Wordwise Women: Early Feminist Publishing in India

In the 1970s, a young woman, in the bustling capital city of Delhi, India, appeared for a job interview at a renowned publishing house. While her credentials were suitable for the position, the interview board also expressed their hesitation in hiring her asking “In our experience, women of your age get married and leave their jobs, how long will you stay? Are you married, or planning to, soon?” This volley of questions may have been alarming, embarrassing, or strange for a job interview then, and would be deemed dangerously inappropriate today, more than four decades later.

In this particular scenario, the woman was hired, the battle was won, only to pave the way for another array of structural skirmishes. The struggles that are more subtle, that slide past before one understands their implications or politics, the ones when you often don’t know which side you are on. These battles are often fought with words, and voices, or negotiated in silence.

“Women? Do women have any stories to tell? Something so compelling to say?” This was the response of the management to an idea proposed by the woman to commission a new series of books that would present women’s experiences. While the male editors at the publishing house dismissed the idea jovially, this also planted the seed of an alternative to mainstream publishing houses of the time—one that would focus on women’s perspectives—, Kali for Women.[1] This also raised larger questions—are there specific “women’s experiences” that may require different articulation? Was there a mode of representation and storytelling that was absent in mainstream publishing in the 1980s in India that would capture those experiences?

Kali for Women was founded by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon in 1984. [2] New solidarities were being forged between feminist activists and scholars in this decade. This ushered in a fresh lease of feminist writings that were rooted in lived experiences and were seeking a language to express the socio-cultural contexts and nuances of feminism in India.

The history of feminism in India has been chequered and can primarily be divided into three epochs between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The first phase extends from the mid-nineteenth century to 1920. Unlike most feminist movements in the West, in India during colonial rule, the initial impetus was led by male social reformers. This included social reform to lift the prohibition on widow remarriage, to eliminate social malpractices like child marriage and sati (widow immolation), etc. The second phase (1920–1947) witnessed the intensification of nationalism and the political role of women in the freedom struggle against British rule expanded, bringing them out into the public sphere, yet also emphasizing their role as “good mothers and wives.” The third phase (1947–74) relegated the women’s movement to the sidelines since post-Independence nation-building assumed prime importance. Following the investigation of a government committee formed to examine the status of women in 1974, the tide changed for Indian feminism as it saw a stark resurgence in the 1980s, and this decade also marks the rise of the first feminist publishing house in India. 

Recounting the organic links that strengthened feminist publishing and activism in the 1980s, Ritu Menon, the co-founder of Kali for Women, said in an interview, “the feminist presses were not only part of the women’s movement, but what used to be called the women in the print movement. And the women in the print movement was made up, of course, of publishers, but also [of] reviewers, librarians, booksellers, designers, printers, binders and a whole support group of an international network, that provided not just solidarity but support.”[3]

Though at its genesis, feminist publishing in India found a formidable ally in the women’s movement in the urban centers of the country, it was mostly dismissed as trivial in content and without any market links by the mainstream publishing in India. Urvashi Butalia observes:

People were not particularly against what we were doing, but they just didn’t know… they didn’t understand. The English publishing world was not very hospitable to independent publishing. But because we had a track record in publishing, people were neither particularly hostile nor supportive. However, we had a huge amount of support from activists in the women’s movement who saw us as something that had grown out of it.[4]

The founders of Kali for Women, Ritu Menon (left) and Urvashi Butalia (right)

In the same year that Menon and Butalia founded Kali for Women, they also participated in the global feminist networks that were emerging within publishing and found inspiring alliances with international feminist print culture. Despite Kali for Women’s humble moorings and a feeble national presence vis-à-vis the mainstream publishing industry, 1984 was a historic year, which pushed feminist publishing in India from the offing of ideas onto the runway of reality. This was the pioneering feminist publishing house in India, and therefore of prime importance in setting the tone of how feminist voices would be heard, represented, and how a feminist narrative would emerge in the country’s print culture. Kali for Women’s inclusion in the first International Feminist Book Fair in London, in 1984, was the steppingstone for a nascent feminist print culture to emerge in India and connect with more robust movements elsewhere in the world. 
Menon recalls the Feminist Book Fair in London:

