At the inauguration of the Tata Literature Live festival in Mumbai last week, her remarks on the right to abortion not being the great feminist achievement it was touted as brought forth objections from women in the audience. At her closing address, it was her remarks on Indian women – the topic of her lecture – that were rejected by her female listeners.
Feminist writer Germaine Greer, whose first book, The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, changed the thinking of millions of women (including of this writer),was the star of the just-concluded festival. Applause for her would start the moment her name was announced.
Yet, Greer’s views on Indian women were met with polite disagreement by those she was most interested in communicating with. “No questions from men, please,’’ she said after her talks, and it was the women, both grey-haired and young, who objected to her opinions.
Greer referred repeatedly, with examples from her travels in India, to the Indian woman who presided over the extended family, “a life career for a woman which would be with her till she died.’’ Being a mother-in-law required skill and diplomacy, she said, but soap operas were now creating the figure of the ‘saas’ as an agent of evil. It was the mother-in-law who helped the young bride adapt to the ways of the family; it was she who held the family together when the men migrated.
Greer was fascinated that matrimonial advertisements in India asked for educated brides, which meant that Indians still respected the “old idea of the wife as a helpmate.’’ She was also amazed at the extraordinary number of educated women, and the fact that India had a women’s university (SNDT in Mumbai) founded as early as 1916.
Indian women were unafraid to come out on the roads to protest, said Greer, and Dalit and Adivasi women had more access to public spaces than women in England did. “You have a lively tradition; you have the notion of Shakti. Cherish it, develop it. Don’t think Western feminists can tell you how to do it – you already do it better.’’
A gentleness about India
Greer found a “gentleness’’ in India. She recalled having seen an extraordinary number of old people in the plane while coming to India being helped by their families and by the airline staff. The same ideal of gentleness gave space to people in India to be different without any pressure to assimilate, she said.
The impact of modernisation on the extended family troubled Greer. The Delhi gang rape was also the result of the fissioning of the extended family, she said, brought about by the extreme mobility required of young men. “When I travelled through India in 1971 and lived in Mumbai in 1982, I had hoped India would modernise, but without the disadvantages of the Western system with the nuclear family.’’
Women in the audience however, told Greer she was painting too “rosy’’ a picture. A young woman asked about the desires of the daughter-in-law in the extended family; older women pointed out that even in wealthy families, the girl-child often gets to eat after her brother. Despite the advertisements, it wasn’t education that prospective husbands most wanted in their brides, but looks, specially a fair complexion, they told her. Take a vote in the hall and you’ll know how many disagree with you, said one.
Gamely, Greer did so. Not all hands went up, yet, she graciously apologised. “I was only trying to point out the positives, because India is always projected wrongly, and Indians are always willing to say ‘Yes, we are bad.’ You are not bad.’’
“I came to India after writing The Female Eunuch to find out if there was another way we could live, another life course,” said Greer. “I fell in love with India. What hurts and annoys me is the common prejudice against India by people who know nothing about it.”
Incidents of rape higher in West
Reading out excerpts from an article in The Guardian that described India as a land of rapes and violence against women, including the unborn, Greer pointed out that the incidence of rape was higher in the West, and the level of protest much less. Experiments in British hospitals had shown that male babies were given preferential treatment. If Indian women themselves wished to abort their unborn female foetuses, they had reasons for doing so, and no one else had the right to judge, she said.
While Greer undoubtedly romanticised the extended family and the mother-in-law, one could understand why. At every stage, she contrasted her perception of India with that of England. Indian women still walked erect and behaved with dignity, she said, unlike Western women who underplayed their intelligence and adopted girlish tones to please men.
In the West, the mother-in-law was the butt of ridicule, the worst thing a woman could be, she said. After a lifetime of looking after their families, old women were discarded, incarcerated in old homes. She had once seen an old woman dying on the road in Bangalore, and wondered whether in India too, old women had begun to be seen as burdens.
In a chat with this reporter, Greer recounted her stay with a Nashik Brahmin family run by the mother-in-law. By the end of her stay, Greer joined the rest of the family in touching the latter’s feet, out of deference. But the family can be an oppressive institution specially for females, I protested. “Better the family than the Corporation. In the West, it’s the Corporation that enslaves you,’’ she said.