Kamla Bhasin: In Conversation with Pratibha Umashankar

Speaking from the trenches of war against patriarchy

Kamla Bhasin is a well-known feminist activist, social scientist and writer. Her works include, Understanding GenderSome Questions on Feminism and its Relevance in South AsiaExploring MasculinityWhat is Patriarchy and the groundbreaking Borders & Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, which she has co-authored with Ritu Menon. She speaks to Pratibha Umashankar about redefining Feminism and the importance of chronicling women's histories.

Pratibha Umashankar: You have been saying, 'Do not be afraid of Feminism, join it'. What has been the response to it over the years? How varied have they been?
Kamla Bhasin: On the whole, the response has been very good. The booklet that ends with this slogan (Some Questions on Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia, Kamla Bhasin and Nighat Said Khan, 1986) is being used in almost every university teaching Women's Studies–it's been used by Indira Gandhi Open University. So Feminism is being taught now by mainstream colleges and universities and in Women's Development Centres. Prime Ministers of countries like Canada–men–are saying that they are Feminists. So we are reaching to people. And more and more men today are identifying with it. So I think we're getting there. But against us is this whole capitalist patriarchy, which is very, very powerful. And the media is part of that capitalist patriarchy. And so, conservative media continues to say nasty things about us. And there's a whole war against feminists.

PU: You have also stated that Feminism needs to be explained again and again. Why? And what has changed?
 Feminism is a response to sexism. It's a response to patriarchy. It's nothing in itself. Patriarchy is constantly changing. Thirty years ago, sex ratio was not an issue. Twenty years ago, cybercrime against women was not an issue. Twenty years ago, getting cancer from cosmetics was not an issue. So every day there's a new issue. So Feminism and feminist responses need to keep changing. So I've always said that Feminism should be and has been like water. Water is H2O–hydrogen and oxygen–anywhere. Put in a bottle, it takes the shape of the bottle. In a river, it takes the shape of the river, in a tiny bucket, it takes the shape of a bucket. Similarly, Feminism is anti-patriarchy anywhere. In Africa, it would talk of genital mutilation. In India, it will talk of dowry. In Bangladesh, it would talk of other issues. So it needs to change constantly. And we Feminists need to constantly also change and explain.

PU: You have also said that Feminism is the only ism which enters households, and challenges the status quo. How have Indian males dealt with it?
Impossible to generalise either Indian women or Indian men. There are men: like Aamir Khan, who does so many programmes on Satyameva Jayate against patriarchy; and like that there was a man like Babasaheb Ambedkar, who headed the Constituent Assembly and gave us our rights; there were men like Jyotiba Phule. So there have been men like that. And there are other men, who order killing of women who wear certain clothes. So there are all kinds of men, and there are all kinds of responses. Some of them have been even our gurus–the Baul men, the Kabir Panthi men. And those who are neither men nor women.

PU: You believe that patriarchy dehumanises men. Could you explain it?
I feel that a man who can rape is not a human being. First, because of what he is doing to his own body. He makes his body a weapon. What is his relationship with his body? How does he live with that body? Does he use the same weapon with his wife? Can a man like that have a normal loving relationship with any woman? What's his relationship with his progeny? He leaves his progeny in the wombs of sex workers, in the wombs of women he rapes. He can have no relationship with emotions because of patriarchy. He can have no relationship with anybody. Then what is his relationship with others? Power? Just control? The Government of India says, 40% of husbands beat their wives. A human being can't beat up a wife. Can't beat up children. A person who can't control his anger–and it has nothing to do with their anger–because, these men who beat their wives don't beat their bosses, ever. They don't beat other men. So it's got nothing to do with men not being able to control their anger. Where they have to, they do.

PU: Women's writing and writing for women on gender issues is important. Your generation took it up very seriously and did pioneering work. Has writing by women got diluted in some way over the decades? Has it become less urgent in its tone and tenor?
I don't think so. So many more women today are writing from a feminist perspective. So many more women are directing films. There are young feminist scholars. And also, many men are writing as feminists. So I really don't think it's gone down.

PU: So the passion has not got diluted, but taken different forms.
Yes, it's taken different forms.

PU: Women want to be recognised as writers first, rather than as women. But they are critiqued as women writers, or rather, analysed as women writers. What do you think about it?
Those women who say, 'Recognise me as a writer first', are right. Every time a Black person writes, they say, 'He's a Black writer'. When a White person writes, they never say, 'He's a White writer'. When men write, you never say, 'They are male writers'. Because they are the norm. We women are the abnormal who're coming in. So I understand when they [women writers] say, 'Why's the man the norm? I'm a writer. Judge me as a writer. But I do bring something to my writing'. A man brings to his writing his sensibilities. And a woman brings her sensibilities.

PU: You were born in 1946. In a way, you are Partition's child. You must have heard Partition narratives over and over again over the years, growing up. Conversations have been changing about Partition. How was it then, and how is it now? We see manifestations of Partition even today, vis-à-vis the India-Pakistan relationship. So how have the conversations changed? How have the tropes changed?
When we were born, there was a lot of it. And then for many years, it became less. But every time a war took place–in 1965 or the Bangladesh War [in 1971], it became a topic of conversation. And when 1984 took place, where we killed 5000-6000 Sikhs in three nights, Sikhs talked about Partition again. And that's when Ritu [Menon] and I decided to do the book (Borders & Boundaries: Women in India's Partition, 1998), because, once again, we were dividing the Hindus and Sikhs. And people who had suffered Partition once, were suffering Partition again. These days, the attack on Muslims–Muslims are facing Partition again. In Delhi, you'll find ghettoisation of Muslims. They're leaving communities where they were living with Hindus and moving into two or three locations–Jamia Nagar and places like that. So now, in Muzaffarnagar and Gujarat, people are not able to go back to their own villages. And if politics is getting religious overtones and religion is being used by politics'…. Partition is increasing. So Partition is not only between India and Pakistan. There are different kinds of Partitions going on. In Pakistan, it is Partition between Shias and Sunnis. In India, between Hindus and Muslims, Hindus-Sikhs. It's also between Dalits and Brahmins. And now the Dalit story is coming up again. So I think Partition is now becoming really relevant because of the politics of hatred. That's what Partition was about–politics of hatred.

PU: It means these conversations are extremely important, and that we have to keep it going.
KB: Unfortunately, they are important. I was hoping, as a child, they would disappear. But unfortunately, it's still important.

PU: You–and feminist activists like you–have achieved a lot by chronicling oral histories as testimonies of women, especially about gendered violence during Partition, from victims of gendered violence. What are the advantages–here I use a very facile word, advantage–of it and what are the pitfalls that you were aware of, while gathering oral histories?
One of the advantages is that people who would never write–their histories or their 'her stories', through oral histories–you can reach out to them. So the women we interviewed would never have written their stories. So you can go to the subalterns. You can talk to them. All history has been written by the winners–the victorious people. Not the demolished. And it's been written by the powerful. So I think oral history goes to those who have not written and who wouldn't write, and looks at them and talks to them. That I think is the biggest advantage. Plus it gets you close to emotions. Other writing can become very sanitised.

PU: Like official histories?
Yes. And I don't know what disadvantages there can be. I mean, it's a subjective story–all history is subjective. When we collect oral histories, we don't say, it's objective. It's from the point of view of those people who are talking. So, I don't really know what really could be the pitfalls. I'm sure academics know.

PU: You and Ritu Menon have dedicated Borders & Boundaries 'To all those women who survived Partition and lived to tell the tale'. These oral histories of women, who, otherwise would have been dehistoricised, as you said, are the subalterns. So do you really believe the subalterns can speak, even if it's through someone?
Of course, they can speak.

PU: But someone has to lend them their voice and facilitate their speaking.
Yes, because of the kind of world we live in, where a tiny minority controls the world. If we lived in a more egalitarian society, the word 'subaltern' wouldn't exist. It's because we are sitting on them and their bodies and their voices, their tongues. So, of course, they can speak. And why are they subalterns? Because we don't want them to speak.
Now I find that even within Feminism, which started for equality, we have inequality. If you have a book of Indian feminists, for example, all of them are upper-class women. Not one is even a lower-middleclass woman. We are not the only feminists in the country. I mean, there are all kinds of other women, who make up the bulk of feminist stories. What about the 50 others, for god's sake! So this is the class structure of Feminism. So then, I did a book of 50 people in Himachal Pradesh–people who work with us in Jagori. I invited our staff to write their stories based on an open-ended questionnaire and brought out a 300-page book–stories by people writing about their work in Himachal. The book is printed by Jagori Rural, Himachal Pradesh, and is called, Sach hote sapnon ka safar: Jagori Grameen ke saathiyon ki kahaaniyaan, and was published in 2014. I think it's extremely important to do that.
PU: What about other subaltern groups, for example, Dalit women? And other areas which need to be explored?
KB: I think the Dalit women are writing much more. I think the transgender people are [writing]. For example, A Revathi's book (The Truth about Me: A Hijra Life Story, Translated from the Tamil by V Geetha, 2011). She was a man, and she is now a woman'…she's gone through a surgery. Amazing book! It's the kind of book you are talking about. Now the gay people are writing their histories, lesbians are writing from their perspective. So I think it's continuing. And as more and more people from there get into the mainstream, as they get educated, it will happen. Yes. And in other areas, Uma Chakravarti's book on Sikh massacres (The Delhi Riots: Three Days in the Life of a Nation, Uma Chakravarti and Nandita Haksar, 1987), and in Sri Lanka, the Tamils….

PU: This brings me to the question of activism and writing. The two converge in your work. But generally speaking, how successful has it been?
I don't think enough has been done. I think much more needs to be done. Much more needs to be written by activists. And much more needs to be written by academics, in a language and style and idiom which we can understand. Much more work needs to be done on that.

PU: Publishing houses dedicated to women's writing have given a great impetus to women's writing. Has it started a movement of women's writing in India?
It happened because there was a movement. And they felt that this was required. And I think they gave a lot of impetus to it. But I don't think women started writing because there was a feminist publishing house. But because women were writing, there was a publishing house. But always, one leads to the other.

PU: In your opinion, what is Feminism, in a nutshell? 
KB: Feminism is an ideology, it's an action programme–totally essential to save our families, to save our communities. And as I said, Feminism is not against men. It's against patriarchy. Many men are feminists. And many women are anti-feminist.