Women’s History Roundtable November 2019: “Grandmother, Mother, Daughter: Writing Women’s Lives” by Dr. K. Kalpana


K. Kalpana is Associate Professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras. Her research area is development studies with a focus on the interfaces between gender and the development experience. Her academic publications are in the intersecting domains of gender, poverty, microcredit, women’s work in the informal sector and collective action in solidarity economies. Her book ‘Women, Microfinance and the State in Neo-liberal India’ was published by Routledge in 2017.

This post is extracted from a story written by KV Navya for The New Indian Express titled ‘Paati’s story across five decades’ (published 12 November 2019). You can view the original story here.

‘When Kalpana Karunakaran, an associate professor at IIT Madras, was looking out for material to write a book on her mother Mythily Sivaraman, a trade union activist and leading organiser in the women’s movement in Tamil Nadu, she stumbled upon a wooden box in her home.

“The box was filled with my grandmother Pankajam’s writings. I have always known about her literary interests as I have read her essays, poems and short stories. But what I found in this box surprised me. It was her autobiographical writings that she had written from 1949 to 1995. I was struck by her vivid and evocative prose, in which she narrates the story of a girl child growing up in the second decade of the 20th Century amid salt pans in small towns along the Coromandel Coast in the Madras Presidency,” says Kalpana, while delivering a talk about her upcoming book at the Prajnya Women’s History Roundtable Series recently.

Kalpana realised this was a treasure trove and says her grandmother herself encouraged her to write the book. Mythily too, had written a book on her grandmother (and Pankajam’s mother), Subbalakshmi. The book, titled ‘Fragments of a Life: A Family Archive’, was published in 2006.

“My mother makes Subbalakshmi’s diary come alive, very creatively supplementing it with what she has gleaned from other sources about Subbalakshmi’s life. On the other hand, the subject of my book, Pankajam, speaks naturally from the heart and has a lot to say about herself, her life and her times. I rely on her autobiography. But I also juxtapose this with many other sources to present a full picture of her,” she says.

Talking about her grandmother, Kalpana said, “Pankajam had six years of schooling in Madras, receiving a double promotion twice. Her mother Subbalakshmi wanted to educate her to be a doctor. However, Pankajam was pulled out of school by her father when she was halfway through class 9 and got her married the year after, when she was 17.”

Yet Pankajam’s hunger for learning and knowledge was enormous. She read extensively on all themes including Science and Physics.“She kept up her diverse interests even as she raised her five children, managed her household and cared for her ailing parents. Hers was an ordinary life that was extraordinary in so many ways that I describe in the book. She raised me when I was a child and my love of books and reading and writing comes from her,” the author says.

Kalpana gathered the material for the book from Pankajam’s autobiographical writing, three short stories she had written that very closely mirror events in her own life, her essays and reflections on science, religion and the meaning of life, her letters and correspondences, her travel diaries as she was a global-trotter who travelled alone, interviews with Pankajam’s children and Kalpana’s recollections of conversations with her grandmother.

When asked how relevant she thinks books on family history are, she was quick to reply, “I find them fascinating. They are a rich source of social history and everyday lives of ordinary people — a vital departure from much of our usual focus on big events — wars, conflicts, dynasties and so on. This is also the reason that my grandmother gives for wanting to write about her life.”

The book is likely to be released by the end of next year.’

Women’s History Roundtable August 2019: “Handmaidens of God or Common Prostitutes: Perspectivising the Devadasi Tradition in India” by Professor V. Bharathi Harishankar


V. Bharathi Harishankar is Professor and Head, Department of Women Studies, University of Madras. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, gender studies, translation, web based pedagogy and open educational resources. She has successfully completed projects on OER, Devadasi System and Impact of CSR on women empowerment. She is currently engaged in Erasmus Plus project.

Professor Harishankar presented the key findings of a report on the Devadasi system submitted to the National Commission for Women (NCW), based on a study conducted in 2015-2016 for which she was the principal investigator. She began by highlighting the inherent ambiguity in the term ‘Devadasi’ itself (as the title of her talk indicates), which literally translates to ‘Handmaiden of God’, but is now synonymous with prostitution. She outlined the systemic exploitation that Devadasis are subject to, extending beyond the physical or sexual to encompass cultural, social economic and religious aspects as well.

Professor Harishankar explained the historical origins of the Devadasi system, citing scriptural evidence of its ancient roots and temple inscriptions across the subcontinent. She highlighted the shift from the ‘dedication’ of girls and women to their ‘appointment’ around the 8thcentury, signalling their occupational status. Their elevated social position allowed them to learn how to read and write, excel in the arts, buy property, and adopt children and grant them inheritance rights, setting them apart from other women at that historical juncture. Their venerated status could also be seen in a number of practices. When a Devadasi died, for example, the sanctum sanctorum of her temple was closed to visitors for three days, as the gods were said to be in mourning, indicating the respect Devadasis were afforded. During the Chola era, there were 400 devadasis who worked in service of the temple, and were seen as being on an equal footing with male ministers of the court. Their high social standing derived in part from their being outside the caste system, giving them the status of an occupational caste group akin to a guild. Moreover, Professor Harishankar asserted that prostitution had never been the primary occupation of Devadasis before the 19thcentury. Some temples had up to seven categories of Devadasis, each of whom performed different roles within that socio-religious space.

