By Nazneen Shifa
Interviewer’s note: Kamla Bhasin is a renowned feminist activist and gender trainer in South Asia. Born in 1946 and brought up in Rajasthan, India, Bhasin received BA at Maharani’s College in Jaipur and MA in Economics from Rajasthan University. She started her career as a lecturer in the Orientation Centre of the German Foundation for Developing Countries in Bad Honnef, Germany but later came back to India to work for Seva Mandir in Udaipur. Seva Mandir is a non-government organization working with the poorer segments of the population in Rajasthan, India. While with Seva Mandir, Bhasin worked directly with the rural poor (men & women) to organize agricultural, economic and educational activities for their economic up-liftmen. The main emphasis was on mobilizing people for their own development. During these years, Bhasin wrote extensively for newspapers on the rural realities and the impact of development programmes and policies on the rural poor. She wrote a number of books and has a number of publications on gender issues, articles, and songs. Most notable among her publications are: Borders and Boundaries Women in India’s Partition. Co-authored by Ritu Menon. Kali for Women, 1998, Ladki Kya Hai, Ladka Kya Hai. Jagori, 1998, What is Patriarchy? Kali for Women, 1993 etc.
In the text to follow I ask questions about the current state of the feminist movement in Bangladesh as well as South Asia in order to get an informed perspective and view from a veteran activist in the field. The resultant text gives a vivid statement of the current state of things and our position within it.
Nazneen Shifa: Please tell us a little bit about the SANGAT initiative?
Kamla Bhasin: Sangat is a South Asian Feminist network. It started in 1998 in a meeting in Koitta, Manikganj. It was a meeting of Gender Trainers. They named it South Asian Network of Gender Activist and Trainers. So, that’s how we started it and it was actually a continuation of work I was doing. Its basic objective is to do capacity building and networking, capacity building of the people who are working in Gender and Development field. So we don’t work only on gender, we work on many issues related to gender equality, class equality, democracy, pluralism and diversity, human rights, communal harmony and peace and we do training programs. One of our most important and most effective training program is a one month long course which we do each year for 30 to 40 women. And these women come from 8 countries which include 7 countries of SARRAC and Afghanistan. We have had also participants from Sudan and Turkey. I think this is one of the best courses in South Asia or anywhere. Where 7/8 of us act as resource person and these people learn about the feminist perspective.
NS: So, SANGAT’s main objective is to develop capacity of women’s right activist?
KB: Yes, SANGAT’s main objective is to develop capacity of women’s right activists and also of people working on human rights. It is not limited to women and gender. So, activists of all kinds working on peace, harmony women’s rights can gather here.
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 movement?
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 organization or you are working in a newspaper. A movement is not an organization, a movement is a much larger thing. So, if NGOs are doing same thing in a very strong feminist way, like Proshika’s GRCC, they are working in a very strong feminist work. 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. It depends on your ideology like I feel Steps’ works in a strong feminist way. So, they are part of the feminist movement. I mean weather you are eastern NGO or you are based anywhere. …I think sometimes the misunderstanding is that movement is an organization, movement is not an organization. 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, so 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.
NS: In every context we have specific kinds of movements, like women’s rights movement but how do you relate these with the globalized/ universalized gender rights movement?
KB: Global movement is part of the global movement. And again global movement is not that.I see movement is not something that you have connections with somebody. Movement is spontaneous working of a large number of people all over the world. So all the activities which take place in Bangladesh or India which are Indian feminist movement that Indian feminist movement is 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 hundred groups working in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka 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.
NS: Well, in the context of South Asia, specially if we look at Rokeya’s time, or even the feminist movements in 1960s and 1970s, when we see it as part of the larger feminist movement, we see there are some sort of a continuation. But after 1980s the feminist movement has been reshaped by the appropriation of global gender rights discourse. After 1980s, there took place a huge change by the intervention of NGOs in the context of women’s rights movement. Now what often bothers us is that we do not see a lot of spontaneous activities; More often than not things are NGO funded. At this point I can think of the recent effort under the banner Banglar Shogskritir Andalan which is a very spontaneous effort. How do you evaluate this situation?
