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I think everyone was worried. Nobody remembers a feminist gathering in which men have been invited but aren’t allowed to speak. There was apprehension among the organizers about male outrage at having to take a back seat, and about whether women would share their experiences in a public forum like this. Sexism in Leftist and Progressive Spaces, a dialogue held in Lahore at Books and Beans on Saturday, defied those expectations and proved itself to be both catharsis and galvinizer.
The rules were simple: women will speak about their experiences and maintain a space for each other. Men will only listen. Women sat in a circle on the floor and men sat to one side on chairs. Some felt that this created a kind of voyeur atmosphere, but others shrugged it off as a technicality of the space, an irrelevancy – it didn’t matter how they sat, but how they acted, and they acted by staying silent and listening.
Sonia Qadir, one of the moderators, started the conversation off by sharing that, in progressive spaces and left circles, women are engaged when it suits the campaign, party or a particular male comrade. That is to say, when it is convenient, women are called on to represent and participate in order to achieve a particular end. But otherwise, women are expected to fill specific roles: recruit other women, deal with “women’s issues” and come out in support of the “larger campaign.” This leaves women out of the major discussions of the party while at the same time making sure that the issues of women are never considered major enough to merit the organization’s or party’s full attention.
This is compounded, a student activist added, by men’s unintentional discrimination and exclusion of women in organizing spaces. Male comrades and fellow activists are simply not aware that their actions are exclusionary when, for example, they schedule a meeting or event later than the curfew time in women’s hostels. Men’s hostels have later curfews and therefore greater freedom to use their evening, whereas women are forced out of the conversation for a simple structural problem that is easily resolved. Men can ride around town on motorbikes, or take rikshas after dark without the threat of sexual harassment, whereas for women these options are not feasible. Worse, men in organizing circles discount women’s experiences, refusing to understand them as classed experiences along with men’s, as if women are women, but men are people. When they do get into the conversation, women’s comments are often disregarded, until a man makes the same point – then it’s suddenly brilliant.
These problems are easily addressed if movement spaces become more conscientious, but because men dominate these spaces, the question does not even arise. Basic issues of mobility and access, which should be the bread and butter of leftist politics, become a nuisance because of their mundanity, and because they are issues women are facing. As one woman said about leftist and party spaces, “They know class; they don’t know gender.”
The issue of transport was something that the organizers took seriously from the beginning. On the event’s Facebook page, rides were organized and offered for women who couldn’t make it on their own, and transport was thus coordinated well. It didn’t take long, though, for men to inquire, “Only men? Why this gender discrimination?” Another man commented, “Sexism works both ways. And this statement is inappropriate at so many levels lol.” When men were invited to contribute by providing rides for women, no one responded on the event page itself; some men, however, did offer rides, although most had to be asked first.
The catalyst for this event has been a series of problematic occurrences if sexual harassment in left spaces, both formal and informal, and what has felt like inadequate redressal. The organizers intended for it to be an open forum to discuss all forms of sexism, not just harassment, and it seems that women have been waiting a long time to share their feelings.
But more than that, what became abundantly clear is that women were going to seize this opportunity to talk about sexism everywhere! We may have started out talking about leftist and progressive spaces, but where the collective will wanted to go, the conversation went, and that was to everything. Women talked about sexism in professional settings, sexism in the sciences, sexism in family contexts, sexism in the law – it seemed like the dam had cracked and the floodgates were open.
Women business owners shared their experiences dealing with male-dominated industries and primarily male labour forces. Many women shared that clients, be they patients at a dentist’s office, looking for an interior designer or dealing in textiles, would express deep reservations about women’s ability to do the job correctly and to the client’s liking. Most telling was one story in which a client confessed that he knew that he couldn’t call up a woman to berate her (zaleel nahi ker sakta) if the work wasn’t done right, whereas he could freely call up a man who was working for him and curse him out. Another mentioned that after a year of going on her own to talk to contractors and workers, and being disregarded and dismissed, she finally asked a male colleague to go along with her, just so she could stop spending so much energy simply trying to be heard.
Another woman whose field was in the natural sciences said that sexism was so ingrained that it is only now, many years into it, that she has begun to realize how all the difficulty she had in speaking and having her point received was a result of men dominating conversations. She spoke about how her mentor would always encourage her to speak up, and yet she herself found it difficult to compete for air time with her colleagues. Now she makes a point of trying constantly, but sexism, she said, is something that gets deeply internalized, especially in fields predominated by men. Another woman said she left the sciences eventually because of sexism: “I went to university to become a physicist, I came out a feminist.”
Journalists spoke out about beat selection and how getting the crime or courts beat was near impossible as a woman, and how, again, the fact of transportation put women at a disadvantage in getting the best stories. Men can hop on their bike and zoom to a story, rush back and there you have it. Women have to get a bus, catch a riksha, pay for the riksha, catch the story, get another rikshaw – any story takes three times as long, making it harder to get it into the paper.
Another mentioned the casual and routine sexual harassment in the newsroom, where sexual jokes about the services a woman can render men in the professional space were absolutely commonplace and unremarkable. She said that when she made a protest, the men would respond, “But I’m just joking, yaar. Don’t take it so seriously.”
Sexual harassment is commonplace in all spaces, we learned. But an assumption is made in leftist and progressive spaces that men will be more sensitive and that such problems are unlikely to occur. This assumption, one woman said, was terribly wrong, and she spoke out firmly against not only those who commit sexual harassment, but those who enable its cover up, and those who blame the victim. Men in relatively small positions in organizations and party structures may get expelled from the organization, but those in higher positions are immune to such measures. She called for stronger accountability and feminist support in all spaces, saying, “If you are not my feminist sister, you are not my comrade.”
Gender expression had not yet made an appearance in this dialogue, but right towards the end, one butch woman spoke up to share her story. She said most people are confused about her gender or read her as male, and that her female friends think that, because she’s so supposedly “masculine”, she doesn’t have to deal with sexism. “But I’ve spent a lot of my life avoiding being harmed by men,” she said. “I’m a woman and I spend a lot of time in self-defense.”
After nearly two hours of rich, varied and passionate discussion, the moderators asked us to go around once and suggest next steps to this dialogue. Here are the suggestions:
- Meet older feminists. Know your history and your forebears, who worked with the left and broke away from them. Find out why. Engage and connect, to learn from their experiences.
- Institute sexual harassment policies.
- Set up accountability mechanisms that are restorative.
- Law and policy is important but we need to find ways to change people.
- Continue this forum: have discussions on issues regularly, so that women can continue to speak out and find ways to make a movement.
- Men should start a men’s feminist group to talk about ways in which they can end the patriarchy they were raised in and benefit from.
- Continue to centre women’s voices, and broaden the base of the conversation.
Participants left the meeting elated and energized. Ideas for new forum topics, new initiatives and further action moved buzzed around the room after the meeting ended, and many people could be seen standing in clusters, talking animatedly.
Those men who wished to take things further walked up to the participants and asked sincere questions, engaged in long conversations. Those who were miffed that they could not speak, remained miffed, and shared their concerns on the event page on Facebook.
There is more to explore in the manner in which some men shared their disgruntlement; their complaints are telling and symptomatic of the uphill battle it is just to hear and privilege women’s voices, unmediated by men’s explanations. But for now, we will continue in the spirit of the event and not give them further space here.