Loading the content... Loading depends on your connection speed!

Shopping Cart - Rs. 0

Tag Archives: Feminism

Wonder Woman: Love, War, and Ideology

wonder woman

Wonder Woman’s journey to the big screen has been long and tedious—the process of creating a live action Wonder Woman film has been in the works since 1996, with several projects being initiated and then shelved over the years. It was only in 2015 that the project began to come to fruition. Patty Jenkins was confirmed as a director, and the production process began. It finally saw a worldwide release in early June.

The film combines elements of Greek mythology with modern history, and is set in the World War 1 era. It serves as a prequel to Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman vs. Superman, and seeks to explain her origins and character evolution.

It’s an extremely multidimensional film that deals with a lot of thought provoking themes—here are some that really stood out to me:

Moral Ambiguities

The idyllic landscape of Themyscira, an island home to female warriors called the Amazons, is disturbed when American spy Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) plane crashes onto the island. Diana (Gal Gadot), princess of the island, rescues him. It is revealed that Steve has classified information with him regarding weapons that the Germans are using, information that he has to get back to his bosses in London. Steve’s description of the devastating war (World War 1) leads Diana to conclude that the god Ares is behind it—Ares is the enemy of the Amazons. Her solution is to seek out and kill Ares, which she thinks will stop the war. Diana thus leaves Themyscira with Steve, without even giving the other side [in this case, the Germans] the benefit of the doubt. [spoiler] The fight scene between the Amazons and the Germans on Themyscira’s shores, where the Germans (they lose in the end) fight and kill many Amazons, including Diana’s aunt reinforces the idea that Germans are the evil enemy, both in the minds of the viewers and Diana, an idea that she doesn’t question at all [end spoiler]. Even when she reaches London, she doesn’t try to gather more facts about the war or try to gain a more holistic understanding of the war—she just assumes that the Americans are good and the Germans are bad.

When Steve reached the island, he was bound by Hestia’s lasso (one that makes its captive tell the truth), so it makes sense that she believed what he had to say about the war. However, there’s a difference between believing that someone is telling the truth and believing that what they’re saying is morally correct, or subscribing to their ideology. She automatically assumed that Ares had to be someone of German origin without trying to get both sides of the story.

Films always reflect the context they were created in, so either intentionally or unintentionally, they end up projecting a certain point of view. This is something that is evident in Wonder Woman, and something that got me thinking about how comics and films can be (and have been) used as tools of propaganda. Undoubtedly, the political landscape influences artistic expression. This article, for example, talks about how superheroes in comic books gained resurgence during the Cold War era due to their use of political symbolism, and how some characters that we see on screen today like Iron Man have extremely anti communist backgrounds in the comics. As far as Wonder Woman itself is concerned, people have pointed out how it touches upon topics like weaponization and American ideology. Further, her costume too contains American symbols—it has hints of red and blue, and looks like it has an eagle built into it (see below).

JL_Wonder_Woman

When Steve lands on the island, his perspective of the war is the only one that Diana hears, and she thus assumes that the Allies were in the right and the other side was wrong. When destruction is occurring at a massive scale, the lines between good and bad, objective and subjective get increasingly blurred. Based on the beginning, I assumed that Wonder Woman would go the propaganda route. However, the movie addresses the ambiguity of concepts like ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’ really well through the reveal of Ares’ identity. It drives home the point that it’s hard to see concepts in binaries. This idea is further reinforced by Diana’s declaration that all humans have both good and bad in them, but it’s the power of love that overcomes all.

Love

Like most superhero movies, this one contained a romantic connection between Diana and Steve. They worked really well as a team and had a really good relationship otherwise, so this something that I thought was an unnecessary addition to the plot. Her romance with Steve was definitely a secondary part of the story, but the entire exchange with Ares (interspersed with a few flashbacks) made it seem like it was (specifically) her relationship with Steve that gave her strength and helped her understand the potency of love. There was no mention of the love that she’d received from her family, the Amazons or even from other members of her team. While it definitely felt like romantic love was her driving force, considering the fact that Diana and Steve were teammates before lovers, we can give the movie the benefit of the doubt and assume that the love she felt for him could’ve stemmed from camaraderie and teamwork as well. However, should love have played a role at all?

[spoiler] As was revealed during her altercation with Ares, the purpose of Diana’s very existence was to be a ‘god killer’, something she was training to become her entire life [end spoiler]. Adding the idea of love took away from her strengths and capabilities as a warrior. It also overshadowed the fact that Diana’s quest, since the very beginning, was always motivated by a sense of duty and justice. It was never about love in the first place, so why make that such an integral part of the plot in the end?

The addition of the love element, while making her seem more ‘human’ and relatable, has its downsides as it can lead to the essentialization and internalization of traditional gender roles that typify women as being ‘emotional’.

This article puts it perfectly- "In the end, Wonder Woman concludes that “only love can save the world.” While this may be true, I’ve never heard any other superhero say so. Why couldn’t Wonder Woman fight for justice and eliminate bad guys without having to in the end make it about love? Perhaps a more interesting question is: Why don’t male superheroes do the same? While people argue that women are “feminine” and naturally more inclined to love, this thinking quickly slides into dangerous assumptions like women are more cut out for caring for children and processing feelings.”

A Feminist Superhero?

Wonder Woman’s quest is to end war by ending the God of War himself. Her intentions are extremely noble--she wants to save the world and protect innocent human beings. However, she has no way but to achieve peace through means of violence. [spoiler] Diana herself is a literal weapon, the ‘god killer’ [end spoiler]. Waging wars to “secure peace” is something that’s common even in the real world, a contradictory concept that none of us are unfamiliar with. In some circumstances, violence may be necessary and may bring about peace, but the devastating impact it leaves behind on both sides cannot be ignored. While it is impossible to generalize feminism as a whole, most feminists are against violence and the hierarchies and devastation it creates, and are pro cooperation, peace and freedom. Thus, can there be a feminist superhero? Especially if that superhero uses violence to achieve her goals, as noble as they may be?

Of course, not all women call themselves feminists, and thus having a female lead doesn’t make a film feminist, but whether Wonder Woman can be called a feminist icon or not is definitely something to think about.

The film definitely does express its disdain for certain kinds of weapons (chemical weapons in particular) and maybe its way of trying to tone down the weaponization was by adding the ‘power of love’ aspect, but as discussed earlier, this has a tendency of reinforcing certain tropes. Clearly, there’s no easy way to comprehend and address such concepts.

As a whole though, I really did like Diana’s character. What makes her such a joy to watch is that when she wants to do something, she’ll do it without hesitation. She is independent, strong and an extremely skilled warrior (something that she is acutely aware of). It is the only way she knows how to be. The fact that she can just go ahead and actively work towards achieving her goals without second guessing herself or having a million obstacles holding her back is empowering. It’s something that we as women cannot relate to, but aspire towards.

Seeing a woman being able to do that feels special—especially when we get to see her from a ‘female gaze’. Patty Jenkins’ direction ensured that powerful shots took precedence over the more sexy and objectifying shots that we normally see women on screen through. As this post points out, there was no attempt to make Wonder Woman (or the Amazons) look sexy, or to make them seem more palatable to a male audience.

As a film, I would highly recommend it. The cinematography was beautiful, the themes it sought to address were intriguing, and it left me feeling (slightly) invincible.

 

ON TOPIC: Matriliny, Ishq, and solidarity / save the climate, save the world

A statement by women’s groups, students’ groups, progressive groups and individuals, on the eve of December 16:

If we turn to cases filed under the new amendments to the law against sexual assault that were passed in the wake of the movement in December 2012, the scene is dismal. Be it the women in Muzaffarnagar, Bhagana or Bastar, or the women employees of Tehelka or TERI, they all await justice.

The Wire comes out with a compelling article on domestic labourers in the city, and access to toilets.

