Tag Archive for Indian feminists

33 years, five women and (many) a movement

Saheli-delhi-meeting

‘In remembrance of feminist comrades and in preparation for difficult futures’ – a report of the annual day celebrations of Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Delhi

By Saheli Women’s Resource Centre

It was a day of mixed emotions. On 9th August 2014, the hot and noisy (not to mention shaky) Saheli office was packed with people sitting on chairs, sprawled on durries, leaning against walls and perched atop tables.

We had gathered to mark 33 years of Saheli’s existence and work, by paying tribute to the lives and work of some of the feminists we have lost in the last year, to draw strength and inspiration from their lives and work, and above all to reflect on where we are headed, together. One of the truly wonderful things was seeing a mix of feminists old and new, to meet faces familiar and unfamiliar, to be treated to anecdotes both known and unknown.

We started with what Savita of Saheli called a ‘brief history of 33 years of friendships, movements and struggles’ as she spoke of Saheli’s work in the past and our present directions.

Mohan Rao began the recollections with his affectionate tribute to Vina Mazumdar, talking about how meeting Vina-di and Imrana Qadeer in his early days in Delhi had dramatically changed his life. He reminded us of Vina-di’s consistent work against neo-Malthusian population policies and her deep concern for the growing imbalance in sex ratios among children (not just infants) from way back in the 1980s. But most of all, Mohan also reminded us of Vina-di’s love for people and her immense capacity to build and nurture friendships.

Just as we were ready to further these conversations, there was a bit of a stir in the crowd as the walls of our office came alive with pictures that Sheba Chhachhi gifted us on the occasion. The poignant image of Shahjehan Apa holding up a picture of the daughter she had lost to dowry at the public meeting in Nangloi where Gouri Choudhry, Uma Chakravarti, Runu Chakraborty and several others remembered meeting her for the first time, and discovering her warmth, sensitivity and her skills as a feminist orator. There was also the iconic photograph of Satyarani Chaddha at an anti-dowry rally which led to discussions about her long and tortuous struggle for justice for her daughter’s death. We rued the fact that although her son-in-law was finally convicted for his crime decades later, he continues to live the life of a free man.

Then were the lovely portraits of Sharda Behn – smiling in close-up, somber at a rally carrying a poster with the anti-communal slogan of the late 1980s, “Prem se kaho hum insaan hain”, and cooking in her kitchen with the same poster on her door – that got Runu talking about Sharda Behn’s amazing capacity to connect with all kinds of people, which made her a fabulous organiser of women in Mahila Panchayats, and other grassroot level programmes. As the gathering recalled Sharda Behn playing the mother-in-law in countless performances of the now legendary anti-dowry play “Om Swaha”, many remembered Deepti Priya as the poor daughter-in-law who ‘died’ many times in those performances (while she herself, curled up on a chair giggled at the memory). Runu reflected on the various ‘generations’ of casts and performers of Om Swaha, while Gouri looked back critically saying that unfortunately “we were protesting dowry deaths and violence but we never protested dowry itself.”

Gouri also spoke at length about Bharati Roy Chowdhury, another powerhouse organiser and activist who despite her failing health and reduced mobility, remained committed to issues relating to women, forests, labour till the very end. Rakhi Sehgal added how Bharti’s work continued to inspire newer unions like NTUI (New Trade Union Initiative) in their efforts to engender their work in both the formal and informal sectors.

And the floodgates opened for many memories of Sharmila Rege. Uma Chakravarti started by reminding us that some of Sharmila’s earliest academic work was on the issue of Sati, but yet she blazed a path like no other. She countered conventional professional trajectories by taking a ‘demotion’ to move to the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Pune and making history with that move. She complicated classical feminist theories with issues of caste, and in turn, complicating questions of caste with gender. Uma spoke movingly about how deep a loss Sharmila’s passing is to her personally, as well as women’s studies in India as a whole. Casting a critical eye on many women’s studies centres in India, Uma asserted that if we didn’t learn from the kind of edge Sharmila brought to women’s studies, or the passion and seriousness with which she approached teaching, then the entire field would steadily decline to a point of meaninglessness. Uma also shared inspiring stories of how Sharmila defied conventions of ‘academic publishing’ by writing easily accessible critiques of popular culture, and even co-authoring with her young students.

