Going online the Saheli way

Newsletter Sep - Dec 2010

In our previous Saheli newsletter of May-August 2010, we had briefly ‘declared’ our website: But it was finally on 7th August 2010 when we marked 29 years of Saheli’s existence we went live with our site. It had been a long, exciting and sometimes fraught journey but one that we wished, as always, to share with friends, supporters and co-travellers on our journey thus far.

The idea, besides, “showing off our site” was to share the challenges we had confronted on our way to this point and to link it to larger questions of archiving/recovering the histories of women and the women’s movement, the promise as well as limitations of such processes, the excitements and the pitfalls. In order to place the discussion into a larger perspective, we invited Uma Chakravarti and Urvashi Butalia to trigger off the discussions by talking about the importance of documenting feminist work and different ways of doing it. Our Saheli anniversary celebrations titled ‘Bits of Paper, Bytes on the Web’ was ready to roll.

Getting Saheli On The Web: Getting All Tangled Up

But first, a minor flashback. For many years we had been talking about having the website for Saheli. Those of you who know us as individuals and how we function as a group won’t be surprised to know that even as several other women’s groups were making their online presence felt, we were asking ourselves a range of questions in order to decide what/how/whether we wanted to be up there too. The reasons for this were many. From practical reasons such as the time and effort it would require to make a website and whether we wanted one we would update periodically. Since we are a small group working on volunteer strength, we often wondered whether all our energies would be taken up for the ‘making of a website’ rather than our ‘real work’! Other questions centred around the fact that this would also reduce the person-to-person contact we have with women who are interested in our work and publications and all… and in fact, create greater isolation of the group from the ‘real world’. Other concerns that preoccupied us was that not everyone has access to the web and by putting so much effort into this we may end up compromising other forms of communication. Add to all this, a motley crew of mostly tech-challenged Sahelis terrorised at the prospect of having to figure some more technology out, and you get the idea!

Several years lapsed amid these and other debates until finally at some point we all agreed that we can’t hide from the web anymore. One critical reason was also the fact that we became increasingly aware about how much information all of us access via the web, and it became even more self-evident that our website could be useful to many because we are among the handful of non-funded autonomous women’s groups in India today who have actually had a history of bringing out a newsletter from 1984, albeit with some gaps. Also, we have periodic ‘souvenirs’ brought out during fund raising events and other landmarks such as 25 years of Saheli… and besides it all, there are our reports, monographs, posters, pamphlets, photographs, stickers and even a play script that should be accessible to more people than those who would walk into our office. The literature brought out by us more actively covers ongoing work on various issues, campaigns, critiques on law and the state, linkages between our struggles and the struggles of others etc. — materials that are witness to the times that have passed, and the times to we are living through. In that sense, we have also felt it imperative to digitise and hence preserve in a new form, older and historic documents that gain significance only by being in the public domain.

And so it was that we finally embarked upon ‘Mission Website’ to put more than 25 years of Saheli published work out ‘there’. For the time being, we have set aside the idea of a blog/chat space (after all we’re still struggling to stay on top of our emails!) and decided that our site will essentially remain an archive. One we hope will be useful, easy to navigate, and that one day, put us in touch with women and men beyond our small readership lists, and link us with other like-minded sites and blogs and help create a whole new feminist space on the web!

Planning and Making The Website

Once it was decided we need to make a website, many of us were enthusiastic to put in energy. However, suddenly the task looked much difficult than we had first imagined! Many of the articles published in our newsletters, (about 45 issues or so), were not available as soft, uploadable copies – thanks to crashed computers, misplaced files, virus attacks and hard disk corruptions! Besides, there were other decisions necessary. Is there a need to put up all the articles? There are many updates of the same issue, how does one list them and link them? After all, only if we were to provide the linkages would we be able to communicate a sense of historicity and continuity. Do we include all the images and drawings or only the text? Will including images take a lot of space? But then what about our posters? And Saheli has been working on so many diverse issues over the years, how does one bring them in?!

None of us could grapple with all these and a few more issues simultaneously. Finally at a very modest level a system of classification was evolved and we began by classifying newsletter articles. Since most of us were not net-savvy we wondered about how to provide cross-connections for articles which appear to fall into more than one category. Fortunately, this is where the diversity in expertise of Saheli volunteers came so handy. While one Saheli took on the challenge of designing the site, she actually made a very key decision by choosing to set it up as a google site so that the technical end of it would be easy enough for the rest of the group to learn and handle. So while this decision may have caused some minor heartbreaks for those dreaming of a sophisticated site with flash animation, we soon all started feeling empowered by realising that we could actually do it… thanks to a million yelps for help from our tech-diva!

So there we were, the group at work on the site, finally: a couple of us fleshing out the categorisation, some focussing on uploading, others in scanning old articles, others physically retyping them yet others proof-reading them, adding citations and annotations, writing overview preambles to each sections, and yet others doing a pretty good job of loading the site with pictures and drawings (we do hope that you think the final version is pretty!). Old volunteers and new, unsuspecting friends and comrades… almost everyone we met those days got entangled in the website… and finally, after a few weeks of hectic activity a fair chunk of our material was up and available on our website.

