HER WORLD Sunday, March 10, 2002, Chandigarh, India

The women we admire most 
Javed Akhtar who has just won the best lyric writer award from Filmfare for his patriotic and devotional songs in Lagaan. In fact, his lyrics have won accolades year after year in the 90s decade.

A movement gone awry?
ven as senior officers ordered meek women employees to organise functions to mark the day of women's empowerment, cosmetic companies like Ponds launched advertising campaigns for International Women's Day on March 8.

Sewa to be computer savvy
EWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), an association of poor, self-employed women workers with a membership of more than two lakhs, is all set to go hi-tech. As per an agreement between the World Computer Exchange (WCE) and SEWA, the association has sought computers to provide accounting and financial management for micro-enterprises and make available graphics design capability for women designers. 

Haryanavi way to deal with girls
on’t you think it is entirely foolish and hare-brained to spend on kerosene oil and match boxes for bride burning or using up muscle power of the poor dear husbands and mas’-in-law to strangulate their daughters-in-law when all we need to meet our "immediate national requirement" to get rid of all the females in the country in one stroke is to resort to our good old Father of the nation-Gandhiji’s-respect for the common salt and start storing a little extra in every household! ..




The women we admire most 

Javed Akhtar
Javed Akhtar

Javed Akhtar who has just won the best lyric writer award from Filmfare for his patriotic and devotional songs in Lagaan. In fact, his lyrics have won accolades year after year in the 90s decade. Akhtar is married to Shabana Azmi, one of Bollywood’s most articulate and fiery actors who has upheld several causes and spoken her mind about many of her concerns. With his gentle, butterfly-winged poetry, his liberal political ideas, a healthy approach to women’s causes, Akhtar is a man ideally suited to list women achievers whose human qualities have appealed to him over the years. He describes his list as "not a bad effort at all’!


Gulzar, who received the much-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award at the Filmfare function this year, has made heroine-oriented films throughout his career. Women caught in the quagmire of emotions; women who have charted a ‘different’ course for themselves and women who seem almost futuristic in their lifestyles have found pride of place in his films. In his career, he has worked with the great Meena Kumari, Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini and Tabu in films which have left a deep imprint on his own life. Today, he is a fond father, watching the contribution of his daughter Meghna — Bosky to him— to the world of films. "This generation is different, " he says somewhat wistfully. "Today, young people are more direct, less suspicious and more transparent. Only Bosky could have written the story of Filhaal. I would have portrayed women as extremely suspicious of each other," he says. Vimla Patil speaks to Gulzar and Javed Akhtar about the women they idealise and why.

Medha Patkar

Medha Patkar: The relentless social activist heads the Narmada Bachao Andolan. "She is fighting for the rights of the poor, down-trodden people of the Narmada Valley," says Akhtar. "Without any personal agenda, she has given her life for those who have been cruelly ousted from their own lands in the name of progress and development which will not benefit the dishoused poor. She is sensitive, concerned and determined. Her fight goes on, despite mounting obstacles and opposition from stronger forces, for decades. She is an admirable fighter for her chosen cause.

According to Gulzar, who also votes for Medha Patkar, the social activist is "unassuming to a fault. She has no political axe to grind and does not seek mileage for herself from her cause."

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Kishwar is the editor of Manushi, a magazine devoted to feminist issues. The magazine has stood like a rock, speaking out and fighting for women’s rights and the injustice piled upon women everywhere and Indian women in particular. Madhu has worked incessantly to open the eyes of Indians to the miserable situation of women in this country and to make them understand the seriousness of the gender bias in our society.

Qurratulain Hyder is one of the greatest living writers in India, according to Akhtar. Her graceful prose, the mind-blowing sweep of her literary works and the way she offers knowledge in her own inimitable style are admirable. her mega novel Aag Ka Dariya, covers 2000 years of history from the Maurya era to the Partition. This is a magnificent effort. She has been awarded the Jnanpith Award, among other honours. It is a pity that she works in a Third World country in a language which only a small number of people can understand. Otherwise, she deserves international honors.

