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Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing, by Dr. Nizara Hazarika


Exploring the colonial period from a post colonial stance, to decode the various issues pertaining to women’s lives and how women started their literary articulations, Dr. Nizara Hazarika’s book Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing throws light on how women developed a sense of autonomy and agency which was reflected in their writing both non fictional as well as fictional. FeministsIndia presents a short write-up about the book and an extract.

Colonial Assam and Women’s Writing explores the colonial period from a post colonial stance to decode the various issues pertaining to women’s lives and how women started their literary articulations. It delineates at what point women started writing and how their writings can be read as an alternative history to trace the position of women in Assamese society. This book presents an in-depth study on colonial Assam and women’s literary engagement. It presents that with the advent of the colonialism, there emerged a gradual change in the socio-political sphere of Assam. With the Reformist movement and the Freedom Struggle a new understanding of gender relations and the status of women was created. It presaged a new era for women as they moved from the private sphere of home to the public sphere dominated by men. Women’s education played the most crucial role in making the women aware about their ontological as well as epistemological possibilities.

Women’s writing in Assam started in the last two decades of the Nineteenth century. Though it exhibited a secular trend, yet it conformed to the traditional values. Women did not have the full articulation of their subjectivity. They had to conform to the social and cultural values, religious ideals. However, some of the creative women writers of this period managed to go against these norms in their writings. The western education imbibed in them a feminist consciousness. A sensitive, alert and speaking subject was born. This was a historical moment in the history of women’s writing in Assam. Thus the colonial period heralded the beginning of modern creative writing in Assam. In the process both men and women contributed in various ways to the development of different literary genres. Women were initiated into the field of creative writing for the first time. The progressive impulses which developed in women because of their education prompted some of them into serious literary activity. They found the literary enterprise as a means of exploring their existential possibilities and articulating their ideas of life. They started writing about their lives and the condition of other women.

This book throws light how women developed a sense of autonomy and agency which was reflected in their writing both non fictional as well as fictional. This book presents that the Assamese women’s writing during the colonial period had created two distinct voices. One voice is the voice of a progressive subject, who talks about women’s awareness of their position and status in the society. This voice is heard in women’s writings in the journals and periodicals. The other voice is her private voice, which we hear when she takes to writing a novel where she presents the social reality. The women’s novels are written within the traditional rubric and tend toward conservatism and didacticism. Moreover, the novel being a new literary genre, there is a conflict between literary inheritance and ideology. However, women’s novels present an ambiguity too, where they present women’s awareness about their subjectivity and identity and this is evident in a subtle manner in the novels written by the Colonial Assamese women.

The book tries to trace how women developed their consciousness about themselves as individuals. It seeks to know how the speaking and acting subject emerged from its traditional roots and how this subject reached its selfhood. It focuses on the negations, contestations and mediations that the female subject moves through in order to attain her full selfhood. This study is highly relevant and necessary as it historicizes the subjectivity of women and explores the multiple aspects of women’s existence. The study is based primarily on the published works, both fictional as well as non-fictional, of the women writers of the colonial era. The book extends to include the social, political and cultural contexts in order to determine under what conditions women’s writing has emerged in colonial Assam.

The concept of space is very pertinent for the study of women’s literature as it reflects her world. The restricted “woman’s space” in family and society was firmly embedded in the psyche of the nineteenth century women. The society during nineteenth century witnessed two sets of men: one, the social reformer who fought for the cause of women and the other, the conservative who opposed both the reformer and the women’s cause. This book interrogates the recorded social history which posits strong male reformers and passive women recipients. This work also seeks to retrieve and to reassess women’s own pioneering contribution to their own cause. Further, it is highly important to reread women’s published works to retrieve their subjectivity and to discuss the question of representation. Reconstruction of a critical voice, the voice of a conscious subject is sought through this work.

The author has explored the journals to trace the public voice of the women of the colonial era. The women during the colonial era had a strong urge to improve their position in society. They were aware of their role and agency in improving their position as well as nation building. The women writers of the colonial period particularly address the changing subjectivity and self-reflexivity in their writing. Having taken into consideration the above aspects this book argues that the whereas in the non fictional writings women exhibited a progressive outlook, the fictional works of the women writers of the colonial period in Assam underline the beginning of women’s distinct identity and subjective consciousness and thereby paving the way for a robust tradition for post-colonial women writers in Assam.

Weaving together both fictional and non fictional writing of the women writers of the Colonial era, this book traces the growth of a feminist consciousness among the women. This work will be of interest to researchers of Literature, History, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies and Cultural Studies.

