TWENTY YEARS OF SAHELI: Reflections and Visions

TWENTY YEARS OF SAHELI: Reflections and Visions

Newsletter Jan-Apr 2002

Ninth August 1981 — eight women, eighty rupees, two jharus, a duster and a notebook — saw the early beginnings of Saheli in a garage in Nizamuddin. Twenty-long years have gone by, much water has flown under many bridges of the women’s movement and many cars have whizzed above our heads on the Defence Colony Flyover.

The past two decades have been eventful, with the vibrant and forceful women’s movement bringing about radical changes in women’s lives both individually and collectively. The 80’s and 90’s have been times of intense social upheaval, and feminism has affected all areas of our lives -- from politics and economics to notions of the family, and even art and culture.

While there is no denying the gains of the women’s movement, we cannot but be confronted with the institutionalisation of feminism - from women’s studies, to Women’s Commissions to ‘Programmes of Action’ of UN agencies and NGOs. There has been a backlash to the women’s movement, many young women have a visible allergy to feminism, and the ‘F-word’ makes them want to run. Stagnation, frustration, burnout, helplessness, and dropouts, return-to-the-family-and-career: have caused much heartache.

But to the questions: Is the women’s movement alive? Is feminism relevant today? Is the personal still political? Our answer is a loud YES. But we do feel the need to re-think old patterns of thinking and action, find newer and more creative ways to move ahead, evolve ways of working where we can communicate our politics, nurture our visions and ourselves too.

Saheli has survived — nay, flourished — through alliances with other women’s groups and a broader network of progressive movements - worker’s, environmental, democratic rights, sexuality minorities. Enthusiastic support of friends has been energising in successful campaigns, and strengthened us immeasurably in bleak times.

Completing twenty years was a significant day for Saheli, so we invited all our fellow travellers on the journey to share the occasion. We tried to get together a range of women spanning several generations, perhaps representing different shades of the autonomous women’s movement and also some who are not involved with any group but identify themselves as feminists to come and spark off a discussion. We dispensed with papers and presentations, and kept it informal, so that everyone could participate. A hotly debated point - both among ourselves and outside, was whether it should be a women-only meeting. Finally, we decided to have only women (Harish serving the chai being the only man!), but this decision did receive its share of flak from some of our friends (both women and men) who felt that our men supporters would also have liked to have been part of the discussion.

The overwhelming opinion (with some loud dissenters!) was that despite the discomfort, we must hold the meeting in the Saheli office itself, right there, under the flyover. Planning for the meeting began, right from arranging for a ‘less noisy’ fan to hot samosas and most importantly, gallons of water. After last minute hiccups and much speculation about people not getting the invitation, a frantic round of e-mails and phone calls was also in store. The enthusiastic response, from the old guard matriarchs to young women who have been recently associated with the movement suddenly had us in a panic - would there be enough room?

Amidst viral fevers, twisted ankles, throwing tantrums and menstrual cramps, we went about in frenzy, shifting furniture out of the room. Only after locks were broken, little-used doors banged open, cobwebs cleared, durries spread, jharoo-pocha done and fans in place that we heaved a sigh of relief and went about singing songs and waited for everyone to arrive.

We hoped the occasion would provide an opportunity to share our experiences with women associated with the movement for the past twenty years, active in campaigns against rape, dowry, sati, domestic violence and communalism, as well as provide a link with newly emergent social movements — from those of sexual minorities to the anti-nuclear campaign. Much of the discussion was involved in a trip down memory lane, with anecdotes and analysis, and of course, many unanswered questions.

And the meeting began... 

With the temperature almost 40 degrees C, beads of sweat on our foreheads, fans that were allowed to ‘fan’ only when no one was speaking, traffic thundering above our heads, topped with low levels of oxygen, we discussed the women’s movement.

But no one complained. Only mopped themselves free of perspiration, and gratefully gulped the cold drinks being passed around. Many cheers to everyone who joined us under the flyover to celebrate 20 years of Saheli (and also to ones who couldn’t come but were there in spirit!)