Mahashweta Devi

Mahashweta Devi: If Javed Akhtar chooses Qurratulain Hyder, Gulzar’s vote is in favour of the great novelist Mahashweta Devi. "Her fiction is stranger than life. People say that life is often stranger than fiction. But she turned this phrase around and created miracles of literature. She won the Jnanpith Award among other honours. Some of her literary works such as Lailae Asmaner Aina, are truly immortal. Her short stories are experiences rather than reading material. I have worked with some of her stories like Rudali, Dayan and others. I admire her grit and her honesty to her pen.

Brinda Karat: Javed Akhtar has never met her but admires her when she speaks on television or at various seminars. He says she is clean in her views, speaks forcefully and articulately about values and principles which we Indians need badly today. She is dynamic, pro-poor and secular.

Kiran Bedi

Kiran Bedi: There is no need to say anything specific about this great Indian," says Gulzar, "She won the Magasaysay Award for her work among prisoners. She has shown what a police officer should be like to our country. She is an icon and a model for all Indian women. We are proud of her because of her many-splendoured personality. Whichever function she graces, she adds enlightenment and humour to it. Hers is truly an awesome presence."

Barkha Dutt

Barkha Dutt: She is, in Akhtar’s opinion, an ideal role model for modern young Indian women. She is up there where the news is happening and braving all hazards, she brings the reality of India to the television screen, thus bringing the horror of mass destruction and mass injustice into every home. She is totally committed to her work and to excellence in her profession. "I saw her with admiration when she covered the Kargil war, interviewing army men in trenches, in bunkers and during actual firing. I’m so proud of her," he says. Gulzar, who also finds Barkha Dutt outstanding among Indian women, admires her courage. "It takes guts to go out there where bullets are flying to report from the war front," he says, "Her programme We, The People is a rare example of a politics-free, unbiased television presentation and she is not coloured by any views. It is honest, straight from the heart and wonderful. Her commitment to her job is admirable."

Anjolie Ela Menon - "This artist is my favourite painter," says Akhtar "She creates a mood of understated sadness, a fragrant kind of sorrow which does not cause anguish, but just an inward look in me. Her work has a gentle sensitivity which I admire greatly. She has done contemporary Indian art proud. Her work is exhibited abroad and offered by international auctioneers for sale. She has attracted the best collectors of art worldwide to buy her work.

B. Prabha : "Though this fine artist passed away just a few months ago, I would like to count her among my favourite achiever," says Gulzar, "She was totally Indian in her art and reminded me of Amrita Shergil. Other painters have often mixed styles to create fusion in their art. Prabha’s figures, though stylised, were truly Indian and represented the women of India from every walk of life. They were sensual and at the same time, they were strong and independent. I love her work and I think she was a very sensitive person."

Lata Mangeshkar

Lata Mangeshkar is one of the most dignified women in India according to Akhtar. She is an example of a big talent given by God to a big person. She is large-hearted, sensitive and her talent is phenomenal. Sometimes, a big talent is given to a small person or vice versa. The result, I think, is disastrous either way. But in Lataji’s case, the match of talent and dignity is ideal. She was awarded the Bharat Ratna most deservedly. She has brought tremendous dignity to her profession, maintained her top position for 60 years with incomparable character and grace and brought honour to India and its people.

Asha Bhonsle

For Gulzar, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle are both admirable women. "Asha is always considered after Lata only because she was born later than her sister," "Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both landed on the moon Aldrin landed later, that’s all. Similarly, Asha landed on this earth later than Lata. Both sisters have immortalised Indian music. Their contribution to the popularisation of Indian music is invaluable."

Teesta Setalvad is the dynamic editor of a unique publication called Communalism Combat. it is the only magazine devoted to a fight against caste and communalism. Its attitude is absolutely ‘front foot’. Teesta also runs an organisation called Khoj to fight against gender or communal biases in text or schoolbooks. She is a social activist par excellence, unparalleled in her zest and is a fiery, articulate woman. She is Akhtar’s choice.

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy: is one of India’s major writers. Her style, language and courage of conviction attract me inexorably. Her commitment to the causes she chooses to support is also admirable. Her winning the Booker Prize brought pride to all Indians. Akhtar admires her.

Gulzar too admires Arundhati Roy. According to him, the writer is "explicit and clear in her thought and writing. Her novel God of Small Things is outstanding in every way."

