriarchy. The day this association ends she is reduced to nothing. Can you explain this system?

This is true. Being a woman, one faces discrimination. Single women face a double discrimination and many hardships. First of all, they are women and second, they are either single or widowed. And women who are widowed have the additional stigma of being non-acceptable in the society. They are considered inauspicious in society even today, whether rural India or urban India. The moment her husband passes away, she becomes a widow in society and the very friends who used to visit her, eat her food, and appreciate it in her house stop visiting her house. Of course, she becomes more careful as she is labeled a bad character. Hence, the Indian patriarchy has prescribed a dress code to her, prescribed a fashion code to her, prescribed a food code to her so that she is deprived of many other things. It is a way of victory of patriarchy.

In wealthy families, the day her husband dies, the widow has to give over her power to the second inherited member of that society, whether it is a daughter-in-law or a daughter. And the keys are transferred. The very minute the keys are transferred, the “thijori”—or what you call the safe— has also gone from her hand, and she is relegated to a place in that household as if she does not exist.

This happens even in very wealthy business houses. Recently there was a case in India where a very wealthy businessman died, and the moment the wife became a widow even family members in the joint family wanted to have sex with her. So you can see, she is not protected. A woman in India needs to be protected by her husband, by a father or by a son. When these things are not there, she is unprotected. Every male member of the family in the society starts thinking that she is their possession.


Does this system persist because the Indian society is consumed with image, so much so that one stops living an authentic life?

Yes, we live in a society that prevents us from living how we want to live. A war widow, after the 1971 war was going on a scooter with her brother. The neighbours all came up complaining that the widow had just lost her husband and was spoiling the whole society by going on a bike openly with a man. Can you believe this—that a woman has no husband now, she needs to depend on someone, and why should the society bother how she is going? These are the things that are very difficult to change in the society. It will take centuries to change just like it has taken centuries to create.

It was not like this in the Vedic period. In the Vedic period, women enjoyed equal rights. With time and tradition, we have become more regressive, instead of progressive.


Significant populations of widows, young and old, pursue prostitution to survive. Much of this happens in holy towns. Why does exploitation continue under so many names and guises?

Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, and it is a multi-million dollar business.

Prostitution is the biggest form of the greatest subjugation of women. No woman wants to sell her body to anybody at any given time. However, circumstances are such that pangs of hunger, poverty, and deprivation lead her into prostitution.

Also, people kidnap women and mislead them. In holy towns and holy places, people go in the name of religion and religious bakhti [devotion to god], here too men exploit these poor women who are living in bhajan ashrams, places where they think they can sing for their daily morsel of food. But even there they are exploited. Of course, it has become less now because people have become careful. They know we are social activists who are vigilant all the time. There is little change, but the change is not as much as desired.


Is the exploitation of widows limited to holy towns or does it take place in almost every society in India?

What happens in holy cities today is not anything that is not happening in urban areas. A woman is vulnerable anywhere. And because of patriarchy, a woman’s status is so low that she becomes vulnerable. I would not say that it is only particular to religious or holy cities—it happens in urban cities, it happens in rural towns. It is the psyche of the man that we need to change.


How will change happen?

One, a woman has to become economically independent. When a man takes that away from a woman, he is subjugating her. Two, she must inherit property rights for the ancestral property—of her husband, her father-in-law or father. Right now she is deprived of that. Even though a law has been passed that she will be an equal partner in property, many women do not claim it saying they do not want to fight with their brother. The brother is supposed to tie rakhi [a sacred thread that a sister ties on the brothers’ wrist] and then protect her all her life, but they are not only taking their share of the property, but they also take hers. And then, the widow is deprived because of illiteracy and the mindset of the man. Many factors contribute to her second-class status. Till such time that all these fall into place, change will not come.


A son is constantly fed messages of plenty, which fosters greed. How can an aging woman expect to reap any different when all she has sown in the male child is entitlement?