Over time, however, Devadasis were absorbed into the traditional caste system, giving them a fixed caste status that eventually lowered their social positioning. In addition, while the Devadasi system had begun to decline in North India from the time of the Mughal invasion, it continued to flourish in South India until the advent of colonialism, when Devadasis begun to be treated as immoral ‘dancing girls’, with their public performances subsequently banned. This was followed by calls for a complete eradication of the system from Indian social reformers, including Devadasis themselves.

While the goal of these reforms was to prevent sexual exploitation, they diminished the artistry of the Devadasis as well, with their dancing seen as illicit. This view persisted, despite Devadasis generally covering their entire bodies during performances, and specialising in restrained movements with a focus on abhinayaor facial expressions. Compositions by devadasis were also seen as obscene, even while male, upper-caste composers’ own sexually-charged compositions, at times inspired by certain Devadasis themselves, were considered acceptable. Professor Harishankar noted that the Devadasi’s body, rather than being inscribed as an artistic body, was objectified and reduced to a corporeal body alone; simultaneously, upper-caste women began to perform a more sanitised form of Bharatanatyam in much greater numbers. She added that these socio-cultural shifts resulted in an erasure of the ‘handmaiden of God’ aspect of the Devadasi system from public memory, and of their previous status as accomplished women who entertained visitors.

Professor Harishankar then spoke about the study she was invited to conduct by the NCW. She noted that the system has moved from one of respect for Devadasis to one of exploitation of young women and girls, as well as transgender people. She conducted her research in areas of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Maharashtra where the system is still prevalent (although Devadasis and the Devadasi system are known by a number of different local names). After providing an overview of the methodology adopted for the study, she highlighted the terrible conditions of most Devadasis today, who are forced into the system at an early age by their families, largely due to poverty, and who rely on prostitution and begging as their main sources of income. She also outlined the rampant corruption and lack of awareness across stakeholder institutions, including the police, judiciary, government departments, NGOs and the education system, that impeded reforms to the system.

In addition to this lack of awareness, rescue and rehabilitation efforts were also hindered by the dearth of family support that many Devadasis faced, preventing reintegration into their families. Despite the existence of numerous laws and rehabilitation schemes specifically addressing Devadasis and the Devadasi system, progress was far from adequate. She noted that NGOs’ efforts were often ill-conceived; occupational training, for example, focussed on skills such as basket weaving or tailoring, which earned them significantly less than prostitution. Moreover, these attempts at rehabilitation did not address the root cause of the persistence of the system in its current form, such as family poverty or caste-based oppression. The system is also intricately linked with the idea of dedication, even today, and is thus seen by Devadasis themselves as being beyond an occupational categorisation. As a result, Devadasis often fail to demand or expect employment rights associated with sex work, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation. Professor Harishankar also outlined the challenges faced by the children of Devadasis, such as stigmatisation within the education system and a lack of opportunities for social mobility.

In her conclusion, Professor Harishankar reiterated that despite the origins of the system, Devadasis are seen primarily as prostitutes today. She noted the loss of their art forms that accompanied efforts to eliminate sex work, and highlighted that attempts at reform had systematically erased Devadasis’ agency while inscribing their bodies with the narrowly-defined identity of ‘prostitute’, giving them few options outside of this exploitative system. She called for greater regulation of NGOs and other institutions tasked with overseeing the system, as well as education campaigns and awareness-building. She also suggested that a return to the artistic elements of the system and intensive training in traditional art forms might provide a better career path than those currently being offered by support groups.


Rapporteur: S. Shakthi

2019 பாராளுமன்ற தேர்தலின் வேட்பாளர்களுக்கு திறந்த மடல்


2019  பாராளுமன்ற தேர்தலை முன்னிறுத்தி, பெண்களாகிய எங்களுக்கு, குடிமக்களாக, நாங்கள் தேர்ந்தெடுக்கும் பிரதிநிதிகளிடம், எங்களுடைய குறைகளை பகிர்ந்து கொள்ளுவதற்கான இந்த வாய்ப்பினை பயன்படுத்தி கொள்கிறோம்.

சமீப காலத்தில், நமது அடிப்படை உரிமைகள் கேள்விக்குட்படுத்தப்படுள்ளது. என்ன உண்பது, எவ்வாறு வழிப்படுவது, வாழ்வது என்பதை தேர்ந்தெடுக்கும் உரிமையினை இழந்து விட்டோம். நமது அரசியலமைப்பு, அறிவியல்பூர்வமான மனநிலையை ஊக்குவிப்பது நமது கடமை என்று கூறுகிறது. ஆனால் பகுத்தறிவு மற்றும் அறிவியல் மீது தாக்குதல் நடக்கிறது. குற்றவாளிகள் பாதுகாக்கப்படுகிறார்கள். அதே சமயம், சாதி, சமயம், பாலினம், பிராந்தியத்தின் அடிப்படையில் நமது சக குடிமக்கள் பாகுபடுத்தப்பட்டு, தாக்கப்படுவதோடு, படுகொலை செய்யப்படுகிறார்கள். இவ்வாறான தண்டிக்கும் கலாச்சாரத்தினால், அனைத்து மனித உரிமை மீறல்கள் மற்றும் வன்முறைகள் மேம்படுத்தப்படுகிறது.

