Subversive sentiments

We see, in this volume, the contributors' initiation into activism. We also trace the
relevance of feminist concerns to their existence

Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India
Ed. Ritu Menon.
Women Unlimited. Pages 384. Rs 350.

Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

LIKE other movements, there has never been a singular feminist movement all over the world. Since gender is intersected by race, caste, language, sexuality, class, education, and so on, to expect women to speak in once voice is to wrest away the polyphonic nature of the feminist movement completely. The various memoirs by women that Ritu Menon has strung together are testimony to the varied nature of their response to what they define as "feminism". What makes these memoirs even more recountable is the fear of obscuring them from recollection for "remembering may well be unreliable, but forgetting is erasure". This book, in Menon’s words, is a "counter to historical forgetting".

Recollection from amnesia is, in itself, an onerous task as history, particularly that of women, fades away, burdened as it is by a culture of silence. In "male"-stream writing, women’s roles and participation are seldom considered important and rarely documented. To articulate women’s histories and agency through their memoirs is thus creditable indeed.

And so we hear about Gabriele Dietrich’s initiation into women’s issues as she migrated to India from Berlin; and Vandana Shiva’s nature-education which made her link hostility against nature to aggression towards conservationist women. When Kamla Bhasin writes, "I owe my creativity, my growth, my closest friends ... to this movement", she echoes the sentiment of all the contributors who have found strength in participating in women’s causes. But what really constitutes the movement? How does one become part of it and who become members of it? Even unschooled and uneducated women can be "feminist", since women’s empowerment is instinctive and unlearnt. It is not constituted by understanding words like "gender" or "feminism" but by inculcating a natural solidarity for women and by defying the pressures of patriarchy. For instance, feminism lies in Ritu Menon’s "illiterate" grandmother who advised her that "apni taghdir apni muthi mein rakhna" (make sure your destiny is in your hands) or in the dozens of rural women who made the Garhwal Chipko Movement possible in 1972.

Such resistance is well encapsulated by Vasanth Kannabiran who finds Wordsworth blowing through her: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive." I remember, many years ago, reading an article co-authored by her—"That Magic Time"—which was about women making history. Indeed, that is what women needed to do in order to politicise the personal. In the many negotiations and adjustments they had to make with what was deemed "domestic" lay the charge of their particular feminisms.

A particularly fine piece of writing by Ruth Vanita about her early girlhood and her tentative acceptance of her new-found sexuality grips my attention. Ruth’s account moves parallel with the emergence of Manushi, India’s earliest feminist journal. Her stimulating story of giving up opportunities to study abroad, working instead for women’s welfare, is reflected in the time she spent writing, editing and proof-reading painstakingly for Manushi. Her narratives about the many courageous women she encountered works side by side with her understanding of homosexuality, and are evidence of centuries of hardship, suffering and exploitation that women have to face in their everyday existence.

Central to women’s concerns has always been the issue of violence. In the 1970s and 80s, organisations like the Mahila Dakshata Samita and the Forum Against Rape were set up. Ahilya Rangnekar, Vijay Tendulkar, Primila Lewis and Deepa Dhanraj, to name a few, took such movements forward with their radical speeches and writing, demanding that women’s public (and also private) spaces be made more secure from "unacknowledged terrors". These years witness the "first major public articulations on issues like sex selective abortions, property and housing rights for women, underpaid feminised labour and ... contraception", writes Pamela Philipose, making it clear that gender issues are not a concern of home-breakers but is a significant part of all women’s (and men’s) daily lives. Such movements have eventually led to the growth of the women’s studies movement.

These magical years saw the publication of Gloria Steinem’s magazine Ms., Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Susan Brownmiller’s Against our Will and Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology which inspired many women in India. In 1984, Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia set up Kali for Women, India’s first feminist press, that would publish exhilarating books like Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing and Sangari and Vaid’s Recasting Women. As Ritu Menon succinctly puts it: "Never before had the personal, the political and the professional come together in such an extraordinary way for me... . This confluence was something else altogether, and it made me realise just how critical the personal is in any feminist endeavour."

Making a Difference is Menon’s commemoration of 25 years of involvement with women’s issues and movements. What is particularly exciting about this volume is that it marks the contributors’ initiation into activism and traces the relevance of feminist concerns to their existence. And the gains have been tremendous. As Kannabiran puts it: "A sense of self, a sense of worth, a sense of relevance, plenty of love and gratitude from thousands of young women whose inchoate desires and needs I seemed to voice. A feeling that life has been worth living. What more can one ask for?"