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South Asia mourns Indian feminist icon Kamla Bhasin

Kamla Bhasin at TEDx MSIT. 2017. Image via Flickr by TEDx MSIT. BY NC-ND 2.0.

Kamla Bhasin, a pioneer of the women’s rights movement in South Asia, breathed her last on Saturday, September 25, 2021, in New Delhi, India. She was 75 years old and was diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier. She is known as a feminist, author, organizer, protester, secularist and social scientist. She was deemed one of the best gender trainers in the region and an icon of women's rights. During the five decades of her work in fields of women’s rights, human development, peace and democracy, she has trained and inspired thousands of feminists across many South Asian countries. Activists remembered her on social media and mourned her death.

Bangladeshi human rights activist Khushi Kabir mourned Kamla Bhasin on Twitter:

Five glorious decades of work

Kamla Bhasin was born on April 24, 1946, in Shaheedanwali village in present-day Pakistan and her family moved to Rajsthan during the partition of India in 1947. She completed a master's degree from Rajasthan University and went to West Germany in the late 1960s with a fellowship to study sociology of development and was later employed as a teacher in Bad Honnef. After she returned to India in 1970, she started working for Seva Mandir, a grassroots NGO in Udaipur, as a development worker and activist. After that, she joined the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and was first posted in Bangladesh in 1976 to work with Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a rural public health organization. In the next decades, her main job was organizing capacity-building programs, identifying innovative development work in Asian countries and creating networks between people in many countries of South Asia.

Development Analyst Shobha Raghuram from Bangalore remembered the many facets of Bhasin:

Bhasin is best known for her work with Sangat, a South Asian Feminists Network which came out of the Sangat Month Long Course (a feminist capacity building course on gender, sustainable livelihoods, human rights and peace) as part of her FAO work. Sangat has developed the capacities of hundreds of women activists from South Asian countries during the 1980s and 1990s. The Sangat Network was officially formed in 1998 at a workshop of gender trainers, held in Bangladesh and organized by an FAO-NGO Programme. Bhasin quit her job with FAO in 2002 and joined the Sangat Network as an adviser, to continue her work. The alumni of the Sangat courses across South Asia are connected with each other, and engage in cross-border cooperation and events each year. The network is currently facilitated by Jagori, a feminist organization Bhasin co-founded in 1984.

Bhasin also played a crucial role in the outreach of the One Billion Rising global campaign as the South Asia Coordinator.

Kamla Bhasin was featured in several interviews and TEDx talks across India. Here is one such talk from last year at TEDxDurbarMarg:

Rewriting nursery rhymes and the Azadi slogan

Kamla Bhasin wrote over 19 books and many training materials on understanding patriarchy and gender, some of which have been translated into dozens of languages. In the 1980s, while buying nursery rhyme books for her young children she was shocked by the stereotyping and inbuilt patriarchalism in most books, where the fathers went to work and mothers stayed at home to cook and take care of children, and the boys would go on adventures leaving the little girls behind.

So Bhasin wrote rhymes that reflected the modern household, which told the stories of working mothers and girls who were into sports just like the boys. She published those rhymes in a book titled Housework is Everyone’s Work – Rhymes for Just and Happy Families,” which was translated into several languages.

One of her poems, “Because I Am a Girl, I Must Study,” which stresses the need for women's empowerment through education, is very popular among activists. Sruthi Kalyani tweets:

One of Bhasin's slogans — azadi (freedom in Urdu) — is very popular among activists and had been used in different socio-political protests. She first heard the chant for azadi in 1984, among feminists in Pakistan, who were protesting against the Zia-ul-Haq regime. Inspired, she wrote a poem and popularized the chant in India, and it went on to be featured in a Bollywood movie.

Activist Anjali Bhardwaj tweets:

She touched many lives

Activists across South Asia remember her work and how she touched people's lives. Bhasin helped build bridges between activists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka through her training works via the Sangat Network.

Pakistani activist Nadia Agha tweeted:

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan acknowledged Bhasin's contributions:

Bangladeshi singer and journalist Elita Karim remembers Bhasin:

Bhasin rejected the idea that feminism is a solely Western concept, insisting that it is rooted in the struggles and tribulations of people of different countries. She held that the struggle for gender equality was not a fight between men and women, holding that the patriarchy is equally damaging for men because it dehumanizes and brutalizes them. According to her, despite all the advances of women in South Asia, they are falling behind because of three things: capitalist patriarchy, right-wing politics and religious fundamentalism.

Pakistani author and feminist Maria Rashid tweets:

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