Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Kamla Bhasin is an Indian social scientist who has been actively engaged in issues of gender equality, education, poverty alleviation, human rights and peace in South Asia since 1970. Based in New Delhi, she is known for her feminist ideology and activism as well as for founding Sangat, a South Asian network that combines feminist theory with action at the grass-roots level.

Bhasin was born on April 24, 1946 in Mandi Bahauddin district, in present-day Pakistan. She calls herself a ‘Midnight‘s Child’ — a reference to the Subcontinent’s generation that was born around the time of Partition. She earned a Masters from Rajasthan University and studied Sociology of Development at Münster University in West Germany. From 1976 to 2001, she worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, before devoting herself fully to the work of Sangat and grass-roots activism.

Bhasin has written extensively on patriarchy and gender. Her published works have been translated into nearly 30 languages and include Laughing Matters (2005; co-authored with Bindia Thapar), Exploring Masculinity (2004), Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition (1998; co-authored with Ritu Menon), What Is Patriarchy? (1993), and Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia (1986; co-authored with Nighat Said Khan). In her writings and activism, she envisions a feminist movement that transcends class, borders and other social and political divisions.

Bhasin has maintained strong relations with the like-minded and the like-hearted in Pakistan. Against the grim backdrop of tensions between the two countries, she recently visited Lahore and Islamabad to mourn the death of leading Pakistani women’s rights leader Nigar Ahmed, who had been her close friend since 1979 when they first met in Thailand.

On a sunny March morning at a farmhouse on the outskirts of Islamabad, Bhasin sat down with the Herald for a conversation on the current state and challenges of feminism in South Asia, generational and political divides, and the region’s future in the context of a perpetual India-Pakistan conflict. Excerpts follow:

Ammara Durrani. After how long have you come to Pakistan?

Kamla Bhasin. I came here only last year. I come here every year at least once. I was born here. My mother and father used to live in Rajasthan but my paternal aunt was married in a little village called Shaheedan Wali in Mandi Bahauddin [district]. Somehow that determined the course of my work later. Since 1975, I have worked at the South Asian level. I had been active in India alone just for four or five years before that. Before I say I am a national of India, I very proudly call myself a regional of South Asia.

For me, being South Asian is much more important [than being an Indian]. Unless we live together, as good neighbours, as peaceful neighbours, as supportive neighbours, I do not think any country [in the region] can progress.

Durrani. When you look at the women’s movement in South Asia, what are your immediate thoughts and concerns?

Bhasin. There are many misconceptions about the women’s movement because our media are urban-focused and star-focused. If they don’t see a Nigar Ahmed, a Nighat Said Khan, a Kamla Bhasin, they feel that the movement is already over. If I look at the work [of Pakistani women’s organisations], it is much more vibrant in rural areas [than in cities] — the struggle for land rights in Okara for instance.

Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Show me a movement like that in Lahore. Or in Karachi. The problem in [Okara] has been going on for [more than] ten years yet [every time there is a protest there] thousands of women come out marching with batons in their hands. I cannot think of any movement like that in a city.

Durrani. Are there any new stars in the women’s movement?

Bhasin. Why do we look for stars? I am against that notion of stars because stars can only provide a slogan, but they will be of no use if there is no one to repeat that slogan. [Those with big names are] easy to contact. [A journalist] will go to people like me, whose phone numbers he has saved. And I am also not modest enough to refuse an interview. So it is a two-way problem. It is also a problem created by me. I want to remain a star so I keep distributing my visiting card.

There is so much happening in [India]. There is the Pink Brigade in Uttar Pradesh that wears pink saris and carries bamboo sticks. Whoever commits violence [against women] there, the Brigade beats them up. I don’t agree with women being violent but Pink Brigade has reduced violence [against women] to such an extent that a British woman has made a film on them.

Only two years ago, a Hindu woman complained that priests at a certain temple did not allow women to enter the premises because they menstruated. Thousands of women got together [subsequently] and forced their entry into the temple. Muslim women have done the same at Haji Ali’s shrine [in Mumbai]. They argued that there was no ban on their entry 12 years ago. They have had that 12-year-old ban reversed.