நமது மக்களாட்சி, மக்களாகிய நாம் கேள்வி கேட்பதை தேச விரோதம் என்று எண்ணும் அரசியல் கலாச்சாரமாய் உருமாற்றம் கொண்டுள்ளதை கண்டு வருந்துகிறோம். எங்களுடைய உரிமைகள், எங்கள் சமூகத்தின் பாதுகாப்பு, எங்கள் குழந்தைகளுக்கு நாங்கள் விட்டு செல்லும் சூழல், எங்களுடைய வருங்கால வாழ்வாதாரம் ஆகியவற்றை பற்றி நாங்கள் கேள்வி எழுப்புகிறோம். எங்கள் குடிமைக்கான இந்த செயல்களால், நாங்கள் தேச விரோகதிகளாக  சித்தரிக்கப்படுகிறோம். பெண் மனித உரிமை பாதுகாவலர்கள், அவர்களது பணியினை செயற்படுத்துவதிற்காக, வார்த்தைகளாலும், உடல் ரீதியாகவும் வன்முறையினை எதிர்கொள்கிறார்கள்.

ஆதலால் இந்த தேர்தல், எங்களுக்கு, நாங்கள் ஒரு தேசமாக, சமமான குடிமக்களாக, எங்களுடைய நல்வாழ்வு மற்றும் சுதந்திரத்திற்கான உரிமையுமாக  திகழ்கிறது.

இந்தியாவின் குடிமக்களாகிய நாங்கள், இந்தியாவின் அரசமைப்பு சாசனம் மற்றும் அதன் மதிப்பீடுகளில் நம்பிக்கையும், உறுதியும் கொண்டுள்ளோம். அதில் எந்தவித சமரசமும் கொள்ள நாங்கள் விரும்பவில்லை. குறிப்பாக, கீழ்க்கண்ட தன்மைகளை நிலைநிறுத்துவோரையே எங்களுடைய பிரதிநிதிகளாய் ஏற்க விரும்புகிறோம்:

  • அரசமைப்பு முகப்புரையின் மதிப்பீடுகளான  மதச்சார்பின்மை, சமத்துவம், நீதி, உரிமை மற்றும் சகோதரத்துவம் கொண்ட தங்களது குடியிரிமையை, அனைத்து இந்தியர்களும் முழுமையாக அனுபவித்தல்;
  • அதிகாரம் மற்றும் வளங்களை நியாயமான முறையில், அனைத்து கூட்டாட்சி அங்கங்களுக்கும் பரவலாக பகிர்ந்தளிக்கும் கூட்டாட்சி முறையின் சாரம் நிலைக்க வேண்டும். அவ்வகையில், மாநிலங்கள் சாராய விற்பனையின் மூலம் வருமானம் ஈட்டுவதற்கு தூண்டப்படமாட்டாது.
  • சட்டத்தின் ஆட்சி, அதன் மூலம் அனைவருக்கும் சமமான நீதி கிடைத்தல்;
  • அடிப்படை உரிமைகள், அதன் மூலம்,  குறிவைத்து தாக்கப்படுவோம் என்றில்லாமல், நாங்கள் அரசியல் ரீதியாக யோசிக்கவும், பேசவும், நம்பிக்கை கொள்ளவும், கூட்டம் கூட்டவும் இயலுதல்.

நாங்கள் பெண்கள். அரசியல் கட்சிகளும், வேட்பாளர்களும், பாலின சமன்மை மீதான தங்களது அர்ப்பணிப்பை எவ்வாறு மெய்ப்பிக்க போகிறார்கள் என்பது எங்களுக்கு மிகவும் முக்கியமானதாகும்.

  • வேட்பாளர் பரிந்துரை மற்றும் நியமித்தலில் பாலின சமநிலை;
  • பாலின மற்றும் பாலியல் சார்ந்த குற்றம் சுமத்தப்பட்டோர் வேட்பாளராக பரிந்துரையிலிருந்து நீக்கப்படுதல்;
  • பெண் வெறுப்பு பேச்சினை முற்றிலுமாக சகித்து கொள்ளாமை;
  • கொள்கை முடிவெடுக்கும் குழுக்கள் மற்றும் பொது பணிகளில் பெண்களை மதிப்புடனும், அர்த்தமுடனும் உள்ளடக்குதல்;
  • பாலினதன்மை குறித்த கருத்துகளில் மாற்றத்தினை வலியுறுத்தும் அறிக்கைகள்.

பாலின ரீதியான பாதிப்பு, மீட்சி மற்றும் செயலாண்மையை அங்கீகரிக்கும் உங்கள் செயலே பாலின சமத்துவத்துக்கான உங்களுடைய அர்பணிப்பாகும். அவ்வாறான உங்கள் பணி, பெண்களின் கூறுரையில் பதிவிடப்படும்.

உடல் ரீதியான பாதுகாப்பு எங்களுக்கு தேவை தான். ஆனால் நீங்கள் எங்களை எவ்வாறு பாதுகாக்கிறீர்கள் என்ற உங்கள் கூற்றை நாங்கள் கேட்க விரும்பவில்லை. நாங்கள் விரும்புவது,

  • பாலியல் மற்றும் பாலினம் சார்ந்த வன்முறையை தடுப்பதற்காக ஒதுக்கப்பட்ட நிதிகளை அதை சார்ந்த பணிகளுக்கு முழுமையாக உபயோகித்தல், மேலும் அதனை வெளிப்படையான முறையில் கணக்கிடுதல்.
  • சாதியிடை பூசல்களால் ஏற்படும் பாலின வன்முறையினை கண்டிக்கும் சட்டம் இயற்றுதல் (கௌரவ கொலைகள்)
  • குடும்ப வன்முறையால் பாதிக்கப்படும் பெண்களுக்கு உதவும் கட்டமைப்புகள்.
  • பெண்களுக்கெதிரான வன்முறையினை சரியான முறையில் புலன்விசாரணை செய்து, காலம் தாழ்த்தாத நீதியினை வழங்குதல்;
  • வன்புணர்வு கலாசாரத்தினை ஒழிப்பதற்கும், அனைவரும் சமமான நீதி கிடைப்பதற்கும்  பொறுப்பேற்று கொள்ளுதல்.

