“I am not a dividing wall. I am a crack in this wall.
Feminist icon, educator and author Kamla Bhasin passed away on September 25, 2021 at the age of 75. The Daily Star pays homage to its rich heritage by reprinting an interview first published in 2016.
Meeting Kamla Bhasin is like receiving a dose of energy and optimism. His liveliness and enthusiasm will catch you off guard and pull you out of any cynicism that afflicts you. And cynicism in a world so full of injustice and superficiality is a solace that’s hard to shake off. But Kamla gave feminism a much needed optimistic twist. She is sort of the brand’s ambassador for ‘South-South Cooperation’, which brings together South Asian men and women to learn from each other’s experiences, in the hope of bringing greater understanding. and comradeship in a region so divided by political, economic and religious divides.
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For the past 40 years, she has come to Bangladesh to talk about uncomfortable things like patriarchy, gender inequality and sexual violence. Kamla speaks on such sensitive issues with simplicity, wit, and clarity, making her one of the most compelling speakers anyone could ever have the privilege of listening to. I remember one of those lectures, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, that left me captivated. Hence my elation at the idea of interviewing him a few days ago.
Dressed in her new Grameen check kurta – “for my birthday,” as she puts it (born April 24, 1946) – Kamla looks a lot like the “development feminist” she calls herself. She’s still the silver-haired champion of the marginalized, with piercing eyes and that straightforward eloquence that makes her the perfect interviewee.
I know my time with her is limited, but I can’t help but ask her to start over from the beginning.
That was in 1975. Kamla, then a young woman in her twenties, worked for FAO and was tasked with identifying innovative development work in Asian countries and creating networks between people across countries. “At that time, none of us, not a single NGO, knew anyone on the other side of the border,” says Kamla. “The Indians didn’t know the Bangladeshis, the Bangladeshis didn’t know the Indians, the Nepalese didn’t know the Pakistanis – there was NO contact. So the goal was what later became South-South cooperation in the United States. level of people. “
Back then, in the mid to late 1970s, it was no easy task. There was a lot of animosity, says Kamla, between the countries. But Kamla persisted with the idea and eventually succeeded in organizing a South Asian workshop in Dhaka attended by women from all these countries. It was for the first time that Bangladeshis realized that “not everyone in Pakistan was responsible for the atrocities, that there were people out there who were in fact against these policies, that the governments did not represent. our people, and that we must start rebuilding these bridges, at least among our actors in civil society. “
It was also when Kamla met Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury and was completely impressed with what he had achieved with Gonoshasthaya Kendra. “If anyone thought ‘out of the box’ in South Asia, it was this man. The way he started training female paramedics, drivers, security guards, was amazing. In our lingo. , we call it ‘gender transformation’ – when changing the definition of a woman or a man, you transform the gender. Now gender is a social definition – of a man or a woman. to a girl who can drive a car, ride a bike. So when this man gave them jobs as paramedics, the first thing he said to them was to ride a bike and that was , for me, a revolution for Bangladesh. “
So, for Kamla, such development miracles have also organically become lessons in gender politics. There was also a kind of awareness in the world at large. In 1975, the first world conference on women had taken place (in Mexico) and NGOs on the ground, says Kamla, were aware of two things: villages in our countries. Second, they realized that development was not reaching women, and these kinds of ideas came from Africa, Latin America and Asia based on the work of NGOs that worked with people, not governments. .
She was invited by development activists from all over South Asia to organize training workshops on gender. She challenged patriarchy and even the language of patriarchy: “The word ‘swami’ (husband), for example, means malik or owner. But the constitution says Bangladeshi women can’t have a landlord or a master – they can have an anti-Bangladesh constitution as far as I’m concerned; likewise, “pati” is against the Indian Constitution. No Indian citizen can have a pati controlling it. Even the word “husband” is sick – it comes from breeding; to husband must control or domesticate.
Kamla’s deep understanding of gender issues at the local level comes from her own experience growing up in villages in India – her father, a doctor, was posted to various villages where she attended school until l ‘registration. She went to a public university and got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees “with a second division – so she had a bad education but learned a lot of common sense.” Later, she studied sociology of development at the University of Münster in Germany with a scholarship.
In 2002, she resigned from the UN and devoted all of her time to the feminist network she helped set up, called Sangat, an informal network of which anyone can be a member.
Kamla rejects the idea that feminism is a Western concept. From a development worker, she also became a feminist development worker, and therefore, at the conscious level, a feminist. This is the story of many others, says Kamla.
“We didn’t become feminists by reading Western feminist theories,” she adds. “We became feminists by examining the realities of women in villages – for example, what dowry did to women, domestic violence, the way women were treated at home and in society…”
But feminist theory in the formal sense was also important, and Kamla and her fellow activists began to invite academics – sociologists, political scientists, and economists who were feminists and worked on feminist theories to their workshops. The marriage between theory and action has been created.
Kamla also started writing about these issues in courses, which became very important resources – booklets on understanding patriarchy, gender. They have also been translated into 25-30 languages. The movement launched by Kamla and her fellow activists has moreover got rid of binary divisions: “One of my slogans is: ‘I am not a wall that divides, I am a crack in this wall.’ So all these walls of nationalities – Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian – we become cracks in these walls and we cross borders and we make friends. Pakistani women were the first to apologize for the genocide here – Pakistani feminists. “
Cultural expression was the most effective tool to convey equality messages. From the very beginning, music, dancing and posters have been part of Kamla’s work, especially in reaching out to a predominantly illiterate audience. She wrote a hundred songs and compiled them on CDs and had posters with slogans such as “Zero tolerance for violence against women,” “Quality men are not afraid of it. equality ”,“ Honor killings – no honor to kill ”, etc. translated into the vernacular.
But despite such dedication and innovative feminist efforts, we are in a world where violence against women is alive and well and the objectification of women is at its peak. When I ask why, Kamla’s response is simple: “Capitalist patriarchy” with religious and cultural patriarchy. She cites the pornography industry which is a billion dollar industry that reduces women (and children) to sex objects. The cosmetics industry, Kamla says, promotes the idea that a woman is just a body, and unless she decorates herself that way, she is nothing. Women have been reduced to just bodies, perfected through surgeries and procedures. “So once you’re a body what’s the harm in raping or fiddling with yourself?” Kamla asks. In a capitalist patriarchy, she says, whatever is salable is sold and the profit is predominant over the people.
Patriarchy, says Kamla, is just as damaging to men because it dehumanizes and brutalizes them.
“Another thing,” she adds, “our fight for gender equality is not a fight between men and women. It is a fight between two ideologies, two ways of thinking. One ideology is that patriarchy is better, that men are superior. The other says, no, equality is better, men and women are different and equal, and equality is good for all. And that men must understand that if women are not free, men cannot be free.
With this provocative comment, my interview with this innovative and compassionate development feminist ends. I still have so many questions, but reluctantly give in, reminding myself that she has a birthday to celebrate.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Associate Editor-in-Chief, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star. The interview was originally published on April 30, 2016.