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Women Changing India: An Interview with Urvashi Butalia

How does feminism manifest itself in your every day life?

Feminism simply is my way of life. I breath it and base my decisions on it. I run my company on feminist principles. For example I employ women and men, but it’s important to me that both can ask for time off to be with their family and children. It’s also about being equally empowered. Our office assistant at Zubaan for example could hardly read or write when she started to work with us. It was important to me that she could benefit from reading our books too, so we taught her. I believe that feminism or the women’s rights movement in India has come a far way, it also has gone throug transitions, and there is still a lot to fight for. I do this in my every day life with my every day means.

Where do you see India’s women’s rights movement at this moment in time?

The recent international attention on violence against women in India has had a double sided effect. It hurt us, who have been part of the women’s rights movement for decades, to see that India was globally portrayed as a country where rape was suddenly happening everywhere. Especially as this is the case in so many other places of the world too. Without denying the problem, I think it is misguided to think that the problem of violence against women is a typically Indian problem. Still, all that negative press moved something in India. People broke the barrier of silence and took to the streets to demonstrate. This shift, that men were showing outrage about violence against women as well, is important for the movement. We now have to work on keeping that momentum going and integrating men more and more in the struggle.  

How do you think, the economic development India is experiencing, affects the relationship between men and women?

India’s economic growth has created massive social tensions. Not only between men and women but rather for whole sections of society. And still this development may mean different things for women and men. First of all I don’t think this tension needs necessarily to be a bad thing. Women have many more possibilities than they used to have. There are women pilots and movie directors, doctors and politicians now. This alone doesn’t mean that women are treated as equal throughout society, but it’s a chance for role models to appear and pave the way. A lot of men, on the other hand, experience these social tensions as an increasing pressure on them. The traditional male role in society is changing at the same time as it becomes harder to fulfil the economic demands put on them.   

If you look at violence against women in this context their may be a connection too. Men’s place in society is becoming fragile or uncertain, frustrations rise and are vented against women…

Another project inititated by Zubaan is called Sexual Violence and Impunity. What it is about?  

The idea behind the SVI Project is to documet and analyse sexual violence on a mass scale across South Asia. First we wanted to focus on sexual violence committed in wars for example, but we quickly realised that single incidences need to be taken into consideration, if we want to understand why this form of violence is happening. We commissioned many studies in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. An important aspect for the project is also that women connect across the borders and share their similar experiences.

The Exhibition “Women Changing India” is a traveling exhibition and currently in Frankfurt, Germany.

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian feminist and publisher.  she co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first exclusively feminist publishing house, in 1984. In 2003, following the closure of Kali for Women, she founded Zubaan Books.

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