Quite naturally, these reminiscences left us all, collectively, quite overwhelmed. The perfect moment it seemed, for the newest person in Saheli, Shreya to say her piece. Speaking candidly and freely, Shreya threw her pre-prepared speech to the wind as she talked about why young women like her ‘need feminism’ – to deal with family, to contest the men around them, to make lives of their own. Taking on from there, Deepti of Saheli laid out the issues before us all, young and old. “This year when we started to think about what if we might want to do on Saheli day, we realized there was this enormous sense of loss, not just of these incredible women, but also a sense of fatigue and paralysis around us.

There have been setbacks on the legal front: the recent Supreme Court judgment on 498A about women filing false cases, the chilling clause in the new Sexual Harassment Law sanctioning action against women for ‘false and malicious’ cases’, the shocking Sec 377 judgment of the Supreme Court that recriminalised homosexuality, and countless cases of judges harassing women in the course of work – raising all kinds of concerns including how these men can be expected to make/implement laws to protect the rights of women.

Deepti also highlighted the dangers we are already perceiving of having a right wing led government in majority at the Centre: “a revival of the move to scrap Article 370 or talk about enforcing a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), etc – all being raked up in a jingoistic manner that does not even pretend to seek broader engagement with all the stakeholders. And then, of course, the closing of spaces for dissent by both, state and non-state actors – NGO activists being arrested, social media being monitored, censorship by the likes of Dinanath Batra, and more scarily, self-censorship by individuals and NGOs… all this silences our collective voice,” she said.

The discussion that followed was, not surprisingly, more muted than the preceding session. But the ideas and strategies came forth finally, and slowly we began to hear our own voices speak up. While some advised for caution and subversion in our actions ahead, others said this is no time for fear or moderation. Some said we need to focus on contesting the State and other orthodoxies that surround us, some pushed for us to question family, marriage and other structures, and yet others pointed a finger inwards and suggested we reflect on how we self-censor and how it is affecting our work and sense of strength. We also talked about the need for organizing ourselves in different ways, to create more autonomous spaces, more local groupings that could stay engaged on many fronts.

First in undertones, and then as louder demands, seasoned feminists and newer ones in the room spoke of a need for more dialogue among small collectives and grassroots based organisations, as well as with younger people. Reference was also made to controversies among us that need further dialogue, for e.g. the contrary positions on the issue of bar dancers between Dalit and non-Dalit feminists. As someone in the room pointed out, the recent sessions debating the UCC at Saheli have been a good opportunity to talk about many things, and it is clear that we need to do more, much more together. To get a sense of where we stand on many issues, where we think we need to go, and to strategise about how to get there.

A (tentative) plan was made to have monthly meetings at the Delhi level to carry these dialogues further. But the bigger questions that hung in the air were: are we done with the Conferences of Autonomous Women’s Movements after the last one in Kolkata in 2006? Isn’t it time we think of the next one? Or should we think of smaller, regional conferences? We must evolve more ways for us to stay connected with each other and build on our collective vision, especially in the post-May 16 landscape.

Are all of us feminists, inside and outside that meeting, on and off the various e-lists listening?

Featured photo by Binita Kakati

Indian feminists issue Womanifesto on March 8

Anti-rape-protest-India

Feminists issue a Womanifesto today in New Delhi declaring their stake in the national elections

By Team FI
On International Women’s Day, keeping the upcoming Lok Sabha election in mind, women’s groups and feminists in India have released a ‘Womanifesto’ – a six point plan to ensure gender equality. Demanding an end to the treatment of women who constitute nearly half of the electorate as politically unimportant, activists are seeking endorsements from political parties and candidates who are contesting the 2014 Loka Sabha elections.

The full text of the Womanifesto:
A freedom movement for women has caught fire. Citizens across the country are demanding an end to the generations-deep violence and suppression faced by hundreds of millions of Indian women and girls. Voters are calling on elected officials to commit the resources and political will for change now. This Indian Womanifesto is a 6-point plan critical to the freedom and safety, equality and flourishing of India’s women and girls. All candidates for the 2014 Lok Sabha should commit to:

1. Educate for equality: We will implement comprehensive, well-funded and long-term public education programmes to end the culture of gender-based discrimination and violence. These will include: SMS, radio and TV public service campaigns, accessible lesson plans for schools, modules for training teachers and to train professionals such as doctors and lawyers. To this end we will reach men, women, boys and girls in both urban and rural areas.