"Anchita Ghatak, one of the founders of Parichiti (an NGO that works with domestic workers in Kolkata), believes that rather than having been rooted out, casteist ideas about purity and pollution have instead been ‘modernised’ into a more socially-acceptable discourse about class, literacy, and hygiene – a pattern which has been observed in other parts of India. Whereas employers may have once explicitly invoked caste in order to bar domestic workers from using the toilet (as well as from other parts of the house), today they are more likely to claim that their employees ‘do not know how’ to use toilets and are ‘too uneducated’ to learn."

There is finally a verdict for Suzette Jordan's rape case.

Eli Saslow's moving story in The Washington Post about the physical and emotional challenges mass shooting survivor, Cheyeanne Fitzgerald, faces.

In this insightful piece, Surya P. Sethi talks about how the Paris Agreement is nothing more than a feel good statement that still doesn’t allow the bottom half of the world to achieve a certain level of development and tackle the impacts of climate change efficiently.

Have you seen Agents of Ishq yet? On the website of Parodevi Pictures’ new project to “give sex a good name,” Devdutt Pattanaik writes about the day his mother came home.

What ended Kerala's matrilineal society?

But as the scholar K. Saradamoni points out, "None of these theories appear to have taken note of the fact that matriliny offered an identity and security to women." Nair women always had the security of the homes they were born in throughout their lives and were not dependent on their husbands. Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognised in other parts of India, in Kerala women were allowed polyandry. Nair women could, if they wished, entertain more than one husband and, in the event of difficulties, were free to divorce without any social stigma. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete autonomy over their bodies.

What was the first sex question you asked Google? A lovely article on Medium explores the sex education '90s and '00s kids got through the internet.

On white debt: Eula Biss's article in the New York Times explores the debt white people owe to racism.

Once you’ve been living in a house for a while, you tend to begin to believe that it’s yours, even though you don’t own it yet. When those of us who are convinced of our own whiteness deny our debt, this may be an inevitable result of having lived for so long in a house bought on credit but never paid off. We ourselves have never owned slaves, we insist, and we never say the n-word. ‘‘It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill,’’ [Ta-Nehisi] Coates writes of Americans, ‘‘and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear.’’

An article in The Atlantic investigates how slavery is still alive and well. "There are now twice as many people enslaved in the world as there were in the 350 years of the transatlantic slave trade."

How did Balochistan become a part of Pakistan? Yogeena Veena uncovers the history of nation-building.

Two trailblazing scholars passed away this month: Fatima Mernissi and Benedict Anderson.

Women face trouble within and without homes; Chatura Rao (a Zubaan writer!) writes about abuse, women, and homelessness.

"The girls who come here,” Farida says, indicating with a tilt of her head, the women sitting in the porch, ”have quite some options. Urja [a shelter] helps you choose who you want to be. But many cling to the memory of that one love or marital relationship that went wrong, and refuse to move on. A man-woman relationship is just one aspect of a person’s life. More important is personal growth and developing an independent identity. Not as a woman in traditional roles, but as a human being."

"The idea that computers are for boys became a narrative." NPR writes on when women stopped coding.

In Chennai, Living Smile Vidya, a trans woman, has opened her home to other young transpeople.

In October, the same month when her biopic was released (can we pause for coolness), Vidya wrote at length about one of the hardest aspects of her life. Finding a house to live in. Landlords who say no outright, passive-aggressive ones, ones who hide behind ‘this is a decent neighbourhood’, greedy ones. Transpeople spend half their lives looking for a place to live, she wrote. It didn’t matter if you were well-known, accomplished, frequently seen as a treasure of the arts world. Landlords have a way of grinding you down to ‘unsuitable’.

A beautiful piece in Time Magazine on a possible shift in rape culture we are witnessing in the wake of #solidaritywithstoya:

What was astonishing was not the courage it doubtless took for Stoya to type those 55 words and hit send — knowing that she would be accused of lying and attention-seeking, knowing the number of people who would claim that as a sex worker, she cannot expect to claim rape and be believed. What was astonishing, though, what had my heart between my teeth, was the number of people who did the opposite. Even before more former partners and colleagues of Deen came forward with more accusations of rape and violence, major porn studios dropped him as a performer, and many outlets publishing his work and writing cut ties. The hashtag #solidaritywithsoya trended around the world.

 

 

ON TOPIC: THE DADRI LYNCHING, DALITS AND FOOD/FARMING AUTONOMY, THE POLICING OF REPRODUCTION/MOTHERHOOD, U.S. MILITARISM AND THE MEDIA, WORKING-CLASS PEOPLE AND LITERACY

Regarding the recent Dadri lynching, Tarun Vijay of the BJP attempts to convince us why the lynching was un-Indian and un-Hindu.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta rebuts:

“Lynching a person merely on suspicion is absolutely wrong,” Vijay informs us with all sincerity. It is almost as if lynching is fine so long as it is not based on mere suspicion. It is saying, in effect, that if Akhlaq had actually been guilty of eating beef, it would have been fine to lynch him...[he says] differences [are] tantamount to provocation to murder.

If you read one thing from today's On Topic, read this. Gautam Bhan writes on Kafila -

Mohammad began to die a long time ago. When violence against particular bodies becomes legitimate, becomes a series of “misunderstandings,” it is not violence at all. It is the order of things. It is not prejudice but probability. Beef, property, a panchayat election, love jihad, a job, an argument, a WhatsApp message – these are not causes, they are just modes. The last circuits in a motherboard whose pattern is set in place.

Mohammad began to die at least as early in 1992. When we speak of his death in September 2015, it is already too late. The violence is not his death. The violence is that his body lost its right to be murdered because it has slowly been stripped of its life, bit by bit, for years.

Rural farming collectives run by Dalits reduce dependence on, and therefore subjugation by, the upper castes:

What is really remarkable is that Dalit girls are leading some of these agitations. In February last year, Sandeep Kaur, a 25-year-old diploma holder in computer applications from Matoi village in Sangrur, floated an Ekta Club along with a group of 10 Dalit girls. They launched a two-month long agitation, and managed to convince the Dalit families of Matoi of the need to bid collectively for the land..."Now we don't need to beg upper caste farmers for even cattle fodder. This land is enough to feed cattle of all Dalits in Matoi," says 45-year-old Amarjit Kaur.

Unwanted, unneeded hysterectomies performed on marginalised Indian women without their informed consent show the intimate connections between modern medicine and patriarchal, class, and caste oppression:

...women reported going to private hospitals in Gulbarga or cities close to the border in Maharashtra and Telangana complaining of lower abdomen pain or menstrual irregularities. The doctors would tell women that their uteruses were damaged, swollen, had worms, were stained, or had turned green or black. The women in Chapla Naik said that doctors had told them that the uterus “kharab hua” (Hindi for “had gone bad”)—and had to be removed...“Others who are educated can look at the report and say this operation has to be done for this kind of pain. What do we know? If someone tells us to get an operation done, we will get it done.”

A report in Vantage about tuberculosis and the pregnant body:

The 30-year-old told me that she had never had a regular menstrual cycle since her periods first began when she 13 or 14 years old. She was married soon after. “When I got married and came to Mumbai, I realised that my sister-in-law was getting periods every month. I had no idea we were supposed to get it every month. I have been taking medicines to treat this problem. Socho—Think!,” she said. Soon after, she began visitng several doctors...to try and understand why she was not able to conceive. More often than not, she would be faced with condescending practioners who did little to help her predicament. “My neighbours taunt me and say I am not able to bear a child. My family also scolds me sometimes, out of love,” she said, before adding, “They are bound to say some things to me, aren’t they?” After she was finally diagnosed that day, she told me that she hoped her disease would not infect others in the house, even though the doctor had informed her that extra-pulmonary tuberculosis was not infectious.

Should Virginia Woolf have had children? Rebecca Solnit questions why women who devote their lives to things other than birthing and raising children are subject to constant interrogation:

People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfil your capacity to love...[b]ut there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world. While many people question the motives of the childless, who are taken to be selfish for refusing the sacrifices that come with parenthood, they often neglect to note that those who love their children intensely may have less love left for the rest of the world.

