A fitting memorial to principled journalist Joe Nathan led by his son: Nehru Centre event arraigns global marginalisation and misogyny, By James Brewer
Five high-profile speakers berated continuing discriminatory treatment meted out to women in India and around the world when they spoke at a London debate that accompanied a memorial meeting for journalist Anandasundaram Sothinathan, known to many by his pen name Joe Nathan.
The event, under the title “Remembering an inspirational journalist, ” was organised by Dr Vijay Anand of Confluence Publishing in honour of his late father.
Mr Nathan passed away in May 2014 at the age of 82. In 2002, he had established Confluence – South Asian Perspectives, a magazine for south Asian culture, arts, politics, poetry and more. His name became synonymous with Confluence.
Speakers in the debate were sharply critical of the oppression of women in the hierarchy, and referred to the outrage over the banning by the Indian Information and Broadcasting Ministry of a BBC documentary India’s Daughter. The film follows the New Delhi gang rape and murder in December 2012 of a 23-year-old medical student that prompted marches and protests all over the country. The ministry gave as its reason that excerpts”appear to encourage and incite violence against women.” The film included an interview with one of the convicted men who makes derogatory comments about women and blames the victim for being out at night, adding that bigger crimes have gone unpunished, such as people being burned alive.
The debate at the Nehru Centre, the London cultural hub of the Indian government, was entitled “Gender equality – talking point or turning point.”
The first panel speaker, Malathy Sitaram, a magistrate and a sub-editor on Confluence, said there was a torrent of debate in India about the position of women in society. Other countries had problems, such as unequal pay in Britain – “so is gender inequality rampant throughout the world?” she asked.
Ms Sitaram welcomed developments such as the hiring of the first woman to drive a bus in New Delhi, but lamented that the system overall was patriarchal “and generally speaking, the female is considered to be the inferior sex.” Prejudice was widespread against the birth of girls: “can one imagine aborting a male foetus in India!” Ms Sitaram went on to refer to the shock over the vicious rape.
Another member of the panel, Chandrika Patel, who has a new book British South Asian Theatres: Aesthetics and Production, was born in Africa and brought up in India. She said that migration had been a very positive thing for women in allowing them to become familiar with the outlook in other countries. She was pleased that there now was discussion in school classrooms about the gender role, but progress depended “not so much about introducing new legislation – a lot is about changing perceptions and attitudes.”
Dr Patel said: “I am a big fan of Bollywood cinema, and it has evolved so that there are some fantastic films being made.” She cited a film made in Pakistan about a woman in a tribal area and her daughter who escape to forestall a forced arranged marriage. “Movies like that show women are being brave, and making changes because they do not want their daughters to endure what they had to.”
Another, symbolic, legislative change had opened the way for women to become make-up artists in Bollywood, ending the male monopoly on that profession.
Chaand Chazelle, a poet, actor, writer and director of films including Throw of a Dice (2012), declared: “Women are not born, they are made, ” explaining that they were “indoctrinated into their duties.” This had long been her contention, she said. In India women were granted equal rights and equal status in the constitution, but “in practice, how far is that true?” Ms Chazelle recalled a case of family suicide where a man had no money to marry off his four daughters.
Referring to the New Delhi rape, she said that although some things had changed, there was still much to be done to resolve major problems. A rape was committed every 27 minutes in India.
Huma Price, a London barrister practising immigration and family law from St Andrews Chambers and a broadcaster on legal issues, said that often a family relied on women members to uphold their honour, and in this context we needed to look closely at our attitude to religion and other customs in society.
Ms Price drew attention to a horrific aspect of the Taliban assault in December 2014 on a school in Peshawar, northwest Pakistan, leaving 132 people dead. The female victims “were not shot and killed because that would have been ‘too easy a death.’ The attackers took the trouble to burn all the women alive to punish them for going out of their home and working.”
Rather than condemning such atrocities in isolation, said Ms Price, “we should remember the [outlawed] practice of suttee in which a woman is burned alive [at the funeral of her husband].”
She went on to condemn the practice of female genital mutilation, “the purpose of which was to take away the only source of pleasure a woman has in her sexuality.”
She said that often the very first time a woman could exercise real power was when she had a daughter-in-law. The rate of marital breakdown was ‘astronomical’ because attitudes were not changing – “that is because the woman is expected to do everything.”
Ms Price said: “We need men to change their thinking and support valuing their daughters. Remember that the Suffragettes had the full support of their men.”
Rita Payne, president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, who chaired the meeting, said that despite strong women leaders having come to power in the 20th and 21st century, there remained large gaps worldwide in the rights of women. Ms Payne emphasised that gender equality was also good economics, allowing for greater stability.
Dr Anand, who is carrying on his father’s journalistic legacy as managing editor of his publication, said: “His passion for journalism and his indefatigable commitment to searching for the confluence of cultures and ideas attracted many writers of repute from all over the world. He knew how to get the best out of others. He encouraged budding writers by introducing them to the literary world through Confluence.
“As an experienced journalist, Joe offered an eclectic mix of articles, combining controversial topics with standard items. Despite his failing health, he continued to publish Confluence in print and electronically, thereby giving voice to the South Asian diaspora worldwide. For any journal to survive it must serve a purpose – which is clearly the case with Confluence, and all its many readers are glad that it continues to flourish.”
Joe Nathan was keen to encourage young people to learn to write well and this led to the setting up of Confluence Foundation, which organised writing courses for beginners and more advanced writers.
Lord Meghnad Desai and other speakers paid tribute to Mr Nathan’s inspiring life and “amazing personality.” A life peer, Lord Desai is an emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics. He established the Gandhi Statue Memorial Trust which aims to commemorate the life and works of Mahatma Gandhi
Ms Payne said: “In these days when there is so much division and conflict, we need people like Joe who has been a unifying figure.”
The meeting included a poetry recital by Daphne Mavroleon, who has a keen interest in Indian culture – she has made films including a documentary set in the Thar Desert of Western Rajasthan and she has a radio series on the music of India. Among her many activities, Ms Mavroleon manages a bio-dynamic woodland garden on the north Norfolk coast.