Archive for Obituary

Rest in power, Sandhya Rao!

sandhya-rao

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.

Trupti Shah (1962 – 2016) : A tribute

Trupti Shah

By Sahiyar Team

The women’s movement, the environmental cause, the struggle for justice has lost a voice that never flinched from standing up for victims of exploitation, injustice and violence. Trupti Shah (54) left us on May 26, 2016 in Vadodara after a valiant battle against lung cancer.

Trupti, an economist by training, centered her lifelong activism primarily on women’s issues, constantly drawing its intersections with development, environment, communal strife, caste, labour and human rights issues.

With parents, Thakorbhai Shah, a known labour union leader and mother Suryakanta Shah, active in public life, Trupti was drawn into people’s struggles very early in her life.

Trupti always attributed her initiation into activism to her parents. In her own words, “I inherited the spirit, ‘not to tolerate any injustice’ from my father who left his career as journalist and Gandhian ideology to fight against injustice and became a Marxist-Trotskyist and Trade unionist. Along with him and other younger comrades from the Communist League, a Trotskyist group, I witnessed or participated in most of the major movements that emerged in Gujarat in the 1970s. My involvement in the women’s movement has its roots in these experiences.’’

Her first experience of people’s movement was in 1973 when she was just 11-years old. She, with five other girls was detained in the state home of children for three days for participating with the elders in the anti-price rise movement that started in Vadodara to protest Rs. 1 hike in milk prices. She was soon to actively participate in the ensuing Nav Nirman Andolan and anti-Emergency movement. A product of Maharaja Sayajirao University’s distinctive academic atmosphere from her kindergarten studies, Trupti was to plunge into the women’s movement from her student days. And that turned into her lifelong passion.

As a young 18 year old, unlike most other Gujarati youth, she became active in the Communist League (CL), the Indian section of the Fourth International, which supported autonomous women’s movement world over. Dr. Vibhuti Patel, one of the leading activists of the Communist League was to mentor Trupti’s initiation in the autonomous women’s movement. Dr. Neera Desai, a renowned sociologist and feminist, too was a major influence on Trupti’s young mind and her work for women’s rights.

When the nationwide movement for reopening the Mathura Rape Case seeking amendments in legal provisions related to rape was started, Trupti was a part of the forum, Narishoshan Virodhi Samiti(Committee to Resist Exploitation against Women) to be initiated in Vadodara. Disenchanted with the apathy of women political leaders towards gender based violence, she participated as perhaps the youngest delegate in the first conference of Autonomous Women’s Movement organised in Bombay in 1980. The proceedings sharpened the need in her to start something afresh in Vadodara for women’s rights. And so she resolved:  ‘there is a need to have an autonomous women’s organisation in Baroda which will uphold the interest of women above all other issues and political affiliation.’ And the rest of her life became a persistent effort towards building such an organisation.

An effort of several years and like-minded friends resulted in Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) an initiative led by the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda students in 1984. The overriding consciousness resulted in an organisation by women and for women with the long term aim to work towards a society free from inequality, injustice and atrocity – a society where women enjoy equal status and recognition as human beings. Resisting communal forces and fundamentalists of all hues, in striving to uphold the principles of equality and non-discrimination, soon became central to all Sahiyar’s initiatives.
Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) is a feminist group in Vadodara. She was one of its founder members. Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan) works for women’s rights and strives to create awareness among society on women’s issues. She was involved in awareness programmes like street theatre, organising workshops, training, participatory research and publication on behalf of the organisation. She was also involved in counseling of adolescent girls and women and providing legal support to them.

Her concerns were not limited to only women’s issues. She brought gender perspective to other public concerns such as environment, civil liberties, human rights, anti-communalism and all just causes. 

She was involved with several social / voluntary organisations since her student days and undertook community work and social awareness work through these organisations.

One such organization being Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS), an organisation working on the issues related to environmental rights and awareness. As also a part of PSS, Trupti brought in her impeccable research and analytical skills and her understanding of human environment in identifying and studying the rampant environmental degradation and displacement of adivasis in the name of development for land grabbing and privatization. The concerns highlighted by her have found their expression in the changing environment over time, which only goes to showcase the depth of her understanding. Her thorough approach and holistic understanding of environmental issues, helped in preparation for legal action, an important aspect of her action-oriented approach. 
She was also involved with People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), as well as the Radical Socialist.

Trupti brought her expertise and sensitivities of women’s rights to other struggles and every major social upheaval that she responded to – during the anti-Narmada dam agitation, the anti-nuclear protests at Mithivirdi area, the fight against industrial pollution in Gujarat, the 2002 Gujarat Carnage, the various government undertaken slum demolition drives, and raised environmental concerns in Gujarat from time to time including in respect of the Statue of Unity project, Garudeshwar Weir project and the recent Vishwamitri Riverfront Development project, flagging the environmental violations, livelihood issue and damage being caused by the projects.

