saheli 1981 -2006
It is 2006, and the office under the flyover continues to rumble and quake with the sound of buses and trucks thundering overhead, the honk and heave of countless cars trying to dash through the traffic jammed on the street below. Stuck in the midst of the two, in an address that speaks a thousand words, is ‘Saheli, Above Shop Nos. 105-108, Under Defence Colony Flyover, New Delhi’, where a group of women is trying to raise their voices above the cacophony to discuss issues, stands, processes, campaigns, setbacks, the occasional victory and, of course, menstrual pain, office trouble, heartache, single living and the sugar in Ramu’s chai! Just the first challenge in raising our voices against women’s oppression, in struggling for women’s rights, in moving forward on the road towards a world free of violence and injustice.
Looking back, it’s fascinating to think that much of this has been going on for 25 years now. For this is one of the earliest ‘women’s spaces’ in the country, started in an era when women’s spaces were pretty much only meant to be in the home. A place where we came together to be together as women, to become stronger together... for ourselves, for each other, for all women. In fact, 25 years later, we are still a small feminist group (small and strident some say!), still staunchly non-funded by any institution and still autonomous of any political party.
But truth be told, the place is also a little different today. We started in a garage before we came to the flyover (interestingly, this ‘women’s space’ has always been surrounded by vehicles!). Most of our names have changed over time, as have some of the issues that concern us, the work we do, how we do it, who we join forces with and of course, the ways in which we express our frustration, share our sorrows and celebrate our togetherness.
We started out in 1981, as a campaign group and to reach out to women facing domestic violence. As we worked to uncover hidden violence and to challenge its acceptability in society (civil and otherwise), we sought to expose the oppression of women within marriage, family and the community that controls their sexuality, property and life choices. Raising public awareness on dowry murders, women’s representation in the media, the impact of hazardous contraceptives and coercive population control policies on women, we sought to make ‘women’s issues’ public, while at the same time, targeting the State, demanding accountability from its institutions.
Yet the changing times have never failed to offer new challenges. Our language, and slogans were soon co-opted by the State and market and we were hard pressed to invest them with new meaning, to find innovative ways to express ourselves. The backlash from conservative quarters was swift, and has only grown with time.
All ‘successes’ in the area of legislation and legal reform have never measured up to the demands of the movement. If anything, they have only been tempered by the challenges of implementation. State structures envisioned to empower women have also been overpowered by vested interests. And despite it all, or maybe because of it, we still stand today as a campaign group facing multiple challenges and asking difficult questions — from society, the State, the media, the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry, the judiciary, the police, and even from the change makers, progressive groups like ourselves.
In recent decades, increased communalisation has resulted in some of the most violent communal carnages - whether it was the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 or the Gujarat genocide in 2002 - and violence against women has become an oft repeated motif. For women already in the stranglehold of religious laws controlling marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance, such assaults have increased vulnerability and forced a retreat into the community, raising serious concerns about how to combat the many ways in which community identity and matters of faith continue to divide us as women.
Other challenges facing us are growing morality, conservatism, fundamentalism and militarisation - challenges that we meet jointly with other women’s groups, democratic rights groups, lesbian, gay, Dalit and adivasi movements. The significance of autonomous politics today and solidarity with those daring to swim against the current give us the strength to go on.
Equally challenging have been our own changing perceptions on issues relating to representation of women in the media and our journey to understand gender afresh, with gay, lesbian, trans-gendered and trans-sexual people successfully overturning every rigid notion of sexual identity, posing exciting challenges to feminism.
So what remains, even without the everyday presence of any of the women who started Saheli (three cheers to them!) is a living legacy of feminist activism – a group that still tries to make a difference. A Collective that continues to challenge notions of hierarchy and power and, for better or worse, still has the courage to look at its strengths and weaknesses in the face. A politics of conviction that, despite countless set backs along the way, is still surging on, in its own characteristic way. An idea that is at once timeless and transforming, steady and shifting, continuous and changing. Saheli.
As the story goes...
Amiya, Bharati, Buchy, Gouri, Kalpana, Rukmini, Vichitra, Vidya...
these were the eight women who, with 80 rupees, two jhadoos, one notebook, a flyswatter (which has always been left out of the tale) and the strength of their convictions, got together to start Saheli.
But from the very start, Saheli has belonged to countless women, been the centre of many campaigns, the home of many more debates and action, stories and sisterhood...
May the journey of 25 years go on, and on…