South Asian Feminisms: A Memorial for Lala Rukh, 23 August 2017 (Transcript)

This is the transcript for the short talk I delivered at the event South Asian Feminisms: A MEMORIAL FOR LALA RUKH, hosted by A Collective for Feminist Conversations and Women and Media Collective, in Colombo on 23 August 2017. The bulk of it includes an excerpt from an essay titled Forging a New Political Imaginary: Transnational Southasian Feminisms written by Amrita Chhachhi and my mother, Sunila Abeysekera.

south asian feminists
South Asian Feminists circa 1984, Koitta, Bangladesh; including Kamla Bhasin (INDIA), Sunila Abeysekera (SRI LANKA), Lala Rukh (PAKISTAN), Nighat Said Khan (PAKISTAN), Kumudini Samuel (SRI LANKA), Sitralega Maunaguru (SRI LANKA), Amrita Chhachhi (INDIA), Kushi Kabir (BANGLADESH)

This evening is very important to me – to us. I was born into the arms of South Asian feminists – into a delivery room populated by my mother’s friends – I was raised on the stories of their struggles, loves and losses. I was sung their revolutionary songs as lullabies. I was raised by them.

I first met Lala when I was about 4 years old – I have vivid memories of this gentle soul, her smile, those dimples that would appear when she smiled. I think the memory of Lala, to me, is strongly associated with my mother’s story, and therefore my own too, as we forge new feminist paths here – trying to do justice to both the legacies of those who preceded us and to our own identities – our own present moment.

I am not going to shy away from making this personal – after all this is the fundamental lesson which belies all lessons which come from them to us, I think – the personal is always political, and the political always personal. The political also spiritual, and so on. The blurring of these lines is the task.

When I look at this photograph I see our feminist leaders, the women who have shaped our South Asian Feminist identity – or some version of it – for us, in many ways; but I also see now, some young women, like myself, alive with the idea of friendship – which gives courage to the idea of possibility. I know this feeling; that smile on my mother’s face, I know it – I am beginning to experience it. Friendship makes everything possible.

I think now often about this ‘South Asian feminist’ identity – this South Asian feminist identity was forged through years of cross-border movement building, in times of national and communal tensions – when friendship between nations and peoples seemed impossible, these women forged unimaginably everlasting bonds and commitments to each others’ work – through wars, peace processes, regime changes. They forged transnational feminisms and intersectional feminisms, which stood up to fascism, religious intolerance, capitalism, imperialism, environmental injustice – seeing all these as connected to, and interconnected with, patriarchal structures and realities.

I think of my friends in Pakistan and Bangladesh and India – and indeed in Sri Lanka – working on disability rights, sexuality and queer rights, fighting against online misogyny, holding governments accountable, and asking for their land back. Our struggles are not that different – I don’t know if this is surprising or obvious.

It makes me think about us – women, women of colour, women of the Global South, South Asian women – and the unique way in which we do resistance. The blurring of those lines. How we have tried to be reflective and objective; intuitive and effective. Spiritual and scientific. How we try to be soft and angry. How we have great clarity and great conflict. Because these are not dichotomous – they are contradictions, rather just the way life really is. This is why it has been so important for us to remember and celebrate Lala – because she was someone who showed us this was possible – a masterful blurring of the lines; her work as an artist drawing on her love for music, on her experiences and dreams of revolution; her idea of revolution being shaped by her Sufism; her Sufism informing her work as an artist.

More than anything, I think about our efforts to be, to feel ‘collective’ – I think it is true for us – of us – friendship does make everything possible, and friendship too is political.

EXCERPT: Forging a New Political Imaginary: Transnational Southasian Feminisms 

Amrita Chhachhi and Sunila Abeysekera

‘The Process of Creating an Affective Southasian Feminist Communities’