Her academic association with MSU continued simultaneously; in various capacities – as a researcher, teacher, and as academic coordinator with the Women’s Studies Research Center and later in the faculty of commerce and faculty of social work as well.

She infused her academic expertise in her activism, translating it into action-oriented work at the grassroot level. Whether she was involved in preparing training manuals for NGOs, reviewing exercises, conducting training programmes, community programmes, she combined her academic brilliance with radical activism. She constantly flagged concerns and violations of all kinds with a rare passion.

She earned her Ph.D. for her thesis, “Economic Status of Women in Urban Informal Sector – A study of Baroda City” from MSU in 2000.

She continued to write extensively, with her unwavering faith in the collective women’s movement. She took great satisfaction in the four part: ‘Nari Andolanno Itihas’ (History of Women’s Movement), a series of books on the History of women’s movement in 4 parts in Gujarati, Published by UNNATI and Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan), (2011).

During her last days, she was most concerned about the violations in the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project case, especially related to the river’s bio-diversity, environmental degradation, loss of livelihoods. Her concern to her last breath: behno na adhikar ni vaat loko nathi sambhadta….nadi, Paryavaran ni vaat loko samjhe to saru-People are apathetic to women’s rights….it would be good if they understand the issue of river, environment.
She is survived by her fellow comrade, activist, friend and companion, Rohit Prajapati, who has been her partner in her efforts and pillar of support, and her son, Manav, amongst other family and friends.

Sahiyar (Stree Sangathan),

Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS)

Remembering Fatema Mernissi, the magician among the Casablanca Dreamers

Fatema- mernissi

Shuba Chacko pays tribute to renowned Muslim feminist and sociologist, Fatema Mernissi by remembering an exciting feminist gathering organised by Devaki Jain. Mernissi passed away in Morocco on November 30th. Her most celebrated book, Beyond the Veil, reviewed Islam from a feminist perspective rejecting its age-old patriarchal interpretations

‘The Casablanca Dreamers’ is the evocative name that Fatema Mernissi gave to our informal group of feminist scholars and activists. We had come together to think through an alternative framework for ensuring that justice is built into macro economic ideas and policies. We were a diverse bunch drawn from varied backgrounds, of geography, specializations and perspectives. Devaki Jain was the brain behind the idea and brought this exciting group of feminists together. And we met in Casablanca because Fatema, the magnet, was there. (http://www.mernissi.net/books/articles/casablanca_dream.html)

Fatema’s broad, civilisational imagination swept the group and we undertook a magical journey. She thrilled and inspired. She dressed flamboyantly, laughed loudly, her eyes twinkled as she wove long and beautiful stories. And when she said “Voila” we wanted to clap as she, the magician held us captivated.

Below are some of the thoughts and visions she shared – though unfortunately without the liveliness of her telling.

For Fatema Mernissi the borderlessness that globalisation promises, that is – the dissolution of borders between nation states to facilitate the flow of goods, services and finance capital, is skewed. She argued for breaking down of the walls of the mind. She evoked Sindbad the sailor, a popular character in Arabian folklore and contrasted him with the cowboy – a figure around whom many American stories revolve.

For Sindbad strangers were sources of joy; of being enriched – while the cowboy was fitted with gun and holster to take on the unknown. Sindbad challenged the traditional notion of wealth – for him travel in itself was an enriching process; whereas for the cowboy he was driven by a need to protect his cattle, even while trying to poach on other people’s livestock.

The theme of travel as a means to explore and know new worlds both literally and figuratively appears many times in Fatema Mernissi’s writings. The exploring and learning leads to progress that is mutually beneficial – it is not a blind copying from another culture but the active process of deriving, adapting, adding, changing that allows cultures to intermingle and converse rather than clash. These thoughts are reflected in the tales of Sindabad as well as the countless other seers and poets of the Arab world who exhorted people to travel, and counted the gains from these journeys in terms of “entertainment, livelihood, self-discipline, knowledge and the opportunity to be in the company of splendid creatures.”

‘The journey’ however is not restricted to new outward frontiers but also encompasses travels within, to know the ‘self’ better, as the inward movement ‘unveils the hidden face of the traveller’. Mernissi insisted that this self-knowledge was important for establishing the norms of ethical behaviour.

