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Interview: Urvashi Butalia

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Yesterday we published the first of a selection of articles from our new issue that will be free to read online. With ‘Mona’s Story’, Urvashi Butalia shows us the world of hijras, communities of transsexuals in India, whose strictures can often seem as rigid as those of a more traditional family life. Mona discovered that the price of joining a hijra community would be losing contact with her daughter.

Butalia spoke to Granta’s Saskia Vogel about her career in feminist publishing, and how researching this essay affected her relationship with Mona, forcing her to re-examine her notions of sexual identity.

SV: Do you think the feminist movement in India differs from Western feminism?

UB: I believe that feminist movements everywhere in the world are born of the particular political and economic realities of the places where they exist. In that sense, each movement has different issues and concerns. And yet, despite cultural and economic differences, there are issues that women share worldwide that have been the concern of feminists. For example, the different forms of violence against women, wages for housework, security in the workplace and so on.

So these would be common. The Indian women’s movement has a long history, although if you were to read some of the early books on the history of feminism published in the West, you would think feminist activism never existed in countries like ours. I find that infuriating – the lack of knowledge, or desire for it, and the assumption that the West is the centre of the world and the rest of us just poor cousins. The Indian women’s movement is rooted in our political realities, in the history of colonialism and social reform, in the coming-into-its-own of an independent democracy with all sorts of guarantees for women and in the state’s failure to deliver on many of these. Our activism arose out of that. Because of where we are located and the history of India, there is no way the feminist movement can divorce itself, say, from issues of poverty, development, women’s health, education, religious identity ... and this is where our specificity lies.

I also think that whenever questions are asked about how movements in different parts of the world are ‘different’ there is often an assumption that the differences are in some sort of hierarchy, where countries of the southern hemisphere, say, have somehow lost out in the race and are different because they haven’t caught up with the more advanced countries. Again, I think this is very unfortunate and a load of nonsense.

Tell us about your first awareness of feminism.

I’m not sure. I think I’ve always been something of a feminist – my mother is a remarkable woman, she’s ninety today, and all her life she has been more feminist than anyone I know. We lived with my paternal grandmother, and lovely as she was, she thought girls were not up to much. Whenever she had goodies for us, my father would get first share, then my two brothers and then my sister and me. My mother taught us not to accept this discrimination. So I guess that could be said to be a beginning.

Then, I was lucky enough to be at university in the late sixties and early seventies in India. These were years of tremendous excitement and political activity, discussions, demos, meetings, protests, sit-ins at our universities, and we were caught up in the excitement. It was at this time that many of us began to raise questions about women and their role in patriarchal organizations. I remember becoming the president of the students’ union in my college, a women’s college. At the time the Delhi University Students’ Union, which was meant to represent all colleges in the university, was a totally male-dominated organization and no women’s college had ever joined it. We were the first to do so, and today the union is dominated by women. It was also at this time that we began to form the early women’s groups, and I was very involved in those. In the mid-seventies some of us came together to start a women’s magazine called Manushi – I left that a year and a half later, but it was one of the first to try and represent what was happening with women in India.

Also in 1975 the Indian government published the results of the first ever survey of Indian women called Towards Equality: Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India. Those of us who were cutting our feminist teeth in India at the time were shocked into greater awareness by this report, written and researched by some of the best-known women in India, and this propelled us further into feminism.

In the beginning of ‘Mona’s Story’, you talk about interviewing Mona for a book that collects unusual stories about the Partition of India. How do you approach writing history?

I’m not a historian, I don’t have the training – although I did major in history at university but I have not kept up with academics; instead I became a publisher. However, I came to the history of Partition purely by accident. I’m from a family of Partition refugees, it’s amazing how many Punjabi families in northern India are, and I had grown up hearing stories about Partition in the family. Although my family did not face any direct physical violence, my mother’s brother stayed behind in what became Pakistan, and he kept my grandmother back, as a result of which my family did not get any compensation on this side (people who left properties behind did, but if relatives stayed on those properties, they did not). But I had paid really no attention to the importance of these stories until in 1984, when Indira Gandhi was killed in Delhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and people turned on the Sikhs in an orgy of revenge. I began to see what violence could do to a society and this turned my attention to Partition. The first step I took was to go to Pakistan and find my uncle ... this was the first time anyone had sought him out. It was exactly forty years after Partition, and that encounter opened my eyes to how history can play itself out in people’s lives.

