Bearing Witness and Forging New Alliances

beraing witness

The unmarked grave (photo by author)

Swati Parashar

It is International Women’s Day yet again and lunches, dinners, speeches, rebukes and achievements of women galore are visible from across the world. It is indeed a wonderful feeling to be part of a wider transnational feminist community that not only reflects on the histories of feminist struggles everywhere but also is willing to concede that we have a long way to go. We need to celebrate several milestones that the women’s movement has achieved in many spaces but also realise that our battles need to intensify and new strategies and alliances must be forged.

Gender justice and equal rights for women, LGBTQ people are not realised at specific historical moments alone when certain laws and policies come into existence. These are continuous and everyday negotiations that happen over generations as we bear witness to the gender injustices and violence that get normalised. One can bear witness to oppressions in many ways that can lead to productive feminist activism. Bearing witness is intimate, disturbing and helps us cohabit affective spaces that we would not have otherwise. It allows us a chance to feel empathy and can be genuinely transformative for those of us bearing witness and for the multitude of relationships forged within that space.

Living in India again, I feel the importance of bearing witness every moment as I traverse through the wide landscape of inequalities and injustices on a daily basis. Women and girls as victims and survivors of sexual violence; domestic violence and drudgery; economic enslavement of women; lack of reproductive rights; people of alternative sexual orientations who must struggle for survival amidst daily assault on their identity; women barred from access to religious and spiritual spaces; female foeticide and women murdered for witchcraft, dowry and for spurning men’s attention and advances. There is not a single day when I do not see something along these lines reported in the national or vernacular media. It is confronting and depressing even as I wonder if somehow we have become desensitised to the violence around us, outside us and even within us. Ironically, there is something more profound we have borne witness to over the years; women’s movements have been non-violent in the face of most difficult challenges and backlash.

We have a responsibility to bear witness to the oppression and violence around us. This is important so that in the face of those arguments of ‘normalcy’ we can share experiences of pain, loss, hope and survival. Amidst all the debates and celebrations today, I am reminded of that fresh unmarked grave (or the sight of hasty cremation) in my village I saw in January 2016 which had a Tulsi (Indian basil) planted on it. The Tulsi perhaps was bearing witness to the young married woman whose life had ended when she consumed poison either on her own, or was forced to do so because of the dishonour/shame she brought to herself, her family and community. There was no inquest, no police investigation, no social outrage, no curiosity about the events that had brutally ended two lives (the woman and that of the young man she had apparently had a relationship with). There are thousands of such women (and men) whose lives don’t matter, countless women who have no names, no identity, no freedom and no future.

To the wonderful transnational feminist movement I say, our struggles are different but our goals one and we have to work harder to realise that; we have to work on vocabularies that are inclusive and accessible to all. To my Indian friends and colleagues, we need an ever-evolving feminist politics of anger and hope; we need more solidarity which recognises differences and forge new alliances. More importantly, we need to look beyond what we see and hear; we need to travel to those places, which are not visible on our feminist geographies.

What better way to leave us with these thoughts than to invoke the words of the great poet-lyricist, Sahir Ludhianvi whose birth anniversary we mark on International Women’s Day.

Jis subah ki khaatir jug jug se, ham sab mar mar kar jeete hain

jis subah ke amrit ki dhun mein ham zaher ke pyaale peete hain

vo subah na aayee aaj magar, vo subah kabhi to aayegii.

The dawn for which we die every day; the dawn for whose nectar we drink poison now; we did not see that dawn today; that dawn will come someday.

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