On being a Saheli: Membership and identity

On being a Saheli:

Membership and identity

Souvenir 2006

As 2006 approached, we decided that the occasion of 25 years of Saheli warranted some documentation of our past to look at what it has meant to be an autonomous group over the changing times, assess some of our strengths and weaknesses, re-visit our major campaigns, rejoice in our victories and learn from our defeats.

But what good is a history, or rather, the her-story of Saheli, without the her-stories of Sahelis? So we reached out to many women who have been ‘in’ Saheli at some point of time or other to ask how they are, how they feel about their time in Saheli, the reasons they came, what kept them here, what enthused or troubled them most about the time spent here, and what were their reasons to leave – for we knew that some had moved on amicably, some had left in hurt and anger, and some, the course of life had taken out of town. We also spoke to individuals who have been associated ‘with’ Saheli, and ‘interviewed’ ourselves – present day Sahelis.

The responses were varied (excerpts of the interviews done by email, on phone and in person are quoted at various points in this document). Many were congratulatory messages that celebrated our autonomous, collective and non-funded identity, especially in this age of NGOs and ‘career feminism’. Others formally echoed concerns shared with us over time, told us anecdotes we had never heard before, clarified issues many of us hadn’t understood to this day and talked about missing the camaraderie of Saheli! Yet others talked about the distance they felt with Saheli over time, or expressed their disappointment over the state of the women’s movement in general, and the long road ahead in the fight for women’s rights. And with some, we shared conversations that have hopefully helped build some bridges. But the biggest surprise was to a simple question addressed to those who haven’t been ‘in’ Saheli for a while. “Why did you leave Saheli,” we asked, and quite amazingly, this was the overwhelming response: “Who said I’ve left Saheli?”

So what does it mean to ‘be’ a Saheli? In the early years, women seeking help, activists from a range of movements wanting to join forces on issues related to women’s oppression and rights, college students and other youngsters restless to change the world, women too scared to speak of their darkest fears, women ready to fearlessly take on the male order, the government, the unjust laws, the coercive population control lobby and the unethical scientific establishment, and as importantly, women seeking to discover a sisterhood that wouldn’t be as judgemental as the world around… we all came together in Saheli. Over the years, our numbers have waxed and waned… from packed rooms on an ordinary day to large numbers gathered at a protest, to even just ‘one woman, a mouse and two cockroaches’ in a meeting! Yes, twenty-five years later, we are still discovering that as one of the earliest women’s groups in Delhi, Saheli has touched so many lives, that it is a virtual impossibility to ever completely document it. At meetings, protest rallies and public events, on a random phone call or even in chance encounters in a government office, a trade fair or a journalists’ meet, you never know when or where you are going to bump into a Saheli. “Oh, you are in Saheli, are you? You know, I used to be there… are so-and-so and so-and-so still around?” It’s an exciting, exhilarating sense.

But is there just one thing called sisterhood? Over the years we’ve found that different women in Saheli have different expectations from the group – that also changes at different points of time in their lives, and the life of Saheli itself. If some wish for a place where togetherness is the mantra, others among us seek a group that stimulates the mind and engages with political complexities, while yet others seek to respond swiftly and radically to the challenges of the moment and yet others, often caught in the desire to be-it-all, do-it-all try to help the group strive for a balance of all alternatives. For all this and much more is the agenda of Saheli, much more and all this is what it has meant for most of us to be a Saheli, to belong, to own and to share.

And so it is, that our years together have taught us that the needs of every woman joining a group like Saheli varies, areas of interest often differ, political leanings may also be somewhat divergent, and as for life situations, they are often dramatically different – some of us are young, some considerably older, some single, some wishing to be active but not being able to do so, some women with children, some supporting aged parents, and some doing both, even as some are full time professionals, some freelancers, and some whose lives keep them constantly on the road, just to name a few!

How then, do we balance these needs and skills, strengths and limitations with the needs and regimen of a group? How do we negotiate our way through the practical need for structures and systems with the ideological belief in collective functioning? Or face the difficult question of whether there is an inherent contradiction between the spontaneity of women’s coming together and the running of a group, the carrying out of campaigns, the sustaining of struggles? But then again, in the absence of any systems, how could we build sustainability, accountability or even a sharing of responsibilities? And last but not least, how you as a group make the space to respond to the varying issues that interest all those who comprise Saheli at any point of time… and yet, balance these with the concerns, campaigns, issues and actions that we have been historically associated with? Needless to say, these have been vexed questions right from the start. And clearly, there are no simple answers.

