It is remarkable how many lives Kamla Bhasin touched. Activists, friends, students and colleagues remember a woman who attracted them with her humor, wit, ideas and energy. People remember reading his books and poems, listening to and singing his songs. They note the organizations and networks that she helped found and build. These may seem like personal accomplishments, but they are also important contributions to the movements. Movements come together not only around issues, but also around a sense of community, shared culture, solidarity and history that are shaped by individuals and institutions.
At a time when the women’s movement lacks a sense of shared spaces and dialogue, it is important to remember that some of our existing spaces exist thanks to the actions of Kamla Bhasin and others like her. Yet these spaces and the feminist movement itself are very different today than they were in the past.
A few months ago, videos of Bhasin at a workshop called Artivism started circulating on social media. Among other things, she said, “my definition of gender means the socio-cultural definition of a girl and a boy, of a man and a woman, it does not mean caste, it does not mean not the race. These words echoed the long-held idea that sex has to do with nature and gender with the social and cultural meanings attached to being male or female. Like all ideas, these have been open to consideration, debate and reformulation. In particular, the idea of sex as purely biological has been rethought.
The feminist movement has also had to engage with diversity in very different ways. For the women’s movement of the 1970s and 1980s, a priority was to make women the center of politics and justice demands in various contexts. An important aim was to show that women had certain common experiences due to patriarchal social structures. However, women from different social backgrounds experience the world differently, which has implications for feminist thinking and activism.
Of the many ways in which feminists have engaged with difference and diversity, perhaps the most popular today is intersectionality. Intersectionality was conceptualized by race-critical scholar Kimberle Crenshaw to indicate how the experiences of black women were shaped by being black and women, and were different from the experiences of black men and non-black women. . In India, the term has come to describe a way of viewing people’s experiences as shaped by the various social groups and identities to which they belong. It has become an influential means of examining how, say, caste and gender work together to shape the experiences of Savarna and Dalit women differently. Therefore, to understand gender, we also need to understand how it is shaped by other social structures. Bhasin’s statement that gender refers to the sociocultural definitions of man and woman, and that caste and race are to be understood separately, reflects how feminists began to think about gender, nature and to the society. However, feminist views of the world have changed a lot.
These changes were also reflected in feminist activism. The last decades have seen feminists organize themselves around particular issues and identities rather than simply as “women”. For example, Dalit and Muslim women have formed their own organizations and networks. One of the reasons women organized themselves separately is the challenge they faced within existing feminist spaces, to make their issues understood and to solve them. Dalit women, for example, reacted differently to the Maharashtra government’s ban on dancing in bars in 2005 than mainstream feminist groups. While the latter viewed bar dancing as a problem of working women, the former emphasized the perpetuation of caste-based forms of work through bar dancing. Over time, it has been realized that people from all walks of life and social groups need and deserve equal attention from the feminist movement. This does not square with Bhasin’s comment that feminism is about getting rid of patriarchy and that transgender and ecological issues are separate from it. For many, today as in the past, patriarchy is intrinsically linked to other social structures.
As Indian feminism continues to develop, it is repeatedly confronted with certain questions. What is gender and how does it impact people? What do we want to change? How to create spaces that allow us to work for change? Kamla Bhasin and others of her generation provided answers to these questions. It’s up to us to learn from them while continuing to nurture this movement.
The writer is a sociologist. She currently teaches at the Center for Writing and Pedagogy at the University of Krea