An app that tracks American drone strikes is banned from the Apple App Store for being "crude".

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports on the suspected U.S.-led bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan...

...and the Intercept reports on U.S. media sources' obfuscation of the U.S.'s role in the bombing:

In its own special way, the New York Times has been even more craven [than CNN]. Its original article on the attack opted for this bizarrely agent-less formulation: [Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan]. Some airstrike, traveling around on its own like a lost tourist, ran into a hospital in Afghanistan.

This article engenders conversations in the office. U.S. centric, but interesting:

...academic Marxism tends to view working-class people abstractly, leaving college-educated revolutionaries unable to speak plainly to anyone outside of academia. As soon as they step out of school, they discover that no one understands a word they speak unless they speak plain. This further deeps the idea that revolutionary theory is not for the working classes. These college educated revolutionaries have fundamentally accepted, in a-historical terms, the profound devastation of the working class... It is accepted as eternal that working class people cannot read, do not like to read, do not like to think, etc. This ignores the fact that the weapon of theory has been vital to oppressed people's liberation, from illiterate slaves risking their lives to learn how to read, to Malcolm X discovering the power of knowledge while sitting in his prison cell.

A conversation between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison on the importance of literacy, and public access to reading material (through libraries that are available to marginalised classes, in prisons, in rural areas) in the revolution.

See you next week! Or whenever we get around to the next On Topic.

P.S. We have an online sale UP TO 80% OFF! Support your friendly neighbourhood independent feminist publishers!

"ONE HAD TO CRITIQUE": AN INTERVIEW WITH ILINA SEN

September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

September 2015: Ilina Sen. Photograph by Moulshri Mohan.

I first meet Dr. Ilina Sen when she visits the Zubaan office on Thursday afternoon. Listening to her and Urvashi speak about communities, work, and solidarities from the heyday of the Indian women’s movement is just so. cool. One of the most amazing things about being an intern at Zubaan has been observing the strong connections and solidarity networks of South Asian feminists from another generation. It feels as though the work young feminists like me do today is preceded by a strong tradition, and that there are older people out there who have blazed the trail and are our allies. I always feel this irrepressible need to sit down with these older feminists and listen to them talk about every single thing they have done in their lives.

Magically, Ishani suggests I interview Dr. Sen for the Zubaan blog. And so the next morning, watery sunlight filtering through the clouds, I head to Dr. Sen’s guesthouse (she lives in Bombay and is visiting Delhi for a few days) in Central Delhi. Her room is spare yet comfortable, and she invites me to sit down and offers me chai.

Ilina Sen is largely known in popular discourse as the wife of Binayak Sen, a doctor who works with tribal people in Chhattisgarh, and was imprisoned wrongly by the government on suspicion of being a Maoist. However, in feminist circles, we also know her as a brilliant scholar and dedicated activist who lived in Chhattisgarh for many years, struggling with the mine worker trade unions (Chhattisgarh Mines Shramik Sangh, or CMSS) against corporatisation, and advocating for adivasi ecologies in her and her husband’s NGO Rupantar. Today, she primarily works as an academic in Women’s Studies. She has taught at Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, and now teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

-x-

I begin by asking Dr. Sen about her life prior to the events of 2007, when her husband was arrested. I want to know more about what brought her to feminist work, Women’s Studies, and Chhattisgarh. She responds thoughtfully to my question, outlining the history and context in which her feminist consciousness bloomed. She says that she “grew up with the women’s movement”. The post-Emergency period was a time of political vibrancy in the country - especially at JNU, where she was a student in the late 70s and early 80s. She became part of this movement, often spontaneously going to protests against dowry deaths and the Mathura rape case. “So many things happened around us: the meeting to found Manushi occurred on the lawns of JNU. I was there, along with many others - it was a huge meeting.” She tells me that Urvashi is also from that generation of feminists. That’s how long they go back.

Later, she ended up going to Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh for her Ph.D. field work, where she met people working in a “voluntary agency” (which we would now call an NGO) called Kishore Bharti that aimed to transform science education. She got to know rural India a little bit, and eventually heard about the mine workers’ struggle in Chhattisgarh. So she headed there. The first thing that struck her, she says, a note of admiration still in her voice, was that so many women were involved. Half of the organisation’s membership was women - about five thousand, out of a membership of ten thousand. These were mostly tribal women, and they were “visible and articulate,” very different from the women of North India she had known before. “I was very impressed,” she says. “It was an impressionable age also...I really learned so much.”

When I ask her what she learned, and how her feminist consciousness developed in her struggle with the mine workers, she tells me an anecdote of her time in Chhattisgarh. “Earlier...when I first went there for example, if we had a meeting, it would go on till 10 o'clock at night, and nobody would stir. Men, women, everybody would be there - and...if the women had small children, the women would be scolding the small babies - that for everybody it was important to be there, to participate and to understand. Later when there was relatively more prosperity, women would start getting up from the meeting at quarter to 5.” They would ask the women who were leaving where they were going, and why they weren’t staying, only to find out that the women had to leave to start cooking for their families. “As long as you are at the same level, and everybody has to work for a living, women are valued as comrade, and they are part of the movement. Later when the men start earning a family wage, they start feeling like the head of the family. Then...many of these patriarchal assumptions about gendering of labor and women’s roles within the family [come into the picture].” This experience, she says, helped her - and also everyone else in the organisation, including the women who were leaving at 4:30 to cook - to understand the pulls and pushes between women’s production and women’s social reproduction. Now, teaching at TISS Mumbai, when they discuss the theory of these contradictions, she tells this story to her students to get them to understand what it looks like in practice. “[It]...was a different way of communicating feminist understanding and consciousness across class and across settings.” She is proud that during her time in Chhattisgarh, they were successfully able to build a body of working-class women activists who were aware of the oppression.

-x-

Sen stayed with the mine workers’ trade union, slowly getting immersed in the language and culture of Chhattisgarh. Many people, she tells me, have asked her why she chose to live in Chhattisgarh. It was not a conscious decision, but after “...learning the culture and language, I felt at home...it became impossible to think of moving away.” She sustained herself with her research, while spending most of the day working with tribal mine workers. “There was no average day, you know. An average day would be spent with people in what you would call the field - in villages, rural settings, tribal settings.Some days I would be writing up my experiences, writing as part of my research...I was speaking their language fluently, singing their songs, and I enjoyed it hugely.”

Throughout our conversation, she often emphatically says that she never felt like “a lamb that had been sacrificed.” She is resistant against the image of the upper middle class bleeding-heart NGOer, living in privation in order to uplift the lowly working-classes. “I...loved Chhattisgarh...I loved the place, I loved the people...I never felt martyred.” When she was in Chhattisgarh, she was living on Rs. 1000 a month, but she didn’t feel like anything she did was a sacrifice. Both she and her husband, Binayak, did what they did out of choice, and because they wanted to. And they both enjoyed their work very much.

She speaks about the NGO that they both set up. In Rupantar, they worked on gender issues and trainings, as well as agrobiodiversity. They started documenting the different indigenous strains of rice and seed banks Chhattisgarh had, and she started learning about adivasi ecology.

Here’s a story she told me which helped me understand how her feminist and ecological work is connected. At one point, the Bhilai Steel Plant, which employed a lot of women in the trade union as contract labor, was trying to modernise the plant. The women realised their jobs were at risk - they could potentially be replaced by machines and more formally-skilled labour that would have the technical know-how of how to operate the plant. Sen embarked on a huge study with the mine workers of how mechanisation affects women workers. The women workers, after the study, took a resolution (that the whole trade union followed through with) to think about the kind of technology a country like India needed to have. Since people were not in short supply, India did not need to follow the same automation norms many less populated countries needed to. Technology options needed to be rethought such that everyone’s work - men’s as well as women’s - was equally valued, and there was space for people to develop new skills within the job setting. “It was an entirely new way of looking at women and work,” Sen says. They needed to think about what the community needed and what kinds of lives would be livable, convivial, and sustainable. This work, it seems to me, was about prioritising development strategies that privilege those often left behind, displaced, and marginalised by traditional strategies of development - who are often women and members of the working class.