Until everyone settled down, all of us joined in the old favourite feminist songs that have over the years inspired and infused us with so much energy - “Tod Tod ke bandhonon ko dekho behenay ate hai,” and “Sau main sattar auratain”. Instead of recounting the history of the autonomous women’s movement in a lecture, we sang “Sanghatith Ho” which narrates the struggles of women, from the anti-price rise movement in the 70’s in Maharashtra, the Chipko environmental movement in Uttarakhand, to the campaigns against violence against women all over the country.

After we had managed to stuff the room to capacity, leaving some latecomers hanging outside the door, we began to talk.

Feminism: What Relevance Today? 

The discussion was kick started by Divya Arya, a 19-year-old who spoke about how difficult it is to acknowledge that you are a feminist and then deal with all the ‘looks’ and ‘bashing’ that comes with it. “It is a very alienating atmosphere. People around me seem quite complacent, and don’t want to talk about equality and all that ‘heavy’ stuff,” says Divya. In fact, interacting in a theatre workshop, the play on women’s issues was ‘just another play’ - it failed to move any of the participants into thinking about the issues they were enacting. Most of the young people around her in college were either ignorant or indifferent to feminism, she said.

Echoing this view, Nishita, one of the youngest participants, a student of Class 10, described how most of her classmates tended to think of feminism as something ‘out there’. “But feminism is close to everybody’s lives, whether or not they admit it - there is a revolution in every home,” she said. “The negative connotation to the F-word is not in any way subtle, but little do they realise that this confidence, this freedom, these extended deadlines and choices that they take for granted didn’t just fall out of the sky. These are things the ‘much disliked’ feminists had been fighting for,” said Nishita. Over the years feminism has been projected in a very negative light, women who stand up for themselves are usually seen as selfish women, home-breakers who don’t care about children or family.

These stereotypes appear to be common across the country, as Ponni from Tamil Nadu, now studying in Delhi, pointed out. This college student who has grown up with a feminist mother, had to fight immense peer pressure to state that she was a feminist. And yet, even feminists have a long way still to go. “How do you react when your politically active mother comes home from a public meeting and takes on all the responsibility for the house? Has anything changed, even among ‘progressive’ men?” she asked.

The experiences of these young women, surrounded by indifference and apathy towards the movement, contrasted sharply with the situation in the early 80’s, when Delhi University campus was a hotbed of feminist activity.

Ferment on Campus 

Uma Chakravarti lecturer at Miranda House and practically an institution in herself, picturesquely recalled the campaigns in Delhi University in the early 80’s: the St Stephen’s struggle against ‘chick charts’, the campaign against beauty contests in Miranda House. “Why people didn’t want to do away with it because it was a tradition!” The demonstration by I.P college students against harassment of women in campus buses shook the whole campus. “The students were fantastic organisers,” said Sudesh Vaid, lecturer at I.P college, describing the spontaneous mobilising that occurred. The presence in the room of Freny, Shenny, Ranjana, who were students in IP at the time, added colour to the memories. Both Uma and Sudesh (as well as the other lecturers present) mentioned the up-and-down nature of campus activism, with new batches of students coming, and having to ‘start from scratch’, as it were. Uma also spoke about the emergence of women’s studies on campus, and the fact that it is making changes, which may not be as visible as the vibrant campaigns of the early years, but are extremely significant.

What was striking about campus activism of twenty years ago, was the organic link of the women’s movement with other progressive movements.

A Page out of History 

Going back into the early days of the autonomous women’s movement also highlighted the fact that things have not changed all that much since then.

“Feminism was a dreaded word even then, and feminists were considered to be family breakers,” said Anjali Deshpande, describing the campaigns against dowry and domestic violence. Through Stree Sangharsh, hundreds of politically conscious women took to the streets. And the backlash started way back in the early eighties, with the right-wing Bharatiya Mahila Sangharsh Samiti trying to reinforce patriarchal values in the name of ‘tradition’. The Sati Virodhi Manch, formed after the immolation of Roop Kanwar in Deorala in 1987, saw a sizeable number of women mobilised by fundamentalist parties to glorify Sati and defend ‘Indian culture’.