2. Make laws count: We will ensure each government agency produces a detailed action-plan to implement laws to end violence against women, and we will fund it. We will work with state governments to provide comprehensive services to women who are victims of violent crimes, helping them to fund and set up one-stop, 24-hour crisis centres and safe shelters in each police district, and to give swift financial compensation. We will create and fund a comprehensive scheme to prevent sexual abuse of children, including safe childcare for children in villages and urban jhuggis, and awareness campaigns among children and parents. We will work with state governments to establish responsive and fair fast track courts for crimes of violence against women and raise the number of judges to 30 per 100,000 population. We will also ensure increased access to accountable legal aid, ensure that money damages are rapidly paid by the State in cases of sexual violence, and create robust witness protection programmes.

3. Put women in power: We will support the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha, and ensure that women will be represented in all councils, committees and task forces related to policy and practice across the board. We will support the adoption of a Code of Conduct to disqualify electoral candidates who have committed offences of gender-related violence and end misogynist comments and behaviour in the Lok Sabha. We will strengthen the autonomous functioning of the National and State Commissions for Women, with experienced professionals being selected through a transparent process.

4. Police for the people: We will establish and enforce a comprehensive response protocol for crimes against women, and publicise it. We will work with state governments to change service rules and ensure police and prosecutorial recruitment, promotion and penalties are made on attitudes and performances based on gender. We commit to implementing police reforms and to ensure that police personnel who breach the new procedures are investigated and disciplined accordingly. We will also establish rape crisis response teams, with rural and urban pilot projects. There will be zero tolerance of moral policing by Statenon-State actors.

5. Swift, certain justice: We will support amendments to laws that perpetuate violence and discrimination against women and sexual minorities, and those that directly/indirectly sanction discrimination against women on the basis of religion, caste, sexuality, age, economic status or disability. We will stringently implement the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostics Technique Act. We will support the amendment of existing laws, to remove the marital rape exemption, repeal Section 377 IPC and make sure that the rape of any person is criminal. We will change the law so that consenting couples aged 16 and 17 do not fall foul of rape laws. We will remove the impunity to perpetrators of custodial rape under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and will appoint special commissioners in conflict areas to monitor and prosecute sexual offences. We will enact the Prevention of Atrocities (Amendment) Bill to stop crimes against dalit and adivasi women and commit to a strong law against communal violence that holds state and non-state actors accountable. We will take strong action against racial discrimination and violence against women from the North-East. We will push to enact a special law to combat honour crimes. We will take steps to bring speedy justice in long-pending cases of communal and caste massacres, as well as custodial rapes.

6. Economic flourishing: We will ensure secure, dignified, remunerative employment for women. Action plans will be created to secure equal pay for equal work in all sectors; provide creches and other critical support to MNREGA workers; rights, dignity and minimum wage to all women workers in the organised and unorganised sectors. We will grant government employee status to workers in ‘voluntary’ schemes where women work with informal honorariums. We will push to amend the law to address the range of unfair discrimination at work, including in the unorganised sector and we commit to implementing the Central Government mandate under the sexual harassment law. We will bring universal, non-contributory old age pensions for women. We will create action plans to accelerate quality education for girls. We will devise a scheme to ensure that women achieve equal property rights in natal families and fair shares through marriage. Public toilets shall be set up, especially in the poorest areas, and all women will have access to regular, safe public transport.We will ensure development justice for women and respect community rights to resources. All action plans will include infrastructure, personnel, training, monitoring and evaluation, resourced by central finances.

Salutes to Vina Mazumdar, doyenne of women’s studies

Vina Mazumdar Obituary

Vina Mazumdar, veteran feminist and much loved pioneer of women’s studies movement in India passed away in New Delhi on 30 May 2013. She was 86

By Vibhuti Patel

With the passing away of Dr. Vina Mazumdar, fondly known as Vinadi, the Indian women’s movement has experienced an irreparable loss. Vinadi personified in her, a far sighted and strong willed thinker and a forceful speaker and convincing debater who had faith in ‘human goodness’.

Her intellectual prowess did not make her an ivory tower in her approach towards her colleagues and fellow travelers- academicians, policy makers, researchers and feminist activists. She always remained warm at heart, easy to approach, instantly building rapport, magnanimous in sharing her knowledge and institutional resources as director of Centre for Women’s Development Studies.

