The first session of Soi-mela Boi-mela 2018 was themed on “Creative Women against Violence”, which was also the primary focus of this year’s Soi-mela Boi-mela 2018. This session was moderated by Antara Dev Sen and had such respected and prominent speakers as Mrinal Pande, Kamla Bhasin,Irom Sharmila and Anita Agnihotri.
The discussion began with Mrinal Pande pointing out the all too evidentforms of violence which are institutionally perpetrated on women on a daily basis. Domestic violence, she said, is the largest component of all reported cases of violence against women. This means that any discussion on violence against women has to begin by taking into cognizance the ways in which patriarchy functions and is perpetuated within the family generation after generation.Smt. Pandey strongly emphasized that all discriminatory practices first begin and are taught at home.Since family is the smallest but the most powerful unitof social organization, any attempt at resisting violence against women must necessarily begin within the family too. She also pointed out that all forms of discriminatory behavior, be it racism, sexism or casteism, have a common template that they are alllearnt, inheritedand thereby ensured of a perpetual life within the family structure. She argued quite convincingly that those political parties which function on the basis of a discriminatory agenda first discriminate on the basis of gender. This seemed only natural since gender remains one of the most contested terrainswhere power relationships are defined and demarcated in a way that it favours and helps maintaining existing social hierarchies. While the imbalance in power distribution isoften correctly held as the cause of much gender related violence,there are also instances, Pandey reminded, when women in positions of power also have to encounter discrimination, insult and even sexual assault. The high-profile RupanDeol Bajaj case which shook the nation for a long period, was one such instance that, Pandey said, she had the opportunity of observing very closely as the chief editor of a Hindi daily.
Smt. Kamla Bhasin began by reminding the audience that 3rd January has been proposed as Indian Women’s Day in remembrance of Savitribai Phule, hailed as the first woman teacher of India, and her colleague Fatima Sheikh who, along with the Phule couple, played pioneering role in laying down the foundation of educational opportunities for Indian women by setting up the first school for girls way back in 1848 and waged a lifelong struggle against child marriage and rape within the family structure. They are the true symbols of Indian feminism, Bhasin pointed out emphatically. In her own inimitable way she said that it is not healthy for women to stay silent for too longand went on to raise the famous slogan ‘Azaadi’ to the applause of the entire auditorium. She reminisced that she had learned this slogan from Pakistani women when she visited the country in 1983. The subsequent history of the slogan is well-known. Not only did it become a permanent trademark ofwomen’s movements across the length and breadth of India but also made its way into other emancipatory struggles premised on the principles of freedom and dignity. Bhasin said that she has been organizing an annual event called “One Billion Rising” for a number of years now. The implication of one billion has to do with United Nation’s observation that one out of every three women faces violence every day, and given that half of the world’s population - fortunately or unfortunately - are women, it means that one billion people are affected by this warlike situation on a daily basis. No other war, Bhasin added, affects so many citizens of the world in such a quotidian manner. It is against this unique and widespread phenomenon of gender violence that “One Billion Rising” is organized every year.Its slogan is 'Strike Dance Rise'. It starts on 3rd January and after a month of colourful events, finally culminates on the eve of St. Valentine’s birthday, i.e. 14th of February. Agreeing with Mrinal Pande and reiterating herself, Bhasin emphasized that the source of violence is power and not this or that gender, since women too can and often do inflict violence on other women. Hence, love of power must be fought with the power of love, she said, and that is precisely what ‘One Billion Rising’ intends to achieve,according to her.
Though Anita Agnihotri said that she has not been as actively engaged with women's movements and grassroots politics as the other speakers in the panel, the experiences she related to the audience, which she had the good fortune of acquiring as a bureaucrat,were themselves quite telling of the responsibilities and hurdles of a government official cum creative writer,professionally functioning within the State machinery.She contemplated that a marked change came into her life when, from an “absent-minded poet”, she turned into a prose writer. It was clear that in her mind, prose was inherently connected with realism. Choosing to become a prose-writer meant, therefore, that she started documenting the events more closely that she came across during her journeys into the rural hinterlands of various Indian states. She was asked by the moderator, how she managed to write about and critique many State-related issues despite having to function within the restrictions that her profession imposed on her. To this she very cleverly responded that she was not allowed to criticize any State policy as such but surely violence by the government is not a State policy! The character of the state however has undergone drastic changes in the recent past, she cautioned. Things we earlier associated with the State, its redistributive character, its agenda of providing welfare to the citizens, are receding fast into the background. The State and its bureaucratic machinery are now being put to the service of big capitalists and serving their interests rather than those of the citizens. As a case in point, she mentioned the Niyamagiri hills and the struggle of its indigenous inhabitants, mostly belonging to different Adivasi communities, to protect their blessed habitat from being captured and denuded of its rich resources by the crony capitalists. She said that being a woman has always given her better access to the families of the peoples who are in need of government benefits and when she went to the Niyamgiri hills, she did not find an exception there. Women of the Niyamgiri hills are widely known for their intricate handwoven works. But when she went there, she did not find any trace of these beautiful works anywhere. On being asked, an indigenous woman told her that they were not weaving anymore because they were not happy – they had expected to be happy in a free country but the situation had turned against them. Such is the bravery, nuance and sharpness of these struggling women of the Niyamgiri hills, she told the audience.
This gave Bhasin an opportunity to add another very important angle to the ongoing discussion(which she did following Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s instruction, she remarked) that feminism in India is not limited to middle class urban women who happen to 'smoke cigarettes' and have 'short hair', as popular perception would have it.The examples she cited to buttress this claim included figures from both recent and old history,remarkable figuresranging from Bhakti poets LalDed, Meerabai, Andal to such powerful iron-ladies like Savitribai Phule, Bhanvri Devi and Phulan Devi who challenged patriarchy and caste discrimination in uniquely provocative ways which remain unparalleled in history.
The name she did not need to take, because the person was sitting right beside her on the stage, was of course Irom Sharmila Chanu. Not only does she represent courage, audacity and perseverance in the face of State brutality, but sitting amongst well-meaning English-speaking Indian feminists,she uniquely emblematized the position of all those who are in pursuit of justice but cannot be bracketed off by any particular category. In fact, this is precisely what she tried to convey thorough her beautifully broken English and wondrously restless gestures going far beyond verbal language. She did not know what the theoretical constructions of feminism were, she admitted, but her instinct told her what was right and what was not in a particular situation. Talking about her own family, she said that her sister-in-law had three sons and one daughter. When the daughter was in her menstrual days, her sister-in-law used to treat her not in a very pleasant manner, for example - shebarred her from going into the kitchen and playing with other childrenor in short, by conveying to her that she was somewhat “impure” during those days. Sharmila said that her instinct told her that this was wrong and the poor girl did not deserve such treatment from her mother merely on account of a biological reality which she had no control over. According to her, she did not need the tag of 'feminism' in order to protest against thismindless custom. By drawing the attention of the panel and the audience to this simple truth, she was basically reiterating what Bhasin had also said, that feminist politics in the Indian context goes much beyond the theoretically well-furnished urban middle-class mindscape. Leela Majumder would have agreed with Bhasin and patted Sharmila on the back if were alive and present on this occasion, since in ‘Kheror Khata’ she had long ago reminded her readers that women in India did not need to borrow any alien conceptualcategory from the West (the name ‘feminism’ being one) in order to protect and safeguard their rights - they know all too well exactly what needs to be done, and where, and how,to ensure their dignity and basic rights.
Reported by Judhajit Sarkar
Photographs: Madhubanti Das