Describing herself as someone ‘with’ Saheli but never ‘in’ the organisation, Anjali raised a point that has not lost its relevance over the years. When women want to opt out of oppressive family structures, has the movement succeeded in providing any means? Although there are now institutionalised mechanisms, from police cells to shelters, are these adequate and do they really serve women? Anjali stressed the need for a mass movement to make real changes in women’s lives. “Doing ‘social work’ or resolving cases is not enough — women in the movement have to feel: this is my struggle too,” she said.

In another peep into history, we listened to Jyotsna — the first woman in the male bastion of the St Stephen’s student’s union — who was actively involved in ‘Ahsaas’ a Delhi-based theatre group, which performed plays like ‘Om Swaha’ at the height of the anti-dowry campaign in the early eighties. “So many of the fights remain, even twenty years later,” she remarked.

At a more personal level, Dipta from Nirantar, who self-confessedly ‘loitered’ into feminism, bumping into a Saheli meeting in the Nizamuddin garage in the early 80’s, remarked how talking about ‘personal’ matters outside the home, was a big step for her, like for other young women around her. She also took us back to the days of the Sudha Goel dowry murder case and the passionate involvement of so many women in publicising the case. The enthusiasm she recalled brought into sharp focus the current lack of militant actions, and institutionalised responses to cases of dowry harassment and domestic violence.

Taking us back not only in time, but to another focal point of the autonomous women’s movement, Pamela Philipose reminisced about the campaign in Mumbai to amend the rape law, which was a spontaneous response to a letter by Lotika Sarkar and three others, critiquing the Supreme Court judgement in what came to be known as the ‘Mathura case’. The intense discussions about custodial violence against women, the lacunae in the rape law were the early beginnings of the Forum Against Rape in Mumbai, which grew into Forum Against Oppression of Women.

Events that define history have had a significant impact on the women’s movement. The communal riots in 1984 following the assassination of Indira Gandhi was a watershed of sorts for women’s groups, who responded wholeheartedly to the situation. Jaya Srivastava from Ankur, who worked along with Saheli, and other groups to resettle Sikh widows talked about their work with the 940 women, of whom about 100-200 became close to the groups working with them. “It was a daunting task — we were clueless about how to support these women to rebuild their lives,” said Jaya. She spoke of the challenges of trying to tackle problems on a day to day basis — one woman, with four children who married again so that there would be someone to look after her children, two girls who wanted to marry outside the community. Building support systems was a challenge then, and continues to be so even today.

Kamla Bhasin, who has been active in the women’s movement ever since its inception — one of the ‘matriarchs’ or ‘daadis’ as someone quipped, reinforced the achievements of the movement by pointing out that patriarchy has definitely got blows at a few places. But the relation between patriarchy and capitalism is strong, and makes the struggle more difficult and complex. “Patriarchy has consolidated too and our struggle is still on. What feminism has given me, nothing else can: creativity, and the confidence to fulfil our dreams,” said Kamla. Making an eloquent plea for all the different groups and trends within the movement to consolidate against forces of oppression, she said, “Let us be like rivers — flow separately, sometimes join each other and flow together, but all flow into the sea.”

Her remark was particularly relevant in the context of the sectarianism in the movement — where ideological differences create hurdles in working together.

The Left and the Women’s Movement: An Uneasy Alliance 

Some questions never die. And they don’t always have answers either. Uma expressed the uneasy relationship between the women’s movement and the left, which despite working together have always questioned and challenged each other. Sudesh, on the other hand, identifying herself as ‘from the left’ and an activist in the democratic rights movement, said that unless the women’s movement allies with the left, it will suffer. Roopali, from Stree Adhikar Sanghathan, a group that has recently emerged, working at the community level in North-West Delhi and among students, reiterated the need to make links with the left. “We are handling cases of women in distress, but know that unless we get together with other groups, our struggle will remain very limited.”

One of the main areas of debate between the women’s movement and the left - the link between personal experiences of patriarchy and the larger framework of oppression - be it through structures of gender, class, race or caste, has been the extent to which individual life experiences are relevant to theorising about oppression. This question has not — and perhaps can never — be resolved.

Is the Personal Still Political?

“Yaar, you don’t have to rush back home at 6 o’clock!’: for me, these words were like a revelation,” said Gouri Choudhary of Action India, now in her 60’s, recalling her metamorphosis about 20 years ago, from ‘mere housewife’ to activist. Trying to put ‘feminism’ into words, she said, “Personal is political: we have lived our lives differently, tried to bring up our children differently. Believing in yourself, not compromising to keep others happy.”