About the author
Dr. Nizara Hazarika is an Associate Professor of English at Sonapur College, Assam. She has a PhD in ‘Colonial Assam and Women Writing’. She is involved with Teachers Training for Higher Secondary Teachers of Assam and is a member of the Syllabus Expert Committee of Higher Secondary Courses in Assam. She has been teaching the undergraduate students for the past 20 years and is a PhD Supervisor of Assam Downtown University. She has edited two anthologies namely, Interpreting Heritage: A Discourse on Heritage at Risk and Contemporary Indian Women Novelists Writing in English: Critical Perspectives. She has presented her research papers both in India and Abroad. She has published widely in books and journals. Her paper “Decolonization of Knowledge and Emergence of the New Humanities” has been accepted by Routledge for its forthcoming anthology Transcending Disciplinary Decadence.

EXTRACT: Writing and Difference
Women’s attempt to adopt different voices in different genres of writing was something significantly different in terms of the male/female writing. Women deliberately adopted two distinct voices in their fictional and non-fictional writings. The journal and periodical writings of women bring out the voice of progressive subjects, who talk about women’s awareness about their position and status in the society. This is their public voice, where they address the public and cross the barriers of the traditionally ascribed private sphere. They become the representatives of social change and transformation in the society and their voice is comparatively radical and revolutionary. The other voice is their private voice, which is heard in the novels. In the novelistic discourse they portray the social reality. In novels they do not seem to be very comfortable with the idea of transcending their traditional status.

Scholarships on women’s magazines in the colonial era in the Pan Indian context speak volumes about the opportunities they created for women writers and even readers. Gail Minault in her study on early twentieth century Urdu women Magazines express that even though the women had limitations of access and ideology, the magazines “at least gave women a place where their voices could be heard”. (1988:9). This space that the magazines provided made women agents of social change. Himani Banerjee puts forward another angle to this debate by saying that magazines functioned as a “wide communicative space”, which filled the gap created by the waning Bengali culture of Andar Mahal. Banerjee postulates that a certain kind of women’s culture was lost in the transition to modernity, these women’s magazines created another “social, moral and cultural space for and by women”. In Assamese context too it can be said that the journals provided a space for women to express their creative endeavour, though in the initial stage, women were mostly conforming to the traditional value system of the society.

The big leap forward in this direction came with the publication of the women’s journal Ghar Jeuti in the year 1927. The journal was published from Sivsagar under the editorship of Kamalalaya Kakoti and Kanaklata Chaliha. The publication of this journal commemorated the celebration of Joymati Utsav, which exposed women to various organizational experiences. The editors paid serious attention to publish the various events that took place in the celebration and women’s participation in those events. Gradually, this journal became the mouth piece of the Assam Mahila Samiti. The journal also particularly endeavored to publish the details of the various socio-political activities organized by the Samiti members.

Throughout its publication history, the magazine maintained its distinctive identity as a women’s magazine for women by women and about women. This journal created a new social, cultural and political space for women. It created a large semantic space to discuss threadbare many issues exclusively related to women. Women from towns and villages alike took pen in their hands to prove their abilities in literary creation. It brought about an awakening among women to speak of their potential and autonomy in a powerful voice. Thus, an ambience for the articulation of women’s authentic experience and subjectivity developed in Assam.

The journal also provided space for all the writers irrespective of their background, class, caste or location. In this regard, Chandraprova Saikiani’s observation on the role of this journal is significant: “drawing on Ghar-Jeuti for sustenance, innumerable women from towns and villages took pen in hand to give evidence of women’s literary creativity” (Saikiani, 1961:54). Though both men and women had contributed to this journal, it was mandatory that the writings should in one way or the other reflect women’s issues like education, equality and women’s position in society. The editors maintained certain columns like “Samayik Jagat” (Contemporary World), through which they could inform the Assamese women about the contemporary events which happened and affected women around the world. Another important column presented the new endeavors regarding the progress of women’s status and the new ventures that took place for the development of women in the fields of education and social welfare. Thus women got an opportunity to know about their own condition and also about the activities which related to their upliftment.

Writers like Swarnalata Saikiani and Rajabala Das wrote extensively on women’s activities at the national and international level. Thus, this journal broadened the mental horizon of women. Like other journals, it published stories, poems and other write-ups also.

One remarkable aspect of the journal was that it published writings of women who belonged to different strata of the society having different world-views. Progressive as well as very conservative notions found their place in the pages of Ghar-Jeuti. Even subjects like education had been debated both from progressive and traditional perspectives. The journal always maintained a very liberal and cosmopolitan attitude towards all issues it discussed. In a remarkable way, it opened up avenues for the intellectual development of women during the colonial period. It also played a significant role in developing a sense of sisterhood among women making them conscious of the Nationalist cause. A feminist consciousness somehow lurked behind this activism and the journal endeavoured to raise the consciousness of women regarding their emancipation, progress, liberty, education and social status. In an article published in the second year, in the eleventh volume, Swarnalata Saikia observed:

We women have become so useless in the eyes of the world that there is no end to our suffering… We women are so lost in ourselves that rather showing any compassion for the cause of our own nation, we hate to take part in it. Now respected ladies, you think where we are situated. Don’t you think that we really need spiritual as well as physical reformation? If we need the reformation, who will bring it for us? Will it be the God or the society? I would say no one will do it for us. If we do not bring in the reformation of the women and their progress through the Mahila Samiti that is the symbol of women’s awakening and that we have derived as the blessing of the Almighty, no one else will do it for us; by ignoring the resistance silently that we face, now the time has come to think about ourselves and our country (My translation. Comp. & Ed. Aparna Mahanta.Ghar Jeuti, 2:11, [1929], 2008:553).

