Shades of anger, dreams of freedom and liberation: Remembering the promise of Women’s Day

Throughout my time as an undergraduate student in Delhi University, my peers and I had to guard ourselves from groping hands in crowded buses as we learnt to kick the man trying to rub himself against us. It was a daily struggle in Delhi’s buses.

We did not know what we were suffering. The name we gave this daily humiliation was “eve teasing”.

The risk of being molested would increase before Holi and one student from the philosophy department persuaded Doordarshan to hold a programme on “eve teasing” before Holi. She invited me to be on the panel along with feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, a lecturer at Miranda House.

The producer warned us not to say “sexual harassment” since we would be on air live. We had also decided not to smile at the camera to emphasise our seriousness. Back then, the subject was invariably trivialised during public discussions.

But we decided to break the taboo and speak of sexual harassment.

The “second wave” of feminism of the 1970s was marked with questions of bodily autonomy and sexuality. In 1970, the book Women and Their Bodies was published and it went on to be celebrated, especially for talking about abortion, which was then banned in the United States.

In 1975, the book’s title was changed to Our Bodies, Our Selves, to “emphasize women taking full ownership of their bodies”, said the official website. Since then, the book has been revised every few years and published. In India, too, versions of the book were published, including in Telugu, by a feminist collective.

For long, the word “rape” was taboo in Indian culture. Women have long been made to feel that sexual assault or rape was because somehow they had acquiesced to their own violation.

Two things changed. In 1975, activist-author Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will that powerfully articulated how sexual assault was an assertion of male power.

In 1979, the Indian Supreme Court passed a judgement that sparked outrage and prompted four professors of law to write an open letter to the chief justice criticising the ruling for its assumptions about a young woman’s sexuality.

That woman was “Mathura”, an Adivasi, who was raped at a police station by two policemen.

Lotika Sarkar, one of the four professors, was a member of the Status of Women Committee, and a law teacher at the Delhi Law Campus. When she joined the faculty, she was told it was impossible for women to teach criminal law because how could they speak of rape.

In 1975, the United Nations declared March 8 as International Women’s Day. In 1979, women in India chose to focus on rape, much to the shock of many across the country. The 1970s was the era of the women’s movement and many thought that a better, safer world for women was within reach.

Many countries saw the passage of new laws recognising the seriousness of sexual assault and rape. More recently, there has been greater awareness as seen with the Hindi film industry making films like Pink, which highlighted issues of consent, and the publication of Vagina Monologues that was staged at many locations.

Author Eve Ensler recounted her memories of the first performances of the Vagina Monologues in an article for The Guardian:

“Memory one. Oklahoma City, the very heart of the Republican heartland. A tiny warehouse. The second night, word has gotten out about the play and there are too many people and not enough seats, so people arrive with their own lawn chairs. I am performing under what is essentially a light bulb. In the middle of a monologue, there is a great scuttling in the crowd. A young woman has fainted. I stop the play. The audience takes care of the woman, fanning her and getting her water. She stands up and declares what the play has emboldened her to say, for the first time: ‘I was raped by my stepfather.’ The audience hugs her and hold her as she weeps. Then, at her request, I continue with the show.

Memory two. Islamabad, Pakistan. The Vagina Monologues is banned. So I attend an underground production where brave Pakistani actors are performing the play in secret. There are women who have come all the way from Taliban Afghanistan in the audience. Men are not allowed to sit in the audience, but instead sit in the back, behind a white curtain. During the performance, women cry and laugh so hard their chadors fall off.”

Women have broken many traditions and laughed out loud at taboos. Take the indefatigable Miriam Margolyes, veteran stage and screen actor, whom many may recognise as having played Professor Sprouts in the Harry Potter franchise.

Margolyes claims she was the first person to swear on British television in 1963 but it was bleeped. As a queer Jewish person, she has taken courageous stands while speaking with honesty and humour.