Membership issues: A full time dilemma

Even as the young group was being overwhelmed by the numerous cases of women arriving for help at the garage where Saheli first began, as we began to really ‘see’ the scale of violence on women, and understand its interconnections with women’s rights, the stranglehold of patriarchy, the policies of the government, etc. it became evident that Saheli as a place had to ‘work.’ A large number of women worked as volunteers, some giving a day or two or three per week for Saheli work, some others could give only a few hours. Most of the founder members in early years spent a lot of their time in running Saheli. The office was kept open from morning till evening, six days a week, and with so many women volunteers coming and going, co-ordinating tasks and running Saheli smoothly was becoming difficult. On some days, Saheli was crowded and noisy while other days hardly saw one or two volunteers in the office! So a need was felt to have some people working full time for Saheli, and be responsible for handling work on a routine basis. Some moot questions arose: who is a Saheli? What does being a Saheli entail – what rights does it bring, what privileges, what burdens? What can each Saheli expect from the other, or all from each other? Whose time and commitment can be called upon, who has the right or the responsibility to attend meetings and have a role in decision making, keep the keys of the office and the Daily Diary that we use to share most internal information, and now, in the age of email, access to the password of our email account, or the onus of speaking on behalf of, or representing the group in outside forums, to the media etc. Consequently, many attempts have been made to draw up some rules, come to an understanding of our ideas, and get a fix on some notions – most of which have been complicated by our own reluctance to exclude anyone, and our discomfort at metamorphosing into something very much like ‘the system’ and the ‘rules’ that we set out to challenge in the first place!

Membership to Saheli has generally been defined by the numbers of days/hours put into Saheli work, the responsibilities taken on, the number of meetings attended in a year, the frequency with which office opening and other responsibilities were undertaken. And in the early years, there was even a membership fee of Rs. 2 per month. From the very start, all of us in Saheli have worked in a range of differing capacities, even as we tried to work together collectively. From time to time this has meant dealing with uncomfortable questions of power and accountability, and its relationship with money paid from Saheli. Yet over time, many attempts have been made to define and redefine membership and roles within Saheli. At different points of time, we have tried to define women with varying inputs/roles within Saheli as Support Members, Associate Members, Full Members, Members of a Core Group, and the larger Collective.

Typically, the need for such attempts has been felt when the group was experiencing a low period – either a lull in energy, a period of disquiet, or a time of upheaveals, for instance immediately after the ‘split’ of 1986, the closure of case work or even in 2000! Yet its reassuring that for all the pain and self-exploration such processes have been marked by, in everyday terms the question of membership isn’t really as mired in heartache as it may seem.

In fact for several years now, we’ve followed a very simple thumb-rule: any woman (yes, we are still a women’s-only group, even though men have always been among our supporters, and we are still trying to grapple with the question of the transgendered) can join in as ‘members’ after six months of volunteering with the group. At which point they get to have the key to the office, access to all our records and correspondence, and be part of all decision-making processes. (Though of course, they get the privilege of being in the heat and dust, and among the noise and rats in our office, right from the start!)

But like everything else in Saheli – this too has been repeatedly opened up for discussion. Is keeping our organisational meetings (on Wednesday evenings) ‘closed’ to volunteers, friends and supporters, contrary to our claims of transparency and openness - unlike a few democratic rights’ and women’s groups in the country whose meetings are ‘open’ to all? Is it fair to ‘allow’ volunteers, like-minded progressives, supporters and friends only to join us on our other Open Day (Saturday) – when we welcome anyone to drop in, spend some time, volunteer, or even just hang around in Saheli? But the apprehension that we are becoming too rigid is offset by the fact that despite all the ‘rules’ we make, we’re not very good at abiding by them.

Not just a matter of money…

Saheli began to function with volunteer-power only, but soon we felt the need to have people who could devote more time, and be available on a more sustained basis to meet the multifarious needs of crisis intervention: from spending time with women in distress, to negotiating with the police, spending time with lawyers, attending court hearings, keeping angry husbands and family at bay… the works! This led to a whole new vocabulary in Saheli – ‘full timers’ and ‘full timery’! Some volunteers like Davinder and Rajni had other jobs from which they took long leave to work as full timers. Other full timers like Elizabeth and Savita did not have other jobs, but they never looked at Saheli work as a ‘job’! After all, Saheli never paid wages which were comparable to what was on offer in jobs in either the private or public sector – just an ‘honorarium’ and an House Rent Allowance! For some women this honorarium was providing the financial security in their lives, for others that was not a serious issue. And yet some others could have done with some financial security too but Saheli was in no position to offer it to them.

If this facilitated a major area of Saheli’s work for many years – especially casework until it was closed in 1990-1991 - not surprisingly, it also, from time to time triggered some friction between volunteers and full- or part-timers, partly due to the inequality of having only some being paid, and therefore expected to be more accountable, while volunteers, it was perceived, had more flexibility about keeping to commitments.

