Newsletter May-Aug 2005

In April 2005, a letter. “‘Forum’, as we are generally known (or were at least till the World / Asia / and other Social Forums became common parlance), completes 25 years of existence and activism this year. It has been an exciting, turbulent and varied journey that has been etched severally onto our personal and political landscapes. One that has been as much written upon by the women’s movements as it has been part of the creating of it. A journey of intensity of action and emotion, of connection and often, sadly, disconnection. A constantly challenging path strengthened by new ideas and people and driven by collective struggles. Twenty five years of ‘Forum Against Oppression of Women’ also signify twenty five years of the autonomous women’s movements, to which most of us belong and which are as relevant today in the changed external contexts of a more repressive state system and a growing erosion of values of democracy and justice. So while we celebrate the quarter century of Forum it is in the context of a celebration of the processes, activities, debates and challenges of the autonomous women’s movements. And we would like all of you to join us for two days for a celebration of this existence, activism and connection. We would like to share with you our reflections and ideas, confer on our collective pasts, presents and futures, kick back and have a good time, and party.”

And celebrate we did. Starting on 3rd June 2005, after two days of intense ‘meeting’ on the next National Conference, with a memorable evening of feminists, past and present, recalling the long and eventful journey of the ‘Forum’, the first public meetings, early protests, campaigns, challenges, changes, et al. A beautiful, nostalgic evening peppered with photographs of members and moments long gone by, and followed by a wonderful party that many of us will remember for years.

But then of course, since we all don’t believe any event can be complete without discussions, that’s what we did over the next two days. On the first day, a reflection on our own evolution as feminists and as women’s groups. Journeys of groups from Maharashtra to Kerala, Gujarat to Goa and Delhi, shared with characteristic openness. Journeys that recalled the strengths and pitfalls of the years gone by: of being formally registered versus consciously staying non-registered; of staying funded versus non-funded; of collectivism versus hierarchies; of tackling old issues versus taking on new ones; of familiar challenges versus newer obstacles. A day of journeys shared that inspired and provoked new ideas.

On the next day, a discussion initiated by a paper presented by Forum, titled, Embodying Feminism that sketched out how the autonomous women’s movement has identified the centrality of women’s bodies not only to their exploitation and oppression, but also to the perpetration of all oppressive structures of patriarchy and hetero-normativity. “As feminists we started with challenging ‘Biology as destiny’, making the distinction between the biological sex and the socialised gender, recognising family and marriage as the prime sites for control over women’s bodies. At the same time we recognised and emphasised that women’s bodies, singularly, and in collectives, have also been the sites of strength, struggle, as also pleasure. We have also struggled in our personal lives and in society at large to recognise the beauty of our bodies while vociferously opposing objectification and commodification of our bodies and against interventions through medical technologies and the cosmetics and beauty industry,” said the paper as it opened out questions related to how, even within this broad framework, we have all shifted in our understandings on issues related to women’s bodies and on the institutions that exercise the control. “We have definitely had to change ourselves, sometimes because of the exigencies of the situation and many times because women and other people have challenged our very positions from their lived experiences. Sex workers, Dalit women, lesbian and bisexual women, trans people, young women aspiring to be models and part of the fashion industry, and others, each have questioned our ‘traditional’ understanding in many ways. How far and how successful have we been in the process of embodying our feminisms and reflecting the diversity of the bodies that form various feminisms?”

The discussions were wide-ranging and opened up an overwhelming spectrum of questions... not all could be answered or even addressed in one sitting… but the discussions will go on in tandem with the next preparatory meeting of the National Conference now scheduled for Kolkata. Meanwhile hopefully, the introspection will continue amongst us all.