Margolyes has also been outspoken on Palestine as well. Since October 7, Israel has been waging a military assault on the Gaza strip, killing over 30,000 people, most of them women and children, and pushing Palestinians to the brink of starvation.

Margolyes told Palestine Deep Dive that the Israeli treatment of Palestinians is “disgraceful”. “Anti-semitism is not at issue. What matters is opposing cruelty, speaking out for compassion,” the publication reported her as saying in January. “Criticising Israel is not in itself, an anti-Semitic stance. Conflating the two is a form of disguised censorship.”

The poems of Palestinian women, too, echo with anger, anguish and resistance.

Palestinian poet and activist Rafeef Ziadah Shades of Anger, powerfully pushes back against cruel stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women while putting forth their spirit of resistance:

Allow me to speak my Arab tongue
before they occupy my language as well.
Allow me to speak my mother tongue
before they colonise her memory as well.
I am an Arab woman of color.
and we come in all shades of anger.
All my grandfather ever wanted to do
was wake up at dawn and watch my grandmother kneel and pray
in a village hidden between Jaffa and Haifa
my mother was born under an olive tree
on a soil they say is no longer mine
but I will cross their barriers, their check points
their damn apartheid walls and return to my homeland
I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.
And did you hear my sister screaming yesterday
as she gave birth at a check point
with Israeli soldiers looking between her legs
for their next demographic threat
called her baby girl “Janeen”.
And did you hear Amni Mona screaming
behind their prison bars as they teargassed her cell
“We’re returning to Palestine!”
I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.
But you tell me, this womb inside me
will only bring you your next terrorist
beard wearing, gun waving, towelhead, sand nigger
You tell me, I send my children out to die
but those are your copters, your F16′s in our sky
And let’s talk about this terrorism business for a second
Wasn’t it the CIA that killed Allende and Lumumba
and who trained Osama in the first place
My grandparents didn’t run around like clowns
with the white capes and the white hoods on their heads lynching black people
I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.
“So who is that brown woman screaming in the demonstration?”
Sorry, should I not scream?
I forgot to be your every orientalist dream
Jinnee in a bottle, belly dancer, harem girl, soft spoken Arab woman
Yes master, no master.
Thank you for the peanut butter sandwiches
raining down on us from your F16′s master
Yes my liberators are here to kill my children
and call them “collateral damage”
I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger.
So let me just tell you this womb inside me
will only bring you your next rebel
She will have a rock in one hand and a Palestinian flag in the other
I am an Arab woman of color
Beware! Beware my anger…

Rape and sexual assault are a part of Israel’s military strategy in its assault on Gaza. Aside from bombing the Gaza strip and halting the supply of food and crucial aid, Israeli forces have also humiliated and stripped Palestinian men and sexually assaulted women.

In India, even when not in the midst of a war, security forces been accused of rape and sexually assaulting women. Even otherwise, women bear the brunt of conflict, like in Manipur where women were sexually assaulted during the months-long ethnic conflict that has divided the state.

Only days ago, a Spanish woman was raped in the forests of Dumka in Jharkhand on March 1. Political parties have instead resorted to blaming each other and trying to score brownie points. There is increased concern about India’s image in the foreign media than the reality of how India is unsafe for women and minorities.

The most shameful event in our country has been the harassment and humiliation of the top gold=winning women wrestlers, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat and their male colleagues Bajrang Poonia who have sacrificed their careers for the sake of young women wrestlers who they allege have been sexually assaulted by the former president of the Indian Wrestling Federation and Bharatiya Janata Party MP Brij Bhushan Singh. They had to sleep on the dirty footpath and move the higher courts just to get a FIR registered.

The fight for women’s rights and dignity is a long, long one.

This International Women’s Day is a reminder that the promise of feminism was a better society for all. The struggle against layered, patriarchal power was never merely an identity-based movement for the individual rights of women but a part of the international liberation of humankind from all forms of oppression, exploitation and indignity.

Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and award-winning author.

March 8 is International Women’s Day.

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