 Hema Malini

Jaya Bachchan, Hema Malini, Tabu for Gulzar, these three actresses represent different eras of film-making and are objects of admiration. "The first is Jaya Bachchan," he says, "Jaya is one of most sensitive actresses in India. She can essay any character with elegance and style. her work as a producer was valuable on television. She was the most effective chairperson of the Children’s Film Society and without asking for any subsidy, gave Indian children a permanent slot on TV. Unfortunately, commercial interests swallowed up her efforts and she left the CFS. She is not only an actress, but also a woman of substance. Hema Malini, without undue sloganeering, has lived the life of a liberated woman. She has enjoyed her rights and liberties with a free mind. She is a combination of tradition and modern thought and this is unusual in India. She has acted in films, kept her dancing art intact and lived a complete life, without giving undue importance to social correctness. Tabu is an actress among stars. In the melee of mini-skirted stars who try for role, with glamour and sexiness, she chooses roles which demand all her power as an actress. Very often, she has succeeded in roles which other actresses would not even look at."

Bhanu Athaiya: Gulzar votes for this designer because she brought the first Oscar to India. Her dedicated work for Attenborough’s Gandhi will always be a benchmark in Indian cinema. She has once again scored a high in her career with her costume designing in Lagaan, which is the Indian entry for the Oscar this year. Her work is consistent and she is a fabulous person too."

Shabana Azmi

"Shabana Azmi, my wife, is to me a complete woman," says Akhtar, "She plays every role to the hilt. She is a complete wife, daughter, citizen, actor, friend, and social activist: complete in every way. She was sure that she did not want to be a member of the Rajya Sabha riding on the back of any political party. She is the President’s nominee and is there as a social activist and not as a politician. I admire her sense of purpose and her patience with the work she has undertaken in addition to a very successful career."

Meghna Gulzar: "Though Bosky is my daughter, I want her in this list because she is the core of my life," says Gulzar, "She is my encyclopaedia, my energy, my dictionary. In her eyes, I see the future of the women of this country. She is transparent, honest and up front about every issue of life. Her film Filhaal was futuristic and I admire her for being ahead of times, wanting to earn a richer slice of life than me and my contemporaries!"

Additionally, both Gulzar and Javed Akhtar vote for the Women of India, who are unsung heroines of the nation. Both wish to honour and admire the millions of faceless working women of India. "They work untiringly and without any recognition as home-makers, mothers, wives and contributors to the finances of the home by their work in domestic service, factories, offices and in the fields or mines sprawled across India," says Akhtar, "They help to improve and build the future of their children and that of the nation. They are the unsung heroines of our age and their labour is neither recognised and often nor rewarded adequately by our society, and sometimes even by their own children!

Gulzar adds the women of India have not held their past against anyone. "They could be bitter and vengeful for the oppression piled upon them for centuries. But they have risen to the occasion and taken every opportunity to improve the destiny of their children and thereby the future of the country. I request them to forgive the past hurts which men have given them and to go into the future with confidence and an assurance of our support and admiration. I want women to shed the sins of the past, which men have committed against them and find their own wonderful identity!"



A movement gone awry?
Shoma Sen

Even as senior officers ordered meek women employees to organise functions to mark the day of women's empowerment, cosmetic companies like Ponds launched advertising campaigns for International Women's Day on March 8.

These two forms of celebration have generated extreme reactions amongst activists and those who have been connected with the women's movement.

While some see celebrations by cosmetics companies as a victory, arguing that the movement is growing and turning into a festival of sorts, others are disappointed. This group of people is not only irked by the shallow ritualism of commemorating particular days, but also the slow erosion of the thrust of women's liberation as the axis of the movement.

Those who are unhappy with the co-option of the Women's Day by forces of consumerism maintain that this institutionalisation of a vibrant anti-establishment movement is an antithesis of the radical values embodied in early feminism. Mary Wollestonecraft, author of the path breaking document, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, who was born in a poor family, as far back as the 18th century struggled for her education and career as a writer and strove for a relationship with men based on intellectual and mutual compatibility.

The 19th century feminists, fighting for the right to vote, resorted to militant tactics like chaining themselves to the gates of public offices. Around the same time, Marxist thinkers like Friedrich Engels identified the bourgeois family as one of the chief oppressors of women, something that the radical feminists would reiterate more than a hundred years later.

