‘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