-x-

Sen has lived through a lot of change in Chhattisgarh - for example, the granting of statehood in 2000. Earlier, she says, “Chhattisgarh was just one forgotten corner of Madhya Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh itself is a forgotten part of India. It wasn’t well connected, except Bhopal, Gwalior...some areas like Khandwa, because of Medha Patkar’s movement...Chhattisgarh bahut zyada kabhi - it wasn’t really connected.” Unlike their neighbour Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh never had a strong movement for a separate state. However, their culture and language was very different from the rest of Madhya Pradesh’s, and administratively, living in Madhya Pradesh was difficult since everything was so far away. So when statehood was granted, Sen says, “there was general happiness that the administration was coming close...and everything was going to be more convenient. There was a sense of joy and happiness, that at last we have our place in the sun, our culture, our language [is being recognised]. That feeling lasted for four or five years.”

What happened after that? She says that the way the new state ended up taking shape disappointed her. “I realized in the 90s I think, that there was a tribal way of looking at life and doing things, and there was an administrative way, and the two were contradictory.” One area of discomfort was government education policy. Earlier, since Chhattisgarh was part of Madhya Pradesh, education was in Hindi. However, most people spoke Chhattisgarhi, not Hindi, and the two languages were very different - for example, Chhattisgarhi is not gendered like Hindi. School dropout rates were very high. So Sen, together with the rest of the CMSS, started building community schools - where everything was taught in Chhattisgarhi, where the poems children were taught were not Jack and Jill, but instead the community’s own songs. They built this curriculum from the ground up, writing down the songs, games and other material that was to be taught (Chhattisgarhi is largely an oral language). The community felt pride and ownership in this school system. However, with the new state, formal experiments had to take place in education. Sen says that they initially spoke to her, and other people, who had been doing this kind of work in the area for a long time. They were on committees and gave feedback. However, their feedback was largely disregarded, shunted aside so that the state could follow directives from the centre and from external organisations that gave them funding. They were interested in a more centralised vision of education.

Another way the new state disappointed her was the changing political climate, marketisation, mining activities and the coming of the corporates. “...Once the big corporations started to come, and tried to acquire land and push tribals out, there were many violations of basic rights that took place in that context.”

For example, Salwa Judum, a government-supported militia, was publicised as an anti-insurgent movement, specifically a movement to get rid of the Maoists. However, its real agenda was ground-clearing. It was also a movement to get rid of the people, because the government wanted to give the mineral-rich land to mining corporations. Salwa Judum led to huge abuses of human rights, including sexual violence against women. “Anyone who tried to take a position against that was persona non grata in state of Chhattisgarh...anyone who opposed the Salwa Judum was branded a Maoist sympathizer.”

-x-

I ask her how her work has changed with these changes in the political and economic environment of Chhattisgarh. In general, I am curious about how, through these dramatic changes, the political climate leading up to the arrest of Binayak Sen, and the eventual national furor over his case, her time and energy has been channeled into different things. How does she feel about this change? The answer, it seems, has many different facets for her. We spend a significant amount of time unpacking this issue.

“It’s a very complex issue and I’m still trying to come to terms with it. It wasn’t just my husband’s arrest, but the way in which the political climate in Chhattisgarh was changing...One challenge was that as people who are socially conscious and claim to have a social commitment...do we raise our voices or do we keep quiet?” The government tried to get her and other people “who straddle[d] the local culture and the public space” to join committees and become policy advisors. She did do that for a while, advising the state on educational reform and gender.“And although nobody listens to that advice, we start to feel self important, that we are engaging, we are trying to change policy...They’ll call you to meetings, they’ll stand up and give you those outward marks of respect, but actually you know whatever you are saying is not having an effect.” She wondered about the usefulness of engaging with policy issues, but eventually decided it was not worth it. She came to the conclusion that “one had to critique [the government]...because if one did not, it would lead to a total surrender of all the positions one had earlier stood for.” It was a difficult choice for her. She realised early on that such a choice would make her unpopular, and unwanted by the State.

She speaks about her path to full-time academics, which also happened around this time. This transition was related to her research and because she felt she needed to theorise and write more, but it was also because of the lack of safety she felt living under the repression of the State’s development strategies. “I felt very strongly even in 2004 that it was not going to be comfortable to sit in Chhattisgarh and articulate the kinds of positions that I wanted to articulate.” She needed to have a space where she could retreat and, in a way, change her identity in order to be more secure. An academic would be less likely to be persecuted by the State. And so in 2005, she began looking for academic opportunities.

Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya was just coming up at that time in Wardha (Maharashtra), and incidentally, their Women’s Studies program was being put together by feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, who Sen knew personally through feminist networks and through the Indian Association for Women’s Studies. She also knew many other scholars involved in the Antarrashtriya Vishwavidyalaya project, and she also had the unique advantage of being able to teach Women’s Studies in Hindi (the curriculum was in Hindi). So she was welcomed into the fold.

She tells me she also applied to an institution in Calcutta. However, she later found out that they did not consider her application “serious” because her primary work at that time was seen as activist work (despite the research she did alongside) and also because she was a Women’s Studies scholar, which the historians at that institution did not consider “mainstream academics”. “...[And that] was unfortunate, because I was really feeling that this was not a safe situation for me anymore.”

So Wardha it was, and eventually when Wardha advertised for full-time positions, she applied and was selected. Wardha was close to Raipur, and she commuted for several years, teaching in Wardha from Monday to Friday, spending the weekend in Raipur, and going back on Monday morning. Even while her husband was in jail, she would do the commute - reading up on the case on the train back to Raipur, visiting him in jail, conveying or carrying out any instructions he had, and then preparing for lectures on the way back. At Wardha, they had a huge teaching load, a very small faculty teaching M.A., M.Phil, and Ph.D. programs. During this time, she says, her own academic work came to a standstill, apart from just the bare minimum. She became seriously unwell after that period of extreme stress.

Her apprehension that the situation was not safe was confirmed with her husband’s arrest in 2007. “There were indications I too might be picked up,” she says. However, by that time she was safely employed by her university. Binayak Sen’s case, and the associated Free Binayak movement, took a toll on the family. It was an important case - not just for the Sens, but for the entire country. Ilina Sen became the public face of the case, and became known as Binayak Sen’s wife in popular discourse. For a feminist and activist with a strong body of work, it was difficult to be known primarily as someone’s wife. Laughing, she says, “I mean, I am his wife, and we’ve had our ups and downs but on the whole we enjoy a good relationship, but now it was a primary identity, and I had to deal with that.” Her return to feminist academia was also accompanied by the consciousness that she was now known in another avatar as Binayak Sen’s wife. Occupying this role in the public eye was another part of the work of fighting the case.

The first time she went to file for bail was the first time she had stepped into a courtroom, and she had “genuinely no clue” about how legal processes worked. A lot of her time was now devoted to learning about the law and fighting the case (she kept teaching throughout this time). “You can have all the lawyers in the world (and I had many, who gave their time pro bono, I had very good support)...but even then, at the end of the day, when an affidavit has to be signed, when I have to make an application on his behalf, it goes with my signature. And when I’m signing something, I must be responsible and understand all the implications. So that [was] a huge responsibility.”

Concerned relatives and friends would get in touch all the time, suggesting strategies, people to meet, things to do. While they were all extremely worried and concerned, and were trying to be helpful, dealing with them was also a drain on her time and energy. One cousin, a newly qualified lawyer, kept suggesting she file a petition in the Supreme Court on the basis of the Constitutional Right to Freedom.

While such a petition would not have been incorrect, the case had gone way beyond that. The protest against Binayak Sen’s arrest only made the government more adamant. “...[Within] six months, it had deteriorated into a prestige-based fight with the state...the State was saying he’s a hardcore Maoist ideologue, he’s this, he’s that, and cooking up all kinds of evidence...and his friends are saying he’s this doctor who could have gone anywhere in the world and he chose to work with tribals.” Neither of these constructions of Binayak Sen, she says, are true - “they are both extreme articulations.” Whatever he did, he did out of choice and because he liked doing it, she says. Neither of them ever felt martyred. Nevertheless, the positions solidified. Meanwhile, they kept applying for bail - and kept getting refused. Once, a government officer they talked to told them - even before the judgment was out - that the government was going to refuse bail because they thought it would “demoralise the police.”

