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11 Indian Women Changemakers Who Harnessed The Power Of Sisterhood For Social Change

Posted: March 2, 2020

A look at some Indian women who have embodied the spirit of sisterhood #EachForEqual, using their privilege to help other women, and in the process transformed the status of women in society.

If there’s one person who deserves full and undisputed credit for me writing this article and you reading it, it is Savitribhai Phule – the one revolutionary who made it possible for us women to have an education at all. She was also a woman from a ‘backward caste‘, which made the challenges she faced that much more difficult. Hailed as the ‘mother of Indian feminism’, she has many firsts to her credit –
~ the first female teacher,
~ the first Indian feminist,
~ founder of the first school for girls,
~ first woman activist,
~ and organiser of the first Satyashodhak (anti-dowry) marriage.

But the fight is far from over; the fight for women’s equality has only just begun.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2020 #IWD2020 is #EachForEqual. The spirit of sisterhood, in which women help other women rise up to equal, help them towards a better life, using whatever privilege they have.

Spirit of Sisterhood, all #EachForEqual

Gloria Steinem once said, ‘The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.’

There have been several women in the more recent past who have been working tirelessly to bring up other women, demonstrating not just the spirit of sisterhood based on common interests, but also epitomizing the idea of ‘women supporting women’.

Let us look at some Indian women who have embodied this spirit of sisterhood #EachForEqual, and in the process transformed the status of women in society.

Vina Mazumdar (1927 – 2013)

“One of my favourite questions of the government was when the government uses the word ’empowerment of women’. I say ‘who is empowering whom?”

It would probably be difficult to fathom an unassuming, soft-spoken, sari-clad lady being a ‘trouble-maker’ but that’s what Vina Mazumdar calls herself. An academician and activist, Mazumdar is also one of the most formidable feminists voices who spearheaded change in the status of Indian women. She rightly addresses herself as the ‘chronicler and recorder’ of the women’s movement in India.

Mazumdar was a pioneer in the research on women’s studies and the women’s movement in India, founding the Centre for Women’s Development Studies – an autonomous body for research and action on gender studies.

In 1974, Mazumdar published her report on the status of women in India, titled ‘Towards Equality’, which traces the history of women’s movement in India. It essentially laid the groundwork for future movements, critical policy changes, documentation, and government action and accountability towards the women’s movement in India. The report highlighted social, economic, and political discrimination faced by women, and brought into focus the declining sex ratio. It also spurred a major shift in how women’s studies and policy development regarding women’s issues, particularly the economically weaker section, was perceived in India.

In an interview with Paromita Vohra for Livemint, she speaks about how some women are scared to call themselves feminist. “Feminism was associated with people who felt themselves to be discriminated against,” she says. Essentially, this means that those who have not faced marginalisation discredit others’ lived experiences, so evident in the resistance to reservation and special privileges accorded to women. She also often criticised governmental inaction or it’s flawed approach to women’s issues and participation of women in economic and national development.

Some of the tenets of gender equality we take for granted today, like shared responsibilities between husband and wife, the need to eliminate gender discrimination at workplace, and the need for policies around maternity and pregnancy, especially with reference to the work-place were first included in Mazumdar’s report and later adopted by UN too.

“The most important thing in equality is dignity,” she said, explaining how equality cannot be looked upon in isolation but is closely connected to autonomy and justice too.

Today, this ‘grandmother of women’s studies in South Asia’ may not be among us but the revolutionary work she has pioneered has set the foundation for a better existence for future generations of the average Indian woman.

Kamla Bhasin

“I increasingly found that amongst the poor, women were poorer. Amongst Dalits, women were more Dalit. Amongst the excluded, women were more excluded.”

I had, until a few years ago, called myself a ‘rebel’. I did not know of or understand feminism then. I only knew I wouldn’t be one to be treated subordinate or be one to shy away from voicing my opinions.

Little did I know how close my own lack of understanding was to another remarkable lady’s journey. She too called herself a ‘rebel’ until she discovered that she was a Feminist. She first came across the word during her work at Seva Mandir, Udaipur when an American woman she met gifted her an year’s subscription of a very famous American feminist magazine. ‘Until then, I hadn’t even heard the word “feminism”,’ she shares.

