Tag Archive for Women’s movement India

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

In memoriam: Lotika Sarkar 1923 – 2013

Lotika Sarkar

Saluting Professor Lotika Sarkar who fought to make the country’s laws uphold gender justice and women’s rights

By Vibhuti Patel

Professor Lotika Sarkar who played a central role in several path-breaking and crucial legislations for gender justice and empowerment of women during 1975-2005, passed away at the age of 90 on 23rd February 2013. In the women’s rights movement, she was known as Lotikadee.

When other stalwarts of women’s studies touched our hearts with inspirational speeches in the women’s movement gatherings, Lotikadee floored us with her legal acumen. The first Indian woman to graduate from Cambridge, Dr. Lotika Sarkar was the first woman to join the law faculty at the University of Delhi. She taught Criminal law and was a mainstay of the Indian Law Institute, Delhi during 1980s and 1990s. She was a member of the Government of India’s Committee on the Status of Women in India and a founding member of several institutions—the Indian Association for Women Studies (IAWS) and the Centre for Women‘s Development Studies (CWDS).

Lotikadee was in the peak of her career, when she was asked to join Committee on Status of Women in India, 1972 that prepared Towards Equality Report, 1974. As a pioneer in the fields of law, women’s studies and human rights, she prepared the chapter on laws concerning women in the Status of Women’s Committee Report with gender sensitivity and analytical clarity to promote women’s rights.

Along with three law professors of Delhi University – Prof. Upendra Baxi, Prof. Kelkar, Dr. Vasudha Dhagamwar, Lotikadee wrote the historic Open Letter to the Chief Justice of India in 1979, challenging the judgment of the apex court on the Mathura rape case. I remember cutting stencil and making copies on our cyclostyling machine of the 4-page long letter for wider circulation. Translation of this letter into Gujarati and Hindi served as a crash course in understanding the nuances of criminal justice system, rape laws and sexual violence as the weapon to keep women in a perpetual state of terrorization, intimidation and subjugation. It resulted in birth of the first feminist group against rape in January, 1980 – Forum Against Rape.

In 1980, along with Dr. Veena Mazumdar, Lotikadee founded Centre for Women’s Development Studies. When Lotikadee came to Mumbai for the first Conference on Women’s Studies in April, 1981 at SNDT women’s University, we, young feminists were awe-struck! Ideological polarization in this conference was extremely volatile. Lotikadee’s commitment to the left movement did not prevent her from interacting meaningfully with liberals, free-thinkers and also the new-left like me. Indian Association of Women’s Studies was formed in this gathering. In the subsequent conferences, Lotikadee attracted innumerable legal luminaries to IAWS.

At the initiative of her students, Amita Dhanda and Archana Parashar, a volume of Essays, Engendering Law: in Honour of Lotika Sarkar was published in 1999 by Eastern Book Company, Delhi.

Lotikadee and her journalist husband Shri. Chanchal Sarkar was kind, generous and trusting. After her husband passed away she was under immense trauma and grief. Taking advantage of this situation, her cook and a police officer whose education she and her husband had sponsored, usurped her property and house. Her students, India’s top lawyers and judges mobilized support and signed an open letter studded with such names as Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, Soli Sorabjee, Gopal Subramaniam and Kapila Vatsyayan. Jurists, advocates, academics, bureaucrats, journalists and human rights activists signed the open letter demanding justice for her. Finally, Lotika Sarkar’s property and assets was transferred back to her to allow her to live her life in peaceful serenity, which she so deserved. Lotikadee’s traumatic experience invited serious attention on safeguarding the rights of senior citizens by both state and civil society.

Lotikadee was a conscience keeper not only for policy makers and legal fraternity but also for the women’s studies and women’s movement activists. The most appropriate tribute to Lotikadee is to proactively pursue the mission she started with her team in 1980, to fight against rape and various forms of structural and systemic violence against women and to strive for social justice, distributive justice and gender justice. The resurgence of activism against sexual violence and feminist debate around Justice Verma Commission’s Report as well as Criminal Law (Amendment ) Ordinance, 2013 constantly reminds us of the pioneering work of Lotikadee in terms of creating a strong band of committed and legally aware feminists who are following her footsteps. Let us salute Lotikadee, torchbearer of gender justice by continuing her heroic legacy.

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

Feminism’s unfinished business

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Grassroot mobilisations, successful cyberspace campaigns, virtual information networks, – there’s more to the Indian Women’s Movement than meets the eye

By Ritu Menon

On any given day the Yahoo group Feminists India carries dozens of postings on dozens of issues, from protesting Vedanta’s “support” of balwadis and anganwadis, to campaigning for tribal activist Soni Sori’s right to a fair trial and demanding accountability from the police for her abuse in custody, to the politics of Slut Walk. The group sends open letters (including to Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha on equal rights for Tamils), invitations to seminars, book and job announcements, information on campaigns, requests for information, statements of solidarity, comments on legal judgments – all in a day’s work. Recently, Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag responded to an Open Letter sent by FeministsIndia by withdrawing from judging a short films competition sponsored by Vedanta.

