A SPOTLIGHT ON WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN INDIA AT THE MELBOURNE WRITERS FESTIVAL
Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (Hardie Grant Books, 2016) is an anthology exploring what it means to be a woman in India during a time of change, and the inspiration for two panel sessions at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. We sat down with both the anthology’s Australian editor, Catriona Mitchell, and one of its writers, Salma, to talk about what it means to be a woman in India and their hopes for gender equality in the country and beyond.
We met Salma in a café in Collingwood. She was on her way back from the Byron Bay Writers Festival where she received a standing ovation following the screening of a documentary about her life.
Salma is an incredible woman who demonstrates that change is possible, even in the most impossible circumstances. She has been writing poetry since she was around 14 years old in order to survive the intense loneliness and hopelessness that was forced upon her.
Along with many other Tamil Muslim girls in her village, Salma was taken out of school and imprisoned in the house once she hit puberty. She then went on the spend her entire teenage years in solitude, craning her neck to see the outside world until the day when she would be married. Salma, a pseudonym she gave herself, began to write poetry to express and cope with her extreme isolation. After a series of published poems but no teenage years to speak of, Salma was married. And her situation only got worse from there. Having been denied writing and reading by her husband and in-laws, she wrote poetry at night and had her mother smuggle out the poems when she came to visit. Poetry gave Salma a sense of identity and hope, and the ability to share her experience and solidarity with her readers. After 25 years of servitude, Salma’s husband allowed her to take her place in the outside world. Salma grasped freedom with both hands, successfully running for chairperson of the town Panchayat and then the Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.
Although Salma’s situation has changed drastically, the themes of her poetry and novels continue to carry a number of consistent themes. Salma stands on the shoulders of generations of Tamil women who have been victims of archaic traditions and have histories almost identical to hers. She is acutely aware that her experiences are not just her own, but that the pain and feelings she has belong to all such women. And so, until the situation for women improves, Salma will continue to carry the voices of her sex, and speak of how women are discriminated against, denied agency, opportunity, dignity and identity, both in India and around the world purely because of their gender.
For Salma, having the opportunity to share her story in Walking Towards Ourselves with other Indian women has been very important. She hopes that this anthology along with her other novels will console women and inspire them to step forward and fight for social change.
“All women need to understand their own strength and prove to themselves and the people around them who they are and what they’re capable of. No one can take their strength or identity away from them,” she says.
This mirrors what editor Catriona Mitchell hoped for the anthology. The project has provided a platform for Indian women to tell their own stories or present the stories of women in their immediate acquaintance. Following the well documented gang rape case in Delhi in 2012 and the protests that came after it, Mitchell, who has a deep love for India, wanted the anthology to present the breadth and range of different women’s lives in India, and go beyond the predominantly negative stereotypes presented in mainstream media. India is a pluralistic society, full of contrasts, languages, and cultural norms, so there is no ‘one’ type of woman in India. The anthology therefore includes stories from a variety of women from different geographical areas, age groups, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and their experiences include all the joys, challenges, opportunities, and rewards of being a woman in India.
“Some stories are more light and humorous and talk about modern freedoms, while some are, like Salma’s, about women who are bound by traditions frozen in time,” says Mitchell.
The overall result is a representation of what is currently happening in India, where different centuries live side by side and bump against each other; where some women are living suppressed lives and some are fighting for or enjoying freedoms that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago.
Catriona Mitchell will be moderating two intimate and bold panel discussions on Walking Towards Ourselves, to shine a spotlight on the importance, richness and depth of Indian women’s stories. The first will take place this Saturday August 27, 1pm, ACMI The Cube, with erotic memoirist Rosalyn D’Mello and poet and dancer Tishani Doshi discussing women, writing and the body. The second session will take place on Saturday 4 September at 2.30pm, also at ACMI The Cube, with Tishani Doshi and India’s first feminist publisher, Urvashi Butalia, talking about how women can help other women in India, and inspire each other down the generations to create lasting change.
More information on these events:
More information on Walking Towards Ourselves (Hardie Grant Books, 2016):