Ela Bhatt has to be one of India’s most influential change-makers. She founded and led self-help group SEWA – or the Self-Employed Women’s Association – that has transformed the lives of nearly two million women and their families.

So, when the diminutive Ms. Bhatt (80) stepped up to the stage at the India International Centre in New Delhi last week to pay tribute to an icon of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem, the audience was in a mood to listen.

Reading from a prepared text at an event organised by Apne Aap Women Worldwide to release a collection of Ms. Steinem’s writings, the SEWA founder used the occasion to set out a life philosophy, which she chose to call the Feminine Way:

The feminine way looks at the whole group and tries to include the whole, waiting for those left behind; even if it means delaying the group, or the process. The goals are collective; the focus of progress is that of the community rather than the individual. I have observed over the years that the feminine way focuses on Inclusion instead of domination, process more than end-goal, group over individual; integration over fragmentation.

After defining this Way, Ela Bhatt went on to justify why exactly the world needed to adopt this path:

Feminine leadership is needed to save the planet from our greed in a way that enough natural resources remain for our children; to build development solutions by opening spaces so that the poor can find solutions that they own and that have a meaning for them; and respecting the time that it will take to get there. And feminine leadership is needed to balance the very masculine models that abound, which not always produce the world we want.

She stressed that the feminine way did not seek to exclude men or suggest that women had all the answers:

By the feminine way, I do not mean to exclude men from the equation or assert that women have all the answers. It is the feminine way of thinking, which is present, often in latent form in men too that has to be celebrated, encouraged and nourished.

An admirer of the other great fellow Gujarati and Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, the SEWA founder felt that Gandhi’s way was the feminine way:

For me Gandhi’s way in many ways is a feminine way which is deeply rooted in simplicity, non-violence, dignity, human values, which is relevant to our world today more than ever before. Gandhiji had often acknowledged his lessons learnt from women, particularly on simplicity... I feel we have to emulate the philosophy by looking for simple, easily understandable, practical and participative solutions to complex problems — that is the feminine way.

Ms. Bhatt did not stop here. She went on to detail what she called the home-maker’s perspective of the world:

I shall call my narrative Grihini’s perspective of International Relations which is like the Ubuntu idea of Nelson Mandela. Griha in Sanskrit language means home and Grihini is the woman of the home, the homemaker. The woman of the home is a worker, a producer, a creator, a conservator, a preserver, a manager of resources, a nurturer; a care giver. Grihini cuts across all classes. She balances the budget and she nourishes kinships and community relationships. She maintains continuity. She is a wife, a mother, an elder. She is the past, the present and the future of our society; she is home.

And, then Ms. Bhatt proceeded to talk about her “manifesto of propositions” that underlined the Grihni theory:

A Grihini’s theory is the theory where simplicity as lifestyle guarantees the availability for the other. Simplicity is not a limitation of need but a guarantee of hospitality. Simplicity recognises the need of the other. It is based on sharing. One shares what one has. Hospitality and reciprocity are for equals. Aid, charity, and philanthropy reinforce hierarchy. A shared meal or a shared courtyard is a harbinger of a shared peace. A shared environment is a guarantee against war. A Grihini’s sense of care-taking is a model for peace. It combines work, caring and community.

Ms. Bhatt has spent a lifetime dedicated to improving the lot of women and their families.

Need one add anything to such experience and distilled wisdom?

I think not.


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