KB: It’s possible because these are the advantages and disadvantages of mainstreaming of gender. The concerns of gender have become mainstreamed and I am sure after sometime the cultural movement that you mention will also in five years or ten years time will be mainstreamed. Now why this happened? 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. Like, these people Banglar Shangkriti Andolon in Dhaka. Today, we have got established and we are working in NGOs that the work is the same. I do not know whether the work is less or the work is bad. The work is perhaps better organized. It is perhaps happening in all districts of Bangladesh and it is working on all issues which we are working. Not just because it is paid by somebody. It does not reduce the value of work necessarily. You have to see whether this is bad work or good work. For example the works most of the women’s rights organization are doing. Is it bad work because they have just borrowed money? Or the work UNDP is doing for the sensitization of police people. Earlier we had no access to the police but today because of our efforts, because of the women’s movements the police also realize that they have to do gender sensitization. As a result of that, women’s rights activists may have to do Friday day work. 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 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, we have been celebrated in 5000 villages, earlier are we able to do it? No. So I think I look at it that way. But, yes, some organizations 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 6 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 10 to 5 but now 10 to 5 thousand of organizations are working on it.
NS: Recently we have started doing gender sensitization with the media. It is a fully voluntary work. We are working with media institutions like TV media, advertisement agency etc for mainstreaming gender in the media. It is a kind of voluntary work. We get fund and seek fund only to organize events/ programs but it is not for a long-term agreement. So here we are doing it voluntarily but there is an issue of continuity. So, in a way we cannot continue our work without fund. Considering the discontinuity thing and in relation to your earlier discussion perhaps I can say that we need to look at is not only fund but the proper utilization of fund, and quality of work etc.
KB: We have to see the quality of work. Fund by itself is not a bad thing. Earlier also we needed funds but you were contributing small money here, small money there. Fund was not required. People were required and at that time many of us were doing a full time job somewhere else may be 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 university or to college, we are saying okay, job are here and we work fulltime here.
NS: Do you think there is any difference between India and Bangladesh in terms of feminist movement or women’s right movement?
KB: According to new feminism, feminist movement should be like water. Water changes the 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 population than the NGOs reach out in India. May be there is 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.
NS: In Bangladesh sex worker’s movement is not very strong. We see most of the time the government creating barrier in this kind of movement. Though in recent times a number of NGOs are working on the issues of sex worker’s right and their efforts have created a space to claim and discuss rights but not much strong as in India. In India we see the sexual right movement specially sex worker’s movement and gay rights movement already making news.
KB: I said this is obvious. In different countries these movement will be different. So there are this kind 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 are they that strong in north India. So, what I am saying is that I am hesitant to make very general remarks because you want to generalize about 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.
NS: I was actually thinking about the documentary ‘Tales of the night fairies’ by Shohini Ghosh.
KB: Yes, they are in Calcutta and once a year they have one meeting where they gather but that does not mean that is happening everywhere. I have also seen it. Basically, Calcutta meeting and one general meeting which she talks about takes place in a year that does not mean that in other cities the movement is that strong and also I think that national gathering which she talked about was also mainly of Hizras where some sex workers came and Hizras are also sex workers.
NS: 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.
KB: This is one issue, the sex worker’s issue is an issue on which the women’s movement is divided completely, 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 organizations are on one side and the other half the other side. And what is the issue, some people except prostitution as work that called them sex worker, only those people call them sex workers, who say well prostitution is one kind of work. There are other women’s organization who said no, it should not be treated as work because it is so demeaning an activity; it should not be seen as a work. Because it is patriarchy, where men have the power to go and buy sex and women should be available for sell. This is a very demeaning work, it is not at all a respectful work and it is a sign of patriarchy and why should we legitimize this. Same divide exists about child labour. One group says child labour should be made legitimate and you recognize child labor, and other groups say that for god sake 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.
NS: I think the second group’s position is also to say that women, who are already in the occupation, needs to have some rights and as an activist we have to ensure their rights but work to stop the occupation in future.
KB: If you are calling it that sex worker is 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, like I as a feminist find it extremely difficult, to decide which side I am. If it is legitimate work would I allow my daughter to become a sex worker? No. So then how do I allow the people’s daughter to become sex worker? Somebody else who said to me what’s wrong in Kamla tumito old fashion, ke holo, if you can sell your brain, like you are selling your brain to Steps, I am selling my brain to SANGAT. If you can sell your brain you can sell your sex. I as an older feminist find it difficult to make an 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.
NS: So it is not a choice?
KB: 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 have a choice, they don’t really have a genuine choice.
NS: So what you are suggesting is that historically the context was not like that the sex workers choose the occupation rather they were forced to the occupation. But if we use the word sex worker, sometime it sounds like that people choose it by their own intentions but in cases of sex worker we find most of them have been forced to get into the occupation. In this context if we called ‘Bessha’ rather than sex worker, it carries the sense specially the subjugation in the occupation. What do you think about it?
