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Meet the Feminist Fighting India's Entrenched Misogyny

Veteran feminist activist Vidya Bal is fighting to make India safe for its women, who face everything from violence in the street to discrimination from religious institutions.


Vidya Bal. Image by Frances Smith

Being a woman in the Republic of India is a dangerous prospect thanks to entrenched misogyny that influences everything from violence on the street to extreme orthodoxy in religious institutions.

According to the India's National Crime Bureau, crimes committed against women have been increasing since 2009. Between 2013 and 14, there has been a 9 percent increase in rape cases, a 10 percent increase in kidnapping and abduction of women, a 4.6 percent increase in dowry deaths, a 16.3 percent increase in assault cases on women with intent to outrage her/their modesty, and a 3.4 percent increase in cases of cruelty by husband or his relatives. It's so bad, women aren't even safe in religious institutions. Instead, their right to profess, practice, and propagate their religion guaranteed by the country's constitution is regularly stymied.

In Mumbai, Muslim women have been denied access the Haji Ali dargah's sanctum sanctorum, and Hindu temples (and their regulating trusts) in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have denied women the access to certain temple areas. Hindi temples have even suggested that women pilgrims go through a scanning process so the temple could prohibit "impure" ladies from entering. In November 2015, a woman entered a "male only" zone at the Shani Shingnapur temple. She climbed over the barricade surrounding the temple idol and offered her prayers. An instance beyond the priests' wildest beliefs, they later "purified" the area using milk.

Fighting against these and other causes of gender discrimination is veteran feminist activist Vidya Bal. Bal entered the world of feminism first as a writer and editor with popular woman-centric magazine Stree (the hindi word for woman). Her articulate deconstruction of India's gender bias practices later propelled her to founding the Nari Samata Manch (Women Equality Forum) in 1982. Since then, Bal has gone on to create, support, and counsel groups for women (and men, too), and attempt to amend sexist Indian laws regarding custodial rape, divorce, and the dowry.

Ball was involved in fighting the landmark case of Bhanwari Devi, a government official who was gang raped in broad daylight as form of retaliation for reporting a case of impending child marriage. While Devi has still yet to get justice, the intense agitation in support of her has led the government to pass a law against sexual harassment in workplace.

I visited Bal at her home and spoke with her in her living room, where photographs of Maya Angelou, Dr. B R Ambedkar, Mohandas Gandhi, and Virginia Woolf lined the walls. Bal told me about her early days as an activist, how the patriarchy hurts men, and why the Indian government has opposed her cause.

VICE: What was your first plan after setting up the Nari Samata Manch?

Vidya Bal: As we pondered over why these women suffered in silence and tolerated the abuse, we realized that they had no place or opportunity to vent their feelings. We started a "speak out" center for women. We made an appeal to women to come to us and speak out. We did not ask for their details—we just gave them a platform to share and vent. After six months of this experiment, we decided to take the next step. We started a counselling center.

What issues popped up the most?
Dowry was the burning issue of that time. Harassment for dowry was common. Sometimes it would lead to suicide, and even murder. We were quite active on the streets and very visible. We'd march to the houses of the harassers, and stage protests in public places. As part of counselling, we used to make the women speak first. Then we'd discuss the alternatives. We wanted these women to make their own decisions. We also invited the people against whom they had grievances. It was not just the husbands—but also in-laws, and sometimes their parents, too. We'd insist on hearing both the sides.

Slowly, we started raising contemporary issues with the government. Our focus shifted from agitation on the streets to legal battle. Due to sustained pressure from women's organizations, around the late 80s, the government brought out a "women policy." They introduced reservations in the local self-governments of villages as well as in the municipal corporations.

Did these reservations make a difference or were they gimmicks to keep activists subdued?
The first wave of women who contested elections were mere proxies of their male relatives. The male politicians were running the show by treating their wives, mothers, and sisters as puppets. I recall an event where some of these women were felicitated. "Why do you want to jump in politics instead of managing the kitchen?" asked one of the interviewers when an elderly lady approached the political party for candidature. "Why should I spend rest of my life baking bread" was her retort. So, there were definitely some women who had the potential and desire to make a difference. This was in the early 90s. "Do you think you can manage the affairs of the village?" another woman was asked. "Why not? If I can manage a household, why not a village?" was her response. I remember a case where the official car of a woman corporator was being used by her husband. Even in the victory processions, the husbands used to get felicitated with garlands! And no one felt it was wrong.