Feminist writers and publishers from all over the world gathered to celebrate not only the power of the word but also the solidarity of women in print. Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alifa Rifat, Barbara Smith, Ellen Kuzwayo, Gert Brandenberg, Suniti Namjoshi, and Madhu Kishwar—the whole surge and potential of the international women’s movement, it seemed, was there for all to see at Covent Garden, producing the knowledge and providing the perspective that would transform the world. Kali had no books, no authors, nothing to sell—but we covered our trestle table with our flyer, and the striking logo that Chandralekha had designed for us caught the attention of almost everyone who passed by.[5]

Sketches of the Kali for Women logo, designed by Chandralekha, a feminist, dancer and choreographer; first pamphlets/brochures published by the company. (Courtesy: Zubaan Books)

Among the teething problems for Kali for Women was the issue of low self-esteem and self-worth in women that made them doubt whether they really had anything important to write and whether they would have any readership. Butalia recollects:

We tried to get women to write, at first, nobody took any notice of us. But gradually this began to change and women came forward with their writings because when they saw that there were people interested in publishing them, they came up with things they had been hiding for years, that they had been sitting on. When you get accustomed to the habit of silence, and to hiding your creativity, it is very difficult to take that step out and to start publishing. So along with receiving the writings that women were doing, we had to work very hard to instill in women the confidence that what they had to say was important, worth listening to, and worth reading and spreading in the world.[6]

The trajectory of Kali for Women through the next two decades traced the ideological currents, the diversity, the differences, and synergies within the feminist movement in India. It stoked the critical questioning of existing narratives within histories and the quest for a feminist canon that would capture the context of the country. It also opened up explorations that have driven feminist publishing and work culture globally across the decades. How are the existing mainstream knowledge structures being challenged by this alternative space that feminist publishing seeks to create? If the publishing industry itself has been a male bastion, what would it take to unearth her-stories that challenge the grand narrative of histories?

In the introduction to This Book is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics, Jaime Harker and Cecilia Konchar Farr observe that feminist writing and publishing had a sharp activist edge:

What united them [early feminist writers] was a firm belief that books could be revolutionary, that language could remake the world, and that writing mattered in a profound way. This conviction, purposefully linking art and activism, left us an invigorating and diverse feminist canon.[7]

Was there a specific feminist canon that evolved out of the feminist writings in India during the 1980s and 1990s? What were the different forms of writings and aesthetics that came up during this time? This essay looks at the historical context within which India’s first feminist publishing house emerged. How were women’s experiences shaped and expressed? Between speech and silence, what role did publishing play in offering a platform for women’s voices?

Through a close examination of three different thematic strands or genres in the early books published by Kali for Women, the essay addresses issues of articulation—evolving a language that could strengthen the polyvocal, layered and nuanced registers of women’s experiences. Foraying back and forth between the definitive years from 1974 to 1994, the essay traces the evolution of the content and formalistic choices that Kali for Women exercised and the corresponding larger transformation of urban feminism in India from the “woman question” through the “women’s movement” to “gender equality.” Feminist publishing slowly brewed with a focus on presenting women’s experiences, establishing a feminist discourse that offered a way of looking at the gendered nature of our daily lives, politics at large, and the socio-cultural contexts. The roots lay in the first document that was published after India’s independence in 1947 to take stock of the status of women. The year was 1974, and it set the stage for the emergence of an enthusiastic, inquiring, and urgent need for feminist writing.

The Article of Equality

The Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) was formed in 1971 by a resolution passed by the Government of India. The objective assigned to the committee was to assess the status of women in India that would have resulted in policy reforms and social movements geared towards achieving the value of equality outlined in the constitution. In the decades following Independence (1947–1974), there was an absence of any specific study or data gathering around the status of women in the country, at either the national or regional level by the state. This indicated that while equality remained an ideal in the post-colonial nation-building exercise, and gender was one of the registers of equality—the others being caste, religion, distribution of resources, etc.—, it had been assumed by policymakers that striving for overall equality would automatically enhance the status of women in society. Yet, the report proved that this assumption was entirely wrong, and had led to an oversight where women’s emancipation was relegated to being an ancillary cause that would take care of itself. While civil society and non-profit organizations had been working at the grassroots level, especially in rural areas, this de-prioritization of gender equality at the policy level had led to the veiling of violence against women in urban spaces. The committee’s report was a rude shock to the administration and the government, led by India’s first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi.