Women’s awareness of the outside world vis-à-vis their subordinate position in the society were highlighted through various articles in Ghar Jeuti. Kamalalaya Kakoti along with Kanaklata Chaliha had raised their voices against the injustice meted by the women during those days. Both of them wanted to improve the women’s position through women’s education and also by bringing justice and equality of sexes in the society. Kamalalaya Kakoti had presented her feminist awareness through her speeches. In her speech in Konwarpur Mahila Sabha which was later published in Ghar Jeuti, she said, “Today throughout the world there is a struggle for women’s emancipation. Women have been oppressed and suppressed since time immemorial but today she has understood her rights and justice. Today women are not content merely with weaving and cooking. Women have equal rights with men onissues pertaining to society, education and literature—and to prove this truth women have staged this war against the selfish society and the consequent ruthless suppression of women by men. This call for war has reached you and I am happy to see that you all have come out and have actively got engaged for the cause of women.” (My translation. Ghar Jeuti, Comp. & Ed. Aparna Mahanta. 2008:0.9).

Women received a new impetus after reading such write ups and there was a growing awareness in the women about their position in the society and also about their own agency in bringing about a change in the society.

Women started fighting to gain a space in the patriarchal society as they became conscious of the need of it. The concept of space is very pertinent for the study of women’s literature as it reflects her world. The restricted “woman’s space” in family and society was firmly embedded in the psyche of the nineteenth century women. Traditionally, women have always been entrusted with the hegemonically assigned domestic space. They are used to accept this confined space, according to patriarchal dicta, without questioning them. Colonial modernity and western education precipitated women’s realization of their own condition. With their entry into the public sphere, they are conscious of their oppression in various spheres of life. With the spread of western ideology and education and also through their exposure to the public sphere, women began to question the oppression. This resistance was reflected in their speeches and writings. In their writings what came out were the contours of social structure that women operated within, their limitation and support forces, and the male responses to their initiatives. As the male responses were not always encouraging, women started waging the war against male dominance and this was revealed in their writings. They not only challenged the male dominance but also vehemently challenged the complicity of the women in accepting her age old role of woman and advised the women to focus on improving their condition. Awareness about the power politics involved in the male/female relationship is visible in the writings of these women. Kamala Rabha who published the article “Naarir Obostha” (Condition of Women) in the journal Banhi, presents the status of women down the ages. She very strongly argued for women’s awareness about the need for an improvement in her intellectual as well as physical conditions of existence. She underlined the importance of natural justice that could treat women as human beings. In this context, she writes:

Even men know that without an improvement in the condition of women, no nation can prosper. Still irrespective of cities or villages, the fathers and brothers stand as obstacle in the spread of women’s education… women have never got the respect that they deserve; men have never given women a respectable place; women have always been endowed with shame, humiliation and torture as a reward of her service, her love, her motherhood and her divinity that she renders to her man… we are human too, and we too need our rights, our education, our ideology and all the arrangements to be called a human (1929,120-121).

These women writers interrogated the male domination, sometimes openly and most often very obliquely. Some of the articles which reveal this conscious and open effort to question the patriarchal authority are: “Nabajugat Naari Jagaran, (Women’s Awakening in a New Age) by Swarnalata Saikia, “Samaj Gathanat Naarir Daaitya” (Women’s Responsibility in the Formation of a Society) by Kanaklata Bhuyan and “Naarir Bartaman Kartabya” (The Present Duty of Women) by Annada Devi Borkotoky published in Banhi. There were innumerable articles of this type that were published in the journals during this period.

The Ghar Jeuti had survived for three and half years and provided the much needed platform to women to express their creative and critical thoughts. The Journal Awahon started its publication in the year 1929 and from the very beginning it published articles and stories written by women writers. The prominent contributors of Ghar Jeuti like Chandra prabha Saikiani, Swarnalata Saikiani, Punyaprabha Das, Aloka Patangia, Manorama Devi started contributing to Awahon as well and became a strong force behind this journal. Banhi, which had erstwhile provided no authentic space for women writers, opened its avenues for women writers and writing on women and their issues. Through these writings in the Journals, women got the much awaited space to express their subjectivity and agency.

