We spend years in school cramming answers. Knowing the right answer almost becomes the quintessence of our education; after all, our answers determine our careers, and thus our lives. Actually, their sphere of influence runs even deeper. These answers drill into our psyche certain prescribed ways of being individuals, family members, communities and nation states. Somewhere in this chase for answers, we seem to have forgotten the questions. For a motley group of women though, it was never too late to flow counter current - to question the answers!
At the recently concluded month-long course on 'Feminist capacity building on gender, sustainable livelihoods, human rights and peace', which is organized annually by the South Asian feminist group, Sangat, 37 women gathered in Kathmandu, Nepal, to question their own learning and conditioning. The course, which was started 25 years ago in 1983, invites applications from interested women from South Asian NGOs, INGOs, grassroots organizations, governmental organizations, independent researchers, lawyers, and so on. Those who finally make it are chosen on the basis of their work profile and experience. The course is conducted in English.
For most of the women who were part of this year's edition, it was like being awakened with a pinch. The participants represented seven South Asian countries - India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma. Though most belonged to the non-governmental sector, all the participants engaged with 'women's issues' in different capacities - as gender trainers, grassroots activists, advocacy officers or researchers. Besides, there were members of political parties, journalists, a human rights officer and Supreme Court lawyers.
Explained Kamla Bhasin, well-known Indian activist-author from Sangat, "We consciously chose an eclectic group of women participants whose socio-economic and religious backgrounds vary too. We have ensured a substantial presence of minorities from different countries - a Christian from Pakistan, a Dalit from Nepal, an Adivasi woman from India, a Chakma and Hindu from Bangladesh and so on. Our aim, besides building feminist political consciousness, is to create solidarity among women in South Asia."
Diversity runs through the multi-disciplinary nature of the course as well. The sessions spanned a vast array of subjects - politics, psychology, economics, science and technology, ecology, and so on. Since all these are seamlessly inter-connected in women's lived realities, the course echoed these links as well. Concepts, debates, movements and ideologies draw on the synergies of mainstream disciplines to offer a holistic picture of historical and contemporary conflicts. Issues are looked at from the stand-point of poor and marginalized women in South Asia. Participants started with the basics of gender, patriarchy, identity politics and violence against women.
Purna Bhattacharya, a Programme Officer with a Calcutta-based NGO that rehabilitates trafficked girl children, put it this way, "The sessions on patriarchy, condition and position of women, identity etc, were absolute eye-openers." Others used these concepts to question their own lives and communities. For Amatul Karim, a Supreme Court lawyer from Bangladesh, the analysis of feminine beauty was novel, "I did not realize that beauty was being manufactured like this... that it is a patriarchal concept! This new definition of beauty that I learnt here has compelled me to think in new ways." Human rights, poverty, globalization, alternative development paradigms, sustainable livelihood, food security and so on formed the latter half of the programme. Abha Bhaiya, a renowned gender trainer and one of the two Course Coordinators for Sangat, said it that it was essential that women, especially those working on women's issues, to be exposed to national and global debates and also develop the knack for critical thinking.
And the course did just that. Though the subject matter is dense and heavy, the training methodology - open discussions and presentations - was kept informal and participatory through lectures. Open-ended discussions were perceived as a sign of healthy, and not incomplete, debates. Reflection was critical. Each day began early with yoga or reiki, with songs from different countries and in different languages generously interspersing the sessions. Participants used to call it a day after watching films related to the subject or issue discussed during the day. Shahbano Aliani, a manager with a rural development organization in Sindh, Pakistan, particularly liked the informality and the 'fun' of the course that she said, was "exhaustive, comprehensive and relevant to South Asian women... the issues were dealt with total complexity and diversity."
Considering the diversity of issues, it takes a dynamic team of expert resource people - drawn from across South Asian countries - to put the course together. The team comprises Sunila Abeysekara, a leading human rights activist from Sri Lanka; Dr Rukmini Rao, a well-known social and rural development activist working with poor and underprivileged women; Dr Ambreen Ahmed, a renowned child psychiatrist from Pakistan, who has done extensive work on child sexual abuse; Sapna Pradhan Malla, a lawyer before the Supreme Court of Nepal, who has led important public litigation efforts such as the criminalization of marital rape, among others.
The sessions conducted by the experts, highlighted and almost celebrated feminist agenda. The objective was not just to understand 'the system' that produces gender but to know why it needs to be subverted, starting from one's personal life. After all, the personal is political, especially in this day and age when the private and public spheres have fused as never before. Since most participants were from middle-class backgrounds, the course encouraged them to understand the culture this class breeds, with its apparent indifference to everything but consumerism. Azra Saeed, a Marxist activist from Pakistan, presented the reality of free trade in chilling detail, enough to make free-market patrons pause and think. Referring to her sessions on capitalism and poverty, Shabana, a gender trainer also from Pakistan, said she has been inspired to look within, "I have always lived the good life. Azra has inspired me to live beyond 'me'. I want to change now'."
In addition to the intellectual inputs, the participants took back a warm sense of camaraderie as living together for a month and sharing personal life stories of struggles and relationships added to the experience. Be it Rubina Bhatti, an activist from Pakistan, who works against domestic violence and honor killings and is one of the 1000 Peace Women nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize; or Lapao Ja Ra, a former woman pastor currently working as a gender trainer in Burma, the training has been, to quote Rubina, 'like a new birth'.
'Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it...,' said Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth century feminist. The course seems to be doing just that, and more, year after year. It is transformative; it alters one's weltanschauung. So if before the course one knew all the answers, after it, one also knows all the questions!