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KAMALA BHASIN – Shaping Equality
By: Rojina Adhikari
Kamala Bhasin is a dynamic woman who is widely recognised for her work as a developmental feminist activist, poet, author and social scientist. Bhasin’s work spans across many decades with a focus on gender, education, human rights and media. She is best known for her work with the NGO Sangat, a South Asian network of feminists, and for her poems: Kyunki main ladki hoon and Mujhe padhna hai. She is also the South Asia coordinator of One Billion Rising.
Strong, fierce, humorous and resilient are words that come to mind when you meet Bhasin who has fought and given her voice and life to equality and human rights. She visits Nepal often working with South Asian women activists on feminist capacity building. Excerpts of a conversation with a woman WOW salutes:
How do you define feminism?
Feminism in Nepali is ‘Naribad’. It is when you look at the world through the eyes of women. For the last 3000-4000 years the world has been looked upon and defined through the eyes of men. When only 50 percent of the population looks at the world through their eyes, you only have 50 percent truth, so to get the full truth, picture and perspective, you have to look through the eyes of women.
Feminism is basically against patriarchy, where men are considered to be superior and they control most of the resources, decision making and ideologies which doesn’t allow equality for men and women. Anyone who works for the equality of men and women is a feminist. A man in the parliament who passes a good law or a teacher, a brother a husband or anyone who supports the equality for men and women can be a feminist. Feminists are not anti men, they are anti patriarchy and anti inequality and injustice, so many men can be feminists and rather many women can be anti-feminists. Feminism is both an ideology, a way of thinking, a discourse and an action. The two go together, we think and we act.
What are some values you would like to see in every human being?
The main value is everyone should know all human beings are born equal and free in dignity and rights. Freedom for all, equality, justice, compassion and above all the biggest value I want to see in all human beings is love.
Your personal journey is very inspirational. Can you tell us at which point of life did making a difference become really important to you?
My father was a medical doctor. I am originally from Punjab which is now in Pakistan. My father had a job in Rajasthan so we shifted there. I did my schooling in rural Rajasthan, then went to government college and university and did my Masters in Economics. Then I got a fellowship and went to Germany to study further. After I came back from Germany, I knew that I wanted to work for the marginalised and poor people in Rajasthan where I grew up. I didn’t want a job in a private company or government. I would rather work with the main people of my country and joined a NGO named Sewa Mandir at the age of 25 in Rajasthan. Since that time I have been doing this work and it’s been 43 years now. In 1975, the UN invited me to work at the Asian level.
You have been visiting and working with TEWA for so many years now. What exactly do you do here? And have things changed in this time?
As my work continues to be at South Asian level, my visit to Nepal has a history of more than two decades. In Nepal, my main work has been capacity building of various activists – human rights, NGO, and civil society as well as with peace activists.
In 1976, I came to Nepal to find out who is doing work on human rights and development. In the procedure I got to know many people and got to know TEWA as well. I was very happy that there is an organisation which feels Nepali people should also contribute for the development of Nepal and should decrease dependency on foreign donors. Then Rita Thapa, founder of TEWA and I became very good friends.
But the first people I met here were Meena Acharya who became the head of Nepal Banijya Bank, Indira Shrestha who was then working with an institution of development studies, Bina Shrestha who was working with Tribhuwan University and I also got to know many people in All Nepal Women’s Alliance. I also meet the President Bidhya Devi Bhandari 20 years back when she was with ANWA.
I have also done trainings and workshops for ANWA, UN, UNDP and mainly NGOs. UNDP invited me to conduct a training for women members of the Parliament 15 years back. Talking about the South Asian Workshop, we are doing this here in Nepal since many years.
Nepal has made some laws in the recent years which are very inspiring. You are the only country in the South Asia that recognises marital rape, homosexuality, equal property rights for women and 33% reservation for women. These laws exist only in Nepal; not even in Asia and this is very inspiring for us.
Moving towards change, first it was Nepal’s democracy movement, after which the country came became a secular democracy and that is a huge change. Then the role of women in the democracy movement whether it was Maoist, UML or Congress women who played an important role.
Can freedom and equality actually be given, learned or created?
We have to struggle for it. It cannot be given until we fight for it. For example, if women are fighting for freedom and equality and if the government sees it as a good thing, they are compelled to give it to women and that has happened also.
So it can be taken, given and if some women see that particular women are doing this, then it can also be learned.