A frontrunner in the feminist movement, social scientist, Kamla Bhasin has been actively smashing patriarchy, working towards the cause of gender equality for over three decades. She firmly believes that feminism is not just for women, but for everyone, and that your biology does not decide if you are a feminist.

In 2002, she decided to be more hands on with effecting change at the grass-roots level and founded Sangat, a feminist network. She is also the South Asia co-ordinator, Secretariat, for One Billion Rising, a powerful global movement aimed at spreading the message of ‘freedom, equality, and dignity for all’. This bonding of ‘sisterhood’ needs to be among women, of course, but also men. “Instead of love for power, we need to understand the power of love,” she says.

“I realized that if we want to work on the issues of class and gender (and caste), then the written word is not enough. That’s why my focus has always been on engagement through Q&A booklets, songs and visual materials like posters and banners,” she says in an interview with Feminism In India. 

Through personal interactions, public speeches, events like OBR Day, workshops and courses, she has effectively waged a battle against ignorance, patriarchy, and traditional gender dynamics. Her infectious energy and spirited interactions are what ensure her efforts at spreading awareness are successful. These efforts include making even illiterate and rural women sing anti-patriarchy songs along with her. Indeed, her songs are most impactful and strike a chord with everyone, irrespective of whether they can sing or not. Her poem – Azadi, which was first recited at Jadavpur University in 1991, is incredibly popular event today and at every public event or interaction, she manages to get everyone to sing along with her.

She believes women empowerment is critical to the concept of gender equality, and one cannot exist without the other. ‘Education of women and economic empowerment are essential for equality, but not enough,’ she says, agreeing with Vina Mazumdar on the need to provide more support through reservation representation of the Dalits and the Adivasis women.

Kirthi Jayakumar

“It’s not about how many people follow my initiative or subscribe to my ideas versus yours; it is about how much we can do together and how effectively we can make change happen.”

Feminism is often associated with angry activists – mostly grey-haired women who have spent many years teaching and training men and women. Feminism is also, inaccurately, most often associated with protests, sloganeering, and bra-burning. All stereotypical notions that take a solid beating when you meet the young, soft-spoken, and gentle Kirthi Jayakumar, who has made it her life’s mission to support and uplift women.

The desire to help others was something that had been instilled in her since childhood. Her journey to make a difference had already begun much earlier, with her work in peacekeeping and gender equality, but underwent a huge directional change in 2012, after the Nirbhaya rape incident that shook the world.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Kirthi actively and painstakingly works towards peace awareness and gender equality. Her list of initiatives include Saahas – an app that provides tech support for survivors on gender violence, for which instead of relying on a developer, she taught herself how to code; Femcyclopaedia – a collection of doodles aimed at creating awareness about inspiring women (past and present); and The Red Elephant Foundation, which has now evolved into The Gender Social Project to help survivors of gender-based violence.

She reiterates the need for collaborative activism that Kamla Bhasin espouses. “One of the more important things in the big picture in any activist’s attempt is that if we want change, we must collaborate, and not compete,” Kirthi says.

A truly contemporary activist, Kirthi has effectively used technology and story-telling to bring women together, and spread the message of peace, love, and equality; not just through workshops and trainings, but also through her drawings, stories, and digital initiatives. Challenges have never deterred her, and this was evident when Kirthi taught herself to code when efforts to hire an external coding team for Saahas failed.

Her work as a volunteer, researcher, writer, entrepreneur, and activist has transformed the lives of many women and children, and proves how multi-talented and multi-faceted she is. She regularly conducts training and workshops on gender equality and has conducted various bystander intervention trainings. Her dogged efforts at spreading peace and love through various initiatives and efforts have inspired many including several of her close friends and colleagues.

Despite the incredible list of achievements and prestigious awards, including a US Presidential Services Medal in 2011 and two United Nations Online Volunteer of the Year Awards, Kirthi is humility personified. “I will accept them when I am deserving of them,” she says, resolving to work even harder in order to be worthy of the praises.