Speaking for all of us in the room, Gouri lauded the role of veterans like Subhadra Butalia, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, Vinadi and Lotika Sarkar, who are going strong still, and a source of inspiration and strength.

That many of the issues remain as relevant today was obvious. Said Madhura, a student at JNU, “The moment you start to go outside a framework, it becomes threatening. One is seized by a panic — to choose between family and my principles. Lots of issues are being discussed here — lesbianism, homosexuality. But when you go back to your environment, it is very scary. Sometimes you feel like giving it up, but you can’t. You derive a lot of strength from such meetings which helps you to carry on.”

Said Deepti, a somewhat newer ‘Saheli’ who entered the group through a street play on sexual harassment at the workplace which we were evolving at the time, “We are told how to speak, how to behave, and even how to laugh. But in the absence of exposure to women’s groups in college, you are not able to link up what one is going through, and come back with appropriate responses to deal with others. But in Saheli I finally feel I’m in the right place.”

“I had to unlearn all the values I had grown up with. It was hard, but the struggle has been worth it,” said Anuj from Sama, a group working on women’s health. Throwing a challenge, Gayathri from Sri Lanka who is studying in college in Delhi said, “All of you here are mothers... (howls of protest - NO!) Well, most of you are mothers.. (Not again!). OK, some of you are mothers, we are all talking about feminism, but do we implement it in our lives? How would you react if your daughter says she had a lesbian relation? Will you accept her girlfriend? If your daughter smokes, will you accept it?”

Some feminists in the room (especially ‘certified’ feminists!) were visibly agitated at this questioning of their radical credentials, jumping up to talk of ‘patriarchy’, ‘structures’, ‘deconstruction’ and what have you. Undeterred by this arsenal of jargon, the young woman continued to demand explanations. Uma’s, “You first start with being a feminist, and then see what kind you are,” succeeded in taking the debate out of the confines of setting ‘feminist standards’ (sometimes more rigid than the ISI mark!) that every woman and mother must adhere to lest she lose the label of ‘feminist’.

Despite the institutionalisation of the women’s movement, be it co-option of our jargon in population policies which speak of ‘choice’, Women’s Commission at the national and state levels which have become part of the state machinery, and campus activism being almost replaced by women’s development cells, the path-breaking assertion that ‘personal is political’ continues to inspire, felt those present.

Building Bridges, Healing Wounds

Amid the reaffirmation of the strengths of the movement and the tide of change that so many of us have participated in, there are also memories of bitterness, splitting up of groups, exhausting struggles over issues, power and ego clashes.

As someone associated with Saheli, Jagori and a trade union in the city, Maya wrote on e.mail, “Salty, sweet memories of writing notes of new discoveries, anger, pain in those notebooks even as buses and cars trembled overhead. A reminder of this time that has come, now that time passes, changes. But we were young then and did not know that the road can be so beset with solitude, of having been left out of the ring holding on to ideologies, is it meaningful, a good exchange? With nowhere to go but male unions, for the women will not have you because you are branded - one group pitted against the other. And even as we protest multinational brands, our branding does not fade but has learnt new meanings. And so it is time to re-think these 20 years, but am happy I can still write a note like this one. I got the beating of my heart from the women’s movement, so long live, so that many like me find their way up there climbing the stairs with a smile that would simply not fold up.”

Newer members of women’s groups often have to bear the burden of earlier clashes. These newer entrants could get crippled with the burden of history, or could play a role in bridging yawning chasms since they were not directly involved with the earlier problems.

While the nostalgia was heady for those who were around during what is usually described as the ‘heyday’ of the movement and ‘those glorious times’, others, particularly the younger lot, cannot help but listen and sigh! It’s very inspiring to hear about the movement in the good old 80’s, how it was not as fragmented as it is today, how women just plunged into the movement full time without as much as a second thought to anything else. 

But amidst all this reminiscing, is there also a disappointment and sense of failure? As Manjima of Jagori, talking about the meeting later remarked, “There’s a sense of ‘ownership’ of the movement by the older generation of feminists, who tend to set rather rigid standards. Times are changing, and as younger women in different political times, we have different things to contribute. It’s ‘our’ movement too!” As Ranjana said, “Let’s not eulogise the past as if it had no problems. Let’s not patronise youngsters too.”

