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Zubaan's Poster Women Archive and International Museum Day

CaptureInternational-Museum-Day-2017

In 2006, Zubaan embarked on a journey to visually map the trajectories of Indian women's movements. We collected over 1500 posters and various paintings from women’s groups all over the country, each representative of a different issue and perspective. The culmination of this journey is our thematically organized Poster Women archive.

Zubaan’s engagement with the idea of women’s museums grew out of its involvement with Poster Women. Over 200 posters from the archive were a part of an exhibition that travelled all over the country and beyond. This raised larger questions of whether creating a museum to house these and other artefacts from women’s movements was possible. In 2013, with the support of the Ford Foundation, Zubaan created a proposal that looked at the possibility of setting up a women’s museum in India, one that would showcase women's struggles, provide educational material, run workshops etc. While some may question the existence of a separate women’s museum, we think that it is important. Women’s histories and struggles have been left out of the dominant narrative, reinforcing the imbalances that patriarchy produces. Creating a space that acknowledges and appreciates the achievements of women thus becomes important.

The International Association of Women's Museums (IAWM) was founded in 2008 to bring women's museums all over the world together, and to work towards providing them with more visibility and public acceptance. May 18th is celebrated around the world as International Museum Day, and since this year's theme was “Museums and contested histories: Saying the unspeakable in museums”, we collaborated with the IAWM and participated in a global social media campaign to show that by speaking the unspeakable, women’s museums make women’s histories visible.

Traditionally, a museum is an entity that occupies a physical space. However, the existence of technology has now made it possible for historical objects to be displayed in the digital space, a space that transcends borders and boundaries. Physically, no such space dedicated to women’s histories exists in India, but in cyberspace, the Poster Women archive serves that purpose. Indian women’s movements have grappled with several issues since their inceptions, and the archive thus acts as a resource that people can access to see what topics these movements have engaged with over the years, and how the movements have perpetuated and represented themselves through the images they produce.

The following posters have been selected from the archive, and the asterisked (*) posts were published on our social media pages for the IAWM campaign. To view more posters and paintings, visit here.

 1. Domestic Violence: Swayam, Kolkata*

Titled 'In Our Community', this poster highlights the need to combat domestic violence collectively and through communities. These campaigns use the recurring image of the home not as a haven or shelter, but a silencing prison faced regularly by women. This reveals violence within the house as not a personal or family matter, but a systemic problem demanding public attention and policy intervention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 2. Religion: ‘Do Not Speak’ & ‘Stranglehold of Religion’ by Sheba Chhachhi and Jogi Panghaal, Lifetools, for Saheli*

collage

Indian family law, or personal law, is codified separately for four communities – Hindus (including Sikhs and Jains), Muslims, Christians and Parsis. Taken once to be a symbol of the Indian state’s commitment to minority rights, personal law nonetheless continues to be incredibly discriminatory towards women and their rights. This has been an important point around which Indian women’s movements have organized.

 

 

3. Environment: UBING, Dhaka (Created during a workshop in India with Kamla Bhasin)

‘We sow seeds, so there is life’-Women have always been an intrinsic part of the ecological movement due to the larger threat environmental degradation poses to their habitats and source of livelihood. This poster is reflective of how women come together as a driving force against various state and non state actors to protect their means of survival—the environment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Dowry Deaths: Roopa, Bihar*

 "Could This Be Your Daughter?"-This emotive poster depicts a young bride, blindfolded and muzzled by news headlines of dowry-related deaths. In the 1980s, the women’s movement in Delhi led protests and campaigns to reform the anti-dowry law (amended in 1984 and 1986).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Sexuality: Vikalp, Gujarat

3 sexuality

Same sex couples in India have had to grapple with being called ‘abnormal’ and ‘unusual’. Their sexuality is seen as a deviance from traditional Indian culture as well as a result of the ‘bad’ influence of Western culture. This poster asserts that being Indian and being homosexual are not mutually exclusive. Further, by virtue of being human, homosexuals deserve certain human rights.

 

 

 

 

6. Labour: Kamla Bhasin, Kali For Women*

This poster says ‘My wife does not work’ and then goes on to name the many tasks that ‘housewives’ traditionally juggle: cleaning, cooking food, washing clothes, giving birth and raising children, taking care of the sick and elderly, and more. Domestic work and care giving remains unrecognized and undervalued as labour, and, consequently, often goes unpaid. The many-armed working woman, in this image, is reminiscent of traditional images of the goddess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7. Reproduction: Voluntary Health Association, Orissa

health

 

When it comes to the sex of a baby, many Indian families prefer sons. Thus, women who bear daughters are often subjected to taunting, social boycott, battering, desertion and even murder. This poster which says ‘Men determine the sex of the child’ is an example of one of many posters that were created by groups to dispel myths about reproduction and reduce harassment against women.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 8. Education: Akshara Vijaya, Karnataka

‘Education for every house, a light for every home’: In 1974, a report released by the Committee on the Status of Women in India revealed that in spheres like education, employment and legal access, the condition of women had worsened. The report both shocked and inspired—women’s groups all over the country conducted campaigns, seminars and workshops to address this gap. This Telugu poster shows a woman from the Lambadi nomadic tribe learning how to write. It was originally made for the Sampurna Saksharta Andolan (Total Literacy Campaign).

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Text for all the captions posted above has been adapted from 'Our Pictures, Our Words', eds. Laxmi Murthy & Rajashri Dasgupta]

 

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.

 

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