“Gender violence is a question of power”

Interview: Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, Academic – UOM


“I fear the problem will grow worse until it becomes unbearable. We will have spawned a society of monsters. There will be at least one woman chopped up everyday!”

“It is not through electoral reform that we will change the system…

… but through looking at the roots of the constitution of the ethnic versus neutral mainstream divide which originates in the education system”

“Our education system is a mitigated success. Same with all other sectors”

More and more cases of violence and crime against women are being registered in Mauritius. More than the statistics relating to the commission of crime or gender-based violence, it’s the atrocity of some of the crimes that have been committed that’s shocking. What is it that’s really happening here? And what else is happening in our society which is going unreported but is nevertheless cause for concern? Mauritius Times sought the views of Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, University of Mauritius academic, on this state of affairs as well as on the road travelled by Mauritius during the last 46 years… Read on:

Mauritius Times: The world will celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow. It is said that « every minute a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. 222 million women want birth control and can’t get it. They live in hopeless poverty. Often in countries where they have no voice. No power. No identity. No value beyond their ability to bear and care for children. » That’s one unfortunate perspective to the plight of women in many parts of today’s world, but there’s a brighter side to that picture in other parts of the world, including Mauritius, where the womenfolk are faring much better and living life on their terms, at least on equal terms. Isn’t that so?

Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain: It is certainly the case that, as far as the infrastructure for improving access to women’s quality of life is concerned, Mauritius has progressed by leaps and bounds. Women have access to health care in both private and public sectors; mechanisms have been put in place to give women better care during pregnancy and after delivery and throughout the various stages of the life cycle. The same applies to education. In theory girls and boys have equal access to education and its potential for levering equal access to education and professional development.

However, the one thing the State has overlooked in the process of women’s empowerment at all levels is the quality of human beings who are supposed to run these structures and their attitudes to the notion of their responsibility as citizens in general, as well as their attitude to the gender question. For, often, although we have infrastructures, which are in a tolerable state, they are not used to their optimum. Whether it is simply due to carelessness and indifference, or lack of knowledge of how to operate these systems to their best, often we find a state laissez-faire which is despairing. Inadequacies in the delivery of diagnostic and treatment services have caused many dangerous situations in the health care system.

As for education, this is a huge issue. Yes, women have learnt to read and write. They are educated enough to take up employment. But it is a fact that the general mental attitude which underlies the delivery of education throughout our public system is far from gender friendly. We only have a nominal state of gender equality in education as far as recruitment of student and teaching population is concerned. But if one were to look at the practice of ALL schools the presuppositions which underlie school activities, classroom organisation, schoolyard activities and teaching attitudes, we would realise that we are very far from achieving a real state of gender equality beyond the figures.

In the first place, teachers bring their pre-conditioned attitude to teaching and privilege differing attitudes between girls and boys, which is a mere reproduction of the unquestioned traditional expectations of their home background – namely boys are allowed and encouraged to speak their mind, girls are expected to learn to listen and value the opinion of others. I have never to this day seen a public school in Mauritius which consciously organises schoolyard playtime to give equal opportunities to girls and boys. At both primary and secondary levels (in co-ed schools) boys occupy the maximum yard space during recreation time and girls huddle in the periphery of the courtyards. If you look at school textbooks, specially those written in Mauritius, there is very little gender sensitivity. And because we live at the juncture of paradoxical colliding attitudes to notions of women’s empowerment, unfortunately it is the underlying attitude of conservatism, deriving from the implicit beliefs of patriarchy, which form the subtext of our education system as practiced.

Therefore, with schools as with the health system, we have modern infrastructure but we have archaic attitudes which sabotage the potential of the system. We have not as yet even begun to think of how to sensitise people to their responsibility towards the system, neither has any government ever considered the urgency of having a visible, interventionist gender practice in schools, which would tackle the implicit attitudes underlying the system. Therefore with all these differential messages coming to young minds as they grow up, we are moving like Sisyphus – with every step forward we move two steps back. Women have access to education, they get controlled at home. They have access to financial independence – they have to endure violence of all sorts. It all begins with symbolic violence – structure of the family, nature of freedom with time and space, authority to speak and decide within the family, often about their own destiny, occupation of space within the home, change of name, expectations of socialisation patterns.

