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Feminist artists have always been bold, original and outspoken, and The Elephant in the Room honours this legacy by offering up a delightfully thought-provoking, myth-busting visual feast. Across its pages, sixteen comic artists from India and Germany explore how women see the world and themselves, taking apart and repurposing ideas of identity, power and love; sex, family, and bodies.
Confronting the elephant with humour and passion, these graphic artists insistently draw the awkward and the difficult. As feminist art has always done, this book reminds us that the personal is the political. Exploring taboos, exploding myths, raising awkward questions and posing visionary answers, each story shines a light on the 'elephant in the room' –what does it mean to be a woman?
This book brings you a wealth of stories, in words and images, from a part of India known as the Northeast, a term that is widely contested for the ways in which it homogenizes a region of great diversity. It is also a term that has come to be a marker of identity and solidarity by many who are of the region. Here, 21 writers and artists look at the idea of ‘work’ — from street hawking to beer brewing, from mothering to dung collection — and describe their lives or those of others with humour and compassion. Parismita Singh’s wonderful compilation of the works of women asks: what are the different ways of telling a story? What if we were to attempt these tellings through poetry and portraits and essays, older traditions like textile art and applique and new genres like hashtag poetry tapped into a smartphone? Where would it take us, what would the world look like?
Contributors: Zubeni Lotha | Minam Apang | Alyen Leeachum Foning | Aheli Moitra | Soibam Haripriya | Gertrude Lamare | Rini Barman | Nitoo Das | Thingnam Anjulika Samom | Parismita Singh | Dolly Kikon | Ayangbe Mannen | Aungmakhai Chak | Jacqueline Zote | Meena Laishram | Prashansa Gurung | Shreya Debi and Bilseng R Marak | Mona Zote | Nabina Das | Mamang Dai | Sanatombi Ningombam | Kundo Yumnam
This essay examines women’s writing in the 19th century on the oppression of widows, focusing on voices that writer Uma Chakravarti believes have been invisibilized over the years. Stating that the history of social reforms and widowhood has been predominantly understood from a knowledge-based male perspective, Chakravarti proposes balancing the discourse with several female perspectives based on experiencing widowhood first-hand.
The essay is divided into three parts – the first section focuses on women’s works on widowhood, examining the writing of Sushila Devi, Tarabai Shinde and Rakhmabai. The second section looks at widows from Poona Widows' Home writing about their own experiences, and the third at writers like Pandita Ramabai and Parvati Athavale who were actively involved in providing support to other widows. From scathing criticism to personal experiences, the works criticize the then existing male-dominant Reformist movement, which focused only on widow remarriage, and outline the problems faced by widows, such as deprivation of basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and the enforcement of unpaid and unacknowledged labour.
Chakravarti thus claims that these works were responsible for expanding the boundaries of the discourse around widowhood, making widows the subject of the issue than mere lifeless objects. She critiques these works, analysing the ideologies and influences of each writer. Through the topic of widowhood, Chakravarti demonstrates how women writers went on to discuss issues of female agency and autonomy, and critique larger patriarchal structures such as religion and family, which reinforced oppressive practices against women.
This essay uncovers how the writings of women have emerged as forms of protest in Assam, a region torn by political violence and prolonged militancy. For Tilottoma Misra, these voices are doing more than simply responding to a need to represent the marginalised; they are attempting to depict the trauma that the women experience in their lives. In discussing the power of the narrative, Misra lays out those aspects of traumatic events that a literary discourse can grasp more expansively than a strictly historical narrative.
Through a discussion of women's writing in the last ten years, the essay explores ways in which women have been affected by violence committed by both the armed forces as well as the militants. Questions of representations do figure prominently in the essay, and the author refers to short stories and poems to illustrate the experience of living through traumatic incidents and moments of devastation. The texts also reveal a desire to create subjects who are able to rise above their immediate political locations and see suffering in a more universal light.
Written by women during times of conflict, these stories and poems help explore nuances of the ways in which one's psyche is affected by the same. With a population facing discoveries of mass graves and an increasing breakdown of basic civic amenities, Misra poses urgent questions as to the role of the writer in such difficult times.
