Sahba Husain

My involvement in the women’s movement began in the latter half of the 70s, coinciding with my first ‘fieldwork’ amongst rural women in a few remote villages of Andhra Pradesh as well as the tumultuous years preceding and following the Emergency. The phrase ‘personal is political’ held true then as the trajectory of my own involvement in the movement was due both to my personal life as well as the larger political background; while it was a convergence of the personal and political at one time, it was also a divergence of the two at other times.

In a sense, the 1970s (and early 80s) was a significant decade for me, both for personal and political reasons: I had moved to Delhi after marriage and soon joined Delhi University for a two year Masters course in Philosophy. I also had my first child couple of years later. It was around this time that a crucial political event took place that altered our lives; Emergency had been declared in India leading to great political and civil unrest all over the country; we, as citizens, were suddenly stripped of our fundamental, democratic rights and civil liberties. The following two years, until Emergency was lifted, were a turbulent, tumultuous period marked by a sustained campaign and struggle that took me and many of my contemporaries in its fold. In my case, it was also because, in a strange way, it had affected my own family. This is when my journey as an activist had begun and I became part of the organized political struggle. This is also a period when I joined the National Labour Institute that gave me an exposure to issues of land and the lives of landless agricultural labour, ‘bonded labour’ and it’s social and economic implications. In 1980, I joined the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) and a year later, the Delhi unit of All India Democratic Women’s Association. Research and activism had come together in interesting ways and the link between the two was strengthened with the launch of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies, bringing together researchers and activists from different parts of the country.

My work with AIDWA as an activist and my travel to different parts of the country as a researcher brought me in close touch with women’s working and living conditions both in rural and urban settings; in their homes, farms, factories and sweatshops, in situations of domestic, caste, class, political and communal violence. When I look back I do believe that it is their life experience, their lived reality, their resolve and resilience in the face of adversity that has had a profound and enduring influence on me; this active engagement with marginalized women has decidedly sharpened my Marxist understanding and perspective as well as my feminist and political sensibilities.

AIDWA’s understanding that women’s oppression/exploitation had to be seen and dealt with at three main structural levels of gender, class and citizenship along with the struggle for democracy, equality and women’s emancipation underlined its approach to many of the campaigns, be it on the issue of matrimonial disputes, domestic violence, rape, dowry, women’s rights to an equal wage, communalism, the uniform civil code, the rights of women as members of a minority community and the rights of women to political participation. It was around these issues that some of the most militant and sustained struggles and campaigns were carried out that also resulted in certain path-breaking changes/amendments in the criminal justice system (such as the Rape and Dowry law, the Domestic Violence Bill as well as the Muslim Women’s Bill).

I remember how in the early 80s we would go door-to-door in selected localities to look for women who were being harassed for dowry or were victims of domestic violence but within a short period of time, the situation had changed and women were coming out to share their predicament. The net had been cast, as it were, by women who were ready for battle. I also remember how, in the late 70s and early 80s, small numbers of women would meet at each other’s homes to debate some of these issues and come out on the streets determined to ‘change the system’; how some of us would also bring our small children along who helped us make colourful posters and placards! These efforts brought forth, what is referred to as the ‘voluntary women’s groups/organisations’ and the ‘party based women’s organisations’, including AIDWA. Today, a more inclusive phrase is used to describe the same; the seven sisters!  The united women’s movement and its varied struggles have laid the foundation for the ‘culture of political resistance’ and res(v)olution. Just as more issues are added to the list, so have the number of women increased manifold, in terms of their active participation in the movement—demanding equality and a life of dignity in all spheres of life; social, economic and political.

At the end, I must not miss out on writing a few words about what I believe has had a fundamental influence on me and shaped me and my interests/sensibilities; my family!  I grew up in Hyderabad with my parents and five siblings; an elder sister and four brothers (two of them no more). My father was a professor of Philosophy and my mother a political/social activist. He was a founding member of the communist movement in Hyderabad (Comrades Association) as well as the trade union movement (1939–43) in the erstwhile State of Hyderabad. He was later also actively involved in the Telangana Armed Struggle (1947–48) led by the Communist Party of India.  We heard stories in our childhood of how my mother was his comrade and ‘courier’ during this period, particularly when he was ‘underground’ for long stretches of time.

Having rejected religious orthodoxy early on and with the kind of radical political engagement, my parents provided us with a progressive and secular environment; formal, higher education was a priority along with an extensive exposure to political debates/discussions as well as to both Urdu and English literature. I remember our home being an ‘adda’ for poets, artists, workers and activists.

When I chose to get married (at an early age of 18!), I was simply advised that it should not in any manner interfere with my studies and interests as well as any career choices that I would later make, or for that matter, in the making of my Self; marriage is not an end-in-itself I was told. However, that is not the sole reason that I opted out of it after 25 years! Just as I grew up seeing my parents combine their work, home and (political) activism and listening to their enriching, interesting stories, I try to continue the ‘tradition’ with my two daughters and three grandchildren….