Newsletter Sep 2011 - Apr 2012

To mark twenty-five years of feminist publishing, Women Unlimited puts together a precious record of our times.

Nineteen women tell their stories. These are not just anecdotes of individual women who “made a difference”, but chronicles of the contemporary women’s movement itself. While the introduction by Ritu Menon takes pains to establish what the book “is not” (an exhaustive history of the movement, or a listing of its achievements, and campaigns) the reader cannot help but look beyond the person, however distinguished she might be. And this is a collection of eminent women, for the most part, recognised not only within the movement, but by the mainstream establishment as well, in the shape of awards, positions and status. Not all of them were born into eminence – many of them clawed their way into public consciousness. The times made these women, and these women made those times. For organisations like Saheli who tenaciously stick to our collective status, where the writing by the collective is prioritised over that of the individual. It giving all credit for transformation to a single individual belies belief in organisational work, which involves the labour and commitment of dozens of unknown and unseen women. Yet, in reading “Making a Difference” one has to admit, however reluctantly, that individual women can change the course of history, and have done so in incredible ways.

But, to back track somewhat, let us look at who the memoirists are: Indira Jaisingh, Vandana Shiva, Kamla Bhasin, Bina Agarwal, Uma Chakravarti, Vasanth Kannabiran, Gabriele Dietrich, Pamela Philipose, Sheba Chhachhi, Norma Alvares, Ruth Vanita, Devaki Jain, Nalini Nayak, Meera Velayudhan, Roshmi Goswami, Nirmala Banerjee, Vibhuti Patel, Ilina Sen and Ritu Menon. Saheli’s is the only collective voice, although several of the aforementioned activists do locate themselves firmly in organisations. Even though several of these feminists are known to most of us, even good friends with many, the systematic recalling of their history throws up many interesting and lesser-known facts.

Indeed, the astonishing range of influences on the women’s movement in India can be attributed to the confluence of histories – of these 19 women and many more. From Gabriele Dietrich’s childhood in bombarded and blockaded Berlin in the 1940s, we learn of life – and death - in post-war Europe. Her grandmother and mother holding the family together while her father served in the Nazi army, Gabriele’s gradual leaning toward academic theology, and her critique of the male-dominated students’ movement of the 1960s…all of these stupendous markers are woven into the psyche of theologist who went on to become an active member of the Pennurimai Iyakkam in Madras.

The nationalist movement, Gandhism and the optimism of the post-Independence period had a deep impact on Meera Velayudhan through her parents. Her mother, Dakshayani, the first Dalit woman graduate in India, became a member of the Constituent Assembly, standing shoulder to shoulder with the architect of the Indian Constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar. Her parents, married in Wardha with Gandhiji and Kasturba as witnesses, were deeply engaged with politics and people’s movements, their house in Delhi being a haven for streams of refugees of the Partition.

The Left was undoubtedly a deep influence for almost all the women, and we hear hilarious accounts of several of them feverishly reading up the Communist Manifesto, attending study circles to discuss Engels and Mao, all the while not questioning gender divisions within these groups. “While the ‘intellectuals’ – invariably male – would effortlessly inhabit a superior realm and discuss weighty matters amongst themselves, we -invariably female – would cook the khichdi for rough-and-ready meals and beseech those who intellectually laboured for us to eat up before the rice became inedible lumps of cold putty,” remembers journalist Pamela Philipose, who was radicalised in the 1970s in Bombay. She recalls increasingly chafing at the “ideological fundamentalism”, the hierarchy, the enforced secrecy and the condemnation of stands deemed “un-Marxist”. Vibhuti Patel, recounting her political days in Gujarat in the 1970s says, “Although there were bitter factional fights among the amoeba-like New Left groups, all factions were friendly with me as I was a foot soldier and care giver, not a leader.” Meera Velayudhan tells of the setting up of the women’s wing of the CPI(M), the All India Democratic Women’s Association, AIDWA, about which male comrades were less than enthusiastic.

For Ritu Menon, doing her MA in the US, the exhilarating wave of activism in the 1960s – the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam war, and the nascent women’s movement were turning points. And upon graduating, she was part of publishing history at Doubleday in New York, when Kate Millet’s momentous work Sexual Politics came out in 1971. Coming back to India, the tumultuous 80s, and the setting up of the first publishing house, Kali for Women, saw the confluence of the personal and political for her.

Kamla Bhasin’s birth in 1946 in Shahidanwali, a small village in Punjab, seems to have determined her future work and passions. “A year later, Shahindanwali became Pakistan and our family became Indian. My place of birth and the land of our ancestors became not only foreign, but an enemy country. I have spent my entire adult life dreaming of, and working for, peace and cooperation between the two countries I belong to.” Along with Ritu Menon, Kamla began to document painful stories of survivors of the Partition, evolving in the process a feminist reconsideration of Partition historiography. Smoothened by visa-free travel due to her UN passport, Kamla’s untiring efforts over three decades to make links within the South Asian region have given life to “cross-border feminism” long before the term networking was in vogue.

