I am putting together Gloria Steinem’s first-ever pani-puri, and a great deal of care has gone into its making: cracking the puri, stuffing the filling and adding the chutneys with what I can only hope is a judicious mix of spicy and tangy. The tapering fingers on a hand that proudly bears the vestiges of a hard, long battle—age spots and veins that stand out with startling clarity, allowing for the adornment of a single, silver ring—pick up the pani-puri and she’s about to pop it into her mouth when she’s interrupted by an admirer who stops by our table to say hello.

At 79, Steinem remains feminism’s most influential voice. A person who, in the words of history professor Christine Stansell, is “to the women’s movement what Martin Luther King Jr was to civil rights: the galvanizer".

She’s no stranger to India. Her first visit to this country as a fresh graduate from Smith College in the US, aged 22, was to escape marriage with the man she was engaged to. I laugh when I tell her about my first journey to the US, to get a degree ostensibly, but also to escape the inevitability of an arranged marriage. “Maybe we should start a cross-cultural marriage escape programme," she laughs. Let no one accuse Steinem of running out of ideas.

It seems apt that Steinem should be back in India to promote her book, As If Women Matter: The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader, which is edited and introduced by journalist and now activist Ruchira Gupta.

India shaped Steinem in profound ways.

For days she trudged from village to village, everywhere encountering stories of atrocities and violence. “But mostly we just listened," she says. “To my amazement, long and emotion-filled meetings often ended with village leaders pledging to take no revenge on caste groups whose members had attacked their group in neighbouring villages," she wrote later of that journey.

But more than a simple pacifist message, that journey brought home two important lessons. The first was the truth of Mahatma Gandhi’s saying: If you do something that people care about, the people will take care of you. And the second: There is no substitute for direct human contact.

Back in New York, Steinem struggled to get by as a freelance writer, accepting the assignments that were allotted to “girl reporters". It didn’t matter that she cared deeply and passionately about the civil rights or anti-Vietnam movements. Those stories were for guys. She paid the rent, she says, by profiling celebrities or writing about the mayor’s wife. And, in 1963, she famously wrote about her undercover operation as a Playboy Bunny, an article that resulted in, among other consequences, a “loss of serious journalistic assignments because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why".

Steinem persisted. In 1969 she published what is now regarded as a seminal article, After Black Power, Women’s Liberation. “Once upon a time," she wrote, “a Liberated Woman was somebody who had sex before marriage and a job afterward." Today, she wrote, liberation isn’t exposure to American values. It is the escape from them.

There was no looking back from there. A year later Steinem was a serious enough figure in the women’s movement to be called to testify at the Equal Rights Amendment debate. She would go on to launch Ms. magazine as well as a range of organizations, including the Women’s Action Alliance, the Coalition of Labor Union Women and her latest, the Women’s Media Center.

Steinem, who is an occasional visitor to India and continues her involvement with Ruchira Gupta’s Apne Aap Women Worldwide organization, which works with trafficked women and children, says she is excited by the December 2012 movement in the wake of the gang rape and subsequent death of a young medical student. “It’s what I love about India," she says. “The people will put up with only so much and then it will all erupt as they say ‘enough’."

Laws alone are not enough, she says. She says she was disappointed that India’s new laws on rape and sexual violence fell short of Justice J.S. Verma committee’s recommendations to criminalize marital rape and the rape of civilians by members of the Armed Forces in conflict zones. She says she is also disappointed by the imposition of the death penalty for crimes like rape because that, in effect, “makes the state into a murderer".

And yet, she says, while laws are important, change must begin from the family. “Human beings are profoundly sensitive to context. So patriarchal families will produce patriarchal sons and daughters who will be submissive."

I ask her if it doesn’t startle her that the women’s movement she has been involved with for over five decades hasn’t had more success than it has. Isn’t it ridiculous that we should still be debating domestic violence? “Burnout is a function of naivety," she cautions. There’s an old Cherokee saying, she adds gently: It takes four generations to heal one act of violence. And no, she doesn’t expect gender equality for another hundred years.

But there’s enough in India to keep her excited. The Aam Aadmi Party, for instance, even though she has not as yet met any of its leaders. “There is a sense of connection between the person on the street and what’s going on out there," she says, comparing the movement to reclaim politics with the Occupy movement.

What she’s less excited about is the work that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing in India. Her first objection is to the fact that the foundation’s work in distributing condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS is designed to protect the customers rather than prostituted women and girls from them. Her second objection is the programme’s top-down approach, rather than working up from the poorest or most marginalized woman or girl. Finally, she objects, she says, because the foundation seeks to empower pimps and traffickers who control condom distribution. “Sex trafficking has increased by something like 300%," she says. “They would have been better off educating customers, which is what they didn’t do."

Travelling, organizing, fundraising, agitating and writing remain preoccupations. Steinem says she loves that the world is now connected through technology but cautions that technology can never replace human contact. She values, above all, small weekly meetings with groups of people that result in empathy. “If you have to give up one, then give up the technology," she says.

And with that she finally bites into her first pani-puri. It’s mild enough for her. But then Steinem and spicy seem to get along just fine.

Also Read: Excerpt | The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader

Close