Gender specialist Antara Ganguli is a debut novelist, whose book Tanya Tania, is a coming of age book, featuring two girls from India and Pakistan as protagonists, who write each other letters. She speaks to SheThePeople.TV’s Sukanya Sharma about feminism, why gender equality should form a part of children’s education, and what she hears from young women, in her role as a gender specialist at UNICEF.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, your interests..

I grew up in Bombay, a city that has shaped a lot of my interests and beliefs. For example, it is impossible to grow up in Bombay without rubbing up against poverty and inequality every moment of every day – this led to my desire to work in development. I’m really lucky to be able to work in a career that I love. I’ve always loved working with children, especially young children. And I’m passionate about gender equality. So my current role at UNICEF as a gender specialist is perfect!

Outside of work, I love to write, eat, travel, repeat. I wrote a novel about two girls coming of age in 1992 India and Pakistan, Tanya Tania and that was a lot of fun.

Debut novelist and gender specialist
Photo Credit: Antara Ganguli

2. What do you think of introducing gender studies to kids in school?

Yes, a thousand times yes! Gender is central to our world, its cultures and institutions and yet, it is never part of formal curricula and pedagogy. In UNICEF’s work with adolescent girls and boys, we work on life skills and discuss gender norms within that framework. Several NGOs are also doing great work in this regard. But this is largely seen as extra-curricular, less important than learning about the width of temple pillars and the centimetres of rain needed for cotton. But how is this not central? Isn’t it important for children to think about why Mum eats last at dinner and why only Dad goes to office? Why do women always fetch water? Who cleans the bathroom and why? Perhaps if they start thinking about this when they are eight, by the time they are eighteen, their own life and career choices will be truer to their own desires and dreams than to what they think their families, communities and societies want.

Isn’t it important for children to think about why Mum eats last at dinner and why only Dad goes to office? Why do women always fetch water? Who cleans the bathroom and why?

3. How would you explain feminism in a nut-shell to a 17 year old?

This is how I would explain feminism to anyone of any age: A feminist is a person who believes in an equal playing field for all genders. When one gender has less opportunities, then a feminist believes that effort should be made by all to support that gender so that the playing field does become equal.

A feminist is a person who believes in an equal playing field for all genders.

4. Why do you think gender equity is such an important struggle?

I always tell people I work on gender equality because it means I’ll never be out of a job. It is disheartening that I will not see gender equality in my lifetime. No country in the world has achieved gender equality, not even the small, rich Scandinavian ones although they come the closest. Once you start looking at the word from a lens of inequality, then gender, race and in India, caste, become central to determining who we become. But even within the inequalities of race, even without the inequalities of caste and class and tribe, gender remains the underlying boundary of opportunity. Gender, universally, is the founding stone of intersectionality.

I think that’s precisely why gender equality is such an important struggle. I really believe that if we can somehow crack the code on why we live in such narrow gender roles then the world can be more peaceful, compassionate and productive. The fear, anger and misplaced sense of entitlement that leads to violence within the home is not so different from what happens in a boardroom, in a military control centre or in a university classroom. So what could happen if gender did not prescribe violence for masculinity and submission for femininity? I doubt it is a coincidence that there is a correlation between countries that do well on gender equality and do well overall.

 

5. Kids learn faster from what they see than they read. What are they going to learn from the world today?

I think that largely depends on what the child is surrounded by. What are the chances a Syrian or Iraqi child who has seen his house bombed with his family in it, will trust the world? Or a nine-year-old girl who been trafficked by her father from Nepal or Jharkhand to a brothel in Bombay or to work as little better than a slave in a home in Delhi? Half the world’s refugees are children. More than half of missing children in India are girls. I expect these children will learn to be mistrustful of the world.

Luckier children will learn what we learnt from the world, I suppose – that it’s full of magic, uncertainty, things to fear and things to love. People talk a lot about the impact of the internet and social media, I do wonder if this changes a child’s idea of a holiday (did it not happen if Mum didn’t facebook it?) or a birthday or even news. But I also think this is just egotism – our grandparents adjusted to listening to news on the radio, our parents began to watch it on TV and no doubt our children are growing up just fine seeing newsflash headlines on our phones. I do hope though that they don’t think that everything has to be 32 characters to matter. I hope they grow up reading long form journalism and Rohington Mistry and listening to long jugalbandis and concertos.

7. Why do you think feminism gets such a backlash?

Does it? More so than other revolutionary ideas? The Dalit movement also gets a lot of backlash. Indians wanting India Pakistan peace get trolled viciously on Twitter.

Young women tell me, I’m not that kind of feminist and when I ask, well what kind are you – they end up describing confident, assertive women who are aware of their rights. So how is that different from the kind of feminist you don’t want to be? Well, I don’t hate men, they say.

But I do see a reluctance to use the word. Young women tell me, I’m not that kind of feminist and when I ask, well what kind are you – they end up describing confident, assertive women who are aware of their rights. So how is that different from the kind of feminist you don’t want to be? Well, I don’t hate men, they say. I think this is where it gets complicated. Of course we don’t want to hate men. After all, most of us love them as fathers, brothers, partners and friends. How do we share opportunities equally between women and men without getting upset when people (men and women) want to continue the practice of men having more? I think it’s a deeply personal struggle for every woman and man.

I really like what Aziz Ansari, the American comedian said on this:

“If you believe that men and women have equal rights, if someone asks if you’re feminist, you have to say yes because that is how words work. You can’t be like, ‘Oh yeah I’m a doctor that primarily does diseases of the skin.’ Oh, so you’re a dermatologist? ‘Oh no, that’s way too aggressive of a word! No no not at all not at all.’”

 

Antara Ganguli will be in conversation with SheThePeople.TV Editor at-large Amrita Tripathi at the Jaipur Literature Festival, along with Bee Rowlatt, Ruchira Gupta, Suhel Seth and Anuradha Beniwal in a panel titled “Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining” on Monday January 23rd.

 

 

Feature Image Credit: Antara Ganguli (Field visit at a tea garden in Assam where UNICEF and partners support programming for children living in tea estates, with a focus on adolescent girl empowerment)