All women have to battle with some form of symbolic violence at these levels. But because we are silent about it, because no one dares talk about it, everyone accepts that symbolic violence towards women is natural. And unfortunately, increasingly this violence does not remain merely symbolic, it turns physical – horribly so!

* It’s certainly true that more and more cases of violence and crime against women are being registered in Mauritius, but that one should not fall for easy generalisations as well, isn’t it? What is it that’s really happening here?

If we look at the figures about gender violence, it is very much a reality and social workers will tell you that only a small percentage of gender violence is actually reported. What we get to hear through the press when matters get so ugly is only the tip of the iceberg.

The real nature of gender violence which goes unrecorded must be horrific. We unfortunately do not have the figures but women talk, social workers and NGOs know. Women know how bad it is and the sad fact that rather than lessening gender violence is getting worse.

There are many factors which can explain this.

In the first place we should stop seeing gender violence as a woman’s problem only. The perpetrators of gender violence are almost always male. When a women commits violence against a man, it is almost always out of retaliation for what they have endured for long in silence.

We have to acknowledge that gender violence is very much the problem of men also.

Our valiant feminists who have been active in the field in Mauritius will be the first to tell you that gender violence is a question of power. Men use it to assert their control over women when she is powerless, with no financial independence or social resources. When she has both of these, violence against women is used in an attempt to regain control against what men feel is power which is escaping them.

Of what power are we talking here? Of that very symbolic power which, through traditional mindsets, gives absolute control over women to men. This has been internalised through the unconscious rituals of the family organisation, and you can well imagine how in a diasporic society such as ours, where people falsely fear the loss of culture, they grab on to habits and learned patterns of behaviour as unchanging.

In addition, we are in a situation where through the perceived danger of the hegemony of modernity, the reinvention of traditional identities across the non-Western world has taken place by reinvesting symbolically the body of the woman with a reinforced traditionalism. And we are at the crossroads of these conflicting discourses here. On the one hand, the aspiration to individual fulfilment is the message which comes to us through education; on the other paradoxical messages of a regressive nature, specially in what concerns women are coming through the fundamentalisation of religious discourses, often these days disseminated through the media.

People often tend to believe that what they see of television is real life. And I have observed Mauritian society becoming more and more regressively traditional in the last two decades. If people are everyday being bombarded with messages that to be a good woman means staying at home and looking after your husband and family, at the expense of job satisfaction, this is what the audience come to expect of their womenfolk. People have to be educated in the notion that media works through representation. The television networks which produce these serials to big profit have no idea of the damage they are doing to society by disseminating these regressive messages. I am talking here about serials coming out of Asia.

But, on the other hand, Western popular culture is as guilty in the production of messages of gender violence. Let’s get this clear: no one prays all day long. People entertain themselves through music, television, video games, the Internet.

And if we look at the kind of messages implicit in a lot of this popular culture, it is truly shocking. Most of it is geared towards boys, teaching them to become aggressively masculine, through idolising the violent male body – Stallone the killing machine, back street boys with their rhetoric and postures of violence. Boys are getting the message to beef it up. In addition, a lot of these music videos objectify and hypersexualise the woman’s body. Women there appear submissive to centralised and organising male presence. So imagine how young people listening to these lyrics and watching these music videos project their gender identity.

* Besides the cases of violence and crimes perpetrated against women and reported by the media, what else is happening in our society which is going unreported but is nevertheless cause for concern ? What do your contacts with the student population, for instance, inform you about those things?

I am daily horrified by the latent violence in boys’ language, whether on campus or elsewhere. Boys have learnt a posture and a diction of affirmative masculinity where they have been conditioned not to show emotion and to treat women like second class citizens. And very few images of assertive women exist; no platforms exist for women to express their dissatisfaction and anger with these expectations. I work a lot with girls and I can tell you there is a lot of anger among girls. I’m talking here about young people in the early twenties. But the murderers, wife-beaters of today are the students of 10, 15 years ago. They’ve come out of this imperfect system and they keep getting these contradictory messages. And they don’t know how to cope.

