DAY SIXTEEN: Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence – Songs against gender based violence in India’

Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence. Sumangala Damodaran discusses the place of songs about GBV in protest movements in India.

Sumangala Damodaran

Featured image: Indian People’s Theatre Association commemorated on a postage stamp half a century after its founding. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega

Zulm karne wala seena zor banta jayega

Auratein utthi nahin to zulm badhta jayega’

If women do not rise, oppression will multiply. This is the rough translation for the first two lines of a song written by Safdar Hashmi, theatre person and political activist. Hashmi  was assassinated on New Year’s day, 1989, for performing a play in support of trade unions who were on strike for better conditions on the outskirts of Delhi in India. Hashmi’s song was written for a documentary film made in the wake of the horrific burning or ‘Sati’ of a young woman, Roop Kanwar, in Rajasthan, which shook the conscience of the entire country as an example of extreme gender-based violence that was being condoned in the name of ‘tradition’.

The film was made by a young women’s filmmakers’ collective called Media Storm and contained two songs, the one mentioned above and another one that described poignantly the various kinds of work that women do, at home and outside, and yet were subjected to the most horrific forms of violence.

Some lines of the second song are:

Sataati hai rulaati hai use zinda jalati hai

(She is harassed, made to weep, burnt alive)

Songs about gender-based violence have been a significant element of wider struggles in India, having been written spontaneously as part of various campaigns and social and political events that brought issues to the fore, including before the mass mobilisation of the women’s movement in the 1970s.

There are several examples of powerful songs written in the late colonial and early post-independence period. During the Tebhaga peasant movement in Bengal in 1946, where peasants were demanding two thirds of the share of the grain they produced, the brutal murder of a young, pregnant peasant woman called Ahalya produced spontaneous poetry and songs. Ahalya was killed by hired goons of landlords, as she, along with others from her village, stood guard over the grain produced and harvested by them.

Paying homage to Ahalya, a song called ‘Aar koto kaal, bolo koto kaal, shoibo ei mrityur aupoman’ (How much longer shall we have to bear the humiliation of death) was sung by singer Reba Roychowdhury and other young women as they campaigned for the peasants resisting the brutal landlord system in Bengal.

‘Auratein Utthi Nahi Toh Zulm Badhta Jayega’ (Song mentioned at the beginning of the post)

In the Telugu speaking Telangana region in Southern India, rape and murder of women from lower castes by landlords and their gangs formed the subject of several songs written and sung during the Telangana peasants’ movement soon after independence in 1948. Under the aegis of a political cultural organisation called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and of similar organisations at the regional level, the beginning of songs focussing on gender issues, and to some extent gender-based violence, can be found.

However, even if there were many across different languages and different genres, these songs were not created as part of consciously gender-politics-driven objectives. That happened later with the growth of the women’s movement of the  1970s and after. From the late 1970s, the women’s movement started focussing on specific kinds of gender-based violence like dowry, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and violence at the workplace and various parts of India saw extensive campaigns against such forms of violence and the outdated and patriarchal laws that governed them.

Street theater and songs became popular ways to reach out to people in the streets, workplaces and near homes. Kamla Bhasin, the fiery, humorous and inspirational feminist from Delhi wrote several songs in Hindi and Punjabi and also raised the famous Azaadi (Freedom) slogans that she heard first in Pakistan and made them popular in India. ‘Freedom from endless violence, freedom from helpless silence’ was one such electrifying slogan. Working with simple and popular folk melodies from North India, Kamla Bhasin wrote songs that not only addressed violence against women frontally but also spoke to the patriarchal structures that shackled both men and women into the system of dominance and dependence that patriarchy represents.

“Todh todh ke bandhanon ko dekho behane aati hai…Ayengi zulm mitaeingi…Yeh to naya zamana laayengi!”

(Breaking through the chains that bind them, our sisters advance…they will eliminate repressions…they will bring forth a new time)

Thus went a song that became a rallying call for the women’s movement, like “Auratein Utthi Nahin To” mentioned before. Several other songs that Kamla Bhasin wrote focussed on gender based violence as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence every year between 25 November and 10 December.

