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6th Sarojini Naidu Annual Memorial Lecture, 2020 – A Report

“You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation.”

Urvashi Butalia, an Indian feminist writer, publisher and activist renowned worldwide for her work in the women’s movement of India, as well as for authoring books like the path-breaking The Other Side of Silence and the Partition of India addressed the students of Jamia Millia Islamia today and enlightened the gathering with her views on the creation and dissemination of feminist knowledge. Not only is Butalia credited for the establishment of  Kali for Women, a start-up feminist publisher in India but she has also been awarded a Padma Shri for her work in Literature and Education by the government of India.

In few words, she talked about several women and shed light on their stories of endurance and survival in a patriarchal society designed to systematically oppress their voices. From Muktabai Salve’s essay questioning the restriction of knowledge only to the hands of the Brahmins to Savitribai Phule’s sari being symbolic of her resistance and perseverance, Urvashi ensured to enlighten us about the plenitude of women who struggled to make our society a safe place for women where each one gets treated equally.

Having co-founded Kali for Women, India’s first exclusively feminist publishing house in 1984, Urvashi also talked about the challenges she faced while promoting women’s voices in a world where the field of writing was dominated by men. Her aim was to provide a platform to women writers, creative and academics which helped enhance their representation and give it a wider reach.

The most interesting part of the lecture for me, personally was the part where Urvashi recalled how in the 70’s, female deaths due to bursting of stoves in the kitchens had become very common and how none of their neighbours ever reported hearing their screams when an incident so unfortunate occurred in the locality. The reason, as explained by her was that the kitchens were always situated so deep inside the houses that even if the women screamed at the top of their lungs, no sound could come out and reach any ears. The way she drew a comparison to the unheard voices of women willing to speak up in the society then with this prevalent incident really appealed to my intellect.

She also talked about a book she published which was fraught with mentions of women’s bodies, sexuality and intercourse originally written by a group of 75 village women so as to educate people on topics such as sex which were primarily considered as a taboo. The book gained a multitude of recognition and featured the name of all the 75 village women who contributed to its creation on its back page.

Nearing the conclusion of the lecture, Urvashi talked about how the act of writing was an act of courage for women which set them apart from the rest of the society in the time when her publishing house started. The patriarchal society had always been reluctant to publish works by women and through Kali, women for the first time came across a publication house that was for them and their stories.

The lecture came to an end with the inevitable mention of the women on the streets in the India today; the brave women of Shaheen Bagh and protest cites country wide who are asserting their dissent and making their voices heard to ears which have been deaf to their sound since a very long time.

Urvashi Batulia’s lecture was not only informative and insightful but also posed intelligent questions for one to ponder over. Arundhati Roy once said, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” and Urvashi’s words echoed with the same spirit today.

Zainab Wahab
Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia

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Written by Zainab Wahab

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