Meena Seshu and Laxmi Murthy pay tribute to feminist activist Sandhya Rao, who passed away on Saturday in Bangalore
VAMP, Muskan and Sangram pay their respects to a feminist and friend who walked our path gently and firm. She translated, wrote our stories, helped us in research, held our hand and smoked her way through trainings, workshops and more recently as a member on our sexual harassment board.
She recently called me (Meena) on August 17th about a post on sex work in the feministsindia egroup and had a long chat on feminist conflation of sexual exploitation with sex work rather than the violence and sexual exploitation within sex work.
This was 10 days back. We will miss her. The Sanghatanas will miss her. “Ask Sandhya / aunty/ madam” was an instinctive response, especially when we needed any Kannada translation, help and support with a recent sexual harassment issue, documentation help, or sometimes just travelling to Sangli just to hold our hands during difficult times.
one of the 80’s feminists – a fast-vanishing breed, she was flamboyant and audacious in her political and personal stands, challenging, along the way, marriage, monogamy and heterosexuality
In the late 1970s, when not taking on the husband’s name after marriage was a signifier of a true-blue feminist, she insisted taking on the name of her Muslim-born husband, vigorously fighting with bank managers and sundry babus who were bewildered by her Hindu name, Muslim surname (she later reverted to Rao when she separated from her husband). She could be counted on to take on (with gusto) a range of hardened Hindutva-ites in the family, never losing an opportunity to proselytise, as a hard-boiled atheist.
Starting out with Streelekha and Vimochana in the early 1980s, she went on to set up the Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, a legal rights NGO, constantly travelling to remote corners of Karnataka to conduct legal trainings in Kannada with rural women. About a decade ago, in a move rare in the NGO world where leaders have no retirement age, she handed the reins to the next generation. Of course cursing and swearing, but also feeling that handing over must be inherent to feminist organising. When HHS closed down a few months ago, she was distressed but accepted the inevitability of forms of organising changing and evolving. The last few years she worked mostly with corporations on workplace safety for women, evolving policies, training and guiding ICCs on handling cases of sexual harassment.
Her decision in the early 1990s to pull her two young daughters out of a mainstream school and join hands with individuals attempting experiments of alternate learning were reflective of her conviction that alternatives were possible in every sphere. Her independent and creative daughters Sruti and Shabari, are testimony to feminist mothering when the term was not even in vogue.
She used to declare that she was involved with G and G: Gender and grandchildren. Her three grandchildren gave her infinite delight, and till the end she was able to tell them raucous jokes, teach them Kannada rhymes and make pancakes or pasta. She was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer three months ago, and was determined to deal with it the only way she knew: resist and struggle. She passed away suddenly and peacefully on August 27, 2016, after a day spent with a friend, chatting, eating and having a good time. She was 62.
We are losing too many, too young.
A true feminist. Rest in power, Sandhya! You will be missed.