Where are all the feminists in India
"My mission is to make women's voices heard in society."
Axel Harneit-Sievers: Urvashi, congratulations on being awarded the Goethe Medal! You have long-standing connections to Germany, and not least to the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Urvashi Butalia: We have been in contact with the hbs for at least 15 years. Heinrich Böll had been known to me as a writer for a long time and I also knew that he was close to the Green Party. I met Petra Kelly in the 1980s. I was co-organizing the first international feminist book fair in London in 1984, and we invited Petra Kelly to give a speech there.
A real collaboration with the hbs began when the foundation, together with the Goethe-Institut and Zubaan, held a series of lectures on the division of India. From then on, there were always jointly organized events such as the “Cultures of Peace - Festival of the Northeast”, which attracts more people every year. We now have a very natural partnership in which you immediately think of each other when a certain type of project is about to come to life. For example, after the gang rape and the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi in 2012, we jointly organized an exchange program with the media and writers from South Africa. I learned a lot in the process: about the special courts that negotiate cases of child abuse, where the questioning of children is carried out with much more sensitivity than in India, and about the use of so-called "rape kits", a set of equipment for investigations a rape. Indian women's groups are still fighting to acquire such equipment.
Feminism, the division of India and peripheral regions
Your work and the work of your publisher are devoted to at least three areas: As the first feminist publisher in India, you of course first publish publications on the topic of women's rights, but you and the publisher also deal with the division of India and the region of Northeast India. How are these three big issues related and how did you come into contact with them?
In my head, these topics are very closely linked. And I'll tell you why:
The feminist publishing industry, which I entered into in 1984 when I founded Kali, India's first women's publisher, had a professional and personal background. I had previously worked in a general publishing house. At the same time, I was also very involved in the women's movement that was emerging in India at the time. We were young activists faced with many questions.
For example, we dealt with "dowry murders" and sexual violence. We had no idea of the historical causes and the sociological background of these phenomena. We didn't know why the dowry took this form. How did it come about that the trousseau, which should actually belong to the wife for her personal use, got into the hands of the husband's family? How did marriage come about as an economic advancement for men? Then why are some of these men killing their wives? And how did these patterns spread across all castes and classes? We didn't understand any of this. As a young feminist and publisher at Oxford University Press in Delhi, I asked my superiors, who were all really wonderful, empathetic men, why we didn't publish books on these subjects. And her answer was, “Well, who reads books about women? Do women write at all? ”… Young, courageous and daring as I was, I thought to myself: Okay, then I'll do it myself.
I noticed that hardly anything was published by women, hardly anything had been published by women or about women. It was almost as if they didn't even exist. So it became a kind of mission to locate the voices of women and make them heard in society. And that is exactly what the founding of Kali was all about. I also realized that much of what we knew about women came from Western scientists who would come here, stay here for a while, write a report, and then leave. So I asked myself whether we could not also build up knowledge about ourselves. This was not an essentialist attitude, but an attitude based on the question of who was best suited for this building of knowledge. And that was us: we had to and must find out everything about ourselves.
It all started in 1984, the year Indira Gandhi was murdered and Delhi changed a lot. That led me to deal much more intensively with the question of the partition of India. Two things happened:
I had previously worked with two friends of mine who had made a film about the partition of India and asked me to help them with their research. I had also traveled around Punjab a little to find survivors of the partition. When I then listened to their stories, a thought process started again here: These stories have been around us all the time. Why haven't I listened to it before?
The 1984 Sikh massacre
Then came the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Delhi was unrecognizable. There were burns everywhere, tires and buses were set on fire, and numerous Sikhs were killed. Many citizens formed a solidarity group called Nagrik Ekta Manch. This group, with whom we all worked, took care of the victims of violence. I was part of a group that worked with a Sikh community that was really badly affected by the violence. Each of us has been assigned a specific task. I was supposed to write down the testimony so that someone could sue for compensation or something similar later. So I made a note of what people told me, and here too the division kept coming up. And again my mindset changed.