In India, in the same century, Jyotiba Phuley, a social reformer from Maharashtra, strove to educate the lower castes and women. He taught his wife, Savitri, to read and write and she became the first woman teacher in the state. But Savitri had to face the humiliation of being pelted by stones and cow-dung as she set upon her daunting task.

Though the movements for women's rights differed in their ideological moorings from the communist-led struggles that were organising working class women, it was in a similar background that International Women's Day came about.

The memorable struggle of women working in garment factories in New York who marched for better work conditions on March 8, was declared as International Women's Day in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, the German communist leader.

The 'Second Wave' feminism of the 1960s too was an intense upheaval all over the world - this time against the external manifestations of patriarchy and the internal ones within political groups and the family. Thousands of women joined the National Organisation of Women (NOW) in America and, putting aside their domestic duties, came out in the streets in August 1970 in a national strike. The movement for the Equal Rights Amendments Act was a prolonged one, showing that women's liberation was much more than burning bras.

In India, the Mathura Rape Case in 1980 sparked off the autonomous women's movement and women's organisations emerged in several towns, dealing with violence against women in its various manifestations. Militant campaigns against rape and dowry deaths, with actions like blackening the faces of wife-murderers and their social boycott led to important changes in the rape laws and those pertaining to family violence, marriage and divorce.

However, vibrant as this movement was, the slow and insidious process of co-option began to dull the edge of militancy. The increasing trend of making careers in the movement, of taking up jobs and research projects became easy options.

This is led to a proliferation of crisis centres for women in distress. But what may have begun as pooling in of individual resources to provide shelters and legal aid gradually turned into NGOs.

The debate within the movement between focussing on "consciousness raising" (creating awareness and mobilising women to participate in broader movements for social change) and doing "case work" or mitigating the problems of individual women in a practical way continues.

In India, voluntary organisations have mushroomed in towns and villages -organising workshops and seminars on women's issues, giving legal aid, health training, providing for self-help savings and other schemes, doing developmental activities, creating an image of tremendous growth and proliferation of the women's movement.

In the process of rethinking the last 20 years of the women's movement in India, a number of other factors also come to mind. Firstly, the middle-class character of the members of the women's groups is perhaps a factor restraining them from going one step further and integrating them with working class or rural-based movements.

Besides, the newer trends in feminism emphasising the politics of difference, or extolling femininity have also impacted the essence of feminism. With these politics of plurality, certain questions emerge.

For instance, would the profession of modelling or participation in beauty pageants be an expression of independence and entry into feminist space or falling victim to a consumerist culture that turns women into sex objects?

Would 33 per cent reservations for women in elected bodies, women in the police force, judiciary and bureaucracy be expressions of women's empowerment or merely an assimilation of women into the exploitative State machinery?



Sewa to be computer savvy
Peeyush Agnihotri

SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association), an association of poor, self-employed women workers with a membership of more than two lakhs, is all set to go hi-tech. As per an agreement between the World Computer Exchange (WCE) and SEWA, the association has sought computers to provide accounting and financial management for micro-enterprises and make available graphics design capability for women designers. Asha, an NGO dedicated to basic education for underprivileged children in India, is actively assisting SEWA in this endeavour.

"By June this year, a container of 375 computers and monitors is expected to leave the USA for its one-month voyage to Ahmedabad to provide computers to over 100 village centres of SEWA in Gujarat," Timothy Anderson, CEO of World Computer Exchange, says. "However, SEWA is waiting for a waiver on import duties," he adds. Meanwhile, the women’s association has already received assurances from the Gujarat chief minister’s office for clearance of this consignment.

WCE is dedicated to help the world’s youth bridge the disturbing global divides in information, communications technology and trust. The organisation does this by keeping surplus computers out of the landfills, giving them new lease of life connecting people in the world’s poorest countries to the Internet.

Digital Partners, an organisation committed to harness the Net for social purposes, is providing a grant of $ 30,000 to SEWA as the one-time cost for required UPS, stabilisers, and transformers including $ 5,000 to cover a portion of WCE’s costs and the shipping expenses. Half of the computers will be used by SEWA and the other half employed in government schools.