எங்களின் வாழ்வாதாரத்திற்கான உரிமைகள் அரித்தெடுக்கப்படுவது, எங்களுக்கான சமயுரிமையிலும் தாக்கம் ஏற்படுவதை உணர்ந்து, அதில்  ஆழமான அக்கறை எடுத்து கொள்கிறோம். துறை சார்ந்த மற்றும் துறைசாரா அனைத்து பணியாளர்கலும், இந்த உரிமைகளை அனுபவித்தல் வேண்டும்:

  • திருமணம் மற்றும் குடும்ப சூழலை தாண்டி, தன்மானம் மற்றும் சுயமரியாதையுடனும் பணிபுரிவதற்கான உரிமைகளை வழங்குதல்;
  • வெளிப்படைத்தன்மையுடைய குறை தீர்க்கும் நெறிகளை கொண்டு பாதுகாப்பான, மனிதத்தன்மையுடைய சமமான பணியிடத்து சூழலை அமைத்து கொடுத்தல்;
  • பெண்களின் தேவைகளை பூர்த்தி செய்யும் வகையிலான கட்டுமான வசதிகளை ஏற்படுத்துதல்;
  • ஒன்று கூடி தங்களுக்குரிய நியதிகளை பெறுவதற்காக சங்கம் அமைப்பதற்கான உரிமையினை வழங்குதல்;
  • வாழ்வாதாரத்திற்கான நியாமான கூலி மற்றும் சமூக பாதுகாப்பிற்கு வழிவகுத்தல்;
  • அனைத்து பாலினருக்கும் சமமான பணி நிமித்த பயிற்சிகள் கிடைப்பதற்கான பாகுபாடற்ற பணியிடத்து சூழல் அமைத்து கொடுத்தல்;

பணியிடத்தில் பெண்களுக்கு ஏற்படும் பாலியல் வன்முறையை தடுக்கும் சட்டத்தின்படி, அனைத்து பணியிடங்களும் தங்கள் பணியாளர்களுக்கு அவர்களின் உரிமைகள் குறித்த விழிப்புணர்வுவை ஏற்படுத்துவதை கட்டாயமாக்குதல் வேண்டும். அமைப்புசாரா நிறுவனங்களில், இந்த பொறுப்பினை உள்ளாட்சி நிர்வாகம் ஏற்றுகொள்ள வேண்டும்.

அனைத்து பணிபுரியும் பெண்களுக்கும், குறைந்தபட்ச ஊதியம், அனைவருக்கும் பொதுவான மருத்துவ அனுகூலங்கள், தாய்மை மற்றும் குழந்தை நலம் பேணுவதற்கு ஏற்ற கட்டமைப்பு கிடைத்தல் வேண்டும்.

அமைப்புசாரா தொழிலாளர்களின் உரிமைகள் மற்றும் தேவைகளை பூர்த்தி செய்வதற்கான தொழிலாளர்  நல வாரியங்கள் அமைக்கப்படுவதை நாங்கள் காண வேண்டும். சுதந்திரமான, அரசியல் கட்சிசாரா தொழிற்சங்கங்களின் பிரதிநிதிதத்துவத்தோடு, இந்த வாரியங்கள், உரிமம் வழங்குதல், படி, சலுகைகள் மற்றும் குறை நிவர்த்தி செய்யும் முறைகளையும் மேற்பார்வையிடுதல் வேண்டும்.

குடிமக்களாகிய, பெண்களாகிய எங்களுக்கு, இந்த தேர்தல் மிகவும் முக்கியயமானது. எங்களுக்கு விருப்பமான இந்தியாவை பற்றி தெளிவாக உள்ளோம். வேட்பாளராக, உங்களது செயல்கள் மற்றும் தெரிவுகளின் மூலம், அரசியல் சாசனம் மீதான உங்களது அர்பணிப்பை நிருபித்து காண்பிக்க உங்களை தூண்டுகிறோம்.


இந்த அறிக்கை, பெண் தொழிலாளர்கள் சங்கம் மற்றும் பிரக்ஞா குழுவினரால் வடிவமைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளது. இது, 2017-19ல் நிகழ்ந்த பெண்கள் கலந்தாய்வினை அடிப்படையாக கொண்டுள்ளது  http://prajnya.in/women-and-work http://prajnya.in/storage/app/media/NNNU%20Penngal%20Koottamaippu%20Charter.pdf மற்றும் பிரக்ஞா  பாலின  சமத்துவ பட்டியலிருந்து  பெறப்பட்டுள்ளது. https://keepingcount.wordpress.com/2019/01/10/prajnya-gen


An Open Letter to the Candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election


An Open Letter to the Candidates in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election

Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections we women, as citizens, take this opportunity to address those who seek to represent us and to share with them our concerns.

In recent years, our fundamental rights have considerably circumscribed. We have lost the freedom to choose what we eat, how we pray and how we live. Our constitution tells us it is our duty to promote scientific temper, but we are now a country that considers rationality and science anti-national. Our fellow-citizens are lynched, arrested and disappeared on flimsy grounds and there is no justice, nor even a simple condemnation. A culture of impunity prevails across all human rights violations and violence.

