Rest in Power: Kamla Bhasin, Feminist Icon of India

“I increasingly found amongst the poor, women were poorer. … Amongst the excluded, women were more excluded. So even though I didn’t begin my journey as a feminist activist, I slowly became one without even knowing the word ‘feminist’ at that time.”

Kamla Bhasin in an interview with India Development Review

Kamla Bhasin in 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

“If I can’t dance to it, it’s not my revolution.”

Emma Goldman’s famous quote personifies the character of the charismatic feminist from India, Kamla Bhasin—an early leader of the women’s movement in India, who died in New Delhi on Sept. 25 at the age of 75. Through her numerous books for young girls, poetic pieces and lectures across the subcontinent, she proved that the feminist movement is vibrant, fun and enormously important to the lives of women in the world.

Bhasin’s funeral was worthy of the veteran feminist. It was full of music—appropriate, for this was a woman who used songs to transform lives. She was carried to the electric crematorium on the shoulders of two generations of feminists—a sign of how revolutionary she was, since in traditional Hindu society, bodies are almost always carried on the shoulders of male relatives. In fact, women are often banned from entering the cremation grounds altogether, the implication that they are too delicate to handle the atmosphere (although this is increasingly challenged in modern India). In Bhasin’s case, members from her coalition of feminist sisterhood were the ones who covered her body with flowers and filled the air with their songs of power and unity against the region’s oppressive patriarchy.

Bhasin covered a lot of ground in her 75 years on the planet. She played an integral role in the second wave of feminism, a prominent voice in the women’s movement in India and other South Asian countries from the 1970s to the present. She developed the idea of celebrating November 30 as South Asian Women’s Day, as part of the global 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence commemorated each year from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10. She was also instrumental in bringing to her nation the One Billion Rising global campaign to end sexual violence, launched in 2012 by Eve Ensler.

Born in 1946, Bhasin studied first in her homeland, Rajastan, then at the University of Munster in Germany.  She began her career as a lecturer at the Orientation Center of the German Foundation for Developing Countries in Bad Honnef and went on to work for the United Nations from 1976 to 2001, supporting innovative NGO initiatives aimed at the development and empowerment of those at the margins, especially women from the Dalit and indigenous communities.

She wrote extensively for newspapers on the impact of development programs on people in the rural hinterlands of India. Her publications—which number over 35, including eight children’s books—include Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, Some Questions on Feminism and Its Relevance in South Asia, What is Patriarchy? and numerous books for young people in English and several regional languages. But it is in her poetry and songs that her message spread widely across borders of caste and class: She wrote more than 200 songs, many during feminist workshops, which have been sung at protests and events across South Asia.

Bhasin (second from right) wins the Nirbhaya Puraskar award in 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bhasin was involved with numerous activist organizations. She co-founded Jagori, a pioneering women’s collective in 1984 with six compatriots from the women’s movement.  It focused on taking feminist consciousness to rural areas and small towns and bringing activism and theory closer to each other.

Later she also created the renowned South Asian feminist organization Sangat—the South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers—that works on many issues related to gender and class equality, democracy, diversity, human rights, and communal harmony; through training programs for women across Asia. It has had enormous success in communicating complex feminist concepts to a wide audience through song and dance, poetry, art and music.

In 2002 Bhasin quit her job at the United Nations to work full-time with the underprivileged in her homeland.  She refused to accept the notion that feminism was merely a Western concept and hence one to be disregarded in the Global South. Her work with women across the Subcontinent focused on women’s rights as human rights, much as former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has described it.

“When I’m raped, people say I lost my honor. How did I lose my honor? My honor is not in my vagina. I’d like to ask, Why did you place your community’s honor in a woman’s vagina?”

Kamla Bhasin in 2014

The nationalist chant of Azadi (meaning “freedom”) which echoed across protest sites in India over the past year had been popularized by Bhasin as a feminist slogan against patriarchy and injustice. During the One Billion Rising from South Asia campaign to end violence against women, she recited the now famous lines which hundreds of voices repeated in a passionate chant. 

“From patriarchy — Azadi

From hierarchy — Azadi

From endless violence — Azadi

From helpless silence — Azadi

For self-expression — Azadi

For celebration — Azadi.”

Rest in power, Kamla Bhasin. Her impact will live on for years in the songs, poems, art and music of the thousands of people that she inspired across South Asia.

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Dr. Shoba Sharad Rajgopal is the chair of the Department of Ethnic and Gender Studies at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, where she teaches courses on gender, race and sexuality. Her doctorate is in media studies from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Dr. Rajgopal worked for seven years as a news correspondent for the Indian TV networks based in Bombay (Mumbai), India, and has also done in-depth news reports for CNN International on the struggles of women and minorities in the postcolonial nation-state. Her current academic research focuses on movements of resistance among marginalized groups in South Asia and the diaspora.