Her charm was in her electrifying persona, an always smiling face conveying optimism, down to earth approach, ideological sharpness, story-telling with witty humour and the most important courage of conviction combined with honesty of purpose. This is what explained her commanding agenda setting power, whether she was in the decision making bodies of University Grants Commission (UGC), Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Planning Commission of India and several ministries or outside of them. She could galvanize students, teachers, researchers, women’s organizations, trade unionists, bureaucrats, politicians and law makers into action as she was one of the best ‘argumentative Indians’ produced by ‘women’s studies movement’.

Vinadi was very good at coining catchy terms such as ‘women’s studies movement’, ‘the Indian psyche defined by binary ‘Ma’ versus “Maal’ – the dichotomy that worships motherhood and dehumanizes/commodifies the rest of women

Her contemporaries – powerful men in the Universities, research institutions and ministries called her ‘bulldozer’ while women scholars and practitioners found her the most trustworthy friend and mentor.

I worked closely with Vinadi during 1981 for the Women’s Studies Conference hosted by SNDT Women’s University, in 1985 for preparation of ‘End of the Decade’ alternate country report on Status of Women in India, in 1986 for a panel discussion on ‘Ante Natal Sex Selective and Abortions of Female Foetus in India’ for World Sociological Conference and in 1988 for a multi-centric research project on ‘Child Care as an Essential Input for women’s Development’.

Vina Mazumdar  was a great champion of participatory action research. Photo courtesy : Zubaan Books

Vina Mazumdar was a great champion of participatory action research. Photo courtesy : Zubaan Books

Vina Mazumdar was born in 1927 and completed her schooling in Calcutta. She did her honours course from Benaras Hindu University as well as Ashutosh College, Calcutta University and completed D.Phil. from Oxford University. In 1960, Once again she enrolled as a research scholar at Oxford University and within 2 years was awarded D.Phil.

She taught political science at Patna University and Berhampur University for couple of years. After that she joined UGC. She made a mark in the UGC Secretariat as an energetic Officer. She was also selected as a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Simla.

In 1972, when the Indian government agreed to honour the UN mandate to prepare a status report on women, Vinadi was appointed as Member Secretary of Committee on the Status of Women in India. Her unique contribution while preparation of landmark report “Towards Equality” as a researcher and her analytical rigour to explain material and ideological conditions that determined women’s predicament in India made her the most sought after scholar-activist during 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the millennium era.

In 1974, When All India Institute of Medical Science began conducting a sample survey of amniocentesis to find out about foetal genetic conditions and easily managed to enroll 11000 pregnant women as volunteers for its research, the main interest of these volunteer pregnant women was to know sex of the foetus. Once the results were out, the women who were told that they were carrying female fetuses demanded abortion. When the young researcher of AIIMS shared this observation with Vinadi, she mobilised a women’s delegation to meet the health minister to stop abuse of amniocentesis for sex selective abortions.

During the International Women’s Year (1975), Vinadi was appointed as Director, Programme of Women’s Studies, ICSSR, for five years (1975-80). She was Founder-Director of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi from 1980 to 1991, and thereafter was Senior Fellow at CWDS and JP Naik National Fellow, ICSSR, for two years. From 1996-2013, Dr. Veena Mazumdar was the Chairperson, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi. She was the heart and soul of Indian Association of Women’s Studies.

Vinadi’s writings provided road map for developmental initiatives. Her memoir, Memories of a Rolling Stone pulished by Zubaan Books in 2010 provides vivid description of her principles, programmes, and policy initiatives in collaboration with her team of ‘movers and shakers’.

Vinadi will remain with us with her insightful publications:
• Education & Social Change: Three Studies on Nineteenth Century India. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1972.
• Role of Rural Women in Development. University of Sussex. Institute of Development Studies. Allied Publishers, 1978.
• Symbols of Power: Studies on the Political Status of Women in India. Allied, 1979.
• Emergence of the Women’s Question in India and the Role of Women’s Studies. Centre for Women’s Development Studies, 1985.
• Peasant Women Organise for Empowerment: The Bankura Experiment. Centre for Women’s Development Studies. 1989.

Featured Photo: Vina Mazumdar while studying at Asutosh College, Calcutta – courtesy: Wikipedia

In Memoriam: Prof. Leela Dube (1923-2012)

Leela Dube

Renowned anthropologist and feminist scholar Leela Dube passed away at her residence in Delhi on 20 th May. She was 89. Fondly called Leeladee, Prof. Dube was one of the pioneers of feminist scholarship in India

By Vibhuti Patel

With the passing away of Professor Leela Dube, we have lost a stalwart who broadened the discipline of anthropology by introducing the insights of women’s studies and enriched women’s studies as a discipline by bringing in the technical expertise of an anthropologist.