Many of these Sikhs had actually come to Delhi in 1947?
Yes. And when they talked about what had happened, 1947 seemed to somehow merge with 1984. They kept saying: We didn't expect something like this to happen in our own country. And I asked myself: If four or five days of violence can traumatize people in such a way, how must it have been back then [at the time of the division]?
Drive to Lahore
It was then that I decided to take a closer look at the division. I then went to Pakistan in 1986 or 1987 to visit an uncle in Lahore who had not fled in 1947 but became a Muslim. My family never saw him again, but I was told a lot about him. I don't remember how I got there, but I got a visa. However, I didn't have the courage to go straight to my uncle's house. So I lived one day, another day and a third day with a friend. On the third night, her sister suggested that Paan go out to eat. In Lahore there are certain shops that are particularly good for paan. So I drove off with her. She had something else in mind, however. After dinner she said: Come on, let's drive past your grandfather's house. We are very close. My uncle had stayed in Lahore and still lived in the house my grandfather had built. I agreed and we drove slowly past the house. The house looked dark, but there was a light on on the porch. It was one of those big old houses with a circular driveway. The gate was open and with the words, “let's take a look”, she simply drove onto the property, even though it was almost 10 p.m. She stopped and said, “Okay, get out. I'll pick you up in an hour. That's what you made this trip for. No fear." Then she drove away and I thought: Well, while I'm here. I rang the doorbell and three women answered: my aunt, her daughter-in-law and my uncle's daughter, a cousin of mine. I explained who I was and that I came from the other side of the border. They greeted me with great cordiality and warmth and invited me into the house, where we talked to each other for the entire hour. My uncle wasn't there, but I left my phone number. When he got home at midnight, he called me immediately. I talked to him and drove back to the house the next morning. And of course that triggered a tremendous amount in me.
That finally led me to research the history of the division. I approached the first publications with a feminist perspective that I had acquired on the streets. This perspective enabled me to take a different look at the stories of ordinary people, children, women and castes, and let me see everything that is otherwise not perceived when looking through the popular lens.
Expansion of feminist knowledge
We saw ourselves as feminist publishers who wanted to oppose the male grip on knowledge. That is why we tried to create alternative knowledge through women. First, however, we had to unpack the "Woman" category. In India, when you hear the word "woman" you always think of the many different realities. It was not enough to sit in Delhi and publish what upper-middle-class women write in English and then claim we had taken up women's issues. We had to look beyond Delhi, beyond the urban space. We were not allowed to ignore the exclusion based on language, region, place of residence, class and caste. Only if we didn't ignore all of this could we call ourselves truly feminist publishers who make alternative voices heard. And that's exactly why we publish the stories of taxi drivers and domestic workers. We don't make a lot of money from it, but it is important to publish it. And in connection with the various exclusions, we also looked at two other regions, namely Kashmir and Northeast India.
We turned to Kashmir first because more difficult questions were being raised by the women of Kashmir at the time. Up until the 1990s, Kashmir was an issue that suffragettes never talked about because for us it somehow belonged in the nationalist narrative. Although the women in Kashmir were exposed to special forms of violence, it did not penetrate our consciousness that we had to show our solidarity in any way. The women in Kashmir then began to indict the Indian women's movement: “Why did you never shake hands with us in friendship?” We had never before thought that we were also victims of violence not only from the Indian army but also from militant leaders, our own Men, were. After this criticism, our attitude changed.
Back in 2000, there were hundreds of books about Kashmir, but not a single one about women. So we brought out the first book - I think it was written in English - about women in Kashmir in an Indian publisher. Speaking Peace is a collection of writings by and about women, but at the time we couldn't find many Kashmiri women who could write, so many of the women who wrote about Kashmir were outsiders, but that, too, has changed a lot since then.
