On an open-air stage in Lalitpur this week, 34 women from a dozen countries whistled, laughed loudly and danced. Where they come from, doing any of those things would be considered unbecoming for a woman.
It was a symbolic act of defiance and empowerment by graduates of the SANGAT workshop - a month long training on feminist capacity building. The participants are now ready to break gender barriers and take on the world.
On stage with the women is Kamla Bhasin, a noted Indian social scientist and gender activist. This is her 21st cohort for a workshop. It was originally designed for young feminists from South Asia but in recent years has attracted participants from Burma, Iran, Australia and countries in Africa.
These month-long workshops, organised by the SANGAT network, make participants understand patriarchy, gender, feminism and help monitor misogyny. For the rest of the year, Bhasin conducts gender sensitisation trainings for members of parliament, journalists, activists, students, teachers and police across the subcontinent.
“I do more workshops with men because there aren’t enough men in South Asia who have understood that unless women are free, men cannot be free,” explains Bhasin. “The struggle for gender equality is not between men and women, it is among two ideologies: one that says patriarchy is better, and the other that says equality is better.”
In her workshops, Basin explains patriarchy as the exploitation of women where their physical power, reproductive power, sexuality, mobility are all controlled by men. It is based on violence or the threat of violence.
“Nature created difference, diversity. There are no two human beings in the world who are exactly the same, but human beings have created discrimination for power, control and exploitation,” says Bhasin.
It is not only men who dominate women in patriarchy, women are dominated by women as well. It is difficult to fight because it exists inside homes, with family members as perpetrators. Patriarchy also dehumanises men by boxing them into expectations of protecting women and ingraining the use of violence as normal.
In the 40 years she has been working for a gender-just society, Bhasin has seen the women’s movement change. Women now have the right to education and the right to vote, but cultural discrimination persists.
“What Nepal has done in the last five years is anti-misogynistic: women make up to 33 per cent of parliament, marital rape has been recognised, but cultural and religious patriarchy have not been challenged enough,” she says, “We are afraid of religion and even the women’s movement hasn’t succeeded in hitting hard it.”
Bhasin is also critical of what she calls “capitalist patriarchy” in which businesses make money portraying women as objects as does pornography, trafficking, the cosmetic industry and advertising. She says that in Nepal and the South Asian region, the women’s movement is challenging patriarchy but is not doing enough against capitalist patriarchy.
“Girls are told that if you are not fair, you are not lovely and then we have Bollywood songs and Indian serials perpetrating misogyny.”
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