Durrani. So, you are satisfied with the way the women’s rights movements are progressing?

Bhasin. I would have been completely satisfied if we were the only actors and we were taking the movement forward. Unfortunately, there are other actors that are pushing us back and they are millions of times bigger than us.

Durrani. Who are these actors?

Bhasin. Corporate media, capitalist patriarchy. Pornography is a billion dollar industry that turns a man into this horrible, sexualised, macho being and turns women into bodies and body parts. Cosmetics is a billion dollar industry, which says [I am worthless] unless my body is pretty, that tells the South Asian woman that her complexion is not fair.

Look at the toy industry that gives a gun into the hands of a two-year-old. And then after 15 years we ask how he became a terrorist. You trained him to be so at home. You allowed him to pee wherever he wanted. You allowed him to be rude whenever he liked. You manufactured him. He was not born like this.

Then there are Hollywood and Bollywood. Yes, they make brilliant films. By watching those films we learn feminism. But these are only a small percentage of their total output. The rest repeat the same stereotypes for men, turning them into these horrible, insulting individuals. Look at the movie Dabangg, which shows a policeman consuming booze within a police station. It made 150 crore [Indian] rupees. Why don’t consumers in India say they will not watch such stuff?

Durrani. Some people say social media has the potential to become a people’s media. Have you ever explored it as an alternative to corporate media?

Members of the Pink Brigade shout slogans as they gather in the northern Indian city of Allahabad in 2009 | Reuters
Members of the Pink Brigade shout slogans as they gather in the northern Indian city of Allahabad in 2009 | Reuters

Bhasin. Firstly, media or technology do not have a belief system of their own. They represent the belief system of whoever is using them. The same is true for corporate media and social media. When you say people’s media, we must keep in mind that Islamisation, too, is people’s agenda [for a section of the society]. It depends on who is using social media — is it being used by a Hindutva activist or by an Islamist or by someone working for the Islamic State (IS), which is using social media as much as anyone else.

In our country if a woman says something about a political party, within minutes thousands start trolling her. We are told that some parties have employed trolls who keep tabs on who said what. Also, girls in our country fall in love with boys through social media. Those boys then take their photos and upload them online, forcing girls to commit suicide. No one knows how many girls and boys have committed suicide like this.

Durrani. But social media can be very useful in initiating movements also ...

Bhasin. Yes, but [it can be useful] for movements of both types — peace movements, as well as anti-peace, pro-war movements. We will have to then see which movement is stronger. If we are saying that Hindutva is spreading and Islamisation is spreading then that obviously means that they are using social media more effectively than you and I are because we are not as organised as they are. We also have certain values. We don’t like spreading lies or promoting hate [as they do].

And all kinds of ads from all over the world are appearing on social media. Unfortunately, those who have the power to make money out of social media, those who have the power to promote competition through it and those who have the power to promote unhealthy consumerism are much better organised [than activists]. I don’t see social media as liberating the people.

Durrani. We are witnessing a rise in right wing religionised politics that prioritises morality and religion above everything else. Religion is being used in both the countries — in yours as well as ours.

Bhasin. No, no. Hindutva activists [in India] are not talking in the name of religion. They are not saying that they are doing certain things because that is how the Gita or some other book has ordained them to. I personally believe that capitalist patriarchy has been operating on a higher and more vicious level than religion in my country.

Durrani. Why is that?

Bhasin. I just heard in some TEDtalk that, in some countries, 80 per cent boys above 12 [years of age] are watching porn. While we are waiting at a bus stop, we decide to watch such songs as Sheila ki Jawani, Munni Badnaam Hui, Mein tandoori murghi hoon, londia patai le missed call se. Every woman in India has been reduced to being a londia. In religious circles we are not at least called londia. They may be calling us that in some subtle way but at least not overtly.

I do not blame film-makers alone. We are the ones who give them business. But we also gave business to Dangal, a film on wrestler women. That film created history. It made 400 crore [Indian] rupees.

