Tag Archive for Feminism

Do not go gently into the night

Sunila Abeysekera

Remembering Sunila Abeysekera, singer, fighter, writer, and leader whose commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights

By Vasanth Kannabiran

Sunila is gone. It is hard to imagine or accept the fact that we will not see her smile again, see her honeyed eyes sparkle as her brilliant smile embraced you. Hard to accept that the humour and warmth she radiated in the movement is gone. She was special and beautiful. A beauty that sprang from the life she had led, the struggles she had led, the passion and compassion that engulfed her.

I met Sunila for the first time in Bangalore with Subha, a suckling child in her arms. Her clarity and keen vision were striking then as later when it was honed over the years. Her interventions, her songs, her presence were such a pleasure to the whole South Asian group meeting there. She was then the younger woman to many of us looking fondly on her. Fresh from doing her Masters in The Hague she said how different it was to be with a small child in this group and how alone she felt at times despite supporting friends abroad. And her thank you included a thank you for welcoming Subha. After that we met time and again and she visited us at New Jersey when she was with the Global Center and my grand daughter Ramya was just born. She always asked about her warmly for years after.

Born in 1952 in Sri Lanka, Sunila was active in the Women’s Human Rights movement. She worked unceasingly for peace, reconciliation, and freedom of the press. She fervently believed that “all human beings are inherently entitled to all human rights” and was an active member of the Free Media Movement. She intervened at multiple levels to protect and ascertain the freedom of the press. As an artist and singer she saw that the freedom of art is indivisibly linked to the freedom of the press.

As an anti war activist she was firmly opposed to military solutions to ethnic issues. She held dialogues with men and women in war afflicted areas at a practical level. Her commitment to human rights drew her to the centre of all social movements struggling for rights. Part of the Women and Media Collective in Sri Lanka, Sunila worked tirelessly to end violence against women and strengthen women politically. She worked with cultural groups to develop ways of expressing new and radical ideas through art.

Sunila was a well-known and active through the South Asian region and internationally. She was an activist who also was a scholar. She reconceptualised the nation state – looking at principles of good governance from a feminist perspective, addressing problems of representation and employing critical cultural theory.

Her contribution was acknowledged by the UN Human Rights Award she received in 1999.

She was an actor, a singer, a fighter, a writer, and a leader. Her struggles made her indispensable on every front. Living in strife torn Sri Lanka and speaking of human rights made her vulnerable and open to attack. But her involvement with the Mother’s committees, her work with feminist and human rights groups, her fearless honesty in appraising the situation in a land torn apart set her apart.

I remember asking her once how she managed so many children in the house. She laughed and said it was easy, “just stock lots of food and don’t get paranoid about a tidy house. Then it’s easy for everyone.” Sunila’s house was home to all her friend’s children, friends who were traveling, had disappeared or were gone.

I remember the last time I spent a day with her in her home in Colombo. We were lounging drinking beer and chatting, the sun slanting in through the window. Several young people walked in and Sunila greeted them with a warm smile. She then told me that the kids who were now scattered across the world would always drop in on Sunday if in Colombo. They were sure to meet any of the siblings who happened to be in Colombo at that time. I remember the large pots of hot rice and curry sitting warmly welcoming the children to the table. It was one of the most heart warming days in my life.

Sunila’s house was as large, warm, generous and welcoming as her heart. They don’t make that model any more. Sunila might live on in all our hearts but she is gone and the poorer we are for bread and roses.

A life well lived, rich with meaning, suffering, joy and sorrow. And with no regrets.

Vsanth Kannabiran is a feminist writer and activist

Featured photo courtesy: www.1000peacewomen.org.

They don’t make them like her any more: A tribute to Vina Mazumdar

vina mazumdar vina mazumdar

Poem recited at the memorial meeting for Vina Mazumdar, on 11th June, 2013 in New Delhi, organised by Centre for Women’s Development Studies

