JAGORI Co-founder Kamla Bhasin: What Would I Be Without My Feminisms? Yes, There Are Many!

"There are many Feminisms," says Kamla Bhasin, who has worked in this field for close to 50 years. "They are often contextual, and are not just about choice, but about the politics of what we choose."

“There are many Feminisms,” says Kamla Bhasin, who has worked in this field for close to 50 years. “They are often contextual, and are not just about choice, but about the politics of what we choose.”

I heard the word Feminism only when I was 26 and had finished my studies in Rajasthan and Germany, had subsequently worked in Germany as a lecturer for one year and joined an NGO in Rajasthan. However, I had some “dangerous” feminist tendencies to rebel and resist, challenge and change as a child.

While I was growing up in rural Rajasthan with five siblings, going to local government schools, I did not like, approve of, or follow the rules and choices imposed on girls.

Some 30-35 years later in the 80s while working with the UN I was introduced to the concept of Gender, for the first time. This concept reconfirmed for me what I had instinctively known, namely, it is not our biology or God which is responsible for disempowering girls; it is we the society and our patriarchies. In other words, my sex or my biological definition is not the problem; the problem is our patriarchal society which considers human males superior to human females. Since the problems are created by us, we can choose to change the situation if the situation is hurting us.

I ‘lived’ feminism before knowing the theories

For me, the words, the naming, the theories came much after the lived realities of gender and feminism.

While growing up I was an intuitive, unnamed or unordained feminist. Only decades later came the label of feminist which I used only IF, WHEN and WHERE necessary, not always as a sore thumb.

For me feminism means a struggle against inequality, sexism, and gender based discrimination. Feminism, for me, has never been anti men. It has been anti patriarchy. Feminism is not only about dismantling patriarchy. It is about building new communities. AND, I have always known that women can also be and are patriarchal, and men can also be and are anti patriarchy. It is not our biology but our thinking, which makes us patriarchal or feminists.

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I have been and continue to be a student of gender and feminism. For me, feminism is a journey, not the destination.

So, how is my feminism?

My feminism is not only about inequality and hierarchy between cis-men, cis-women, intersex and transgender people. This gender inequality is at the core, but my feminism is also about all related hierarchies of class, caste, race, religion, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientations etc. This I have now learnt is called intersectionality.

See, my theory has always lagged behind my practice!

Since my feminism is intersectional, it is much more challenging and reaching the destination that much more difficult. This is why I am not a perfect feminist, nor do I know anyone who is.

I feel the roots of patriarchy are deep, wide, long and entangled all over our BEING; which includes our bodies, minds (definitely not our souls), thoughts, feelings and emotions. To be free of the invisible shackles of patriarchy is not easy, not even for us women.

For me feminism is both an INNER and OUTER journey. The so called “feminine” and “masculine” within me need to be balanced. This I suppose makes my feminism also SPIRITUAL; political OUTSIDE, SPIRITUAL inside.

The many Feminisms I believe in

Here is another complication. In my opinion, like there is no one Hinduism, Islam, socialism etc., feminism can also not be, and is not one. Because feminism is a response to patriarchy and patriarchies are also local and contextual, there can be no singular feminism.

Feminisms normally are and should be fluid and contextual. Like water, feminisms should take the form of the vessel they find themselves in. Feminisms are responses to patriarchies which can be different in different families, communities and countries. Therefore, feminisms are and have to be different, although they are all anti patriarchal.

Feminisms are LOCAL and GLOBAL, because patriarchies are global and local. For example, there is subordination of women and violence against women and girls everywhere, but Sati, dowry, FGM, “honour” killings are culture specific.

Since the ways in which we look at and understand society, power, economics, politics etc. may be different there are Liberal, Marxist, Socialist, Ecological, Gandhian, Islamic, Hindu, Black, Dalit feminists. No wonder then that there are endless debates, even fights, between different strands of feminisms and feminists. Feminists, therefore, can have opposing positions on issues like prostitution/sex work and reservation.

The feminist in me aspires to be a combination of Socialist, Ecological, Gandhian and Spiritual feminism. Any wonder then, that I am often confused, forever a student and on a journey, but I am okay with this.

My Feminisms are not only about choice. They are about the Politics of what we choose.

My feminisms are not about becoming part of the MANstream and the existing unjust systems. They are about challenging these systems. I feel, we feminists should focus on structural problems, not on individual mal adaptation. I think feminisms should be for collective good and not only for my individual good.

It is true that patriarchy has denied women the right to choose, still for me feminism is not just about CHOICE, it is about CHANGE and the POLITICS of what we choose.

Forever grateful to my Feminisms

I believe that feminist thinking and actions have changed our lives for the better. Feminist struggles have established that Women’s Rights are Human Rights, women are also citizens, and they have their rights. For this, I am forever grateful to our feminist foremothers and forefathers. Because of these feminist struggles, many girls and boys, men and women have been freed from the tight boxes created for them by patriarchy.

Many boys and men have realised by now that the privileges and rights given to them by patriarchy come at a very high price. Patriarchy, for example, binds them in aggressive masculinities, it dehumanises and brutalizes them; it deprives them of gentleness, caring and emotions. Both women and men have realised that unless women are free men cannot be free, because we are part of the same families, communities and countries.

I owe a lot to my feminisms. All my creativity is gifted by my feminisms; the slogans I have written, shared and chanted, the songs I have written, shared and sung, the simple books I have written and shared widely, the banners and posters I have co-created with designer friends, the jokes and joke books I have created to spread laughter and to make our long, tedious struggles less painful and serious, the children’s rhymes I have created, shared and enjoyed.

Almost all my friends are a gift from my feminisms and feminist solidarity. Feminist friendships have given me homes in many countries of the world. I do not need Air B and B any where because I have Feminist Bed and Breakfast and so much more everywhere.

My feminisms have given my life meaning, they have given me the strength to deal with personal tragedies, given my life a purpose. I wish to be part of the global feminist caravan till I leave my body.

Editor’s note: Feminism has exploded over Indian screens and minds in the last few years, bringing what was considered an ‘uncomfortable’ topic into everyday speech, with all its hues and forms, warts and all. Wonder of wonders, it is even becoming an accepted way of life!

In this series, we invite women of note who’ve made a mark in their respective fields to share their Feminism – how they have experienced it, and how their view of it has evolved over the years.

A social scientist by training, Kamla Bhasin has been actively engaged with issues related to development, gender, education, media and others since 1970. Deeply engaged with issues related to gender, development, peace, identity politics, militarization, human rights and democracy she has also written extensively on gender, women’s empowerment, participatory and sustainable development, participatory training, media and communication, and a large number of songs and slogans for the women’s movement, and books for children. 

Currently, she works with Sangat – A Feminist Network as Adviser, as well as JAGORI, a Women’s Resource and Training Centre and Jagori Rural Charitable Trust as an active member. She is the South Asia Coordinator of One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end violence against women and girls; Co-Chair of the worldwide network Peace Women Across the Globe; and member of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR). Prior to this, she worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for 27 years.

This is the sixth article in the series #WomenWhoMatter. 

Want to know what our other feminists say? Read the thoughts of Feminist Bollywood screenwriter Jyoti Kapoor here.

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