When one approaches strangers with this view, then it is possible for one to be open and able to conquer the fear of them through dialogue. Dialogue entails commitment to translation, to creating fora that allow for these conversations and to master “the art of communication and demonstration”. In this worldview being insular is seen as causing poverty and ruin. Movement is viewed as natural and perpetual and in a philosophical sense that “the fate of the human being is to tune to the universal movement”.

This recognition of the constant motion meant that recognition of survival depended on weaving a symbiotic partnership. The need to communicate with strangers is embraced, not just with humans but across species – including birds and sea-monsters.

Some of the rulers have adopted this approach. The Caliph al Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph (for example), who created Baghdad, adopted the concept of adab or allying with the stranger. Building bridges requires the art of communication that is respectful of the ‘other’. It is this desire to understand and know new ‘truths’, new ideas, new histories that pushed the rulers and scholars of this Caliphate to undertake huge translation missions. They believed that talking and listening and other forms of cultural exchange was the only way to grow richer and sustain themselves.

This attitude Mernissi insists is most relevant for a truer globalization because strangers will be constantly trespassing into our neighbourhoods and lurking on our street-corners.

The encounter with strange things and events must stimulate us to enlarge our horizons. The need is to invest in books and research and in understanding each other and become more familiar with other world views, idioms and value systems. This she points out is in contrast to the current trend of wanting to subjugate the ‘other’.

Our arrogance means we are often caught up in our narrow views that tend not look beyond the obvious – for example we confuse the desert with nothingness and then go on to condescendingly hold “training programs which teach the local population” about their local habitats. The wealth of knowledge that they hold is unacknowledged and dismissed and they are not supported to know more about the exceptional wealth of the region, that will build their pride and help shape their new vision of the desert as a wonderful paradise of life in all its forms, where they are enabled to manufacture new identities for themselves. This she underlines is the missing ingredient which explains the failure of bureaucrat-led development programs, be they promoted by the local state, or the international agencies such as the World Bank. This ability of information to empower and validate is often overlooked in a mechanical attitude to information.

New technologies do offer hope in that they hold “the magic power, for the first time in modern history, to engineer their own image on-line, and not only for their restricted local consumption, but for the universe at large”. However this power has to be harnessed and used for “imagination-nurturing creatures on one hand” while the ruling elites will try to wrest control yet again and want their specific interests to dominate. This ‘digital chaos” Mernissi argues is an opportunity for creative growth

The task is to work collectively –drawing from each other and enhancing each other “Any group who gather together to pursue a higher goal could enjoy the dazzling effect which comes from mirroring each others’ beauty.”

Fatema, thank you for everything. Your deeply insightful words echo through my head now and then; as does your laughter. You, I am sure, will continue your Safar.

atema-mernissi-calligraphy

Safar (travel) as self-discovery-an example of Fatema Mernissi’s use of calligraphy and illustrations

Obituary: Tahira Mazhar Ali (1925-2015)

Tahira-Mazhar-Ali

Pakistan’s legendary women’s rights campaigner Tahira Mazhar Ali passed away in Lahore on Monday. She was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). In 1981, Tahira Ali, along with other women activists, formed the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) to resist the Islamisation agenda of the Zia-ul-Haq regime. A tribute by Kavita Panjabi

I just read about Tahira Mazhar Ali passing away, feeling really sad, hence this. I met her only thrice, and it was like I carried her within me all these years.

The first time was in 2001 at the ASR seminar on the 30th anniversary of the genocide in Bangladesh. She came up to chat after my presentation on the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity (MARS) and the Tebhaga women’s movement, excited. It had taken her on a nostalgia trip, and she said she remembered the MARS on a collection drive for the Bengal Famine in Lahore too; many, including she, had taken off the gold bangles they were wearing and contributed on the spot.

The next time was a couple of years later on the way back from the Karachi conference of the PIPFPD – NIghat had generously opened up ASR to the whole Bengal contingent, and it was like a shaadi baari when we arrived there, late in the night – mattresses had been hired and laid out last minute, to accommodate the extra people who had suddenly called up to say they too were coming, steaming hot degchis of food were put out for us in the kitchen. And Tahira Apa invited all of us to lunch the next day – for we were from Bengal and she wanted to meet us. I remember one of the most serene Buddhas I have ever seen, sitting to the right of her doorway, close to a glass cupboard full of the latest finds from digs in Baluchistan, “Of course its …., she grinned, But if I didn’t buy them, they would have gone out of the country. People are such thieves you know – all this would have gone out of the country…..” As unforgettable as her robust welcome, that made us feel so wanted in a stranger’s house, was the amazing Punjabi meal, which included various meats, naans and rotis of course, but also some of the finest baigan ka bartha and shalgam ka bartha we had ever had.