By Urvashi Butalia

They don’t make them like her any more
It’s a very particular kind of recipe
You’d need an enlightened father
You’d need a visionary mother
It would help if you had an educated book loving driver
You’d need friends scattered all over the world
They’d have to be doctors and feminists and academics and activists
You’d need a good dose of children
You’d have to have politics in the blood
A firm belief in democracy
You’d need universities that believe in teachers and teaching
A rare thing these days
You’d need international recognition
That women deserve to be counted
You’d need mentors at home
And well wishers abroad
You’d need a spirit of questioning
A liberal dose of rebellion
A belief in support
A commitment to institutions
You’d need to be curious and interested
Awesome and inspiring
You’d have to help new groups
Give support to new enterprises
You’d need to support the feminist endeavour
To provide space and step in to sort out their battles
You’d need friends who connived
And plotted and succeeded
You’d need to march in demonstrations
Learn you lessons from the poor
Focus on the town and the city
You’d need liberal doses of Old Monk
A loud voice to shout for Nandan
An ability to give dictation till 4 in the morning
Spiced by Old Monk and hot tea
To your poor long suffering fifth child (aka Nandan)
You’d need to fight for women’s studies
Begin the battle long before other had even begun to think of it
You’d need to produce a report that was just more than a report
You’d need to find a good name for it
Perhaps call it Towards Equality
And then work hard to do what most reports don’t do
Turn it into action, use it to further research
You’d need to keep the focus on the activist
And equally on the researcher
You’d need to extend your attention to the village
To learn from your sisters out there
You’d need grit, determination, braggadaccio, a loud voice
You’d need a friend called lotika di
Another called Neeraben
You’d need a clutch of feminists of all ages
your biological and political jamaat
Who were willing to be your students
Even though you’d never been their teacher
An endless supply of cigarettes
A battle with your publisher for delaying your memoirs
You’d need liberal doses of argument
A vast collection of saris
Some kaftans to be in with your grandchildren
Comrades in the movement
Whom you could rap on the knuckles from time to time
You’d need the honesty to say
Arre, you must stop me, I tend to meander
I’m getting old you know
Put all of this together
And you’d have a very potent brew
By another name it would be called Vinadi
Glasses on nose, cigarette in hand, tea on table, dictation at the ready
Come on, Vinadi, own up, we know you’re up there watching us
And we’ll raise a glass of Old Monk to you tonight
For we know
They don’t make them like you anymore.

With inputs from many feminists across India

Asexuality: Fighting all odds

Asexuality India

Being an asexual in a sex-saturated culture is to fight the accusations of being abnormal or medically sick. Making asexuality visible is the challenge that online communities like AVEN have risen to

By Kristina Gupta

In many contemporary societies, there is a great deal of pressure on people to be sexual and to engage in sexual activity. Unfortunately, asexuality is often considered as a state of denial even within the progressive circles.

In response, in the past decade, online communities of people who identify as asexuals have been formed – the largest of which is the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) founded in 2001. AVEN defines asexuality as follows: “an asexual person is someone who does not experience sexual attraction.” AVEN has two stated goals: to educate about asexuality and to create a community for asexual people.

As of March 2012, over 34,000 people were registered members of AVEN. According to a recent survey, the majority of AVEN members are under the age of 25. Around 65% of the community identifies as female and around 14% identifies as male. AVEN was started in the United States, and the majority of members are from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. AVEN also has members from all over the world.

There are also a number of affiliated sites in different languages, – there are several Spanish-language sites that connect asexual Spanish speakers and their allies all over the world. Besides these, there are a number of other websites focused on asexuality, including blogs, dating sites, and other community forums.

There is a great deal of diversity within the asexual community, even in terms of sexuality. Asexual individuals also vary in the types of intimate relationships they desire; some may identify as “romantic asexual” if they want romantic relationships that don’t involve sexual activity, while others may identify as “aromantic asexual.” Some romantic asexuals may also adopt an identity label based on the gender of their preferred romantic partner (e.g. some romantic asexuals will identify as hetero-romantic or homo-romantic).

Asexuality rights

Too asexy to be sexual: Photo courtesy AVEN

While many asexual individuals feel that they have been asexual their entire lives, there may be some people who move in and out of the category. In this sense, asexuality is not very different from other sexual identity categories, as some individuals may maintain a stable sexual identity throughout their lives, while others may have more fluid sexual identities.

Asexual individuals who live in a sex-saturated culture may feel stigmatized or marginalized. In the U.S., for example, asexual adults may be perceived as strange or even sick. The handbook of mental disorders used in the United States (the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM) includes a mental disorder called “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” which is defined as a persistent lack of interest in sex.

For the asexual community, a lack of interest in sex is not always a medical condition; in some cases, it can be a fulfilling way of being in the world. Some members of AVEN want the APA to revise the definition of hypoactive sexual desire disorder to exclude people who identify as asexual.

In cultures where marriage and children are what is expected (which is still the case, to a certain extent, even in the U.S), some asexual individuals may feel coerced by society to accept the ‘norm’. It could be that some asexual individuals seek refuge in religious institutions where celibacy is accepted or mandated, but there isn’t enough research to support the case.

Stockholm Pride March 2011 - Photo courtesy: AVEN

In some ways, asexuality fits comfortably within the GLBTQ community, as asexuality is another “non-normative” sexuality. However, much of the GLBTQ community (in the U.S. at least) is very sex-focused, so some asexual individuals might not feel comfortable. In recent years, there has been some collaboration between AVEN and different GLBTQ groups; for example, for the last few years, a group of AVEN members has marched in the San Francisco Pride Parade.

As asexuality is a relatively new sexual identity category, there has been little feminist research on it to date. Since the early 1990s, much of western feminism has been very “pro-sex,” which might have prevented early recognition and acceptance of asexuality.

However, currently there are a number of feminist scholars considering the implications of asexuality for feminist theory and practice which include Kristin Scherrer, Karli June Cerankowski and Megan Milks, Ela Przybylo, and Eunjung Kim.