The committee published its findings in 1974, with a document titled Towards Equality. The report published was to be shared as part of the United Nations’ Year of Women the following year (1975). Ironically, it concluded that despite the assurance of constitutional equality, the status of women largely remained unaffected, and in many aspects had deteriorated since the 1950s. The only positive progress was seen in the area of the education of middle-class women. Apart from this, the empirical evidence indicated that the sex ratio was declining at an alarming rate, the participation of women in governance remained low, the process of modernization seemed to have excluded them from its fold, and legislative reforms had not considered the socio-cultural underpinnings of the woman question. The processes of post-independence nation-building, which had promised radical progress, had also massively discounted the actual condition of women.  As Neera Desai put it,

A disturbing aspect of the social situation in India is the slow erosion of concern for women’s issues [after independence]. In the decades preceding the attainment of national independence, prior to 1947, there was an outstanding record of women’s participation in political struggle and through it of articulating their rights. Particularly until the early seventies, there has practically been no concerted action towards achieving the goal of equality. How is this inaction to be explained? Why have the women leaders chosen to accept and acquiesce?[8]

In the article “The Making of a Founding Text,” analyzing the Towards Equality document twenty years later, feminist scholar Vina Mazumdar (1927-2013), who joined the CSWI committee as the member secretary in 1973, reflected on its context, conceptual framework, and the questions it raised and excluded. Four critical observations set the ground for understanding how the perplexing findings of the report propelled feminist action in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

Firstly, Mazumdar asserted that the concept of “political” had been entirely excluded from examination, though it should have been one of the fundamental entry points for the CSWI:

Despite the reference in the very opening statement of the resolution of the Government of India constituting this committee according to the constitutional provisions relating to the rights and status of women, the word ‘political’ was completely missing from the terms of reference. While women were expected to play their role in the post-independence process of nation-building by being effective in their social and domestic roles as mothers, housewives, the trope of increased political participation in the democratic process was not prioritised.[9]

The second issue that Mazumdar points out is that there was a clear assumption in the fundamental premise of the document, that the problems faced by women were primarily present in rural areas and not urban ones. This oversight pushed issues like dowry under the rug, though they were rampant in urban areas as well. The spate of dowry deaths, where young brides were being burnt by their in-laws if they did not bring in regular and large sums of money from their paternal homes, rose to an alarming rate in urban centers in the 1980s. Women’s movements pivoted around this phenomenon in strong retaliation through protest marches, street theatre, and other kinds of advocacy for legal and policy changes. Feminist print culture, pamphlets, booklets, ephemera, and the scholarship of the 1980s revolved around these issues of violence against women.   

Thirdly, though the committee was instructed to examine the reasons behind the slippery progress of women’s education, the fundamental issue of “illiteracy” was not addressed. This also becomes important later when feminist writing attempts to include voices of the unlettered. For instance, Kali for Women published an innovative illustrated book about female anatomy, which was authored by women for educative purposes, though they were themselves not formally educated. We shall look closely at this book later in the essay.  

Lastly, Mazumdar also mentioned that the committee had, perhaps intuitively, observed that the status of women was deeply enmeshed within the socio-cultural fabric of the times. In the report they distinguished between equality and diversity, though prioritizing one over the other—

the committee had grasped that there was a difference between diversity and inequality. Over the decades that difference has become increasingly clear. But I am afraid that those of us who became active in the women’s movement gave so much priority to fighting the equality issue (over diversity) …[10]

While assessing the status of women, the term “status” itself was not an easy concept to unpack. Mazumdar reflects with much authenticity and insight on the idea of “social roles” that were taken as the cornerstone for the status of women, and which also produced a paradox:

This is where the committee had run into massive contradictions in the evidence that came to us—between women’s roles that were socially perceived, accepted, and recognized and the real, actual, varied, and multiple roles that women in various classes played. We had the perceptions but we did not have the concepts, the language, or the theory to fully articulate these perceptions and what thousands of women across the country were trying to tell us.[11]

This observation is key in understanding the lacuna of ideological frameworks and language for articulating the status of women that became the edifice, around which feminist publishing emerged. This was the gap that it sought to address in the next decade.