I instinctively took to her, wanted to record a proper conversation with her. She met me early the very next day – for we were leaving soon after that. I remember sitting with her in the morning light – in an open courtyard, maybe in a garden, with the sun and shadows flickering across her face that had such character. She talked about her younger days, Nehru and her deep admiration for him as well as major differences, Jinnah, the CP being sent underground, her work with peasants, the National Workers Party and the Democratic Women’s Association. Especially striking was the completely natural way in which she talked about ‘us’ across generations, contexts and movements. Included in that ‘us’ was I, a woman from across the border, and all the women whom I had protested with, walked the streets with, and sung with, completely off key, but lustily nevertheless, in Kolkata, Dhaka and Delhi, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi. She had a no-nonsense, down to earth way of articulating that ‘us’ with such ease and confidence – it sounded so natural because, one realized the moment one heard it, it was natural

Meera Kosambi (April 24, 1939 – February 26, 2015)

meera-kosambi

Uma Chakravarti reminisces about the historian and feminist scholar Dr Meera Kosambi who carved her own distinctive space within a legendary family

Many years ago, before Meera Kosambi began to write on women in 19th Century Western India, a region that I wrote on in my work on Pandita Ramabai, the only Kosambi on my intellectual horizon was D.D. Kosambi, her father, who towered over the history writing scene.

So it was not surprising that when I first met her sometime in the 1990s, a lot of our conversation was about her father and also about her grandfather Dharmanand Kosambi because of my interest in Buddhism. Belonging to such an illustrious family it would have been difficult to carve a distinctive space for herself as Meera Kosambi certainly did.

Meera began as an urban studies scholar with a fine urban geography of Bombay city (1986- Bombay in Transition : The Growth and Social Ecology of a Colonial City, 1880-1980, Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International). But it was her persistent work on 19th century women’s history that actually drew attention to her as a serious scholar.

Today her work on history, based on the written archive has been pioneering and her persistence with her chosen field of work—women’s history has also resulted in some important translations of the entire Marathi corpus of Pandita Ramabai’s writings into English so that it can be read by a wider community of feminist scholars. Her stint as Director of the RCWS at SNDT women’s University was in all probably a significant shaper of these intellectual moves that Meera Kosambi made.

In recent years, Meera Kosambi also contributed to the compilation of D.D. Kosambi’s writings so that we now have a really good collection of his papers. These had been published in a wide array of journals, some of which were difficult to access.

The last book she worked on and published was a completely fascinating account her grandfather Dharmanand Kosambi, based on the papers and oral accounts that she must have accessed. For me this has been the most interesting book that she authored. His travels to Nepal and Sri Lanka in search of Buddhist manuscripts, travelling with great difficulty, finding financial assistance from wherever he could was an amazing story. The account of how he went in and out of grihastha status moving from householder to half monkhood over the decades. was equally fascinating.

She must have had a feel for Buddhism, as her father too had, because she advised me once to return to Buddhist studies and not meander here and there. I have tried to do both—stay with Buddhist studies and meander here and there, but I am not sure she would totally approve. In the last few years I never met her for a serious conversation but I read everything that she published and so should others.

Hers was a most serious engagement with Maharashtra once she returned to it and what she did gave her an independent stature. Even though two generations of larger than life Kosambis hung over her all her life and could have dwarfed her completely, she did not let that happen.

Meera Kosambi’s other books
• 1994 Women’s Oppression in the Public Gaze: an Analysis of Newspaper Coverage, State Action and Activist Response (edited), Bombay: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 1994 Urbanization and Urban Development in India, New Delhi: Indian Council of Social Science Research
• 1995 Pandita Ramabai’s Feminist and Christian Conversions : Focus on Stree Dharma-neeti, Bombay: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 1996 Women in Decision-Making in the Private Sector in India (with Divya Pandey and Veena Poonacha), Mumbai: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, S.N.D.T. Women’s University
• 2000 Intersections : Socio-Cultural Trends in Maharashtra (edited), New Delhi: Orient Longman, New Delhi
• 2000 Pandita Ramabai Through Her Own Words: Selected Works (translated, edited and compiled) New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press
• 2003 Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter : The Peoples of the United States (1889) (translated and edited), Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
• 2007 Crossing Thresholds: Feminist Essays in Social History, Ranikhet: Permanent Black
2008 ‘D D Kosambi: The Scholar and the Man’ Economic and Political Weekly, Kosambi Special Issue vol. XLIII no 30 July.

