By Samruddhi Ganvir*
“Women are left out of history because history has always been about and written by the powerful, which was predominantly men.” — Urvashi Butalia
There aren’t many people — men and women — who would readily agree to have meaningful conversations about how history is mostly about powerful men and how women have been conveniently left out as if they didn’t even exist. People tend to get defensive and quote examples of one or two queens that managed to make it into the books. Thankfully, Urvashi is not one of them.
Born in Ambala, Haryana, Urvashi Butalia grew up in a progressive household. She is a literature postgraduate from DU and has a masters from University of London. She is known for her work in the Indian women’s movement and for co-founding India’s first feminist publishing house, Kali for Women. Urvashi and Ritu Menon together were awarded the Padma Shri for their work in literature and education.
My conversation with Urvashi was as candid as it gets. She was my gender studies professor back at Ashoka University. Her course was one of my favorites there, and the reason was that she never held back in stating her opinions and calling out the things that bothered her. Having already studied her work back at Ashoka, my goal through this interview was to understand her perspective on how my generation could undo some of the injustices that had been done long ago and were still in place today as well as to understand why feminism as a movement has gained such a negative image.
My first question to her was how history was written from a man’s perspective, how women were often left out of them and how our generation could make sure we didn’t repeat the same mistakes. According to Urvashi, the need is to look at history from the ground up to see who are the many actors that get left out, women being among them. There are also people at the margins of society- sexual minorities, Dalits, etc.- who are left out because they are not among the powerful. But history is or should be about people, not about power or the powerful. So, we also need to reevaluate what history means and whom it is about.
Urvashi says that my generation has the privilege to study in institutions that promote liberal studies education and helps us develop the curiosity which we must keep alive. Because curiosity will lead us to ask questions and these questions will challenge the status quo. We see so many women around us doing and accomplishing great things that need to be part of history, that need to be learned by our future generations. We must ask questions that matter because that leads to others asking those questions, about how history is passed down, how it is written, who writes it, why there are absences. Is history just a series of chronological records of documents in
government files? Or is it really about the people, the society, and the interactions? If it’s about people, how do we capture their histories? These are the things we need to think about. Because history lies in the nuances of everyday life and not just the accomplishments of famous leaders. History is a story about where we are or were as a society. And society is made up of everyone- men, women, sexual minorities, Dalits.
As a follow-up, I asked Urvashi if she thought history was also manipulated to keep women out because their contributions were considered irrelevant or tertiary. To which she said that conveniently leaving out and deliberately leaving out women have both been a part of writing history. If say a male historian sits down to write and realizes that women’s histories are just as important, he may not be able to track down anything in history books so far to build on. And for many, their notions of what is important are located in the public sphere and the world of power, where women weren’t written to be featuring. Women were majorly in the domestic sphere, which was not even studied till 30-35 years ago. The key is for historians to rethink their practice.
Next, I asked Urvashi why feminism gets such a bad name as a movement and why are people, especially men, skeptical to call themselves feminists. I asked this because without feminism, women wouldn’t even have basic rights, let alone be part of recorded history. Urvashi says that in any movement, people make mistakes and then they learn from these mistakes and refine their tactics. Feminism is no exception. And it feels threatening to a lot of people because they either don’t understand it or don’t want to understand it.
Feminism is a system of political thoughts, thinking values and ideals which do not stop at the door of the household. Because feminism believes that what happens in our personal lives is also political. The power that plays out in our personal relationships, in our houses is also a power we must question. Which is why feminism is so complicated; it questions the most intimate sphere of our lives from a political standpoint. It goes to the root of inequality and patriarchy, forcing us to introspect the power dynamics in our everyday lives. It questions the family structure and calls it the most oppressive, patriarchal institutions in our society. Hence, it is easier to label a movement so complicated instead of trying to understand it.
Our arrogance often leads us to think we understand the intricacies of important political movements and issues. But there is so much to every movement that we are too lazy to look into. It is our responsibility to stand up for the ones who were left out just because they were different.
*IIM Bangalore PGP 2020-2022