Sisters in arms

Urvashi Butalia | | Updated on: Aug 14, 2014




The early years of feminist activism in India gave us a host of remarkable women

On a hot afternoon nearly 40 years ago, I stepped out onto the balcony of our house in Jangpura in Delhi and noticed a woman in a white sari standing in the shade of a tree. In her hand she clutched a crumpled piece of paper and she seemed to be looking up, as if at our house.

Was she looking for something? Even as I began to frame the question, my mother followed me out and the woman saw her and asked: is this the address for Stree Sangharsh? Stree Sangharsh was the name of a women’s group of which both my mother and I were a part, and on the previous day, it was this group that had organised an anti-dowry demonstration in north Delhi. Copies of the leaflet printed for the campaign had been widely distributed, and it was one of these (which incidentally had the wrong address) that she now held.

Satya Rani Chadha, the woman mentioned above, died a couple of weeks ago in Delhi. That afternoon, long ago, she had come looking for the women’s group named in the leaflet to seek help in the case she wanted to file against her son-in-law and his parents for having killed her daughter Kanchan Bala. Until the end of her days, Satya Rani tried every possible avenue to secure justice for her dead daughter whose graduation photo she carried in her hand like an icon. The daughter’s husband, however, remarried and went on to make a new life for himself.

During the early years of feminist activism in India, feminists were regularly accused of being middle class, urban, deracinated, westernised — perhaps because people only ever saw the most visible battles and the most visible faces. Yet it was these years that also gave us women like Satya Rani and her long-term sister-in-arms, Shahjahan Apa. Both mothers who had lost their daughters in violent and abusive marriages, these women came to activist groups seeking help and, over time, they too became part of the struggle.

For many years in the ’80s and ’90s, women like Satya Rani and Shahjahan Apa put their own lives on hold, and launched themselves into the activism of the women’s movement, fighting not only for justice for their daughters, but also for hundreds of other women. The first non-government women’s shelter, Shakti Shalini, had both these women as founding members. In their activism they were following a long tradition set by other women such as Shanti (who, like her compatriots, never used a second name) and campaigner, activist, singer; and performer Bharti, who, even as her health failed her, gave everything she had to the movement. And then there was Shardaben, diminutive and assertive, who spent long days campaigning in the bastis. Every demonstration and protest march in the city saw this clutch of women for whom feminism was not something they learnt from books or conferences, but gained from the very ground they lived on.

Nor was this limited only to Delhi, or indeed to north India. You only need to scratch the surface of feminist struggles, and you will meet many Satya Ranis and many Shahjahan Apas. In Rajasthan, Bhanwari Devi, victim of gang rape at the hands of upper caste men, and denied justice by the courts, chose to fight a lonely battle and began work with poor, Dalit women — something she continues to do to this day.

What does it take for this kind of commitment to take root and grow? Many of these women did not have family support, so the battle must have extended into the home as well. They were never in proper ‘jobs’ so they did not earn salaries that could help allay family antagonism. Many did not have house ‘help’ so there was no rest after long days of dusty activism — families had to be catered for, husbands, if they were around, had to be dealt with. How did they gather the courage to pursue the causes they espoused? How did — and how do — they hold fast to them?

Feminists across the world often talk of ‘burnout’ and exhaustion at waging a battle that seems so relentless, sometimes so unwinnable. For women like Satya Rani and Shahjahan Apa, exhaustion must have been a luxury they could not afford, but perhaps the feminist movement provided them both a home and a family.

(Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan)


Published on July 18, 2014
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