Kamala Maushi: Salute to a proud Devadasi

Kamala-Maushi

In memory of a proud Devadasi, a relentless activist who fought for sex workers rights, a natural leader and a compassionate comrade – Kamala Maushi (11-2-1950 to 11-2-2015)

By Meena Seshu

“Unlike gharguti [household] women I am married to a Goddess! In my culture, I have become a man. I am a Kaka (paternal uncle) to my nieces and nephews! All property in the house will be distributed equally among my brothers and me. Upper caste people in the village have to treat me with respect,” said Kamalabai Pani, explaining the Devadasi custom.

I met Kamalabai in April 2000 when she came to the office of Sampada Grameen Mahila Sanstha (SANGRAM) office in Sangli with Bhimawa Gollar. They were best friends: both ‘big’ Gharwalis (Brothel owners) in Sangli. They came because Sidharam a local thug had targeted Kamalabai, pulled her out of a running auto rickshaw and physically assaulted her. They approached us to intervene because the police refused to file a case against Sidharam. We went and filed the case together and from then on all our lives changed.

Kamala Maushi was proud to be a Devadasi. She always believed that she was in a much better position compared to married women, because she felt more in ‘control’ of her life. She loved her jewellery and wore it for almost any occasion. “I am not a poor woman,” she often said.

Her understanding about the Devadasi system defied argument. She was perplexed by the opposition to the Devadasi system. Her argument was that she was superior because she was married to a goddess and thus would never be a widow; she was considered a ‘male’ in the family; she was the head of her household; she had control over her earnings and her property; her children were her own and did not belong to the man who fathered them; she was allowed to have multiple sexual partners among other freedoms.

She disagreed with the analysis that the Devdasi system was established in order to ensure that upper caste and upper class men always had access to women from the Dalit castes with societal sanction. She argued that in her own personal life she had ‘kept’ and had access to many men from all castes and classes of society. She paid to keep them and left them when she wanted to do so. Her present malak (live in lover) was an upper caste landed farmer who she ‘maintained’ till her death.

Kamalabai was a natural leader who had the respect of various levels of people she interacted with, District Magistrate, Police, Dean of the Civil hospital, Municipal Councillors, MLAs, lawyers, NGO leaders, Trade Union leaders, community leaders, feminist leaders both national and international. When the Collector of Sangli had a meeting on income generation projects for sex workers she told him, “Sir, the government should have income generation for persons who are unable to earn on their own. Sex Workers already have an income.” The DM immediately instructed his officers to stop the compulsory rehabilitation of sex workers, in Sangli.

Her arguments with police officers and health officials in Sangli were legendary: “Are we not human?” is a question she asked every official who violated the rights of sex workers

Her understanding of the right to be treated as a human being irrespective of the legality of her work (brothel keeping is illegal) never failed to impress me. She argued that criminalisation of her work did not give law enforcement the right to violate her dignity.

At the community level she coined the term “Anyay sehan karnar nahi”. Will not tolerate injustice! She mobilised to root out money lenders who charged exorbitant interest, in Gokulnagar first and then on the idea spread to all the areas in which the Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP), the sex workers’ collective, was active. A staunch supporter of collectivisation, as an effective method in the struggle for rights, she nurtured many a young leader in VAMP. She talked about rights of young women in sex work to both brothel owners and third parties involved in the management of sex work.

She played a huge part in stopping minor girls from entering the business. Talking to brothel owners, explaining issues of consent, deception, debt bondage and economic exploitation within the trade she convinced her opponents that trafficking was an injustice against the community and fought to oust dalals (agents) and money lenders.

The most endearing trait of this indomitable woman was her ability to forgive her enemies. She repeatedly told us all to control our anger. “Anger kills the collective spirit,” she always said. VAMP and SANGRAM will miss her wisdom, kindness and warmth. We only hope we have the strength to continue this struggle that means so much to all of us.

Kamala Maushi, Zindabad!

Obituary: Pravinaben Natubhai Patel (1935-2015)

Pravina-Patel

“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow” —Maya Angelou

By Vibhuti Patel
My mother, Pravinaben Patel passed away on January 1 in Vadodara. She was 79.

She was a highly gifted and courageous lady with tremendous sense of humour and great will power. She was dignified, hardworking, compassionate, helpful person who found something good in every human being. Her life guided me to see a spark in every ‘ordinary’ human being that I met.

She assumed the role of renegade predecessor in our extended family due to her quest for independence and enchanted the younger generation with her free spirited adventures. She cultivated our interest in music, literature, art and craft, language learning, and most important, to respect all religions, cultures and lifestyles. She played major role in shaping my daughter’s sense of ethics.