Women’s novels of the colonial period are written within the rubric of male conservativism and didacticism. Moreover, novel being a new literary genre also had created a conflict between the traditional literary mode and the new mode of representation. Women did not know the scope and limit of their freedom which the new genre demanded. Individualism as a marked feature of the characters was not easy to render in the novels. Thus, in the novels we find the writers hesitant to raise the voice of a subject who is conscious of her own subjectivity. This is because they have to maintain the status quo of the society that did not provide any space for the free voice of the woman as a subject on her own terms. Writers like Chandraprova Saikiani, who fought “women’s cause” through activism and leadership, had to face this paradoxical situation. Her articles and speeches published in journals took women’s cause to the zenith. She was symbolic of the progressive impulse which could represent the ethos of new women in the era of colonial modernity. But in her novel, Pitri-Bhitha, she remains faithful to the traditional values and abandons her progressive outlook though at the beginning of the novel she voices her progressive outlook regarding women’s rights, responsibilities and education. She ends up creating a completely different space and produces an entirely different voice in the fiction.

The changes in perception and representation mark a conscientious move towards the attainment of subjectivity. One significant aspect in the development of women’s sense of selfhood is the social and political contribution of men. The social reformers as well as the political leaders, who took active part in the freedom struggle, initiated women to the public world. They opened up avenues for women to raise their consciousness about their own status. However, the male responses to women’s initiatives differed considerably. The reformers who wanted to bring about positive changes in the condition of women were not too keen in bringing in all forms of transformation enhancing the status of women. Men were both encouraging and resistant to women’s initiatives in the society. Even the liberal social reformers were skeptical about the true emancipation of women. Thus, they presented women characters as possessing some individualistic traits, but often ended up making them conformists. Thus, in the male writings, where women’s issues are taken up, a double standard was evident. They wanted women to be educated and free, but at the same time follow traditional values. The early novels written by women, though obliquely critique this patriarchal position, ultimately, conform to male views. However, a subtle voice of protest is evident in the women’s novelistic engagements.

Sex, Race and Class by Selma James, a review

Sex, Race and Class by Selma James

Feminism, anti-racism and Marxism – an integrated analysis for contemporary struggles around the world, a voice from the past for the future

By Amrita Shodhan

It was refreshing and energizing to read the selected writings of Selma James – an activist in the anti-racist, class and women’s movement since the 70s – and that’s the remarkable thing she combines all three perspectives when there wasn’t really such ‘a movement’ at the time either in the US or the UK.

James’ remarkable life of politics and activism, locating her analysis of class in unwaged work performed all over the world, is briefly outlined at the beginning of the book by Nina Lopez. All the collected articles are also prefaced by a short introduction situating it in the past but also providing a contemporary location and praxis.

She began as an American Jewish labour unionist in New York. Her amazing insights are even then located in the position of the black working class woman when that struggle was just becoming publicly voiced. Moving to the UK and for a brief period in the West Indies to avoid the Mcarthyism of 50s America, she has lived most of her adult life in the UK, working primarily in the anti-racist movement here and bringing to it the critical edge from the American experience of race.

Her notion of the woman’s place is briefly and simply articulated in the first piece presented in this collection, based on women working in a factory. Its promise of an engaged statement on women and class and race and work is fascinatingly held out and fulfilled in the excerpts from The power of Women and the Subversion of Community – published in 1973.  In 1972 at the conference on women’s movement in Manchester she first raised the debate on wages for housework in a pamphlet entitled Women, the Unions and Work – or What is not to be done.

Why had I missed this articulation and this writing though much of the perspective has pervaded the movement in some form or another?  Wages for housework was sidelined in the 70s movement but today it remains an area of critical engagement. I always held that my home and marriage are my jobs – but in a kind of thoughtless way.  In Selma James’ writing I found my theoretical and political grounding for this feeling. She analyses that women’s work is not merely for the individual family but for the productive system – producing labour and labourers and making them available for the factory/work place.  Hence the wage should be from those who benefit – the state/ economic system/ employer, rather than the individual family.

Her analysis of the working class movement reiterates that we must position the black working woman – often immigrant, at the center of our analysis. This perspective is most clearly articulated in her A Perspective of Winning (1973). It is important that the call to recognize unwaged women’s work is still raised–unwaged work is still not accounted for in national income. In 1985 the campaign earned a victory by the UN recognition granted to unwaged housework as part of the national income and the promise extracted from the various countries to count women’s work in the gross domestic product. This promise still remains unfulfilled.

selma James

Selma James- Photo courtesy: The Global Women's Strike Network

A thought-provoking dissonance is caused by her use of the term caste to refer to women, race and children. She uses this term to mark the groups as having specific interests related to their ‘nature’ rather than the work they do, thus they seem to be categories of identity rather than class.

However, she proceeds to demonstrate that this exclusion from class is misguided and these identity groups castes are the very substance of class. The divisions of castes are ways of creating a hierarchy of class. As she says, ‘as black feminists we are seeking to break down the power relations amongst us on which is based the hierarchical rule of international Capital’..… ‘We do not seem to convince whites and men of our feminism or upper class women of our classness, we offer them what we offer the most under-privileged women – power over their enemies. The price is an end to their power over us.’