* Who or what is it that’s responsible for this state of affairs? And what can we do about it?

You know all this is also happening because there are no public platforms for people to discuss their concerns. We are a society which is hypocritically tight-lipped when things do not work. Until it explodes in our face. By the look of things, if nothing is done at school level to open gender awareness, at social level to create platforms of debate, to air concerns of people caught in differing contradictory discourses of modernity and traditionalism, I fear the problem will grow worse until it becomes unbearable. We will have spawned a society of monsters. There will be at least one woman chopped up everyday!

And there are ways of reversing this! There have been experiments in other countries from which we can learn. No country is free from gender violence but at least they are trying to do something about it. Here we just wait and watch, until the next woman gets battered, bruised or murdered, then we speak our horror and go back to the placidity of our life as though there is nothing else to do.

This collective amnesia will make all of us guilty.

* The media may be, unwittingly perhaps, projecting the hapless victims of most of the gender-based violence in a negative light by suggesting that they would have incurred the wrath of their men for their alleged wayward ways. If that were indeed the case, what does it tell about today’s women and the menfolk’s coping ability given the changes that have been taking place in our society?

That is honestly one of the most lame of excuses for violence against women. Aamir Khan has started the second series of Satyamev Jayate. In the first episode he dealt with rape – as you know this is increasingly becoming visible as one of the most horrific realities of India. And he said in that show that most of the women who were raped were either wearing sarees or dupattas, or they were children! So dress does not matter! There are some religions axed exclusively around men, which say women need to cover up because they tempt men. But should men not be taught to exercise self-control! I think women have made enough concessions over many generations and decades to the whims of men. It is time that men learn to be attuned to attitudes of self-control and respect towards women! Men cannot get off scot-free in this!

I see some of the discussions on Facebook, which is enough to give you the chill, and this from some men who occupy positions of importance in the private and public sectors. These men should realise that first the women they brought to their home is not an object, neither is she apt to live up to the private fantasy fed by problematic Internet sites which cater to the most basic of instincts. And these men should realise they are themselves the fathers of daughters, uncles to nieces, or grandfathers. At least there should be some somersault of awareness if they realise that their symbolic or violent treatment of women could be visited upon cherished women in their own environment. Keeping your womenfolk under lock and key is not the solution.

Here again statistics show that most cases of paedophilia against young girls are committed by relatives in the close family circle. You will concede that there is a lot of work to be done about men’s attitude to women! That is why we need the Good Men out there to come out strongly against gender violence. By showing that they condemn violence against women, the Good Men out there will help make the message against gender violence more audible to those lurking in the shadows intent upon their crime. For I have learnt that in conditions of traditionalism the outer ear is not enough if the mind and the inner ear are not geared to listen to what is being said. Women have been fighting this cause for decades now but men also need to come out strongly against gender violence — for the sake of their daughters and their granddaughters to be.

* As for the State, there is only so much that the concerned authorities, the Ministry that looks after gender equality, the police, etc., can do, isn’t it? Surely you wouldn’t want to invite the Government into the bedroom to make marriages or concubinages work, nor in the living rooms to sort out differences between the elderly and the younger generations?

I disagree! There is a lot that the Ministry can do and should do here. In the first place there is an urgent need to intensify the type of punishment against gender violence. I was talking to a colleague the other day and he said punishment for gender violence should be two months, as it is no such legislation exists. But I personally think it should be more than two months — they should be in for at least six months to a year, depending upon the type of abuse committed. Of course the Ministry for Gender Equality should work with the State Law Office here.

But they should not stop at deterrence.

There are means to create platforms for social exchange. There is a Brazilian Theatre Director called Augusto Boal who has invented an inclusive form of participatory theatre to deal with social problems. I can easily see how this would be useful in beginning to create a platform to discuss issues which remain taboo for most families. I can easily see this type of platform used to discuss social problems like violence – between boys, violence against women, youth aspirations, drugs, etc… This is done by having a few actors sketch out the lineaments of a dilemma then involving the audience in reacting to the dilemma and making them think, voice out and change attitudes in the process.