Has your friendship with Mona affected how you think about biology and gender?

Yes, very much. It’s raised many questions for me. I speak about some of them in the essay. I’m fascinated by her desire for motherhood for example. As a feminist, I have grown up convinced that motherhood is not only biological; but to think of a man (and Mona was a man when she knew she wanted to be a mother) wanting to be a mother was still an education for me. My identity as a woman has always been something very precious, very enabling, very empowering – despite the fact that women have to face violence and discrimination – but I have never thought of travel between identities, of switching from one to the other. And yes, gender too, for of course as a feminist, I know gender is not about biology but about socialization, but again, I had never thought of the kinds of issues Mona raises for me. Is she a man or a woman? She assumes both roles; is this exciting or manipulative? Some years ago we had a women’s conference in Kolkata, and at these conferences, which are unfunded and organised by activists within the movement, everyone sleeps in the same place. One of the big questions was whether we should have hijras sleep in the same place as the women, for were they really women or men?

Because of who she is, Mona has also made me rethink issues of class and marginalization, and indeed citizenship. Why should our passports or ID documents only allow us to describe ourselves as male or female? They leave out all the people who are in between. Recently India has introduced a category for the third gender here, so now Mona and her friends who may want to identify themselves as such can officially exist.

You set up the feminist publishing house Kali for Women. What were the challenges of this venture, and what’s your favourite thing that’s come out of it?

There were many challenges: whether we’d be able to succeed, not necessarily in monetary terms (though there was that too) but whether we’d be able to encourage, persuade, cajole women to write and to believe in their writing; whether we’d be able to maintain quality, to earn respect for our enterprise; whether we’d be able to retain our politics in the face of the onslaught of the market; whether one could be a feminist boss, bringing the learning of the women’s movement to the world of work, employment, hierarchy...

Very early on in our history, in 1987, we were approached by a group of village women and four urban activists. The women belonged to a large development programme in Rajasthan called the Women’s Development Programme. They had created a book called Shareer ki Jaankari (in Hindi, the title means ‘Knowing our Bodies’). This was a book that took the village woman through the woman’s life and bodily changes from infancy to girlhood, through marriage to old age. They told us a wonderful story about the book – that originally, because it was a book about women’s bodies, they had drawn pictures of the naked female body, then they’d tested two handmade copies of the book in villages around, and the feedback had been, ‘How can you call such a book realistic, you never see a naked woman in a village!’ So they went back to the drawing board. They produced pictures of women fully dressed, covered from head to toe, and then found a unique way of showing how they were made, by introducing little flaps that you lifted up and you saw the vagina, the breasts and so on ... and they asked if we would be willing to publish this book.

This is every feminist publisher’s dream! A book created by and for poor women, a book that goes beyond the middle-class educated reader, and a book about real, important issues. We agreed instantly, but the women had a condition – we had to promise them that any copies bought by village women would be sold at cost, so we would not make a profit on those. We agreed, and today, we have sold over 70,000 copies of this book, not one through a bookshop, every single one to women or NGOs in villages. We’ve earned no money on it, but we haven’t lost any either.

I’d say this is what I set out to do, and this is what provides the oxygen!

What advice do you have for young feminists who want to hear (or want to make heard) more feminist voices?

I’d say come on in, there’s almost nothing that you can do that is so important, so what are you waiting for?

Read Urvashi Butlia’s essay, ‘Mona’s Story’, now

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Granta 115: The F Word will be published on 19 May in the UK and 27 May in the US, and will be available in both print and e-book formats.

Events celebrating the issue begin on 16 May in London and 24 May in New York. See here for full listings.

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