It’s true that an internet presence may not have the same immediacy or visibility as being out on the streets, but the activism is still around and its reach is considerable. To all those who feel the women’s movement in India is on the wane, perhaps a more accurate assessment is that it is more dispersed, has deeper roots, and has shifted from being urban and middle class to more hinterland and, often, even more rural. In major metropolises, for example, the objective is not simply demanding that “eve-teasing” be treated as a crime;rather it’s working with the police, with college students, with planning and civic bodies to ensure safe cities for all – women, children, the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged. If the 1980s-1990 s were a time of consciousnessraising (as much for society as for ourselves) with all the exhilaration and energy that this generated, the 2000s may well be about actively working towards change, not just in laws but on the ground, in society.

Of course, one misses the excitement and togetherness of demonstrating on the streets and the sense of accomplishment at having a law amended or an act passed. But the movement is older now, more mature, and the environment has changed – we’re in a globalised, connected India today, and forms of protest and mobilising, of negotiation and intervention, have had to take this into account.

About seven or eight years ago, Akshara, a women’s resource centre in Mumbai that has been in the forefront of the movement since the 1980s, decided they needed to reach out to young people in the city. Not via your usual fete-and-sports events, but through a sustained and continuing engagement with them on gender issues. Today they work with 18 “low-resource ” colleges in the city, and over the years the students have fanned out to district colleges and reached several thousand others. With Xavier’s College and five other institutions in Mumbai, Akshara carried out a safety audit of the city, monitoring 22 locations with the help of 150 students. Their Blow the Whistle Campaign resulted in setting up a police helpline 103, responding to crimes against women, children and senior citizens. “The response from students has been amazing, ” says Nandita Shah of Akshara, “especially from the boys”.

FeministsIndiaResisting and reporting violence against women has, unfortunately, remained a staple of the Indian women’s movement, but its ambit has expanded to address a range of civic issues that encompass unsafe spaces for women in cities, ensuring safe travel in public transport, sexual harassment at the workplace, including the space where women street vendors ply their trade. In 2005, Jagori spearheaded a Safe Cities project in Delhi with (like Akshara) a safety audit, and in 2009, the Delhi government launched the Safe City Campaign in partnership with Jagori and UN Women. Its Awaaz Uthao programme has set up collectives in 15 communities across the city, made up of the police, schools, the municipality, women and other “stakeholders” to identify key concerns regarding safety, and then working to address them.

Meanwhile, Jagori Grameen in Himachal Pradesh works with women farmers in 45 villages, encouraging them to replenish natural resources through organic agriculture. “There is a direct link between the patriarchal exploitation of women and the capitalist exploitation of land”, says Abha Bhaiya of Jagori Grameen, “land and women, both are seen as objects of exploitation. ” SAFAL (Sustainable Agriculture, Forest and Land) recognises women’s work as agriculturists, as well as their role as ecologists.

Closer home, the link between alcoholism and increased levels of domestic violence is inescapable;anyone who has ever come to the aid of abused and battered women knows that in the background there lurks a man who has blown up a good deal of his money on liquor, often illicit. In the mid-1990 s, women in Andhra Pradesh, among them the poorest from the poorest districts, converged to launch the anti-arrack movement, forcing the then government to shut down the liquor vends in the state. A huge victory, but shortlived, because everyone knows the nexus between liquor barons, law enforcement agencies and political henchmen. Prohibition was repealed. In July 1996, Asmita – a women’s organisation in Hyderabad that had campaigned actively and participated in the anti-arrack struggles – and NAWO (the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations) organised a state-wide rally of women, protesting the lifting of prohibition. Twelve thousand rural women showed up in Hyderabad! “The streets were jammed, ” recalls Vasanth Kannabiran of Asmita, “and we had to keep getting food packets for all the women. The meeting went on right through the day, but not a single TV channel or newspaper made even a passing reference to one of the biggest mobilisations in the state. It was a total blackout. ” The 12, 000 women not only spent their own money to attend, they lost a day’s wage as well. There’s a price to be paid for empowerment, as many women know, but once empowered there’s no turning back.

Large-scale mobilisations like this, and many others by dalit women, fish-workers, sex-workers, and even domestic workers, are the result of years of work on the ground, a result of exactly that diffusion and dispersal that, to many, seems to indicate the “decline” of the movement. Just look at the impact of the literally hundreds of trainings of women in panchayats that have been done by women’s groups ever since 33 per cent reservation for women at the district level came into force. There are over a million women in panchayats now and thousands of them have been introduced to gender issues and to the critical importance of women’s political participation. Talk about taking governance to the grassroots! But Asmita (Hyderabad) has gone a step further – they have sent a series of Open Letters to the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh in an attempt to initiate a dialogue with them on gender – and they have gone public with these interventions.

It’s impossible to enumerate the number and variety of initiatives in this space, but in a country as complex and vast as ours there can be no single women’s movement. There are many movements, in many parts of the country, and women will take up those issues that are critical to their region and context. Women in the North-East have intervened directly in political negotiations because of the nature of struggles there, the presence of the armed forces, and protracted militancy. This cannot be compared to, say, the work that Nirantar (Delhi) does with rural women in sundry districts of UP, helping them publish their own newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, or what Pennurimayi Iyakkam, working with the urban poor in Madurai, does on shelter and housing, But they are all, in the final analysis, aimed at empowering women, whichever route they take.

This article was originally published in The Times Of India -The Crest Edition. Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher and writer, who has recently edited “Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in 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!