Adding on to this, it was remarkable that to be objective and unbiased, the committee also decided to abstain from referring to Western feminist works. They wanted to excavate the actual empirical evidence independently, without the prognosis of existing theory:

The committee imposed a self-denying ordinance on itself: not to be influenced by any other country reports or any feminist literature and philosophy.[12]

The above statement is deeply intriguing and striking. It implies that the feminist policymakers and researchers who were part of the committee chose to selectively distance their data-gathering and evaluation of women’s experiences from existing Western theoretical paradigms of feminism. This separation is significant because it indicated a radical departure from Western derivative feminist discourse and the search for homegrown perspectives. Did this pave the way for an “ear to the ground” approach for the consequent re-emergence of a strong feminist movement in the 1980s? Paradoxically, the detachment between the written word and the investigation of ground reality, between Western theory and practice in the 1970s, led to a deeper re-alignment and synergy between feminist activism and writing in the next decade, as we shall see. 

The committee, while assessing the status of women in the country, was floundering for a language to express this lived reality. At the same time, it had also suspended any engagement with existing feminist literature. This implied that information gathering was also accompanied by the search for a language that could specifically capture the contexts and conditions specific to India (?), without drawing on existing Western frameworks. In this context, exactly a decade later, when feminist publishing emerged it had a major role to play in offering platform, paradigm, voice, and language to several unique expressions of feminisms in India.[13] 

Close on the heels of Towards Equality, in 1976, Mazumdar brought together a team of 18 women to initiate an English feminist magazine, possibly the first of its kind in India. Among these women was also Urvashi Butalia. Titled Manushi, the magazine took off, yet problems within the group led to the initial team falling out. Recounting the learnings from this early experience, Butalia felt that the differences perhaps arose from the paradox that though their intent was to talk about the women’s issues, still they never clearly brought themselves into the conversation. The self-reflexivity to comprehend, acknowledge, and call out one’s own privilege and its moorings, to draw deeper connections between caste, class, and gender was perhaps still a decade away from feminist publishing at this time.

Nonetheless, unsettling articulations of the 1970s were crucial to the anchoring and emergence of feminist publishing and activism of the 1980s. Many questions, insights, and approaches from Towards Equality in 1974, echoed through the quest for frameworks, perspectives, and expressions with the surge of writing and publishing a decade later. In the next sections, we shall delve deeper into each of the insights articulated by Mazumdar in retrospect, regarding the first documentation on the status of women, and see how the experience of violence against women in urban areas played out into the world of words through a nascent feminist publishing endeavor that followed.

“But I’m Not a Feminist!”

In the 1980s, there was an alarming rise in dowry deaths and bride burning in urban centers, where young women were being burnt in their marital homes if perpetual demands for dowry were not met by their parents. Till now, what had been seen as a largely rural phenomenon by the state (as pointed out by Mazumdar in her reflection on the terms of reference for Towards Equality), emerged as an unmistakable social malaise that existed in middle-class urban homes, the same socio-cultural community that had been assumed to have emancipated their women folk adequately during the nationalist reforms. This led to the emergence of street activism, sloganeering, protest marches, and street theatre. Perhaps for the first time since the independence, feminist activists in urban areas came out in public spaces at such a nationwide scale.

At this time, it was not uncommon that a powerful speaker, when talking about women’s rights, would end a speech with an apologetic disclaimer—“But I’m not a feminist.” Feminism was starting to be seen as another Western import that would corrupt Indian culture and that threatened to destroy the tenets of peaceful family structures, on which the nation-building process was anchored. Many of those who were involved in the women’s movement and who were campaigning against the rising violence against women also chose to tow the safe line emphasizing that they believed in women’s equality but were not feminists! Activists became divided into those who wanted to work for women’s emancipation yet not be branded as “feminists” and those who were considered more radical and declared themselves to be “feminist activists.”