She holds the third world as part of this struggle – actively by her work in Latin America and analytically by looking at the way in which third world economies are integrated in the world economy, being an integral part of it – as well as providing cheap labour. She recognizes the divisions that inevitably and necessarily exist and notes these as part of the strategy of struggle -  each group makes common cause and chooses who to wage their struggle with. No one else can choose for them.

Her distancing from NGOs that most movement organisations have become, criticism of ivory tower academics, the replacing of the term gender by sex, the considered re-enactment of activism and many other comments warmed the cockles of my 1980s heart

She continues to remain active with numerous political movements – she has expressed solidarity with the Occupy movement, the Venezuelan workers’ struggle or the struggle in contemporary Haiti as well as the struggle of prisoners in the US. In each association is her fundamental and crucial understanding that all these are struggles against the capitalist establishment as variously constituted and must be sustained by the divided workforce.

“Many of us have been told to forget our needs in some wider interest which is never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.” (p. 100) And she  realizes that the form and structure of such a united working class is not yet clear.

Her prose at once theoretical and inspirational has provided a renewed praxis to consider and work with. The re-ordering of community as outside women   (in the context of the new conservative movement in Britain), putting motherhood on the political agenda rather than women in boardrooms all made her politics at once meaningful and important in the 20th century.

Sex, Race and Class- The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011, Oakland: PM Press, 2012

Original articles published on can be reproduced but due acknowledgement to the website is obligatory


Satyamev Jayate: Girls Are Allowed!

-Satyamev Jayate Aamir Khan

The first episode of the show Satyamev Jayate  on sex-selective abortion has struck an emotional chord with the average Indian viewer. Instead of debating what the show failed to do, let us focus on whether the show did justice to the topic it addressed

By Linda Chhakchhuak

While watching the first show of much hyped and debated Satyamev Jayate, I felt like congratulating all my female friends out there in the red marked states, especially the North Indian states, for scraping through such a network of ‘unwantedness’ that reaches right into the mother’s womb to finish them off. And I salute their parents for protecting and nurturing them.

Hailing from North East India where such insane levels of son worship does not exist or is yet to be reached, I found the statistics horrifying. Crores of females are hunted, killed right in their mother’s womb. Better not to use the polite terms like sex selective abortion or female feoticide, as it does not describe the full horror of the act, the malevolence, depravity and hatred of communities and families. Not that I am against abortion per see. But this is awful. It’s femicide on a mass scale.

Then it was another shock to be told that sex-selective abortion is more prevalent among educated class which led one to think that it is not lack of awareness or poverty which fuels this antipathy to the baby girl. It is about the gender constructs and practices that prevail in a community. No girl child or mother is ever truly safe with such a well of ”unwantedness’ at the core of the culture. Technology just gave it a means of acting upon it.

The show has also tried to bring out the effect of this madness on the lives of men, who at a marriageable age can find no women to marry as dozens of villages are left with men only, because their would be brides were long ago snuffed to death even before their birth.

There were stories of hope, of the woman who was forced to take the test 8 times and abort and who found the courage to keep the ninth pregnancy secret till her girl child was born. She needs to be given a national award for bravery. Imagine challenging her husband and his family by keeping such a secret.

Over all, I was quite impressed by the way the show was presented.  Sex selective abortion is something I have always known existed. Probably because the show was framed to be a tearjerker. After all Aamir Khan is an expert at that sort of thing. And if such great talent is used directly for a social cause, all the better. Every bit helps to push the vehicle out of the sticky mud.

Linda Chhakchhuak is an independent journalist from North East India.


Our Pictures, Our Words: A visual journey through the women’s movement

Our Picture Our Words-

By Geeta Seshu

Our Pictures, Our Words by Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta, is a graphic history of protest, struggle, and solidarity in the women’s movement.

Around 25 years ago, a woman’s rights activist took my hand, more used to banging on a typewriter, and dipped it into a bucket of gum, playfully telling me, “now that you are an activist, you had better learn to stick a poster properly!”

The occasion was a demonstration in Mumbai’s Vile Parle against the sati incident in Deorala. As vividly as I still remember my first demo and Flavia Agnes – the feminist lawyer who started out by fighting her own battle against violence – showing me how to smear the gum on top of the poster so it would soak into the wall and remain there forever, I cannot for the life of me remember the poster I struggled to smear gum on.

The incident came back to me as I feasted on “Our Pictures, Our Words – A visual journey through the women’s movement’, with such a valuable collection of posters and photographs of so many years of struggle. Like Flavia’s simple act of instruction, it is a collection of memories and perspectives that can safely be handed over to a younger audience.

Zubaan’s poster project  – 1200 posters and still counting – is a vital record of the struggles and debates that marked more than a quarter century of the myriad issues and concerns of the contemporary women’s movement in India. There must be literally thousands of posters that just drifted away with the wind but at least we have these painstakingly preserved archives. And now, with this book by Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta, we also have the context in which the posters made their statements.

