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Borderlines: Feminist Journeys across South Asia

Two years ago, CREA and The Third Eye embarked on an effort to identify feminist interventions, creations and associations in South Asia and ask the following questions: How does the idea of South Asia exist in their imaginations or aspirations? How does their work speak to other feminist efforts in the region? Are feminist engagements contained within borders and, if so, when and how do feminists undertake border crossings? What roles do language and culture play in our sense of South Asian-ness? What are the faultlines? How have women charted strategies of resistance against the public-private dichotomies that play out in their lives, irrespective of nationality?

Thus emerged “Borderlines”, a seven-part video series documenting how feminists work, intervene and connect the dots across the region to create knowledge in South Asia. 

Through memory work, archiving, creating curricula and courses, public engagements and institution building, these feminists intersect in their intentions as well as their understanding of social orders that are common to geographies across South Asia. 

Cameras in hand, and armed with a quiverful of curiosity, we set out to interview seven women whose work and lives are deeply embedded in the region. From the world of sufi and bhakti poets, to the powerful archiving work of the Nepal Picture Library, we travelled across time and space to capture the histories, the here-and-now and the possible futures of South Asian feminist work. All seven interviews are rife with honesty, vulnerability, anger, hope, grief and, most poignantly, feminist joy. 

Despite the fraught nature of institution-building work with tensions or new challenges posed by intergenerational contexts and digital cultures, feminist solidarity-building does happen, loudly and quietly, in streets filled with raging women, or through public exhibitions of women’s images – through song and poetry travelling the interweb in Sindhi, Bangla, Hindustani and Tamil; in the thoughtful, creative design of queer women’s organising efforts; and in our collective efforts to ensure that these experiences are not erased but captured, told and retold in new ways.

The video series also showcases the diverse nature of feminist leadership and how crafting new ideas, entering new domains and forging friendships allows women across generations to build what could be described as an ‘underground river’, one that flows at will, nourishing everyone it touches. 

Borderlines builds on work that has already been undertaken by South Asian feminists over the past four to five decades, where they have reached out to each other to think about the region, within the region. This has meant not merely sharing research and ideas but collectively building our resources, drawing strength from each other, and ensuring that  ideas, songs, poetry, and ways of doing and making meaning travel across the region to inform various praxes. 

This series is a small attempt in capturing the knowledge and historicity of the world of South Asian feminist lives, beyond borders, beneath oceans, and across visa checkpoints. After all, feminist solidarities may not be built overnight but they are most definitely forged under a shared night sky.

About Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati

In 2006, at the peak of the second Jan Andolan, Nayantara Gurung Kakshapati found herself back on the streets of Kathmandu, her home in Nepal. She joined the resistance with her camera, both to bear witness and also to document hundreds of men and women in public spaces to finally topple the monarchy through sustained struggle. What got her thinking, however, was the lack of female photographers and photojournalists on the frontlines of the andolan.

This was one of the early impulses that propelled her to start the Nepal Picture Library in 2011 (under photo.circle), a seminal documentation of the everyday as discovered in people’s archives. The Feminist Memory Project that grew out of this in 2018, documents, in breathtaking detail, the lives of Nepali women. The Feminist Memory project links kinships, friendships, organising and resistance, showcasing of self and portraiture, as part of a creative continuum reflecting women’s lifeworld. Gurung’s work opens questions around the politics of memory making, and the difference between history and memory. She demonstrates how we can create an index of women’s histories without canonising certain women.

These questions also led her to centre the mundane in her work. Most importantly, she advocates for a public archive, and resists the commonsensical, artistic tendency to create an exclusive exhibition out of women’s histories. In this interview, she reiterates the need to forge intentional solidarities across histories and geographies by making archives a public and accessible reality. 

About Uma Chakravarti

Dr. Uma Chakravarti, feminist historian, filmmaker, and activist, points to what connects us, culturally and historically, as South Asians.

She picks moments from more recent histories of South Asian feminists coming together in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, moments that led to building solidarities across regions. From poetry, mushairas, women studies courses that taught the nature of matriliny in the region, street plays that uncovered the farce of laws regulating women’s rights, to workshops that captured the experiences and critiques built by South Asian women, Chakravarti, with great delight, describes how feminists imagined giving shape and form to an imagined, non-patriarchal, inclusive South Asia. She also recounts the incredible ways in which feminists have built bridges across national borders, battles, and bitterness, and why these histories need to be remembered and re-membered across generations to ensure that they are not erased from memory.

Over close to a decade, she was a part of a three-month women studies course organised by ASR (Applied Socio-Economic Research) in Lahore that had a South Asian faculty and students. “One was challenged to think out of the nation-state boundaries and think conceptually about the categories that we were foregrounding as practitioners of feminist history. That is, traditional history being melded into the histories of this [South Asian] region, made possible by the feminist course. Because as a feminist, you could actually create your own course,” says Chakravarti.

This video series works to build a substantive record of feminists across the region, one that counters mainstream notions of what makes us different, to move towards what makes us distinctly South Asian.

About Tooba Syed

Tooba Syed, feminist researcher, trainer, writer, organiser, and teacher, works on issues of gender, violence, rights of the marginalised, housing, and feminist education in Pakistan.  Tooba’s been going for marches since she was 17, and in this interview,  she traces her journey of starting out as a model, to discovering feminism, to working with the Left movement in Pakistan. In these and many other spaces, Tooba raised questions about the absence of women in leadership,  built the Women’s Democratic Front,  and organised Aurat marches.

Describing why she prefers being an organiser rather than an activist, she says, “I think leadership is about leading people, leading a collective, not about leading yourself… I didn’t want to be one of the ‘brave’ women of Pakistan. For me, it was about women of Pakistan being brave in who they were.” In her current role with the Women Democratic Front, she resources feminist movements, activists, and collectives.

Tooba first met other South Asian women in a month-long SANGAT (Feminist Capacity Building Course) in 2016. The course added a new dimension to her worldview. As she says, “I went as a Pakistani but came back as a South Asian”. In the face of rising majoritarianism in the region, Tooba believes in the power of regional collectives and puts emphasis on shared South Asian solidarities and connections for survival.

About Sarala Emmanuel

Sarala Emmanuel is a feminist activist. teacher and researcher based in Batticaloa, in Eastern Sri Lanka. She works with local, national and international feminist institutions, networks and collective spaces.

In a quiet and layered way, Sarala walks us through what it meant to ‘become’ a feminist activist and work towards peace in times of conflict in Sri Lanka. Spanning the nineties and 2000s, through civil war, sexual violence, murder and abductions, Sarala worked with women and families struggling with loss, disappearances and the fear of armed state and non-state actors. Her work in ‘Suriya’, a women’s rights group in Batticaloa, gave meaning to ideas of care, support, and sustenance of peaceful struggle, in a militarised public.

In this interview, Sarala speaks about what it means to lead a feminist institution – with all its joys and tensions. How challenging is it to build or imagine institutional spaces that are different? How does equality and hierarchy play out in feminist organizations? How does the identity question figure and configure, and what does it mean to not belong to one ‘pure’ identity? And what does a feminist leader look like? Sarala’s honesty about how she brought these two together – feminist and leadership – forces us to revisit our own experiences and assumptions about both. It alas is not a fairy tale ending but carries lessons in various kinds of strengths needed to be invested in building institutions that promote peace, freedom, and equality .