It is very, very difficult in a society that is built in such a way where the male child is the only wanted child. Change will take a long time. In these 50 years that I have been working, especially in rural India, previously a woman would stand behind a door, and she would not even come out to show her face. Today a girl is much more aware; she is wearing a salwar kameez [tunic with pants], a dress code that shows more empowerment. She opens the door fully, and she talks to you without a gunghat [a veil], which is a big sign. And when she starts going to school, learns to use the computer and undergoes vocational training, she will become a self-earning member of society. I am sure things are going to change. Even urban India is still waking up. It is 60 years after independence, and it will take us more time to change.


What responsibility should women take to change this pattern of male entitlement?

As she is the mother, she must give equal treatment to both the boy and the girl right from childhood. After all, she bears the child. Also, schools must be opened equally for both of them. Equal opportunities must be there for girls to learn all kinds of arts and sciences. Opportunity must be given from childhood for the equal development of the girl child, and female feticide must stop.


We expect men to take responsibility for their actions and make changes, but we do not expect the same from women. Women can be equally abusive—monstrous mothers destroy their children, ruthless female doctors humiliate victims of sexual violence, female lawyers parading as women’s rights advocates oppress women, the list goes on.

Yes, both are same. Their ideas come from the same society. They cannot differ because they are man or woman. While of course men have to change more, women also need to change a lot. A woman is as responsible as a man.

Daughters, wives, sisters, or cousins of political or politically connected families go on to hold political positions in India. The impression is one of India nurturing and welcoming women as equal players. Only 33 percent of seats in the National Parliament are allocated for women. This shows a realistic picture of where things stand today, doesn’t it?

Yes, 15 years ago after the Beijing conference [Fourth World Conference on Women 1995], a bill was introduced for 33 percent reservation in the Parliament for affirmative action. I have been struggling for 15 years, and every time it is introduced in the Parliament, some male member takes the bill and throws it out, and people want consensus. This bill has been pending for years in the Parliament. The idea of 181 seats going away to women in parliament is unthinkable for male members. In fact, one of the major, senior minister told me: “Mrs. Giri do you want me to sign my death warrant by signing that bill?” This means they treat these positions as their property and are not willing to share it with the women. Hence, it is a very critical situation. Only 8 percent of the Indian parliament is women. Out of the 542, there are hardly 33 women members in the Parliament. We are not representing the country properly at all.


This is not to say that there is a shortage of capable women.

Yes, as if all the male members of the parliament are educated and literate. When it comes to seats for women, they ask: “Whoh aurat khana hei” (where is the woman)? As if there is a dearth of women in the country who cannot win an election. This is exactly the question we asked when the Panchayat Raj [an assembly of five respected elders chosen by the village] reservation was made for panchayat women. And lo and behold, today women are so successful that from a 33 percent reservation for women it has grown to 45 to 50 percent. They are even fighting for the independent seats. So, it’s a myth to say that there are no women, or women are not capable. They are very capable, and if given a chance they will prove that women can rule India better than men.


Illiterate rural women working at grassroots levels are highly capable and productive. They are tremendous. These women could be illiterate, but they know their duties. They are digging tube wells, building schools, repairing roads and are seeing that violence against women is reduced. With the reservation, we have won over a million women in panchayat elected members, and it is making a drastic difference. In fact, four poor women accompanied me to New York for the Hunger Project prize distribution for the best panchayati raj worker, and what an impact they have made on American society.

It is a myth to think that only women from well-to-do families can come into politics. Slowly and steadily women who have been grassroots level representatives will also come to the Lok sabha [lower house of the Indian Parliament]. You cannot stop this trend. But of course, it will take a long, long time because men are still unwilling to give their seats to women.


Would it be accurate to say that the majority of women who are financially comfortable are apathetic to the plight of the less privileged?

Yes. I live in Delhi, and when I tell them about the plight of women in Brindavan, which is 150 kilometers from Delhi, they say: “Oh, is that so? We didn’t even know that anything like that was even there.” The human rights questions do not arise in them. So the women in Brindavan have to fight it out for themselves. We have to bring awareness amongst them, generate a kind of enthusiasm in them that they are equal to men.


Why do wealthy Indians lack social responsibility?