This essay is a historical overview of Dalit literature, focusing on the contribution of women writers. The authors Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon show how the Dalit movement gained momentum with the rise of Dalit centric newspapers and literary societies, which gave a voice to the Dalit people. Led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, this literary movement was strengthened through talks, discussions, analysis of folk songs, and by spreading literacy and encouraging research. By the 1960s, Dalit writers had created a huge collection of short stories, poems, novels, autobiographies and analytical pieces. The authors focus on the gradual increase of female voices and perspectives in Dalit writing – on topics ranging from religious customs like funerary rites, birth control, to mixed marriages. Some women included larger criticisms of patriarchal societal norms in their writing, advocating for equality. They were especially emphatic about the need for education, urging other Dalit women to take initiative by educating their daughters. The essay also looks at writings on Ambedkar himself, and on Buddhism, the religion that Ambedkar heavily propounded, and later embraced. By providing excerpts of their writings, the essay shows how the women often had differing points of view, leading to healthy discussions and critiques. Appreciating these works for their literary merits as well as social significance, the authors suggest that they helped people understand and appreciate their own history, and facilitated the spread of radical ideas of identity and self-worth.
In this essay, Geetanjali Singh Chanda explores the idea of the nation, and its representation as a house or home in postcolonial Indian English literature. The author identifies that this literature has a dual parentage that manifests in its narratives, where characters with fragmented identities negotiate to make India their home.
Chanda explores this depiction of ‘Indianness’ through three prominent literary works: Nayantara Sahgal’s Rich Like Us (1983), Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road (1991), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). She focuses on the treatment of history within these narratives, and the struggle of characters to reconcile their personal or national history with the post-colonial present. This is done by connecting the events in the text to a significant historical event—like the Indian Independence in 1947, or the Emergency of 1975, which becomes the setting of both Rich Like Us and Nampally Road.
While an exhaustive study of the novels’ characters and storyline shows differences in their narratives and the authors’ perspectives, Chanda identifies common themes of disillusionment, belonging, and a complicated relationship with a house, which in each narrative becomes symbolic of the characters’ relationship with the nation. Women in particular seem to have tenuous relationships with the house, often being marginalized in the idea of the nation. But their relationships with each other seem to transcend national and ethnic identities, and help them navigate through the nation. Chanda focuses on these relationships in particular, associating the motherland with the biological mother.
This chapter from The History of Doing focuses on the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when social reform movements in India were beginning to show results and women were becoming more visibly present in the public sphere. Kumar provides a thematic history of the women’s movement before independence, beginning with focusing on the 1889 session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay where ten women delegates attended the assembly for the first time.
Using photographs and a wide variety of print sources from books to newspapers, Kumar looks at how women’s issues were raised and how women were involved in addressing these. Prostitution was one of the first such issues, referred to by the Indian National Congress at their 1888 session. The essay discusses at length the steps taken to regulate prostitution by the British in India and the level of support this received from reformers and moderate nationalists. The turn of the century saw a proliferation of homes for widows, with schemes to train widows as teachers. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal during this time period marked the beginning of women’s participation in national activities on a larger scale.
Kumar offers detailed portraits on the lives of some of the women involved in the above movements and reforms like Swarnakumari Debi, her daughter Sarala Debi Ghosal and Bhikaiji Cama. Kumar also observes that for some of these women, the bid for personal independence grew to be subsumed in a quest for national independence, but that they also returned to their homes without regret when the moment of crisis passed. A large number of the women written about in the essay were writers, both reformists and revolutionaries.
This essay discusses caste, gender and the state, and the relationship between the three in the context of militarization under Peshwa rule in eighteenth century Maharashtra. Analysing materials available in the Peshwa daftar, Uma Chakravarti illustrates the different ways in which the state played a decisive role in upholding the caste system and in installing social codes to legitimize women’s sexuality.
Chakravarti points out how the Peshwa state upheld Brahmanical social order by prohibiting ‘untouchables’ from approaching the temple of Vithoba (which also housed a shrine for Chokhamela, a saint belonging to the Mahar community who were historically considered ‘untouchable’, was associated with the regional Varkari movement), threatening punishment if they failed to conform. Chakravarti casts doubt on whether this traditional practice helped bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes by looking at the effects of the development of other religious practices with the consolidation of the Peshwai.
The institution of marriage and other codes that legitimized women’s sexuality, additionally, were major elements at play in the Peshwai’s organising of gender relations. Chakravarti explores ideological structures of enforced widowhood, the difference in punishment that women and men who committed adultery faced, and the role of the state in arranging marriage for girls between ages seven and ten. Connecting caste with women’s sexuality, the essay gestures towards Brahmanya’s investment in the undiluted purity of its women.
Written by Farida Abdulla, this essay is a personal account of her experience in Kashmir—before, during and after the enforcement of centralized government rule over the area. Born and brought up in Kashmir, she reflects on the seething resentment of people treated like more border territory than citizens of the country.
