Of women, by women, for women: A tiny library for a big cause

Updated on Jul 30, 2022 06:05 PM IST

Started by artist Aqui Thami in 2018 as a travelling library, Sister Library found a home in Bandra a year later.

The physical space of the library is certainly smaller than the intellectual space that it occupies among its visitors and subscribers. (Paroma Mukherjee/HT PHOTO)
The physical space of the library is certainly smaller than the intellectual space that it occupies among its visitors and subscribers. (Paroma Mukherjee/HT PHOTO)
ByGitanjali Chandraseskharan

The Sister Library, at its core, is a community-owned feminist library. It is by no means the first in the city. Back in the 1980s, Vacha Trust started a library for women scholars in founder Sonal Shukla’s home in Vile Parle; it grew into one of the most well-stocked feminist libraries. Sister Library however is not a place for scholar alone.

Started by artist Aqui Thami in 2018 as a travelling library, Sister Library found a home in Bandra a year later. Thami, who also co-founded Dharavi Art Room, a community room to cater to residents of Dharavi to pursue art and literacy pursuits, decided to start the library eight years ago as a result of her search for feminist works. It started off as a 100-book collection in 2018 — today, the collection stands at 1,000 books and 700 zines. Thami travelled around India, and to Nepal, Bangladesh and New Zealand with the books. In June, she returned from a five-month trip with the library covering the north-east, Kathmandu triennial and then Venice biennale.

The physical space of the library is certainly smaller than the intellectual space that it occupies among its visitors and subscribers. Thami says the library—which sports a deep pink, bordering on red walls—isn’t meant to be a “hangout” spot, where people can sit with their libraries. It’s more of a come-pick your book-and leave space.

The library is minded by children from Dharavi. Bilal Baig, an 18-year-old, is one of the youth who sits at the library to meet visitors. “It’s a nice, peaceful space and there are many feminist books here that I get to read. I also enjoy their many events, book readings and feminist movie nights. I get to meet people from other countries and learn from them. I use my own time here to draw and study,” Baig said. It also offers a space for Baig and other young residents of Dharavi to familiarize themselves with feminism.

Kolkata resident Vidhi Todi said she was introduced to the works of women reformers and writers such as Savitri Bai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Nangeli and contemporary Dalit writer Urmila Pawar, through this library. “These are such important women to remember historically and I wish I had learnt about them sooner,” said Todi, who was introduced to the library when Thami brought her collection of books and zines to the 2018 Kochi Muziris Biennale. “I was also introduced to the risograph printing at the Sister Press and learnt about feminist ideas through the riso-printed Sister Press newspapers.”

Sister Press, an effort started by Thami in 2020, publishes bimonthly newspaper Sister Times, and monthly zines. The printer is located in the library and aims to publish literature on women’s health, current affairs, feminist activism as well as book reviews.

Book titles range from Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge and several titles by Alice Walker to even J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The idea says Thami is to keep books by women authors. The languages that books are available in extend to Khasi, Assamese, Nepali, Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Bengali, French, and others. Thami says she is trying to collect more works of indigenous women in different indigenous language in India and abroad. Many books, Thami said, were donated to the library by feminist scholars.

Membership requires a refundable deposit of 1,500 and a monthly subscription of 500—the library is open to everyone.

When the Covid-19 pandemic induced lockdown hit, the library shut down for a few months, but Thami organised events online to engage subscribers and followers. Now that it’s open again, book readings and film screenings take place regularly. Notifications are available on their Instagram handle. The library hosts Mahila Mandali (Women’s Circle) and Monsoon School, a space of learning to make artistic practices accessible to women. In June 2020, Thami also began to host Sister Radio, a podcast in which indigenous and Dalit women speak about culture and history (you can catch episodes on Spotify and Apple podcasts).

The money comes from a crowdfunding exercise that Thami started on Milaap in December 2018. She has raised 6 lakh; the aim is to raise 74 lakh more. This has helped pay the rent till now. Thami is keen to buy a garage space to make the library a permanent fixture in the suburb.

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