Unlimited Girls - Interview with Urvashi Butalia, Part 1
Director: Paromita Vohra
Duration: 00:58:06; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 31.558; Saturation: 0.291; Lightness: 0.102; Volume: 0.139; Words per Minute: 60.612
Urvashi Butalia is an Indian feminist and historian. She is the Director and Co-founder of Kali for Women, India's first feminist publishing house.
Butalia was born in Ambala, India, in 1952. She earned a B.A. in literature from Miranda House, Delhi University, in 1971, a Master's in literature from Delhi University in 1973, and a Master's in South Asian Studies from the University of London in 1977.
She worked as an editor for Zed Publishing and later went on to set up her own publishing house. Her writing has appeared in several newspapers including The Guardian, The Statesman, The Times of India and several magazines including Outlook, the New Internationalist and India Today. Butalia is a consultant for Oxfam India and she holds the position of Reader at the College of Vocational Studies at the University of Delhi. Her main areas of research are partition and oral histories. She has also written on gender, communalism, fundamentalism and media.
Paromita Vohra interviewed Butalia for her film Unlimited Girls
(2002), an exploration of engagements with feminism in contemporary urban India. For more, see http://www.parodevi.com/unlimitedgirls/unlimitedgirls.html
U.B: I think it means different things to different people. To me this means is a way of life, what I believe in, it tells me that nobody, no human being, regardless of whether they are male or female, or poor or rich , or superior or inferior, or white or black, or whatever; I think it means recognising and respecting every human being as somebody who has the right to live in the way they wish to. It's not particularly something woman friendly necessarily. But that's what I feel about it.
New Delhi, India
Feminism, activism, the women's movement is seen in only one way and that is the visibility of demonstrations, marches, confrontations, attacks, demands, all of that. That is why now, in the media also, the general perception is that the women's movement is finished. In this interview Urvashi Butalia talks about what feminism has meant for her, what being a feminist in contemporary India means for an urban educated English speaking woman who runs a feminist publishing house is all about. She also points to the rejection of this label by several younger women, even though they have internalized what their mothers generation fought for, and now enjoy those privileges without seeing themselves as part of the movement. She talks about rural women, who have solidly feminist positions without ever being termed so, the western baggage such a term contains, the myths around feminism, the compromises and negotiations that several middle class women make everyday to assert their feminist stands. She also discusses the impact of feminism on inter-personal relationships. She voices the need to therefore change perceptions of where we now locate feminists today.
Jai Prakash Narayan
New Delhi, India
Special Marriage Act
Q: What does it mean when you say it's not specifically women friendly?
Q: Why did you put in inverted comas? Is their no definition of equality?
Q: We have rights, but not equality, so those rights are not actualized?
U.B: See I think, I think yes and no to something like that. I think what has happened is that the Indian women's movement is much wider than the voices by which it is represented. Those voices happen to be voices of people like me, which are urban, middle class, articulated, educated and who have a fair amount of privilege to able to get access to be heard.
But you take something like the anti-alcohol movement in Telangana, which is involved in terms of numbers, I mean in Andhra, I am sorry, which has involved in terms of numbers many many more women then lets say the anti rape campaign. But which just stayed as a localised campaign because the participation is largely of rural women. So I think when we look ate Indian women's movement we have to look at all the many things that make it up. And we have to therefore fight against the fact that it is only represented by its most urban, most articulate, most middle class women. Because that's not what it is.
Q: Difference between the idea of feminism and the Indian women's movement?
Q: Real feminism is in the villages- what do people mean by that? Are they not mixing it up with movement for rights?
Q: So when you say fighting for feminism..there is obviously structures of oppression we have to fight within ourselves, which also women in cities are doing and still don't call it feminism?
Q: As you negotiate you compromise, and sometimes you lose sight of how much you are compromising, it can eat into your feminism and completely deny it?
Q: There are those women whom feel strongly for the women's movement and for feminism are...(inaudible)middle class women and who are educated and make their own choices and the ones who are more reluctant to associate themselves with the movement. But I think it's not just the label, it's that entire moral structures that they don't want to be associated with. What does one feel about that?
