Women of Indomitable Spirit and Will
The question of women empowerment in India has come a long way in providing a critical edge to feminist consciousness and thought. With a fair measure of success, it has tried to expose the gender bias present in many of our social, economic, cultural contexts, as well as in political treatises, performative arts, and historical documents. It has not failed to show that patriarchal bias all along vitiates the very ways in which questions about women are posed and answered. Indian women today are constantly negotiating with and employing a political discourse, which examines the power relationships between women and men, and promotes women’s struggle for self-determination against patriarchy and sexism. They are exploring the historical roots of women’s oppression, focusing on the importance of gender roles in social, psychological, and emotional development of the Indian citizen, and critiquing the gender stereotyping in various forms of cultural representations and workplace bias. On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, it is extremely significant to acknowledge the endeavours, spirit, achievements and will of some of these remarkable women.
They have unquestionably by their example, added a radical dimension to issues such as sexual division of labour, especially in domestic work and childcare, negotiation of public and private spheres, mothering, prescriptive roles, gender stereotypes, female education, female sexuality, and the political importance of identity.
Urvashi Butalia, a Padma Shree awardee is one such strong presence in the Indian feminist panorama. She is the co-founder of the first exclusively feminist publishing house, Kali for Women and later founded Zubaan. Her discernment of the need for a platform where women writers, academics, and storytellers can make their voices heard, led her to launch these independent publishing ventures. She has several works to her credit, key among which is her path-breaking study of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India that won the Oral History Book Association Award and the Nikkei Asia Award for Culture. When British India was partitioned the violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs was enacted upon the bodies of the women of these three communities.
Thousands of women on both sides of the newly formed borders were abducted, raped, forced to convert, forced into marriage, forced back into what the two new States defined as ‘their proper homes’, torn apart from their families once during Partition by those who abducted them, and again, after Partition, by the State which tried to ‘recover’ and ‘rehabilitate’ them. The official historical documentation yet, offers no space to these voices. It is Butalia, who through her book, provides an archival agency and establishes a new register, which unsettles the legal-bureaucratic historiography and reconstitutes the archival space to open up new sites for oral history recording. Her consistent initiatives to support the empowerment of Indian women are truly commendable and have given her a formidable international reputation. The roots of Urvashi’s feminism stretch back to her childhood.
On recalling her mother’s words: “My mother encouraged us to help ourselves. She said that there was no way her girls were going to eat less in her house. I didn’t have a word for it, I didn’t know the word ‘feminism’ then, but I learned from my mother that there was nothing natural about discrimination, and that it had to be fought.”
Mridula Koshy is the author of Bicycle Dreaming and Not Only the Things that Have Happened. Her short story collection, If It Is Sweet won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award. Her ability to carve out characters with the tender precision of an ace sculptor and the dexterous attention she pays to each anecdote in her narrative makes her writing deeply absorbing for the readers. Together with her partner she started the Deepalaya Community Library in Delhi. She started with a bag of books and her belief in exposing the children of the socio-economic disadvantaged groups to the wondrous world of fiction and reading. With less than a dozen students frequenting the place in its initiation, the place has now flourished to see more than 600 regular visitors. Another branch of the same has also been launched at the Okhla center. The access of the library isn’t restricted to the students of the Deepalaya alone, who have a weekly library period in their curriculum, but also open to parents, siblings, friends and volunteers irrespective of age and literacy level. A staunch supporter of moving away from the utilitarian educational system, she practices teaching methods, which are unorthodox, progressive and cultivate inventiveness. Children who work along with volunteers, most of whom are women, run the whole library. Koshy spends every day of the week at this place, making it a vibrant and welcoming space for these children: “My experience of being a woman is an experience of being constrained by gender based discrimination. But this same experience is also what obliges me to assume the freedom to make change in this world. Making change is not only an obligation but also a necessity. If it was optional I might be afraid to take on something so huge as changing the world, of making it a better place. I have children and I have an obligation to care for other people’s children. How else can I expect others to care for mine? As for the idea that I by myself can ensure my children’s care and well being, that is ridiculous. We need a world where this collective obligation to care for the next generation is the engine that drives our decision-making. We will all feel safer for it.”
Anuradha Beniwal, is a National Chess Champion from Haryana. She started playing chess at a very young age and due to the unfortunate absence of women from the Indian Chess scene, competed with men in various tournaments and emerged as an undisputed master of the same. She together with teaching and playing chess is also a solo woman traveller who believes in breaking free from the stereotypical binds vis-à-vis Indian women’s vocation and sexuality. She braces the world with a bag pack and an unassailable spirit. She is the youngest writer to bag The Rajkamal Prakashan’s most prestigious award Srijnatmak Gadya Samman (2015-2016) for her book, Azadi Mera Brand. Her travelogue has been received as a hallmark text, which celebrates a young girls freedom and zeal to travel without any manacles of patriarchy and gender hierarchy. She wishes to reach out to women at large through this message on the Women’s Day: “Be brave. Trust yourself. Work hard and earn your economic independence. Question each and everything that doesn’t feel right. Get out of your comfort zone and make friends outside it. Make a lot of girl friends. Live alone. Love. Have a breakup or two. Don’t commit too early! Watch, observe, and learn. Travel alone to unknown places. Meet strangers. Talk. Understand. Take some of them with you; leave a bit of yourself in them. Forget. Forgive. Breathe. Work out. Stay fit. Eat well. Care less about the society and “what will they say!” Society is for you; you are not for the society. Meditate.”
My experience of being a woman is an experience of being constrained by gender based discrimination. But this same experience is also what obliges me to assume the freedom to make change. Making change is not only an obligation but also a necessity.
- Mridula Koshy
Be brave. Trust yourself. Work hard and earn your economic independence. Question each and everything that doesn’t feel right. Get out of your comfort zone and make friends outside it.Make a lot of girl friends. Live alone. Love.
- Anuradha Beniwal
My mother encouraged us to help ourselves. She said that there was no way her girls were going to eat less. I didn’t know the word ‘feminism’ then, but I learned from my mother that there was nothing natural about discrimination, and that it had to be fought.
- Urvashi Butalia
The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English, JDMC, Delhi University