Kamla Bhasin's name has been inseparable from South Asia's gender activism over the last four decades. Kamla, a poet, author, activist, and South Asian coordinator for worldwide feminist movement One Billion Rising, started her journey in 1970.
She is also the founder of Sangat, a feminist network, which works as a platform for bringing together gender activists and trainers.
Kamla Bhasin was very close to late Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of Brac. A few days ago, she came to Bangladesh on an invitation of Brac.
The Business Standard had a conversation with her ahead of International Women's Day.
What is the significance of celebrating the International Women's Day?
Kamla: The significance of celebrating a day lies in remembering someone or something. You remember his or her contribution and you celebrate that.
If there are issues to be solved the day encourages you to make a promise to do whatever it needs to be done to solve the issues. It gives you the strength to continue on that path.
We have girl child day because the girl child is not yet equal to the boy child. We have labour's day reminding us of the contributions of labours to earning their minimum rights.
International Women's Day reminds us of the struggles of women for equality. It is a reminder that we still have work to do.
One thing we forget is that the greatest contribution made by women was not by the fancy upper class or middle class, but by working-class women.
How would you address the fight for gender equality?
Kamla: Fight for gender equality is not a fight between men and women. Fight against patriarchy is not a fight between men and women. The opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy. Opposite of patriarchy is equality.
The fight between these two is a fight between two ideologies.
In these two ideologies, one side claims that patriarchy is good. They are benefitted from patriarchal ideology.
The other ones say, "No, equality is good." There are women on both sides.
There are also women who say patriarchy is good. And there are men who want equality.
Men who are in support of equality are our friends.
How does patriarchy affect men?
Kamla: Patriarchy de-humanises men.
The way it tells women how to dress or where to go, in the same manner, it dictates to men. It tells a little boy you cannot cry or you cannot be afraid of the dark. He is a little boy; he wants to cry. His mother is sick – he wants to cry. But, society says "No".
Patriarchy pushed the girls into boxes; it pushed the boys inside boxes too.
For example, when a brother eats better food than his sister, he does not find it unjust. Because he thinks, it is his right. This is what his parents had taught him. Depriving your sister and not feeling guilty, is it not inhumane?
They urinate on the road. Society tells them they can do it. Is that not shameless?
In buses I do not like to touch their breast but why do they? Is that humane?
Around 60 per cent of men beat their wife, is that humane?
There are men who do not rape, who do not beat their wives. They do not follow the rule of putting them down or dominating them. They do not follow patriarchy.
There is a proverb, "women are women's enemy" – what do you think of that?
Kamla: (Laughs loud) Do you understand "bakwas" (an expression in Hindi, which means nonsense)?
Women do not rape us; they do not beat us; so why would you say women are women's enemy? Around 72 per cent of married women face gender-biased harassment, according to Brac. This can be physical and emotional.
But, yes, there are cases where we can see enmity. To understand that, we must understand that our society is patriarchal and women are a part of this same society. Patriarchy is a fight for power and women are a part of this power relation and hierarchy. So patriarchy is supported by them too.
Women are also patriarchal. We (women) also give better food, more freedom to our sons. This what society and religion teach us.
And there is jealousy sometimes. Two brothers sometimes fight out of jealousy, so this is nothing new.
Do you think reserved seat for women in buses or quota in the job sector is actually a barrier to women empowerment?
Kamla: I wish no Bangladeshi women needed reserved seat in buses. I wish no Bangladeshi men harassed women on the bus. But, 92 per cent of women are abused on buses.
We need reserved seats because society is violent towards women. We need it because men do not follow any rules and together they cannot stand in the queue quietly.
In case of job sectors, "structural reservation" has been prevailing for years. This means, for two to three thousand years our rich and middle-class brothers were given better education, better facilities and better jobs. Poor men were competing very hard.
And girls were discriminated, everybody knows that. They were not competing at all. Adivasis were not competing at all. All the jobs were taken by 10 per cent rich men. They were enjoying structural reservation.
We were pushed back. This is negative historical discrimination by society.
But sustainable progress cannot be achieved keeping half of the population in the dark. So the society which once pushed us down is now trying to push us up for a better world.
If we do not give reserved seats, it will take a much longer time. Bangladesh will have to wait longer and growth will slow down. This is why we need a reservation now.
In fact, we need a reservation for everyone who had been pushed down. This is why I root for reservation for Adivasis, Dalits, disabled, transgender people.
Some people say, language puts women down. How would you explain that?
Kamla: Of course! Language is telling me what I should think. Our language reveals how patriarchal we are.
For example, what is the meaning of the word "swami" (husband)? It means "malik" (owner). I married my class fellow who suddenly becomes my "malik"! And I leave everything for him. The word "swami" should be illegal.
How do we taunt women on road? We say "chorom jinis" (such an amazing product). All of these reveals the position of women in society.
How do you see the connection of women and nature?
Kamla: It is not biological.It is about survival; it is about connection.
An Adivasi man is more concerned about nature than me as he is more connected to nature. An Adivasi woman is more concerned about nature than him. An upper-class woman will roam around in a Mercedes and not be worried about nature because it does not affect her. In general, rich people's connection with nature is exploitative.
But an Adivasi woman has to take care of food, water and health at home.
This will be more clear if you look into different movements in India, including the Chipko Movement. All of them were led by lower-class women who knew the consequences of loss of nature. They know what will happen if the forest is not there.
I am not surprised that Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old girl.
Nature is our mother. We are hurting ourselves if we are hurting nature.
I do believe this capitalist neoliberal system has to be stopped if we want to protect nature. This system is based on destruction and exploitation.
You have been coming to Bangladesh since 1973. How do you think Bangladesh has changed?
Kamla: Well, a lot of things have changed here and a lot of things did not. The condition of poor ones has not changed much. The poor ones are still greatly exploited. Like in India, good hospitals are in the capital here.
Rural hospitals are not in good shape. People are deprived of good treatment there. People do not have resources, good education, better facilities. There are chemicals in food. The rivers are filled with plastic.
The poor did not have any say in policies 50 years ago; they do not have it now.
Dhaka looks grand and seems like it is all about malls. Besides that, there are slums and people are living in poverty.
This is not development. I am not happy with such development.
The garment sector has made a lot of women independent here. Do you see it as a good start for women empowerment?
Kamla: My answer is yes and no.
Garments workers are getting some immediate money. But, American companies come here for cheap labour. They will be here for 10-20 years. They will leave with their profit. What will happen to them after that?
Besides, are they living a better life now? Do they eat better? Do they have better security?
They are making a tiny amount of money. Profits are going out to a foreign company.
They are getting away from home, free and independent. They are living in the most horrible slums. They have no clean air; I do not know what toilets they have or what harassment they face.
They are getting money. But, are they more respected?
You know about the Tazreen (garment factory) fire. Do these factories now provide them with a good place to stay? How can one be happy with such empowerment?