As citizens, we deplore the gradual transformation of our democracy to a political culture in which asking questions is anti-national. We raise questions about our rights, about the safety of our communities, about the environment we are leaving our children or about the future of our livelihoods. For this act of citizenship, we are denounced and pronounced as seditious. Women human rights defenders face the spectrum of violence, verbal to physical, in response to their work.

To us, therefore, this election is about who we are as a country, about our equality as citizens, about our freedoms and about our right to a good life.

We are citizens and we affirm our faith in the Constitution of India and its values. This is non-negotiable for us. In particular, we want those who would be our representatives to uphold the following provisions:

  • The values of the Preamble, including secularism, equality, justice, liberty and fraternity, so that all Indians can enjoy full citizenship;
  • The spirit of a federal Union where powers and resources are shared fairly across the Union so that states are not tempted to raise revenue through the sale of alcohol;
  • The rule of law, so that all of us have equal access to justice;
  • Fundamental rights, so that we may think, speak, believe and organise politically without being targeted for doing.

We are women and it is important to us that parties and candidates demonstrate their commitment to gender equality through:

  • Gender parity in nominations and appointments;
  • No nominations for those accused or charge-sheeted for gender-based and sexual violence;
  • Zero tolerance for misogynistic speech;
  • Meaningful and respectful inclusion of women in public affairs, including policy decision-making;
  • Gender transformative rather than gender stereotype driven manifesto commitments.

A commitment to gender equality is a commitment that, in making policy, you will recognise gendered vulnerability; resilience and agency; and that your work will be informed by women’s and minority narratives.

Physical safety is important to us but we do not want to hear about how you will protect us. We want:

  • Full utilisation of funds allocated to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence, and transparent accounting for the same;
  • A law to address gender-based violence arising from caste rivalry and conflict;
  • Support services and structures for women who suffer domestic violence and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence;
  • Sensitive, meticulous and time-bound investigation into cases of sexual and gender- based violence;
  • Commitment to ending impunity and rape culture, and universalising access to justice.

We are deeply concerned about the erosion of our livelihood rights, which also impinge on our right to equality. All workers, formal and informal sectors, should enjoy these rights:

  • The right to work with dignity and self-respect, irrespective of family and marital status;
  • The right to safe, humane and equal workplaces that provide for transparent grievance redressal;
  • The right to infrastructural facilities that meet women’s needs;
  • The right to unionise and collective bargaining;
  • The right to a living wage and social security;
  • The right to gender-equal training for work free of stereotypes.

In the spirit of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, all workplaces should be required to create awareness among employees about their rights as workers. In the informal sector, this should be the responsibility of the local administration.

A minimum wage, universal health benefits and maternity and child care support should be available to all working women.

We would like to see the establishment of labour welfare boards that are dedicated to the rights and needs of unorganised workers. This board should oversee entitlements, allowances and benefits, and grievance redressal systems, ensuring representation of independent, non-party trade unions.

These elections are critical for us as women and as citizens. We are clear about the India we want. We urge you as candidates to demonstrate your commitment to the constitution through your actions and choices.

This statement has been drafted by the Penn Thozhilalar Sangam and Prajnya teams.

It is based on women’s consultations held in 2017-19, accessible here and here, and on the Prajnya Gender Equality Election Checklist.

Media reports:

Anushika Srivastava, When Women’s Groups Wrote An Open Letter To Lok Sabha 2019 Candidates, ShethePeopleTV, April 9, 2019.

#Chennai #WomenMarch4Change: A Report


#Chennai #WomenMarch4Change

A Report by Sudaroli Ramasamy


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The Women’s March for Change was held on April 4, 2019, following upon a nation-wide call for women across India from various walks of life and diverse social and economic backgrounds to protest collectively against diminishing democratic spaces for women as citizens. This march, led by women, proved to be a critical platform to articulate dissent in an environment that enables inequality and violence against women in the public spheres and places their fundamental rights as citizens of India in jeopardy.

All over India hundreds of women from 20 different states, including major cities like New Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, voiced their protest against  gender-based violence and discrimination and the absence of safe spaces for women, and called upon people to exercise their franchise for change in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. In Chennai,  organised under the leadership of Prajnya and Penn Thozhilalar Sangam, with the tremendous support and participation of  other organizations such as Roshni and Centre for Women’s  Development and Research, participants read an Open Letter to candidates in the Lok Sabha Elections, asserting their rights as citizens under the Indian Constitution. (The Open Letter is posted separately here in both English and Tamil.)

Two vans, with the banners of Women’s March for Change, set out from Triplicane by noon and traveled through the areas of Bharathi Nagar, Thuraipakkam, Shollinganallur, winding up the day’s protests at 8.30 pm in Perumbakkam (where displaced people are housed by the government). The march covered the suburban areas of Chennai in order to accommodate the women from peripheral urban locations, whose voices are otherwise unheard. At every location, protesters spoke about shrinking spaces for democratic participation and women’s discrimination, sang protest songs and signed the open letter demanding their constitutional rights be safeguarded.

More than  two hundred women participated in the march in Chennai.