In their 1986 booklet published by Kali for Women, Some Questions on Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia, Kamla Bhasin and Nighat Said Khan attempted to bust myths around feminism and answer some pertinent questions. Booklets and pamphlets and such ephemera were important modes of feminist publishing during the 1980s. At this time, there was also an emerging suspicion and fear of feminism and what it entailed, and this booklet tried to squarely address these suspicions:

The media for example which is controlled to a large extent by men has been responsible for a widespread misrepresentation of feminists as ‘bra-burning’, ‘man-hating’, ‘family-destroying’ women. This propaganda is reinforced by other forces and groups that see the emancipation and liberation of women as a threat, with the result that feminists in our countries [South Asian nations] are attacked and dismissed as ‘middle class’, ‘westernized’, and ‘rootless’ women.[14]

Emerging from a series of women’s workshops conducted for South Asian activists in the 1980s, the booklet also attempted to define feminism in the context of South Asia and its specific contexts as “an awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and men to change this situation.”[15]

Presented in a lucid, conversational question-and-answer format, the booklet sought to dispel uninformed biases and fears around feminism while nurturing a spirit of inquiry and curiosity around the cultural significance and relevance of feminism in South Asia in the present moment. While the term feminism may be foreign, the concept stands for a transformational process, a process which started in South Asia in the 19th century as an organised and articulated stand against women’s subordination. Thus feminism was not artificially imposed here, nor was it a foreign ideology. […] In fact feminist consciousness arose in Asia during certain historic periods of heightened political consciousness, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during struggles against foreign rule and against the local despotism of feudal monarchs.[16]

It also took a critical position on the capitalist mode of production that had historically reinforced gender-specific roles. The economic model of development followed in the 1950s and 1960s had indeed led to an inverse deterioration in the status of women. This was indicated and implied, though subtly, in the booklet, and was further substantiated more assertively by feminist scholarship in the 1990s (as we shall see in the works of Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid mentioned in the next sections). It also fielded questions like whether a housewife can be called feminist, concerns around how patriarchy is oppressive for both genders, and why it is natural for feminism to be an uncomfortable ideology to adopt. It opened up the exploration of these tricky spaces and the tightrope between the personal and political that both men and women face when structural hierarchies are questioned, and the politics is no longer out there in the world but within their own homes.Once women question patriarchy, once we question male superiority and male domination, we necessarily run into conflict with our own fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and friends since these are the men who personify patriarchy for us in the most painful and immediate way. It is painful not only for the men who are questioned but also for the women who raise the questions.[17]

The questions raised and answered by the booklet in 1986, pointed to the powerfully political positioning of feminism at that time. It is noteworthy that this women’s movement was emerging parallel to and independent of mainstream political parties:

In the 1980s, the self-defined “autonomous” women’s movement emerged, that is, autonomous of the patriarchal control of left-wing political parties. The first national-level autonomous women’s conferences were thus attended by non-funded, non-party, explicitly feminist groups.[18]

Books published by Kali for Women on a shelf in Urvashi Butalia’s home (Still from the documentary The Books We Made, 2016)

The organic synergy between feminist activism and publishing at this time became increasingly visible. Publishing as a gesture of activism, and activism fuelled by publishing emerged as invitations for women and men to explore, understand, and embrace feminism as an ideology. As the booklet was distributed in workshops, training, and often on streets and shops, it was hard to miss the logo of the upcoming publishing house. And right above the logo for Kali for Women with the fierce eyes and the third eye of the goddess, the slogan was seated, as an easy invitation: “Don’t be afraid of feminism, join it.”

A Book for the Unlettered

Shareer ki Jankari (Know your body) was another early book published by Kali for Women in 1989. The book posed a puzzle in more than one way. It questioned the fundamental basis for a book—that one should know how to read and write! It was conceptualized by a group of unlettered women, who wanted to transmit knowledge about the female body to people in their village. Having worked with the grassroots organizations that Kali for Women was allied with, they chose to approach the publishing house to help bring their idea to life through a book that could be accessed even by those who may not be entirely literate. This proved to be a significant book in the repertoire of the publishing house. It also emerged as a historical milestone, where feminist solidarities between activists and print culture came to fruition at the rural-urban intersection of Indian feminisms. 

It also raised tangential questions about the idea of a singular author figure. What happens when knowledge is from the community and to be shared with the community? Lastly, how to articulate embodied and lived knowledge in the pages of a book? In these ways, the creation and publishing of the book challenged the existing frameworks of publishing itself, offering a creative challenge to Kali for Women as they rose to the occasion. 