-x-

“Whatever I have done in my life and work, I can divide it into two periods...Prior to 2005, a lot of it was focused on Chhattisgarh. For anybody at that time who was doing research on Chhattisgarh, wanting to work on Chhattisgarh, when they were passing through, they would come and meet me. I met lots of people at that time - people from Delhi, international scholars - and I was recognized as someone who was au fait with those issues...When I again started writing, 2009 onwards, it was a different phase. I had seen the repressive face of the State at close quarters. My own academic interests also changed.”

While many things have changed, she reflects, she doesn’t think the transition from full-time activism to full-time academia was such a drastic change. She hasn’t left one world totally behind to move to another. Her relationships with the Chhattisgarhi mine worker women have remained strong - even after her transition to academics and moving away. “Even now when I go back to Dalli Rajhara, and go and visit my old friends - many of my old friends and very close friends are women who are mineworkers, and I still am able to meet with them with a lot of affection, spend time in their homes, eat their food, just relax there, and feel absolutely comfortable.” She acknowledges that with age, and with health issues, she may not have been able to continue activist work in any case - “it was a rough-and-tumble life.” She feels lucky to have had the resources to make a change to a less active life - despite all that has happened, she does not feel embittered.

-x-

How did her politics change after experiencing the repressive turn of events in Chhattisgarh?

“...Well, okay, [I had known about State repression before]. It was happening in Manipur. AFSPA is there. But Manipur is very far away. And I was younger, a more optimistic person...I felt that there were special issues in Manipur. And I’m sure there are...there are dominant cultures and subordinate cultures...[and] relations between them are flawed. But I felt [Manipur was] some kind of a distant reality. But what happened in Chhattisgarh was before our eyes and in very rapid succession - and that was an eye opener.” It’s not that her political positions changed, she says, thoughtfully. But they solidified, became much more forceful, and today she has a more mature understanding of the way things work.

How do activists - especially activists who are sometimes protected by their privilege - respond to the repression? What are some strategies? She thinks that people, wherever they are located, respond to repression in different ways. Irom Sharmila has been fasting for several years. Some people write about it. For example, Praful Bidwai kept writing about the connection between the State and international political economy, and how the State plays the role of a handmaiden of imperialism and corporatisation, until his last day. “As the repression grows...it is [the duty of intellectuals] to highlight it...[But for] activists, it is much more difficult.” She brings up the case of Teesta Setalvad, persecuted for her activist work. Among many other allegations, Setalvad has been accused of buying a hairdryer with institutional funds. Sen thinks this is utterly ridiculous. “Teesta...was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She does not need to use institutional resources to buy a hairdryer. Anil Ambani doesn’t need to stand in line for rations. The real issue is the work they have done.” Misinformation is spread about activists, she says, to degrade them in the eye of the public. Teesta is very strong and resourceful, and is still fighting the case, but many, she says, succumb. Many families fall apart under the pressure. So activists need to be watchful, to be sharp, to keep moving, and seize opportunities as and when they come - sometimes reinvent themselves, like she did. The situation must always be reassessed.

How does she feel about the women’s movement in India today? What does its future look like to her? It’s a big question, and she takes a minute to think. “I see some shifts. In the 80s and the early 90s the women’s movement was very vibrant and today it doesn’t seem to be quite that way.” She says that there are phases - in the 40s, there were many active feminist women in the azaadi ki ladai. In the 50s, there was a lull of peace. The 60s were again full of activism. So the movement reinvents itself, and she is sure that it will once again be vibrant. She thinks that queer organisations have maintained their solidarity networks through these phases, and have been a source of support in the feminist movement. However, she feels a certain disquiet with how it is right now. “There is a certain withdrawal from the external world into an inner world...identity discourses [are becoming prominent].” The lives of ordinary women - for example, migrants in a city like Delhi, abandoned women in the urban space, who often work as domestic help - should concern the women’s movement, and Women’s Studies also, much more than they do right now. These women and their circumstances should in fact be the central focus of the women’s movement, instead of the concern with personal identity. “I mean, the women’s movement has always had to engage with this dichotomy between the public and the private...I’m sure a time will come when there will be more engagement with the public space and the private life will become more influenced by that.”

In her book A Space Within The Struggle, which Zubaan published, Ilina Sen spoke about how women have questioned patriarchy within social movements, and how many autonomous women's movements have emerged out of that questioning. As I am speaking to someone who straddles the divide between the women’s movement and anti-class/anti-caste struggles, and someone who clearly has strong feelings about the need for activists in both movements to connect with each other and be conscious of their own and each other’s privileges and oppressions, I am curious as to how she navigates having a foot in both worlds. How can solidarity be forged between different movements in Indian society, where communities and oppressions are in no short supply and the political environment is often identitarian?

Sen acknowledges that in India, there is a tension between women’s organisations that are single-mindedly feminist to the exclusion of all other anti-oppression work, and the multidimensional women’s group she worked with in Chhattisgarh, which focused primarily on workers’ issues and took up many others in addition. The kind of hierarchy of issues that emerges out of an organisation that tries to dismantle multiple oppressions was fiercely critiqued by the former type of organisation. “I...lived the tension, and spent long periods interpreting class contradictions to feminists, and feminism to working class comrades. It was not easy, but sometimes the positions of autonomous women's groups strengthened mine in my own location, by articulating positions far more categorical than I was tactically able to myself.”

At the South Asian level, she says, women have done a commendable job of recognising the intersections of oppression and struggling against them. She gives the example of women's organisations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have been in the forefront of the struggle for peace and against militarization. “It is in India that the connection between broader movements and the autonomous women's movement is somewhat weak, and we tend to classify movements as anti communal, anti caste, et cetera.” She says that activists in any movement need to take sides, and stand with struggling people everywhere, to be able to understand the links between oppressions, and for barriers between different activist communities to dissolve.

-x-

We end our interview by talking about her daughters. Ilina Sen has adopted two daughters, Pranhita and Aparajita, at different times. Pranhita is the older one, and Aparajita is younger. I ask her what prompted this decision - and how does her decision to adopt relate to her politics, if at all? She seems to like this question. Her voice is warm and content when she says, “I have been very happy as an adoptive mother.” People have sometimes asked her, and she has asked herself, why she decided to adopt. It’s not that she did not want a biological child. Even when she was considering having a biological child, adoption was still something she was interested in. And when a biological child did not happen, she was not devastated. “The bonding I have with my daughters is very very special, and I think it would not have been any different if they had been born of my flesh and blood. About that I am very confident and so are they.”

Sen had always intentionally told her children many adoption stories, starting with Sita. But Pranhita had some insecurities about being adopted, when she first found out. When she saw the family dog having babies, she wanted to know what was going on. Sen explained that the dog was having babies, and they were coming out of her body. She was anticipating the next question - did I come out of your body like this?, Pranhita asked. Sen said, no, not out of my body, you came out of another mother’s body, and she couldn’t take care of you - she died. But another mother was waiting, so she came in. Pranhita was shocked initially, and took a while to adjust to it, Sen says - but now she’s resolved her questions, and Aparajita, Sen says, didn’t have any, because she had an older sister who was also adopted and because the family is very open about the process.

While Sen is very open about being an adoptive mother, she obviously does not have a label on her that says she is one. So sometimes when people find out, they come to her with odd questions. She relates one such instance - a student came up to her, because she had heard and was disturbed - and said that she had heard Pranhita was her “own” daughter, and Aparajita was adopted.