Before that Bajrangi Bhaijaan made 150-200 crore rupees. It is the most beautiful film about India and Pakistan. It humanises people in Pakistan. They are shown telling lies for the sake of a small girl, and to keep a devout Hindu man safe. Otherwise, every Muslim, every Pakistani is seen as a bad person in our country. What I mean to say is that religion is a problem but not at the same level as public propaganda is.

Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Durrani. On both sides of the border, however, religion is portrayed as the number one culprit in cultivating negative behaviours.

Bhasin. No, no. I am saying both [religion and capitalist patriarchy] are evils. This so-called secular, capitalist, upper-class, scientific system using the most modern technology … what is it doing? Making advertisements for fairness creams. One cannot watch these Indian television serials even for a minute, so patriarchal are they, so vulgar are they. Most Bollywood films are semi-pornographic. And they are impacting a large number of people, at least in India.

I [also] think there is a difference between the use of religion [in Pakistan] and the use of religion [in India]. There are strong movements against menstrual taboos [in India]. Some girls have started this movement called ‘Happy to Bleed’. They take their sanitary pads, write messages on them and hang them on walls within universities. When they did the same in Jamia Millia Islamia [in Delhi], the university authorities tried to expel them but they fought back and could not be expelled.

There is a Supreme Court case going on. It asks: can any religion place a ban on women’s entry because they menstruate? We are also challenging religion in a big way because fear of religious [organisations] is not yet as big [there as it is here]. Religion-based parties that we have in India – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – are seen more as political organisations [than religious ones]. Their main issues are political [but] they are using religion to divide Hindus and Muslims.

Durrani. What role do you think religion is playing in India and Pakistan vis-à-vis peace between the two countries?

Bhasin. Once again, I do not hold a single factor responsible for [the lack of peace between the two countries]. It is a very complex issue and I do not want to reduce it to an issue between two religions. I also bring in economics in a big way. I feel that many of our so-called communal conflicts are actually economic conflicts. Who will control resources?

What will happen to those resources? Labelling these conflicts as religious is easy but beneath the surface these are conflicts over land, over businesses, or something like that. Behind the conflict between India and Pakistan, I see the hand of all the rich countries of the world. I see the hand of the [global] military-industrial complex.

Durrani. Pakistanis feel Indians are no longer interested in peace. So, where is the relationship between the two countries headed?

Bhasin. When [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi took oath of his office, he invited every South Asian leader [to the event]. This had never happened before. Then he came for a tea party to Lahore. But just as these things were taking place, there were attacks in India. Earlier, everyone agreed that dialogue was a must for the two sides but now there are some people in India who think that their government does not need to talk to Pakistan.

They say India has never initiated attacks [against Pakistan]. Any Indian who talks about love with Pakistan is seen as a traitor in India. Any Pakistani who talks about love with India is seen as a traitor in Pakistan.

Durrani. People-to-people contact between the two countries was quite frequent during the 1990s and 2000s but has drastically come down now. What do you think are the reasons for that?

Bhasin. When I was studying in Germany, Pakistanis were my best friends. Why? Because, other than my passport and my religion, I shared everything with them. Our food, our songs, our films, our cricket — everything is common.

Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Even today, young Indians and Pakistanis meet in every university abroad. Some of them marry each other. So, they should have a much bigger interest in Pakistan-India friendship than we have. Pakistanis and Indians are meeting in third countries. They also want to meet in their own countries. As far as religion is concerned, they don’t care much, as they are global citizens. The younger generation is not carrying the baggage of the Partition — when our forefathers travelled to [India] all the way from here and some of them were killed.

Busloads of our women have come here. Asma Jahangir has taken busloads of women from here to India. That interaction has decreased. Campaigns like ‘Aman Ki Asha’ (wishing for peace) started with a bang but they too have lost their momentum. Jingoism against each other, meanwhile, has increased.

Getting visas is becoming increasingly difficult. Travel [between India and Pakistan] is becoming increasingly difficult. But today if school children cannot travel to the other side, they can always meet through Skype. Only the other day I read in a newspaper that students from Karachi and Bombay Skyped on Gujarati culture, Gujarati food, Gujarati people.