The book, which was proposed by a group of women from a village in the North Indian state Rajasthan, presented a visual, illustrated documentation of the anatomy of a woman’s body and the changes it undergoes, covering aspects of menstruation, sex, pregnancy, menopause, and more. The women had already made two copies of the book by hand and tested a pilot with prospective readers in the village. The book depicted the naked female body to educate people on the function of women’s anatomy. People in the village pointed out that this was rather unrealistic since no one had seen a naked woman walking the village streets. It appeared strange to them to see these naked bodies on the pages of the book. Accepting this input, the women attempted a creative alternative. This time, the illustrations portrayed fully clothed bodies—women dressed as they were usually seen in daily life in the village. The clothes were drawn onto a cut-out panel with a flap that could be lifted and opened into the illustration of the body as it was, naked beneath the clothes! The unique solution worked, and the entire book was illustrated in this manner.

The other perplexing aspect of the book was regarding authorship. Being a community initiative, the women informed the publishing house that there were 75 authors of the book, and all the names were eventually listed on the book! This was the first time the publishing house had come across such a unique claim.

The next challenge posed by the book was the printing process. The regular press they worked with informed them of a strange problem. They were reluctant to print the book because the young boys working at the press were “getting excited” by the images in the book. Finally, after much hunting, they located another press at the other end of the city that was run mostly by women, and they were comfortable with the visual material of the book.

As soon as the book was printed, the collective of women sold all the copies themselves in their villages. There were 70,000 copies of the book, none sold by bookshops, all sold in rural areas by the community. Butalia reflects,

Publishing this book taught me a vital lesson. One is aware that publishing books is a limited business since books traditionally only reach out to people who can read and write, who have the time and money to buy and read books. Here was a group of women who were illiterate writers, who had produced this book, breaking stereotypes of caste, class, gender, and what is considered good writing![19]

The book was a landmark shift that questioned, challenged, and offered alternatives to how knowledge is produced and received. With its stark simplicity and creative brilliance, it poked existing publishing strategies, proving how ingenious, alternative, innovative, and vast the scope of emerging feminist canons could be. 

Feminist Historiography
2013 edition of the book Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History
published at Zubaan Publishing in New Delhi, founded by Urvashi Butalia in 2003.

Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History was an anthology of essays that was shaped between 1984–87 and published by Kali for Women in 1989. Edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, feminist activists and scholars, the collection argued for the feminist scholarship to revisit colonial history through the lens of gender. It attempted to bring out women’s histories that had remained unheard, or even unvoiced, and therefore substantively marginalized. It focused on “relating the ideological to the experiential.” Feminist activism in the 1980s, emerging out of the severe rise in violence against women, was rooted in these lived experiences of patriarchal oppression. These experiences could only be shared and mediated through perspective and language, i.e. the ideology that became accessible through scholarship and publishing.

The 1980s compilation has undergone several revisions and remains one of the primary references in the curriculum of gender studies courses in the country, as well as in international contexts. In a conversation with Pragati Mohapatra, at Indra Prastha College for Women (Delhi) in 2018, Sangari shared that the book was conceived at the first inter-disciplinary national conference on women in the same women’s college in 1981. The proceedings of the conference, which had papers from various disciplines like literature, arts, economics, etc., were compiled into a volume called Women and Culture.[20] Not entirely content with the scope of the book, Sangari and Vaid decided to compile a more comprehensive anthology that could be used as a reference for master’s students at Delhi University.

There was a deep sense of perspective and directionality that we had. We had started imagining things that didn’t exist. It’s a very grounded book, that did not borrow from feminist writing in other countries. At that time there were not that many people working on gender. We asked scholars who had never worked on gender, to go back to the archive and asked them—how would you read something that you work on in a new way? The idea was to set up a new object of inquiry but with the perspective that we have absorbed from years of activism in the women’s movement.[21]

The book was one of the first attempts to synergize feminist academic scholarship and activism, giving historical perspective to the gendered socio-cultural matrix. It was not only a documentation of the women’s movement but applied the ideological and intellectual insights from the movement to look at historical narratives. Summarizing some of their key findings, Sangari says:

Patriarchy was not just a residue of the feudal system, but that patriarchies were constantly remade and reformulated, and had to be seen as part of a historical process.[22]

Tradition and the calibration of modernity were strong aspects of women’s lives and one of their deepest dilemmas in the 1980s. The book addressed this issue. It also looked at the work of nationalist male reformists of the early twentieth century, recognizing that while the reforms significantly altered the status of women, they were also based on patriarchy. One of the key constructs of the book was that it located gender as a verb—”the gendering of social relations.” The other key contribution of the book was the novel idea of “multiple patriarchies,” rather than the idea of monolithic overarching patriarchy.