மாற்றத்திற்கான பெண்கள் பேரணி: சென்னை அறிக்கை 

மாற்றம் எப்போது தேவைப்படுகிறது? மாற்றத்திற்கான தேவையை யார் முன்னெடுக்கிறார்கள்?  இதோ, அனைத்து கேள்விகளுக்குமான பதில்கள் இங்கே!
 இந்திய குடிமக்களான,  தங்கள் மீதான  வெறுப்பு மற்றும்  வன்முறையும் மிகுந்து, இந்திய அரசியல் சாசனம் உறுதி செய்யும் அடிப்படை உரிமைகள் மறுக்கப்படும் சூழலுக்கு எதிராய் குரலெழுப்ப தேசிய அளவில் பெண்களுக்கு விடப்பட்ட அறைகூவலே மாற்றத்திற்கான மகளிர் பேரணி! ஏப்ரல் 4ம் தேதி 2019 அன்று, நாட்டின்  பல்வேறு பகுதிகளில், பலதரப்பட்ட சமூக மற்றும் பொருளாதார பின்னணியை சார்ந்த பெண்கள், பல விதமான முறைகளில், தங்களுக்கான ஜனநாயக வெளி சுருங்குவதை எதிர்த்து ஆர்பரித்தனர்.
சென்னை, தில்லி, பெங்களூர் போன்ற நகரங்களை உள்ளடக்கி, மொத்தம் 20 மாநிலங்களில், பெண்கள் வழிநடத்தும் மாற்றத்திற்கான மகளிர் பேரணி பல்வேறு வழிகளில் உருவெடுத்தது. பெண்கள், தங்களுக்கு எதிரான பாலின வன்முறை மற்றும் பாகுபாட்டினால், சமுகத்தில் பெண்களின் பாதுகாப்பு நாளுக்கு நாள் சிதைப்படுவதை முன்னிறுத்தி கேள்வியெழுப்பினர். எதிர்வரும் பாராளுமன்ற தேர்தலில், இத்தகைய சூழல் மற்றும் அதை சார்ந்த கேள்விகளுக்கு, விடை கிட்டும் வண்ணம் தங்களது வாக்குரிமையை ஜனநாயகத்தை  முழுதாய் கொணரும் ஆயுதமாக்கிடும்படி பொது மக்களிடம் வலியுறுத்தினர்.
சென்னையில், பிரக்ஞா, பெண் தொழிலாளர்கள் சங்கம் ஆகிய பெண்கள் அமைப்புகளின் தலைமையில், ரோஷ்னி மற்றும் பெண்கள் வளர்ச்சி மற்றும் ஆராய்ச்சி மையம் (CWDR) ஆகியோரின் ஆதரவால் இந்த பேரணி நடைபெற்றது. குடிமக்களாக தங்கள் உரிமைகளை உறுதிசெய்யும் வண்ணம், பாராளுமன்ற வேட்பாளருக்கு தாயரிக்கப்பட்ட திறந்த மடலை, நிகழ்வில் கலந்து கொண்ட பெண்கள் வாசித்தனர்.
மாற்றத்திற்கான மகளிர் பேரணியை அறிவிக்கும் பேனர்களை தாங்கிய இரண்டு நான்கு சக்கர ஊர்திகளில் (Van) திருவல்லிக்கேணியிலிருந்து காலையில் புறப்பட்டு, பாரதி நகர், துரைபாக்கம், சோழிங்கநல்லூர் வழியாக முடிவினில் பெரும்பாக்கத்தில் ( அரசினால் கட்டாய இடம் பெயர்வுக்குட்பட்ட மக்களின் குடியிருப்பு பகுதி)  இரவு 8.30 மணியளவில் இந்த பரப்புரை முடிவுற்றது.  சென்னையின் புறநகர  பெண்களை  சென்றடைந்ததன் மூலம், ஒலிக்கபடாத அப்பெண்களின் குரல்கள் ஓங்கியதே, இந்த பரப்புரையின் முக்கியத்துவம் எனலாம். ஒவ்வொரு இடங்களிலும், ஜனநாயக பங்கேற்பிற்கான வெளி சுருங்குவதையும், பெண்கள் பாகுபடுத்தப்பதுவதை பற்றி விவாதித்தும், போராட்ட பாடல்கள் பாடியும், அரசியல் சாசனம் உறுதிசெய்யும் தங்களது உரிமைகளை காத்திட கோரும் திறந்த மடலில் கையொப்பமிட்டும், போராட்டகாரர்கள் தங்கள் எதிர்ப்பினை பதிவு செய்தனர்.
இருநூற்றுக்கு மேலான பெண்களை சென்றடைந்த நிறைவினை  சுமந்து, இனிதே முடிவுற்றது  மாற்றத்திற்கான மகளிர் பேரணி.

Sujata Mody, Penn Thozhilalar Sangam, tweeted about the march, and you can link to the thread of tweets here.


Women’s History Roundtable February 2019: “What’s Love Got To Do With It? Emotional Labour, Call Centre Work, and Romantic Love” by Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy


Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Her new book “1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy” published by OUP in 2018 chronicles the labour practices, life-worlds, and media atmospheres of Indian call centre workers, and locates them within the socio-political context of the new Indian middle classes.


Dr. Krishnamurthy presented her work at the February edition of Prajyna’s Women’ History Roundtable. She began by describing the difficulties of entering the space of the Call Centre as a researcher and an outsider. At first, she approached the question through the lens of a dichotomy in terms of gender perspectives, examining the different reasons why women and men take on night shifts. She noted that this was particularly relevant given that most call centre employees come from middle-class backgrounds, where discussions about female respectability often include fears about pre-marital liaisons, leading to aborted pregnancies, etc. Given that these discussions are still taking place in the face of increasing globalisation, Dr. Krishnamurthy wanted to examine the place of global capitalism in forcing middle-class women away from institutions of higher education and influencing them to enter into the exploitative labour regime of a call centre, thus changing their life cycles. At first, she tried to interact with call centre employees as a researcher while doing her field work. She noted that she found it difficult to penetrate the wall of secrecy around events within the call centre. So she decided to suspend her fieldwork and began to apply for jobs in call centres. She found that she was not eligible for any of the jobs, being older than the age limit of 26 years. A friend suggested that she should apply to be a call centre American accent trainer instead, and with some help from an Indo-American friend, she was able to master the required accent. This allowed her to get a job at a call centre, and her observations on gender, capital, and globalisation in the call centre became the theme of her research, constituting her first book.