In addition to full time paid work in the early decade or so of Saheli, we have, from time to time, had part time paid workers in Saheli. Volunteers working to help streamline functioning and coordination within the group, to work on short term work like the study of the impact of the hazardous contraceptive, Norplant, or the status of women workers in specific localities of Delhi. Saheli has also attempted to decentralise by having a smaller office in the centre of town. From keeping the office open six days a week to three to four days, there were several attempts to balance the needs of case work, campaign work and the number of full-timers. However, in recent years, we have opted to ride with ‘volunteer power’ alone.

On the face of it, this has meant fewer problems as regards hierarchy and disbalance between paid and unpaid work and contributions in Saheli, but yet it also means that most of us are constantly stretching ourselves to balance what is essentially two lives: one comprising livelihood, home, survival, family etc., and the other comprising Saheli work. For a large part, we do manage to pull off what is jokingly called the ‘Saheli Superwomen Act’, but this plan has its downside too: we’ve had to limit the work we can take on, sometimes have problems sustaining it, and achieving the targets we set [if targets are indeed ‘good’ to achieve!]. In the face of greater crises or emergencies, some of our campaigns and work-plans get shelved and things like outreach get driven more by the pull from the outside than the push from within us.

On ‘developing’ volunteers: Initiatives and ironies

Three scenes.

You are at a college event giving what you hope is a stimulating talk on women’s rights. An enthralling debate ensues. At the end, a bright young girl walks up to you and says, ‘I would really like to do something with Saheli… where is your office, and how can I get involved?’ ‘Please do come… it’s in South Delhi’, you say with trepidation, worried that she won’t make it across the first stumbling block: geography. But she delights you by saying, “Oh, I live around North campus but that’s no big deal – I loaf around all the time.”

You’re sitting in the office when a few women walk in. They too want to be involved, participate in a study, join a play, make posters, or sing songs with us. You talk to them about their areas of interest and our current work/campaigns and then share some literature – newsletters, posters, reports, etc., hoping this will grow into something. You exchange phone and email numbers, and true to Saheli tradition (yes, we have those too) you put their details down in the Daily Diary, so everyone can stay posted on who just dropped in.

You’re walking up the stairs to Saheli. You collect the mail from the post-box and as you enter, you’re tearing open the envelopes. “Dear Madam, (or even Dear Sir, sometimes!) Please find enclosed my bio-data… I would be grateful if you would kindly consider me an appropriate candidate for a job in your esteemed organisation… Yours, etc”

Our Daily Diaries are full of names and addresses of women – students, activists, insurance sellers, beauticians, photographers, receptionists, journalists, academics and others who wish to be a part of Saheli in some way. But it’s always been a bit of a challenge. How does a group that values diversity and difference ‘orient’ newcomers to its issues and beliefs, without ‘inducting’ them? How do you share the benefits of age and experience, without re-asserting their hierarchies? How do you infuse these new relationships with the same spirit of collectivism, as opposed to building a cadre?

If these were challenges in the days of full time work in Saheli, other dimensions have emerged in recent years. On one hand, asking women to save up their enthusiasm for that one day a week when all of us will ‘be there’ (Saturdays) is often a dampener. On the other hand, the volunteers-only structure of Saheli immediately excludes many who might have been able to be active, vibrant members of the collective, if there was at least some financial supplement to their lives. Thirdly, in a city the size and scale of Delhi, the geographical location of Saheli in the elite south Delhi area also plays its role in excluding some. And with rare exception, there’s almost no scope for someone seeking a career in ‘women’s development’ as it is now called, to learn or be part of a place such as Saheli, nor have we been very good at ‘optimising’ the energies of interns, and or those seeking probations - and that’s despite having many files on ‘volunteer development’ and ‘materials for volunteer orientation’! Currently, for better or worse, we seem to only be drawing in women who can live and work as many of us within the group do: being able to earn our living from outside Saheli, as well as juggle personal and professional commitments enough to stay active, and stay within the loop (not to mention, the group). And then, we continue to be concerned about the present-day homogeneity of our class and caste composition, and fear that this is distancing us further from the lives of other women. Even as we know that funded women’s groups that offer full-time jobs often don’t manage to break these cycles either, so the challenges before all of us are far more complex.

The larger collective, some larger questions.

