Kalpana Viswanath

My Journey with the Women’s Movement

My involvement with the women’s movement began at the National Conference of Autonomous Women’s Groups in Calicut, in 1991. It was a massive culture shock to get so much of the movement in one go! But it gave me the opportunity to get acquainted with a range of issues, perspectives and, most importantly, women. As a young feminist, I could think of no better way to plunge into the complex maze that is the women’s movement.

My journey has continued with my involvement with Jagori, a feminist resource centre in Delhi- first as a young activist, then as its coordinator taking forward a vision and being part of the transition of leadership. Jagori was a small group of 7–8 women when I joined in 1991 and it has grown into a mature organisation of over 20 people, engaging in a wide range of activities.

I have engaged in a range of issues, over the past 20 years, relating to different forms of violence against women and denial of rights. One of my most vivid memories of activism was the “mashaal march” that we took out on  March 8, 1992 which began with a play in Sarojini Nagar market, a march from there to AIIMS circle (there used to be a traffic light there) where we shouted slogans and sang for over an hour. The exhilaration of being out and claiming the night, however brief, remains in my memory.

Working within the movement gave me the opportunity to bring together my passion for research and activism and over the years this has continued with sustained work on women’s experiences of the city – first through research on migrant women and then through the lens of women’s inclusion and their right to the city.

Over the past 6 years, my work has built upon this research and I have tried to engage with the issue of women’s right to the city from the entry point of women’s safety. This has been an exciting journey and has reached out to a large number of actors whom I did not previously engage with. I felt the need to move out of comfortable circles of people who think like us to engaging with others who need to be part of the solution of creating a safer and a more inclusive city. This work has also a lot of resonance around the world with growing urbanisation and its accompanying opportunities and challenges for women and girls, especially from more vulnerable groups. So the opportunity to make that linkage has also led to more learning.

Much has changed in the women’s movement over the past 20 years. Some say it has become professionalised, and depoliticised. To an extent, it is true that the women’s movement has, today, become more a set of organisations who are engaging with institutions and the state in a collaborative and not only (or largely) confrontational manner. This change can be seen partly as de-radicalising, but maybe it is a natural progression with any movement, which begins by challenging institutions but at some point moves to engaging with the same institutions to try and bring about sustained change. We may have lost something along the way but when I see the issues still confronting us, the possibility for radical ideas and engagement never goes away.