KB: I mean it is a very very difficult question. This naming issue. I agree, that at least to give it respectability, so like that we can give respectability to people who clean our toilets, today there is a demonstration by dalit. So, they are these dry latrines, there is this community of people who go and collect that sheet and then they carry it on their head. Then Gandhi started calling them Harijan. Today we want to call prostitutes the sex worker, by calling them Harijan does it become more dignified? That you carry sheet on your head? Or is it more dignified to remove those kind of toilet that no body has to carry sheet on their heads? So is it in an ideal society would be want very beautifully run sex clinic or sex boutiques where we go buy sex, and who is buying sex 95% or 99%? Men are buying sex, most of them may be married men, other wives also buying sex outside, No, so it is a symbol of patriarchy that men buy sex. So we are working within the patriarchal thinking, then we talk of these people who are carrying sheet on their head, we are working within the caste system, so within the caste system we called them Harijan. What I am saying you need to find other alternatives, you need to remove certain things, that’s what I am saying. But other people will argue against me, that sex work can never be healing, it has existed for five thousand years, but like that you can never remove it ? Yes, we are trying to remove patriarchy. So this a very tough issue.
NS: 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 are demanding for a Uniform family law. What do you think about that?
KB: In India also we have been demanding for uniform civil court. You see, if income tax law and other laws are uniform, you may be a Hindu or a Muslim you pay for same income tax, murder laws, criminal laws are the same. In a country civil law 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 party also started demanding uniform civil court. Their reasons were different, their reasons were why Muslim should be given that freedom to have their own law? Our reason is that all women should have better laws whether Hindus or Muslims. So, because of that BJP thing the women’s movement got a bit sort of we need to give it up for some time. So, we didn’t want to support right wing Hindu. But in principle we feel it should be uniformed and it should not be based on either Hindu or Muslim or this or that. We 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. Otherwise, minority will not allow it to happen. The Muslim minority in my country for example feels, let’s not feel they have all their rights, they want to protect their minority status and the only way this religion knows how to protect is on women’s issues. So, they don’t want to give it up. But I feel as a goal women’s movement has been for uniform civil court. But it requires a lot of work on communal harmony, Hindus here should feel confident that it is being done not to take away their rights. And basically the people who object are not the women, not the ordinary people, the religious thekedars , they object because their power will be taken away. So that thekedari of religious group has to go. And unfortunately instead of it becoming weaker, it has been becoming stronger, in your country this fundamentalist groups have become stronger. In my country Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists have become stronger and Pakistan the same.
NS: Is there any good example of implementing uniform family law in any county of South Asia or South East Asia?
KB: I do not think any one 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. Nepal may be, Nepal is 99% or 95% Hindu country.
NS: What are according to you the major challenges for women’s movement in South Asia?
KB: I think the biggest challenge is economic globalization, 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. This system may allow big company to come into this country. And in part of this privatization, privatization of education, privatization of health, privatization of everything, I think these are the biggest challenge. And recently, and 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 this 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 family 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 globalization 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. 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 in the country, making governance much more transparent, and fighting corruption, because the index of corruption in all our countries is very very strong. So these are some of the major challenges and I believe also a lot of the conflicts which become ethnic conflict or religious conflict, they are actually conflict over resources and the globalization, some companies are coming and controlling all the resources. Our Governments are giving them the rights. So the fight in the Chittagong Hill Tracts is over land, over resources and forest. Fights in the North-east of India are over those. The fight between our countries is over water. So, these are fight over resources. And resources are becoming privatized. Earlier the government owned the resources. People owned resources. Khas land is being given to companies under the special economic zones etc. So, many of the conflicts are because of this and we need to control that.
NS: How do you evaluate women’s rights movement in Bangladesh?
KB: 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 the women’s rights movements. Governments are working much more today than they work before. Even some serious newspapers are giving us space. The electronic media and though there may be some good programs, but I am not very happy with that. I think 95% of their program is very sort of anti-women and very stereotypical. Some feminist artists are coming like Krishnakoli, Anushe. They are the product of feminist movement. I also say that people like Taslima and other feminist filmmakers, they are a product of feminist movement. Their consciousness, the fact that they are feminist filmmakers, it means that they are daughters of feminist movement, and I think university has the women’s and gender department, everybody has to talk of gender sensitization, so I think the movement is quite strong every now and then, people get together and talk about gender budgeting. Even after this new government came in Bangladesh, women groups have given their agendas to the government, before the election women’s groups gave manifestos, so I think it is a strong movement.
Acknowledgments: I thank Kamla Bhasin for giving time for this interview. Thanks are also due to Fawzia Khondker Eva and Mahmudul Sumon for variously contributing towards this interview. An abridged version of the interview was published in the daily New Age on their International Women’s Day issue on 8th March, 2009.