While the frustration does tend to get expressed in a ‘generation gap’ kind of discourse, most of the ‘old timers’ present would agree that it is currently not such a good time for movements in general and the women’s movement in particular. Articulating the positive role that newcomers could play, Kalpana Vishwanath from Jagori, who became active in the movement during the Calicut Conference in 1990, said, “I did keep hearing about the wonderful past. But now, listening to others, I feel that I am now part of the past. We played a role in healing the scars and wrote our own story. We have to put the bitterness behind, work and move together. The role we played was not something we consciously set out to do. I am able to articulate it only when I look back.” Newer entrants into the movement bring fresh energy, unhampered by earlier bad dynamics.

“Yes, the legacy of tensions between groups can be puzzling and paralysing until you can figure out things and find a role you can play,” added Vani Subramanian, who was well aware of the Saheli ‘split’ which occurred in the mid 80’s but got active in the group only much later. “We are part of the bitterness, we carry the history, but we also carry the capacity to break barriers, make links and move on,” she said, voicing the thoughts of many like her.

Adding another voice, Sarojini of Sama, spoke of her early work with Jagori, co-ordinating with Saheli on issues of health and population. “We are the generation that did not take the bitterness forward. We talked of issues, strategised on work, and in the process built lasting, much cherished friendships.”

The crucial need to make links, to strengthen alliances despite differences, was recognised as the only way to translate our politics into ground level changes.

The Spread of Feminism: How Welcome? 

That the women’s movement has become widespread is beyond doubt. But what have been the implications?

Said Bharti of Action India, who was associated with Saheli in the early days: “For myself, I did not start off as a feminist, but an activist working on people’s issues in a village in UP. But association with Saheli resulted in a closeness to the women’s movement. It was this movement that enabled me to become closer to my mother. There are contradictions, a lot of bitterness too, but no one can deny the spread of the women’s movement. Every village you go to in any corner, there are sounds of feminism — sometimes loud drumbeats, sometimes faint echoes,”. 

“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? In Rajasthan we have always received a lot of inputs from all of you. Whether critically or encouragingly, it was always a step forward,” says Kavita Srivastav on e.mail.

But along with the spread of feminism has come a certain institutionalisation, and the State as well as market forces have all adopted the language of the movement. Alongside has come a strong backlash, especially in the media. Although reality is starkly oppressive for the majority of women in India, the access to resources and autonomy that certain sections of women have managed to achieve has been projected as an achievement of all women. And is the women’s movement capable of grappling with these challenges?

As Bina Srinivasan from Baroda says in her e.mail, “What we have gained through women’s movements is certainly to be placed on record. It is a matter of celebration that enough of us are around to actually be looking back over our shoulders, so much the better if it is done collectively. But we also live in very worrying political contexts: Have women’s groups painted themselves into a corner? Many of us have been very deeply affected by the fragmentation, disillusionment and power struggles within the movement. We have all taken very big risks as we set out to change the world. We have since then been affected by the changes we helped to create: for better or for worse?”

“We were part of the watershed events in the history of the movement - but are we part of the future? Many of the old questions like rape and violence against women are still alive, but new ones have been added, with changes in the global economy. Unless we take stock, and ask whether we are too esoteric, the movement will part ways from the majority of women,” said Laxmi of Saheli, who has been part of the movement for a decade and a half.

It was apparent that the stagnation in the women’s movement cannot be addressed without examining broader social trends.

The Women’s Movement as part of a Bigger Struggle 

The meeting was also a time of self-criticism, and an opportunity to reflect on where we are lacking. The women’s movement has failed to address some crucial issues, as Tripta Wahi pointed out, “Registration of girls is going down in schools and colleges. Withdrawal of state from education and social sector is affecting women much more sharply, and we have not managed to focus on this issue.”