Billed as an educational tool, the book examines patriarchy and the violence of subordination. Divided into four sections, it looks at the politics of the body – of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment; health and desire; at the domination of the community – of religion and personal laws, honour killing and religious extremism; at societal politics – the denial of political participation and citizenship and governance and lastly, at the politics of access to the environment and land and the ‘invisibilisation’ and exploitation of women’s labour.

A poster by Aalochana, Pune

To cram in all of this in an ‘educational’ book is a tall order indeed and the book seems to groan under the weight of all that text. Other books (A history of doing by Radha Kumar; The Issues At Stake: theory and practice in the contemporary women’s movement in India, Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah; Fields of protest, Raka Ray – to name just a few) have tried to grapple with the myriad issues raised by the women’s movement. To make the issues more accessible and comprehensible to a younger audience is a challenge indeed.

Taking the visual route is a wonderful way to do so. Throughout, the posters and pictures illustrate and bring to graphic life what may seem like a grim tale of the control and subordination of women and the violence and denial of women’s rights. What the posters and pictures do is provide a face to the anger. Look closely at the powerful “Indian Army Rape Us” picture of the ‘nude’ protest of the Meira Paibas in Manipur;  the brown and black poster of a woman breaking off her shackles (Shramjeevee Mahila Samity, Kolkata), or the scream of the woman strangled by religion (Sheba Chhachi and Jogi Panghaal for Saheli).

The visuals also do what the songs of the women’s movement did – uplift and celebrate the unity and solidarity of women, their strength and spirit. So even as Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta examine the posters and how they depict the issue at hand (for example, the opening passage in the section on domestic violence is a gentle reminder that the early years of the women’s movement emphasized the ‘victim’ status of the woman with depictions of the drops of tears and blood and the downcast look ), they also pick up posters that celebrate – from the earlier posters of women streaming out of factories and fields to the later posters on sexuality and diversity.

The book does, alas too briefly, examine the image itself. Why were the women drawn in the way they were – ‘as sari-clad, long-haired, buxom and fair’ women  and as dark-skinned, barefoot rural counterparts? Why were such few ‘urban’ women depicted in the posters – the short-haired women who were the bane of Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav? How did posters from the NGOs with their development agendas depict women and women’s issues?

It also does not discuss the manner in which these posters came to life, the discussions and ideas of women’s groups or individual artists and illustrators who were roped in, often making posters even as the protest was underway, cutting out or retaining something and even the ownership or copyright issues that have cropped up with some posters or the fact that in so many of the posters, ‘ownership’ simply didn’t matter. That does tell you another tale of the women’s movement and one hopes another edition will redress these gaps.

Geeta Seshu is a Mumbai-based independent journalist who obsesses about media representation of women, freedom of expression, media literacy, the women’s movement and all else besides!

Miss Representation: The inconvenient truth

Miss representation review

By Amrita Shodhan and Ramlath Kavil

Miss Representation, released in 2011, is one of the most widely debated documentaries in feminist circles.  Written and directed by actor-turned-film maker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, this film is about the deep-rooted sexism in the American media.

Jennifer Newsom starts the documentary as a personal story. She begins filming when she is pregnant with her daughter. She is anxious about the world she is bringing her daughter into and goes on to explore the power the media wields by sexualising and objectifying women, and thus impacting the average American psyche.

She briefly talks about her own past,  sexual abuse by her school coach, her eating disorder and how in her late 20s she was asked to lie about her real age, hide her MBA degree when she started her acting career so that she would not come across as ‘too smart’ in Hollywood.

The documentary presents its argument powerfully with finely edited scenes from commercials, TV shows, movies and news channels intercut with interviews and statements from articulate and powerful women in US politics and media.

Outrageous remarks against ‘bitchy’ Hillary Clinton and ‘ditzy’ Sarah Palin would convince anyone that politics was secondary when these women are portrayed in the media. It is all about how much skin they show and how good or ugly they look.  It looks at the impact this has in the personal, social and political life of the nation. It argues that this negative image of political women restricts women’s participation in politics.

The film sensitively looks at the problems of self-objectification and how it leads to further psychological problems (anger, eating disorders, self-harm, lower self-esteem, depression, suicides) as well as larger political problems for society – under–representation of women, loss of qualified women in public and political life, over-representation of men and making of hyper masculine choices, rape and violence towards women and so on.

There is a heart-rending scene of a teenager breaking down as she talks about her kid sister who slashes herself after being teased as ‘ugly’ by her peers. “When is it going to be enough?” one of them shoots a desperate question.

Besides interviews with teenagers, the film is packed with powerful women including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, minority leader of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, journalist and author Katie Couric, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and actor and activist Jane Fonda.

