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"The Womens Movement is a larger thing" - Interview with Kamla Bhasin

by Nazneen Shifa, 8 March 2009

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New Age, March 8, 2009

Kamla Bhasin is a renowned feminist activist and gender trainer in South Asia. She has written extensively on gender issues. Most notable among her publications are: Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, co-authored by Ritu Menon, Rutgers University Press, 1998, and What is Patriarchy? Kali for Women, 1993. Interviewed by Nazneen Shifa, a development worker and feminist activist in Dhaka

NS: We know that you have a long experience in South Asia. Do you think that there is any difference between feminist movements and NGO-based gender rights activities?

KB: I think movement is a much larger thing. So, if there is NGO-based feminist thinking and activities I call it part of the feminist movement. I do not make a distinction whether you are working in an NGO or you are working in a government organisation or you are working in a newspaper. A movement is not an organisation, a movement is a much larger thing. So, if NGOs are doing something in a very strong feminist way, according to my understanding and definition, they would be part of the feminist movement. So, I do not thing there is a difference in that way. I mean weather you are eastern NGO or you are based anywhere…I think sometimes the misunderstanding is that movement is an organisation. Movement is not an organisation. For example, a writer like Taslima Nasrin according to me would be part of the larger feminist movement or somebody like Shameem Akhtar, a feminist filmmaker, is part of a movement; she does not have to be part of a group to belong to a movement. So, I think they are all part of the larger feminist movement.

In every context, we have specific kinds of movements, like women’s rights movement, but how do you relate these with the globalised gender rights movement?

A movement is spontaneous work of a large number of people all over the world. So, all the activities which take place in Bangladesh or India are automatically part of the global movement. So we don’t have to be connected to somebody outside. That’s my understanding of a movement. What is global feminist movement? Global feminist movement is made up of hundreds of group working in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka or anywhere else; that is the global movement. Movement is not a membership thing. Movement is not something thing that you have to become a member of something global.

Since the 1980s, the feminist movement has been reshaped by the appropriation of global gender rights discourse. After the 80s, there took place a huge change by the intervention of NGOs in the context of women’s rights movement. Now we do not see a lot of spontaneous activities; more often than not things are NGO-funded. How do you evaluate this situation?

There are the advantages and disadvantages of the mainstreaming of gender. The concerns of gender have become mainstreamed and I am sure after sometime the cultural movement that you mentioned will also be mainstreamed. Now why did this happen? In the context of feminist movement because it has become mainstreamed, thousands of NGOs are doing it and today they are doing the same things which we were doing 20 years ago without payment. I do not know whether the work is less or the work is bad. The work is perhaps better organised. It is perhaps happening in all districts of Bangladesh and it is working on all issues which we are working. Just because it is funded by somebody, it does not reduce the value of the work necessarily. You have to see whether this is bad work or good work. For example, the work of most of the women’s rights organisation, is it bad work because they have just borrowed money? Or the work that the United Nations Development Programme is doing for the sensitisation of the police force. Earlier we had no access to the police but today because of our efforts, because of the women’s movements, the police also realise that they have to do gender sensitisation.

So this is what happens to any issue which becomes mainstreamed and really gender is one of the finest examples of mainstreaming. Very few other issues have got mainstreaming like that. I think it is a result of the women’s movement and I think what you have to judge is not the fact that whether these things have been taken over by NGOs. We have to judge whether they are as effective as before or more effective than before. Earlier, how many of the spontaneous michil and demonstration were taking place? Today, when we celebrate women’s day in Bangladesh, it is celebrated in 5000 villages. Earlier, were we able to do it? No. So I think I look at it that way. But, yes, some organisations have become established and may be if the women’s day merges in a holiday, may be they will not celebrate it. Because now you only do it 9 to 5 and some people are also working like that. But I would still consider them as part of the movement because for me the concept of movement is a much larger thing. They are still challenging patriarchy, they are still writing against it, working against it, even if they are working 9 to 5. Now, thousands of organizations are working 9 to 5 on these issues.

So, what we need to look at is not where the funds are coming from but the proper utilisation of the funds and the quality of work?

