The Inquisitive Feminist: Urvashi Butalia

The Inquisitive Feminist: Urvashi Butalia

Urvashi Butalia talks about contributing to the evolving phases of feminism through publishing, and of the experiences gathered from her interviews with women who survived traumas of displacement, rape and the Partition.

 

Indian publisher and feminist Urvashi Butalia co-founded India’s first feminist publishing house, ‘Kali for Women’ with Ritu Menon in 1984. Since 2003, she separately runs ‘Zubaan Books’ which tries to capture marginalized voices of women, apart from publishing academic books.

 

How has your notion of feminism evolved since your college days when you were protesting against the hostile conditions of women and demanding special buses for them?

My notion of feminism has evolved in the sense that feminism itself has evolved and grown so much to link itself and partake of all kinds of other movements. From its more exclusive focus on what we call “women’s issues”, it has brought in a whole range of issues which are not specifically relating to women, but encompass patriarchy, class, caste etc. For instance, it is now very closely aligned with the environmental movement, Dalit movement, secular movement and movement of water- which are not immediately recognizable as feminist causes but, at the same time, they are very close to women’s rights. As women who were initiated into the feminist movement in the 1970-s, we have also grown and evolved with it.

If you look at some of the letters and speeches of Savitribai Phule in the 1830s-50s or Tarabai Shinde, who wrote this one pamphlet called “The Comparison between Women and Men” or Pandita Ramabai- the content of their texts are undoubtedly very feminist, but the term being a Western concept was not identified with them.

 

Could you mention a few writings which contribute to feminism without being necessarily categorized as ‘feminist’ texts?

It depends on who categorizes a text as a feminist text. So, if I write something, because I choose to call myself a feminist, I would call that a feminist text. At the same time, someone who is not aware of feminist politics may choose to not call her text ‘feminist’ but, yet it may function and be read as a feminist text.  So, if you look at some of the letters and speeches of Savitribai Phule in the 1830s-50s or Tarabai Shinde, who wrote this one pamphlet called “The Comparison between Women and Men” or Pandita Ramabai- the content of their texts are undoubtedly very feminist, but the term being a Western concept was not identified with them. Same with the writings of men like Periar and Ambedkar.

Feminism is one of the few movements in the world that is open, inclusive and tries to engage with new things.

So, what turn do you see in feminism with a shift towards the Right in the country and in global politics?

I think the challenges in feminism will hike due to this rise of the Right, but it is not as if feminism has not confronted rightward leaning in politics before- whether it is in the form of Hindu or Islamic fundamentalism. Feminism is one of the few movements in the world that is open, inclusive and tries to engage with new things. We-the early feminists in India from the 1970-s- did not pay much importance to the issue of religious identities, but over a period of time, we came to realize how great a role religion played in the lives of many women and how oppressive it could become. But the answer was not to do away with religion but to engage with it and criticize it, to find its influence in law and to battle it. I think that kind of experience will stand feminism in good stead in confronting this swing towards the right and the fundamentalist forces.

 

So, you have worked with Oxford University Press and Zed Books before forming Kali For Women and later, Zubaan Books. What led you to take up publishing as the medium to contribute to women’s movements?

When I finished university, the one thing that I knew for sure that I did not want to teach, but that was the only profession that seemed available. I had studied English Literature, and although I loved it, I felt it was completely unrelated to the realities my life. What use are Keats and Milton and Shakespeare when you are living in Delhi and fighting patriarchy and violence every day?

I did not know publishing was what I wanted to do. I got a freelance job at Oxford University Press and I worked there for a little while and I really liked it. I still did not connect feminism and publishing-it was just a job, and my feminism comprised of what I did in the streets and my campaigns. But when we began to understand why we were confronted with issues like dowry, rape, violence- their history and why they were taking certain kinds of manifestations, we looked around to try and read things and found nothing. That is when I began thinking of publishing as part of my feminist job, and even then to begin with I was dreaming of being a printer. I wanted to get a small printing press, keep it in my house and then do political campaigns and print pamphlets. But that obviously was not possible because we needed money and resources, so then after I joined publishing, I fell in love with it and decided this is where I want to be all my life and connected it with my politics.

By the time ‘Zubaan’ was set up, feminism itself was changing and expanding quite a bit, and our mission is to go with the change and to reflect it.

How is Zubaan’s mission different from Kali For Women’s and what does it aspire to publish in the recent future?

‘Zubaan’ is born out of ‘Kali’ so the mission is the same, which is to make women’s voices heard, bring their writings centre stage and have them extended as far as possible in terms of accessibility and reach so, it’s the same thing. The only difference is that by the time ‘Zubaan’ was set up (in 2003), feminism itself was changing and expanding quite a bit, and our mission is to go with the change and to reflect it. The solid work that we do is to publish academic books which is the same as in ‘Kali’, but in ‘Zubaan’, we also take into account the thoughts of new, young feminists and innovate in ways of publishing them- like making ebooks and using social media more widely. So, it is basically changing with the times.

It is important to publish the voices of those who do not usually get published like a woman who is a Dalit labourer, for instance- who may not be literate or ever get to read a book but you can work with the person to transform the orality of the narrative into a book.

So, why is the category- ‘women’s writing’ still in vogue now that more and more women are taking up writing professionally? Do you see this category disappearing in the coming times or do you think it is necessary to continue with it, still?