And then we have Ruth Vanita who grew up on a “steady diet of the Bible and English literature”, which, in combination with the nationalist and socialist leanings of Springdales school in Delhi, made her mind fertile ground for radical ideas.

While some of the memoirists grew into feminists, many others recall a rather dramatic “entry” into the women’s movement, in the 1970s or 80s.

Those Heady Times

Ruth’s chance encounter with Madhu Kishwar who instantly “magnetised” her; her foray into left politics via study circles, and her eventually co-founding India’s first feminist magazine, Manushi, is related amongst endearing vignettes of activist life in 1980s Delhi. Images of the first Manushi office – Madhu’s motorbike” with Ruth riding pillion, clutching a manual typewriter inherited from her grandfather and a shoulder bag stuffed with files conjure up the giddy optimism of the first years of the movement. “It is hard to convey how much of my time in the movement was spent doing tedious work of various degrees of mindlessness, like addressing and stamping hundreds of thousands of envelopes and postcards, translating, typing and proofreading badly written articles and reports... typing out routine replies to letters of enquiry…And yet, we managed to do all this, and still chat, flirt, stay up all night writing, go to late-night Hindi movies and drive around the city, three on a motorbike, singing film songs. For several years, I taught five days a week and spent every other waking hour working at Manushi, barely sleeping, and living largely on dal and rotis from the local tandoor, eggs and whatever other concoction we rustled up with no knowledge of cooking.” Echoing many activists’ total absorption in the movement, Ruth recalls, “For a decade, I unwittingly followed Virginia Woolf’s advice to women writers, by leading the life of a secular nun, putting most of my earnings into Manushi, with virtually no personal or social life, working for a cause not related in any immediate way to my own being…Like a nun, too, I received an education through work and found pleasure in work.”

Describing the 1980 conference in Bombay, a watershed moment, Vasanth Kannabiran, then a mother of three in her 40s, and a teacher of English for two decades, attended as a member of the Stree Shakti Sanghatana. “About three hundred of us lived in a single hall where we slept, rolled up our beds, queued for the toilets and began meeting at the dot of ten, with those who hadn’t managed their baths participating in their nighties.” Many would agree vigorously with Vasanth Kannabiran’s description of those “eureka moments” of connections: “I could describe my lessons learnt in the women’s movement as a series of open-mouthed gapes rather than the clenched-jaw communist lessons I had observed as a child among comrades in the family.”

Alongside this grassroots activism, we learn of the institution-building at the national and international level through the memoirs of Devaki Jain. The UN’s first World Conference on women in Mexico City in 1975, with 10,000 women cheering and singing at the plenary, and subsequent UN conferences, as well as the birth in 1985, in her parents home in Bangalore, of DAWN (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era).

The yawning chasm between the movement and media in contemporary times seems to have been breached with greater élan in the early 80s. Says Sheba Chhachi, whose photographic essay lends a much-needed visual dimension to the book, tells of an anti-dowry demonstration in 1981, during which she ran out of film. “A press photographer close to me silently hands me two rolls of hi-speed, expensive Tri-X, in unusual professional solidarity. Equally silently I load the film and carry on. Shortly after, to his surprise, I jump over the barricades and join the demonstration shouting slogans.” Pamela Philipose talks about the challenge of redefining language itself, interrogating sexist terms and usage. Her stint at the Eve’s Weekly (whose name evinced winces!) was one she describes as a Trojan horse – smuggling in articles on women’s rights and activism amidst food, romance and agony aunt columns, and once replacing an air-brushed “cover girl” picture with a photograph of women protesting at Greenham Commons. Piles of unsold copies and “returns” did not make the circulation manager happy at all.

This being a collection of memoirs of activists who flourished in the 1970s, the Emergency played a significant role in their radicalisation. The repression, clampdown, censorship and authoritarianism of Indira Gandhi from 1975-77, as well as the political ferment during and after this period, find mention in most of the chapters, either directly or as an important backdrop. Historian Uma Chakravarti, born in 1941 calls the Emergency “the end of innocence” representing the first direct experience of suspension of civil rights for middle-class India. This watershed had a deep impact on all progressive movements of the time, leaving no activist untouched, then or since.