Set up in 1981, Saheli is an autonomous women’s group working on volunteer power, individual donations and the strength of our convictions. The faith of countless friends, supporters and associates, their inputs, resources, encouragement, criticism and energy have been a major source of support. Thank you all, more than we can say in words. (Booklet titled, Because There Are So many Reasons To Go On, 2004)

A typical note in many documents, a point made in many forums, it’s a widely acknowledged fact that all of us in Saheli believe our strength doesn’t only come from within, it comes from the wide and almost humbling network of supporters, co-travellers and friends who have always been with us. Be it in the beginning when Saheli was being conceptualised, or in the course of our regular work (even editing and translating of our newsletters) to times of crisis when woman-power for our campaigns was in short supply or creative ideas were needed to develop a play on sexual harassment, we’ve never fallen short of support-power at Saheli. And that’s saying something over a span of 25 years!

“Congratulating Saheli is actually congratulating ourselves in the movement. Saheli was one of the first women’s organisation which bloomed and then spawned so many more Sahelis, thousands, lakhs? Or even more?” said Kavita Srivastav of the Mahila Atyachar Virodhi Jan Andolan (MAVJA), Rajasthan on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Saheli. And that’s not surprising, because over the years, it has been common to find women all over the country who have a sense of belonging, nay ownership of Saheli, even though they may not have stepped into our office. As an idea, a process, an activist group and a women’s organisation, we have both, had their support as well as been answerable to them for everything we did and didn’t do, who joined and who left, what campaigns we take up, what our positions have been on issues, who we allied with and who we didn’t at different points of time.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue: what then, separates Sahelis from the support group of Saheli? Where does the line lie that demarcated the difference between the two? Could we, in the many years that we have known and worked and stood by each other, have done something to bridge the gap? In this, as in many other things, there are no clear answers. Many of these supporters are men, who from the very beginning have known that Saheli is a space for women, which they support because of their own politics. Of the women, many have had primary affiliations with other groups – democratic rights, grassroot workers, displaced people etc – who also affirm our politics and our work. Others, have already had the experience of being in groups like Saheli (or even Saheli itself) and do not wish to sustain such an ‘organisational relationship’ any more – be it out of exhaustion, disillusionment, personal priorities like children or work compulsions… but yet, they wish to stay associated, wish to belong, in a manner of speaking.

In 2003, we attempted ‘organising’ our support base, thinking it may be good for the group as a whole and the individuals we approach to strengthen our relationship, even formalise it. We invited women who share our vision and philosophy, and also those who have at some point shown interest in knowing more about us to our annual review meeting as a break from tradition, and shared the idea of doing some work/studies/campaigns that we wanted them to have a sense of identification (and ownership) with.

The plan was exciting, but needless to say this triggered off an internal debate about whether such ‘friends’ should then be seen as ‘associate members’ who could represent Saheli on their own, or as a part of a Saheli team, on fact-finding missions, enquiry committees, etc., in addition to helping by giving talks in colleges, attending meetings etc… essentially be a part of Saheli while being divested of the everyday responsibilities of being a Saheli! Others felt that if we see them as a support network we may able to be more fluid on what we expect from them and what they can, in turn, expect from us! The only thing we agreed upon easily was to not have women who already belong to other women’s groups since that would create its own contradictions between what we/they do as Sahelis or as members of the other group!

And amid it all, the meeting was held. It was wonderful. We felt validated, supported, loved, individually, collectively and politically by the ‘Friends of Saheli’ - so many women we respect expressing the desire to keep the dream of Saheli alive. We were sure we had the strength, vision and energy to take this forward. But as Davinder pointed out wisely in the midst of all the elation: “But kamar ko kasna hai… Imtihaan ki ghadi aa rahi hai!!!” (We need to get our act together – the hour of trial is upon us). After initiating such an opening, the challenges of nurturing such a network, the greater need for co-ordination, etc., all proved a mite too much for us to sustain. Less than a year down the line, we were all back to being Saheli and its friends and supporters, but not quite ‘Friends of Saheli’. Proof that not every experiment, however well meaning on every side, has to be a success; but equally, proof that some relationships are strong enough to outlast such efforts… and much more. And give us the courage to move on together, even in the future!

Does one ever stop being a Saheli?

It’s easy to wonder if with all the ‘questioning’ and ‘discussions’, ‘issues’ and ‘challenges’, why one continues to be a Saheli. Maybe despite it all (even the periodic exhaustion and occasional burn-out!), we are Sahelis because as Vani says, “One is a Saheli probably even before one hears of it or enters this place… it’s just a matter of finding what you seek – knowingly, or unknowingly.” Or maybe it’s because even after you leave, “Saheli still remains the moral and ethical benchmark by which I measure decisions I take until this day” as Elizabeth said recently. Or as Laxmi wrote, “I don’t think one can ever ‘leave’ Saheli. It’s an intrinsic part of one’s being. Saheli for me is a political vision, a dream, and one can never leave a dream…” For that may be the real power of our feminism, our convictions, of what we have built and what are we building… today and tomorrow. Maybe that’s why we are all, once a Saheli, always a Saheli!