Those who gain most from that women's movement use the excuse of negotiation and say don't think that ever somebody else has fought for me has fought for us. We can often say that Ok. we have to compromise, but that's life, but surely they don't need compromise as much ?
U.B: But tell me, let me answer that question you asked by posing a question to you. What can you do about this? Would you rather that they have not gained from feminism or use their position of having gained from it to reject it. I think this is the reality we have to live with. If you look at the next generation, from my generation the next generation of young women, many of them have gained from what their mothers had fought for such as we gained from what our mothers fought for. Many of them now actually reject feminism because there is a kind of sense that, 'we don't want to be involved in that political stuff', you know. Because everything else is so much more attractive.
I think that happens with any movement. You look at the left movement it's the same thing. You know, why is it that the most committed in the left movement swing over to the right? And they use all the knowledge and everything that they have gained to actually reject that position. It's on of the, look at the right wing parties in our country, what have they got, these are all the lefties who have swung over completely. It happens in many movements and you just have to see that that is the reality of it.
Q: Why does that happen? I mean, I understand at the conceptual level,maybe the new fundamentalist movement is as revolutionary in certain construction as ?? as the left movement. But it's also to do with the nature of activism that has been drifted within the left movement and women's movement?that makes it very hard to sustain the movement?
I think it happens because in any movement there are people who will benefit from that movement but who will then not want to own it because they have found a balance between taking the benefits of that and taking what they want of the other kind of life. I mean, they don't want to recognise that if they do both they are compromising. And they want to feel comfortable with the compromises they are making so they ignore one kind of history.
But there is no doubt that for me it is much easier to go every day and sit in an office and work on books than it was to be out in the streets, demonstrating and doing street plays, much though it gave you a sense of euphoria and everything. But it was, every time it was a confrontation. Every time you went out you did not know whether you would get back home or whether you would be thrown in jail, even for 24 hours or whatever. So I often question myself now. I believe in what I am doing, I believe it's the thing I want to do. But am I just saying this because it's much easier? You know, somebody looking at me from outside might actually see me as having made a compromise. I have a career, the career happens to fit in with my feminism, which I think is for me the most wonderful thing ever, but somebody might see it as a compromise.
Q: Why would they see it as a compromise?
Q: It made me think is, that I met somebody a few weeks ago who is a feminist and does all kinds of work and she says to me, 'it is very good that you are making that film, because you are an outsider to that movement' and she kept saying that and I kept thinking, 'why am I an outsider, because I never perceived myself as such and where does that come from?
Because there is none kind of that activism or there is little of that kind of activism in the streets of urban metros. It exists elsewhere but that does hardly matter because the media doesn't notice what exists elsewhere. And people think if that is not happening then these women are not doing anything. Now I think we need to, and in some way we have also internalised this because as I said sometimes I even think if I am not doing this I am taking the easy way out.
So for e.g. you look at the media, within the print media there are a large number of women today who are strong feminists and who have actually changed the character of what's happening in the media. So, I think that we have to change our perception of where we locate feminism, where we locate activists, where we locate people who are involved in the movement. They are not only in those demonstrations and marches that take place. And I think that is a terrible thing to say to people that you are not in the movement, you know. Who are you to judge?
Q: This business of trying to be true, what do you with the anger, that needs to be expressed?
If you take an incident of my professional life e.g.. I am on a committee of a, which is a federation of publishers and booksellers in India, it's a male lot of male (?) committee, there are thirty/ forty people on it, there maybe two women maybe three sometimes. And, every time I am in the meetings, you know, they are so used to addressing the meeting as gentlemen, that it really irritates me and I have to every time make this thing of, you must address everybody who is there. It becomes after a while, it becomes a little bit of a joke, because then say they, 'oh, Urvashi is saying this', and you become like a token protester, feminist who is making this thing each time.
Q: Love is a problem for feminists. lot of other women who are single feel that way. Why is love such a problem?