Dr. Krishnamurthy explained that each new employee goes through a process of acclimatisation, adjusting to the artificial environment of the call centre that prioritises “feeling good” and discourages employees, managers and others who inhabit the space from feeling otherwise through its training practices. The space of the call centre is created on the basis on flexible capital and flexible labour (i.e. interchangeable labour). Most new entrants therefore slowly come to accept flexible labour as their natural way of life. This acceptance is helped along by the repetitive nature of the work – there is no “buzz” or challenge in the actual work, but most employees seem to find it addictive and have difficulty transitioning to a more daytime-oriented routine of work. This artificial environment is created in part by enforcing arbitrary tea and lunch breaks during the night – at a time when it is not really natural for us to eat. This sort of reprogramming of the body clock encourages employees to embrace the artificial environment and schedule.


Dr. Krishnamurthy’s research was particularly focussed on the experience of women employees, in an environment where gender plays a major role in the constitution of the workspace. Women are encouraged to leave at the age of 22, but men often stay on for longer. This creates a highly gendered environment, as age and gender differences create power hierarchies. Young women (aged 18-21 years) make up the bulk of the female population in call centres, and are enticed by visions of upward mobility as their salaries can be put towards EMIs as they work towards building a different life for their families. If their parents are reluctant to permit them to work at call centres, the parent too receive counselling pointing out that this job offer is an opportunity for a middle class family to access social and economic progress and better their situation.


All these tactics work towards putting a high burden on young women. Apart from the obvious difficulties of being tasked with improving the lives of their parents and family, they often have difficulty finding accommodation due to the unconventional working working hours required by their jobs. In addition, the creation of this artificial “feel-good” environment encourages women to aspire to call centre jobs rather than college degrees, leading to a complete breakdown in the education system – in more ways than one. It is not just their formal education that suffers from a lack of college education, but call centres also take the place of colleges as a “community” which teaches young women how to socialise, especially with the opposite gender.


This replacement of the college by the call centre often means that romantic encounters in the workplace become a part of the “desiring complex” that is built within the call centre – the job itself is advertised as being desirable, so it is natural that romantic desire becomes entangled with job-related desire. This desire complex is reinforced in every aspect of the job – recruitment, retainment, and even exit interviews. Since the cost of hiring and training a new employee is high, the employer goes to great lengths to try an retain young women in call centre jobs during the exit interview. Especially if the employee is a “high performer”, the management often makes it difficult to allow her to move out of the job by offering high incentives to stay.

Dr. Krishnamurthy’s presentation was followed by a lively discussion about the status of employees, particularly the relations between male and female employees, and the emotions of the women in call centres towards their colleagues and supervisors.

Notes for this Roundtable were taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy

#Metoo #Youtoo, Survivors Together by Sudha Umashankar: Campaign Edition of the Women’s History Roundtable


Sudha Umashankar is a freelance journalist and storyteller

The December edition of the Women’s History Roundtable was a special edition of the WHRT series, designed to be a part of the  2018 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence, and was presented by Sudha Umashankar.


This session of the WHRT series was based on storytelling and sharing in the era of the Me Too movement, which has sparked discussions about sexual harassment (particularly in the workplace) around the world.


Sudha Umashankar opened her session by narrating two stories. The first one was about 17 year old Sasirekha, one of four children. She had two sisters, and a trans brother, Naresh. Their mother was a cook. The family was ostracised because of Naresh. Sasirekha, a school dropout, worked in a garment factory. Her brother Naresh, who doted on her, did odd jobs, mainly associated with deity processions. The supervisor at  Sasirekha’s workplace was a married man named Devanaiyakam. He had the habit of constantly commenting on the girls and using nicknames for girls. He would come behind the girls while they are working in the pretext of checking their work and get uncomfortably physical with them. However, Sasirekha brushed off these incidents as demonstrations of sociability. One day he grabbed her bottom, but being a habitual offender he was able to talk himself out of it. One day he called her inside his room and forced himself on her. Confused, Sasirekha didn’t know if it was love or something else. He continued to force her to have sex with him, and Sasirekha soon found she was pregnant. She couldn’t tell her family. When she couldn’t hide it anymore, she told Devanaiyakam about it and asked him to marry her. But he refused saying he was already married, and her pregnancy was not his problem. On top of that, he accused her of not being “careful”. Unable to bear the shame, Sasirekha consumed rat poison and took her life.


The second story was about Sharanya, a talented singer and veena player. She wasn’t popular or a playback singer but she was invited to perform in smaller events in her community. She was married with children. Though she had many professional engagements, Sharanya struggled with her high pitch. To improve her voice, she started looking out for advertisements for voice coaches and came across one in the paper. He was a young voice coach and she really liked his classes and paid in full for his workshop. One day at his class as her time was up and she was preparing to leave, he suggested he would give her the feedback over the phone in the evening. In the evening, while Sharanya sang her song, the coach gave her really good feedback, saying she needs to sing from her diaphragm and that he would show her how in their next class. She could sense that he was slightly inebriated in the phone. The next day, as Sharanya went to her class, the voice coach was alone at home and took her to a room upstairs where he made her lay on a table and started touching her middle to show where her voice should come from. This made Sharanya extremely uncomfortable and she soon grabbed her things and ran from there, forced to forego her dream of perfecting her high pitch.