“So I said that they are both my own, and they are both adopted!” We both laugh. “Because really,” she continues, “what is your own?” It’s very patriarchal to think that it is someone to whom you give your seed. For the man (whose genetic inheritance is the only kind that matters under patriarchy) to pass on his genes, and to control the sexuality of his woman partner for that purpose, is central to the system of marriage and inheritance under patriarchy. So questions of ownership become crucial.

“Whereas if you love - whether you have heteronormative partners or not - if you love, those questions of what is your own, and what is not your own, dissolve.” She has never had those questions of herself.

-x-

ON TOPIC: ZUBAAN MELA IS AROUND THE CORNER. WE ARE FRAZZLED.

The Zubaan office has seen major upheaval and rearrangement over the last week. Books, shelves, and cheese(s) have been moved. We are bemused, befuddled, and often lose our way between the door and our desks. Still, we rounded up the best of the feminist interwebz for this week's On Topic, for the benefit of our faithful readers (who should all come to the Mela).

Some well written and pertinent things we have been reading:

  • A fresh and well-researched take on how imperialism uses the rhetoric of feminism to justify itself:

    Do women, their freedom, their clothes and their marriages provide some crucial avenue into establishing hegemony, a method of representing the foreign invaders as good? The most compelling reason for this enquiry is that South Asian and Afghan feminisms are tainted by an imagined complicity with colonialism and imperialism. Making explicit just how aspects of women’s lives – their clothes and marriages – have been put into the service of Anglo-American imperial projects of domination, and how little these projects have had to do with those actual women, is a step towards lifting the weight of imperial complicity on Afghan feminism.

  • Shared on the Zubaan Books Facebook page, we feel the need to once again point to this brilliant and incisive article on being Dalit, woman, and upwardly mobile in Bengal:

    ...I was told, rather absurdly by a professor that there are no Dalits in West Bengal. I had responded with a wry smile and had nothing to say. It is my contention that there are no Dalits in West Bengal because of the simple fact that Dalits are not allowed to exist. You can be a casteless Brahmin, Baidya or Kayastha. On the other side of the equation, you can be an untouchable/achyut waiting to be emancipated (accultured) by upper caste casteless radicals or you can be a scheduled caste employee perpetually embarrassed for enjoying the "privilege" of affirmative action…When I identify myself as a Dalit I am making a claim and seeking recognition for that discrimination, prejudice as well as that resistance. But inadvertently by identifying myself as a Dalit I am also doing something more. I am challenging a practice of "division of labourers" that is endemic to West Bengal. This is the division between emancipators (which includes writers, intellectuals, social activists, doctors, economists, trade union leaders, Naxalite leaders) and the to be emancipated (which includes peasants, workers in factories and homes, taxi drivers, rickshaw pullers etc).

  • In part of a series on gender (read them all!) on Medium.com's Matter, Laurie Essig tells us why we've got gender all wrong:

    ...what frustrates me is that “born this way” protects straight and cisgender persons from ever being one of us. They cannot be infected with our queer desires or queer gender presentations. In this worldview, we all enter this world with a stable gender identity and unwavering sexual desire. Identity is simple.

  • An MIT student shows how stereotypes of gender and race are destroyed by most sensible research studies.
  • A linguist tells us why criticising women's speech is not only unhelpful, but also misogynistic:

    This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance. Just as the media and the beauty industry continually invent new reasons for women to be self-conscious about their bodies, so magazine articles and radio programmes like the ones I’ve mentioned encourage a similar self-consciousness about our speech. The effect on our behaviour is also similar. Instead of focusing on what we’re saying, we’re distracted by anxieties about the way we sound to others. ‘Am I being too apologetic?’ and ‘Is my voice too high?’ are linguistic analogues of ‘is my nail polish chipped?’ and ‘do I look fat in this?’

  • A profile on the West Bank's first woman taxi driver:

    Ahmad became interested in cars at a young age - but even then, she understood that it was not considered a "normal" interest for a girl. She watched her cousins work on their engines when she was a teenager - never asking questions, but taking mental notes instead. "I can work on my own car [now]. I watched and watched, [and] now I know about cars. I can take even apart the carburettor," Ahmad said.

  • A young Muslim girl in America coped with racism by listening to Green Day. "This language, imprecise as it was, was my first political vocabulary."
  • TW: Sexual harassment, stalking. The editor of Khabar Lahariya writes about the sexual harassment she and her colleagues faced, and the difficulty they faced in getting the police to do anything about it:

    When...I said I wanted to file my FIR against this man, the SI said I should just switch my phone off if I didn’t want to talk to him. I said I couldn’t, that I needed to use my phone. So get a new SIM card. But people have this number and call me on it. So if he abuses you, abuse him back. Get the men in your house to do it. The calls will stop...He sounded like so many other men I knew. Let go of this desire to control your life, and everything will be ok. Really? One phone stalker was going to get me to let go of everything?

  • On the Munnar women's agitation in Kerala:

    Two aspects of the Munnar mobilisation need to be recognised. One, the protesters openly stressed the gender aspect of the mobilisation — Pembila Orumai (Unity of Women) is how they called themselves. Two, the protesters were part of the organised sector and members of trade unions...The women were discovering agency and identifying trade unions as a male preserve, a trend increasingly visible in women dominated work sectors.

  • On the attack on the women's train, Matribhumi, in West Bengal:

    Some women passengers reportedly said that many among the aggressors happened to be men they travelled with regularly. They expressed their utter bewilderment at the familiar dhoti-clad bhadrolok...turning into such a violent rabble of attackers and raring to assault them; an all-woman train was all that it took to rip apart the veneer of the ostensibly progressive Bengali man…Bengal prides itself on being a matribhumi state as opposed to the pitribhumi states of the Hindi heartland—a matriarchal society, not a patriarchal one. It is not uncommon to hear ordinary Bengalis, as well as political leaders representing the state, wax eloquent on Bengal’s gender equality, its respect for women, its past historic traditions of social reform, the iconic personalities of male reformers such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Ram Mohan Roy. But the bitter truth is that Bengal, much like the rest of the nation, has rarely seen women in any role except that of a mother or sister. Regardless of the shades of radicalism that have defined its politics, individual autonomy has been conscpicously absent from public and private space,  and the conversations around gender have been stripped of any radicalism. Patriarchal roots, instead of being removed, have been inadvertently nurtured.

  • On the unpaid and unrewarded labour of being an online feminist, and how community needs to mean more than likes, comments, and shares:

    The think piece industrial complex exploits the young and digitally-native, provoking those of us who are fed up, feminist, and accustomed to unpaid intellectual labor into snapping back on public forums. This organic tone of immediacy and frustration has been made into a reproducible product for click bait and ad sales. Each article's tagline claims to be more feminist and more urgent than the next. As it pluralizes feminism, it also threatens to dissolve the importance of community restoration and regeneration, and the need to slow down and reflect, in addition to snapping back.

  • On institutionalised misogyny in education, and how the school or college campus becomes a site for controlling women in India.
  • Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, writes about getting a book published as a person of colour in the U.S.:

    Here is the thing about how discrimination works: No one ever comes right out and says, “We don’t want you.” In the publishing world, they don’t say, “We just don’t want your story.” They say, “We’re not sure you’re relatable” and “You don’t want to exclude anyone with your work.” They say, “We’re not sure who your audience is.”

  • On what a #feministfail Katti Batti was:

    Today’s cinema may be a lot more open about lovers being in a relationship (or rather, not pretending to have sex behind bushes anymore) but everything is still coated with a generous layer of misogyny.

  • Speaking of movies, have you heard of 141 I Love You? (It has lesbians and animated heart shaped balloons.)

See you at the mela!

ON TOPIC: PERIOD POLITICS, #SAYHERNAME, AND "MAKING LAUNDRY FUN FOR MEN"

Let’s talk. Period.