No, I don’t think it will disappear. I think you are right to say that more and more women are taking up writing as a profession- which is a good thing, and that is what we had set out to do. But there is still a lot to be done in terms of the kinds of books that can be published. It is important to publish the voices of those who do not usually get published like a woman who is a Dalit labourer, for instance- who may not be literate or ever get to read a book but you can work with the person to transform the orality of the narrative into a book. We have just published a book on the history of women taxi drivers. So, in a sense it is a field which is so relatively untouched, that even though you can see improvement over the last 20 years, it is certainly not enough and much more remains to be excavated and brought out.

The ethics of researching women’s lives (in fact, anybody’s life) is a very difficult question because you enter into people’s lives, speak to them, take their material away and disappear so, it is quite like an exploitative relationship in some ways.

You have opted to use oral narratives for your books The Other Side of Silence and Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir. So, what is the ethics behind conducting this kind of research where you interview deprived women from your relatively privileged position?

The ethics of researching women’s lives (in fact, anybody’s life) is a very difficult question because you enter into people’s lives, speak to them, take their material away and disappear so, it is quite like an exploitative relationship in some ways. The other thing is, no matter how much you talk to people and say that, “Okay, I’m going to use your interview in a book”, and people give you permission to do so, between the fact of speaking in a dialogue or a conversation and the fact of seeing what you have spoken in print, there still remains a huge distance. People often don’t realize what they have said and when they see it in print, it shocks and worries them.  There are lots of issues surrounding the question of consent, the question of an exploitative relationship that may exist between the interviewer and the interviewee and whether speaking out is the first step to liberation on the part of the interviewee in dealing with trauma because those I interviewed were all victims who had lived through violence.

There is no easy formula to it other than doing the work with as much honesty and integrity as possible. One of my guiding forces is to always be honest with people about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Don’t give them the impression that you will be able to do more than just talk to them- for example, when some people expect that you will be able to help them with certain issues, you have to make it clear that you can’t do that. You have always got to listen to people without pushing the interview in the direction you want and to respect their silence if they don’t want to speak about certain things.

I went in as a feminist and I thought- okay, there are stories of sexual violence over here- I will listen to these stories, I will break the silence about them and bring them to public attention and this will somehow become a way of liberation for some women. But this was a load of nonsense.

So, I did not know all these when I started the interviews and I did many wrong things for example, I would tell people all kinds of stories about why I was doing the research- I never told them the truth. Of course, I did not know the truth myself then- that the outcome would be a book, because in the beginning, I was only doing it out of interest. But I talked to some friends of mine who accompanied me on one or two interviews and one of my friends told me- “Be truthful. Why are you lying? Why are you sometimes saying that I’m doing it because my family also comprises of Partition refugees?” And I listened to her and started to do that and felt much better. Then, for example, I went in as a feminist and I thought- okay, there are stories of sexual violence over here- I will listen to these stories, I will break the silence about them and bring them to public attention and this will somehow become a way of liberation for some women. But this was a load of nonsense. So, when I started to talk, I realized how important it was for the women to sometimes maintain silence because they had to live the lives they were living now- whether it was a life of choice or not. And they could not, just out of interest of some abstract notion of truth, break the silence about an incident of sexual violation which even their families were often not privy to. I realized how difficult it is for the children to cope with the fact that their mother has been raped. So, many women did not speak about it.

As I went along, I learnt all these; if a woman wishes to speak this much, you listen to this much- you don’t push her. If she wants to talk about sexual violence, you listen and, if she decides later – “I don’t want that story to be out”- you listen. The whole question of silence for me became a very complicated question because of the implications that silence carried for the person who could not articulate either for lack of the adequate vocabulary or courage. I had to find out a way of dealing with these histories without compromising those women. I had to ensure that their lives would not suffer after that because to me ethically, what is more important? Their lives or my research? So, all these questions came up and I learnt. I’m grateful that I wasn’t doing this research within a restricted period of time and I could keep on growing with the learning I acquired over the 10-12 years of research that went into it.

People are displaced because of violence and they encounter it in the new places they go to. Women and men differ in the nature of violence that they face.

Do you find a link between violence and displacement? Like the mass exodus from Syria has been met with closed doors from many countries. Is this indicative of something greater than xenophobia?

This is too broad a topic to address within the scope of this conversation, but yes, of course, there is a link between violence and displacement. People are displaced because of violence and they encounter it in the new places they go to. Women and men differ in the nature of violence that they face.

Recently, a friend of mine wrote to me about an Afghan woman who had come here with her husband who was seeking asylum in France and he got it. Afghanistan had become very unsafe for them because they were being chased. So, he brought her here on medical visa and she had to wait her till he could get asylum for her in France, and while she was here- barely one week- she couldn’t speak any language expect Dari- her own language. And here, supposedly in the Lajpatnagar place where other Afghans stay, she thought she would be safe. She was chased by small Afghan mafias who wanted to use her for sexual exploitation. Day after day she was going from place to place so, my friend wrote to me asking if I could help her.  And I tried to find her, but she was so frightened that she kept on moving and finally she decided that even though Afghanistan was really unsafe, she would go back there. She felt that at least she could speak the language, at least she knew the people. So look at this one story of terrible displacement and terrible violence which shows violence is not only physical. So I think apart from the violence that the whole Syria story evokes, the kind of violence that often gets obliterated is the violence that takes place inside the home- how levels of violence have kept rising for women and children.

 

 

Image via www.aljazeera.com

Barnamala Roy has recently completed her post graduation in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. Dismissed in turns as discursive, despondent and dreamy, her varied interests include films, philosophy, writing, translating, cooking and bird-watching.

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