The following piece is part of the Quest’s series featuring final projects and other assignments of Minerva students. This Location Based Assignment (LBA) was written for Minerva’s Government and Social Change course, by Jakob Possert, Minerva Class of 2021. To view more final projects, click here. If you are a Minerva student and would like to have your final project published, fill out this form.
Five female Indian poets had been invited to the Goethe-Zentrum in Hyderabad to participate in a panel discussion about poetry and feminist activism on 8th of March 2019, the International Women’s day. The event drew about 70 people of whom about one-seventh were men and was titled “Interrogating Patriarchy” – inspired by Rajshree Trivedi’s recent poem book of the same name (2018).
The author started the panel off with a reflection on how this book came about and read a short excerpt of a poem. By following with a brief treatise of how poetry is not activism by itself but has to be invigorated by the readers, Humera Ahmed, set the tone for a discourse built on the basis of how the act of writing and reading contentious poems shapes normative ideas in society, such as Muslim women writing about sexuality. Furthermore, reflections on how there is an issue between men and women show the implicitly constructivist approach to understand feminism, which was only briefly contrasted by a Swedish audience member towards the end when she pointed out how individual sexual harassment is in fact embedded in a larger structure.
The renowned feminist and communist inspired anti-discrimination activist Vasanth Kannabiran (2006), gave the major emotional speech of the evening when she explicitly mentioned several struggles women are facing, such as issues concerning dowry debt, and admonished the participants to continue this struggle, including in the engagement with poetry, for otherwise ‘there will be no International women’s day to celebrate next year’.
Even while Vasanth was using established feminist terminology in many instances, there have been a few concepts which she described instead of marking it as a familiar concept: for example, the struggle of Muslim women as being a minority within a minority has not been labeled as intersectional feminism and has only been surmised under the struggle against any discrimination.
After the importance of poetry for activism has thus been affirmed, poems among others about the wives of farmer’s who committed suicide due to debts, were read by Jameela Nishat, a social activist and Urdu poet (Mukherjee & Sheik, 2019), and Volga, a Telugu poet and author of the book The Liberation of Sita, the obedient consort of Lord Rama which continues to be an ideal for Indian women (Sharma, 2017).
Lastly, the floor was opened to the audience where general concerns of the participants were raised, such as women worrying about the social media as both a bad and a good influence on feminism and its demands. While in most only vague and metaphorical causalities have been established, when a woman voiced the issue of childhood education, the panelists established that not only men are responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy but also the mothers who raise their male children with these ideas.
It has been left implicit that these gatherings are also contributing to the awareness of feminism in India and are thus effectively undermining patriarchal ideas. The vibrant atmosphere in the room and the many inquiries of the panelist in the end are testimony to the success of the panel as a worthy celebration of the International Women’s day through the subjectively reflective medium of poetry.
Kannabiran, V. (2006) Comrade Vasanth’s Vision. Retrieved from https://www.boloji.com/articles/5022/comrade-vasanths-vision.
Mukherjee, M. & Sheikh, A. (2019) Liberating the caged bird. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkindia.in/images/PDFS/Jameela-Nishat.pdf.
Sharma, S. (2017) The democratic space to disagree is shrinking in India: Telugu writer Volga. Retrieved from https://www.hindustantimes.com/books/the-democratic-space-to-disagree-is-shrinking-in-india-telugu-writer-volga/story-JLL0uaiPD3jt3wBYsPa5FL.html.
Trivedi, R. (2018) Interrogating Patriarchy: Essays on Contemporary Women Poets of India. Authorspress.