Jaya Sharma

My first job was with a women’s research organization in Delhi. I had just returned from my studies in England, where my involvement in activism was supporting the anti-apartheid struggle. As part of a training programme, I heard Dr Sharda Jain speak about her work with the Women’s Development Programme in Rajasthan. The way Shardaji described the process of working with rural women – of lying on the charpai, under the stars and talking late into the night – mesmerized me. I soon found myself on a train to Jaipur, and that was my entry into the women’s movement.

Jaipur was about camaraderie, warmth, intense fights, about personal and work relationships spilling into each other, generating at times unbearable levels of intensity. It was about meetings in Miss Prabhu and Miss Tarve’s home, both retired lecturers of Kanoria College. Miss Tarve was the large, gruff, lecturer of Hindi, with a thin tight plait. Miss Prabhu, in contrast was lean, tall, delicate, generous both in her hospitality and love of English literature. And it was only appropriate that it was in their home that meetings of all kinds involving people of different backgrounds and political persuasions took place. Feminists, Gandhians, leftists, writers, artists, researchers, retired lecturers, students, urban and rural based activists… and these were often overlapping identities for most of us. Organizational identities mattered little and there was a fluid criss-crossing across movements. As members of the women’s movement we were actively involved in ‘other’ struggles, not as allies but as an intrinsic part of those struggles. As a result, often the same lot of people would be working on a report on the communal riots in the city or strategising on protesting against incidents of sexual violence, or writing press notes on the struggle for minimum wages on famine relief works.

Being based in Jaipur and linked to SWRC (Social Work and Research Centre), Tilonia and Women’s Development Programme, a government sponsored rural women’s empowerment programme, popularly known as the Sathin programme (Sathin being the term for the village level facilitator) meant constantly moving between urban and rural contexts. And this was true not only for me but for many of the others in the women’s movement in Rajasthan. This is perhaps why there was this continuum between urban and rural activism, that was clearly evident during Bhanwari’s case.

Bhanwari, a Sathin I had worked with. Full of grace and elegance,whose dancing often had a hypnotic effect on me as her feet would break the  predictable rhythmic pattern, at any moment of her choice, as if they were holding time still between two beats. Many other images come to me – Bhanwari’s husband’s extreme nervousness as he braced himself for the medico legal procedures; Mita, a Delhi based lesbian feminist tying the shoe laces of a woman police officer during the rally in Jaipur; a sea of people from villages, cities, men, women all pushing and surging ahead to break the police cordon; Bhanwari’s, gaunt, erect, eyes clear and fierce, shouting out loud “ Izzat gayee kiske, Badri ki, Gyarsa ki”, thus seeking to shame the men who had raped her. The urban rural continuum was visible once again in support provided by Jaipur based activists, several of whom had worked with Bhanwari closely and knew her well. It was also visible in the way in which Bhanwari’s struggle was taken forward by urban feminists and lawyers from Jaipur and Delhi to lead up to the Vishakha guidelines related to sexual harassment at the workplace. Critical and even historic as these interventions were, many of us felt we were unable to provide Bhanwari the kind of support she needed in her day to day struggle in her village.

Being part of the women’s movement in Rajasthan for me in the eighties meant a blurring of many lines – between friendships and work, between organizational and movement identities, between urban and rural based activism.

I jump into the decade starting 2000 to share a glimpse from the 16 days of activism on violence against women in 2002, held in Delhi.

As a member of PRISM, a queer, feminist activist group, I was involved in raising the issue of lesbian suicides with autonomous womens’ organizations who were part of the campaign. In the previous four months, there had been several cases of lesbian suicides reported in the press. The response of the women’s groups was positive. They said ‘why don’t you raise the issue and we will support you’. We in turn asked of the women’s groups whether the issue of lesbian suicides was not intrinsic to the agenda of the women’s movement. It was this approach that was articulated in the leaflet that was then jointly brought out by PRISM and a number of organizations including womens’ groups.

The leaflet stated:

‘Apart from rape, sexual harassment, and bride burning, violence against women happens every time a woman is married against her will. It happens every time a woman feels guilty for wanting to be happy and every time that a woman must die because she is unacceptable to society. Lesbian suicides are a result of society’s attempt to restrict women’s choices and control their lives. We protest these Deaths as Violence Against All Women’

Many of us worked hard, along with artist and activist Sheeba Chachi, pouring over cardboards laid out on the floor to create huge, jet black, looming silhouettes (so large that it took endless rounds to figure out how to put them up) of the couples who had committed suicide as part of the event marking the culmination of the campaign. This story is important to share in a context in which the rights language has come to become part of the language many of us use, including as women’s groups. I appreciate the rights language for its focus on agency and accountability (and I maintain that it is a language and not a perspective since it can contain within it all manner of political perspectives). But I also fear that the rights language runs the danger of pushing us into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ framework which reinforces narrowly defined identity politics. Therefore, it was easier, for women’s groups to say they support the rights of lesbian women without struggling with the underlying political links between patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. Stated more categorically, did the movement campaign against violence against all women or did it campaign only for those women who are attracted to men?

On a more positive note, I would like to end with a glimpse of the recent Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference in Wardha in January 2011. Nirantar, a feminist organization that has been working on issues of gender and education since 1993, was part of co-ordinating a sub-theme entitled “Body Talk: Interrogating Boundaries and Hierarchies in Feminist Discourse”. The objective was to reflect on areas of silence, binaries and hegemonies that the women’s movement have subscribed to and/or strengthened. For me the rich discussions were proof that we in the women’s movement, perhaps more than any movement, are more than willing to be self-critical, perhaps with a dash of masochism (which also formed part of the discussions!). What also gave me hope was how if we stay rooted in experience we lessen the risk of the binaries of us and them,ours and theirs, pleasure and danger, urban and rural. In this case, it was the site of the body that enabled us to be rooted in this way. It also helped us see that addressing the margins is not only about inclusion as part of the liberal framework of rights but about allowing the margins to challenge and transform our existing frameworks and politics.