The image of women as consumers is very strong throughout the film-consumers of products and of the media.  The question of class is not really brought up, as the aspirational aspect of TV is not really looked at-television mostly portrays stories of upper class life and every viewer aspires to be part of this class. The impact of the media representation of women on men’s lives and aspirations is mentioned quite clearly and how the gender stereotype of machoness constrains men, but that is not the focus of the story.  The role of industry, profit and advertising is alluded to, but not clearly indicated in the documentary.

In a sense, the documentary does not tell a new story.  It has been clearly documented by others before, like in Naomi Wolf’s 1999 work ‘Beauty Myth’.  However, the angle on political representation is interesting and valuable. But is the mere presence of women being in positions of power a guarantee of a fairer world?  This question is not raised.  It does sharply emphasise that whatever stand a woman takes, it is important that she finds a public and dignified place from which to make it, rather than being sexualised and objectified.

Thus, the film uses Sarah Palin in juxtaposition with Hilary Clinton and how both – very different ideas of women — were equally discounted by the media and ridiculed. However, should the media bear the sole responsibility for this highly misogynistic pop/rape culture?

The movie relies too heavily on interviews of powerful women and lacks a wide range of women’s voices.  It definitely does not seek a political intervention except a demand for regulating the media. Condoleezza Rice makes faint remarks about politics being male-dominated and admits that often she would be the only woman in closed-door meetings.  Unfortunately, the film fails to question what these highly influential women, like Rice, have done to counter male supremacy in politics.

One needs to have more representation of women in politics, but don’t we also have to ask how inclusive is our political system? How receptive is the State when it comes to understanding women’s issues? What about those ignored voices of women who have been demanding better health care, better child care, equal employment opportunity, effective state measure to stop violence etc.? None of these questions figure in this 90 minutes long film.

Nevertheless, the film would work as an excellent motivational and discussion piece as it covers a lot of ground with very strong statements and clear case studies. It is a bit repetitious and quite focused on the US experience.  While the details of women’s images and class positions would vary in different parts of the world, the story of women being objectified is the same everywhere.  In India perhaps women are sexualised by being domesticated in the family rather than being represented as sex symbols available to every man.

The tagline of the film says it all; “You can’t be what you can’t see”

Which Side Are You On?: Ani DiFranco keeps things political

Which side are you on

By Ruth Rosselson

It’s been over 10 years since I last reviewed an Ani DiFranco album so I greeted the release of Which Side Are You On? with some trepidation and excitement. One of the things I’ve always loved about Ani’s work is that she is a songwriter with something to say and her music is the perfect vehicle for her lyrics.

She has never been one to follow the mainstream, nor to sacrifice her principles or artistry in pursuit of chart success. As a result, she has had a prestigious output, started her own record label and garnered a loyal and enthusiastic fan base.

I’m happy to report that this new album does not disappoint and that, reassuringly, Ani DiFranco has not lost any of her politics as she’s matured.

“I’m testing deeper waters with the political songs on this album,” she says. “I’ve been pushing my own boundaries of politics and art. Seeing what people have the ears to listen to.”

Ani DiFranco: Photo By Shervin Lainez

It’s rare enough for a musician to admit to being a feminist, let alone for them to openly sing about it.

The music, while tuneful, never overshadows Ani’s lyrics and never obscures them either. The album’s title comes from the union song ‘Which Side Are You On’, popularised by folk legend Pete Seeger and also familiar to Billy Bragg fans. Seeger’s distinctive banjo playing opens the title track, reminding us of the song’s origins, before the electric guitar kicks in and a great full brass sound makes an appearance later on.

Musically, it’s a skilful updating of this folk standard to a rousing upbeat and fresh-sounding protest song. It’s not just the music that Ani’s updated, she’s worked on the lyrics too, incorporating America’s recent political history: Obama’s election victory, consumerism and feminism.

“My mother was a feminist, she taught me to see, the road to ruin is paved with patriarchy,” she sings, pointing out that feminism isn’t just for women – it’s about a shift in consciousness. It’s rare enough for a musician to admit to being a feminist, let alone for them to openly sing about it. I love this version, with the chorus “which side are you on?” reminding me that it’s all about taking responsibility – and being the change we wish to see. This is big band Ani and it works on all levels.

Not afraid to tackle the theme we don’t hear in songs very often, the sombre ‘Amendment’ takes up the thorny (especially in America) issue of abortion, arguing that it is central to the civil rights of women. In the more upbeat ‘Promiscuity’ Ani likens promiscuity to travelling the world – “some of us like to stick close to home and some of us are Columbus.” It’s a fun song, yet there’s a serious message behind it. I love it when she sings: “How you gonna know what you need, what you like, ’til you’ve been around the block a few times on that bike?”

For Ani, the personal is political and it is so wonderful in the age of bland singer-songwriters to have an album full of songs with meaning

It’s not all politics though. ‘Mariachi’ is a simple love song, celebrating the partnership itself rather than the subject of her love: “You and me, we make a mariachi band,” she sings joyfully.