Sharing her experience of people displaced due to demolition of their jhuggies and relocated in outlying areas far from the city, lacking in access to minimum services, Ranjana of Saheli said, “The women’s movement has spread the message of feminism all over and many changes have taken place within the working class too. However, the latter is without the means to fight as they are increasingly losing their basic rights to food, jobs or education. It is impossible for many young girls to continue going to school from the new rehabilitation sites in which families have been forcibly dumped after demolition of bastis. Hundreds of young girls stopped going to school this March in Bhalsava and other such colonies after the exams were over because they could no longer afford the expensive, long and arduous bus journeys to school from their new homes. The working class toils ceaselessly to put aside whatever it can to ensure a better life to their children, yet it is the state that continuously puts obstacles in the way to their self-realisation. Without working directly with working class With women, there seems to be no future for the autonomous women’s movement.”

Class divisions are widening, and technology growth is having an impact that we need to address - from lack of access increasing the gap even among activists, to decline of human contact with increased dependence on e.mail and the Internet. Added Vrinda Grover, lawyer and part of the movement over the past couple of decades, “The logic of capitalism floors you, people have answers for everything. The impact of liberalisation is selective. For instance, Hindi medium colleges are shutting down, without much protest from progressive sections.”

While strategies and effective ways of linking with class issues need to be worked out, newly emergent movements have posed fresh challenges. Issues related to sexuality, one of the core issues of the women’s movement, has provoked strong reactions from various trends within the movement, demanding a thorough re-examination of many closely cherished beliefs.

New Issues, Renewed Struggles 

The lesbian and gay rights movement has been forced forward by events, said lesbian activist Lesley Esteves. Perched atop a small stool, Lesley admitted, “I was shell shocked when asked to speak on lesbianism in a meeting celebrating twenty years of Saheli! I had always found women’s groups intimidating and reluctant to talk about women’s sexuality. But in the last seven years, events have forced these issues on to the agenda.” She pointed to how the Lucknow incident, where workers in NGOs carrying out AIDS awareness were arrested under Section 377 IPC, which outlaws ‘unnatural’ sexual acts. For an Indian court to be discussing homosexuality is itself a big leap forward, and the overwhelming support to the campaign against these arrests is most encouraging. This campaign has also put lesbianism on the agenda, in the same way that the campaign against the screening of ‘Fire’ did a few years ago. “To suggest that women feel sexual desire and that too without men! It is difficult to stomach, for the majority, and lesbians are a dreaded lot,” she quipped.

That lesbianism and sexuality are issues that cannot be ignored any longer, was clear. Among the issues identified by the younger women present, homosexuality and lesbianism were recurrent. The women’s movement has to respond to the challenges thrown up by lesbianism, said collegiate Ponni. Voicing a classic slogan, Dipika from Sangini said, “If feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.” She went on to say that although she was told that she ‘judges’ others to check out their response to homosexuality, she has found that groups like Saheli and Nirantar offer a more liberal space than many within the lesbian movement. This positive feedback was very welcome, in the face of frustration and the feeling of fighting losing battles.

Struggle to Survive: Some Welcome Morale Boosters 

Underlining the commonality between small, non-funded autonomous groups, Sharmila of People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) said “Like PUDR, you too must be stretched for volunteers and funds, making it an uphill struggle to survive as a movement with all your ideals intact.”

Nivedita Menon, articulating many of our thoughts said, “It’s wonderful to see so many people here at this meeting. There is a link with everyone - some are women I studied with, some my teachers, and others my students.” Seeing the same faces in all demonstrations can be heartening, but at another level, the lack of new energy, of newer people joining is frustrating. “At a recent rally after the Pokhran nuclear blasts, I remarked to Sujata Madhok that it was great to see so many new faces, and she wryly said, ‘well, that’s because it’s not a women’s rally - it’s an anti-nuke rally!” Anjali related with a laugh.

And these are universal issues of autonomous groups all over the country. “I was smiling when I read your letter (of invitation). The thoughts you have expressed are EXACTLY what we are discussing at present in Sachetana. It is uncanny - the language, the words almost as if you were eavesdropping at our meetings! We too are twenty years old and are confronting similar dilemmas and debates. The dream of changing the world and ourselves still burns,” says an e.mail from Rajashri Dasgupta of Sachetana, Calcutta.

“Feminists are notorious for self-flagellation,” exclaimed Uma. “Can you imagine any other group, sitting on their 20th anniversary and criticising themselves and the movement? Let’s also brag a bit about our achievements,” she urged.