 

Policies, Systems and Resistance

  • The recent anti-Muslim Supreme court verdict forbids hijabi women from taking an exam in the veil. Ratna Kapur speaks out, questioning the Islamophobia of the courts
  • More about women's voices in light of the verdict: a Muslim hijabi woman discusses her experience on being religiously/cultural profiled when seeking housing in the city of Delhi
  • "Saving" The Girl Child: These brave women conduct sting operations to help activists uncover the sex selection practice perpetuated by doctors to "alert" pregnant mothers
  • This recent Scroll article reveals the declining numbers of senior women advocates in India's courts
  • Delhi's first LGBTQ flash mob stuns the crowd at Connaught Place! Watch the video here.
  • What happens when adivasi women spearhead a powerful resistance movement to protect and safeguard their communities, and the forests of India?

 

Yours, Mine &  Ours: On Lives, and Lived Experiences

 

Sandra Bland, #BlackLivesMatter and the Lives of Black Women

 

On Gender, Race and Popular Culture

 

Keep reading for other engaging updates and interesting stories! We ope you had a blissful (and not-so-soggy) July.

ON TOPIC: As July splatters on

Women and Sports:

 

On the 'Runaways' revelations:

 

On Rihanna's 'Bitch Better Have My Money' video: 

  •  An interesting read on female music artists and the appropriation of violence in music videos like 'BBHMM' and 'Bad Blood'.
  • On why Rihanna's video is disturbingly misogynistic and why it is not.
  • On how the video is ultimately empowering in the context of Black Feminism. Here and here.

 

Meanwhile here in India:

 

Read on!

LALA FROM LAHORE - II

So a cup of coffee later, our conversation with Lala Rukh continues...where we talk about censorship, modern-day Pakistan and the death of activism.

 

Dakshita: Could you tell us about the kinds of events that transpired between ’81 till ’83?

 

Lala: We used to do all kinds of things. The two years before the big demonstration, there were all these issues coming up. Like I said the first protest was about the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team, we went to the airport and protested there. But that was a very initial one, humara experience bhi kuch nahi tha (We also didn’t have much experience). But I remember the political workers were also protesting, they were courting arrests and so on. People were tortured; I mean it was really bad martial law. So he (Zia-ul-Haq) had already done these things in the first few years.

From ’79 onwards he started changing school textbooks. I remember at that time one of my father’s friends used to work on the textbook board and once he came home for lunch and talked about what was going on. He told us “Har ek department mein maulvi bithaya gaya hai” (A maulvi has been appointed in every department), who would go through all texts. For instance there was one story about a letter. Matlab khat apni kahani suna raha hai, kaise us ko likha gaya aur lifaafe mein bandh kiya gaya, stamp lagayi aur phir daakia us ko ek ghar leke gaya aur usne ghanti bajai. Kisi ne darwaza khola (That a letter is narrating its story, the manner in which someone wrote inside it and then enclosed it in an envelope, how it was stamped and then the postman took it to a home where he rang the bell. And then somebody opened the door). So this maulvi said “You can’t have that, you have to say very clearly that a man opened the door!” (Laughs) The implication here was that it could be a letter written by a boy to a girl! And they were having none of that.

So we did a study on the impact of Zia-ul-Haq’s measures on education, film, also various aspects of media, ads etc. He effectively finished the film industry for a very long time. You couldn’t have women half-dressed on cinema hoardings. So what they would do was to put crosses on all of the parts of the body that would show skin — legs, arms…But there was no ban on men holding guns and things like that!

 

Shamini: You’d mentioned earlier that when you meet young people who think in a certain way, you know that they have read from the textbooks that were printed during Zia-ul-Haq’s time. Could you elaborate on that, in terms of whether it is still possible to locate that kind of thinking, is it common or are things changing?

 

L: Yeah things haven’t changed very much, you know? Because kids still have to go through those aspects of the curriculum, especially history which was entirely distorted but now they’re trying to change that slowly. Social studies bhi khatam ho gai thi (Social studies had been rendered obsolete). In place they introduced what was known as ‘Pakistan Studies’ and ‘Islamiyat’ which is mandatory all the way up to graduation. The kids that have come out of that education have actually been quite religious. I mean, we were secular people but our children are religious, because they’ve been through that education system. Although some things have changed and a lot of contradictory things are taking place now…On the one hand, you have globalization and exposure to all kinds of media but on the other side, you also have the Taliban types. So they’re somewhere in the middle and some do see that this kind of religious extremism is not acceptable. But if you end up in an argument with any of these kids, they will defend religion to death.

 

D: You had said that their basic idea was that Islam can be imposed by curtailing women’s freedom. So in terms of the censorship of women’s bodies what were the changes that took place? Was there an immediate change over to wearing burkhas or…?

 

L: No, not immediately. But he had imposed a dress-code. So if you were a government servant or especially if you were on television you had to cover your head. There was one woman that refused to wear a dupatta over her head, Mehtab Channa. She was an anchor person or newscaster and basically she just resigned over the issue and she was the only woman to do that. Everyone else covered their heads to save their jobs.

 

D: What about you and the members of WAF?

 

L: As you can see *pointing to photograph* (laughs).

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

October 1982: Lala (in front) at the national convention of the Women’s Action Forum in Lahore. Photograph by Lala Rukh.

D: So just to compare, around the same time in ’79, Iran also witnessed the Islamic Revolution when Khomeini came back and women completely lost any freedom…

 

L: Yes, in fact we would compare and say “ki inko dekho, inka toh kitna bura haal hai” (Look at them, their condition is a lot worse). Some women had come, not to meet us but for some government work, and they couldn’t even show both eyes, it was just one eye. It was that extreme! Now slowly things are changing and I think you can roam around in Iran with just a headscarf.

 

D: This is an interesting parallel, in that the coup [in Pakistan] and the revolution [in Iran] happened at the same time and in Iran things became really radical and extreme, whereas Pakistan showed serious resistance. Why do you think that is?

 

L: Geo-politics really makes a big impact. If you look at what was happening in Afghanistan at the time, the Russians had taken over. I don’t know if Zia-ul-Haq would’ve had such a long life if the Russians had not walked into Afghanistan. So, of course, America prolonged his political life, giving him full backing, arms, ammunition…you name it and he developed the Afghan Mujahideen [to counter the Soviet occupation]. These are the same people who’ve become the Taliban now, by the way, you know?

So such elements…obviously people were not very happy with Afghan refugees coming in, because that changed the whole nature of social structures. They’re much more conservative – the Afghans, especially the tribal pathaans – they’re very conservative. I think all of these radical changes were taking place at the time, and a lot of resistance was also building-up at the same time. Of course, we [WAF] were at the forefront, in the sense that we were the only ones who were organised and doing something.

On the question of why Islamisation was such a success in Iran…they had a revolution! Khomeini was brought back by people, which was not the case in Pakistan – here it was imposed. That’s the difference. And in fact in Pakistan we have never really had a conservative government. People just do not elect religious parties...they never have the majority.

 

S: You mentioned yesterday that some of the demonstrations that were held by WAF had huge support from men too — radical poets, artists etc., but that it was a conscious decision for it to be an only women’s demonstration. So where did you and these other left-wing men meet, where did you differ?

 

L: We mostly agreed on the whole issue of martial law and the issue of Islamization. But we believed, at least at the time that if you let men come into our space then they will take over. And then women don’t have that kind of confidence to push them out or express their ideas as much. So that was one of the major reasons to keep the men out. I mean c’mon, men don’t realize the kind of macho thinking they have unless you point it out to them. And then when you do, they get defensive. I mean they had never been challenged before and when we kept them out, they made jokes about us. They would call us WAFS or Wives or Waifs. (laughs) I mean they joked about it but I don’t think it came from a humorous place.

 

S: Yes, it sounds more passive-aggressive.

 

L: Yeah it was! And they felt threatened because it was a loss of control for them. I mean they were quite supportive but they loved to tell us what to do. And we wouldn’t let them! (laughs)

 

D: Do you see any parallels between the activism that happens in India and in Pakistan?

 

L: Both the Indian and Pakistani women were one of the first to start networking across the border. And because of us a lot of things started, we generated a kind of cross-border networking. But things have changed a lot now. People choose to go to conferences and seminars, things like this – which is true across world, I guess. And also I think this generation of activists are now all in senior positions. And the very nature of activism has changed, really.

