"In recent years, the world has been shocked by the Taliban's ruthless suppression of women in Afghanistan, the practice of female genital mutilation in parts of Africa and the abuse of female domestic labor in places like Saudi Arabia. Yet it is the world's largest democracy that is the undeclared winner in the contest of violence against women."
This quote led a NY Times Opinion piece written in 2005, and sadly, little has changed in India since it was published.
Our story begins in 2004, when an award-winning biologist returned from Washington, DC to her native India, "...and (I) was working on the research for my book "Sex and Power" [available on Amazon.com], something clicked deep within me. The data on the systemic and mass-scale violence on Indian women and girls I was gathering for my book was playing out in its stark grotesqueness in my everyday reality. A baby girl is abandoned on the streets in my city, and as residents wait for the police to respond, street dogs kill her and start eating her."
If this incident is revolting for you to read, then perhaps there is hope, hope that you haven't been so numbed to the violent oppression of women that you may be compelled to act in some small way. It helped shape an epiphany for Rita Banerji, founder of the 50 Million Missing Campaign.
Rita was born in India and moved to Massachusetts in the United States at 18 where she attended Mount Holyoke College and George Washington University in Washington D.C. In 1995 she received the Amy Lutz award in Plant Biology from the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) in Washington D.C. for her Ph.D. thesis work. Rita subsequently won numerous academic awards and worked at the Institute for Policy Studies and The World Resources Institute in Washington.
But it was her return to India, her innate passion for writing and an undirected drive to dignify women that brought her to this place in the universe where her talent could best be used. Rita Banerji spoke to me over a series of emails from Kolkata.
Hefferon: You made quite a change in career paths, moving from environmentalism to writing the Sex and Power book to the 50 Million Missing Campaign. Was there a defining moment that compelled this change or did these issues percolate over time to the point in your life when it was right to take on this challenge?
Banerji: When I was 8 years old I had told my mother I wanted to be writer. As a child I was never interested in toys, dolls, or even television. But I loved reading and writing. However, in middle-class Indian homes that's not considered a good career choice. When I was 11 years old, my English teacher wanted me to be a junior editor for the school magazine, and my mother was furious that I took it on. It meant I had to stay on after school and work on the editing with my teacher, and my mother thought it was a complete waste of time. And my teacher understood and she was very accommodating. We worked during the school recess, or sports period.
My parents wanted me to be a medical doctor. It was not forced on me, rather the expectation was built up, such that when I went into the sciences in Class 11, they were very happy. However, I hated cutting up animals for dissection, and I knew it was something I didn't want to do. And I liked the idea of a liberal arts education, so I took off for the U.S. after high school. That was a very important breathing space for me. It is strange that even in college I took some English classes, I was the editor of the on-campus international magazine, and yet I gravitated back towards the sciences. This time however, it was ecology and environment. These subjects were not taught in India - where science is still structured and taught in a very out-of-date fashion (botany, zoology, etc.) and it just opened a whole different area of passion for me.
I had grown up in very small towns, around a lot of greenery, fields and forests, and besides reading and writing, I loved gardening, animals and exploring the wild on my bike. So I was just following another of my passions when I went into the field of Conservation Biology. It is still in the sciences and I thought it would make my parents happy. I'm not very sure it did. The plan was to do a Ph.D. and take up a teaching job, which would during the summers allow me time for writing. I had taught a little as a Ph.D. student and I liked it, but after 6 years I knew I did not want to keep doing that for life.
I returned to India - this time to think over writing seriously. At first I took on some projects with the environment too. And I started writing small pieces, poems, articles etc. under a pseudonym (Ilina Sen). One of the pieces I wrote for The London Magazine, "From Sex to the Supreme Bliss," looked at the culture and ideologies of the Indian society in the period when the Kama Sutra was written - and I first submitted it under my pen name, and then asked if they'd publish it under my real name. I think that was a deciding moment for me, because I was sure by then that as late as I had started on a writing career, that's what I had always wanted to do. The research and writing for that book took 5 years - because I was looking at how the idea of sex, sexuality and morality in India had changed from period to period, over a span of more than 3000 years. The research was a lot of digging, a lot of work, but I was amazed at how much I learned and understood about India, and the Indian psyche.
I was shocked when I got to the modern period. In college I had actually heard Dr. Amartya Sen speak, I had heard about the "missing girls" of India - a term that he used for the first time. But I did not realize what it actually meant in terms of the female genocide, its scale, and the systemic and brutal violence it entails. It was something I just couldn't walk away from, as an Indian, as a woman, and as a human being. In fact I started the campaign even before the book was finished, in 2006.
But I think the worst part of it is that while all other forms of systemic and mass-scale violence are seen at some conscious level as outrageous by people everywhere, the female genocide in India doesn't evoke the same response (though I think now it is beginning to). I realized that violence against women is actually internalized by societies - particularly in India - but even in the west. At some deep, collective level of social thought we're adjusted, we have normalized violence on women and girls, in a way that would be otherwise abnormal and unacceptable when inflicted on any other group. The female genocide in India is therefore not just a statement on India, but it is a statement on how the global community thinks of violence and women.
In recent news, rape protests in India have grown violent, demonstrating the intensity with which this campaign is fought.