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June 15, 2017

The Female Gaze: What Is It Like To Be A Gay Feminist?

Text by Wyanet Vaz

“It takes a lot of resilience to break any norm, and where patriarchy is norm to stand up for women becomes an act of courage”

He is an active voice for a number of causes, and has coined the term ‘equal rights activist’. Mumbai-based Harish Iyer was one of the firsts to speak about his horrific experience of sexual abuse as a child, and openly talk about his own sexuality. His life has inspired filmmaker Onir’s  I Am, and Ranadeep Bhattacharyya and Judhajit Bagchi’s Amen. Listed as one of the 100 most influential LGBTQ people in the world by The Guardian in 2013, Iyer is at the forefront of the equal rights movement in India. He has also contributed to campaigns that support the interest of women, children and survivors of child sexual abuse.

Excerpts from our conversation…

What does feminism mean to you?
It is about equality and not about women being superior to men. Men have nothing to feel threatened about. And the reason it is called feminism and not menism is because historically, women have been subjugated. But today, the feminist movement is about making sure that all genders get an equal platform.

What personal experience drew you to feminism? Why did you make that decision?
As a person who is different, who is gay, and who has been a survivor of child sexual abuse, I know what it means to be raped. So, it is the feeling of empathy that drives me towards working for a more equitable society.

What is the starting point for understanding this movement?
Feminism begins at home. The way you treat your son or your daughter, the way you interact with them or the way you assign stereotypical jobs (this is going to be a man’s job or this is going to be a woman’s job). For instance, I teach at a college and one of the girls thought that it was her right to ask a man to get her a chair. And I told her it is not your right or privilege. And I know that women go through biological processes, they have their periods, but it is not so difficult to pick up a chair. And similarly, it is incorrect to falsely assume that men don’t go through physical pain.

Do you think it’s difficult for a man to support a women’s rights movement?
In many patriarchal societies (even though it should not be an act of courage) it takes a lot for a man to say that my sister, my wife or mother will not work in the kitchen but will get a job outside of the home. Or that I am going to be in the kitchen with her. It takes a lot of resilience to break any norm, and where patriarchy is norm to stand up for women becomes an act of courage.

Despite the male privilege, do men suffer from gender inequality as well?
Of course, they do. For instance, it is so difficult for a person to understand that I could be sexually abused. At times, men are victims of their own patriarchy and their own gender. And the assumption that every man is an abuser is what drives people off feminism. Because people are quick to assume that if he is a man, he has to be an abuser. Or he has to behave in a certain way. This is wrong because you can’t work against men if you want to support women. You have to work with men.

Can you tell us about the gay matrimonial ad your mother placed in the local newspaper?
My mother put the ad because she was upset that I was old and single. The outcome was that we got a lot of feedback. Many people thought that we were casteist because we said “Iyer preferred”. (I mean for a gay man size matters and not caste!) It was actually my grandmother who said ‘ladka ya ladki farak nahi padta bas iyer hona chahiye’. Someone asked me if it was written in jest and I said no it wasn’t, my grandmother actually asked for it. I think it is incredible for a person who is 80 years old to feel that gender doesn’t matter.

If there was one feminist resource that you wish everyone would read or view, what would it be?
I think it would be the film Queen because it spoke about women and liberalisation without using the word feminism anywhere.

Can you tell us about your S.I.T.A campaign with Shobhaa De.
We began a campaign to condemn the Bangalore attack on women by the Sri Ram Sene. As a part of this initiative, we urged women to arm themselves with whistles and blow it on eve teasers. So, the slogan was ‘SITA sena seeti bajao’. There are some things that have a mammoth impact and there are others which just leave you with the thought of creating a difference. So, this basically did that. One of my most memorable experiences was when a Muslim woman came out and asked for a seeti. She removed the covering of her burqa and whistled.

What has been the impact of all your protest marches? How do you get people to join you?
I believe that anything more than two is a crowd. Of course, it is a lie to say that we say that we march to change people, but the real people who get transformed are those who participate! There are still many prejudices within us. Every time I go to a march, I open myself to those prejudices and I cover them with more knowledge.

What is your message to people who don’t believe in feminism?
I think they assume that it is a group of bra-burning women who are all anti-men. I think women are to be blamed as well for cultivating this image of the ‘angry feminist’. So there has to be a lot of dialogue with those people, they need to come out and know that feminism is not about hating people but about standing up for things. And that is what I would tell them. Feminism is not about hating men but standing up for all genders.

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