India’s foremost feminist voice on changing patriarchal paradigms

India’s foremost feminist voice on changing patriarchal paradigms

Kamla Bhasin.
Scholar and activist Kamla Bhasin feels that women artists need to rise above our misogynistic social norms and challenge patriarchy through their works, writes Nirmala Govindrajan .

As a feminist voice, confident and gentle at once, Kamla Bhasin’s personal challenge in the current patriarchal paradigm is to keep reaching out to people. “Through interactions, I share insights and keep learning,” says Kamla.

While the insights keep the creative quotient in this feminist’s activist slogans and songs awake, she stays connected with movements and struggles. “Years ago, I lost my 27-year-old daughter in an accident. My son, who is now 36, has no motor function due to brain damage. I had a terrible divorce eight years ago. I have been able to deal with all these struggles because of the larger connection with people,” speaks up the feminist. The connections grow even as Kamla recently found solidarity among artists and feminist voices from India, the Eastern and Western worlds at the Tantidhatri festival for women performers in Bengaluru. Many of these performers are part of the Magdalena Project – an international network of women in contemporary literature. 

Via such networks, more and more women find an increased freedom to express themselves, listen to their inner voices, recognise their struggles and hold their own as individuals. “Creativity makes us go within ourselves because a lot of our struggles are external,” observes Kamla, adding, “I am really not an artist. A cultural artist maybe – I write movement slogans. When I am close to people like Parvathy Baul, the organiser of Tantidhatri, their creativity touches me, giving me new ideas and strength. That’s why I was so grateful that Parvathy thought of bringing social activists like Vandana Shiva, Revathi, Khushi Kabir and I to an international fest of women performers. So, art and culture connected the inner and outer, the personal and the political.” 

But not one aspect alone can be a huge factor for feminism, points out Kamla. “Laws, politics, education and movements too, are necessary. Of these, art goes beyond language and literacy touching the inner being of a person. Over the last three to four thousand years, a lot of art and literature has been patriarchal. Women artists need to challenge patriarchy through their work,” she explains. 

To define their own spaces and identities, women need to understand and contend with the patriarchal dynamics today. “Patriarchy, like all systems, keeps changing. Earlier, it was about controlling us through religion and culture. Then science, which is controlled by people with power has been used for sex selective abortion. Media too, has been used against women. But then, a little of all these factors has helped liberate us and has also reduced our drudgery. In the last 30 to 40 years, capitalist patriarchy has been challenging us a lot. Today, billion dollar industries like porn, cosmetics and toys objectify women. Hollywood and Bollywood are giving a lot of patriarchal and racist messages. We women can never stand at the same place for we are constantly running to learn these new things. Twenty years ago, there were no cybercrimes. Then, we saw boyfriends making videos of lovemaking and putting them on WhatsApp. These are our challenges. Our power to fight them is so much lesser than the power of the corporate world. Look at the trillions spent on subjugating mother earth. These are some of the challenges women face all the time, keeping our lives exciting.”

“Today, billion dollar industries like porn, cosmetics and toys objectify women. Hollywood and Bollywood are giving a lot of patriarchal and racist messages.”

Life goes on as Kamla spends time with her son, teaches yoga and travels with her views on the true role of democracy in impacting the lives of women worldwide. Especially so in South Asian regions, where Sangat, her organisation, works in. “Democracy should be the work of the people, by the people for the people. People are not just men. A true democracy should be inclusive of women of all marginalised groups. As a feminist, I don’t just worry about women – our liberation will come when Dalits and Adivasis are liberated, the poor are liberated. Women are 50 percent of the world’s population – democracy should include their aspirations, ensure their participation and their perspectives,” says Kamla. 

In effect, every woman has the ability to impact her own democracy.  “Patriarchy lives in our families. People like you and me — ordinary women, need to challenge patriarchy. Pathy and swami mean owner. It is against the Indian Constitution to have an owner. We need to seek partners instead. When we get married, every ritual is patriarchal – the thali, the kanyadaan, the sindoor, all of which are against the Constitution of India. Today, we have to realise that the Constitution is the biggest religious grantha. We also follow similar patriarchal practices when a son is born. We observe karvachouth and fast, while men are busy drinking beer. When parents die, I sit away from funeral prayer. I don’t go to the temple because I am impure and I accept all that. We women have kept patriarchy going. Our leaders have given us a Constitution and by practicing it, each one of us can make a difference.”


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