On Hermits and caves: woman talk
Devaki Jain
WomenAction 2000 | Live @ the UNGASS!


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May 6th 2000
Last week I was at a small seminar in New Delhi, whose subject was Women In Panchayat Raj, the name of our local self government institutional framework. A woman, my age, with white grey hair, rather badly done in a knot, carelessly draped saree on a rather dumpy body came up and hugged me ever so warmly, saying how wonderful to meet you after so many years and stayed hugging me. When I responded good we have caught up, now let us make an attempt to meet again - She said. No, I am retiring from my job end of June and then I probably will not get an opportunity to move around to meetings like this, and she looked bereft and longingly at all of us. She is the principal coordinator of a much show cased womens programme in a rural area. Then I shall come and visit you in your cave, I said.
That started all of us talking on the phenomena of exclusion - the sense of loss that active women experience when they are suddenly cut off from the networks and participation, that has become their life. Earlier we had discussed the sense of exclusion, isolation and regression that the women who have been elected to local government councils were feeling at the end of their term They had said, that in one fell swoop, we go right back to the kitchen and silence, after being in the thick of politics and public administration for five years, because the law under which India ushered in decentralised governance, and a 33 percent quota of seats for women, also built in a fault line, namely that after five years the same person cannot stand again in the same constituency! For women, especially those in social or political action spheres, - as different from regular jobs in professions, - government or factories or UN etc -retirement is return to nowhere. They have taken time to get oriented to roles in transformation and leadership. They have often pushed themselves out of very traditional house bound spaces. Stepping out is like snuffing out, a loss of identity.
For our EWRs (women politicians called elected women representatives) we decided we would agitate for a change in the law, so that the clause about terms of office, constituency etc can be changed. But what about social activists like my friend - do do we have to visit each other in our caves?
As feminists there is need for us to reflect on this phenomena. Feminists are known for challenging the inherited theories of knowledge, of analysis and of practice. Whether it is Theology, psychology, social anthropology, history we are showing the error in the information base, in the understanding and reconstructing these sciences. We need then to challenge the mind set hidden in this phenomena of exclusion due to age, from the mainstream of participation. Retirement is a bureaucratic process and a legitimate one in systems where power and leadership are earned by going up a ladder of hierarchy. If the top does not go, then there is no fulfillment for the next row, so it should go. The other stereo type is the joint family where the mother in law dominates .If she does not go, forever the daughter in law is a subordinate. So leadership has to give place and change so that opportunity and new ideas are given space and there is fulfillment. BUT these are known systems of hierarchy.
What I want to engage us in is the other spaces and communities in which women work and love and strive - the movements. Here there is need to cushion leadership, not to merely promote growth. Here there is space for leadership of many kinds. Here one leadership may not be a threat, or an impediment to another. Are we thinking about this? Can we work out a system of inclusion and enjoyment of each other old and young, which is also fair? And not authoritarian?
The pressures on us to conform to the stereo type are great: let me give a few illustrations:
Donors who are supporting the participation of women in such gatherings or in other areas of work like research or forums, say - we want new faces, we want the younger ones, we want a second line of leadership, that is a sign of sustainability. Out of the way, hermit.
Programs are drawn up with generational categorisation, drawing attention to age divides - perhaps with the traditional premise that the old will relate their experience and the young will listen or may be feel bored, because this is like grandma talking or like OLD father william .
Are we giving in to stereotypes? Are we supporting another politics?
Let me explain. Men by and large dominate the domain of power. Here the older the man the more the power, whether in corporates or in politics. The God father, the powerful old monarch, the elderly Professor Emeritus or the Ten Wise Men that a Secretary General appointed, the 23 tired old male economists and economics adminstrators who were the majority of the 26 member South Commission headed by Julius Nyerere, - in which I was a member with two other women - and perhaps we were some of the youngest -and take any other WORLD Commission. It is all old or elderly men.
Over the years they have formed their clubs of influence, they have worked through the politics of their space and the negotiations they are engaged in. They have grown together and their history or histories have brought them into some kind of closeness - not agreement, not similarity but connectivity.
In another space, the international conference and global agencies, - another kind of politics is taking place Since, willy nilly, these theatres are located in the North - New York, Washington or Geneva those who are close to these cities and therefore the activities, the actors remain close to power. Here the donors culling, or the feminists culling does not operate. Hence we see in these arenas, the elderly of the North and the youth of the South. This can be a loss to the political strength of the South. Like the old men, women of age have worked through the politics of their space and the negotiations they are engaged in. They have understood the layers of power that lie behind every move and crafted methods of negotiations. The young of the South are eager, energetic, wise too but the historical strategy is yet to come. Thus the old and young mix of the North is pitted against an "elder- less" group from the South in many of the womens forums and conferences.
Why is this happening? Why are we creating hermits? Why are women more self conscious about age? Is the fact that women are not staying and aging on top, a good thing, a tribute to women' s stand against hierarchy, authority and also to womens notions of how power should be used or what power is? Or is it the tall poppy syndrome, an inability to see others flourish a sign of insecurity, inexperience in the power field? Is it women's supposed tendency for masochism, again perhaps a reflection of their intimate life experience, environments and traditions which perpetuate guilt? Or is it also one of those man- made phenomena; men seeking younger women so giving older women a complex, and initiating in society a feeling that their time is up.
In many old cultures, in the continents of Africa and Asia and L.A elders are venerated, also given a strong role in public affairs Old and young mix in artisan homes in these countries in creating things. This exclusion of the elder, this marginalisation, this separation by age could be an outcome or a phenomena of the North, where glamour, attracting the male - sexobjectification of the female is more prevalent (though it is catching up every where due to the globalisation of the television and its commerce).
The phenomena of aging, the sense of loneliness and unwanted ness, the need for more caring homes for the aged, for giving them links with the young are issues that are being dealt with, in the social sector as part of the social security debates and programs
Here what I am raising, I hope, is different .I am raising a question against the classification and the politics of this approach in organisation and leadership in the feminist movement. I am asking whether we cannot devise a system which is inclusive and yet fair and which cushions leadership by blending the differences based on age, culture, education and so on.


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