The writer has a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK, and works in Islamabad.
They had no weakness for dictatorial attitudes; nor did they tolerate improper language or behavior that overfed masculinity. They offered solutions rather than peddling conservatism and nostalgia. Their feminist ideological positions were strong, but without any virulence. They were Rubina Saigol and Kamla Bhasin.
We lost them in the space of a month; Rubina succumbed to the coronavirus in Lahore on August 27, 2021 and Kamla lost her battle with cancer in Delhi on September 25. Their departures left South Asian activism intellectually poorer. I have fond memories of them and feel a personal loss when they passed away. One could not find any weakness in their arguments and their reasoning. Both hated lousy versions of gender-based submission, and their advice to women was to be able to punch patriarchy. Kamla and Rubina could outsmart their male counterparts, and they suggested that all women try to do so.
Both believed that women were in a better position to be successful in the future if they understood feminism correctly and practiced it in their lives. Kamla Bhasin and Rubina Saigol were prominent feminists in this region and shared many common traits. Kamla launched the South Asian edition of One Billion Rising (OBR) in 2017 in Nepal, when she was already over 70 years old. This is a global campaign against violence against women. She was born in 1946 near Mandi Bahauddin in the undivided Punjab and immigrated with her parents to India after the partition.
Kamla and Rubina were not the kind to sit still as at least one billion women around the world experience violence every year, hence the One Billion Rising campaign. They wanted our women to say “enough is enough” and speak out with one voice against gender-based crimes, rather than suffering in silence. For both, feminism was not just an ideology; it was a war against oppression and against all kinds of sexism in all societies. Essentially, their feminism was a call for equality and justice for women around the world. Both urged women to take creative action and forge solidarity.
They were part of many civil society organizations because their motto was not to fight alone but in groups and associations. Another common trait between them was that they did not limit their struggles to women’s issues alone. The protection of the rights of minorities was also their program which they followed in their actions and writings until their last days. While Rubina was a Pakistani feminist scholar and educator, she shared her women’s rights activism with Kamla. Both have written and edited several books and articles in at least two languages and both were fluent in English, Hindi / Urdu and Punjabi.
Their academic work explores themes of education, gender, and nationalism as they unfolded in the post-Partition years in the subcontinent. Ethnicity and its relationship to feminism and human rights feature prominently in their writings. Religious radicalization was anathema to both of them, and this is one of the reasons they tried to expose the role of states in stoking terrorism while claiming to counter it. Just as Rubina was one of the pioneers of Ajoka theater, an active member of Simorgh and the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), Kamla has also used various forums and platforms such as Sangat to voice her concerns and protests.
Rubina Saigol received her Doctorate in Education from the University of Rochester and her Masters in Psychology from Columbia University, and went on to write dozens of books and hundreds of articles on topics close to her heart. One of his best books is “Pakistan Project: A Feminist Perspective on Nation and Identity”. It explores the idea of Pakistan from Sir Syed Ahmed Khan to MA Jinnah from a gender perspective. She had the courage to expose the assumptions and contradictions inherent in the idea of Pakistan. Likewise, Kamla’s scholarly work has also appeared in several international research journals on various themes, most dealing with gender and feminism.
Kamla and Rubina have attempted to document the direction and history of women’s rights movements in South Asia. Their absence will be felt especially by those who considered them as their mentors. They served as guides and teachers to their colleagues, wherever they worked. We were inspired by them to continue their struggles in any way we can. Curriculum and gender in education were their specific areas of interest, and they discussed and debated both in oral and written form. Both were excellent team players and always ready to learn from others, and even more eager to teach.
Interestingly, Kamla and Rubina – despite their various personal experiences – lived fully and on their own terms. They were known for their playful nature and limitless generosity. Their creative talent was unique as they both participated in all kinds of expressions, from poetry to prose to satire. When you read their writings, you feel that their clarity of thought is reflected in their diction. There are many other writers on similar issues, but Kamla and Rubina believed in an accessible style of writing, with built-in critical thinking. They were free spirits and cherished the flow of life.
Perhaps their greatest achievement was their ability to make their audiences and readers smile, as both were eager to contribute to the lives of others. During nearly half a century of active life, they have graced many gatherings and occasions, and participated in parties around the world; these were events full of magnanimity and great ardor. They imparted bravery and courage through their compassionate and powerful speeches. They preferred – and encouraged other women to do – things that many in their society considered improper for a woman.
For example, Kamla liked to do symbolic acts of defiance and empowerment. When she led Sangat workshops on feminist capacity building, those who attended were ready to break down gender barriers and conquer the world. Rubina was also a social scientist as well as a gender equality activist who nurtured young feminists. Both have spent their entire lives empowering others to understand feminism and gender, so that they can monitor misogyny and patriarchy in communities and societies. One message I got every time I met them was that unless women are free men cannot be free.
As Kamla said time and time again, “The struggle for gender equality is not between men and women, it is between two ideologies: one that says patriarchy is better, and the other who says equality is better ”. Kamla explained patriarchy as the exploitation of women whereby men control women’s mobility, their physical and reproductive powers, and even sexuality; it is based on violence or the threat of violence. If you apply this to countries like Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, how true it seems. Rubina also believed the same and promoted diversity, not gender differences.
We learned from them that the focus on gender differences created control, discrimination and exploitation. Kamla and Rubina did not want to dehumanize men by locking them into expectations of protecting women, as this amounts to entrenching the use of violence as usual. For almost half a century, both have worked for a gender-equitable society and have seen the women’s movement change in their lifetimes. In addition to education and other women’s rights, Kamla and Rubina were particularly concerned about the cultural discrimination that persists in societies, especially in South Asian countries.
If we are to advance their struggle, we must be anti-misogynist. We must demand greater representation of women in legislative bodies. We must demand that marital rape be recognized as a crime and challenge all forms of cultural and religious patriarchy.
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