Way back in the early 1980s (sounds a little archaic, doesn’t it?), the two of us – friends – challenged the huge religious institution that we belonged to. We quit that path and came out in search of a meaningful life for ourselves and others.
At home and within the family, we valued the principles taught by our progressive parents in our own simplistic way, but when it came to gender equality, their patriarchal practices were just as strong. To escape this discrimination, we felt that joining the convent would give us scope to reach out to the poor and needy. We left home to join the religious congregation.
We have no regrets of the 15–16 years we spent in the convent. It gave us every opportunity to develop ourselves through the education we received. In the convent, we had nothing to worry about as all our needs were met. The problem came when rules became more important than the person, when our lives became sumptuous and the poor were forgotten, when injustices, however small and insignificant, were overlooked. We were professing a simple, poor way of life but not living it. We were there to reach out to the poor but could not do it because of the limitations of religious life.
The other sisters, especially our friends, were terribly upset when we left the convent. They wondered what more could we want. Our families however took our quitting well. For them, the convent was a worthy cause only till it fulfilled the higher cause. When it failed to do so, leaving to experiment with another way of life was fine as long our reason to leave was not to get married.
Having lived in the protected environs of religious life we were not aware of the social issues that plagued society at large. Of course we knew of poverty, oppression and exploitation of the masses, of the denial of just wages, of no access to resources for the marginalised, of discriminations and so on. For us, such knowledge was not enough to make a contribution towards the struggles against cycles of poverty and oppression.
Our understanding of society and its contradictions grew by leaps and bounds when we finally left and interacted with the larger world around. In order to study the efforts of various peoples’groups working on these issues, we took a year to reflect on our own lives,our commitment and the future. We interacted with groups across India, and visited and lived with various NGOs such as Kashtakari Sanghatna, Shramik Sanghatna and Progressive People's group in Maharashtra, CROSS in Andhra Pradesh. We worked with them for two months each and got to know their perspective.These were groups with a Marxist perspective that worked with landless labourers, Dalits, adivasis and so on.
At the end of this reflective year, we felt the need to study so as to give ourselves a deeper understanding of how socio-economic and political structures are inter-connected and determined. We enrolled ourselves for a three-month course at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore. It gave us a bird’s eye view of Marxism and a historical perspective of ideologies and politics of the evolution of societies. At the end of the training, we were so persuaded by Marx that we set out to fight injustice, and revolutionise and transform the world.
What we received from this year’s exploration was a substantive lot. Yet, it was limited to class-caste analysis of development and under-development. Among most leftist groups, the focus was the landless labourer andworker both in the organised and unorganised sectors. Very little mention was made of women’s subjugation, of gender inequalities and discrimination. No one spoke of the everyday violence done to women in the private or public domains. Often, women’s issues were either nor taken seriously or not raised .
We too were oblivious of this missing element till we were invited to a ten-day workshop on “Women and Development” in Ahmedabad organised by Abha, Gauri and Kamla. This workshop was in 1979, or five years before Jagori was born. Little did we know then that they were not only some of the trail blazers of the autonomous feminist movement in India but founder members of Jagori.
I still remember that when we were asked for our expectations from the workshop my answer was “I want to know the tools of social analysis”. When I was asked what the phrase meant, I had no answer and felt rather foolish. The workshop was a turning point in our lives for several reasons. Just out of the convent, we felt lost in the maze of feminist learning, reading and reflecting. We wanted to know more.
The workshop had about 20 women. Our sessions had loose timings and no boundaries. We went on till late hours in the night, and formed strong bonds in and out of the workshop sessions. Late into the night, we would sit together share interesting anecdotes. It was at this workshop that we were introduced to women’s issues and feminism; we learnt to recognise our own experiences of discrimination in the family and outside. A whole new world view got opened for us. It was our first experience of “personal is political”. Women shared their personal lives and we too shared our life experiences. That we were out of the convent was a novelty to the rest of the group. They were curious to know about religious life.
No one mentioned the tools of analysis but explanations and discussions on patriarchy, women’s subordination, sexual division of labour, violence at home and in public spaces etc. was shared. Yet, we learnt that every issue is a woman’s issue. The word ‘gender’ as a tool of analysis came much later and was introduced by funding organisations in order to replace patriarchy which seemed to be very political and hence unacceptable to some. The feminist movement found meaning and gave its own perspective to gender which is further enhanced by the LGBTQI groups today.
Very interestingly, it was at this workshop that we got our new names and new identities!
It all happened so fast. Ela Bhatt had been invited to our workshop, and we had to introduce ourselves. Suddenly, we found our Christian names too foreign. In the villages, Christian names were difficult to pronounce and they seemed a little alien. Perhaps we wanted to distance ourselves from our Christian background in order to be more accepted by the people.
So, when our turn came to share our names, Sabala came out rather spontaneously. Immediately, Abha whispered “Kranti” to one of us and the names have remained till date. The names enhanced our confidence, gave us our identity, inspiration and a meaning to live!
We came out of this workshop well informed, with clarity on analytical concepts, and more importantly, with the courage to speak, ask questions and critique constructively. We also had strong bonds of friendship and a brand new identity. We can never thank Abha, Gauri and Kamla enough for having introduced us to feminism. They possess knowledge, reflection, communication and integration. All three are women of substance – gutsy, assertive and liberated. They instilled in us principles and values of equality and justice and inspired us by their lives.Their commitment, creativity and passion brought many more friends to Jagori who also made major contributions to the building of this organisation. Besides old friends, we got newer ones such as Sarojini, Kalyani, Seema, Geetha, Kalpana, Suneeta and others.
While Jagori has made its impact on the women’s/feminist movement via their trainings, material and so on, we would like to single it out for its pioneering work on the concerns of ‘single women’. The Safe City campaign too has been a unique endeavour. Alternative health and sexuality has been yet another area where Jagori has contributed substantially. Its publications in the form of regular bulletins, diaries, posters, song books etc. has not only addressed contentious issues but also made learning easy, convincing and acceptable.
Over the years, we have participated in workshops conducted by Jagori, both as participants and resource persons. This involvement has enhanced our own training potentials and sharpened our politics and perspective. As partners in the journeys of freedom and liberation, we feel privileged to recall and contribute to the histories of collective commitments and friendships that create and nurture strong women’s groups and thereby the larger feminist movement.