Women writers have often been given the role of playing the second fiddle when
it comes to literature and publishing. Breaking the monotony and providing a space solely for women writers Urvashi Butalia set up strongly feminist publishing houses Kali for Women and Zubaan Books. Down in Goa for the ongoing Difficult Dialogues
she will be part of a panel discussing a topic in another domain – the home. ‘Empowerment within the family: Women and the law’ to be held on Sunday, February 11, will also have Albertina Almeida, Flavia Agnes, Salman Khurshid, Sara Hossein as part of the panellists. In this interview, with NT BUZZ Urvashi Butalia answers questions about her feminist ideas, the representation of women writing and of women in their homes
Janice Savina Rodrigues |NT BUZZ
- You had co-founded the publishing house Kali for Women, followed by Zubaan Books. Why did you feel the need to establish an exclusively publishing house for feminist writing?
Until we set up Kali, most of the books and writing available in India were by men and largely about men. When the early activists in the women’s movement began to mobilise, they had no literature, no writing, no books that could help them to understand the problems they were facing, their trajectories, their histories. I was one of these activists and felt acutely the need for knowledge about women and about issues that impacted them. I was deeply involved in the women’s movement then, and was working professionally in publishing, and I felt that the experience of being in publishing equipped me to set up a publishing house that focused on women, and that gave a foreground to their writing and their voices. By doing this, we hoped to bring knowledge about women centrestage and make women’s voices heard.
- In general do you find women writing to be sidelined? Can you cite some examples from your personal experiences?
Yes, women’s writing continues to be sidelined. Some kinds of writing, especially those by upper middle class women who have had the privilege of an education, are now being published but what about the voices of women on the margins? No one is really paying attention to them, and yet, they have important things to say. Writing in the languages is still marginalised. I think it will be many years before we get women’s writing to be as important as men’s. For example, no publishers are doing books by women like Baby Halder, the domestic worker who wrote her life story; very few Dalit women’s writings are available even today. Why is this? Publishers should be actively out there, seeking work by women from the margins.
- You grew up with a rather feminist mother, Subhadra Butalia who ran a counselling centre for women. Do you feel she had an impact on your thinking? If yes how were you influenced by her?
Yes, very much, my mother was a strong influence on my life. I learnt my feminism from her, although our feminisms were very different and I think often that she was a stronger feminist than me, much angrier, more militant. She also taught us not to accept an inequality in the home, and did not do things like insist on marriage as the only course in life for a woman. Women of my mother’s generation were remarkable women, and I think we do not value them enough.
- You will be a part of the panel discussing ‘Empowerment within the family: Women and the law’ do you feel that the law is strong enough when it comes to women’s rights in the household?
I think this is a very complicated thing. I think we have some good laws, but the lawmakers, and implementers of law still see women not as independent rights baring citizens but as members of a family and therefore subject them to many injustices because the whole burden of keeping the family together is placed on them. This is why the law will not allow marital rape to be recognised, this same attitude allows judges to pronounce on marriages like Hadiya’s, saying that it is the woman’s job to listen to the family. There’s a lot more that needs to be done, but we also need to think of the question of how far into women’s private spheres should we allow the law to come?
- You were quoted saying ‘Queer and trans women are essential to Indian feminism’. Can you please elaborate upon this statement?
No feminism can be meaningful if it does not include all identities along the spectrum and if it is not always open and inclusive. Trans women and queer women are an essential part of the struggle of Indian feminists and they have also raised many questions about the movement from within it. Such questioning is the lifeblood of any movement, without it, we would just be complacent and would gain nothing. The challenges are plenty!
(THE NAVHIND TIMES is media partner for the event)