 

D: Is WAF still active?

 

L: Not really. I mean what happens is that when democracy comes WAF becomes dormant. That sense of urgency is gone. But when Emergency (2007) happened we were the ones fighting at the forefront, holding up the men. 55 of us got arrested! And we were the ones to initiate any kind of serious challenge to the whole business of Talibanisation in Pakistan. And in the last Peoples Party government, a lot of our members in power and we had access to parliamentarians. In fact, they would as us, ask WAF for inputs when passing a proposed bill. So this is the kind of work that is being done more now than any street activism.

 

D: And do you regret the loss of this kind of activism in Pakistan?

 

L: Personally, I do. I mean those were very heady days. They were also dangerous but very, very heady. (laughs)

 

As told to Dakshita and Shamini Kothari

LALA FROM LAHORE - I

June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

June 2015: Lala Rukh at the Zubaan office. Photograph by Shamini Kothari.

Newly returned from the 12th Sharjah Biennale, Pakistani artist and activist Lala Rukh came visiting the Zubaan office one hot, sunny day in June. Dressed in a Beatles’ t-shirt and denims with bangles jangling on both wrists, she walked in with a lively air and began telling us stories with her easy charm: stories that captivated us, had us spend the entire day listening to her. She talked to us about her art, her inspirations, and the heady days of activism in the ’80s as she walked us through her work – photographs, posters and paintings – giving us a visual sense of all that she has been part of, of history and of history-in-making…

As she narrated anecdote after anecdote, we began to get a sense of what life and oppression under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime was like, with its rhetoric of chaadar aur chaar diwari. We learnt about the beginnings of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and how the women’s rights movement in Pakistan blossomed through intrepid acts of resistance, to counter the violence faced at the hands of repressive state arms and rampant censorship of all forms of art and media. From singing in arrest vans to the iconic chaadar burning, Lala Rukh shared her experiences with equal parts nostalgia for her days of activism and irreverence for the system.

Thoroughly inspired, we decided to interview her so that we could share with you stories of her life, her art and her work!

 

Dakshita: Was there ever a particular point when you realized that you wanted to work for women’s rights, and made that a conscious decision?

 

Lala: I had been reading a lot of the feminist literature that was coming out at the time, in the late ’70s — a lot of radical feminist literature was coming out. And actually that was very, very powerful. If you had been through something like that, it could give you a different sort of emotional upheaval. And then I became involved with the inception of the Lahore chapter of the Women’s Action Forum.

 

D: Was it a spontaneous decision to start WAF?

 

L: Yeah, it was. It was actually after General Zia-ul-Haq enforced the anti-women Hadood ordinance. You know that in ’77 General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the Bhutto government in a coup and imposed martial law in Pakistan. As part of the process of Islamisation, he enforced the Hadood Ordinance in 1979, to establish a system of justice in accordance with Islam. The most controversial aspects of the ordinance were the Zina and Qazf, under which there was no distinction between adultery and rape. If a woman reported rape, she had to produce witnesses for the same. And not just any ordinary witness, it had to be four adult male witnesses or the woman would be punished by stoning or public whipping, for the crime of adultery.

Of course nobody really considered what the implications were until the first case took place. It was known as the Fahmida-Allah Bakhsh case. With this first case under the Hadood, we realized that this can be really dangerous, you know? A woman exercising autonomy becomes a crime against the state! And now women were actually the ones that would get picked up and sent to jail on the basis of confession. If you even went and reported rape, and you were unable to produce four male Muslim eye witnesses then you were in for adultery. So when the first case happened, in Karachi, about four or five women decided to get together and discuss what the hell was going on!  And that is how it started.

 

D: Was this at the university? Were you studying together in Lahore?

 

L: No, no this was in Karachi, while I was teaching art at the Punjab University, in Lahore. And these were women who had been working as journalists, in theatre and so on. There was Najma Sadeque, Aban Marker and others. And two people from Lahore were there – Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz – who then came back to Lahore and told us that some women from Karachi had decided to form uh, Women’s Action—I think Forum. And they called a big meeting of a lot of women and that’s when we decided that we would also start a Women’s Action Forum in Lahore, all on basis of that first case.

 

Shamini: What was the initial period like? As in, how did you know where to start, what to do, what to say?

 

L: Well you see, one of the things that the two women (Farida Shaheed and Farrukh Nigar Aziz) came back with, was a 13-point charter, very basic you know? Although it is still very much there, but we really didn’t have to say “Okay, now we’re going to do this or that,” because such events were taking place that it just galvanized more and more women.

First one, was the Pakistan Women’s Hockey team that was banned in 1981. So that got a lot of women very upset and more women came together. After that there was this, uh, Dr. Israar Ahmed, who was a mullah, who made statements like, all women should be sent home—pensioned off and sent home, women should not be seen on the streets, they should be covered and so on. Oh! And that they should not even answer the phones, because their voice could be enough provocation. I mean look at the power we have! (laughs) It was all quite ridiculous. And it angered all of us so we started a campaign (mostly through the press) against him and he was removed from the council of Islamic Ideology and his television programme was also removed — so we felt very powerful (laughs). And then almost immediately after that, we had our first National Convention when there were already three chapters. First Karachi, then Lahore and then Islamabad and a year later in, Peshawar. And so it was the 10th of October in ’81 that WAF started in Lahore.

 

S: So how did the older generation at the time — you parents, teachers — take to Zia-ul-Haq’s laws?

 

L: Nobody really agreed with them. I remember talking to the cleaning lady who would come to our house and told her that this is what he is saying, that your testimony alone will not be enough and she said, “How is that possible? Is he mad?!” So nobody was really in favour of all of his laws against women except of course the fundamentalists. And they’re still at it.

 

D: So then the majority chose to stay silent.

 

L: Yes, of course. I mean martial law is no joke, you know? Since Zia-ul-Haq came to power he banned all political parties, arrested all their leaders. There was no leadership to even start a movement. And he clamped down on a lot of liberties, so people were afraid. In fact he even publicly hanged two men — like a spectacle and it was all broadcast on television, live. So it immediately filled people with terror. But there were also quite a few people that had the courage to do things. Usne Bhutto (Z.A. Bhutto) ko arrest kara diya tha (He had had Bhutto arrested) and so Peoples Party (Pakistan Peoples Party/PPP) workers were coming out and a lot of them immolated themselves. But nothing really took off in a big way… these were isolated incidents here and there.

I think WAF was the only organization that was consolidated. We were very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have an office or a permanent space, we were just meeting here and there — in people’s homes and nobody could really catch us. So it was a very amorphous body. Anyone who came was a WAF member. But we were clear that we didn’t want any right wing elements to come in and take over. But because of the nature of the group there was a lot of difference in opinion, and especially with the chaadar burning (below), we got a lot of flak.

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.  Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

February 1983: Lala Rukh (far left) along with other members of the WAF burning their chaadars to protest the Islamisation under Zia-ul-Haq’s regime.
Photograph by Rahat Ali Dar

S: Why? What was the reaction?

 

L: Basically, they said “we don’t want people turning against us” and so on. I mean this kind of symbolism was very powerful, the burning of a chaadar and especially when the whole state’s vocabulary was ‘chadar aur chaar diwari’. And also people are conservative you know? You have all shades of opinion. But the funny thing was that I was sitting in one row and behind me were the other two women [from the protest] and they were wondering if we should confess because it was our little plot and I was like, “Shh! Chup kar ke sun lo (Shh! Let’s just listen quietly) Why should we confess?” (laughs)

 

Watch this space for more from the interview.

 

ON TOPIC: WHAT WE'VE BEEN READING LATELY, PART II

Presenting Part II of 'What We've Been Reading Lately' and hoping that we can make it a more regular feature.

What's on T.V.:

 

On trans-activism, trans and queer identities (internationally and in India):

 

On the Obergefell verdict:

 

Selfies and Sexism:

 

On Gender, Sexuality & Feminism:

Happy reading!

Mobile version: Enabled