She always stood by young couples ostracized by the community for their inter-caste and inter-religious ‘love marriage’ and came forward in providing moral and material support exhibiting great personal courage. Her demand for personal growth remained unfulfilled due to early marriage and motherhood, but she built so many people who aspired to achieve their dreams. She celebrated educational achievements of women.

My father had 18 transfers in Western, Northern, Eastern and North Eastern parts of India, burden of which she singularly shouldered. My mom had to manage her life by herself – my father was a civil engineer and had erratic and demanding work-schedule.

Response to sexual harassment
She would always confront anyone who made sexual innuendoes in the street, bus, train and in public places. She would loudly respond, “What is wrong with your hands? Why are they moving in a wrong direction?” Those days common way of sexual harassment of a woman walking or travelling unescorted by man was, “Want to come with me?” Without getting embarrassed she would look straight in the eyes of harasser and say, “Yes, I want to come with you along with my 3 children!!” And she would laugh loudly.

Unique bond with her Son-in-law
In 1977, I and Amar (Jesani) had court marriage (inter-religious) in Vadodara. She was extremely sensitive to my Muslim husband, who was looked at with suspicion by many of my relatives. She neutralized them by discussing his work for the toiling poor, workers and public health. She prevented violence by talking to all those who were instigating my young brother. Some highly educated uncles and aunties recommended conversion of my husband under Arya Samaj. My mother retorted, “How would you feel if you were robbed of your identity?” It is a different matter that both of us were atheist and would not indulge in religious conversion and our social life was robust with social movement community-activists from workers, women, tribal and Dalit movement.

When Amar was arrested as a convener of Textile Workers Solidarity Committee in Bombay, she lambasted me for not finding out in which police custody he was kept. I told her, “Hundreds of activists are arrested, he is not alone.” She said, “How can we sit at home? Let us begin our hunt from the nearest police station.” We both reached Dahisar police station. My mom started howling at the police officer and told him, “My son in law is a doctor, fighting for justice and workers’ rights for which he has been arrested. You should feel ashamed of your act that you are treating such a gentleman as a criminal. Now, find out for us, in which police lock up he and his comrades are.” The police officer made several phone calls and finally found out that Amar was in Jacob Circle police custody. Now, her agenda was to cook for Amar and his comrades. We rushed home, made Thepalas, muthia, sukhadi etc. Armed with food, we left home to meet Amar. Once we reached the police station, she gave a big lecture to the police officer on her son-in-law’s good work and lambasted them for taking away his spectacles. She demanded that we be allowed to give home cooked food to Amar and his comrades.

Support to Women’s groups
During National Conference on Perspective for Women’s Movement in India, 1980 and 1985, she cooked rice-based food-Pongal, masala rice, mixed vegetable rice for delegates from Southern states and brought at the conference venue with the help of my papa in huge vessels without anybody telling her to do so. Her logic was, “Women from rural areas of South India must be feeling home-sick and craving for rice.”

During 1980s, she would send food packets for women from rural and tribal areas who were in Mumbai to press for their demands such as employment guarantee, land rights, draconian forest laws, violence against women, and state support to single women.

Any activist who came to her home, tired, famished, hungry would not only get food and rest, but also care, nurturance and emotional solace from her. She knitted sweaters for several of my comrades in social movement. When they thank her for her selfless action, she would jocularly reply by quoting Gujarati proverb, “Educated like you prepare the balance-sheet while less educated like me stand by them with a lamp.”

She unconditionally supported Neeraben Desai, Sonal Shukla, Nimisha Desai and Trupti Shah. In Vadodara, she was a sympathizer of feminist organizations, Sahiyar and Olakh.

Always a giver
Pravinaben was known as ‘giver’. When my father had to go to site, she would give food for both, himself and his driver. During monsoon, postman came to her asking for umbrella, if their footwear gave way, my mom would give him chappals or shoes. Whenever, a poor woman in the vicinity delivered a baby, she would make baby’s clothes, quilt and go to meet her even without knowing her personally. She taught ‘juvenile delinquents’ at remand home to cook, embroider, write and read. In spite of being in an extremely hierarchical eco-system of public sector, she treated everybody equally in terms of hospitality-officers, administrative staff and support staff. She stood by them in their difficult moments. She proactively broke caste barriers in her daily life that was covertly resented by her high caste friends. At the time of illness among her friends, papa’s colleagues, neighbours and domestic help, she would regularly send food she had cooked.

