Kamla Bhasin is a New-Delhi based feminist activist who has championed the cause of gender equality for decades. She works with Sangat – a South Asian Feminist Network – as an adviser; and leads the One Billion Rising campaign to end rape and sexual violence against women in South Asia.
Dawn caught up with Ms Bhasin at a recent event at the National Press Club and asked her about the trajectory of women’s movements in India and Pakistan and how the two compare.
Q: How have you seen the women’s movement evolve over time? What has changed?
A: Our agendas are fixed by our societies, so we have been evolving and we’ve been responding to all issues. But because patriarchy keeps changing, our issues keep changing. Feminism is not a particular issue based thing; it’s a perspective, on every issue. Now we have to engage with all kinds of issues, many things that we had never thought about because we never needed to think about them. The nature of the movement is changing and one has to evolve constantly.
Q: Have the tools or the tone of the movement changed? Is it more aggressive or violent?
A: The tools keep changing. Today, social media is becoming a tool for some of us and we are using that to reach out to people.
The women’s movement was never violent; most of us are against violence. Not all though; some women would like, for example, the death penalty for rapists, others are asking for castration. But a large section of feminists is against these things.
In the beginning, we believed we would change the world in an instant. That isn’t happening, so one has become more realistic, recognising newer enemies like capitalist patriarchy, market terrorism – and they are so powerful.
In some of our countries, discord has increased and war is a persistent reality. Things like pornography are challenging us much more, there is so much more violence being taught to boys and men through sports, toys, pornography, films and so on.
If you take India, for example, the number of women versus men in my country has constantly been going down. In the last census it was the lowest it has been for the last 70 years and that, for me, is the ultimate violence against women; when you kill them.
Q: You call yourself a South Asian, but with all the sorts of restrictions and tensions between our countries, is that a real identity or a wishful one?
A: It may be a wishful one at the moment, but which of our identities is not wishful? Everything of ours is wishful: feminism is wishful, equality is wishful.
India, Pakistan and our leaders are the biggest hurdles to unity in Saarc and to connectivity within Saarc. As long as we can’t sort out our problems, the whole region suffers.
Three days ago – to get from New Delhi to Islamabad, which would be a 70 minute flight – I was sent a ticket via Abu Dhabi because there is no direct connection. There is a flight once a week, but then we have to report to the police. I mean, where else in the world apart from India and Pakistan are visitors required to report to the police.
Q: Is the baggage of Partition still a hurdle for South Asian unity or is that just a historical fact now?
A: I won’t call it South Asian unity, rather unity between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, because all the others are safe from this baggage, which I think is still very much there.
I feel the seeds of hatred and seeds of violence sown before and during Partition are still there amongst the people who suffered. Had they not been multiplied and re-sown, that baggage would have disappeared. But in our three countries, religion has entered politics and politics has entered religion and these identities have become so much more important.
In India, in addition to the religious identities, there are also caste identities; while here, in addition to the Hindu-Muslim identities, there are the sectarian Shia-Sunni identities. People have gained power through these identities; creating fear and hatred, so I think that baggage has been added to. What day passes by when we don’t commit atrocities against one another in all our countries?
Q. Has the trajectory of the women’s movement in India been different from that in Pakistan?
A: Some issues are the same all over the world. For example, violence against women, rape, unemployment, unequal wages and household work, these are common issues all over the world and our responses to these have meant that our trajectory on these issues was similar.
But then, you’ve had your own issues, for example, at the time of Ziaul Haq, the way the women were treated, we didn’t have to deal with that kind of thing. We had to deal later on with Gujrat, with Babri Masjid, etc.
Definitely, there was much more honour killing here, although we also have honour killings now for caste, race and all that.
The women’s movements are responses to patriarchal challenges, democratic challenges and to the extent that we are responding to a particular incident we differ, but we are also very similar.
Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2016