Sudha then opened the floor for discussion, asking for comments on these stories from various perspectives. Dr. Sissira (a psychiatrist)commented on the trauma both the victims had faced. While one didn’t have the support system to fall back on, the other reacted based on her instinct. R.S.Akhila (a lawyer) was asked to comment on the legal recourses and if there was an increase in the number of women who approached for legal help post the metoo. Akhila noted that there has been an increase in the number of women who called to inquire about legal recourses since the spread of the metoo movement. However, not many women followed up these initial queries to seek legal redress.


Given these expert opinions, the discussion then moved on to the question of what justice entails when it comes to sexual harassment. By inquiring about legal redress or even trying to reach out to networks of support to deal with the emotional effects of such incidents, what are women looking for when they reveal incidents such as those described in the stories above, and the many similar disclosures on social media? Is it closure, justice, or perhaps revenge? While many agreed that they were indeed looking for justice, the form it takes is often hazy. What does justice constitute? It might mean different things for different people. Sudha’s stories raised important questions surrounding the Me Too movement, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of storytelling and sharing as a tool of analysis.

After a short reading from Roxanne Gay’s book, Not That Bad, participants concluded that women are more than just their body. However, in the eyes of the government and law, women have been infantilised. Social conditioning through childhood and adolescence lead most women to brush off such incidents, and many are encouraged to  “move on” from the bad experience. Of course, responses to sexual harassment can vary and the best course of action depends on an individual’s vulnerabilities and strengths. Many voiced the need for teaching the children at home and at school to break free of gender stereotypes in order to address how best to minimise sexual harassment. As a society, we fail to invest the social and money capital on women. The men have survived the metoo movement, whereas the women are still surviving.

Notes taken by Sudaroli Ramasamy.

Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi


Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.


Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.


At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.


Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.


In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.


Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.


This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan


#NNNU A Women’s Charter Demanding Civic Rights


On August 14, 2018, 12 women from six NGOs in and around Chennai (Centre for Women’s Development and Research; Forum for Women’s Rights and Development; Penn Thozhilalar Sangam; Positive Women’s Network; Roshni; Working Women’s Forum) joined us for a Namathu Nagaram Namathu Urimai consultation on civic rights–that is, what we can expect to enjoy as a matter of right in any community where we reside. The idea was to share our concerns with a view to arriving at a short list, which in turn would serve as a charter of demands for candidates in the upcoming local elections.

This is what we came up with.

பெண்கள் கூட்டமைப்பு (PENNGAL KOOTTAMAIPPU)

August 14, 2018

Our cities and towns are unliveable. Together, we identify the following problems as most urgent:

  • Our cities are filthy with uncollected garbage; unsegregated waste; poor disposal practices; solid waste disposal in sewage; unsafe disposal of plastic and medical waste; congested pavements with vendor and consumer waste; contaminated and worm-infested water supply; collapsed water and sewage lines; unsecured electrical junctions and cables; dirty, unsanitary and unused public toilets, and open defecation; and a lack of municipal oversight.
  • Our cities are unsafe, and women are at risk at home, in public spaces and at work.
  • Our cities are at risk because of substance abuse which results from the presence everywhere of TASMAC outlets and is a cause of domestic and sexual violence and insecure streets.
  • Government services and grievance redressal are inaccessible, whether we try to collect the widows’ pension, avail primary health care and we are not made aware of e-services.
  • Women are under-represented and lack voice, so that decisions about policy and services are made without taking our needs and experiences into account.

From those who seek our vote, we demand:

  • A Clean City
    • Provide dustbins on every street to facilitate segregation of bio and other waste;
    • Ensure regular and timely garbage collection;
    • Distribute usable and potable water equally and fairly;
    • Remove illegal street encroachments;
    • Assure sanitary street food stalls;
    • Improve and maintain drainage and sewage systems;
    • Maintain clean and functional public toilets;
    • Inspect sanitation systems and services on a regular schedule.
  • A Safe City
    • Resolve and commit to protecting girl children in local government bodies, from the municipal corporation to the zilla parishad to the gram sabha;
    • Maintain efficient and effective women and children’s helplines;
    • Set up and ensure proper functioning of the Local Complaints Committees;
    • Position and regularly review surveillance cameras in sensitive and secluded areas;
    • Appoint more women administrators and police officers;
    • Sensitise parents, media and government workers to gender issues;
    • Commit to introducing sex education and self-defence training in schools and the promotion of girls’ and women’s sports opportunities.
  • A City Secure from Alcohol Abuse and its Effects
    • Relocate TASMAC outlets away from residential areas, school and college neighbourhoods and public transportation hubs;
    • Regulate TASMAC hours and insist on identity card checking to prevent underage drinking;
    • Install CCTVs and police patrol vigilance around TASMAC outlets in the evening;
    • Establish and fund deaddiction centres and helplines and family support services.
  • Accessible and Accountable Local Government Officials and Services
    • Assure smooth benefits delivery;
    • Streamline grievance redressal systems;
    • Create awareness about e-services.
  • An Equal Voice for Women in Government and Decision-making
    • Appoint women officials
    • Nominate 50% women candidates
    • Take seriously elected women officials and not as proxies
    • Vest decision-making power in women
    • Respect women’s freedom of speech and listen to their perspectives.

(The raw version of this draft was endorsed by all participants, and a Tamil version will be added shortly.)

A one-page image for sharing:

NNNU Penngal Koottamaippu Charter-1