By Arjuna Seneviratne –
Female women’s rights advocates: the convenience of the plural identity for the singular benefit
The Devyani khobragade incident is stuttering, heaving and swirling on two subcontinents, buffeted by those little storms that are created out of ego, one-upmanship, brinkmanship and stark raving stupidity. When, where and whom that particular teacup hurricane is going to hit next has been bisected, trisected, dissected, reflected, detected and chopped up into a thousand itty-bitty pieces by a thousand itty-bitty people. Ugh! Let is lie…let it fly…let it die. I am not interested.
Ms. Khobragade does interest me though. Not because she is a diplomat whose arrest started an excellently constructed, beautifully sound-tracked and brilliantly choreographed diplomatic and legislative ballet but rather, as an alleged women’s rights advocate. I use that term “alleged” in its accusatory form because she has never been charged with that particular crime and any claims to her guilt on the matter are based, as far as I am aware, only on the fact that she held a conversation on “Women’s Rights and the Influence of Demographics in India” at the Australian High Commission on the New York Young Leader’s program. According to the Australian High Commission, “as a woman of the Dalit caste, Dr. Khobragade provided a unique perspective on gender and social equality in India and she spoke passionately about women’s rights”.
Simply because the alleged slavitude in which she is supposed to have kept her female domestic help should automatically revoke her right to speak on behalf of the rights of women.
Now, I am not sure what caste that domestic help Ms. Richard belonged to. I am not entirely sure if the alleged abuses on the part of Ms. Khobragade happened at all. I am not certain that her alleged behavior towards her domestic help was a nasty personal payback against all the abuse that has been hurled upon the heads of Dalit women by people of higher castes for centuries. I am unclear whether an Asian female rights advocate has an entirely different idea of what constitutes a right than her western counterparts. I am incapable of looking into a crystal ball and finding out if the charges would be proven. Regardless of all that, and despite of the fact that in the diplomatic and legal worlds, truth is primarily an inconvenience, it seems as if there is sufficient factual and circumstantial evidence to attest to at least some parts of Ms. Khobragade’s treatment of her maid. Paragraph 5 of the “overview” section of the indictment states “Once in the United States, Khobragade made the victim work often up to 100 or more hours per week without a single full day off, which, based on the promised salary of $573 per month, would result in an actual hourly wage of $1.42 per hour or less” .
At the very least she was underpaid with respect to her “employment rights” in that specific geographic situation. If not, there would be no need for the legal dance, no basis for the fevered behind-the-scenes orchestration, no requirement for the immunity drama – act 1, scenes 1-3. Let us therefore, reasonably conclude that she did violate the rights of her maid and that therefore, she should not have the right to speak on behalf of women’s rights.
I wish Ms. Khobragade is an isolated case. She is not. I have a female eyewitness account of how a female Gender Lead of an IFI in Sri Lanka forced her eight months pregnant assistant to walk up and down two flights of steps eight times in 40 minutes to remake a photocopy of a document she corrected slightly each time it was brought to her for review. I have had a male express his disgust at a female head-of-department at a leading university in Sri Lanka who refused to let a clerk working under her go home to feed her newborn half an hour before close “because she had finished her maternity leave” despite the fact that the girl was expressing milk and her saree jacket was soaked through with it. I have seen women exercise the slightest differential in power to abuse a woman under them – more brutally, more manipulatively, more creatively and more disgustingly than a man ever could – even as they speak uniquely and passionately about the rights of women.
Seneviratne is a revolted and worried man.
He is revolted because there is something obscene and vulgar about the aforementioned abuses that women perpetrate on women. Make no mistake; he is angry when men abuse women. But he is disgusted when women abuse women and, when a female women’s rights advocate does it, he is horrified to the point of hysteria. He knows that an advocate for any kind of right deserves the worst possible censure if he or she violates, directly or implicitly, the slightest, smallest part of that right.
He is worried because his belief system is compromised. He believed that women should speak for their rights but that belief he no longer holds to. He understands that rights advocates have to first execute their responsibilities to the rights they uphold but he is not longer sure that female women’s rights advocates are acting with responsibility in their personal engagement of women.
Ms. Khobragade and quite a few others of her ilk, fit this slicing to the T. They will talk rights all the way to heaven and back, encompassing the planet in waves of passionate appeals but fail to see that the woman in front of them needs their protection – not the exercise of their power differential. Ms. Khobragade’s missive to America as she left it “You have lost a good friend. It is unfortunate. In return, you got a maid and a drunken driver” smacks of an attitude that places equality and rights second to social status and differences in power strata. Coming from a rights advocate this is bad. Coming from a Dalit it is awful. The female women’s rights advocate will, in the name of women, ask for the protection of women’s rights in the plural but she cannot and will not protect a woman’s rights in the singular.
“Protection” is a word that is very subjective and easily subject to attack. It is a vicious word. It is the word that has been the cause of most, if not all the wars on this planet. Gender and rights tied to this word have had the same result.
Be that as it may, in general, women can and do protect children and look to their well being and they are far better at it than any man could ever be. In general, men can and do protect women and they are far better at it than any woman could ever be.
Yet, both have frequently fallen down on the job. Both have abused their position and stature in the ordering of societies. Both have violated trust.
A little known statistic is that percentage of women who abuse, neglect, cause pain of mind or assault children who they are supposed to protect is comparable to that percentage of men who abuse, neglect, cause pain of mind or assault women who they are supposed to protect. The former is not very fashionable to speak about, hold conferences over, discuss incessantly, create vigilante or advocacy groups to counter or finance to eradicate. The later- well! We can’t get enough of it.
In their manipulative advocacy, based on leveraging disinterested collectives for personal advantage, these women do great disservice to the majority of women for whom these rights are irrelevant and irreverent. Through these moves, that majority gain neither respect nor protection. In their communities, they won’t have constitutional guarantees or legal frameworks or social institutions or trustable enforcement agencies to watch over them and allow them to exercise their new found “rights” and they will lose the only respect and protection they have – that of their families and that of their communities.
Seneviratne would like advocates for a particular cause to be truthful enough not to take an exception and promote is as rule. He would like them to think wide, think deep and be compassionate in their engagement. He would like them to realize that anger and fear are horrible masters when it comes to advocacy. He would like them to have untrammeled sight of the fact that rights are preceded by responsibility. He would like them to understand that contrary to popular hope, belief and bulldog dogma, no one is born equal and every historical attempt to enforce equality on the unequal has failed without exception.
Seneviratne does not see any of this happening. Not in our part of the world. Here, we are attempting to impose equity and equality measures on a culture attuned to understanding life in terms of disparities and differences. What we end up with is a murky swill within which swirls a clash of ingredients in part fertilized by attitudes and traditions and in part fertilized by rights. That gunk is unpalatable. Those who try to digest it end up burping loud, belching bad and getting dirty looks from all sides.
Unfortunately for them, Ms. Khobragade & Co. seems to have taken a very large helping of it and are now looking very silly.
(My wife, Manjula contributed great insight to this post. She earns far more than I do, works far harder than I do, looks after our family to a level that is impossible for me to do, knows her great strengths as a human and a woman, understands her weaknesses as a woman and a mother, knows mine as a husband, a father and a man, and navigates through that choppy sea without capsizing)
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