As  awareness of gender based violence began to spread in the public consciousness, popular media also produced responses in the form of films, advertisements and songs. One such song is ‘Rupaiya’. Based on a folk tune from North India, it was written against dowry by popular songwriter Swanand Kirkire and sung by Sona Mohapatra. Appealing to the conscience and emotional bond of a daughter with her family, the woman protagonist in the song emphatically states ‘I will not be sold for rupees’.

Like in the struggle against patriarchy at the societal level and in individual contexts, cultural activists have had to struggle hard within their own movements to bring focus to gender issues and highlight gender based violence. Songs depicting the lives of women, inside and outside the home, in workplaces and society at large, and particularly focusing on the violence that is inflicted, have had to edge their way into larger repertoires around class, caste, racial and ethnic discrimination.

At the same time, these songs have played a very major role in mobilisation in not only movements that focus on gender-based issues but also go beyond to focus on various kinds of societal domination.

To go back to the Azaadi slogans popularised by Kamla Bhasin in India, they were first raised by Pakistani feminists as calls for emancipation from all kinds of bondage. 

Prof Sumangala Damodaran singing ‘Aar Kotho Kal’

Author Bio
Prof. Sumangala Damodaran is Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of Industrial and Labour studies and more specifically on Industrial Organisation, Global Value Chains, the Informal Sector, Labour and Migration. She is also a singer and composer. Her  book  “The Radical Impulse: Music in the Tradition of the IPTA”  is a documentation of the musical tradition of the Indian People’s Theatre Association from the 1940s and 1950s. Her album titled ‘Songs of Protest’ and a collaborative project titled ‘Insurrections’ has resulted in four albums. She is currently engaged in researching the relationship between music and migration, particularly of women in slavery and servitude across centuries and across vast tracts of the globe that were linked through long distance trade in commodities and symbolic goods. This work is being done in collaboration with several universities in Africa and Asia.


Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy.

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Continue reading “Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent”

Day Fifteen |Understanding dowry and dowry abuse in Australia

Manjula O’Connor, Jan Breckenridge, Sara Singh and Mailin Suchting

dowry abuse
Reproduced from Shutterstock via The Conversation

The practice of dowry usually involves the giving of money, property, goods or other gifts by one family to another before, during or any time after marriage. It is a universal practice. For example, Bombay Island – now called Mumbai – was a former Portuguese outpost which was gifted to England as dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II (and was later leased to the East India Company in 1668). 

In its modern day avatar, dowry as a practice has different customary characteristics across different communities. Dowry exchange in South Asian communities is characterised by the woman’s family providing goods (including but not limited to money, jewellery, furniture and appliances) to the man and his family. In North African and Middle Eastern communities, dowry is characterised by the man’s family providing goods (predominantly in the form of money or cattle) to the female and her family.

Dowry is an ancient practice most frequently associated with India, but in reality, it is a cultural practice globally. This blog mostly addresses dowry in the South Asian context. Dowry in ancient times originated as a form of ante mortem inheritance, meant only for the bride. In modern times dowry gifts are expected by the family of the receiver as well and has become a practice that is a product of patriarchy reinforcing gender inequality. Women activists have campaigned against dowry practices in India since 1961, recognising the toxic impact of patriarchy combined with greed, and growing evidence of serious violence, murders and suicides associated with dowry in India. 

The Australasian Centre of Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) has refined the definition of dowry as ‘substantial gifts’ in the context of a marriage, where the value of gifts is out of proportion to the income of either family and causes financial distress to the giver.

what about dowry abuse?

Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy

Cat Wayland, Kamya Choudhary and Radhika Govinda

Feminist cartoon day 14

Artwork by Samia Singh and used with permission and produced as part of the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project, a collaboration between Ambedkar University and the University of Edinburgh

The above image is a preview of a (web)comic focused on feminist struggles in the academy, that is currently under development. The (web)comic features 24 pages of beautiful original artwork by illustrators Samia Singh based in Punjab, India, and Shazleen Khan, in London, UK. It is based on roundtable conversations and panel discussions that took place at Ambedkar University Delhi, India in December 2017 and at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in February 2018 as part of the ongoing Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives Project

Continue reading “Day Fourteen |Gender-based violence: a glimpse of feminist dilemmas in the academy”

