Updated: October 8, 2021 8:29:36 am
It is remarkable how many lives Kamla Bhasin touched. Activists, friends, students, and colleagues reminisce about a woman who drew them in with her humour, wit, ideas, and energy. People recall reading her books and poems, listening to and singing her songs. They note the organisations and networks she helped found and build. These may seem like personal accomplishments, but they are also important contributions to movements. Movements coalesce not just around issues, but also around the sense of community, shared culture, solidarity, and history that are shaped by individuals and institutions.
At a time when the women’s movement is missing a sense of shared spaces and dialogue, it’s important to remember that some of our existing spaces exist because of the actions of Kamla Bhasin and others like her. Yet these spaces and the feminist movement itself are very different today than they have been in the past.
Some months ago, videos of Bhasin at a workshop called Artivism began circulating on social media. Amongst other things, she stated, “my definition of gender means the sociocultural definition of a girl and boy, man and woman, it doesn’t mean caste, it doesn’t mean race.” These words echoed the longstanding idea that sex has to do with nature, and gender with the social and cultural meanings attached to being male or female. Like all ideas, these have been open to examination, debate, and reformulation. In particular, the idea of sex as purely biological has been rethought.
The feminist movement has also had to engage with diversity in very different ways. For the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, one priority was making women the focus of politics and demands for justice in various contexts. One important goal was to show that women had certain common experiences due to patriarchal social structures. However, women of different social backgrounds experience the world differently, and this has consequences for feminist thought and activism.
Of the many ways in which feminists have engaged with difference and diversity, perhaps the most popular today is intersectionality. Intersectionality was conceptualised by the critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to denote how black women’s experiences were shaped by them being Black and women, and were different from the experiences of both Black men and non-Black women. In India, the term has come to describe a way of looking at people’s experiences as shaped by various social groups and identities to which they belong. This has become an influential way of looking at how, say, caste and gender work together to shape the experiences of savarna and Dalit women differently. Therefore to understand gender, we also have to understand how it is shaped by other social structures. Bhasin’s statement that gender means the sociocultural definitions of male and female, and that caste and race should be understood separately, reflects how feminists began thinking of gender, nature, and society. However, feminists’ views about the world have evolved much further.
These shifts have reflected in feminist activism as well. The last few decades have seen feminists organising around particular issues and identities rather than simply as “women”. For example, Dalit and Muslim women have formed their own organisations and networks. One reason women have organised separately is the challenge they have faced within existing feminist spaces, of having their issues understood and acted upon. Dalit women, for example, responded differently to the Maharashtra government’s ban on bar dancing in 2005 than mainstream feminist groups. While the latter saw bar dancing as an issue of women workers, the former pointed to the perpetuation of caste-based forms of work through bar-dancing. Over time, there has been a realisation that people of all backgrounds and social groups need and deserve equal attention from the feminist movement. This sits uneasily with Bhasin’s comment that feminism is about getting rid of patriarchy and that transgender and ecological issues are separate from it. For many today, as in the past, patriarchy is intrinsically connected with other social structures.
As Indian feminism continues to develop, it is repeatedly confronted with certain questions. What is gender and how does it impact people? What do we want to change? How do we create spaces that allow us to work towards change? Kamla Bhasin and others of her generation offered answers to these questions. It is for us to learn from them as we continue to nurture this movement.
The writer is a sociologist. She currently teaches at the Centre for Writing and Pedagogy, Krea University
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