Remembering Feminists Comrades

five women and (many) a movement

remembering feminist comrades

Newsletter Sept 2013 - Aug 2014

Salaam Sharda Behn, resolute and steadfast worker who silently passed away.

Salaam Vina Mazumdar, boisterous path-breaker taken away by age and illness.

Salaam Sharmila Rege, challenger of all thoughts comfortably feminist, stolen by a virulent disease.

Salaam Shahjehan Apa, timeless voice robbed by a freak accident on the railway tracks.

Salaam Satyarani Chaddha, an icon that will never fade.

Over the last year we have lost five more feminist comrades, from radically different worlds, traversing difficult trajectories, making significant contributions to our shared histories. Yet together, these five women also remind us what the women’s movement/s in India are really about – different lived experiences, varying perspectives and concerns areas, different ways of doing.

Since the late 1970s, when women were gaining a voice in Delhi, we were asserting our political identity as women, talking about our rights, speaking out against violations, and sowing the seeds of what was soon to be a movement. In strategy meetings, in colleges, on buses, in police stations, on the streets and with the government, we broke the silence on the atrocity of dowry and dowry related violence. It was around this time that Satyarani Chadha and Shahjehan Apa came onto the streets to seek justice for the deaths of their daughters who were killed for dowry. Their presence (immortalised in some amazing photographs by Sheba Chachhi) galvanised hundreds of others who were vocalising the anxieties of their daughters, mothers and sisters.

Not only was this a time when we were learning about laws such as the Dowry Prohibition Act, it was also a time when we were taking these discussions on dowry, stridhan, maintenance, etc., onto the street. Making them part of protests and demonstrations, discussions and speeches, and of course those historical street plays such as ‘Om Swaha’ which women like Sharda Behn were part of right from the start. It was just the beginning of decades of activism for Sharda, working closely with women in Seemapuri, Nandnagari, Dakshinpuri and other bastis of Delhi, mobilising them around issues related to violence, the rights of the girl child and mahila panchayats.

By the mid 1980s, Shahjehan Apa and Satyarani Chadha were already icons, symbols of hope for many other women facing domestic violence, as well as abuse and murder in the name of dowry. Joined by their own personal pain and what was by now a growing political conviction, they initiated a forum for parents of dowry victims to come together. What started as a parents association crystallised as an NGO called Shaktishalini in 1987, one of the first non-governmental shelters for women in crisis in Delhi. Continuing Saheli’s long association with both of them, we inevitably sent women to them for legal aid and refuge after we stopped our crisis intervention work., Apa and Satyarani’s fight for justice had now become a fight for justice for every newest entrant to Shaktishalini.

Then there was Vina Mazumdar, who in much the same time period was making history of her own, and becoming, as she variously described herself, a women’s activist, feminist, and trouble-maker. But for generations of feminists, Vina-di was one of the grand old ladies of the Indian women’s movement, the grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia (her favourite epithet), and most significantly, as the co-architect of the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India with that other feminist legend, Lotika Sarkar.

Vina-di’s association with women’s studies and the movement are well known, but what was less public was knowledge that she lived through the last phases of the Indian independence movement to get rid of the “damned British” as she would say. Quite the rolling stone, she changed several jobs before starting the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi at the age of 53 – an institute that continues to make women’s studies history to this date. But even that was not enough for Vina-di. The once wide-eyed constitutionalist became one of India’s leading women’s activists, organising women against dowry deaths, economic rights, sex selection and many other issues well unto the end.

Separated by geography, time and age from all these women, was the Pune based Sharmila Rege. At first sight she may have seemed like a frail little woman at the table she was seated at, the podium she was speaking from or the classrooms she was teaching in. But that was only until you heard Sharmila speak, or picked up a book or paper she had written and were confronted with her voice of conviction, her clarity of thought, and the fearlessness with which she pushed against the boundaries. Questioning entrenched knowledge systems, posing hard questions about the invisibility of caste and non brahmin perspectives on caste and asking self-reflexively why the world of academics remained so wilfully ignorant of what she called the divide between the ‘theoretical brahmans’ and the ‘empirical shudras’. Sharmila’s work on caste and patriarchy was – and remains – perhaps the single most important contribution to the feminist understanding of, and engagement with, caste.

In her last published work, “Against the Madness of Manu”, she argued for Ambedkar’s vision and politics to be central to our feminisms by invoking his ideological fight against Brahminical patriarchy, and work on how the caste system engenders graded violence against women. Even as she pushed us to re-think the boundaries of our feminisms, and re-examine the role of caste in our politics (often taking us way out of our comfort zones), Sharmila was aware that she was straining friendships and solidarities. But she believed in the resilience of our shared politics, sometimes even more than we did. With humour, heart and conviction, she took us on feminist journeys unanticipated. Just as she did with countless students she taught at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre for over a decade. And as her work will do for generations of others to come.