Day Thirteen | Making connections: Gender-based violence and women’s workforce participation

Sumangala Damodaran

As early as 1818, a group of British women weavers, or ‘Lancashire girls’ were brought to India to train women workers or ‘introduce factory methods of work’ in the Bowreah mill in Hooghly in Bengal. In her captivating account of the presence of women in India’s industrial sector, historian Samita Sen quotes an account by Janet Harvey Kelman, who wrote one of the earliest and most remarkable accounts of Indian labour, and according to whom women were associated with the ‘tragedy’ that surrounded the ‘first efforts to introduce modern mill industry into India’. The British women were released from a prison on an island in the Atlantic into the custody of a certain McAllister, who was the manager of the mill. It is believed that all succumbed later to an epidemic in India.

The presence of women in the industrial labour force in India, particularly in the  and the jute mills of Bengal, has thus been acknowledged from the beginnings of factory labour in India. Not only were women part of the industrial workforce, they also were the subject of numerous debates and controversies around their presence, especially between the introduction of the Factories Act in 1881 that was to regulate the conditions of industrial employment and the First World War.

Expectedly, the debates centred around the supposed contradiction between women’s sexual and reproductive roles in their families and as workers. The anxieties expressed about women’s participation in industrial work and the fear at what this presence outside the home and the family meant was, in this case, mediated by the colonial discourse around the usefulness of the female colonized subject. The debates also encompassed genuine concerns for women’s working conditions and safety in the industrial sector.

More than a century and a quarter later, the Female Workforce Participation Rate (FWPR) in India fell to 26% in 2018 and is seen, alarmingly, to have declined continuously over almost three decades. If we consider the region of South Asia, the pattern is mixed; in some countries, such as Nepal, the figures are quite high, whereas in Pakistan and India, they are declining, in India’s case alarmingly. This is particularly so  when compared to the global level, where women’s global labour force participation rate of around 48 per cent in 2018.

If women are participating less and less in what is conventionally considered ‘work’ or what contributes to the output of the economy, both as paid and unpaid workers, could it have something to do with gender-based violence which is a major contributor to the resilience of patriarchy? As with the ‘tragedy’ of women’s employment from the example of the ‘Lancashire girls’ and their Indian counterparts in the mills of Bengal, how does patriarchy’s continuous reiteration of the contradiction between women’s reproductive and productive or ‘visibly productive’ roles relate to the threat of violence?

It is acknowledged in academic work as well as in policy initiatives that actual violence and the fear of it affects the extent to which women participate in political and social processes. How does the violence that women face within and outside households, in communities and in workplaces impact women’s participation in, access to and exit from work and the workplace?

These are questions that need to be examined from the actual experiences of women with work as well as of violence and it is necessary to develop analytical frames that look at both simultaneously as fundamentally underpinning women’s lives and existence. The literatures that exist around the two axes, of work on the one hand and violence on the other, tend to be mostly mutually exclusive. Violence as an active variable tends to figure only tangentially in analyses of work and the understandings of gender based violence tend to address the structural features of women’s lives as workers only in a limited way.

Gendered analyses of work point out how the complexities of women’s existence and the invisibility of their labour results in complex negotiations between reproductive labour and both paid and unpaid ‘productive’ labour. The threat of violence within the family and from social networks is often seen to keep women out of the labour market or confine them to sectors where their work is considered more acceptable, or remains invisible.

Economic and political conditions within countries, like slumps or political upheavals, are also seen to have social impacts that typically raise the risk and incidence of violence against women. Further, even if, as in many countries in South Asia, the FWPR is very low and also falling, at the same time, there are newer sectors – particularly in services – where women are being employed and seen to be ‘visible’, often having to transgress patriarchal restrictions within families and communities.

The insights provided from actual experiences of work and workplaces could be useful to understand the multifaceted dimensions of gender-based violence. Further, the lens of violence and the dispositions within individuals, families and communities towards women’s work thus could generate rich material that allows for a nuanced understanding of the gendered dimensions of work.

Sumangala Damodaran is a Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. As a development economist, her research and publications fall broadly within the rubric of industrial and labour studies. She is also a singer and composer.

Photo reproduced from Fibre2Fashion