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Surreal everyday

The world’s most famous feminist Gloria Steinem speaks to Renuka Narayanan on religion.

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Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem

The first thing I want to say as an American is that I apologise for George W. Bush. And I’d say to young girls dazzled by ‘glamour’, “If you appear in beauty contests, it stops you from being taken seriously for years.” There should be a statutory warning. I’m 72 and some people still introduce me as a ‘former Playboy bunny’. That was an undercover investigative story I did as a young journalist.

What I learnt was that it was one of the worst jobs in the world. The pay was bad, the hours were long and the treatment was very humiliating. You were a piece of meat. In fact, they couldn’t find enough women those days who were willing to be bunnies, it was such a terrible job. You could move up only if you agreed to go out with important clients or one of the club officers.

As a female human being I would agree with Dalit writer Gangadhar Patawane: “Dalit is a symbol of change and revolution. A Dalit believes in humanism. He rejects existence of God, rebirth, soul, sacred books that teach discrimination, faith and heaven, because these have made him a slave.” (Untouchability In Rural India, Sage). To join an institution, workplace or country with inequality is enormous punishment.

Feminism is in its Third Wave now. The message holds. It really became active in the early 1960s, with what is now documented as the Second Wave. This led to important changes in law and society, which would not have happened otherwise in the West.

Fundamental Christians in America still picket me at meetings. They used to bomb abortion clinics in earlier years. But they work at many levels. Take that powerful graphic symbol of the reversed triangle — the yoni. The patriarchy has made the yoni into the ‘heart’, whereas the actual organ looks nothing like the red candy shape of kitsch and commerce.

Gender censorship is an all-pervasive thing. A big American example is that women are supposed to be good listeners. But if you look at studies of speaking or talking, men talk more in general. How a woman speaks is still measured against expectations of how she should actually be listening more.

Books by women writers are often not taken seriously. If Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (about a woman discontented in her dull, provincial marriage and longing for a bigger world) had been written by a woman…

Religion is the biggest source of patriarchal bias and authority. I grew up not being part of an organised religion. One of my grandmothers was born a Christian and another a Jew. But both became Theosophists, because I suppose, it was more inclusive.

There are women now in religious service, rewriting the rules and rituals. Only the Catholic Church is being absolutely adamant about it. But spirituality is very much part of the women’s movement, whether by women within tradition or those outside working to restore spirituality. The way out, I feel, is by recovering traditions from tribal, animistic and ‘pagan’ cultures, overwhelmed by patriarchies.

(As told to Renuka Narayanan)

First Published: Feb 23, 2007 22:15 IST