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March 12, 1998


Rajeev Srinivasan

Speaking of Women

All the fuss about International Womens' Day reminded me of three entirely different people: Chief Minister Rabri Devi of Bihar, the activist Madhu Kishwar, publisher of Manushi, and the economist Mohammed Yunus of Bangladesh's Grameen Bank. Rabri Devi has shown that the intelligentsia badly underestimates what a woman can do; Kishwar, that it is not necessary to be a bra-burning virago to assert the rights of women; Yunus, that contrary to conventional economic wisdom, poor women are highly credit-worthy.

Rabri Devi has demonstrated something remarkable: that it is possible for an unschooled person, a 'mere housewife', that too a 'backward-caste' woman, to do a perfectly good job of running a state government. The 'intellectuals' smirked knowingly when she was appointed chief minister of Bihar, but in truth, she's doing no worse a job than all those allegedly brilliant men running various states. She is clearly an accidental feminist -- some are born feminists, others become feminists, and yet others have feminism thrust upon them, apparently.

Furthermore, where was everyone's righteous indignation when acts of nepotism happened before? When Jawaharlal Nehru anointed his relatively green daughter as his successor nobody batted an eyelid. When Indira Gandhi appointed her rather ill-prepared sons as her heirs, nobody found it odd. When Sonia Gandhi, the Woman Who Would Be Queen, is installed as the new supremo of the Congress, nobody misses a beat.

When Devi Lal, K Karunakaran, Biju Patnaik, Sheikh Abdullah, P V Narasimha Rao, and about a thousand others launch their assorted relatives and offspring into positions of power, nobody seems to mind. When MGR in Tamil Nadu is succeeded by his wife Janaki, it is okay. Then why is it such a big deal when the mercurial Laloo Prasad Yadav installs his wife as chief minister in Bihar?

Is it because she is rural, a housewife, and above all, 'backward-caste'? I suspect it is. She isn't 'one of us', is she? It is okay for the urban 'upper-caste' types to indulge in all sorts of undesirable activity, isn't it? I'm afraid this shows the hypocrisy that is endemic among the press and the self-proclaimed intelligentsia: casteism, especially the covert variety, is rampant.

I must admit I have no idea if things in Bihar have worsened noticeably during Rabri Devi's reign; however, on the working assumption that no news is good news as far as Bihar is concerned, it appears that she's managing at least as well as her illustrious predecessors. The hypothesis I prefer is that Rabri Devi has been forced to become an excellent manager: after all, she has had to deal with her difficult husband, her many children, and various hangers-on for years. She has become a master at the art of delegating troublesome chores to others.

Rabri Devi has apparently delegated well in governing Bihar too, trusting that the capable bureaucracts will take care of things if only she got out of their way and didn't second-guess them. And so they have. Kudos to her, I say! If only other darned politicians would follow her style of benign neglect! And the fact that Yadav's party did quite well in Bihar in the 1998 election implies that the public doesn't find her particularly noxious either.

In contrast, Madhu Kishwar is the epitome of the thoughtful feminist, someone of calm intelligence who is the very antithesis of a demagogue. I have never actually heard her speak, but the issues of Manushi that I have read are remarkable for their pellucid clarity. (Checks to Manushi Trust, C/174 Lajpat Nagar 1, New Delhi 110024. Rs. 90 per year in India, Overseas: US $25, canada CDN $30. On the web, selected articles at Refusing to submit to the neo-colonialism of her white sisters, Kishwar has pursued an appropriate feminism.

I have always been amazed at the slavish assumption among mainstream Indian feminists that the problems of white women in affluent countries are universal. Of course not. The tremendous premium paid to pure physical attractiveness in the West is not, at least so far, mirrored in India. It is accepted in India that there is more to a woman than firm breasts and an unlined face. The average white woman often lives in justifiable fear that her husband will dump her, when she is fortyish and frumpish, for some juicy, pneumatic young thing of twenty-two. And after all these years of waging war against the patriarchy, the sad truth is that women in the West earn 72 cents to the dollar, much the same as it was *before* Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan. Not such a long way since Moses said a woman was worth 28 shekels, and a man 50.

I have been appalled by the spectacle of Indian feminists, either out of an inferiority complex or with mendacious calculation, presenting a picture of Indian men as degenerate brutes, people with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. The Western feminist gains from this a general feeling of smug self-satisfaction and the schadenfreude, pleasure at another's distress, of bearing the "White Woman's Burden": see, after all, they are saving poor, stupid, brown women from their disgusting men.

In point of fact, Indian men are on average no worse than white men -- despite all the rhetoric. We are all aware of violence against Indian women, including gruesome dowry deaths. And truly, the death of even one woman like this is unacceptable in any civilised society. But it is not well known that the percentage of American women murdered by husbands and boyfriends is greater than the percentage of Indian women murdered by their in-laws. Granted, small comfort this is, but let's put things in perspective, shall we?

This is where I take my hat off to Madhu Kishwar. She has always struck me as an extremely sensible person, one who refuses to kow-tow to shibboleths and received wisdom. This is the kind of feminist, firmly rooted in the reality of life on the ground, who can rally around her feminists of either gender; instead of alienating well-meaning men, she offers them the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of the Indian woman.

Finally, there is Mohammed Yunus. A couple of years ago, someone I know was part of the Indian delegation to the Beijing Summit on Women. While discussing her speech, we looked at the example of Kerala, and why women are typically better off there than elsewhere in India. There are several reasons, as economist Amartya Sen has stressed: the obvious ones like literacy, availability of health care, high social standing of women. But also a non-obvious one: the ability of women to earn a cash income.

Sen suggests that poor women in most societies are subjected to a patriarchial regimen of control -- their cycles of pregnancy are dictated by their menfolk. However, these men are rational economic beings. If their wives earn cash incomes, men are reluctant to impregnate them, as pregnancies and nursing would affect their wage-earning potential. Thus it is important to provide women with credit and thereby the opportunity for self-employment.

Mohammed Yunus had the insight that poor women are far more likely to be creditworthy than men: the latter spend their earnings on themselves, often on alcohol or gambling, whereas the former spend money wisely on the family, especially the children. He also realized that tiny amounts of 'microcredit' could make the difference -- his first loan to a cane worker, who was making 2 cents a day, was for a mere $ 27, with himself, the "crazy professor", as guarantor.

Yunus found twenty years ago that less than 1% of the credit extended in Bangladesh was to women; so he targeted them -- 94% of the loans from the Grameen Bank today are to women. They astonished him with their repayment rate of over 98% -- a figure commercial banks would kill for!

Today there are 37,000 villages covered by the Grameen Bank's 12,600 field workers; 2 million small businesses have taken loans -- to buy a cow, to buy cotton to make mattresses, whatever. The social effects have been startling, too -- there has been a 34% improvement in infant mortality amongst those covered, as there is improved nutrition, family planning, and hygiene. Yunus notes wryly that wives are nagging their husbands a lot less, as well.

Yunus's motto is that "credit is a human right". He believes that self-employment is the future, and he suggests that it is a humbling experience to see what people, given the least little help, can do for themselves. An optimist, he believes that it is possible in 30 years to wipe out poverty worldwide, by tapping, as he has, the creativity of poor women.

The plight of the Indian woman is often heart-rending, especially those exploited rural women toiling in coalfields or at building sites or foraging far and wide for firewood in a ravaged landscape. We need the likes of SEWA (Self-Employed Womens' Association) and Manushi and the Grameen Bank to help them reach some semblence of a decent life. Then we can indeed celebrate International Women's Day.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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