Women’s Work

The diversity of voices in the book is impressive, ranging from lawyers, academicians and artists to development workers, journalists, activists and those working in donor agencies. Interestingly, few from the list would identify as full time activists. Instead, much of their writing revolves around their profession and the manner in which they attempted to infuse it with feminist ideals. Yet, in a book of personal memoirs, the lack of focus on the personal is striking. The oft-repeated feminist slogan “The Personal is Political” notwithstanding, the women remarkably focus more on their professions, their work, and their standing among other professionals. Reading about a time when “gender” was not ubiquitous, and the “women’s question” was making a grand but uneven entry into several professions -be it law, economics or literature -we get a sense of the energy of street demonstrations and public protest being taken into the classroom, the law courts and on to the writer’s desk. After all, as economist Nirmala Bannerji (who contributed to the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India) says, “In contemporary India, undervaluing women’s labour is perhaps patriarchy’s most powerful weapon.”

Says Ruth Vanita, “My work in the movement connected directly to my teaching. I taught mostly women students and focussed on gender and sexuality in English literature; some new interpretations of texts that I later wrote about, emerged in class discussions. Over the years, many students were drawn to Manushi through me.” Uma Chakravarti, for whom teaching history in Miranda House College in Delhi was the fulcrum of both her profession and activism, describes how “When the Bangladesh crisis hit us in 1971, students led me off to demonstrations and blood donation camps…”

Norma Alvares and Nalini Nayak’s work on environmental issues that fundamentally affect women is imbued with their feminist perspective. Protection of coastal areas and forest, checking industrial pollution and illegal mining in Goa, or working with the fishing community in Kerala, was done through mixed teams, but women’s concerns remained core to the campaigns.

Ritu Menon, for whom publishing forms the “bridge between the women’s movement and women’s studies”, also sees it as a medium for activism. She calls all publishing that is ideologically driven as activist, one that is tasked with the almost impossible mission of combining the commercial with the political. Her frank account of differences with Urvashi Butalia which led to the painful split of Kali for Women is telling, in that it brings to the fore the fact that despite their near-total agreement about various aspects of publishing, differences in their working styles were irreconcilable.

Economist Bina Agarwal, attempting to “bridge the worlds of academic rigour and grassroots relevance”, was most gratified when her book A Field of One’s Own was described thus “Bina has written a book for all of us, for the women’s movement.” “Academically, critiquing mainstream economics while engaging with it, writing on gender while working in mainstream academic institutions, has not been easy.” Her decision to concentrate on academics and somewhat withdraw from activism was the difficulty in keeping up with meetings and activities organised at times to suit full-time activists.

Departing from a “family profession” has its bonuses, as Indira Jaisingh points out, “Not having any lawyers in the family gave me the freedom and ability to invent myself.” In creating her own role models, her firebrand reputation now precedes her in the courtroom. Indira speaks of the immense influence her clients have had on her – from Mary Roy and PK Saru, to the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak and Afzal Guru who was  awarded capital punishment in the Parliament attack case.

The role of women in trade union struggles and their marginalisation in the leadership is poignantly described by Ilina Sen. Her articulation of the transformation that women undergo as part of larger movements holds lessons for all those who question whether “broader” struggles can be called part of the women’s movement. “Women in broad democratic movements experience democracy in ways that they may have never experienced in any other context, and as a result their collective conscience does advance.”

Feminism and the Family

The book only alludes to the schisms that we know feminism caused in intimate relationships, especially those with men – fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers and sons. This seems like a zone of silence, considering that the 70s and 80s saw bitter breakups; women walking out of their marriages and families, unable to bear abuse, discrimination; or incompatibility. Says Kamla Bhasin, “It (feminism) is by no means an easy “ism” to live with.” Questioning as it does all equations, practices and traditions, entering our families and bedrooms, it is a difficult and painful ideology to live by.

As Ritu Menon insightfully points out, “One of the biggest challenges for most men today is to remain married to a feminist, because if anyone is called upon to live their feminism, it’s them. I’m not saying it’s easy for women, just that it’s so much more difficult for men to voluntarily relinquish privilege”. Undoubtedly, supportive men played a part in many of the memoirists’ activism, but little is spoken about the inevitable negotiation, quarrels and tug of war balancing activism, friends, leisure, family and career.

While Vasanth Kannabiran talks of the solidarity and intellectual companionship with her daughter Kalpana, with whom she has co-authored important feminist works; Vibhuti Patel is honest about her fraught relationship with her daughter, who was raised in the 1980s. “My friends called me Ba Ba Black Sheep, as I always had three bags on my shoulder – one for the baby, one for carrying feminist literature and one for my daily chores.” Horrendous communal riots in Gujarat had played a huge role in Vibhuti’s politicisation in 1969, while the riots in Bombay following the demolition of the Babri Masjid were to drive a rift in the family - when Vibhuti was overseas doing her post-doctoral work, her husband Amar and daughter Lara experienced the horrors of the riots.

