I got involved in the women’s movement in 1977, without knowing that there was a ‘movement’. Madhu Kishwar and I started an informal women’s study group, which used to meet in my hostel room in Miranda House where I was teaching. A few months later, we started working on Manushi magazine, which appeared in 1979. As soon as we got an office, we were flooded with women (and their families) seeking advice, help, and retribution against abusive husbands. So we soon found ourselves engaged in a variety of activities apart from the editing and research required for the magazine – legal aid, counselling, campaigns around dowry, rape and inheritance laws, street theatre, etc.
The earliest campaigns I was involved in were protests, from 1979 onwards, at the homes of wives who had been burnt to death. The first big rally, jointly organised by several women’s organisations, was 8 March 1980, where I made my first public speech. Working at Manushi facilitated my own discovery of India, as I travelled widely with others, conducting investigative reports and research, in places like Deorala after the burning of Roop Kanwar, in tribal villages in Jharkhand to examine women’s land rights, at the Arya Samaj women’s college Kanya Mahavidyalaya in Jullundur, and in Meerut in 1987 after the communal riots. I also spent time in many parts of Delhi, interviewing women (from a slum-dweller in Nangloi to Amrita Pritam in Jor Bagh), bringing out the magazine from presses in Shahdara and Paharganj, and acting in our street play, Roshni. Most of my time, though, was spent doing endless, repetitive chores in Manushi office, such as typing, editing, translating, proof-reading, writing addresses, sticking stamps, maintaining accounts, training volunteers and answering questions from journalists as well as visitors from India and abroad.
Scores of moments and images from the time are imprinted on my mind. The smiling face of Pushpaji, an elderly widow who visited Manushi regularly and whose hilarious, though poignant, account of her marriage I wrote up for the magazine. The hate-filled faces of women abusing us as we protested a wife-murder in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Patel Nagar around 1979. An uncanny repeat of this experience, when Prabha Rani and I were surrounded by furious women in a Meerut neighbourhood under curfew, where we were photographing a gutted Muslim house, and our relief at seeing the police arrive to rescue us. The fraught and tension-filled women’s conference in Bombay in 1980. Accompanying a woman to her apartment to get her possessions, in constant trepidation lest her husband show up while we were doing this. Three of us on Madhu’s motorbike, singing Hindi movie songs, returning from the late-night show where we had gone to review a film. The intensely burning eyes of Fatima, a student of mine from Miranda House, who volunteered for Manushi but had to withdraw because her father threatened to have a heart attack. Opening the tabloid Blitz in my room in 1980, to see the pictures of Mallika and Lalitambika, two women who had attempted joint suicide in Kerala. Standing at the local tandoor in Lajpat Nagar, in the blazing heat of June, waiting for rotis to be made for everyone in the office to eat. The horrified look on the face of a man, outside whose house we were protesting on behalf of his wife, when I suddenly, without planning to, blackened his face with the brush I was using to paint slogans on his wall. Opening the door to an irate, semi-crazed woman who had worked for two days and wanted to be paid, and having my glasses knocked off when she flew at Madhu to beat her up and I tried to intervene. Sitting in the dark, poky room of the owner of our letter-press in East Delhi, and seeing the flames of a kerosene stove flare up to two feet above the head of his daughter-in-law who was making tea with her ghunghat pulled down over her face – a first-hand image of how many women burn to death. A woman lying dead on the floor of a tiny room in a third-storey flat in Lajpat Nagar, her tongue sticking out of her mouth, in pitch darkness because of a power failure. Day dawning in the narrow alleys of Paharganj where I had spent the night correcting page-proofs as they rolled off the letter-press manned by illiterate workers. Walking alongside a rioting mob in 1984 towards the local gurudwara in Lajpat Nagar, while Madhu unsuccessfully tried to dissuade them from setting it on fire. Discussing gender and sexuality in Shakespeare with my students on the north and south campuses of Delhi University, and telling them about the first Siddhartha Gautam film festival, where films with lesbian and gay content were screened.
The movement has changed a great deal since I was active. First, the inflow of foreign funding has transformed activism beyond recognition, changing many women’s groups into NGOs. I always had a job (as a university teacher) to support myself and much of my salary in the early years went into subsidising Manushi. Almost all my remaining time was spent working unpaid at Manushi, which meant severely curtailing my academic career as well as my social and personal life. The same was true of many other volunteers, both in India and the West. I saw this trend begin to change from the late 1980s onwards, as activists, even in rural areas, began to be paid full-time salaries from grants, and to live in relative luxury. It is good that women no longer have to make such huge sacrifices for the movement, but it also means losing a certain open-ended vitality. A second, very positive, development is the movement’s involvement with issues of sexuality, for example, civil rights for gay people, transgendered people and sex workers. There was a near-complete silence on homosexuality in the years I worked at Manushi (1978–91), which I found stifling. This is rapidly changing now, both in the women’s movement and in other related movements.