We have to see the quality of work. Funds are not a bad thing. Earlier also we needed funds but you were contributing small money here, small money there. People were required and at that time many of us were doing a full time job somewhere else, maybe selling Coca-Cola, and for two hours we were doing feminism. Now, because of the existence of funds, we are not selling ourselves to Coke or to a university or a college, we work full-time on these issues.

Do you think there is any difference between India and Bangladesh in terms of the feminist movements or women’s rights movements?
According to new feminism, the feminist movement should be like water. Water changes shape according to the vessel. So, obviously there are differences in the movement between every country and not only difference between Bangladesh and India, there are also differences in feminist activities in urban and rural Bangladesh because the movement is in response to patriarchy. So patriarchy is different, our movements are different, our issues are different. For example, in Bangladesh the acid issue is much more important because more acid is being thrown here. In India, we do not work on acid because acid has not become a technique for patriarchy to oppress us. In India, we are doing much more work on sexual issues because the sexual issue is a bigger problem. So, I think that it is obvious that in every country the movement is different according to the specific situation and other than that perhaps the NGOs are much bigger here in Bangladesh and the country much smaller, so perhaps the NGOs are reaching out to a much larger percentage of the population than the NGOs reach out in India. Maybe because of the size of India there is much more work on theoretical issues. Other than that, I do not know, issues are different, some issues are different otherwise all the issues are the same because most of the issues are common. Rape is common, violence is common, and dowry is common.

In Bangladesh, the issue of sex workers has not been properly addressed. Though in recent times a number of NGOs have been working on the issue, the movement has not gained momentum like in India. Why do you think this is?

This is obvious. Like I said, in different countries the movements will be different. So there are these kinds of differences, and once again I do not know how strong the sex worker’s movement is in India. I think in Kolkata it is very strong but I do not know where they are that strong in north India. So, what I am saying is that I am hesitant to make very general remarks because you should not generalise India. I hesitate, because I would say that even in India, the same differences exists, that in Kolkata they have been able to do it, but in Delhi the sex worker’s movement is not that strong or even in Bombay. So, there are many things, first of all their size, their issues and then at some place some kind of combination occurred, you find some activists, some sex workers participate etc. So I think Kolkata and Maharastra are the two places where the sex worker’s movement is strong and really nowhere else in the country. India is so large.

I was actually thinking about the documentary ‘Tales of the night fairies’, by Shohini Ghosh.

Yes, I have seen it and they are in Calcutta and once a year they have one meeting where they gather but that does not mean that this is happening everywhere in India.

So, what you are suggesting is that the formation of a movement cannot be generalized. It depends on context and so many contexts-specific reasons.

This is one issue, the sex worker’s issue, on which the women’s movement is divided completely. The women’s movement does not have one opinion, does not have the same analysis of sex work; this is one example where almost half the women’s organisations are on one side and the other half the other side. And what is the issue, some people accept prostitution as work and call them sex workers, only those people call them sex workers, who say well prostitution is one kind of work. There are other women’s organisations which say no, it should not be treated as work because it is so demeaning an activity; it is not respectable work and we should not legitimise it. Same divide exists about child labour. One group says child labour should be made legitimate and you recognise child labour, and other groups say that children need to be in schools, how can you allow child labour to become a legitimate, accepted activity. So sex workers and the child issue on both sides we have passionate people who speak for or against it.

But women who are already in the occupation needs to have rights and as an activist we have to ensure their rights but try work to stop the occupation in future. Wouldn’t you agree?

If you are calling sex work legitimate then you can’t say this is legitimate only for those who are in it. Then their daughters who come into it will say this is work, it is her choice and other people will say this is a wrong choice. It’s a very difficult choice; I as a feminist find it extremely difficult to decide which side I am on. If it is legitimate work then would I allow my daughter to become a sex worker? No. So then how do I allow other people’s daughters to become sex workers? Someone said to me, if you can sell your brain, like you are selling your brain to Steps and I am selling my brain to SANGAT, then what is wrong in selling sex. I as an older feminist find it difficult to make the equation. But publicly and politically my stand is yes, sex work is work, but that is my public thing, personally it is very difficult for me.

