“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”. (BR. Ambedkar)
In the remembrance of the International Women’s Day, Sarojini Naidu Centre for women’s studies, Jamia Millia Islamia has organized 6th Sarojini Naidu annual memorial lecture on the theme of “Creation and Dissemination of Feminist Knowledge” on 3rd March 2020 at Jamia, in which Ms. Urvashi Butalia spoke as a key speaker. Ms. Butalia is a noted feminist writer, publisher and the author of a much-cited book like, ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from and the Partition of India’ 1998. She along with Tanika Sarkar has also written on the Hindu Right-wing and women’s question in India, titled ‘Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiences’, 1995. While writing in the context of Partition, she explained the pain and agony of especially women survivors, who suffered and experienced horrific violence during the time of Partition. Besides, Ms. Butalia has been earlier associated with Kali for Women, as a publisher and now teaching at Ashoka University. She spoke on feminist disseminations of knowledge and emphasized the need for a fresh interpretation of feminist literature, produced by rural women- unheard voices in the mainstream social science- in their local and vernacular languages. Moreover, she also spoke about the paucity of archival sources as far as producing feminist literature is concerned.
However, everybody aware of Savitribai Phule but nobody familiar with interesting the story around her Sari (Indian traditional women’s dress) which can be a source for writing the social history of the lower caste women. While citing the cases of the dowry and other women’s related issues (which male upper caste authors have ignored in their writings), she said that within the limited sources, we have to interpret and contextualized it properly to create alternative feminist literature. Besides, we have to engage with and freshly interpret the writings of Savitribai Phule, Muktabai Salve and Sharmila Rege (they have had produced worthwhile feminist literature especially related to the lower caste women in their writings) to create a counter-narrative in the larger public sphere. These feminist activists and writers have had also engaged seriously with questions like caste, Brahmanical patriarchy and women’s sexuality in their writings. While recognizing the ‘Intersectionality approach’, for mentioned feminist scholars, problems like caste, gender and patriarchy are deeply intertwined in the context of India. In other words, without ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (as Babasaheb Ambedkar reminded us in his writing long back), we cannot liberate women in India.
While referring the stories of Rajasthani’s women like Sharir Ki Jankari (knowledge about women’s body, complied in Hindi) and Bhaveri Devi episode of gang rape which took place in 1992, Ms. Butalia underlined that women who are living in village society have fought with the deeply entrenched notion of caste, patriarchy and contributed worthwhile feminist literature. But the mainstream social (which is heavily dominated by upper-caste male) have not given proper academic attention and hardily recognized the lower caste women’s contributions.
It would not be wrong to say that even in the university space and its curriculum, teaching and classroom pedagogy; the dissemination of feminist knowledge have been confine to a few centers for women’s studies. While referring to Sharmila Rege (she was a noted Indian sociologist, who initiated debate around ‘Dalit feminist standpoint’ and authored a book, Writing Caste, Writing Gender, published by Zaban, 2006) and other feminists contributions in terms of producing feminist literature, the speaker also reminded us that we cannot democratize the mainstream social science, without giving proper space to feminist literature in classroom pedagogy.
While responding to the audience, Ms. Butalia said that we have to recognize the struggle and importance of Shaheen Bagh’s Muslim women-led protest (to note they are protesting against the CAA-NRC-NPR for more than 80 days peacefully and non-violent Gandhian methods) that have in fact created a new narrative in feminist discourse. The protest led by Muslim women at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere has been seen as fourth ‘wave of feminism’ by a section of feminist as reminded by Prof. Simi Malhotra in her remarks. As a regular visitor of the protest site at Shaheen Bagh, I can also say that western feminist and its ontological perspectives such as Liberal, Socialist and Radical cannot explain and capture the vibrancy of protests led by Muslim women. For Ms. Butalia, most of the feminist’s scholars have accepted uncritically the dominant discourse of western feminism while studying women related issues in the context of India. However, while referring to the works of noted scholars like Uma Chakravarti, and Tanika Sarkar, and the book edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid ‘Recasting Women; Essays in Colonial History’, the speaker has said that we could see originality in their writings.
To conclude the points made by the key speaker and others, one could argue that it is now crucial to recognize the lower caste and Muslim women’s concerns and writings in the mainstream social sciences (hitherto dominated by the upper caste male) to democratize the knowledge system, so that they can speak truth before the authoritarian power. While remembering the International Women’s Day on 8th March 2020, it is vital to recognize the sacrifice and struggle made by so far Shaheen Bagh’s Muslim women who are protesting against anti-constitutional CAA-NPR-NRC for the last more then80 days peacefully. In short, the perspective and experiences of the lower caste and Muslim women who are coming from the ‘below’ (Shaheen Bagh’s protesting Muslim women against CAA-NPRC-NPR can be cited as a case in point here) must be taken seriously especially in producing feminist literature; so that the mainstream social science discourse cannot ignore the voices of subaltern class women in times to come.
The author is a research scholar at the University of Delhi