That Saheli has been a source of strength to many was apparent, and added to a feeling that the struggle was worth it all the way. “In Gender Studies Group (Delhi University), we always drew strength/inspiration from Saheli,” said Janaki Abraham.

“Saheli was such an inspiration to people like me. I think it was the Net En case when we in Calcutta got to know about ‘this determined group of women’ challenging the use and trial of injectable contraceptives,” says Rajashri of Sachetana on e.mail, wishing us ‘years of working on issues close to your heart.’

“Congratulations on completing twenty years!! And in the usual spirit of Saheli using the occasion to frontally address THE questions facing the women’s movement. I really wish I was in Delhi for this historic meeting. Also thank you for being one of the most inspiring groups who, while preserving the need of the women’s group continue to interact actively with other democratic and progressive movements,” says Jinee Lokaneeta on e.mail, active in Delhi University, and now in Los Angeles.

“A hearty and huge congrats. This is no small achievement, really! Being an activist for 25 years and having seen the ups and downs both in political and personal life, I can really appreciate what you all have done,” says Shoma Sen, from Stree Chetna, Nagpur, on e.mail.

Phone calls from Vimochana in Bangalore, hand-made greeting cards from Vibhuti Patel in Mumbai, our friends from Jagori and Lotika Sarkar who couldn’t make it, and wished she was sitting under the flyover instead of her home, warmed the cockles of our collective hearts. Cake from Jagori and chocolate ice-cream from Elizabeth, stationery from Sama — so many gifts!

And where were the other Sahelis — why do we not hear their voices? Kalpana and Davi and Rukmini and so many who built up Saheli to what it is today — all out of Delhi. Ashima too was out of town, and we all missed her. Sadhna, and Vijaya were immersed in trying to feed everybody. Helped by Sarvesh, old-time asociate of Saheli, they spent almost the entire evening passing around water, chips, samosas and the cake that Jagori brought. Shweta was too ‘busy’ listening, Vineeta resting her sprained ankle and smiling benevolently.

Summing up, Uma said, “Saheli and the issues it takes up is a microcosm of the women’s movement. Today, we are addressing issues we were not twenty years ago. Some were artificially shut earlier - whether rape or dowry, so they are bound to resurface. There are some deep contradictions too - the caste bias within the movement, for instance. But there have been positive developments too — our failure to address lesbian and sexuality issues has broken. We are breaking new paths even now - after twenty years, we are still evolving and passionate!”

It was an important day. A historic day for all those present. For Saheli, the questions never cease. While answers and solutions are not easy to formulate, the optimism that lively debate, clarity of thought and action will always enable forward movement, keeps us alive — and kicking!!

Many messages flowed by email too: 

CONGRATULATIONS!! You are the true pioneers. Take care.

Lots of love and affection.

In solidarity,

Meena Seshu (sangli)


Thanks so much for keeping your spirits high and struggling on. I think this is the most crucial part of the women’s movement, ie us....!!! more power to you’ll & to all of us

Anjali Dave


Dear ‘Saheli’

I am sorry that I could not make it. Saheli has been a very good friend to all of us these few years and on this day i would personally like to express my solidarity and affection for Saheli. Hope you had a great day and many, many more to come.



Dear Saheli Women:

Greetings from Montreal. 

Although this is very late in coming, I want to congratulate all of you for sustaining and nurturing Saheli over the years. At times when the battle seems to be lost, whether unsafe clinical trials or cloning and all the ethical issues it raises, the presence of devoted women, who continue boldly to uphold feminist principles and fight for social justice is very heart warming...These days it is important to be able to say, “We survived and are ready to do battle once again, if necessary”. Happy 20th anniversary!!

This year the South Asian Women’s Community Centre in Montreal will also celebrate its twentieth anniversary. So we have much to celebrate. 

Love to all...



Hi Sahelis,



Old slogans! still relevent is’nt it? We are with you in spirit on the day of celeberation of Saheli day. May Saheli live long.

From all of us 

Manasa, Bangalore


We are sorry we won’t be there in person but in spirit we are there.

With lots of luv to you all

FORUM, Mumbai