Integrating considerations of asexuality into feminist theory and practice will be very productive.  Considerations of asexuality can lead us to question our “pro-sex biases”; encourage us to question the boundaries between the sexual and the nonsexual and between romance and friendship. It could also lead to us to think about new types of relationships and affinities, and encourage us to think more deeply about the prevalence and meaning of “unwanted sexuality.”

Kristina Gupta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. For her dissertation, she is researching the intersections of feminist theory, asexuality, and scientific and medical research on sexual desire

Related reading: ‘We’re married, we just don’t have sex’

NGOisation of the Women’s Movement: Survival vs autonomy

Indian women

NGO-isation has engulfed all of civil society organsing in India, including the women’s movement. While it has strengthened many groups’ institutional position and enabled a wider outreach, feminist solidarity and feminist ideology seem to have taken a back seat

By Vibhuti Patel

NGO-isation clearly represents the growing dominance of a certain organisational form that is different from the early consciousness-raising organisations and also different from the mass organising that women have been very good at. NGO-isation is not particular to women though. The impact of NGO-isation varies depending on the resources, level of operation and the organisational motives behind adopting the NGO model.

Historical Backdrop

When social movements of 1970s and 1980s started fragmenting and losing their mass base due to issue based narrow struggles, formation of special interest groups and cooption of articulate, urbane, English knowing, professionally qualified activists and leaders of peoples’ movement: peasant movement, workers’ movement, Dalit movement, youth movement, women’s movement and tribal movement into power structures, NGO-isation process began. Initially, they were called non-party political formations or voluntary organisations. In course of time they developed into legalised entities as registered societies, public trusts, non-profit or pro-profit trusts supported by local, corporate, state or foreign funding institutions.

There was an understanding that in the non- government organisations level of motivation was high, they were non-corrupt and were free from nepotism and red-tapism.  During 1980s and 1990s, the NGOs were applauded by UN bodies as rooted in ‘the local reality’, ‘full of idealism’ and ‘bottom up’ and ‘participatory’ in their approach. Many liberal and socialist thinkers also declared them as third force for social transformation, first two being Government bodies and political parties.

Beyond Guilt-Tripping

New awareness among the funding institutions about mis-utilisation of funding by government agencies was as a result of intense debate on corruption, leakage and misappropriation of funding in the Asian, Latin American and African countries during 1950-1980. In the early 1990s, there was a fear that the global funding might get diverted to East European countries that was culturally closer to the western world and had faced massive economic and political crisis due to collapse of Soviet Union.

This debate in the development studies circle brought massive changes in the functioning of the social movements in the post colonial countries which were subsidised by the outside funding. Initially, activists and experts from the minority communities and women were forced to accept foreign funding as they were marginalised in their own countries. Rest of the social movements derived benefits of these funding without publicly acknowledging the source.

Structural Adjustment Programme and stabilisation policies resulted into massive reduction in the state funding. Even the mainstream institutions and organisations started turning to foreign funding. New dialogue with the funders based on mutual respect has helped to get rid of the anxiety that the developing world would be left out by the aid agencies.  Induction of highly qualified professionals from developing countries as consultants to screen the proposals for funding is supposed to have reduced wastage and vested interest.

NGO-isation impacts on smaller women’s organisations operating at the local level in terms of an expansion of structure, loss of autonomy, erosion of agenda setting power and a prioritisation of accountability towards donors. However, some national-level women’s organisations have been able to manage the process through strategically mobilising resources and prioritising own agendas, thus retaining their feminist character.

Indian women's movement

Destroy dowry not daughters. A protest in 1986, Photo courtesy: Vibhuti Patel

At a wider level, the NGO-isation process has led to a blurring of the boundaries between the gender and development agenda and feminist discourses. This blurring of boundaries created opportunities for raising women’s rights issues at different levels, but led perhaps to a generational shift in how younger women engage with gender equity issues.

NGO-isation has impacted structure, agenda, autonomy, agency and accountability of different types of women’s/feminist organisations. Adoption of service-delivery models promoted by the NGOs and concerns over losing the feminist political agenda has taken away steam from the women’s liberation movement. Influence of management institutions have changed vocabulary of women’s NGOs who talk in terms of SWOT, OD, skill Development, value for money, value addition, USP, beneficiary and benefactor.

Feminist solidarity and feminist ideology have taken a back seat as in a neoliberal backdrop each one is competing for patronage, travel grant and institutional funding and perpetually insecure about poaching of talented staff and diversion of funding. ‘Contact is capital’, ‘Network for Power’ and ‘Concentration and Centralisation of Resources’ have been the mantra of NGO-isation. In this culture; spontaneity, trust, solidarity, collective efforts have been replaced by calculated moves, secrecy, individualism and atomized existence among women’s groups.

The only positive fall out of NGO-isation process is that, the feminist organisations have been able to strengthen their institutional positions (recognition by the mainstream bodies, consultancy, training centres, building, staff, and financial security) and create a wider reach through the links they have developed through collaboration on NGO projects. Moreover, women’s organizations were forced to rethink their mobilisation strategies and discourses, as a larger number of educationally qualified younger women and men engage with the gender and development projects implemented by NGOs.

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