Kamla Bhasin, a pioneering feminist activist in India, poet and writer, died on September 25 in New Delhi after a short battle with liver cancer. She was 75 years old.
She became a strong advocate for gender equality in the 1970s and spearheaded the campaign for gender equality in India at a time when addressing women’s rights issues was frowned upon. In addition to many writings, she leaves a legacy of community work through direct action and activism in a country that remains strictly orthodox and patriarchal.
After Bhasin’s death, there was a wave of love and condolences, with many of his fellow activists expressing their admiration.
“Absolutely shocked and saddened to learn that our dearest Kamla Bhasin is no longer with us,” wrote Kavita Krishnan, a prominent Indian activist who had worked with her. “How generous she was in sharing hope, song and friendship. What an unparalleled ability she had to express feminist politics in a language even a child could understand, and to change her mind. Not an iota of arrogance, always ready to take criticism and reflect.
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Human rights activist Harsh Mander noted that Bhasin taught gender equality through words, actions, poetry, songs and storytelling and would remain a “massive influence” for many generations to come. .
Save the Children India, part of the global children’s rights organization, said Bhasin’s legacy will endure through his courageous writings and continue to inspire efforts for gender equality.
“Through her songs and posters, she reached out to millions of activists and energized the protests… By using plain language to demystify the concepts, she was able to [teach] ideas of feminism and patriarchy to the layman without jargon, ”said a statement from Jagori, a Delhi-based resource collective for marginalized women that Bhasin created with other feminists in 1984.
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Admiration for his work also flowed from neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistan Human Rights Commission (HRCP) said she was a South Asian citizen in the truest sense of the word. “She embodied some of the values dearest to HRCP: the struggle to protect democratic ideals, resistance against patriarchy and, most importantly, the power of communities to mobilize for their rights.
Pakistani activist Nadia Agha tweeted: “Today is a sad day for women in the South. Sociologist, feminist activist and pillar of the women’s movement in India, Kamla Bhasin has passed away. She has been an inspiration to many young feminists today, including me.
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Born in 1946 in the village of Shahidanwaali in the Punjab in present-day Pakistan, Bhasin’s family emigrated to India and settled in the state of Rajasthan after the partition of the Indian subcontinent. She obtained a master’s degree from the University of Rajasthan and took a course in sociology of development at the University of Münster in what was then West Germany.
Upon her return in 1972, she joined the Udaipur-based volunteer organization Seva Mandir, which focused on rural development and women’s empowerment. It is thanks to this fieldwork that she became a feminist.
“I found more and more that among the poor, women were poorer. Among the Dalits, the women were more Dalit. Among the excluded, women were more excluded, ”explained Bhasin in a 2018 maintenance with India Development Review.
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She worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations from 1976 to 2001 before devoting herself fully to popular activism. She was the South Asian coordinator of the One Billion Rising campaign, a movement launched by American playwright Eve Ensler to end violence against women.
In 1998, Bhasin also coordinated the creation of Sangat, a feminist network that works with disadvantaged women from rural and traditional communities and is a project of Jagori.
“One of Kamla’s most endearing characteristics was its openness to people and points of view. She was not dogmatic and did not follow any particular party line. She really listened to people and was even open to being reprimanded, ”said Kalpana Viswanath, one of her longtime associates at Jagori.
Activism through action and writing
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bhasin was involved in major feminist campaigns in India. These ranged from rallies against the dowry-related killings to protests that resulted in reforms in the way rape and sexual assault were prosecuted.
She has written extensively on patriarchy, representation and gender. His published works have been translated into nearly 30 languages and include Laughing matters (2005, co-written with Bindia Thapar), Explore masculinity (2004), Borders and Limits: Women in the Partition of India (1998, co-written with Ritu Menon), What is patriarchy? (1993) and Feminism and its relevance in South Asia (1986, co-authored with Nighat Said Khan).
Bhasin has written numerous brochures on feminism, patriarchy and violence which have been widely translated and have laid the groundwork for studies of women in a number of organizations. She has also made a name for herself as a designer of nursery rhymes for children. After discovering that most children’s books used gender stereotypes and prescribed gender roles, she decided to compose her own set of nursery rhymes reflecting the ways of a progressive household.
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She was an eloquent songwriter and used the medium to communicate feminist messages through songs. The lyrics of one of his songs written in the early 1980s read “Tod tod kay bandhanon ko dekho bahnain aati hain… Ayengi, zulm mitaengi (breaking the chains that bind them, see, the women have stood up… They will be the ones who will put an end to the oppression) ”. It was inspired by popular Punjabi folklore and quickly became a staple of many feminist gatherings. Bhasin is also known for her poem Kyunki principal ladki hoon, mujhe padhna hai (Because I am a girl, I must seek education), which defends the right to education for young girls.
Her work specifically focused on how the patriarchy has promoted discrimination against women throughout history, and how this has taken on emerging cultural forms rather than being limited to religious and traditional prohibitions. She argued that the feminist movement was not a battle between men and women, but rather a campaign against the philosophy of patriarchy.
Bhasin spoke of the oppression of men under patriarchy and sought a more sensitive approach to tackle these issues. “Our men do not need to change to support women, but to avoid being brutalized by centuries of exposure to patriarchy,” she argued in a maintenance in 2013. Regarding religion, she said: “Religion is often used as a shield to justify patriarchy. When you question something, you are told, ‘yeh toh hamara sanskar hai, riwaaj hai (it’s our culture, our traditions) ”. And when that is done, it means the logic is done, the belief is entered. “
In her writings and activism, Bhasin envisioned a feminist movement that would transcend class, borders, and other social and political divisions. In recent years, this perspective has been criticized by some contemporary feminists, who have accused it of diminishing trans and Dalit feminism.
While she has long spoken about the need to ensure that the feminist movement in India includes Dalit voices, in May 2021 she found herself at the heart of a controversial saying that feminism is “not about race, caste, trans rights or ecology, etc., but entirely the struggle against patriarchy, misogyny and the domination of men and / over women”.
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She apologized for her remarks after it was pointed out that her take on the genre here was not the most inclusive. “We come from various places of caste, disability, sexual orientation, gender, race and class and I believe in sensitivity, recognition and respect for the diversity and multiplicity of feminisms. For me, feminism is lifelong learning and listening to each person. I won’t try to explain the clips that are going around, but rather take a step back, think, learn and understand, ”she said.
Although she has been reprimanded for her ideas in the context of changing cultural attitudes and narratives on women’s rights, Bhasin’s contributions to the South Asian feminist movement are undeniably important and she is admired not only in India. , but throughout South Asia.
She is survived by her son Jeet Bhasin, 41, who has cerebral palsy and is dependent on caregivers.