This mood contrasts strongly with the album’s final song. ‘Zoo’ is a downbeat piece with powerful lyrics and you sense that this is introspective Ani, wondering whether or not the songs she writes really do make a difference. “If I should ever quit your spotlight, I hope you won’t think me wrong,” she sings.

I won’t think her wrong but I do believe it would be a shame for such an eloquent writer to give up now, as we currently need songs with power, hope and politics more than ever.

I have to admit I do find some of the tracks a little too musically downbeat, meaning that my attention wanders easily; the tracks that work best for me are those where the tune keeps me entertained and the lyrics keep me engaged. But that is the problem I’ve always had with Ani’s work – so it’s probably just a matter of taste. Thankfully, this doesn’t apply to the majority of tracks.

Overall, this is not an album to be bopping round the living room to, but one to make you think, smile, sing along. It is also one that highlights Ani’s skills as a lyricist. For her, the personal is political and it is so wonderful in the age of bland singer-songwriters to have an album full of songs with meaning, songs with words that matter, songs about the state of the world and contemplative songs about more than just love or breakups.

¿Which Side Are You On? is not a major departure for Ani DiFranco. She sticks to what she’s good at and she does it well. If you’re into gentle acoustic singer-songwriters with attitude and haven’t heard her yet, this album is a fine place to start. Then, from here, you can work through her extensive back catalogue!

This review was originally posted on the F-Word UK and our special thanks to the author and the fword editor who gave us permission to feature it on feministsindia.


The Dirty Picture: A feeling of sheer incomprehension!


By Supriya Madangarli

The Dirty Picture, a film loosely based on Silk Smitha’s life and death is all sound and no fury.

To describe The Dirty Picture as a biopic of the late Silk Smitha would be to stretch the word over its finite limits and then some. One could call it a caricature for all that it resembles the late actor’s life and career.

Incidents which subscribe to the legend of Silk Smitha have been used to create the story of Reshma (aka Silk) enacted by Vidya Balan, whose much touted ‘bold’ performance meant that dialogues were supposedly salacious and the costumes were apparently audacious.

You know when Silk is going to say something ‘naughty’ or what the filmmakers want to the audience to perceive as such for the moment is heavily underlined by a ‘saucy’ musical score which at times included orgasmic sigh and a wink.

What comes across is that Reshma aka Silk sees herself (as do the rest of the characters in the film) as a body which would help the film to sell tickets. When the film begins she is determinedly unapologetic about it. In the first scenes leading to the creation of the legend ‘Silk’, Reshma is rejected by the casting person, she is told that she neither looks like a wife or a sweetheart and so she better forgot about acting roles. She proceeds to drown her sorrows watching her favourite superstar. The guy sitting next to her offers her twenty rupees for a bit of a fun. The next day she walks onto the set and confronts the person who had rejected her. There must be something in me, which made that man give me twenty rupees she says. Reshma holds on to this as she moves to success.

An early portrait of Silk Smitha. Photographer: No record

However, the bid to establish the character as a pure ‘soul’, a virgin at heart, has the script make her truly in love with the superstar she had propositioned to ensure her survival.

Reshma is naively ignorant about the dirt thrown at her by tabloids content with keeping a scrapbook of clippings that has ‘good’ pictures of her. When the fantasy like state she has built for herself is destroyed, there are the platitudes of empowering dialogues such as her speech after she wins an award – ‘I am used as body parts to sell your film, yet you call me vulgar’. There is a hint of power play, the economics of sex in films, the incestuous media relationships but the film barely skims the surface, satisfied with soap opera dialogues and the accompanied orchestrated score.

The rationale of Reshma’s suicide is weak. Facing financial ruin and on the verge losing her home and career, she agrees to work for a small time producer who turns out to be a porn filmmaker. She refuses to do the scene but is drugged to be complaisant but the arrival of the police saves her in the nick of time. The woman in the beginning of the film, who thought that she is worth something when she was offered twenty rupees for sex, kills herself when it looks like she would have to do porn for survival.

As for the other characters, you have a bitter diatribe spouting narrator, Abraham (Emraan Hashmi) a, mock-intellectual for whom Silk (and not the actual people in power) personifies all that is rotten and dirty in commercial cinema, who plays a role in the destruction of Silk, and yet inexplicably falls in love with her by the time film reaches its end. Then there is the paper-thin character of superstar Suryakant (Naseeruddin Shah) who plods through the film hamming away to glory playing godfather with the destinies of his heroines.

The only emotion the film stirs in you is when you hear the song Ooh la la tu hai meri fantasy blasting out of megaphone at the fancy dress competition in the primary school next to your residence. A feeling of sheer incomprehension.

Director: Milan Luthria

Players: Vidya Balan, Naseeruddin Shah, Emraan Hashmi, Tusshar Kapoor, Anju Mahendru