Forty South Asian women writers gathered recently in New Delhi towards the cause of building peace in the region. The meet was organised by the Women's Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA). WIPSA's Syeda Hameed explained, "We see this dialogue as leading to a continuing forum of creative voices demanding sanity and tranquility rather than violence."
Faustina Bama, novelist, schoolteacher and dalit activist from Tamil Nadu, pointed out that writing has a political dimension: "I am a dalit woman with a working class background. Conflict is embedded in our social and economic structures. Can peace mean the same for oppressor and oppressed? Men and women? Dalit (lowest caste) and savarna (upper castes)? True peace will dawn when there is equality in power relationships. For me, rebellion is the first step to peace. A chronicler of peace has to chronicle struggles for human dignity and rights. Literary activity is part of the struggle."
Uzma Aslam Khan spoke of the irony of her novel 'Trespassing', published by Penguin India, being easily available in India but not in Pakistan. A ban on import of fiction from India to Pakistan is being stringently enforced. Khan, who lives and works in Lahore, noted the further irony that " 'Trespassing' is about crossing personal, social and political fences."
A related issue she's grappling with is that the English language is often denounced as Western. "But," she argues, "East-West boundaries are enforced for political leverage more than anything else... Boundaries are being manufactured all the time. Today the wealthy have armed guards and spiked gates while my parent's generation left their doors unlocked. My concerns are about overcoming boundaries. The women I write about try to make a space for themselves, but their own families might pull them back. It is very difficult for women to cross the public-private divide."
Pakistani writer Attiya Dawood spoke of her childhood in a small village in Sindh where she experienced the wars of 1965 and 1971. She recalled the terror felt even in remote villages and the anguish of having to suppress her Sindhi identity, language and clothing. "I grew up with hatred in my heart," she confessed. "As a mother, I wanted to protect my daughters from this hatred." She read out from her poem 'Amar Geet': 'Desh ke saare phool todkar barood boya gaya hai' (Plucking all the flowers in the country, gunpowder has been sown).
Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie recalled, "When I was 15 in 1988, thousands of women who marched in the streets of Lahore were lathi-charged and imprisoned. There was all this fighting and sacrifices. We got democracy. Then how come we have the same power structures, fundamentalism and military rule? The sense of a women's movement has got watered down - because we have got very disillusioned."
Sumathy Sivamohan, writer and theatre activist, noted, "In Sri Lanka too we're witnessing watered-down activism. The women's movement has given us sustenance but it has slowly become more pro-establishment."
Sarup Dhruv from Ahmedabad said, "Activism today is not just watered down, it is saffronised. In the recent carnage in Gujarat, high caste and dalit women took part in anti-Muslim violence. Upper class women took part in looting shoes and clothes in the big malls... But very few - just four or five writers - are speaking out against the carnage. And these are all women writers."
Zahida Zaidi from Aligarh spoke of writing as an act of peace. She read out excerpts from her play, 'Burning Desert', that is dedicated to bringing about world peace. It has a rath yatra (journey in a chariot) with a thorny cactus; Bush holding the reigns; four horses representing Arab nations; and four kings representing Western nations...
Zahida Hina from Pakistan read out her story, 'Kumkum Bahut Aram Se Hai' (Kumkum is very comfortable). Kumkum volunteers to do relief work in Kabul after the US bombing. From there, she writes a letter to her grandmother in Pakistan - "I am exhausted stitching up the wounds but they are not healing... If I write about what is happening to women here the paper on which I write will start burning... I went to the mass graves... The earth is deeply wounded..."
Said Hina, "For me there are no boundaries. Hindustan and Pakistan are two courtyards in my house. I live in both. My job is to pluck out the thorns and snuff out the burning embers."
Mridula Bhattacharya from Dhaka read out 'Nareer Katha' (A Woman's Story) describing a girl's fear and bewilderment as she grows to womanhood in a patriarchal society. Bindu Bama from Gujarat spoke about her first novel 'Meera Yagnik ki Kahani' (The Story of Meera Yagnik) which describes a lesbian relationship.
Bhuwan Dungana from Nepal noted that some of her stories with explicitly sexual themes are received with embarrassment, but also acclaim. In one story, the protagonist sees a temple bell as an upside down vulva subduing and containing the male organ, and wonders, 'Is the bell a symbol of religion or a symbol of sexuality?' Several people saw it as a bold story, while others wondered how a cultured lady like herself could have written it!
Clearly, women writers are challenging many boundaries, on many fronts. At the same time, as Manjushree Thapa from Nepal noted, there are internal differences and divisions - "Women do not form a natural collectivity nor will they unite simply because they are women." These writers, including Niaz Ali Zaman and Shaheen Akhtar from Bangladesh, Jean Arasanayagem from Sri Lanka, Toya Gurung from Nepal, Indira Goswami from Assam, Urmila Pawar from Maharashtra, Joya Mitra from Kolkata, V Seeta Devi from Hyderabad, Githa Hariharan and Geetanjali Shree from New Delhi - have strong individual voices. If these powerful voices are to unite, solidarity will have to be consciously forged.
Sugatha Kumari, acclaimed poet and activist from Kerala, remarked, "The real barrier is in our hearts... We are no less violent than men. We are selfish and self absorbed. Otherwise how could the world be in such a mess?" She urged women writers to create mutual understanding to solve the crises that are rocking the world today.
Oriya novelist Prativa Roy noted writers' special gift of transcending personal boundaries: "As a writer you merge with the character. You internalise the character's pain, suffering and celebration. You become inseparable."
Khan agrees, saying, "As a writer I can be man or woman, Muslim or Hindu."
Writers keep crossing boundaries in fiction, and can do so in fact. As they soar on the wings of imagination, they remain rooted in the harsh realities of this world. Let us hope that WIPSA's initiative will help women writers unite to change the realities on the ground.