At the time of any calamity (flood, femine, riots), her home would be the centre for collection of food, medicine and clothes. In her daily life, vegetable vendors, milk man, raddiwala, fruit seller, postman, gardener, rickshaw drivers and needy neighbours received timely support from my mom in terms of school fees, financial aid for medical treatment, textbooks, uniform and ration. All of them had access to her kitchen. They would take water, snacks, and chocolate-ice-cream and make tea from kitchen when she would be grounded due to arthritis or asthama. This was strongly resented by her neighbours as they felt that she was spoiling them. They would complain to me, “Your mom does not lock the door, anybody enters the house, and one day your parents will be murdered!” I would say, “Even when anybody comes home to murder them, my mom would say, first you eat and relax, then you can kill us!”

In my upwardly mobile clan, she was the only one who had meaningful relationships with relatives and friends who were poorer, who were ‘country folks’, who lacked ‘sophistication’.

During last five years, each time I visited her, I noticed so many things missing from the house. Whenever I would ask for an explanation for missing clothes, utensils, equipments for exercise, wheelchairs, walker, walking sticks, etc; instead, in a Sufiana style, she would question me, “Have we become poor?” I would say, “No”. And matter would end there. She was a friend in need to her neighbours, acquaintances and like true Vaishnav believed in secret donation.

Body donation: Don’t wait for anyone
In 2007, she had made up her mind to donate her body after her death to the medical college. She also convinced her peers for body-donation. I prepared the document for my mom, my papa and my aunt, gave original to the hospital and carbon copy was give to them. In last seven years, they kept their papers in the drawing room, showed them to their neighbours and close relatives with an instruction that in case of death, they must immediately inform the hospital so that cornea donation can be done within 2 hours and body donation should also happen as fast as possible so that someone’s life can be saved with organ transplant.

In November 2014, road was getting constructed in their society. Around 15 tribal families were working in cold weather. She gave them shelter in the basement of her house, allowed them to bathe, cook and relax in the premises. She inhaled lot of carbon monoxide as a result of cooking on firewood by the workers, developed pneumonia and after a month long hospitalization, passed away on 1st January 2015. All of us were with her.

She will live in the hearts of all those who knew her as an example who did great service to the community even in her death by donating her body and eyes. As per her wish, no rituals for 13 days were observed; instead my brother instituted a Gold Medal for University First student in MA in Economics at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

Vibhuti Patel is active in the women’s movement in India since 1972. Currently she is teaching at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai

Jasodhara Bagchi: Farewell to a phenomenal woman

Jasodhara Bagchi

Veteran feminist, academician and author, Jasodhara Bagchi, will remain an inspiration to many

By Juhi Jain
This is indeed a sad time for us feminists. We have lost many a stoic fighter who made inroads into the bastions of patriarchy – challenging hierarchies, demanding rights and fuelling winds of change. Jasodhara Bagchi, one such relentless feminist academic, critic and teacher, left us on January 9, 2015 morning in Kolkata at the age of 77. Jasodharadi was an inspiration, a stalwart and torch bearer of feminism in innumerable ways.

Jasodhara Bagchi was born in 1937, the only daughter of Presidency College Principal, Dr. J.C.Sengupta. After completing her English Honours from Presidency College, Kolkata she went on to do a second BA at Somerville College, Oxford and later completed her PhD on Walter Pater and late 19th century English literature at New Hall, Cambridge.

Most of her working life was spent as Professor of English Literature at the Jadavpur University which she joined in 1963, after a short stint of teaching at Lady Brabourne College. At Jadavpur, she combined activism, academic research and teaching, with an unfaltering pursuit of women rights, which she continued till her formal professional retirement (in 1997) and after that in her capacity as Emeritus Professor till the very end of her life.

While at Jadavpur, Jasodharadi completed her research on the 19th century English and Bengali literature, especially focusing on writings by women writers. In addition, she also undertook research studies on Reception of Positivism in Bengal, concept of motherhood and Partition of India.

Pursuing her dedication and interest in women’s studies, in 1988, Jasodharadi laid the foundation of the School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University; she became its first Founder-Director a post she held until retirement from university service.

Jasodhara Bagchi was appointed as the Chairperson of the West Bengal State Commission for Women on which she served from 2001 to 2008.

Prominently known for her leftist views, she was also a founder member of the feminist organization Sanchetna, in Kolkata. She was committed to mobilization for the women’s movement lending her voice to countless struggles of women for rights and dignity.

A pioneer in her field, Jasodharadi, was instrumental in initiating the publication of Bengali Women Writers Reprint Series, a monograph line dedicated to publishing new editions of writings of/by women in an effort to document and showcase their unrecorded and hidden works, history and pursuits.

A feminist author and critic, she wrote extensively on various social and women’s issues from a feminist-left perspective. Her book “Indian Women: Myth and Reality (1989) is considered a path breaking critical treatise on many pressing issues related to Indian women and their lives. In addition she has also edited several volumes on women’s personal histories.