Through the essay Adulla looks at ‘what’ instead of ‘why’; she does not delve into the historical context of the rule, but focuses on the effects of such a rule on the local population. By narrating two incidents strongly embedded in her mind, she attempts to show the complexity of the situation, and the pain and confusion of the people living there. Trapped between the government- sanctioned armed forces and the ideological militant resistors, Kashmiri people are often unable to distinguish between the two groups, and are in constant fear for their lives.
She raises questions about security and autonomy, especially in the case of women. While the struggle of women in India has been a long and arduous one, their status becomes even more unstable in a region fraught with suppression and violence. Female voices are either lost in the larger masculine struggle, or are subsumed in the singular narrative of rape and sexual abuse. Abdulla hopes for a safe space for people divided by religion and gender to resolve their conflicts and live in peace and dignity.
This essay traces the women’s movement in India in the mid-seventies and early eighties, when the issue of violence against women took prominence. Author Urvashi Butalia draws on numerous instances of violence, including among others the rape of Rameeza Bee in 1978, dowry-related violence, and the immolation of Roop Kanwar in 1987. She also looks at the women’s movement’s engagement during this time, which ranged from lobbying with the Law Commission to bring about changes to the rape law, to the efforts of Delhi-based groups like Mahila Dakshata Samiti and Stree Sangharsh against dowry.
In both the rape and dowry campaigns, as also in the campaign against sati, the primary target of women’s demands or grievances was the state, with the belief that the state had failed in its ‘duty’. The essay also traces how one kind of action flowed into another, giving rise to different challenges for the women’s movement.
Butalia also critically examines how inclusive or otherwise the women’s movement has been. She discusses how the broad category of ‘woman’, which many had assumed provided an overarching unifying identity, did not represent a homogeneous group whose broad identity held them together; they could even consent to strengthening the very structures of patriarchy that worked against them. The essay also dwells on how the rise of militant communalism and the polarization of identities along religious lines resulted in major changes and rethinking within the women’s movement in India.
This essay looks at case studies of sexual violence against women combatants and sympathizers in Northeast India to examine the special vulnerability of this category of women to sexual violence. As Roshmi Goswami points out, at present there are over fifty armed groups in the region making a plethora of demands and situated at different stages in the continuum of conflict. The author argues that women have borne the brunt of this ongoing turmoil—whether they have been specifically targeted by security forces or rival militant groups. Sexual violence is deployed to torture, humiliate people or to punish and humiliate an enemy group or a community that is perceived to be the ‘other’.
The case studies include those of Thangjam Manorama, Snehalata Duara and Roshmi Bora. These cases bring out how issues of sexual violence often remain outside the purview of ‘peace negotiations’, and how the legal regime has provided impunity for armed forces. Goswami also dwells on how the relative or perceived agency of women combatants ends when the ‘militant’s uniform’ is given up. Ex-combatants are often deeply traumatized having experienced and seen violence at very close quarters, and are in need of long term gender-sensitive psychosocial counselling, which is hardly available in reintegration packages and schemes.
The author concludes by questioning the term ‘post-conflict reconstruction’, pointing out its problematic position: ‘reconstruction’ implies restoration to a former status quo that might not be beneficial to women. She states that for feminist peace activists, genuine conflict transformation necessarily brings the notions of justice and peace together, which would entail correcting inequalities and discrimination while ‘reconstructing’.
Writing in Dalit Women Speak Out, authors Irudayam, Mangubhai and Lee situate this essay within brahmanical patriarchal discourse of dishonour and blame, which stigmatizes Dalit women who are victim-survivors of violence. Their interviews with five hundred Dalit women investigate the nature and forms of violence faced by the women, and bring to light not only instances of violence within Dalit households, but also the overwhelming number of cases that relate to rapes by male members of dominant castes.
These personal narratives articulate the dilemmas that confront women when facing themselves and society after being subjected to violence. The fear generated following any type of violence, and the impunity with which much of the violence occurs, all contribute to changes in the victim-survivors’ social interactions and sense of belonging to their families and communities. The authors focus on both the immediate and long-term consequences of violence on women vis-à-vis their right to health, dignity, life and security. With the help of the study they demonstrate how short-term physical injuries have the capacity to inflict long-term mental suffering, which can exacerbate feelings of helplessness and fear of further violence. The lives of Dalit women become conditioned to violence rather than freedom, which can lead to the curtailment of women’s mobility in public spaces.
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