Philanthropy in India is not known at all. We do not have people who can think of others’ concerns. The rich live in a world of their own, where they think nobody can share it.

The rich are setting up an example of wasteful wealth where the rest of society is not equal. When there is such great inequality, you cannot pretend that you don’t know what is happening on the other side. You have to become participatory; you have to see what the other man is doing. You have to come down on your knees to find out how to improve society because sooner or later he is going to become a victim of it. How long will the poor go on bearing it? There will be a revolution one day.

A wealthy man can drown his daughter with consumer goods at her wedding, to establish his worth; this is labeled as gift-giving. However, when these “gifts” are demanded of a poor man, it is called a “demand for dowry.” In addition to demeaning and displaying his daughter and other female family members like decorated cattle, the rich man is continually reinforcing a destructive system that leads to dowry deaths of the less fortunate in the country. How did this criminal practice come to be acceptable?

It is a very good question Heera, god bless you for asking this question. Until the time, we have an equal kind of society, where the rich don’t display ugly wealth—and it happens all over the world—it will continue to happen. The rich are displaying their wealth, but the poor man who is forced to compete with the rich suffers a lot and becomes bankrupt. It is a very vicious circle—the ambitions of the poor man should not touch such heights that he forgets what his limits are.


Indian matrimonial advertisements seek “fair” wives. The market is flooded with fairness creams. Indian movies consistently refer to white skin and have fair-skinned foreigners dance in songs wearing the bare necessities. In most cases, the groom or actor, like the majority of Indians, have a dark complexion. Doesn’t this establish India’s racist and sexist attitude?

Yes, not only in movies but also in Indian society, magazines and everywhere, everybody wants a fair looking girl. It is a mindset that needs to change. Darker skinned people are as good as fair. India has a big complex about fair women. This is not right. And the demeaning manner in which it shows women is appalling.


The Indian immigrant, in America or UK, might have a six-figure salary or more, fancy titles and all the trappings to reassure him that he has “made it,” but his mental and emotional makeup are warped. Many unsuspecting Indian women are suffering due to the abuse and cruelty inflicted on them.

Yes. Today the situation is very, very bad. I have come across thousands of girls who are suffering in the US. I am connected with an organization in the United States and we have registered 18,000 such cases. Also, girls who have been brought here on the pretext of marriage are being ill-treated.

White women are not spared either. Thanks to the portrayal of white women in Indian films and media—of her lacking morals—she is seen an object to be used for sex. The Indian man’s psyche conveniently believes this while his mother subscribes to this view, accepting of their sons having sex with them so long as they don’t marry the white woman. Marriage is reserved for the “good” Indian girl whom the mother chooses. How do you explain this?

Once you live in a country or become a citizen of a country, you have to be loyal to that country—you cannot have double standards. You cannot have your mother controlling you from India and do terrible things to women. Many of these Indians who went decades ago and are living in the United States are living in another century. They do not understand that India is also changing, and the ideas they took with them to the US are no longer relevant in India. They have to change themselves to the thinking of the present day India.


If the number of reported cases is staggering, knowing the majority of incidents are not reported, one can only imagine how high the actual numbers must be. Dr. Giri, it appears securing a college degree overseas or pursuing a professional stint in a Western country does not change a person’s fundamental attitude.

No, it does not change his mindset, and he does not become different at all. I don’t think he’s a changed man.


When International media turns the spotlight on places like Rwanda, Congo, Darfur, and Bosnia, we assume atrocities are far removed from India. However, similar crimes were perpetrated, albeit on a smaller scale, in India, during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Women were raped, tortured, and murdered. Should this be treated as any passing news? Are we entitled to torture humiliate and destroy women and men from poor communities, minority communities, or for that matter the Dalits [The untouchable caste in India] and Adivasis [tribal groups in India]?

It was very bad. I was deeply involved in Gujarat after the riots, and I saw the massacre. I was living with those people. It is something that is to be very ashamed of. I think what happened there was horrible and women did suffer. We talk about it on a national platform, we raise our voices whenever anything happens with the Dalits or to a minority community, but it is still happening. India has still to evolve and understand that there is no minority community, that everyone is equal, that constitution has given you an equal right.


