Memoir | Vina Mazumdar6 min read . Updated: 03 Jun 2013, 10:34 AM IST
The pioneering feminist on what it means to be one
Pioneering feminist, academic and founding member of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies died today in Delhi at the age of 86. In 2002, filmmaker Paromita Vohra interviewed Mazumdar for Unlimited Girls, a potted history of the women’s movement in India told through conversations with feminists, activists and ordinary women. Mazumdar discusses her definition of feminism, the meaning of equality, and the importance of talking to your grandmother. Edited excerpts from a transcript of Vohra’s conversation with Mazumdar. (Transcript courtesy Paromita Vohra)
What does that mean when someone says you’re a feminist?
It certainly does not mean what most people in this country, or elsewhere, think feminists are. Because as far as I am concerned, I have performed all my traditional roles, and enjoyed all of them. But I am a product of the freedom movement, belong to that generation. And the belief in human equality, especially in the Indian context became part of one, from that I suppose quite a few women in my generation whom I call the first-generation beneficiaries of the equality clauses in the constitution.
But I do make a distinction between an Indian feminist and many others. Because of the context in which say people experienced this kind of self-questioning, had a great deal to do with our earlier background, both as member of the freedom generation which had absorbed that ideology and as women and social scientists. So the anger did not leave out ourselves. We had failed. So how to undo the damage became the first priority. After more than 25 years of involvement in these twin movements in the country, I suppose, I could say that feminism in India, in my own experience and in my analysis as a social scientist and particularly as the historian of the women’s movement and the women’s studies movement boils down to what we have learnt, all of us, from that majority of women in this country.
You referred to the twin movements. What does that mean?
The women’s studies movement and the women’s movement. They fade into each other. But both are important. Because we are talking about transformative politicsand the studies that go on, they go on inside educational institutions, and they percolate. They make information available that was not there before. It takes time. It’s a very slow, very gradual process. But then surely Shakespeare is far more powerful today than he was in his lifetime.
It sounds as if you’re maybe a little impatient with this whole notion that has become prevalent, and is becoming within other women’s groups, of a sort of personal consciousness.
I don’t think anybody can remain involved in any movement without developing higher degree of self-consciousness. But the extent to which that self-consciousness becomes a tool in communicating with others depends on the outcome of the consciousness. How one uses one’s consciousness, that itself is such an empowering process. One of my favorite questions of the government was when the government uses the word “empowerment of women", I say ‘who is empowering whom?’
You don’t empower, other people. People empower themselves. In the process, they help to empower hell of a lot others. Sounds very confusing, no?
That’s why the women’s movement took a deliberate political decision, back in the 80s, not to push for reservations for women at the Legislative Assemblies and the Parliament, but to demand reservations and elections, through elections, with due representation for the Dalits and the Adivasis in the local self-government bodies. In 1988, Sushila Gopalan said, “We need a new generation of leaders from below."
One of the things that I’ve noticed while talking to younger women, they’ll always say, you know “We’re not feminists."
Oh, that’s very old, my friend Aloo Dastoor always used to start by saying “I’m not a feminist." Mind you, she was coming to every national conference on women’s studies, she was a very active member of the ICCSR (Indian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility) advisory committee on women’s studies.
Aloo Dastoor, Usha Mehta, first and foremost, they saw themselves as members of the freedom generation, they had been part of the freedom movement. And they had accepted constitutional equaliy in their stride. Like me, they had never thought of themselves as discriminated against. So, feminism was associated with people who felt themselves to be discriminated against, you see.
I don’t think if you were to go ask Aloo today, she would raise that objection. Usha behen stopped taking objection to being called a feminist. Mrinal (Gore) gave up all objections to being called a feminist, Sushila Gopalan gave up all objections to being called a feminist. In 1976 I had asked Romila Thapar, “How about contributing to women’s history?" and she said she didn’t believe in women’s history.
So recently I read her book called Shakuntala, and I wrote her saying, “However belated my thanks, because this is what I have always believed to be women’s history." And she’s just written a very nice letter, to me. “You don’t know that I am under attack from Sansrkitists and other literary pundits who are calling me too western a feminist. So there you were."
You fulfilled your traditional roles. The fulfilling of traditional roles for a lot of women, it is also the very instrument of their subordination, isn’t it?
Well I don’t see it that way. Not as long as one does not accept a subordinate position in playing those roles. I think back to my mother. I have persuaded many women in particularly the women’s studies group to draw on their own memories from within their own families, of women in previous generations. Aparana Vaause, the historian, it took me years to persuade her to do some work on her own grandmother. Once she started dipping into the family archives, she discovered much more. She came and told me, “Not my grandmother. An earlier generation, they were much more stronger, and much more rebellious." I said, ‘Well, write about them. “By the time she collected her material, she came and said, “Sorry, ulta cheez hai.Ulta ho raha hai. WE are MORE subordinated!" I said, “Okay, well, chalo. Now you have graduated."
The younger people who say they are not feminists or do not want to be involved in the women’s movement have a great fear of losing all these affectionate relationships, of family, and loved ones, etc…
I don’t think they understand! The amount of love and affection that the movement itself produces. It’s incredible, it’s absolutely incredible. If one wants to be afraid, you can always dream up fears, you see. But how can one go on through life being afraid all the time. Conquering fears and the involvement in these movements has helped every one of us to shed our fears. Fears are very natural, and I think, more so for young people.
We always talk about equality. What is equality?
The most important thing in equality is dignity, and to that, now we add autonomy. So equality gets further qualified by dignity, autonomy. But that’s why I said Number 1 is justice. The justice has been always there. The demand for justice. That was always there. In the Indian context, political necessity made the faith in human equality, essential. Otherwise, you couldn’t have an Indian nation. That’s it. So democracy was just not a preferred ideology. It was a political necessity.