Gender matters: a panel discussion
Mar 11 2018 / Posted in Women
Annie Zaidie, Urmila Pawar, Venita Coelho and Urvashi Butwalia in conversation
In celebration of International Women's Day, the Program on Prevention of Violence against Women and Children organized a Panel Discussion with prominent women authors on themes of intersection of gender with caste, religion and violence.
Date: 9th March, 2018, from 6:00 pm - 8.30 pm
Venue: Title Waves Bookstore, 24th Road, TPS III, Bandra West, Mumbai.
Profile of Speakers
Urvashi Butalia is a publisher and writer. Co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishers, and now director of Zubaan, she is also author of the award-winning oral history of Partition, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The book is the product of more than seventy interviews that Butalia conducted with survivors of the Partition, and emphasizes particularly the role of violence against women in the collective experience of the tragedy. In 2017, she also received the Goethe Medal, an official distinction from the German Federal Republic at the annual Goethe-Institute awards.
Urmila Pawar is an Indian writer, belonging to the Dalit community. Aaidan her autobiography written in Marathi has been translated into English and titled as The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs. In her frank and intimate memoir, Pawar not only shares her tireless effort to surmount hideous personal tragedy but also conveys the excitement of an awakening consciousness during a time of profound political and social change. She also co-authored a book with Minakshi Moon, titled Amhihi Itihas Ghadvila (translated and published in English as We Also Made History). The book included the narratives of Dalit women who actively participated in Babasaheb Ambedkar’s movement against caste. She has also written two collections of short stories and one play, Vhay Mi Savitribai (Yes! I am Savitribai), based on India’s first woman teacher Savitribai Phule. The play, in which Pawar has also acted, has been running for almost 25 years. Pawar has been one of the prominent members of the women's movement for decades in Maharashtra.
Venita Coelho has been the creative director at various television production houses and the vice-president at Sony Entertainment Television. She has spent over 15 years in the Mumbai television industry. She is currently writing for film and television, and is working towards an exhibition of her paintings. She has been well recognized for her books Dungeon Tales, Washer of the Dead, Boy no 32, Tiger by the Tail, Dead as a Dodo (won a Hindu award for best fiction for children in 2016). Her book Washer of the Dead has narratives of women who are survivors of gender-based violence, presented as ghost stories, and has been described by Zubaan Publishing house as- “Whimsical, terrifying and compelling, these powerful and haunting tales about our commonplace fears and tragedies provide a scathing commentary on the lives of women in India and are universal in their appeal”.
Annie Zaidi is a noted novelist, poet and journalist, and is known for her fluid and effortless writing. Her collection of essays, Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. In addition to essays, she also writes poetry (Crush, 2007), short-stories (The Good Indian Girl, 2011), plays and has published a novella titled "Gulab". In 2015, Annie published an anthology called Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women's Writing.
Urvashi Butalia as the moderator asked a lot of questions about what made these women choose these stories to write about, what was their process as a writer with respect to these stories in particular, and how Coelho and Zaidi navigated the challenge of writing about marginalised women whose experiences were different from their own. She asked them to throw their lights on questions such as- How does one describe women’s experiences of violence, without presenting them always as victims? Who is the target audience of these stories- men or women?
When someone in the audience stated that very often, such stories are only read by the select few who identify as feminists and are interested in them, she stated that the precise reason why she started Zubaan was because she feels the need to get more stories en masse out there to depict a wide range of experiences, that will reach out to more people and force them to engage with these issues in some way. She described her commitment to publishing not just ‘feminist’ stories but also fundamentally ‘good’ stories, and that she believed was the reason why the stories are read.
Venita Coelho stated that it was anger about the violence all around her that prompted her decision to write Washer of the Dead. She described an incident where she witnessed violence happening and was helpless to do anything about it, and this drove her to write about violence against women. Her process was basically speaking to a lot of women, empathizing with them and trying to get their voices across. She said her experience writing for soaps and Bollywood was what prompted her choice of the ghost story idea- that no one would read if she only wrote about violence without making it interesting and getting women to engage in these stories and see themselves in these.
She spoke about writers writing about Violence against Women having three personas- that of a woman who is going through her own personal struggle against the patriarchal forces in her life, that of a woman in India who is aware of the violence everywhere and has to come to terms and process it on a larger scale, and as a writer who wishes to write about it, and how all these three personas inform each other.
When an audience member asked if she wanted more men to read her books, she said that getting men to change their minds, although a noble goal, is not her intention. She wished to have women reading her books, learning to recognize the ‘cages’ that they are often trapped in that they sometimes don't even realize, and hopefully, she felt, it would aid them in the empowerment process.
Coelho also writes children's books. She spoke about how she has her daughter and she is constantly engaged in the process of writing feminist books for her that she would love her to read. She wants women to not just read about violence and how women suffer, but also read about heroines- everyday characters that they can relate to who smash patriarchy, so they have role models to look up to.
Anne Zaidi spoke about how she has lived a largely sheltered life where she hadn't consciously had to think about violence. She described her experiences meeting and interviewing various women and how she recognized their strengths and felt compelled to write their stories. She outlined the differences in her role and her approach as a journalist and as a writer of fiction, and how her processes for both differ, and the challenges of being detached while writing fiction while still getting the emotional impact across, while simultaneously working on processing one’s own reaction to these horrific stories. She spoke about how the sheer act of writing for her was often a way to process all that she was discovering about gender-based violence. She also spoke at length about intersectionality and the challenges therein.
When someone from the audience asked about why they only spoke about women when the topic was 'Gender' and how women participate in violence too and how you can't just hold men responsible, she gave examples of how and why women internalize patriarchal messages and what can be done about the same.
She stated that while most of the readers of her books were women, she often puts up her stories on blogs online to get more men to read them and engage with them as well. Men are a product of patriarchy and they often may not even realize the violence around them because it doesn't affect them, but once the silence is broken with more women writing, then they are faced with a choice of whether to ignore or to do something about it. She believed that breaking the silence through such stories at least forces them to make that choice or be complicit in what they see happening.
Urmila Pawar shared her own experiences as a Dalit writer, and also as a Dalit and women's rights activist. She shared some of her hard-hitting stories to illustrate how institutionalized and gender-based violence works, including stories from her own autobiography- stories in her own life that forced her to find her own voice. She said that she felt an obligation to put more Dalit stories out there because violence against the marginalized rarely finds its way in the news. Also, stories often focus on the achievements of men who shaped history, but rarely of the fantastic marginalized women who have been shaping history since times immemorial- their voices need to be heard too.
About her process, she shared that an author who hears or sees horrific things happen around does not immediately start writing about them. Rather, these incidences often keep playing I the author’s head and sometimes find their way in their stories in a changed version. According to her, it is important for a writer to not just present the stories, but to get readers to feel an emotional and attitudinal change through the reading experience, and doing that is a challenge.
She spoke about how one of her stories was banned in the university because it spoke about sexual harassment and pointed out the hypocrisy of how it is okay to commit violence, but not okay to raise your voice against it.
She believed that it is not just enough to talk about violence, but it is also important to talk about remedies. She said that each man thinking and making a change is the main remedy. She spoke of men who had read her stories who wrote to her saying they learnt a lot from them.
The audience members seemed engaged and enthusiastic, and asked a number of questions revolving around writing, feminism, and patriarchal forces, leading to a fruitful discussion on the same.