Q: Because I think that love tests your feminism a lot.
I don't think that in that sense love is a problem only for feminists, I think it's a problem for all women caught in these situations, because it is immediately a relationship that assumes a certain power structure, and whether or not you are a feminist you know when you are subsumed or pushed under or insulted or dealt with badly in that relationship, you know it. Just the, because you are a feminist you question it more. And you question yourself more. Because if you are not you might accept it as part of the relationship. I am not sure if it's a problem, I mean only for feminists. Certainly one needs to look at love in different ways, not only romantic love but other kinds of caring and loving relationships which are extremely important and sustaining for people and for feminists too.
I find that. For me a male - female, I mean a romantic relationship is only one of the love relationships that you can have in your life. The others are relationships with your family, with your parents, with your friends and I have such a wealth of those that it doesn't really matter, you know, it never bothered, romantic love does not seem to be all and endorse of everything. That's another myth, we just make it like that in our lives. So we invest so much in it. We expect it to come to us ready made, wrapped up like a candy. And I always find that in every relationships in live, you go into workspace you are prepared to work at that relationship and you would expect that there will be tension, you would expect that there will be trouble and you will work to try and create a peaceful environment in which to work. With a love relationship from day one it's got to work smoothly. Of course it doesn't, you know.
Q: Do you find that's what's happening, that men and women are then blaming feminism and all that kind of questions for the reasons why it does not work. Is feminism the bogeyman?
But it's not necessarily only, you know, feminism per se, but any kind of politicisation of women which takes them out of the domestic space into the public space and exposes them to things that have been forbidden to them. It changes women. And unless the men change along side they find it very difficult to deal with it. As all development programs now show, which may not be feminist in content but they have taken women out of their homes and women have changed and then the family completely gets unbalanced.
Q: There is also so much backlash. We were interviewing some girls in a college in Faridabad, and we just thought they were conservative middle class girls, and suddenly when they spoke, the stories of violence were horrifying. There is a constant sense of I have this much, and if i ask for more, then even this will be taken away from us..'Our parents allow us to go to college, but not to the cinema..
Q: Feminists have not been kind about that kind of negotiation?
It's only later that we began to look at those and that we began to realise and I think that since then there has been much more openness in the movement than there was earlier. But it's true that activist have been quite intolerant of this kind of negotiation or this kind of compromise or understanding the difficulties of those positions. And I remember that in college we, it's terrible how cruel you can be, children are cruel, you don't expect as adults you would be, we used to have this whole definition of other women, of women who are not as smart, as articulate and this and that as 'behenjis'...Horrible classist definition, horrible anti-feminist definition. Now I realise this and I cringe every time I think at how we accepted that, how we uses to use it, and how we could call ourselves feminists while looking at other women in this way. So I think that has changed.
I think the expectation from everybody, not only feminists but even the outside world so to speak, is because you declare yourself as a feminist, because you say you are part of a movement, you will do everything right or you will make no mistake, you will go along one chosen path and so on. And so, that is why when mistakes are made, people are very intolerant of them. But e.g., I think one of the mistakes that we made, you know, now I see it and I think many feminists will admit this, is in giving in to the communalisation of our identities, say e.g. in the 'Shabano case' ??, on order to show that we were protesting for the rights of Shabano, we completely gave in to the opposite's side view that Muslim women did not want this, what Shabano wanted, and in order to show that they did we got Muslim women out there in our demonstration, to say that we are legit, we are legitimate. I think it's ridiculous, it is an issue which affects all women. As women we have the right to protest about it without saying we are legitimized by having Muslim women or Hindu women or whatever. But we fell into that trap. Today I think we wouldn't but we have got 20 years more of experience today.
Q:Are you for the uniform civil code?
I think what we need to do is to have a gender just code in India, that's what I would call it and every Indian is born as an Indian and you have the right to choose later, at which ever point, whether to want to marry under your personal law or under the secular law of the country. That's what I believe so it would turn the whole thing on its head because I think, if in any other respect you can be born as an Indian, then why should it be just in your personal realm that you would be born into your religious grouping because it leaves no space for atheists, agnostics, etc. So I think that's what I would go by. I would say I am for a gender just code, which is uniform to all Indian citizens as Indians.