So it is not a choice?

No. I would say that it is very difficult for me to say that one can choose it. This for me is never a genuine choice. If they could get respectable work for the same amount of money, then would they become sex workers? I do not know. Today they become sex workers because they did not have alternatives, so I can’t say theoretically that they had a choice; they don’t really have a genuine choice.

In Bangladesh there are different customary laws, religious laws and different practices with regard to women’s rights like marriage law, inheritance law etc. In recent years, the women’s movements in Bangladesh have demanded a uniform family law. What do you think about that?

In India also we have been demanding for uniform civil court. You see, if income tax law — you may be a Hindu or a Muslim you pay the same income tax — and criminal laws are the same, then civil laws relating to family, marriage should be the same. Why should it be based on religion? So, in principle the women’s movement in India and Bangladesh is supporting it and I think in principle I am for uniform laws on all these issues. But to some extent in India the women’s movement has slowed down on it because suddenly the right-wing Hindu political parties also started demanding uniform civil laws. Their reasons were different, though. Their main contention is: why should Muslims be given the freedom to have their own laws? Our reason is that all women should have better laws regardless of whether Hindus or Muslims.

But in principle we feel it should be uniform and it should not be based on either Hindu or Muslim or this or that. We should take the best laws from the world wherever they are. But I think it will only be possible if there is less communal conflict in our countries. Unfortunately, however, instead of religious fundamentalist groups becoming weaker, they have become stronger; in your country the fundamentalist groups have become stronger. In my country, Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists have become stronger and in Pakistan the same.

Is there any good example of implementing uniform family law in any county of South Asia or South East Asia?

I do not think any country has done it. Nobody has gone for it. At least not in countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri lanka. I do not think that it has been done in Bhutan either. Nepal may be.

What are according to you the major challenges for the women’s movement in South Asia?

I think the biggest challenge is economic globalisation, and this kind of totally capitalist oriented feature in the context of the global hegemony, is destroying huge number of livelihoods of people. That is for me the biggest challenge. And as a result of this privatisation — privatisation of education, privatisation of health, privatisation of everything — I think these are the biggest challenge. And recently, like many times before, we have seen that free market is neither free nor fair nor without corruption. Earlier we used to say that the governments are corrupt. Today we have seen company after company which are corrupt. So, our government has to come back to a model of economy where there is state control, and to control the state, our democracies will have to be stronger. So I think that is the biggest challenge. For example, one big super market where you can buy everything in air-conditioned comfort, each one of those destroys a thousand, two thousand or three thousand shops. And those two thousand or three thousand shops are owned by three thousand families and many more people who are getting jobs there. Now today one family or one company owns that and all the profit is going there.

Like that also this kind of globalisation is destroying nature and environment and ecology. The second challenge for me is this whole challenge of communal conflicts which is leading to terrorism etc. where instead of we becoming less Hindu or less Muslim, we have become more Hindu and more Muslim and all that. And that is another big challenge in many countries in South Asia.

Another very big challenge is making democracy work, making governance much more transparent, and fighting corruption, because the index of corruption in all our countries is very high. So these are some of the major challenges

How would you evaluate the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh?

I think it is the best one and again for me a movement is a larger thing. That’s not only if volunteers gather or if I see that thousands of NGOs are working on women’s rights issues. Governments are working much more today than they did before. Even some serious newspapers are giving us space. The electronic media, though there are may be some good programmes, I am not very happy with. I think 95% of their programmes are very sort of anti-women and very stereotypical. Some feminist artists are coming like Krishnakoli, Anushe. They are the product of the feminist movement. I also say that people like Taslima Nasreen and other feminist film-makers, they are products of the feminist movement. Their consciousness, the fact that they are feminist film-makers, it means that they are daughters of the feminist movement. I think universities have women’s and gender studies departments, everyone talks of gender sensitisation, so I think the movement is quite strong. Even after this new government came to power in Bangladesh, women’s groups have given their agendas to the government and before the elections women’s groups gave their manifestos, so I think it is a strong movement.