What makes a person free? Especially women…
First of all it is an inner feeling. I take myself as a human being but not as a woman of a patriarchal society. I believe in the human rights declarations that all human beings are born equal and free with dignity and rights. The first thing is your family… what they believe they give to you, the second is education and the third is financial independence. So all these things together can make you free, independent and make you able to fight against fear. I also think that the biggest enemy of men and women is fear and if they get rid of it, they can be free.
You have worked on the women’s movement for several decades. What are some of the major changes you have seen? What remain as the challenges?
The main changes have been our laws that have become wiser and better but the implementation is still a challenge. More and more educated women in different sectors of society are showing better results than men at many levels.
Another is women have entered many areas of life; they have become pilots, supreme court judges and also entered the parliament. Ideologies seem to be shifting. For example most women today know that it is their right to be violence free. And recently in the last 10 years men are realising that patriarchy harms them also – it makes them violent, dehumanises them and puts a lot of pressure on them and creates stereotypes.
The biggest challenges we have had is religious patriarchy. I believe all our religions in practice are patriarchal. Our festivals like Teej, Karva Chauth and practices like Kanyadan, Sindoor are only for women and these perpetuate patriarchy.
Along with this today we have capitalist patriarchy. Capitalism is making full use of patriarchy to make money. Pornography is a billion dollar industry and it is making women into objects of sex. Also the cosmetic industry, telling us women all the time that women should look beautiful as if only our body is important.
As soon as a woman gets freedom, because of the media they think that this is all they have to do – look after the hair, skin, lips and every part of the body, and because of this today 80 percent women feel unhappy with themselves because they can never be like models. Even models are unreal; they are photo-shopped so we all are unhappy because advertisements aren’t reality.
Another is the toy industry which gives boys guns and girls Barbie dolls. Boys are thus taught violence at an early age. 90% of the media is patriarchal. Even our movies and a lot of item songs objectify women.
So the biggest challenge is capitalist patriarchy, religious fundamentalism and fervour, ecological destruction. These challenges are directly related with women.
Can digitisation be used as a tool effectively to bridge the gap of awareness among men and women?
You see any technology can be used in both ways: a knife can be used to kill and also can be used for surgery to give life. The same thing applies to digital technology. Digital media and technology is in control of the rich, powerful and capitalists. Big use of this has been made to make money and spread capitalism and patriarchy… pornography is the best example.
But we have also seen examples of using digital technology for sending feminist, socialist and secular messages. For example, I participated twice in Satyameva Jayate, one was on domestic violence and another was on masculinity. My clip of eight minutes with Aamir Khan has been seen 5.5 million times. A feminist in India I could never reach out to these many people without that tool, but then an item song reaches 500 million people.
So who controls technology? Obviously, people in power and if they want to make money by spreading inequality and patriarchy then here we are losing. I feel sometimes the kind of rapes taking place recently has never taken place earlier, and there is a clear link between rape incidents and Hindi movies.
What are the vulnerabilities of being a woman today?
The vulnerabilities are the same which we have had for a long time. It also depends on the family background of women. If I am born in a family in Nepal which practices Chaupadi then I am vulnerable to death. If I am born in Kathmandu I am pushed into Gufa for many days when I menstruate. Likewise in India I may not be allowed to be born and may be aborted if they know I am a girl, and in Rajasthan I may get married at the age of 14.
Gang rape, marital rape, dowry and acid attacks are among others. For example, a so called God man was given judgement in a rape case in India and millions of his supporters are shouting to protect him and most of the protesters are women. So the vulnerability is that we have been made fools by such leaders and religious leaders to a point that even our religion is making women vulnerable.
These vulnerabilities have been there for a long time but some of them like child marriage is decreasing and the concept of girls education is increasing. But despite these, new vulnerabilities are occurring in this digital age like pornography. And remember one thing that all men are not rapists but all rapists are men.
Of all the professional roles you have, which one are you most partial to?
I think I’ve only played one role in my life – of a feminist activist and the facilitator of these courses and trainings. This is the only thing I have done in my life. In 1972 I joined an NGO and I am still in it, and in between for 27 years I was with the UN and my role was to advocate for human rights, equality, democracy and peace for all. So the only thing I have done in my life is feminist activism in different forms.
Besides work, what are some of the thing you enjoy doing?
Whatever I enjoy doing I have brought into my work. I enjoy writing songs and as a feminist I’ve written many feminist songs. I’ve used most beautiful Nepali tunes like “resham firiri” and “dai le madal bajayo” in writing feminist songs. I love humour and jokes and also writing slogans. And brought these into my work. Besides these, I love making new friends and films. Whatever I like doing I have integrated it into my work. I consider myself lucky that my work is my passion.