Can life ever be normal for rape or sexual assault victims? Can one ever compensate them for what they have been through?

Nowhere in the world, when there is rape or a rape trial, can any amount of compensation give justice. You cannot give back their dignity. So we cannot say that justice can ever be given to someone who is harmed because these are deep things that go into your mind. Nobody can compensate you for that. It is not only a loss of a body; it is a total loss of faith and confidence that is very difficult to recover. So any amount of compensation that a government might give, or I might give, cannot write away their trauma and pain.


With India’s population growth, do you foresee violence against women growing rampantly?

Violence has increased a lot.

Violence comes due to lack of power.

When there is no food in your stomach, there is violence. When there is no education, there is violence. When there is no law and order, there is violence. So first we have to tackle these three issues to bring down violence. I should see that there is a hunger-free society; I should see that the poor are not so poor that they want to steal things. I should see that the patriarchy kind of mindset that men have should change. These are the reasons for violence, and I must attack those. Population alone is not the cause of violence.


With a thriving patriarchal society, patriarchal media cannot be far behind. Media exchanges favours to cover up sexual violence by corrupt politicians, actors, industrialists, and bureaucrats. How can media be powerful when it lacks the courage to shed light on the truth, for the betterment of society?

I think the media are irresponsible. They must not go on playing with a very vital element of society—women. Women are not commodities but are being portrayed as a commodity, which I object to.

I am also upset with the access to police for the women in India. It is very, very bad. They don’t even put FIR [First Information Report] in the register for women. This is why I don’t call India a superpower; it’s still a far cry from reaching that stage.

Can you shed light on police who rape victims of sexual violence, especially those from poor and low caste families?

When a woman is raped, caste and class do not matter. First, she is a woman. We have to treat her trauma like a human being. The police officials use her. For them, she is only a woman, a commodity. I do not think they are worried if she is a lower class or high class as long as they get their pleasure. They are corrupt people whose ideas about women are wrong.


A common impression in the West is that women in India are worshiped. Isn’t the reality diametrically opposite?

While they speak, they call her Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati [names of Indian Hindu goddesses], only in temples, only in stone. When it is a real woman, real body, real physical person, then she is insulted and thrown away from the house. It is very ironic that the very men in India who worship the devis in their houses disregard the women in their own household. This is an irony of India today that has to be challenged, and that is what we are fighting. My fight and my work are precisely this—changing the mindset of the man.

We are grateful for the work you do.

I feel that every woman in India needs protection, needs to be taken care of and needs to be brought back to an equal status.


Women truly are the pillars of the family. They are enterprising, hard working, and invested. What stops them from taking ownership of their lives and celebrating their capabilities?

Naturally, because of their second-class citizenship, subjugation by men stops them. Women are very capable, but society has not accepted them as that capable woman. One woman president, or one woman something else does not make a difference. We have to have many women at every level. We must have judges, we must have bankers, we must have parliamentarians. We need women in every field. Only then we can say that women have reached the highest levels in society. One woman, or one man, is not a representative.


And this can happen when women encourage and support each other, to grow collectively.

In any society, togetherness only takes you to the top. Unless you are together, unless you work in unison with each other, you cannot achieve anything. If I have achieved anything in my social work, it is because everybody is with me. It is teamwork; you cannot do anything single-handedly.


Are you hopeful of a time when women will start feeling first class, to be treated as first class?

Yes. I was hoping that it would be in my lifetime, but now I doubt that will happen. The change that I have seen in the last 50 years is so slow that I think the next 50 years will also be slow. It will come through definitely, but it will take its own time.


One hears of India’s economic growth, of India being the next superpower. How can a country achieve this status without addressing the fundamental human rights and the emotional health of its people?

India, a superpower? With so much poverty, so much malnutrition, female feticide, child marriages, dowry marriages, how can I call myself a superpower? Never. You cannot become a superpower where there are no human rights.

You can only be a superpower when there are equal human rights for every citizen in the country.