Imagine a beautifully situated training centre near a tiny Bangladeshi village; imagine this centre itself, functional and spacious and green; imagine the trees, the large courtyards, the lawns and even a fish pond; and then imagine 38 women from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka spending one month there together, teaching . . . and learning from each other; imagine them laughing and sometimes crying; imagine the joys, the frustrations, the depressions; imagine them arguing and even fighting as they struggle to understand each other and the world around them; imagine friendships made and friendships changed; imagine the singing, the acting, the making of posters, the daily exercises and even the cooking; imagine these women grappling with . . . theories and ideas and experiences; imagine them expanding themselves and adding horizons and dimensions and areas of creativity, and entering spaces within themselves that they had not realised existed; imagine these women breaking down the barriers that are their countries, their religions, their traditions, their backgrounds, their education and their levels of consciousness. (Bhasin and Said Khan 1988, 1)

This workshop, held in Koitta, Bangladesh, in March 1986, was one of the first South Asian feminist encounters and marked a turning point in the lives of the thirty-eight women who participated. For most of the women, this was the first time they had spent a substantial period with other women from the region.6 It also represented the first time that Bangladeshi feminists were meeting Pakistani feminists after the 1971 war of independence between their countries. It was through intense processes of “grappling with each other”7 that a new Southasian feminist consciousness emerged. Unlike normal “training” courses, the workshop used multiple agendas and methodologies—personal, historical, and conceptual as well as physical mind/body learning. The first few days were spent sharing our personal stories, with no time limits. “As we listened to each other’s life stories, there were many instances when, struck by the cultural similarity, one of us would say ‘if the names and places were replaced, the same story could be my own’” (Chhachhi 1996, 1). Soon smiles and nods of recognition and sympathy flowed across the room, creating personal bonds across national boundaries. The life histories of the women included key political events in the region: the partition of India and Pakistan into two separate nation-states in 1947; the separation of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971, which led to the creation of the new nation-state of Bangladesh; and the separatist war based on ethnic identity in Sri Lanka, which started in 1983. Our stories reproduced the multiple “national” narratives of these historical events. Women from Pakistan listened with disbelief and amazement as Bangladeshi women described the experiences of rape and abuse they had suffered at the hands of the Pakistani army during the War of Liberation in Bangladesh. This had been selectively excluded from the history taught in Pakistani schools. Tension rose palpably as Pakistani and Bangladeshi women sat at two opposite ends of the room.8 As the workshop progressed, grappling with the history of the formation of the individual nation-states and our shared colonial and postcolonial legacy, the denial and anger slowly dissolved. One of the most poignant moments occurred midway, when women from both countries crossed the floor and hugged each other. At the end of the workshop, the process of bonding was transformed into a commitment when women from various countries in the region, including warring nations (India and Pakistan, and Pakistan and Bangladesh) tied rakhis9 on each other’s wrists, sealing a pact of sisterhood, promising to protect each other across borders.

Integral to the workshop methodology was the bridging of mind and body, mental and manual labor. Every morning, Indian danseuse Chandralekha led a session on “body work” through which notions of femininity, somatophobia, and sexuality were interrogated. Collective singing followed this, and sessions were interspersed with songs, poems, and impromptu skits. We learned screen printing skills from Pakistani artist Lala Rukh, since in that period we (rather than professionals) did everything ourselves—analyzing, writing pamphlets, making posters, acting in street plays—a mode of activism that has more or less disappeared. The conceptualization and visualization methods resulted in posters on themes including invisible reproductive work, domestic violence, and feminist solidarity visualized as 1 + 1 = 11, which are still in circulation today. A vivid poster depicting different religious symbols oppressing women was boldly titled “Men, Money and Morality,” prescient of the escalation of the power and domination of our lives by the market, religious fundamentalism, terrorism, war, and multiple patriarchies in subsequent years. Throughout the month we developed deeper understandings of our shared history and its impact on contemporary South Asian societies and battled with the theorizations of the nation-state and processes of state formation. In each of the “states” we “represented,” there were in fact many nations; we confronted the reality that in none of our “nations” did the democratic “social contract” prevail. We realized that the “imagined communities” (Anderson 2006) of “Indian,” “Pakistani,” and “Sri Lankan,” which had been clumsily crafted together through the symbols of “statehood” such as national constitutions, flags, and anthems, were not representative of the diverse religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups and indigenous and tribal communities living within their territorial borders. Nor did the nation- states offer the promise of equal citizenship to many, as described by the Sri Lankan and Nepali women, who shared their experiences of brutal suppression of political dissent and, in the case of Sri Lanka, the evolving civil war with armed militant groups emerging from the minority Tamil population.