Some young people publish a peace calendar which carries paintings on India-Pakistan friendship made by school children in a competition. Hundreds of paintings are made from which they choose 12 — six made by Pakistani children and six by Indian children. I released that calendar in Delhi. Then it was released in Amritsar, Chandigarh and Panipat. In Pakistan, it was released in Lahore and Karachi.

But it is still sad to say that people-to-people contact has decreased. It is even sadder that some people in India want to ban Pakistani actors and singers from working in the Indian film industry. This is a huge regression. But [director] Mahesh Bhatt has recently signed one of your singers for a play of his. So, that may change.

Durrani. So, you are optimistic?

Bhasin. Listen my friend, if we can’t be optimistic then we should quit activism.

Durrani. Is there reason to be optimistic about the resolution of the Kashmir issue since it seems to be the biggest stumbling block in peace between India and Pakistan?

Bhasin. I have not worked much in Kashmir. My main focus is on feminism and gender. But there is a big constituency [in India] that says human rights violations are taking place there.

[Detractors of human rights movements] say that slogans of azaadi (freedom) being raised in different parts of India are linked to Kashmir, even though the two developments have nothing to do with each other. I learnt the slogan of azaadi when I came to Pakistan [in 1985]. Feminists here were raising it — that my sister will get azaadi, my daughter will get azaadi, etc. In 1995, I translated these into English and raised them [at an international conference on women] in Beijing. There is no event on women in which we do not raise the slogan of azaadi. Now people have made it a big issue on both sides of the border.

Durrani. In Pakistan, we believe the Indian state is suppressing demands for azaadi by Kashmiri Muslims. How do you view the problem in Kashmir?

Bhasin. Different things [are taking place in Kashmir] simultaneously. On the one hand, a party headed by a woman (Peoples Democratic Party) has formed a coalition government there in collaboration with a party (BJP) that opposes special status for Kashmir as guaranteed by article 370 of [India’s] constitution. On the other hand, the movement [for azaadi] is also there. Every year it seems tourism has risen in Kashmir but then some bombing happens and tourism goes down.

The situation in Kashmir is very complex and [whatever is happening there] is very unfortunate. It is also a big drag on India’s economy because India is spending a lot of money [on security in Kashmir].

Durrani. Do you think there is a greater realisation within India that the Kashmir issue needs to be addressed?

Bhasin. I do not know about India as a whole. In north India, however, all these discussions are going on and we feel that something needs to be done with reference to Kashmiris’ human rights. There are tensions within political parties in Kashmir on the issue. Some political parties demand dialogue [with pro-azaadi Kashmiris].

I also think that dialogue needs to take place because schools have remained closed there for many months. Only recently have they reopened. Then there were unfortunate floods that only aggravated the problems of the Kashmiris.

Durrani. Many critics of the feminist movement call it a luxury that only rich, educated, urban women can have. What are your views?

As NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and movements for women’s rights have spread from cities to rural areas, they have become bureaucratised

Bhasin. In South Asia, feminism and anti-poverty movements have gone together. Unlike in America, where feminism was a middle-class phenomenon to begin with, in South Asia we have been talking about issues of the poor, the marginalised, since the beginning [of the feminist movement].

Durrani. There are suggestions that right-wing conservatism is rising among middle-class and rich families. Do you think the movement for women’s rights must engage them?

Bhasin. Yes, that engagement is required but we don’t have access to such families. They know everything. They do not want to talk. They think they are OK.

As NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and movements for women’s rights have spread from cities to rural areas, they have become bureaucratised. But if Aurat Foundation was not working in villages, the high percentage of representation in local self-government for women [may not have been possible].

Durrani. What we see in Pakistan is that all the big battles for human rights and for poverty alleviation take place in big cities. Even the voice of the peasants protesting in Okara is not heard until the urban media ...

Bhasin. The media can only blow it up and show it but who is fighting there? Who is getting their foreheads split there? Whose houses are being raised and occupied there?

Durrani. But decision makers are sitting in cities — whether it is the military, political parties or local administration.