The inclusion of Northeast India
At that point I thought we should look into northeast India as well. At the time we were working with Preeti Gill, who edited The Peripheral Center for us. Through the book we met many authors. Women’s literature in particular contributed to the interest in Northeast India. Through the local women's movement there were further connections with the region and contacts with local groups such as the North East Network, the Naga Mothers Association and other groups developed. We also had another German point of contact with Edda Kirleis from the Evangelical Development Service. The EED carried out a very interesting project there called "Islands of Peace", with the aim of researching why it was possible to remain peaceful in some areas in times of conflict. They asked me to write a treatise on the Naga-Kuki conflict for them. So I went to northeast India - to Kokrajhar and other places near Tamenglong. We have been able to deepen the close connections established through this work over the years.
I also worked on a major project called the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project by an Oxfam-supported group. In this context, a most amazing meeting between women from Northeast India and Kashmir was organized. They met for the first time and it was a closed event. Apart from a few trustworthy women and journalists, we did not admit any outsiders. In this way, the women were able to discuss grassroots organization and how to deal with domestic violence and nationalism without being disturbed. That too opened my eyes to what was going on in the two regions. From this meeting many independent relationships developed and the women visited each other.
Has interest in northeast India increased since then?
At that time hardly anyone was interested in the region, which has definitely changed today. In terms of publications and literature, Northeast India is now "sexy". Everyone wants to publish authors from this region, which is good because they now have a lot more options than they used to. In addition, many of the northeastern areas have traveled outside of their region. At first they were extreme outsiders in society, in places like Delhi, Bangalore, Pune and others, but now they are very eloquent and can make their voice heard. I believe that the media are also much more interested in northeast India than they used to be. Unlike other regions, Northeast India has many of its own really excellent scientists. That too draws more attention to the region.
Just in passing and as an impression: I noticed that there seems to be a greater spirit of enterprise and adventure in northeast India. Lots of young people try new things. All sorts of things happen in terms of music, culture and fashion. At our next “Culture of Peace” event in Shillong there will also be a forum on homosexual identities in the region. There is a transgender community in Manipur that is establishing itself in the fashion industry. I suspect that in Kashmir there is no room for things of this kind because everyday life is so restricted by the presence of the army.
Most of all, what has piqued my interest in recent years is the way the people of Northeast India talk about the division. That opened up completely new perspectives for me. The consequences of the division were very different depending on the area. In Assam they can still be recognized today by the marginalization of Muslims and the debates about migrants and outsiders. The effects are felt differently in other areas. For example, there were markets on the border with Bangladesh that were run by the Khasi tribe. When Sylhet [a region in the plains south of the Khasi Mountains] fell to East Pakistan, all raw material deliveries failed to materialize and the tribes became impoverished because they had nothing left to sell. They had no idea what was going on; they just knew that their life had changed.
The people and Indian-Pakistani relations
Relations between the Indian and Pakistani governments are always difficult at best, but at a low point at the moment. At the same time, there seem to be many people in civil society striving to improve relationships.
Until now, we basically never knew what the people of Peshawar thought of India, and neither did they know what people in Chhota Nagpur or Bastar thought of Pakistan. Overall, however, I believe that people are curious and have a great interest in one another. You are inquisitive. For example, when I go to Pakistan, I don't just talk to people around me. Other people you meet on the street are also very interested, want to know everything about India and would like to visit the country. My cousin has never got outside of Lahore's city limits, but his children are very interested in India. You have looked a lot on the internet and would like to meet people from India.
Something similar happens in the diaspora, where people talk to each other. But our governments are still at a distance, which has got worse with the current government. It is now almost impossible to get a travel visa in either direction. But I don't think that human contact will be lost. And that will perhaps prepare the ground for peace somewhere. There was a time when many business people said that given the apparent impossibility of a political solution, they could open the borders to trade and commerce ... or at least talk about it. There's a little bit of cross-border trading, but it could be a lot more. I don't know when that will ever change.Where else in the world are there two nations that treat each other like that, except India and Pakistan and North and South Korea?
