We met at Saajhi Duniya, an activist center founded to empower women in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
Saajhi Duniya means "share the word."
The meeting was led by Dr. Roop Rekha Verma, secretary and former vice-chancellor of Lucknow University, the grey-haired woman in a brown sari above.
She was ousted in 1998 by persons affiliated with the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization sometimes accused of fascism.
Tolerance between Hindus and Muslims is one of the goals of Saaji Duniya, which also works on gender issues (such as formation of masculine as well as feminine identity) and farmers as victims of the low economy (and suicides among them) SD sponsors conscious-raising programs, takes on invidual legal cases, and goes advocacy through the media and through lobbying policy makers.
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Roop opened the meeting by having everyone introduce her or himself. Those present included a lawyers, academics, social workers, an engineer and a medical doctor. All volunteer with the non-profit group.
Then I shared my personal story and discussed the rise of feminist consciousness, using Gerda Lerner, quoting from Christine de Pisan, and finally discussing needs in the Christian US community--needs for Protestant women pastors to break the stained glass ceiling, for Catholic women to gain the right to ordination, for all of us to change the male language about God.
"If God is male, maleness is god, privileged," I said, quoting Mary Daly. "But women here have told me that even though you have both gods and goddesses here, male privilege is the norm. On the other hand, at least you have equality for women written into your Constitution. We don't have that yet in the US."
Much discussion ensued. At the end, Roop summed it up:
"Some of our goddesses like Parvati are subservient to men. Others like Kali are violent--not a value we advocate for either men or women. So our goddesses are totally useless for us!"
Here's a more detailed record of the conversation:
" Yes, we live in a patriarchy, but we are working for change," said Dr. Kum Kum Tripathi, associate project director of Mahila Samakhya, U.P. "Our group tries to give women an awareness of their rights, a legal awareness of domestic issues, health issues, infrastructures that affect them. Instead of just facing sufferings, we encourage them to ask why and to see the patriarchy.
"And it's not just poor women. Brahman women in the class that is dominant in society suffer even more, in Brahman silence because of their high status. A woman at age 18 may have an 8-year-old child. In the case of the death of her husband, a woman with an MA said, 'I don't want to be put in closed doors.' Brahman women are not allowed to work, but she decided to work for her own satisfaction. Her daughter is now a businesswoman."
Mahila Samakhya was founded in 1989. "Our goals are to educate girls and women who didn't have a chance to go to school. We also discover violence and work to end anti-woman customs."
A lawyer introduced her organization, the Association for Advocacy and Legal Rights, which seeks to enforce Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, Part III, which states:
The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.
This group takes individual cases as well as providing training for activists working in other organizations. They try to ensure the right to choice in marriage and the right to freedom from violence, among other things.
Another activist present mentioned the National Federation of Indian Women, the women's wing of the Communist Party of India, established in 1954. "Communism" in India sometimes just amounts to hatred for others' religion, she said.
She works with the Women's International Democratic Federation, founded in 1945 with "the aim of preventing the recurrence of war and the resurgence of fascism for the sake of well being of the women and children."
Current goals are gender equality and empowering women; both uneducated women and higher class women are members.
"Many issues of family revenge and caste revenge are fought on the bodies of women," said Roop.
The Women & Media division of Saajhi Duniya does textbook analysis, looking at nationalism and how woman/"the feminine" is being constructed, and whether there is any religious hegemonic lop-sided view of women in textbooks.
"We are studying the two major religions of India and reinterpreting ancient religious texts to read feminism there," Roop said. "We are willing to criticize religion as need be."
Saajhi Duniya is sponsoring one project interviewing Hindu and Muslim women to understand their fundamental beliefs, customs, and practices. They ask about male/female lifestyles, including opportunities, customs, and mechanics.
For example, Muslim women are asked, "Do you agree with the idea that the testimony of two women witnesses is equal to that of one male witness?" After women fill out the questionnaire, the interviewer meets with an individual woman for discussion of the questions, spending 10-15 minutes per question.
Shi'a, Sunni, upper caste Hindu women, and lower caste are interviewed and given an opportunity to join workshops. The interviewer may hide her Sunni identity to interview a Shi'a woman, giving a Shi'a rather than Sunni surname.
A conservative woman being interviewed may make a reference to "bad girls like you who roam about the streets."
As discussion continued, one woman said, "It's good that women can be related to goddesses, but treat us as human beings, not goddesses."
A man present said, "Yes, it's good that our constitution includes equality for women, but it's only a paper promise. On paper we have inherited lessons learned through the women's movements of Europe and the US, but the reality is not yet there. Our goddesses don't really have much impact--they are not normative and actual. People who like religious texts don't want to apply gender roles there to our society. On the other hand, these texts do provide humanist values and anti-consumerist values."
Roop agreed. "Most of the goddesses are subordinate to male gods. Lakshmi serves Vishnu, who is relaxing. Parvarti is emotionally bound to Shiva. The exceptions are Kali and Dhurga--but they aren't good role models for us, who are working for a violence-free world. To sum it up, some are subservient, some violent. So our goddesses are totally useless for us."
"We need to be careful not to deify--to make other than human--any exclusionary enterprise," said the same man.
"If we don't have goddesses, we have trouble. If we have them, we have trouble," said Nita Kumar. "When we go to the village women, we can't just belch out our beliefs without a context. We must gradually introduce ideas of rights into the discourse. We must respect their religious beliefs."
She asked Roop to tell us a little about her personal history.
Roop said she was born in a small "backward" city and went to a school where no English was taught. Her father was a doctor and she had six siblings. Her mother only went to the fifth class in her education.
Roop, however, got an education and became a professor of philosophy in the School of Social Sciences at a Punjabi university. In 1985 she became a member of a Women's Studies Commission.
She was appointed Vice Chancellor of Lucknow University in 1998 but was ousted later that year by fundamentalist Hindus.
"They raised questions of my sexual character," she said. "I fought back, and they were ashamed as well as surprised. If you are a woman, people think 'She will cry and leave this place.'"
Fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims consider her a major opponent, mainly because she works for religious tolerance. Through Saajhi Duniya, she organizes projects like gender sensitivity training for female police officers. She spoke at a 2001 peace visit between Indian and Pakistani girl students.
Nita asked those present to assess the work of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawait and identify her agenda. Known as "Maya," her face appears on billboards throughout Lucknow. She is the equivalent of a state governor in the US.
Those present didn't much like Mayawati's politics--they said they would prefer a man to her.
"Whom do you admire?" Nita then asked the group.
Names mentioned (all women) were:
1) Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), a poet, scholar, and champion of the rights of women.
2) Rukaiya Begum (late 18th C.), whose father Tipu Sultan was the first freedom fighter against the British (or a living person by that name?).
3) Rasheed Jahan (1905-1952), a writer concerned with economic, social, and gender justice.
4) Qurratulain Hyder (1926-2007), an Urdu novelist who addressed gender issues, author of River of Fire and Butterflies in the Mist (titles of the English translations). Wikipedia notes, "River of Fire is to Urdu fiction what One Hundred Years of Solitude is to Hispanic literature."
5) Asma Jahangi, a Pakistani human rights activist and lawyer who defends the rights of women, children, and religious minorities.
Some of the scholars present who helped me write down these names were:
Professor Satya P. Gautam firstname.lastname@example.org
Mamta Dybey, an activist with Mahila Samakhya email@example.com
Uzma Laki, MA
Nita says for further information on feminist and social issues in India, see Martha Nussbaum, professor of philosophy at U. Chicago:
The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future (2009) and her previous books such as Sex and Social Justice and Women and Human Development.