How long did it take to change this?
Some organizations started training programs for such women in politics. We started seeing the difference. The picture is quite promising now. There was a time when the women heads of villages were not even allowed to unfurl the national flag. Now they take decisions about disbursement of funds, selection of projects, and so on.


Vidya Bal. Image by Frances Smith

Did the government aid your efforts in any way?
While feminist movements are doing their work, the government has hardly made any attempt to help women. I have to tell you one ridiculous policy of the government where they use the revenue from alcoholic beverages to fund programs for women. Are they promoting alcohol consumption to empower women? As you know alcohol abuse is one of the major factors in crime against women.

Sexual harassment at the workplace is one of the landmark acts of recent times. You may know the case of Bhanwari Devi of Rajasthan. She was part of a government initiative against child marriages. As part of her work she reported a case of impending child marriage in a high caste Gujjar family. Police intervened and stopped the marriage from happening. The high caste Gujjar family bore a grudge against the lower cast Bhanwari Devi and they gang raped her in broad daylight in front of her husband. While she is yet to get justice, the intense agitation in support of her has led the government to pass a law against sexual harassment in workplace.

How does patriarchy impact men in India?
It puts overbearing, and often fatal, pressure on the man of the family. I remember a case where a man wrote a newspaper column and alleged that no feminist organization was willing to hear him out. Our counselor contacted him and invited him to our office and had a long discussion with him. We realized that we needed to reach out to men and their organization to have a dialogue with them to understand their fears. We established a center for dialogue with men in the year 2008. Remember we started a "speak out" center for women in 1983. We wanted to call this a "speak out" center for men—but that would have hurt men's ego—so we called it a "dialogue" center for men. But unfortunately we did not get a good response to this initiative, once again underlining the preponderance of the male ego.

What did this develop into?
In May 2015 we founded a group devoted to awareness of masculinity in the context of gender equality. We conducted a seminar where we let the men manage it completely. It was a very satisfying experience. We encouraged young men to participate. About 250 men participated. We also included LGBT community. We had a gay friend, Zameer Kamble, to inaugurate the session. His theme was that it was "love" not "gender" that is important. We had group discussions and not just lectures. We have not been able to conduct the next seminar this year. However, we have made a beginning by reaching out in small numbers in villages to raise awareness.

We are working on breaking the patriarchal stereotypes. We want to create awareness that it is about being a good human being—and not about being a "feminine woman" or a "manly man." Only then, we can aspire for an equitable society. —Vidya Bal

Can you tell me how you got involved in the Shani Shinganapur movement? When I probe people about the "tradition," no one has been able to give me a satisfactory response.
I must tell you that the credit for the PIL/ writ petition goes to lawyer friend Shilpa Tulankar. She works with renowned Mumbai based lawyer Anil Anturkar who is a well-wisher of our work. I must commend the Court for the expeditious handling of our writ. This is about the broader issue of equality. It is not about the temple. That's why in spite of being an atheist, I decided to act for those who are believers.

There is some background to this. There is this famous temple of Ambabai of Kolhapur, Maharashtra. In spite of being a goddess, unlike Shani the God, men were allowed in the sanctum sanctorum, but not women. Women activists managed to break this barrier. As you know, it is all about the Hindu custom of treating menstruating women as outcasts. The arguments against women entering the sanctum sanctorum were outrageously unscientific—they claimed that the divine rays in that area are hurtful to women.

As for Shani Shinganapur, there was this lady who bathed the deity with oil. And, taking this as desecration, the men bathed the deity with milk. I asked—didn't the milk you used come from a female animal—then how did it make it right? But no one is interested in a logical debate. The only argument they have is that this is an ancient tradition and we are not supposed to break it. Even there they believe that the "radiation" from the idol is bad for women. We challenged and volunteered to bring in pregnant women near the idol and examine this claim scientifically. Of course, they did not agree.

Things are not perfect today in spite of all these efforts. But India's population is predominantly young. What are the most important things according you that younger people should pay attention to?
We want to focus on gender sensitization of young in the rural areas. At one time, we worked on creating healthy awareness of sex among youth. We could not go too far at that time. With colleges, we are working on breaking the patriarchal stereotypes. We want to create awareness that it is about being a good human being—and not about being a "feminine woman" or a "manly man." Only then, we can aspire for an equitable society. This is a small experiment. I am hoping to make a small difference. Often I meet young boys telling me that after listening to my lectures their perspective of girls changed! Maybe that's just a temporary thing—but still a good thing.

Additional transcription and translation by Abhay S. Patil.

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