Free speech in India today
Today - around the 70th anniversary of its independence - one cannot talk about India without expressing concerns about freedom of expression in the country, about increasing intolerance and polarization of collective identities.
As a publisher of material that might be considered subversive, I am indeed very concerned. By our definition, we are doing our job: making women's voices heard. Does anyone have the right to interpret it differently? Unfortunately, there is currently an atmosphere of vigilantism and the state silently ignores the intolerance of a variety of voices, opinions and ways of thinking. All of this has serious implications for the publishing world in which I live, and no less serious consequences for the freedom of authors to write what they want.
Let me give you a few examples: The Tamil writer Perumal Murugan was attacked for one of his books and received threats of violence. This was a protest against the way he portrayed relationships between the castes. Contrary to other announcements, he continues to write.
The author Hansa Sowvendra Shekhar of the Santal tribe in Jharkhand, who wrote two books and received the Sahitya Academy Award, was also attacked on the grounds that he had cast the tribal women in a bad light. One of his stories features a tribal woman who has sex with a non-tribe man because she needs money to support her children. A story like this happens every day in many countries, not just India. There is a demonstration against Shekar, who lives as a medical officer in the area, and replicas of him are burned. He lives alone and is scared. Now the Jharkhand government has banned his book because the attacks are from his own tribe. The state is resorting to a simple solution out of self-interest, because it is only interested in votes and in Jharkhand the votes of the tribal members are very important. The government cannot afford to lose these votes, but it is okay for them to sacrifice this one man for it.
When it comes to women too, there are a number of things that worry me. Last year, student protests took place at Jawaharhal Nehru University in Delhi, which were supported by lecturers with public lectures. One of them, Nivedita Menon, is now under investigation. She was asked to give reasons for speaking to students in the administration building. It is not a crime for lecturers to speak to students. And nothing in the employment contract indicates that students can only be addressed in the classroom. Nevertheless, the university is now investigating them. The proceedings are being led by a man against whom she had testified in a public trial for sexual harassment and who was also found guilty. He works like her at the university and she testified against him. How can one expect neutrality there?
The case of Vrinda Grover, a human rights lawyer who is particularly committed to the rights of women, is similar. She is currently representing a woman in the trial of Rajendra Pachauri, a well-known Indian climatologist, who is on trial for sexual harassment. He has now, in turn, filed a defamation suit against her on the grounds that because of the way she conducts the negotiations, he has lost all of his friends, has no longer received invitations to conferences, that his career is suffering, etc. The court has advised Vrinda Grover not to speak about him in the media, without indicating that the proceedings against him have not yet been concluded. The attorneys, on the other hand, should riot as one, because it is their job to say what is in the best interests of their clients, regardless of their own opinion or point of view. A lawyer cannot be accused of defamation for the practice of his profession. But there is no support for Vrinda Grover from other lawyers because she works in the field of human rights and because she is a woman.
Many of these things are the result of actions by one government agency or another. Let me give you another example where the government interfered at a point where it shouldn't have. Section 498A of the Code of Criminal Procedure enables women to report domestic violence or the like. Unlike other laws (such as the Domestic Violence Act), criminal proceedings can be initiated immediately and the man arrested and imprisoned so that the woman is safe. Some men had complained that this section was being abused and women were making false accusations. There may be a handful of such cases, but all the statistics show that the number of false accusations is negligible. The courts have upheld the men's complaints and repealed the law. They decided that before a man could be arrested and imprisoned, another judicial body such as a family court or the like had to be set up to decide whether the allegation was justified or false. And the Ministry of Women and Child Development (under Maneka Gandhi), which shouldn't have got involved, immediately instructed the national women's committee to set up sites on the Internet where men can lodge complaints against false allegations. The Ministry of Women and Child Development? One wonders who it actually works for. This ministry must clearly demonstrate that it is committed to the protection of citizens and human rights.
Thank you for talking to us, Urvashi.
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