Feminist Vasanth Kannabiran Fights for Gender Equality in India

Vasanth Kannabiran has been an active member of the women’s movement in India for the last three decades. She has worked on issues of communal harmony and peace, and moved on to work in the area of gender and development. Originally a teacher of English, her involvement in development concerns arose as a result of her feminist praxis… A founding member of the Asmita Resource Centre for Women, she has written extensively on the political dimensions of gender. This is an excerpt from her memoir published in Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India.

In a sense our birthing began with the Muktadar Commission, set up to enquire into the rape of Rameeza Bi and the custodial death of her husband in 1978. We hadn’t yet formally come together as a group but that enquiry was like a breaking-in for many of us – revealing what it meant to be a woman. How seldom fundamental rights or the rule of law came into play was an eye-opener for many of us. That the law and the police could also be so unashamedly impervious to issues of violence was a practical revelation that sent waves of utter shock at what could lie in store. For me, personally, it was also the realisation that rape does not happen with shattered glass and loud screams and a clash of cymbals in the background. No. Gang rape could be a series of drunken men coming in one after the other to finish their business while you murmured, “How many more of you?” That a rapist could actually give you a mug of water to wash yourself – an act of ultimate kindness. And the whole aura of erotic appeal that surrounds a rape victim. Men wanting to rescue and marry her. Others wanting to shelter her in their guest houses. It was as if they hoped that this woman who had actually roused drunken constables to rape and, like Helen of Troy, burnt the topless towers of Hyderabad, in whose defence so many lives were lost and the army was called out, could arouse and revive their fast-fading sexual capacity. The ‘glamour’ of rape. Lessons learnt, that prepared us for the Mathura campaign.

Unfading memories. That first Bombay meeting of women’s movements in 1980, the beginning of the campaign to amend the rape law after the Mathura judgement. All of us paid our own and our friends’ fares. About three hundred of us lived in a single hall where we slept, rolled up our beds, queued for the toilets and began the meeting at the dot of ten, with those who hadn’t managed their baths participating in their nighties. There we were, looking at each other with the excitement, sizing each other up, sharing, calculating – the works. It was there that we decided to draft the amendments to the rape law. I recall the tension between conflicting interests, one lot saying the burden of proof should not rest with the victim, others fearing that this would become a perfect weapon for the state to use against activists. And yet another group screaming, if we can’t trust women how can we work together? And a couple of us lost our purses in that hall and couldn’t believe that women in a meeting could steal from their sisters! Oh, we were an intelligent, mixed-up, committed and motley crowd.

Clear memories of how, after the whole house had come to an agreement on the amendments to be proposed, Madhu Kishwar and group (who were absent for the season) turned up the next day and insisted on reopening and revising the issues. And the endless debates over Chandralekha’s Kali poster and whether women’s groups should use symbols that were disempowering in essence, or use them to express Woman Power. Our palpable fear of the Gandhians – much as the public now fears Maoists. That was where I met Vibhuti Patel, Ritu Dewan, Anuradha Gandhy, Chandralekha and many, many others. The Forum Against Rape oraganised a public meeting where my group deputed me to speak. There was so much excitement and discussion and fun going on that I finally locked myself into a toilet for ten minutes to sort out my speech! And I still remember the clutch of men who were our audience, and when I asked who they were the Forum women laughed and said, “Our men, who else!” It was an unforgettable experience.

What a long way we have travelled since then, and how little we realised that we had miles to go. Those deep dark woods would uncover so many truths we had taken for granted: our understanding of what secular means; how our understanding and assumptions about secularism could completely exclude and alienate women. It was at that first Bombay meeting that I met Flavia Agnes and read the paper she distributed, and was open-mouthed at her courage in admitting that this was her story of violence and abuse.

(Excerpted from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by: Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price (Softback): Rs 350)

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