In the background of the contentious Brett Kavanaugh confirmation and #metoo storm which swept through India’s media and entertainment circles, I became despondent. Now, more than ever, healthy conversation was needed around the topics of male privilege and entitlement, consent, the negative impact of patriarchy, gender sensitivity and the collective fight against sexism. But the climate had spawned an atmosphere of fear and dismissal of anything connected to feminism. I decided that I could either stew in my feelings or try to make some positive change – so I pioneered a project called The Genderless Heart. Inspired by Bell Hooks’ ‘consciousness raising’ sessions, the project aimed to explore themes of internalized patriarchy and gender sensitivity and how meditation on the heart can be a valuable tool in developing self-awareness to transcend our social conditioning. Luckily, I had three willing guinea pigs – a team of all male, all Indian fellows who were ready to take up the task.
Not all superheroes wear capes.
In a set of individual interviews, I asked a series of questions to try to understand the person’s context, background and tease out their perceptions and inner biases. The last segment of the interview focused on the theory, where they were asked to give definitions for terms such as patriarchy, feminism, transgender etc., in their own words. I transcribed the interviews and tried to observe if there were any common themes and understanding which were emerging.
When the interviews were completed, I devised an interactive workshop where we unpacked our collective experiences of patriarchy and explored the theory in fuller detail. The first slide, contained a short story detailed below:
Deepak and his son Arjun live in one of the big cities of India. One Sunday, they take the car to go to the market. On the way, they have a serious accident and Deepak is instantly killed. His son, injured and unconscious, is rushed to the nearest hospital. When the surgeon on duty comes into the operating room to treat Arjun, it is immediately clear that something is terribly wrong. The surgeon becomes very upset, and rushes from the room saying, “I cannot operate on this child. He is my son.”
How is this possible?
None of the participants guessed that the surgeon was, in fact, the child’s mother. This forced us to confront our own internal biases that exist beyond our awareness. This became one of the central themes of the workshop. Next, we tackled the theory element. I extracted quotes from their interviews and put them before each slide which allowed us to gauge the group’s understanding of what each term meant. One of the major learnings that was highlighted in the feedback forms was the difference between our biological sex and our gender. I recall ‘transgender’ being a possible option for gender when I was filling out my Indian visa. In a country which recognises the third gender, it again seems to be the case that our legislation is far ahead of our actual understanding on the ground.
Next, we discussed how the heart knows no bias, prejudice or gender. The heart knows only love. When we take the object of the heart during our meditation, we transcend all barriers or caste, class, sex, gender, religion, nationality etc., We outlined some small steps that we can take in our daily lives to create a more equal and loving society, such as using gender neural pronouns. We finished with a Feminist pizza party.
What I learned from this project is that gender sensitivity training is needed at a much younger age. One of the biggest failures in the current education system is that we do not equip children with the knowledge to be able to understand each other. And one of the most glaring lenses missing from the way we view the world is the lens of gender. Understanding the position of the other is a vital step in promoting empathy. In recent times, India has shown an increased acceptance of the LGBTQ community and it owes them a duty to ensure that children understand the difference between sex and gender at the very least. As the Trump administration considers narrowly defining gender and potentially undermining any protections afforded to transgender persons, we must educate each other. By authorising others, we authorise ourselves. By affirming the identity of others, we affirm our own identity. Nature is not binary.
Secondly, it reinforced my belief in the power of conversation. In each interview, I gained a valuable insight into the life of each of the interviewees. This helped me greatly in locating and contextualizing them and provided more colour to their make-up in my mind.
Lastly, we have all internalized patriarchy to various degrees. It exists beyond our awareness. It is not enough to profess that we treat everyone equally when, in reality, our institutions, our culture, our religions, our traditions, our words and our actions express otherwise. We must begin the conversation and be brave enough to confront it in ourselves and then unite in the battle against sexism. We must also debunk the myths that exist about feminism. We must engage in literature, film and other forums which educate us about the influences at work which create inequality in our society. It is not enough to remain ignorant. This is not about a clash of the sexes, this is about a crusade against a greater force at work. And that force is patriarchy.
I have uploaded the project proposal, list of questions and presentation for anyone who would like to try out a similar project.
I am indebted to Shubham, Bunty and Sarawesha, for participating in this project.