Despite our sincere efforts, we have not managed to put every article, every document, image and poster that we would like to, on the website. The work will continue in the future and we will hopefully do the balancing act successfully - not compromising our work when we make or maintain the website! Since need for archiving from the perspective of feminist movement was the winning argument for us to set up a website, it was but natural that on the day it is thrown open to public, we should have a serious discussion on the issues concerning archiving and recording women’s histories.


With speakers like Uma Chakravarti and Urvashi Butalia leading the programme, could the event be anything but a ‘hit’? But unfortunately, it was also an incredibly ‘hot’ August afternoon – so there we were, packed into the Saheli office, on 7th August 2010, and the programme got underway.

Though most of the friends gathered for the programme knew Saheli, there were some new faces, which was very heartening. We began by introducing Saheli work and how we have been celebrating Saheli day by choosing relevant topics for discussion year after year. We then described the complex, democratic but time-consuming decision making process which has been the hallmark of Saheli functioning over the years. Saheli had arrived at the decision of putting up a website following a similar process, and many years had elapsed between broaching up the subject of website for the discussion and having a functional website!

Uma Chakravarti, a feminist historian retired from Delhi University, a member of People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) spoke on ‘Bits of Paper : Why Archive?’. She began by saying that archiving is a fundamental way to relate to the present. No matter how much one wants to preserve the moment it always dies and with passing time it becomes even harder to retrieve it. So, archiving in any form is not only important for personal reminiscences but also relevant for groups, movements and the society per se. If there is no documentation attempted, memories of people and societies do fade which is simply a loss to the society and the culture. But if there is biased archiving, it can change the history, society and the culture. People in power or socially dominant groups and the State have the means for archiving and asserting certain versions of history that suit their social and political agenda. Hence it is even more critical that alternate peoples’ histories be archived to be retrievable in posterity by generations to come.

Uma took the example of 1984 riots in Delhi and the documentation that followed. A white paper has been presented by the government, but what was actually happening on the ground in the 2-3 days of active violence was recorded only in the non-governmental independent reports by organisations such as PUDR and PUCL (Peoples Union for Civil Liberties). These reports documented the State sponsored nature of the riots, which could not have come out in the reports commissioned or prepared by the government. She also made a reference to various independent fact-finding teams collecting information in troubled areas, or while investigating specific cases of violence. The reports of these teams also form a very crucial archival material. The importance of such archival material created by the civil society lies in the fact that the ‘official’ histories can be re-written and/or challenged based on such evidence. Her talk also highlighted the importance of documentation and archiving feminist movement needs to engage with.

One of the other key points that Uma raised was the difficulty in understanding what can or should be treated as historical evidence, especially in the case of women or other marginalised groups in society who may/may not have the tools of the written medium, or of leaving behind what has conventionally been understood as ‘records’ of the past. In doing so, she shared her journey of discovery while making a film titled, “A Quiet Little Entry” about a woman in Chennai who meticulously maintained a diary in the days of pre-independence struggles that reveals volumes about the political trends of the times, or her personal struggles to find a space ‘out there’ while continuing to live ‘within’ a conventional and unhappy marriage and so on. “We need to interrogate what we look at as much as how we see it”, she said.

Urvashi Butalia is a feminist publisher who began her independent feminist publishing house ‘Kali for Women’ in association with Ritu Menon 25 years ago and is now heading ‘Zubaan’. She spoke on ‘Creating a visual archive of the women’s movement: Some Reflections’. Urvashi said in her talk that if you are involved in the women’s movement you cannot get away from archiving. It is important that we record, she said, since letters, photos, posters also tell a tale. She also mentioned how important oral archives are. One of the significant projects that Zubaan had undertaken several years ago was ‘Poster Women’ which involved collecting posters primarily produced by women’s movement and archiving them in the form of an exhibition and a catalogue, and which has also now grown into an online digital archive.

Recalling the early days of the project, she talked about how the memory of many posters etc was much more vivid than the collections they could lay their hands on, and that more than organisations, it was many individual women who had saved up greater archives of posters and other materials of the movement. Urvashi specifically mentioned Vibhuti Patel, Sheba Chhachi, Chandralekha and Bindiya Thapar, as women who had loads of posters in their private collections. In fact, Vibhuti had given away her collection to a women’s university but unfortunately the storage and archiving there also was poor resulting in the loss of many posters, thus highlighting a general concern about poor archiving practices. Another key challenge was trying to archive/annotate the collections since many of the posters gathered didn’t have names of the organisations/groups which produced them, or dates. But archive them they did! More than 150 groups and some individuals were contacted and contributed to the project. Collecting history and copyright information about the posters, exhibiting them, taking them from city to city and town to town, making them easily accessible archival material were some of the many challenges that Zubaan had to deal with. Urvashi said this was a learning process. What was heartening to know was that women’s movement in India is still not too bothered about the copyright process and ownership of what they produce and hence there were minor modifications of the posters, reprints by different groups, translating and using in different languages - all very healthy trends. Whether this spirit will persist with time in the movement remains to be seen.

After the scintillating talks, everyone was more than ready for a short virtual tour of the site. Many present in the gathering realised that they too had material like ours that they should make accessible online. Others recalled photographs they want to dig up to share with others. Many new suggestions also came in, about adding audio and video archives on to the Saheli site, and the critical importance of recording oral histories for posterity. More questions, more browsing the pages, more chai, more meethias, more samosas… the evening went late into the night and we were still in the ‘web’.