7 women founders of Shri Mahila Griha Udyog Lijjat Papad

“Women can generate fantastic results if they pool their resources and strengthen their bonds with one another.” – Jyoti Naik, former President, Lijjat Group.

The Lijjat group today has a combined strength of 43000 ‘members’, and was started by 7 women who lived in Lohana Niwas, a group of five buildings in Girgaum. They wanted to start a venture to create a sustainable livelihood using the only skill they had i.e. cooking. The seven women were Jaswantiben Jamnadas Popat, Parvatiben Ramdas Thodani, Ujamben Narandas Kundalia, Banuben. N. Tanna, Laguben Amritlar Gokani, Jayaben V. Vithalani, and Chutadben Amisha Gawade.

The group is an epitome of women empowerment, having successfully provided livelihood to thousands of women irrespective of their family income, caste, or age. Based on the principle of ‘universal upliftment’, the women are not only the employees but also equal stakeholders in profit and loss. It is for this reason that the set-up is more a ‘co-operative’ than an organisation.

Jyoti Naik, former President, explains the criteria for joining the organisation. ‘Any woman who pledges to adopt the institution’s values and who has respect for quality can become a member and co-owner of the organisation,’ she says.

It would be an error to consider this simply a local rural set-up run by illiterate women. Today, the group, a recipient of many awards, is a formal organisation with a traditional hierarchical structure. It is not only recognised by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission but also reports a turn-over of 300 crores including exports.

The concepts of business, family, and devotion dictate their operations and transactions. Their adherence to professionalism and strict quality control has led to them being independent and self-reliant not just as a business but also as individuals. The venture is not just a work-place to earn one’s livelihood. It has managed to come together in times of need for its own members and the community by mobilizing resources effectively and efficiently.

‘The journey is not only fascinating but also inspiring for people,’ admits Swati R Paradkar, current president, under whose leadership the group has specifically worked for the upliftment of women in rural areas.

Runa Banerjee

“It’s a very slow, very gradual process… There still remains a lot more to do in a lot more ways.”

One of the most inspiring journeys perhaps is of this social worker, Nobel Prize nominee, revolutionary activist and founder of SEWA Lucknow, (Self-Employed Women’s Association, Lucknow), and Padma Sri Awardee, Runa Banerjee. She has single-handedly revived the popularity of chikan art and hence, provided renewed livelihood to over 10,000 female artisans. Realizing that the popularity of the craft was based primarily of commercial business with vested interests, who indulged in exploitative practices, she encouraged these women to become self-reliant.

Runa Banerjee set up SEWA Lucknow in 1984 to train the women and provide them other necessary support like raw materials, transport facilities, access to legal and social support, child welfare, and formal trainings in hand embroidery and chikankari. The non-profit organisation also runs a school for the women’s children.

Most importantly, SEWA eliminated the middlemen, equipping and enabling the women to take charge of purchase, production, management, marketing and accounting.

The journey hasn’t been easy. From being physically assaulted for having joined SEWA to resisting caste and religious divides, the group has encountered severe resistance in various forms, but managed to emerge stronger thanks to the strong sisterhood they collectively embody.

Today, SEWA is not just into training the women in chikankari craft, but also aims to equip the women with life skills, knowledge about women’s rights, education, and family welfare, to ensure their social, economic, and political empowerment.

A lot still remains to be done

This reminds me that the struggle to get where we are today has been a tough one, and that the battle is far from being won.

The need for collaboration and existence of women’s networks is evident for the success of women empowerment then. “Together, the combined energy is capable of creating sustainable change,” agrees Kirthi.

What each of these women have done is pave the road for us all to have a better future, and take us one, even, ten steps further. It reinforces my belief in the premise of #EachForEqual. These inspiring women not only reinforce this statement but also prove how collectively we can create a more inclusive, progressive, gender equal world.

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Piyusha is a sometime sane reader, part-time crazy writer and full-time wacky alien.

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