Discussions of war and peace were central to the process of interrogating the stereotypes and systematic “othering” by the state and society of each other’s national identity. Further bonds were forged through analysis of the processes of globalization experienced in each country, especially by women. The Sri Lanka experience was significant because, at the time, the country’s establishment of export processing zones was most directly connected to the global garment industry, as well as the outflow of Sri Lankan women (primarily as domestic and unskilled workers) to countries of the Middle East such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The Sri Lankan participants included women such as Kumudini Samuel, with long histories of working with the labor movement, including within the export processing zones in Katunayake, situated near the capital, Colombo. One woman had worked in Kuwait as a migrant domestic worker.

Through this sharing of experiences evolved a discussion on the intersection of gender, class, and ethnicity in the context of globalization. The discussions in Koitta laid the ground and created the imperative for us to remain connected as South Asian feminist activists. We wished to explore, on the one hand, our national (and other) subjectivities within the context of a shared historical meta-narrative of colonialism (except for Nepal), and on the other hand, to understand and respond to the postcolonial context.

In September 1989, some months after the South Asian feminist declaration was written at the second South Asian feminist workshop held in Bangalore, Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, lecturer in anatomy at the University of Jaffna in Colombo and founder of University Teachers for Human Rights in Jaffna (UTHR-J), was shot and killed while on her way to work. Her assassination tragically reflected the issues discussed at the Koitta workshop that were articulated in the South Asian Feminist Declaration of 1989 (see below). Rajini had actively promoted nonviolence in the struggle for self-determination and was therefore perceived as an “enemy” by the forces who sought to steer the Tamil claim for equality in Sri Lanka along paths defined by a militarist ideology and acts of terror. Being present at her commemoration meeting was hence an act of courage, and the Southasian feminist network was there, standing alongside other Sri Lankan activists. Kamla Bhasin from India spoke at a meeting convened in Colombo, while Nighat Said Khan from Pakistan and Govind Kelkar from India traveled to Jaffna to participate in commemorative activities there. Gabrielle Dietrich wrote a poem for Rajini that was published in newspapers in India and Sri Lanka. Seven years later, in 1996, another significant act of solidarity cemented the links forged among South Asian feminist activists.

The Women’s Action Forum (WAF), a women’s organization in Pakistan, issued a public apology for war crimes committed by the Pakistani army in Bangladesh in 1971.

Through this statement, feminists in Pakistan made visible and open to public scrutiny this “hidden” part of their country’s history, while in Bangladesh it evoked a cathartic response and enabled the relationship between Pakistani and Bangladeshi women activists to grow and flourish. Pakistani feminists were publicly attacked for being “disloyal to the nation”—the same charge that was made against Sinhalese feminists belonging to the majority ethnic group who supported minority Tamil women in their struggle for self- determination in Sri Lanka. The workshop marked the beginning of lifelong friendships and intimate and new chosen affective kin relationships—identities of affinity—“a self constructed space that (affirms) . . . on the basis of conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (Haraway, quoted in Chhachhi 1991, 148).

The process we experienced is similar to the formation of new communities built on friendship and solidarity forged between people from the metropolis and the periphery during the nineteenth-century anticolonial struggle, described in L. Gandhi’s book Affective Communities (2006). Through a fascinating exploration of “multiple, secret, unacknowledged friendships and collaborations between anticolonial South Asians and marginalized anti-imperial ‘westerners’ enmeshed within the various subcultures of late Victorian radicalism” (Gandhi 2006, 10), she draws on Derrida’s concept of the “politics of friendship” (Derrida 1988). The invisible and some visible acts of solidarity between Southasian feminists described above resonate with Derrida’s conceptualization of  “the trope of friendship as the most comprehensive philosophical signifier for all those invisible affective gestures that refuse alignment along the secure axes of filiation to seek expression outside, if not against, possessive communities of belonging” (Gandhi 2006, 10). A similar process is uncovered in Kumari Jayawardena’s rich history of white, Western women’s involvement with feminism, nationalism, and class in South Asia during the colonial period, showing how these women crossed boundaries, forging affective relations, which she calls “sisterhood,” creating and joining newly formed feminist constituencies (Jayawardena 2005).



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