In the first place there is an urgent need to work with the Ministry of Education to develop a Gender Awareness program in schools. Gender awareness does not mean recruiting X number of women to abide by quotas. Gender Awareness goes deeper than that. It needs to look at the way the school is structured and organised. How staff treat students in class, do they empower girls and boys equally? How is PE Class conducted, how is schoolyard organised. And most of all there is a need to look at the language of schoolyard. I can tell you the kind of language I hear used by young boys on a daily basis when they speak among themselves is always full of swear words, as though they build their masculinity on using swear words. Gender awareness campaigns needs to tackle the acceptable and non-acceptable use of language from very early on, before it is too late and reprehensible attitudes are already formed!

A lot can be done. But it has to be done by those with the power to effect policy decision changes.

* Would you say that the onus for setting things right rests on society, the family, the community and social networks. It would appear that some communities seem to be able to manage the different challenges posed by social transformations relatively better that others. What’s your take on that?

I really do not think that some communities are better than others. There is simply greater public silence and more hypocrisy in hiding the scars on womanhood in some communities.

* Mauritius is celebrating its 46th Independence anniversary next Wednesday. We have also come a long way, haven’t we, on the economic front in spite of our insularity and distance from our main markets, in education, in terms of general well-being, social welfare and generally as far as living together as a nation within the framework of democracy? What do you think?

Of course, we have made a lot of progress but we should not stop at what has been achieved. The success of Mauritius is stupendous compared to a lot of countries with similar demographics and similar histories. But we should not stop at the appearance of modernity and work only on building cybertowers. We need to look at the quality of human beings. And all will agree that there is a lot to do in this area to help our citizens become better citizens, or simply better human beings.

I am a strong believer in the power of the aesthetic world. Through the Arts there is a lot we can do to make humankind self-reflective about his/her role and destiny. And by Art I mean philosophy, music, literature, theatre as well as Fine Arts. I think it is only the Arts and the power of complex ideas they hold that we will begin to effect a social transformation for the better.

Our education system is a mitigated success. Same with all other sectors. We should not stop at statistics but look at deeper underlying realities. Celebrating independence is good. But it should also be the occasion for us to look at what has yet to be done to make our society better in 10 years’ time, in 20 years’ time. There is a need to step up the way we think of development and think otherwise.

* Rama Sithanen brought home, in an interview to this paper last week, his conclusion (based on an in-depth analysis of the voting patterns of the people over the past six decades) that the average Mauritian’s electoral preferences go mostly towards candidates from his/her community. What’s keeping that communally based reflex alive? Is it (the communally-based electoral reflex) necessarily a bad thing ? We have survived, haven’t we, in spite of that constant…

There is an eternal quandary of ethnicity against aspirations to modernity, which is perceived as culturally neutral. We always forget that ethnicity was itself created by the colonial state and maintained through legislation at the time of decolonisation through clever processes which reflected what had become entrenched by that time through modes of social identification and public reaffirmation of belonging. It is a deep and complex subject.

After all that I have said earlier about the need to question traditionalism, it might seem paradoxical if I say here that there is a need to question our very local brew of modernity. An implicit narrative of modernity has been set in place as the apparent neutral standard, for instance in schools through the organisation of languages in the school system — European languages for all and ethnic languages for particular others. But this is a system created under colonial times which has been reproduced unquestioned for more than 40 years and which is itself ideologically charged in creating identifications and disidentifications with ethnicity.

Rama Sithanen is right. He dared say what few politicians will say publicly but all will act upon. It is not through electoral reform that we will change the system but through looking at the roots of the constitution of the ethnic versus neutral mainstream divide which originates in the education system. That is the root of it all.

* What’s the way forward, according to you?

You ask me about the way ahead. There is a lot still to do. And too much lethargy in decision-making at key levels. For the sake of the future this should change, otherwise my advice to young people would be to leave and never come back.


* Published in print edition on 7 March 2014

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