A well known figure in Indian Sociological Society in the 70s, Leeladee was responsible for introducing women’s studies concerns in mainstream sociology. She played a crucial role in the 1984 World Sociological Congress in which women activists and women’s studies scholars played a dominant role through the Research Committee Women in Society (RC 32). Leeladee chaired a panel on “Declining Sex Ratio in India”, in which Dr. Ilina Sen gave a historical overview of deficit of women in India throughout history of Census of India. Prof. Vina Mazumdar passionately spoke on the finding of towards Equality Report and I spoke on “Sex Selective Abortions-An Abuse of Scientific Techniques of Amniocentesis”.

Leeladee summed up the session with her insightful comments on the tradition of son preference in India. Her greatness lay in synthesizing complex concerns and providing an analytical framework in a lucid and convincing way. In a debate on sex selective abortions carried out in EPW during 1982-1986, her contribution was immense and her predictions about direct relationship of deficit of women and increased violence against women has proved to be true in the subsequent years.

Due to team efforts of women’s studies scholars like Prof. Leela Dube, RC 32 got institutionalized in World Sociological Congress. She invited many activists for the 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Zagreb, erstwhile Yugoslavia, in 1988 to present paper on “Codification of Customary Laws into Family Laws in Asia”. In the Congress, Leedadee’s speech on feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock provided new insights into departure of the feminist anthropologists from its colonial legacy of “Big brother watching you”. The power relations between the North and the South in construction of knowledge and the hegemonic presence of ETIC approach in academics were questioned by Leacock as well as Leeladee who propagated “dialogical approach” in anthropological and ethnographic research.

I respected her from a distance. I was too awe-struck to go close to her but always appreciated her sharp, witty comments during academic sessions and tea and lunch breaks at innumerable seminars, workshops and at Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conferences held every two years. She was appreciative of our campaign against sex selection. During 1981 and 1991, I got to listen to her speeches, deliberations and arguments as I used to be one of the rapporteurs in most of the programmes in women’s studies held in Mumbai and Delhi.

leela dube, Indian feminism, feminist scholars

Clockwise: Vina Mazumdar, Hanna Papanek, Gail Omvedt, Neera Desai and Leela Dube in Segovia, Spain, July 1990. Photo Courtesy: Vibhuti Patel

Each time I heard her, I got more motivated to read her papers and later on her books. Her work on Lakshadweep island’s matrilineal Muslim community- Matriliny and Islam: Religion and society in the Laccadives (1969)- was an eye-opener so was her deconstruction of polyandry in Himalayan tribes in the context of women’s workload of collection of fuel, fodder, water, looking after livestock and kitchen gardening in mountainous terrain, resulting into high maternal mortality and adverse sex ratio. She showed interconnections between factors responsible for social construction of women’s sexuality, fertility and labour, rooted in the political economy.

Her highly celebrated book Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields (2001) is a landmark contribution in feminist anthropology in India. It examines gender, kinship and culture by sourcing a variety of distinct and unconventional materials such as folk tales, folk songs, proverbs, legends, myths to construct ethnographic profile of feminist thoughts. She provides a nuanced understanding on socialization of girl child in a patriarchal family, “seed and soil” theory propagated by Hindu scriptures and epics symbolizing domination-subordination power relationship between men and women.

Her meticulously researched piece On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India in the Economic and Political Weekly (1988), was used by women’s groups for study circles and training programmes. The volume Women, Work, and Family (1990) in the series on Women and Households, Structures and Strategies, co-edited by Leela Dube and Rajni Palriwala was extremely useful in teaching women’s studies in Economics, Sociology, Geography, Social Work and Governance courses. Her book, Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia (1997) argued that kinship systems provide an important context in which gender relations are located in personal and public arena.

The co-edited volume Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development by Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener (OUP 1986) provided international perspective on the anthropology of women in the context of socio-political setting of India, Iran, Malaysia, Brazil, and Yugoslavia.

After Prof. Iravati Karve, Prof. Leela Dube was the only scholar who made a path-breaking contribution in anthropology with gender sensitivity in India. Leeladee made a mammoth contribution in bringing academic credibility to women’s studies through her scholarly endeavours.

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

Featured Photo by: Mukul Dube