In terms of the process, while the editors did not author any of the essays in the anthology, their introduction lays down the framework and presents novel arguments for the interpretation, methods, and fresh insights. They were also deeply involved in the writing of the essays, for instance in translating some portions. The revisions were done through exchanges of inland letters, with around three drafts for each essay. The entire process took about three years.

Echoing the concerns in the findings of Towards Equality, in the introduction of the book, the editors point out that “the social and political developments of the past two decades have shattered the post-colonial complacency about the improving status of women and with it has gone the legitimacy of nationalist models of reform and “development.”[23]

Coming a full circle, from the wake-up call in 1974 to the ideological awakening in 1984, and its expression through the seminal text Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History in 1989, feminist publishing, scholarship, and activism were a compelling force. It was the first time that erudite mainstream scholarship had defined and explored alternative feminist historiography.

Feminist historiography now implies in some sense a move towards the integrated domain of cultural history. […] Historiography may be feminist without being, exclusively, women’s history. Such historiography acknowledges that each aspect of reality is gendered, and is thus involved in questioning all that we think we know, in a sustained examination of analytical and epistemological apparatus, and in a dismantling of the ideological presuppositions of so-called gender-neutral methodologies.[24]

Conclusion: Breaking the Silence

The synergy between feminist activism, scholarship, and publishing laid the ground for unique feminist articulations to emerge in the 1980s. The rise of India’s first feminist publishing house at this crucial point was sourced in this synergy, and conversely, fuelled it as well. From pamphlets and illustrated books to dense sociological and historical scholarship, Kali for Women brought forth feminist voices from different registers into the print culture of the country.

Named after the Hindu goddess Kali, the publishing house was a pioneer in seeking out, curating, and publishing women’s writing. Butalia points out that they chose Kali because she is first and foremost a single goddess, not a consort, she fights, battles, and rages to destroy a world of ignorance out of which she creates a new world, an inclusive world, a world of knowledge. And knowledge is a potent weapon in battling for change. Kali is also a symbol of rage. Stemming from a need to speak out about violence against women, the feminist print culture of that time also displays a register of rage that was actively being performed in public spaces by feminist organizations. It also validated and voiced the lived experiences of women and located them as protagonists in historical narratives as well as fiction, which had often been overshadowed in the past. 

Later in 2003, when the two co-founders parted ways due to differences of opinion, one branch of Kali for Women became Women Unlimited (headed by Ritu Menon), while the other transformed into Zubaan Books (led by Urvashi Butalia). The urdu word zubaan means voice and language, and in tandem with the intersectional shifts in feminism and gender studies, also disengaged itself from its religious connotation and transferred to a more inclusive realm of feminist alliances.

The deep links between feminist activism, writing, and publishing strengthened critical solidarity—one that emerged out of silence and continues to embody and embolden diverse voices.

About the author

Shrinkhla Sahai is an arts writer, radio producer and mental health practitioner. She has written extensively on Indian arts and culture for various journals, newspapers, and academic books and is a regular contributor to The Hindu (a leading Indian daily) arts edition. She is a visiting faculty for cultural studies, performing arts, podcasting and audio media at universities across India. She has also authored a book on Indian classical music and dance for children. Her passion for the field of mental health urged her to train as a queer-affirmative psychotherapist, combining her experience in arts and culture to work in the field of Cultural Psychology.

She holds an MPhil in Theatre and Performance Studies and a Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, where she is presently completing her PhD and was a Charles Wallace Fellow and research assistant at the University of Warwick, UK. She writes on performing and visual arts, specialising in articles, features, reviews, profiles and mapping trends in Indian theatre, classical arts, gender and contemporary performance.


Bhasin, Kamla, and Nighat Said Khan. Some Questions on Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986.

Chakravarti, Uma. Thinking Gender, Doing Gender. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2016.

Desai, Neera. “From Accommodation to Articulation: Women’s Movement in India.” In Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development, edited by Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock, and Shirley Ardener, 287–99. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Harker, Jaime, and Cecilia Konchar Farr, eds. This Book is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016.