The primary purpose of the computer donation is to provide access to the Internet for poor youth. The machines will also be used for vocational education and economic development purposes. The Yale chapter of Asha for Education has agreed to raise funds and provide volunteers to work for a year with SEWA. Asha will also train their staff to prepare the wiring and install software in the local Gujarati language, troubleshoot, and do the initial maintenance.

All equipment will be donated in the USA from individuals, corporations, non-profits and universities. The shipment will comprise of used PCs, monitors, mice, keyboards, cables, and power cords as well as 17 printers and some software, manuals, and other equipment.

"The $1,12,000 worth of used computers would have cost many times more had it been purchased afresh in India. The computers will help young persons in Gujarat to learn computers for gathering and communicating business records and create new markets for the small businesses in their villages," Anderson asserts.

Among those who are expected to pack the container are volunteers from the three Asha for Education chapters in the San Francisco area, students from high schools and colleges there and local WCE volunteers.

SEWA’s main goals are to organise women workers for full employment and self-reliance. Full employment means employment whereby workers obtain work security, income security, food security and social security (at least health care, child care and shelter). SEWA organises women to ensure that every family obtains full employment. Self-reliance means that women should be autonomous and self-reliant, individually and collectively, both economically and in terms of their decision-making ability.

Meanwhile as a part of separate agreement a container filled with working Pentium computers and colour monitors has already arrived in Marmagoa, Goa, India to connect 70 schools and their 25,000 students to the Internet as a part of the long term Goa Schools Computer Project (GSCP), of Goa Sudharop Community Development, Inc. based in Panjim, Goa, and Kensington, CA. The World Computer Exchange shipped them from the port of Boston last month.



Haryanavi way to deal with girls
Neena Malik

Don’t you think it is entirely foolish and hare-brained to spend on kerosene oil and match boxes for bride burning or using up muscle power of the poor dear husbands and mas’-in-law to strangulate their daughters-in-law when all we need to meet our "immediate national requirement" to get rid of all the females in the country in one stroke is to resort to our good old Father of the nation-Gandhiji’s-respect for the common salt and start storing a little extra in every household! ..

Yes, it is so simple and easy that you might be fascinated enough to try your hand at it again and again. .. Just take a small lump of common kitchen salt and put it in the throat of the new born baby girl. Lo and behold! Before you can say "Halleluja", the infant will have choked to death without a whimper. And yes, what is more important, without even leaving a scar on her body or on your conscience. After all you did not use pistols or knives or pesticides to kill her. She just fades away as easily as the salt. After that, imagine the innumerable advantages you gain. There will be no hassle for women’s reservation in schools, colleges and Parliament, no hassle of dowries, no further need for kerosene oil and match boxes. Already 26 per cent youth in Haryana cannot find brides for themselves as the female ratio is the lowest in the country. They are now resorting to buying brides from Bangladesh. Curiously, the Haryanavis are averse to baby girls but look forward to brides and bride burning! ! Though they are feeling the dearth of brides for their sons, the average Haryanavi families want to do away with the girl child at all stages. "Panch sau Lagao, Panch Lakh Bacchao" -such tempting ads displayed on big hoardings outside medical clinics all over Haryana certainly seem more within reach of the common man than the popular television lure of " Kaun Banega Crorepathi"!

All that the pregnant women has to do is to step in for an ultra sound test costing Rs. 500 to determine the sex of her unborn baby. And if it is a baby girl threatening to add to her woes she can quickly get the unwanted baby aborted. The arithmetic of it all is not only simple but realistic in the eyes of the parents. After all they will be saving at least Rs. Five lakh straight-in the far flung future— a minimum amount spent on the dowry of a girl in these hard times. As in many other areas-good and bad-Haryana has achieved the dubious distinction of topping the list of the fast declining female ratio of 861 per 1000 males. It is the worst in the country as compared to 933 females for 1000 males for the country. The sex ratio in Haryana was 865 in 1991. It is surprising that the sex ratio in all the districts is below the national average of 933. Another alarming fact is that the sex ratio in Haryana has declined continuously since 1981 and is at its lowest since independence. According to Sunil Gulati, Director Census Operations, the preference for a male child is always there and when it is coupled with technology assisted choice such as ultra-sound, the decision to get rid of the baby girl in the first stage becomes easier .Ironically, this happens in the urban area. where one expects the awareness levels to be high and less prejudice.