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Feminist activist Kamla Bhasin passes away after prolonged battle with cancer

Renowned feminist activist 
Kamla Bhasin had said feminism was not a war between men and women but a war of ideologies. (HT Photo)
Updated on Sep 25, 2021 03:53 PM IST
By Dhamini Ratnam

Renowned feminist activist Kamla Bhasin passed away in the early hours of Saturday after battling cancer. She was 75. Born in 1946 in Shahidanwaali village in Punjab (now in Pakistan), Bhasin’s appeal lay in her ability to talk to a roomful of “anybodys”, as she once said — diplomats, television audience, feminists or children. The underlying message — imparted to suit the audience listening to her — was always one of gender justice.

After working with a rural non-governmental organisation called Seva Mandir based in Udaipur for four years, Bhasin joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in 1976 — a job she retired from in 2002. In 2004, she set up Sangat, a South Asian Feminist Network supported by Delhi-based feminist resource group Jagori that Bhasin set up with other feminists including Abha Bhaiya, Runu Chakravarty, Gauri Choudhury, Sheba Chhacchi, Manjari Dingwaney, and Joginder Panghaal in 1984.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Bhasin was part of key feminist struggles in the country, from the protests against dowry deaths to demonstrations that led to changes in the way rape and sexual assault were prosecuted in the country. She also contributed to the movement by creating booklets on feminism, patriarchy, violence, which were translated into multiple languages and formed the basis of Women’s Studies in several organisations. In the past decade, she also became associated with One Billion Rising, a movement started by Eve Ensler to end violence against women.

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Bhasin’s FAO work took her across South Asia where she forged lifelong friendships with other feminist activists. Part of Bhasin’s significant contribution to the feminist movement was to expand its scope beyond national boundaries — in doing so, Bhasin and other feminists from the Global South ensured that the movement also critiqued the military-nationalist complex that they identified as part of patriarchal oppression.

Bhasin first visited Pakistan, after the Partition, in 1983 at the invitation of the Family Planning Association of Pakistan to help them structure their work on women’s empowerment. She met noted feminist lawyer Asma Jahangir (who passed away in 2018) and other activists of the Women’s Action Forum. Through the 1980s, Bhasin and Nighat Said Khan from Pakistan, among others, helped women across the border forge connections: they met for workshops, discussed pertinent issues and strategies of protest that drove the feminist movement in both countries, and importantly, exchanged and re-wrote songs that would often be sung in these protests.

“Kamla was one of the pioneers of the women’s movement in not only India but also South Asia. She had the amazing ability to communicate through, verse, song, poetry, visuals, and texts, the toughest concepts like patriarchy, feminism, masculinity, peace, non-violence, development from the women’s point of view. She worked inter-generationally and a whole lot of young feminists have been inspired by her all over South Asia,” said Jaipur-based Kavita Srivastava, general secretary of the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Rajasthan.

Bhasin’s ability to forge and maintain connections across borders was aided by her ability to versify and story-tell. She soon gained a reputation as a song-writer, and children’s rhyme-maker. Bhasin’s feminism was activism in practice; how it was done was as important: women must meet, talk, sing and laugh with each other; the change, she once said in an interview to this writer, had to happen on the inside.

One of the songs that Bhasin wrote in the late ’70s-early ’80s — “Tod tod kay bandhanon ko dekho bahnain aati hain...Ayengi, zulm mitaengi (breaking the shackles that hold them back, look, the women have risen… They will be the ones who end oppression)” — was inspired by popular Punjabi folklore and soon became a staple in most feminist gatherings. Bhasin also brought chants from feminist protests across the border. In an interview with the Hindustan Times in 2018, she recalled learning the slogan ‘‘Meri behane maange Azaadi” from Pakistani feminists. She later improvised the words, she said. “The words would change many times depending on what we were protesting against, discrimination on the basis of caste, injustice to tribals or violence against women,” Bhasin said.

Bhasin’s rhymes —including the well-known Dhammak Dham, a children’s book brought out by UNICEF, and the poem, “Kyunki mein ladki hun mujhe padhna hai/Padhne ki mujhe manahi hai so padhna hai (It’s because I’m a girl, I want to study/ It’s because I’m not meant to study, I want to study)” — challenged gender stereotypes and norms. These rhymes were put to music and sold as audio cassettes and later, CDs by Jagori.

“Looking back at my thirty-plus years in the women’s movement, what I recall instantly are Kamla’s songs. These songs made me feel anger at patriarchy and the joy of sisterhood. Kamla’s songs broke binaries. They were not about victimhood or agency. These were angry songs, sad songs, fun songs, and songs of passion. They showed us that we were not alone, that change was possible. Kamla was passionate, a real ‘zinda dil’,” said queer feminist activist Jaya Sharma.

Bhasin’s appearance in Satyamev Jayate, a show on social issues hosted by Aamir Khan, where she talked about the need for a paradigm shift in understanding rape – not as the survivor’s loss of honour, but the perpetrator’s — was as significant as her path-breaking speech at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995: both were received with a standing ovation.

Bhasin is survived by a son, Jeet, who is a person with a disability, and four siblings including former Rajasthan politician Bina Kak. She lost her daughter, Meeto Bhasin Malik, who died by suicide in 2006. Bhasin’s funeral will be held on the evening of September 25 at the Lodi Road crematorium in New Delhi.

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