Kathuria, Poonam, and Abha Bhaiya, eds. Indian Feminisms: Individual and Collective Journeys. New Delhi: Zubaan, 2018.

Mazumdar, Vina. “The Making of a Founding Text.” In Women’s Studies in India: A Reader, edited by Mary E. John, 27–32. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008.

Menon, Nivedita. Seeing Like a Feminist. New Delhi: Zubaan – Penguin Books, 2012.

Rege, Sharmila. Writing Caste/Writing Gender. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2006.

Sangari, Kumkum, and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989.

Sarkar, Tanika. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism. Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001.

[1] The incident is narrated by Urvashi Butalia in several interviews. A video recording of her TEDx talk at IIM, Ranchi, is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czQzjp-LN80 Accessed August 12, 2020.

[2] Urvashi Butalia is an Indian feminist activist, historian, author and publisher. She has been involved in legal reforms dealing with dowry, marriage, sexual violence and sexual harassment at the workplace. Her book of oral histories of the Partition of India in 1947 The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India is considered a significant work in South Asian history.
Ritu Menon is an Indian feminist publisher, writer and journalist. She has written and edited books, newspaper articles and op-eds on questions of feminism and violence, religion and social order. She has been active in the South Asian women’s movement for several decades. She edited the much acclaimed book No Woman’s Land: Women from Pakistan, India & Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India, and several anthologies of stories by Indian women.
In 2011, Menon and Urvashi Butalia were jointly conferred the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, by the Government of India.

[3] Rebecca Bowers, “Interview: A Q&A with Ritu Menon, Co-founder of Feminist Press Kali for Women,” LSE Review of Books, 20 March, 2018, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2018/03/20/interview-a-qa-with-ritu-menon-co-founder-of-feminist-press-kali-for-women/ Accessed August 12, 2020

[4] Dipsikha Thakur, “Independent Voices: The Women behind Zubaan, in Their Own Words,” Scroll.in, 19 Jul, 2015 https://scroll.in/article/742264/independent-voices-the-women-behind-zubaan-in-their-own-words Accessed August 12, 2020

[5] “A Feminist’s War with Words,” The Hindu Business Line https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/variety/a-feminists-war-with-words/article23031752.ece# Accessed August 15, 2020

[6] Urvashi Butalia, personal interview with the author, July 2020.

[7] Jaime Harker and Cecilia Konchar Farr, eds., This Book is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016), 14. 

[8] Neera Desai, “From Accommodation to Articulation: Women’s Movement in India,” in Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development, eds. Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock, and Shirley Ardener (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), 287.

[9] Vina Mazumdar, “The Making of a Founding Text,” in Women’s Studies in India: A Reader, ed. Mary E. John (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2008), 28. The article is an excerpt from a meeting held in 1994 to mark 20 years of the CSWI report. In the meeting, members connected with the drafting of the report were invited to reflect on the report and its findings, in retrospect, and offer critical evaluations as well as suggestions for the way ahead for the women’s movement.

[10] Mazumdar, “The Making of a Founding Text,” 29–30.

[11] Mazumdar, “The Making of a Founding Text,” 31.

[12] Mazumdar, “The Making of a Founding Text,” 30.

[13] In the introduction to Indian Feminisms: Individual and Collective Journeys, Poonam Kathuria points out that—“What has been unique to India, and for that matter to South Asia, is that much, if not most, feminist writing has been done by feminist activists who have drawn theoretical understandings from their own experiences and practice.”

[14] Kamla Bhasin and Nighat Said Khan, Some Questions on Feminism and its Relevance in South Asia (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986), 2.

[15] Bhasin and Khan, Some Questions on Feminism, 3.

[16] Bhasin and Khan, Some Questions on Feminism, 5.

[17] Bhasin and Khan, Some Questions on Feminism, 17.

[18] Nivedita Menon, Seeing Like a Feminist (New Delhi: Zubaan – Penguin Books, 2012), 218.

[19] Personal interview with the author, July 2020

[20] The first edition mentioned by Sangari is unavailable now, a later edition was published in 1994. Edited by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Women and Culture, (New Delhi: Research Centre for Women’s Studies, 1994)

[21] Personal interview with the author, July 2020.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, “Recasting Women: An Introduction,” in Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989), 2.

[24] Ibid.

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