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In Conversation with Kamla Bhasin- one of the architects of the ‘Womanifesto’

Is the Indian Political Rhetoric Ignoring Women Voters?

What is the Womanifesto? Is appealing to the politicians alone enough? And other questions on the eve of Elections 2014

Sometimes, for us urban middle-class Indian women, it is easy to deride the word ‘feminism’ because things have come so easily to us. With our revolving door of ‘helpers’, our ability to balance careers and motherhoods, and a comparative freedom to choose our life partners, we begin to distance ourselves from the movement that made all of this possible for us. I was reminded of this and more, when I spoke with Kamla Bhasin, one of India’s pre-eminent feminists, earlier this week about the Women’s Manifesto or the Womanifesto for this election.

The Womanifesto puts together a series of demands on behalf of the women constituents of the Indian democracy. Leading advocate Karuna Nundy led the move to encapsulate some of the key policy and governance measures that could make the lives of Indian women better. These measures include-a public education program to end the culture of gender discrimination and violence, a support of the Women’s Reservation Bill, increased access to accountable legal aid, steps to provide remunerative employment to women- and more.

A social scientist by training, Kamla Bhasin has been actively engaged with issues related to development, education, gender, media and several others since 1970. Her first job in India was at the grassroots level with the Seva Mandir, Udaipur. Since then, she worked on these issues with FAO of the UN for 27 years. Currently, she works with Sangat – a South Asian Feminist Network; with JAGORI, Women’s Resource and Training Centre and Jagori Rural Charitable Trust as an active member; and with SAHR (South Asians for Human Rights) as a member.

We are thankful to her for taking the time to speak with us.

Kamla, thanks for talking to us. Could you tell us a bit more about the idea behind the Womanifesto?Also, one of the key concerns with putting up a universal document like this is ensuring that the voices of all cross-sections of women are heard. How did the team ensure that?

We identify ourselves by so many different identities- our gender, our social-class, our caste, our religion, whether we are disabled or temporarily abled, our sexual preferences- and all of our experiences must be seen at the intersectionality of all of these. What does a woman oppressed by the Armed Forces in the North East want? What does a lesbian or transgender individual want?

A lot of the architects of the Womanifesto have been working with women for the past many years. I first began to work on women and poverty-related issues in 1970, Devaki Jain probably a couple of years before even me, and between all of us we have worked intimately with a wide cross-section of women. These include Dalit women, tribal women, women from the North East, all over South Asia, lesbian and transgendered women, sex workers and more. Between us and our work I believe we adequately represent the voice of women overall. We have always been working to resolve some of the challenges faced by these women, and will continue to do so, but with the Womanifesto, we are able to take the struggle to the articulate middle classes. And we are happy to do so.

Along with your organization Sangat, and Jagori, you’ve done a lot of work in spreading the message of the Womanifesto with the help of music. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

As far back as three elections ago, we wrote songs on the politics of the day- on the issues we advocate, to increase awareness and empowerment amongst the voters. This was accompanied by visual posters designed by the Jagori team, and these tools have helped spread the word very effectively. I have worked extensively in the South Asian region and first came across a form of the Womanifesto in Sri Lanka. There has also been some work done on creating socially conscious songs by Pakistani feminists.

This year, we’ve released a CD of 12 songs- highlighting some of the key women’s issues raised in the Womanifesto. These songs attempt to reach people more emotionally. And we’ve been successful in disseminating nearly 3,000-5,000 CDs of this music in the Hindi speaking region. Now, other regional organizations are also taking up the work to translate some of these messages in their vernacular.

How has the response to the Womanifesto been among the political classes?

Karuna Nundy and her team have been working to make more politicians aware of the Womanifesto for the last six months- they’ve met leaders from the Congress, the BJP, the AAP, and some regional parties.  The Left has a robust woman’s wing in the form of AIDWA so it has been easy to spread the message to them.

But really, it’s about more than just the Womanifesto. We need to change the voice of political rhetoric itself. Why do we talk  almost exclusively about male-centered images such as a  “56 inch ki chhati” or use phrases such as “yuva karta hai”. No one ever uses the word “she” or the feminine pronoun. Even the positive overtures made towards women voters reek of the patriarchal trap of “protecting women” or some such. There needs to be an overall change in our perspective- in the political thinking and sloganeering across the country.

So how do you think we can really affect change?

At the end of the day- our politicians are little more than products of our familial system. And yes -policy reform and governance measures are essential- but it is imperative that at the same time we address changes in our religious, social and cultural structures.

On the one hand we want to be a part of the modern world and can boast of a brilliant egalitarian constitution; on the other hand our traditional structures remain patriarchal- resulting in a sort of ‘schizophrenic state’.When a woman is raped every 20 minutes, and 50% of the females are married before the age of 18, more than just the State is at fault. And we need to address every single system with the same urgency to really affect a change.

End Notes:

I can’t agree more with Kamla. It is essential to effect a change in not just the political classes and the election rhetoric, but in the structures over which the entire Indian state is built. If the Womanifesto strikes a chord with you, share it with the candidates/sitting legislatives of your constituency. Speak up against sexism and misogyny at home or at the workplace. And lets try to remember -that above all feminism needs to be ‘inclusive’ in nature. We may argue about the nitty-gritties of the definition, but at the end of the day, what is most important is that every single woman in the world has agency over her body, her livelihood, and her right to lead the kind of life she wants.

Photo Credit: UN Women Gallery via Compfight cc

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