Q:Two basic tenets of feminist thought, one of them is choice, of the personal being political. If you talk about yourself, and your soul and other things, you are political. Do you think that has happened in India.
And you need to recognise them and link them to the structures of power that exist around you. I don't think it meant that you can simply, you know, spew out your personal stuff and feel that you are actually doing something political. And there is a strand of feminism that does that, I don't know what you call it, but sometimes you have meetings or discussions in which then you immediately are supposed to sit down instantly and tell your most intimate and personal stories and I must say that this just makes me want to run. You know, you have a right to your private life, you don't have to come out and expose it to everybody.
You can also at the same time recognise that there are political dimensions to your private life. And you can of course talk about those, whether in terms of your private life or whether in general terms. And you can try to do something about those whether you address them within your private space or whether you address them in a broader forum. But it doesn't make it political if you just sitting and talking about everything that's personal to you and. I don't think that addresses it.
As to choice, it's a much more troubled question. Because every feminist argument about choice has been countered by another non-feminist argument about choice. Take the debate on abortion, or foeticide, or Amino tests, if you can have the right for abortion so why can't you have the right to choose then sex of your child and so on. It's a very troubled area and I must say I don't know how we can effectively counter the pro, you know, the use of choice always to counter what feminists are trying to say. Except to say that I think we can speak of informed choice as an important thing and it is so seldom that we have the information or that we have all the knowledge which allows us to make an informed choice. But I don't know â??
I don't really have a clear answer to that. It's a question that troubles me a lot. But I haven't yet figured out how to deal with it. I came across it quite a lot in my work on Partition. When, this is, the violence against women took a very extreme form when women were killed by their own families or were made to jump into wells to take their own lives. Now you can read that as choice or you can read it as coercion (?), but if you read it as choice you have to read the context around it which is that there were any number of elders from the village, almost all male, for a week discussing these issues and saying, we are going to be attacked and you know, there was a heavy religious community atmosphere at the time, in which these women were made to feel that the protection of their religion would lay in their hands and they had to actually take that step.
Q: I feel women who some disposable income begin to confuse the idea of choice with consumerism...
And it's a much easier right to establish. So the consumer becomes the important person. And we saw it, I think the time when I started noticing it was in 1997 after this 50 years business, where there was a big advertising campaign, I think it was Coca Cola or somebody like that, where they equated 'azadi', freedom and celebrated those 50 years with the right to choose Pepsi or Coke. And it was a whole advertising campaign, and I was really surprised by that.
Q: Leading to the construction of a Femina kind of women, who also talks about sex, but always in the context of how to please your man..
Q: When you became a feminist activist, what did you think you were fighting for?
Q: Did you have a dream, utopian notion that you could have articulated at that time?
U.B: No, I didn't have a dream, I don't even consciously know when I became a feminist. I think it's just something that I grew into. I don't think I had a dream or utopia. I knew what was wrong, I knew what I did not want. But I didn't quite know what I did want and I think that is the way how many feminists define up till now, because we have been a bit short on utopias and dreams, we know the negatives of what shouldn't be there but we don't easily know the positive.
(break because of noise)
Q: But what kind of goals though of the Indian women's movement?
Q: And in which way a weakness?
Q: We are not very sure what we are connected to ...because of lack of feminist writing in India.
Q: Who are the people that you think that can write that kind of stuff?
Q: Whether we in India have a moralistic approach towards working for social movements, which prevents us from voicing the personal...
In this country there are a few people who are just pure academics, who write about the women's movement, but mostly the academics are in the activist field, the activists are the ones who are writing, often people feel that they are too involved with the actual work, to be able to sit down and write. When they write it is a largely documentation, description, that kind of thing.
U.B: There is no right or wrong about the oppression of women, but within that there are many other things where you need to question.