Why was Suhel Seth on a panel about misogyny and mansplaining at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival? What did the panel discuss? If you couldn’t make it, we have the details.
The most hotly anticipated session at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) which concluded yesterday — at least among the people I follow on Twitter and Facebook — was the panel on ‘Manelists, Misogyny and Mansplaining’. Unfortunately, the reason was not positive: it was the inclusion of known mansplainer and anti-feminist Suhel Seth in the panel.
Why invite him to such a panel? Probably to court controversy, to make sure the panel is talked about, that there are ‘good’ quotes. All of which objectives were achieved. But if the JLF organisers are actually interested in misogyny, maybe instead of inviting a misogynist to create shallow controversy, they could have given more space to the other voices on the panel – which were all great!
Let’s see who these are. Antara Ganguli is a writer and a gender specialist at the United Nations. Anuradha Beniwal is a professional chess player and runs a coaching company; she has strong views on patriarchy and gender. Bee Rowlatt is a journalist who’s worked for the BBC and a writer of prize-winning and bestselling books.
Ruchira Gupta used to be a journalist before she founded an organisation to end human trafficking; she is a fierce feminist who advocates for trafficked girls and women. The panel was moderated by Amrita Tripathi, who is also a writer and journalist.
In her introduction, Antara Ganguli talked about being hit on by men who say, “You don’t look like a feminist.” She vehemently says, “That’s deeply offensive to me.” Bee Rowlatt talked about dressing in drag, about pretending to be a man for a day, and how it allowed her to be loud, to dominate a space in the way women don’t. Rowlatt said, “Mansplaining is not a jokey hashtag… it’s a serious issue. We have all been talked over.”
Anuradha Beniwal talked about her experiences in Haryana, where she was born, and London, where she lives now. She remembered how her father received consolatory messages when her sister was born. She said, “There’s no joy in your presence, and this is an indication of what is to come next… This leads to genocide of baby girls.”
Ruchira Gupta commented on the recent women’s marches and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, saying, “Hillary lost not because she did not get the vote… The entire campaign was organised around misogyny. The people who voted for Trump feared female authority more than they feared Russia or China…” She also talked about sexism in the home: “Women are in a permanent state of exile.” She went on to talk of Indian politics, “A new toxic masculinity is raising its head… occupying as much space as possible becomes the definition of masculinity.”
Ruchira Gupta also referred to sexual harassment and violence against women and how “the culture of impunity is a huge problem”: men attack women because they can get away with it. Antara Ganguli also spoke about young boys’ rage against girls who dare to reject their romantic advances. “We should have the freedom to go out at midnight and buy a cigarette if we need to,” Ruchira Gupta quoted Kavita Krishnan to sporadic applause.
Suhel Seth then gave his opinion on how feminists need to work with the grassroots, admitting, “I’m no expert like most of you are”, “you” being the actual feminists on the panel, a few of whom actually work with the grassroots.
Finally Bee Rowlatt asked Seth what we were all thinking: ”Why are you on this mansplaining panel?” Loud applause from the audience.
Anuradha Beniwal talked of how women are often told to be safe, to not go to “shady places”. “Some of us are born in shady places!” she points out. She called on women to go to unsafe places, to crowd them with our presence, to make them safe.
Too soon, the panel was opened to questions. Bee Rowlatt quoted Mary Wollstonecraft in answer to a “what about the men” question: “I do not want women to have power over men, but over themselves.”
Amrita Tripathi asked how many feminists were in the audience. A lot of arms went up. Ruchira Gupta called for the hands to become fists, and raised a slogan — “for feminism!” A moment of solidarity I had not expected.
Gupta talked about internalised sexism: ”Women have so internalised sexism they vote for men who look like the head of the family.” Suhel Seth was asked a question on the HeForShe campaign and said, “I have no opinion.” Everyone wishes he would say that to all questions. (“Do you want sugar in your tea?” “I have no opinion.”)
Someone asked how to improve the gender situation. “Demand gender and sexuality education in schools,” said Antara Ganguli.
A question about porn brought out Gupta’s somewhat reactionary views: she believes all pornography is misogynistic. However, she made a good point that we need to go beyond so-called consent, and focus on “welcome sex and mutual pleasure.”
For the next question, a woman in the audience asked Suhel Seth why he supports #notallmen and talks over women on the panel, and he immediately got defensive and blustered without quite answering the question. There was another question for Suhel Seth, and Bee Rowlatt protested, “He’s a token man and he is getting all the questions!” Seth countered, “Now I know how you feel,” thereby demonstrating his unerring ability to miss the point.
Yet another question for Seth, but the moderator refused to take it. (Amrita Tripathi, the audience thanks you!)
We ended with a question on the progress of the women’s movement. “Keep the movement going,” said Ruchira Gupta. “Hang in there and carry on.”
And the panel ended, immediately followed by a Dove ad on the screen. That’s corporate-sponsored feminism for you: real women’s issues and strong women’s voices diluted by pretending-to-be-empowering advertising and privileged men who refuse to learn.
If you would like to watch the panel for yourself, here’s the video!
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Unmana is interested in gender, literature and relationships, and writes about everything she's interested
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