THE IMPORTANCE OF KEEPING RAJANIS FEMINISM ALIVE
Memorial speech delivered by Rohini Hensman
12th October 1990I should begin by explaining that I never actually met Rajani. I missed her when she visited
However, Rajani is not completely lost to us. Those of us who were lucky enough to know her personally have memories of her; all of us have her writings and what we know of her life. We have the power, if we wish, to keep her spirit alive in our own activity; and I think it is crucially important that we do so, not only for Rajanis sake but also for the sake of the movement to which she dedicated her life.
I want to talk about one aspect of her work which I feel is
especially important, and that is her work in the womens liberation movement.
As someone who has been active in the feminist movement in
Some time ago, I read somewhere a man asking whether the emancipation of women would lead to more women participating in the armed struggle. This is a very common view, but it is completely wrong. Feminism aims for relationships of equality and mutual respect between women and men, but this does not mean that we want women to be the same as what men are today. For example, in most societies of the world, virtually all the caring work for sick or disabled people, elderly people, and especially for children is done by women. This is often thought to be a natural division of labour, but there is nothing innate about it. You dont need to have your own child in order to care for a child; in fact, in our South Asian societies, you often see little girls looking after smaller children. Caring, like any other occupation, involves the learning of skills and acquiring of conditioned reflexes which change you as a person. If youve ever cared for a small child or a very sick person, you will know how precious the life of the person you are caring for becomes to you, how sensitive you become to the other persons pain, almost to the point of feeling it in your own body. And these are not responses which can easily be switched on and off; as I said, they are more like conditioned reflexes which are incorporated into your nervous system and become part of you. This is a biological feature, but a neurophysiological one acquired in your lifetime rather than a genetic one you are born with. In other words, a carer is a certain type of person, with certain responses that have become ingrained. I cannot conceive of the possibility that anyone who has been a long-term carer could become a torturer or killer or, for that matter, a rapist, since rape too involves the deliberate infliction of injury on another person unless that person undergoes a violent process whereby his or her whole personality is changed. And I think this explains why so few women are torturers or killers. It is not a genetic difference which prevents them, as we know from the few cases where women have actually entered these male professions. Nor is there anything genetic preventing men from being carers, as we know from the few cases where they have taken to it like ducks to water.It is the social training and acquired instincts of women that prevent them from torturing and killing. As feminists, we want an equal sharing of caring work between men and women; and I am sure that if this occurs, the recruiting-ground for torturers and killers will shrink rapidly. So equality between women and men will mean that in this respect men will become more like women, not the other way around.
So now we have a society in which the female half has this
invaluable resource, the capacity for sustaining life and relieving pain. You
would expect that this outlook would express itself in society to the same extent
as the opposite tendency. But this is not the case: militarism and violence
always seem to win out. Why is this? Because the same division of labour which
makes women carers, also confines them largely to the domestic sphere and keeps
them out of public life. So they have the resource, but they cant
use it except in a very narrow sphere. One reason is simply lack of time.
Even if they go out to work, the burden of domestic responsibilities is so heavy
that they have no time to participate in public life and put forward their own
point of view. Secondly, there are all kinds of social sanctions against women
who dont accept confinement to the sphere to which they have been allotted
by society: gossip, slander, ostracism and so forth. In extreme cases, sexual
violence is used to keep them in their place. In
Im sure that all of us here have at one time or another
heard a parent say threateningly to a child, You do such-and-such because
I say so, and seen disobedience punished with a slap or something
worse, or have been in a household where whatever the male head says is law.
But what do you think must be the effect on children if they grow up in such
a context? They become used to authoritarianism from the very beginning: to
a set-up where the power of male over female, adult over child, stronger over
weaker, is taken for granted, where arbitrary demands are backed up by violence.
They see a hierarchy where you have to obey those who are above you but can
demand obedience from those who are below, and they come to accept this as natural
because they have never experienced anything else. So it is hardly surprising
that when they grow up, they find no difficulty in accepting an authoritarian,
hierarchical society where the head of state occupies a position analogous to
the head of the family. And even if they object to the particular government
in power and want to change it, their alternative will tend to have the same
authoritarian, hierarchical structure, because from their earliest childhood
they have come to see the world as being organised on this model. I think this
is the tragedy of
Finally, we have found in
What Im trying to say is this: the feminism that Im talking about and which Rajani represented has to be an essential part of any movement for social justice or peace. It is not an optional extra or something which comes afterwards after self-determination, or liberation, or anything else. The struggle for womens liberation has to be an integral part of the overall movement, and if it is not, then there is something wrong with that movement. This is why, in addition to commemorating Rajani and celebrating her life, we must also continue her work. We cannot let it stop.
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