Bhasin. Even if decision makers are based in cities, they have to respond to movements at the grass-roots level. Peasants in Okara could have protested only in Okara. The fields the army owns there are not located in Islamabad. So, yes, decision makers are here, media are here but they are not the movement. They are responders to the movement. The movement is still [in rural areas].

Durrani. Don’t you think that the women’s movement’s expanse and focus need to be reviewed?

Bhasin. I don’t know how you define a movement. A movement by definition is not a centrally organised activity. It can have thousands and thousands of groups and individuals in it. When peasants in Okara started protesting, did they come to WAF [Women’s Action Forum] and say they wanted to launch a movement? They were facing hunger there so they started their protests. Do you think Sheema Kermani asked anyone before going to Sehwan to dance in defiance of the terrorist attack there?

Feminism was born after patriarchy was born. Before that it was not needed. Peace movement is triggered by war. We are normally responding to issues. We never thought, for instance, that in 2015 digital crime will become our agenda.

Sex selective abortion in India was not a problem in the 1970s and 1980s because modern machines [for determing the babies’ sex in the womb] were not available. Incidents of acid throwing on women were not there in the 1970s and 1980s in India. I was not talking about capitalist patriarchy in the 1980s because globalisation did not affect my country then.

Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Photo by Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

No Indian woman wanted to become a beauty queen before globalisation arrived in my country. Since the moment Rajiv Gandhi globalised the Indian economy, there have been so many Indian contestants in beauty pageants. Were we not beautiful before that? This beauty competition is a marketing tool. It uses our women, men and our countries as markets.

Durrani. I often speak to women legislators in Pakistan and they talk about setting up their own political party. Do you think there can be a women-only party?

Bhasin. Women tried to make a party of their own in Germany. In the Phillipines, they already have a party of their own. Political parties, however, do not come about on gender basis. They have their basis in politics.

A woman is not just a woman. She has a caste, she has a religion, she is Shia, she is Sunni, she is rich, she is poor. Women have multiple identities and those identities divide us. We have seen this division happen in Sewa [Self-employed Women’s Association, an organisation in Indian Gujarat], where Hindu and Muslim women used to work together.

When Hindu-Muslim clashes started in Gujarat, those women had to retreat to their communal identities for some time. This is because communal identities are hundreds of years old. Their affiliation with Sewa was only a few years old. Until we come up with alternative ideological families to help women overcome these age-old affiliations, we cannot expect political parties to come up on biological basis alone.

Women are also divided ideologically — as much as men are. There are right-wing Islamist women who call themselves Islamist feminists. And who am I to issue a certificate that they are not? Who can assume the right to give out a certificate as to who is a feminist? I do not see anyone being in that position.

Durrani. What would you say to those women who will read this interview and who may happen to be rich and urban?

Bhasin. If we give up the values women have stood for – being caring, nurturing, loving – in the name of empowerment and many of us become masculine and power hungry, then this world will end in ten years if otherwise it was to last for 20 years.

To men, I will say that they have to understand how patriarchy is dehumanising them. Like, for instance, patriarchy does not allow them to cry. They have lost their emotional intelligence. They do not understand their own feelings. TEDtalks in America tells us that adolescent boys there commit four times as many suicides as girls do because they are not able to understand themselves.

If a woman tells a man that she does not love him, he throws acid on her face. When he feels his wife has not kissed him with love, he does not complain. He finds it easier to slap her because that is what patriarchy has taught him. A man who feels happy by caressing the breast of a woman in a bus must see a psychiatrist. He is not well.

Men are uni-dimensional, uni-coloured. We have shown them that we can wear their clothes but ask them to someday wear a sari. They do not know how to do anything except their jobs. They cannot make pickle. They cannot make pappadam. They cannot make food. They cannot handle babies who have peed.

Do you think a man who rapes a woman is human? He is told that he has to rape a woman from another community — that he is a warrior and that he will rape the woman for a cause. He turns his body into a weapon against that woman.