Wondering about the universality of the much touted mother-daughter bond which she feels is less common than feminists would like to believe, Bina Agarwal talks about the father-daughter relationship, which in her case, and that of many others, was a valued and precious bond, enabling her to pursue her intellectual and personal goals with immense support. “What I missed in my friendships with women in the movement through the 1980s, and continue to miss, is gentleness and a sense of nurturing. For this I turned to my father who was gentler and more of a friend than many who carried the flag for women’s emancipation.”

While the oppression of institutionalised religion and the violence of extremism has been extensively analysed and protested about in activist writing, spirituality and the role of religion in activists’ lives is a subject around which there is a resounding silence. The memoirists throw little light on this area, except for Ruth Vanita, who describes her return to Hinduism, from Christianity, as going against the grain of what she describes as “the largely anti-religion and specifically anti-Hindu movement”. Nalini Nayak admits, “neither the women’s movement nor the fish workers’ movement have been able to grapple successfully with the caste question.” She also acknowledges the failure of the movement to engage sufficiently with religious practice, and notes that “some Muslim and Christian women have stood their ground, challenging patriarchy within the institution of organised religion and reinterpreting theology from a feminist perspective.” She further notes that it was Gabriele Dietrich who first challenged the Indian women’s movement on its avoidance of the religion question way back in the early 1980s.

Meera Velayudhan’s words about the launch of the National Federation of Dalit Women in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1990s bring home the extreme marginalisation of the caste question in the mainstream women’s movement, as well as the complexity of identity politics around Dalit women’s issues.

Lesbianism was also a taboo subject, and Ruth poignantly talks about the price of silence in the early 1908s. “From the mid-eighties, the divide between my inner and outer lives grew increasingly painful. Later, I would learn that some leading activists in every women’s group in Delhi were lesbian or bisexual. At the time, however, I felt isolated.”

Vandana Shiva’s memoir reads like a patchy, unedited combination of articles on women and the environment, her own role appearing more like bullet points in a lengthy CV. Surprisingly, the historic case in the Supreme Court where she challenged the notion that the father is the “natural guardian” of children, finds no mention in her memoir. Instead, Indira Jaisingh recounts some of the details of that pathbreaking judgement.

Schisms and Scuffles

Writing about conflicts within and between women’s groups can be painful, since break-ups deeply affected personal friendships and partnerships as well. But distance, lending as it does a healing touch, has enabled some of the memoirists to touch, albeit gingerly, these wounds. “Personality clashes and ideological differences, the former often masked by the latter, bred a great deal of conflict with other groups.” Ruth hints at the “internal censorship and emotional shutting-down” within Manushi that did not allow her to come up with ideas for the magazine. A telling comment on the stifling of individual inspiration within groups comes from Ruth: “Leaving Manushi in 1991 was followed by a spurt of creativity.”

Vasanth Kannabiran’s portrayal of group dynamics touches a raw nerve: “Our friendships in the group were strong and binding, often stifling, excluding newcomers by the group’s palpable power even while welcoming them with open arms. For those of us for whom the group was everything, it was difficult to understand why people didn’t want to rush in and share that excitement and feeling of liberation. Each of us had a separate circle of friends who would stay in touch at a personal level, but cautiously skirt or ignore our political selves. And we always wondered why…We were so intelligent, so dedicated, and yet so smugly unaware of what was putting other women off!”

Nalini Nayak talks about an important systemic shift that caused many a schism between women’s groups and between individual activists who chose to align with the mainstream. “Subsequently, it was “gender” and not “patriarchy” that gained mileage and became a funding buzzword. …all this was happening at the same time that the World Trade Organization was being created and the expansion of capitalism was the global agenda. NGOs were co-opted into providing the “gender-sensitive human face”. Governments too were made to toe the line as mainstreaming/malestreaming gender was a requirement with all funders in all government programmes, opening up a huge space for gender consultants, gender trainers, gender specialists etc. Kamla Bhasin critiques the term “gender” in her inimitable style, “This was academically correct but politically blunt. We preferred patriarchy as a concept because it described the reality much better.”

Roshmi Goswami’s account is a fascinating chronicle of women’s activism in the Northeast, especially the mobilising for the Beijing Conference in 1995 that saw the emergence of new networks. She touches upon the complexity of relationships and interactions with militant groups – negotiations that appear very different from the within. As a funder in Ford Foundation, one would have expected to hear more about the conflicts with women’s groups, but there is little to indicate the loaded interactions on this score.

All in all, the book is all it promises to be – a fascinating peek into the lives of women who made history, and who were in turn shaped by it. For the most part honest and open, these accounts are glimpses into a collective history and a shared past, the chronicling of which is crucial to building a future.

Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India

Edited by Ritu Menon, Women Unlimited, 2011,