Her latest book Parijayee Nari O Manabadhikar (Migrating Women and Human Rights), was termed as “politically controversial” and hence its launch at the Kolkata book fair was stalled. While the details of the “controversial nature” are not explicitly spelled out, knowing Jasodharadi’s critical positions vis-a vis women’s rights, violence and entitlement issues, it is not surprising that she had face the displeasure of those in position of power and authority. The book has however been released in a small private gathering.

More recently, Jasodharadi registered her protest and spoke out vociferously in support of students and, against Jadavpur University Vice-Chancellor and management for their anti-student stand and highhanded attitude in dealing with the student protests at the university campus during September 2014. She was part of the five-member team of Emeritus Professors that met West Bengal Governor and University Chancellor to demand appointment of a more “able” Vice-Chancellor for the Jadavpur University.

Another fascinating facet of Jasodharadi’s much loved personality was her passionate and melodious singing, which was hugely appreciated wherever she went, not only in Bengal but also in various South Asian forums where she conducted workshops, gave lectures and shared her academic thinking. Credit is also due to her for the vast repertoire of songs and verse that she stored in her memory and produced on request at such gatherings.

Jasodhara Bagchi remained active till her last days, having completed a draft of a monograph on motherhood just before her illness. We salute and remember her with fondness and affection, as a pillar of the women’s studies movement in India, and a towering source of strength for her colleagues and students alike.

Statement by Indian Association for Women’s Studies here

Remembering Geeta Das

Geeta-Das

All India Progressive Women’s Association’s (AIPWA) honorary president Comrade Geeta Das passed away on 24th October at the age of 78

By Kavita Krishnan

I first met her when I was a student in the 1990s. A small, feisty, lively woman, who moved busily, like a bird. A face full of warmth and feeling. And speaking to her, I never felt the distance of age between us. For me, a JNU student, she felt like a kindred spirit, whose sensibilities matched mine and that of so many women much younger than her.

She was born in 1936, on 15th September, in Faridpur district of East Bengal (now Bangladesh). Her education was disrupted after Class VIII. Years later, after her marriage, she felt a burning determination to educate herself further and stand on her own feet. She completed her matriculation (Class X) and passed her teacher’s training (for primary school teaching), with a gold medal. She then worked as a school teacher.

Many members of her family were leftist activists. She felt deeply against injustices, and for the rights of the oppressed. From 1967 onwards, she was passionately involved in the Naxalbari movement, helping to pass messages between comrades who were underground. Since then, she remained a committed activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist /Leninst).

She was among the founding leaders of the Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) and the founding President of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) when it was formed in 1994.

I especially miss Geeta Di in the times we’re in, when Hindutva fundamentalists are resurgent and are openly attacking women’s freedoms. With what energy Geeta Di did battle with those self-declared custodians of ‘Indian culture’ and ‘Indian women’!

Geeta Das confronting the Puri Shankaracharya in 1994 in Kolkata, after he stopped a woman scholar from reciting from the Vedas, declaring that women were forbidden to recite the Vedas

Geeta Das confronting the Puri Shankaracharya in 1994 in Kolkata, after he stopped a woman scholar Arundhati Roychoudhury from reciting from the Vedas, declaring that women were forbidden to recite the Vedas

One memorable occasion was when she along with other activists confronted the Puri Shankaracharya in 1994 in Kolkata, when he stopped a woman scholar Arundhati Roychoudhury from reciting from the Vedas, declaring that women were forbidden to recite the Vedas. (This was the same Shankaracharya Nischalananda Saraswati who just a few days ago said Dalits should not be allowed to enter temples.) Geeta Di, then President of the West Bengal PWA, along with the Secretary Chaitali Sen, stormed a press conference of the Shankaracharya and heckled him, forcing him to drop his posture of paternalism and expose his true, menacing colours! Geeta Di’s courage in storming a room full of the Shankaracharya’s own cohorts, to assert women’s rights, is an inspiring memory.

Age did not stall or stale Geeta Di’s fighting spirit, even as her body became increasingly frail. She also served on the CPI(ML)’s Control Commission.

I recall the last time I heard her speak in public – at the AIPWA West Bengal Conference in 2010. She spoke about the situation of under-paid and over-worked working women, and peasant women resisting land grab in the State. She said, ‘Some say I am a feminist. Well, I am, indeed, a feminist! Shouldn’t we all be, as long as injustice against women remains a reality?’

Geeta Di, your courage in your own life, your spirited presence in women’s movements and the Left movement, will always inspire us. I hope there will always be a bit of you, alive and fighting, in all of us!

Kavita Krishnan is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA)