Author: Nadia Imtiaz
Date: 1 – 10 September 2019
I feel lucky and thankful for many things, events and people in my life. After every small disruption, something extraordinary happens, and I am filled with positive energy. Early this year, I was told that alongwith all the other health issues, I am developing cataract in both my eyes. I understand that it’s not a big thing, but with two other long-term illnesses, I just don’t want anything else wrong with my body. I came home from the eye clinic and started exploring internet for more research papers on self-awareness and human rights. In my PhD research I am exploring the link and impact of mindful self-awareness on embodying human rights values. Bizarrely enough, I can’t find one writing, research or experiment on this topic. Then I stumbled upon Insan Foundation Trust’s post about a month-long training programme on Gender, Sustainable Livelihoods, Human Rights, and Peace, organised by SANGAT (The Feminist Network). I looked at the programme details and there it was. Hidden mid-way through the programme, 3 days teaching on ‘Self Awareness and Human Rights’. I was thrilled to read the course title. There wasn’t much detail on what the three days covered, but the fact that someone in the world is linking self- awareness to human rights made me jump up and down with excitement. Then I realised it’s a feminist network and I got bit apprehensive.
Let’s say my previous encounters with feminists from South Asia were not very pleasant. I always considered, believed and boxed myself as a human rights educationalist. In my previous brief encounters with feminists, I felt that the atmosphere was filled with anger, discontent and melancholy because of the prevailing injustices in society. I could feel their passion to fight for
human rights until their last breath, but I could never feel the hope for a better future. Amongst human rights educators, there was the same passion and anger, but I thought there was always a sense of hope, it does not matter how small the chances of success.
I wrote to SANGAT asking if I could join the programme just for the week that was covering selfawareness and human rights. I am working full time so could not possibly take a month off in annual leave. Luckily, I had some researcher development funding from The School of Law and Social Sciences, the institution where I am doing my PhD, that could cover part of the air fare to
My leave was approved and SANGAT kindly agreed for me to observe the sessions for that specific week.
I was very excited, but also nervous and apprehensive about joining the programme. I was not sure about the boarding and lodging arrangements, as the TEWA Centre (where the programme was being hosted in Kathmandu), website did not clearly state its residential facilities, and I was told that I may have to share a room with another participant. I agreed with this arrangement, but I have to admit, I was a bit scared. This was the first time I was traveling anywhere in South Asia on my own. I
am aware of issues that a single woman travelling alone might face. In addition, my friends and work colleagues were adamant that I take all the necessary gadgets i.e. door blockers, movement sensors, and alarms, that international aid workers usually carry with them when they are deployed in the field. One of them also suggested to wear a ring on my index finger to give an impression that I am married (some female development workers experience that men in patriarchal societies are a little more
respectful if they know a woman is married). These precautions may be necessary and useful when travelling to regions that are politically unstable, but I was only going to Nepal, a tourist destination and low-risk region of South Asia.
I reached TEWA at a time when all the participants were out and about exploring Kathmandu. I was greeted at the airport by two lovely young men from TEWA’s official taxi company. They right away explained to me that there are no seat belts for the passenger’s seats, I thanked them for the voluntary information and explained that back home in Pakistan it’s the same
practice. They started telling me about TEWA, and how the city is structured, and that if I wished to go sight-seeing I could call upon their taxi company to help.
At TEWA, I was welcomed by Mr. Dinesh Acharya (Programme Officer – TEWA), who signed me in and showed me around TEWA facilities. He gave me a quick tour of the herb garden, the associated crop field next to the centre, basketball court, performance terraces and most importantly, the cafeteria where lunch and dinner was served. He also brought me up to speed with TEWA’s history and showed me on a plaque installed on the wall, with his name, along with the names of other staff members, who had fundraised and supported the building of the facility. His face was shining with pride as he told me that all the staff had worked together in building the TEWA centre, and running the centre, against all the odds. I felt incredibly relaxed and safe after hearing the story of the making of TEWA.
I briefly met Kamla Bhasin (feminist human rights activist, Sangat lead, educator, poet and writer), Meenal Manolika (SANGAT coordinator & course coordinator), Diti Lekha (SANGAT coordinator and a PhD Researcher), Uma Chakravarti (feminist Indian historian, film maker and SANGAT facilitator), Pooja Pant (Sangat Nepal Coordinator), along with programme participants over the dinner in a small canteen at TEWA. Kamla entered the cafeteria humming a Bangla song and everyone else in the canteen suddenly became alert and full of life. Each one of the young women in the cafeteria wanted to share their experience of exploring Nepal and how Meenal, Pooja and Diti were the heroes of the day. Uma and Kamla had soft smiles on their faces and looked genuinely amused with everyone’s stories. There was much loud laughter. I started to feel at home, although I was in severe pain and jet lagged. Kamla greeted me and said that she will see me at 6 a.m. at yoga. I was informed that yoga will take place on the terrace facing the Himalayas and if it would be raining, the class would move to the hall in the building next to the main gate.
The next morning, I woke up early, as I didn’t want to be late for yoga, and went to the terrace. The floor was wet from the rain from the previous night. As it was not raining when I arrived, I waited for everyone else to turn up. When no one did, I went to the hall next to main gate. No one was there. My pessimistic mind thought that it had been cancelled. I was about to go back to my room, when one of the caretakers entered the room and asked in Nepalese if I was there for yoga. As I only understood the word ‘yoga’ in Nepalese sentence, I rigorously moved my head up and down to show my eagerness and said in Hindi “ge,ge yoga, kahan?” (yes yoga, where?). She smilingly mimed to me to go to the fourth-floor hall of the same building. I dragged myself upstairs with my painful knees, and I was amazed to find a hall full of ladies following Kamla’s yoga instructions. It was fascinating to see a woman slightly older than my mum, so flexible and full of life and energy. They were doing the cat pose, followed by butterfly flaps. (My 41-year-old body is nowhere near that flexible). I was politely told-off by Kamla for turning up late. She reminded everyone to be on time as the late comers disturb the class.
Every morning, before breakfast, Kamla’s strong inspirational voice and actions guided us. She kept reminding us, throughout the sessions, to be compassionate and kind to ourselves, key aspects within mindfulness practice. Surprisingly, the attendance in these early morning yoga sessions remained stable throughout the ten days of my stay.
The first two days of the training covered the topics around religion, the nation state, and feminism, and were led by Uma Chakrawarti. All the participants made their way to the hall by the building near main gate. I was in the right place this time. There were mats and cushions to sit on the floor and low tables. Teachers and learners were at the same level. The beginning of the class was joyous and everyone sang:
“Tumhara saath milnay say, ahsas – e- quwat aya hai,
Nai duniya bannan ae kay, janoon phir hum per chaya hai…
Your companionship has given me a sense of confidence
I am gripped again with the passion to create a new world…”
The words of all the songs were simple, yet filled one with hope and a feeling of belonging and togetherness.
In the opening of the session, Kamla introduced Uma and presented her with an Indian chunri (a colourful Indian scarf). After introducing Uma, and to my surprise, Kamla introduced me and gave me a scarf and training manuals etc. I felt welcome and overwhelmed with love. I instantly felt part of the group, rather than an observer who had joined the programme for a week.
The session started with a brief introduction of what we will be covering over the next couple of days, and we all introduced ourselves. There was a total of 37 young women and trans-people in the room, from all over South Asia. For the time also, there was a participant from Bhutan, and another from the Maldives, along with others from India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and, last, but not least, Kashmir (in Kashmiri participant’s opinion, Kashmir should be recognised as a country). Throughout the morning we discussed how religion has been subjected, formed, and shaped by patriarchy. Sharing from the representative from Bhutan, a country which is famous for its happiness-index and tourism, participant highlighted the issues of patriarchal structures in temples. I was amazed how women from different cultures, religions, languages, physical abilities and sexual orientations were simply being open and sharing their experiences and observations. Stories were similar, voices and geographical locations were different. How Buddhist temples have been monopolised by patriarchy, such as, not allowing women to participate on special occasions, or how women are denied to wear anything, but white. Similarly, the stories from Bhutan were of women denied access to main areas within temples. How religion is continuously being used as bait to forge a nationalistic ideology of ‘one nation’ across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Additionally, how religion and politics is being used as a pawn to claim freedom for Kashmir, ignoring the pressing issue of domestic violence within the Kashmiri households or what Kashmiris want and need for their country. Each woman in the group (participants and facilitators) seemed to have experienced their own personal ‘hell’, from the stories they told, and it felt as if their experiences had made them stronger, and even more determined, to fight against social injustices. This is what seemed to be behind their beautiful smiles.
There was a lot of sharing. We cried and laughed several times throughout the day, and surprisingly, got back to the point of the discussion without ever getting distracted. Presenters and participants shared a variety of references from literature and art by South Asian writers and producers, mostly women. I am still amazed to have found out about a wealth of literature by South Asian women artists and writers, who I had never come across. Sadly, Amazon, and other mainstream online booksellers, are often unaware of such authors within their catalogues.
Participants with Dr Ambreen Ahmad
Day three was the session that I had flown all the way to Nepal for: Self-awareness and Human Rights with Dr. Ambreen Ahmad. Ambreen was welcomed with the same enthusiasm, love and songs as rest of the facilitators. The SANGAT programme had such a diverse group of trainers, yet their message was unified. Kamla was outspoken, beaming with energy and will, to support others in any way possible. She never shied away in to admitting her faults, or to learn, neither was she scared to ask a challenging question. Uma spoke in a sweet low voice, and you could not miss the compassion behind her words. Dr. Ambreen was like a wise friend one could trust and share our deepest, darkest, fears and apprehensions with, without a fear of judgement.
The three days I spent with Dr. Ambreen were the most valuable for me. I found myself taking lot of mental and written notes about the approaches, she mentioned and practiced during the sessions, for being more aware of our emotions and how we manage them. We discussed and practically explored through activities, how to support ourselves and the group of people around us. I found myself practicing mindful grounding and breathing during the reflection and the sharing part of the sessions. It was amazing how Ambreen helped us process and work through difficult emotions together as a group. She taught the group the power of deep listening.
By the end of each session, I felt deep gratitude towards all the participants and presenters. We extensively discussed how being aware of one’s self is key to realising our own, and others’, rights and responsibilities, and how our unconscious bias could easily lead us to judgments and actions that may result in us infringing upon other people’s rights. Most importantly, she spoke about how acknowledging and addressing our fears and insecurities could empower us to respond, rather than react in difficult situations.
The take-away message of these three days, and of the daily yoga with Kamla, was that ‘selfawareness is the key to self reliance’, which translates into the empowerment of oneself and others.
Later in the week, Kamla expressed her wish that SANGAT could provide more sessions on selfawareness and emotional and mental health, but this one-month programme is fully packed, it’s a race against time and resources. Speaking to her reminded
me of the true essence of jihad (struggle): fighting for the rights, peace and freedom of all living beings.
After a week at SANGAT, I was supposed to go to the mountains for three days, before flying back to London. But I didn’t want to leave. Meenal and Kamla kindly agreed for me to stay for three more days and be part of the launch event for the ‘One Billion Rising` Campaign. I volunteered to support the photography and videography volunteers for the event. All the participants prepared songs and cultural dances as a team. The funniest, yet empowering presentation, was the ‘Whistling Women of South Asia’, led by none other than Kamla herself. Women in patriarchal societies and cultures are expected to act like ladies or as classic Bond movies (be pretty, submissive and to be rescued by handsome men or prepared for future prince charming etc.).
Whistling is a fun and powerful act to challenge patriarchal norms and expectations.
These ten days with SANGAT changed my opinion about feminists in South Asia. They gave me an opportunity to really understand and reflect on my understanding of feminist approaches to human rights activism. And, last, but not least, I developed an understanding and appreciation of the feminist movement in South Asia on a human level. By the end of the ten days, I could relate to the pain, struggles, joy, and hopes of 37 feminist participants and the session leaders. I could finally see
the similar hope and light in their messages and activism that I feel as a human rights educationalist.
I also had a chance to conduct narrative interviews with the participants for my PhD research on Mindful Self-awareness and Human Rights. I made a new network of friends and fellow human rights defenders, feminists, educationalists, and activists throughout South Asia. I only wish that there were more waking hours in the day, so I could keep listening and learning more from all the beautiful, strong feminist women present at SANGAT 2019.
Note: The author is currently enrolled in a PhD Programme at London South Bank University, within the School of Law and Social Sciences, exploring how self-awareness may support embodying human rights values to mitigate ethnic, religious and sectarian violence. SANGAT’s feminist training is the only human rights-based programme that the author has come across that incorporates aspects of self-awareness.