A Pinjra Tod rally on International Working Women's Day | Pinjra Tod Facebook
A Pinjra Tod rally on International Working Women's Day | Pinjra Tod Facebook

Can that weapon then become an instrument of love? This Pakistani soldier in Bangladesh, or this American soldier in Vietnam, or this Hindu right-wing person in India — when they rape a woman from the community they hate, they end up leaving their babies in the wombs of the same women who are targets of their hatred. What is their relationship with their progeny? When people say a community’s honour was defiled when its women were raped, I ask why they put that honour in a woman’s body in the first place.

I see hegemonic masculinity, toxic masculinity behind everything evil in this world.

Durrani. Do you think gender relations have changed for the better?

Bhasin. Look at it like this — [India] has 1.25 billion people; out of these gender relations have improved for 10 million people.

Durrani. But they are improving nevertheless.

Bhasin. Of course, they are improving. You, a woman, are here to interview me, another woman. And the interview is taking place at the house of a woman. That would not have happened 50 years ago. Obviously, things are changing and they are changing in every class of society. In your country, a woman is driving a taxi. Another is driving a truck.

In our country, too, hundreds of women are driving taxis. There is not a single field in which some woman has not made her mark — even when it is flying planes. There is not a single male crew member on an Air India flight that flies from Delhi to New York. Women are travelling to the moon. They are becoming Supreme Court judges.

Laws are also constantly changing for the better. No policy can be made today in your country or mine in which gender issues are not sprinkled like salt and pepper [in food]. Whether those policies are put to practice later is an entirely different matter.

Today if a minister, a chief justice, or any other man utters a single misogynist sentence, the media hounds him for a whole day. Because we are reporting violence [against women] much more than before, there is a lot of talk of such violence in the society.

Young women in Delhi University have started a campaign called ‘Pinjra Tod’ (shatter the cage) against a rule that states that they have to be inside their hostels by 7 pm, even if they are postgraduate students. They cannot even stay in the library which is open till midnight.

I see fancy phones but I cannot buy them. I see porn but I do not have a woman. What do I do with my pornographic desires?

Durrani. [India’s Minister for Women and Child Development] Maneka Gandhi has recently given some statement about the same campaign.

Bhasin. Yes, she gave an unfortunate statement saying that there is hormonal activity in women. Bhai, if our hormones were so active, we would be raping men. We are not doing any such thing. We are dealing with our hormones.

These girls have taken this matter to court, saying the restriction is a violation of the constitution; that they are all above 18 and free citizens of India. They have argued that those who are harassing them must be put indoors. There should be a restriction on boys that they cannot go out after 7 pm.

On March 10, several thousand Dalits, Muslims, transgender persons and feminists marched in Nagpur [in India] against sexist Hindu practices. We had a Hindu philosopher, writer, lawmaker called Manu. His views have spread casteism; they support patriarchy — like all our religions do. This march was against all that.

Durrani. Don’t you think these things are changing for the better among millennial men?

Bhasin. You have a particular man in your mind — urban, upper-class, who has bottled watter in his hand. But do you think a man living in a village can afford to buy a water bottle priced at 50 rupees? He is drinking water from the same dirty nullah. Some millennial children are still working as child labourers. They are still working in your factories. They are still begging on roads for a piece of roti. They are the ones who are being recruited by the IS and others. They are the ones being recruited by all the fundos. Young men from our class are joining the fundos in very small numbers — one in one thousand.

If I were among [those disadvantaged] young men, I would do the same because I see no future for myself. I see fancy phones but I cannot buy them. I see porn but I do not have a woman. What do I do with my pornographic desires?

No one is a millennial child. No one is a millennial woman. It all depends on caste, class, religion. Men, however, need to realise a few things: firstly, they will never be free unless women become free, otherwise they will have to continue protecting us, they will have to continue feeding us. Secondly, gender equality is not a zero-sum game — it will not accrue all benefit to women and all loss to men. It is a win-win game.

My experience is that men of quality are not afraid of equality. They do not have to prove their masculinity by beating someone. You will find that all the enlightened men are androgynous. They are neither male nor female. They are half male, half female. They have the best qualities of both the masculine and the feminine.

This article was originally published in the Herald's April 2017 issue under the headline "Everybody's woman". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer holds an MPhil in international relations from the University of Cambridge and is currently based in Islamabad.