The Remarkable Women of #JLF
Nevertheless, They Persist
That the Jaipur Literature Festival is an event for women is obvious as soon as you arrive. Invariably, the women’s security line is miles long, while the men’s line is virtually non-existent. The volunteers and staff also seem to be mostly women—from the students managing the author signing booths to the venue hosts introducing the speakers.
Of course, this doesn’t diminish the dominance of men’s voices or the everyday challenge of moving through space occupied by men. The festival has become so popular that the young people of Jaipur come to see and be seen, milling about the site, buying treats from the expensive food vendors, and dabbling in session attendance. And so, like every other public space in Indian, there are still large packs of young men roaming the grounds, killing time. And the large crowds make private security a necessity, which means there are teams of imposing men who control entry to a given space. And while women, as always, had a strong showing on the speaker list at #JLF2017, men continued to dominate the discourse.
Nevertheless, the remarkable women of JLF persisted. What follows is a brief summary of just a few.
The election of Trump and the Brexit result were a central focus of discussion throughout the festival. At the Legacy of the Left session, panelists debated the role of the left, the danger of cult-like left movements, the phenomenon of populism versus social democracy, and whether there is a place for a revolutionary left in today’s world. But it was Mridula Mukerjee—author, historian, and the only woman on the panel—that reminded us all why the left still has a place in our world and will continue to for some time: we need the left because there is still great inequality in our world. Unsurprisingly, it took a woman to bring the intellectual salon back down to Earth.
Mridula was impressive, but my biggest JLF crush was the great Ruchira Gupta—founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide and tireless sex trafficking abolitionist—who spoke with such passion and eloquence and knowledge on nutrition and the girl child, misogyny, feminism, sex trafficking, and the real-world implications of Trump’s election.
Ruchira shared a story about her program to send the children of sex workers in city slums to school. The girls, who were keen to attend school, were simply too hungry to sit still and pay attention. So the program, with its limited funds, provided each child with one egg a day. When Ruchira saw one of the little girls slip the egg into her pocket, she asked the girl why she wasn’t eating it. The girl replied that she was taking it home to share with her mother, her brother, and her baby sister.
An object lesson in the African proverb—if you educate (feed) a man, you educate (feed) an individual; if you educate (feed) a girl you educate (feed) a family (and eventually, an entire nation). Well-fed and educated girls grow up to raise well-fed and educated children. In her most profound statement, Ruchira argued that if you cut government spending on women and girls, only to increase spending on national defense (as Modi has done), soon there will be no one left for your military to defend.
In speaking about her book, One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment, Mei Fong argued that sustainable population control comes when you give women control over their lives. China’s One Child policy was created by men under the assumption that they could control women’s reproduction like a water faucet. First, they turned it down, and now they think they’ll solve China’s problems by simply turning it up. Because, as Mei Fong explained, in China women are valuable, but they are not valued.
Lee Hyeon-seo told part of her harrowing and moving story of escape and survival, as chronicled in her book The Girl with Seven Names. After escaping from North Korea—the “world’s worst regime”—she survived for years as an undocumented defector in China before escaping to South Korea. She lives a lonely life, constantly battling her instinct to mistrust everything and everyone. But instead of retreating, she works to save some of the thousands of North Korean women defectors who are trafficked in China.
Emma Sky, British author and Mid-East politics expert, shared her experience working with the U.S. military in Iraq and her perspective on ISIS. She was a revelation, with honest, informed opinions about the world in which we live. Her book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, was the first one I cracked after the festival. She’s a living example of how one can be critical of America without hating it, and find balance and truth in motives and intentions, even when one objects to actions. Wish I could take her class at Yale’s Jackson Institute.
Now, despite having a session on Manelists, Misogyny, and Mansplaining, the festival was rife with at least two of these. For example, journalist and author Shrabani Basu had to keep her composure during her session on Queen Victoria. While the headliner for the session was historian A.N. Wilson and his book Victoria: A Life, Shrabani has also written a book—about HRM and her Indian servant and confidant. Yet, as good-natured as he was, A.N. Wilson couldn’t help but repeatedly finish Shrabani’s stories about her own area of expertise. But the last word still goes to Shrabani. Her book is now a movie starring Dame Judi Dench and Bollywood hottie Ali Fazal. Directed by Stephen Frears, Victoria and Abdul is due for release by Focus Features this September.
Occasionally, the remarkable women were not just the speakers, but the subject. Like the 48,000 four-penny prostitutes in Victorian London’s East End—ripe for the picking by Jack the Ripper. For the price of a cup of tea, these women turned tricks standing up in alleys just so they could rent a bed in which to sleep for the night. As Bruce Robinson and A.N. Wilson described in their talk about Robinson’s book They All Love Jack, the darker side of Victorian society reminds us how sex and economics have dictated women’s status throughout history.
There were also some interesting and noteworthy men at JLF—many in fact. And most were on the side of these remarkable women, even as they to struggled to overcome their own nurtured instinct to dominate the space and discourse. More often than not, it was male session hosts and speakers who encouraged questions from women and even cut off men in the audience so that women’s voices could be heard.
And speaking of hearing women’s voices, I can’t forget to mention poet Kate Tempest, who performed her 45-minute spoken-word piece Let Them Eat Chaos to a 5000-plus audience at the huge Front Lawn venue. Not sure I’m a fan of the work, but I was more than impressed by her command of the material, her energy, and her earnest desire to engage with her audience. Also remarkable, and deserved, was the prolonged standing ovation.
This was my second visit to JLF, and while it didn’t quite compare to 2013, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke on science and culture, it was still inspiring, fascinating, intense, and memorable—proving it is indeed the Greatest Literary Show on Earth.
Even though the festival is free, getting to Jaipur can be impractical. But everyone can experience the best moments and some of the remarkable women from this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival (and past years) on the JFL YouTube Channel.