Against the Odds: The Story of Saheli
Formally, it was on August 11, 1981 that eight women with Rs 80, two jharus, one notebook and a fly-swatter (not to mention, the strength of their convictions) got together to start Saheli. But from the very beginning, Saheli has belonged to countless women, been the centre of many campaigns, and the home of many more debates and action, stories and sisterhood. So how do we look back on thirty years of an intense, and yet almost amorphous, process? How do we revisit many journeys within one journey, talk of many certainties within some uncertainties, many lives within the life of one feminist collective based in New Delhi?
Saheli emerged out of the campaigns against dowry and custodial rape that swept the country, starting in the late 1970s – Mathura, Rameeza Bi, Maya Tyagi, Sudha Goel – cases that catalysed the emergence of many women’s groups. Of course, women have struggled since the ages and been part of many movements, but this time we were talking about what was affecting us as ‘women’: our lives, our bodies and our labour; the violence with which we are routinely confronted; the silences that surround our inequity; the hold of religion on us; our sexuality; about the myriad laws governing us and about the ubiquitous role of the state in our lives.
Women’s organizations came together to protest against the Sudha Goel judgement by the High Court. We were issued show cause notice, asking why contempt of court proceedings should not be issued against us. It has taken more than 30 years for independent India’s women to speak out. Are we to be silenced by contempt notices?
First Four Years.Saheli, 1985
In Saheli, our understanding of these issues evolved from the support we provided to individual women and which remained our primary work for more than a decade. When we started out to create a space for women to come and share their experiences of being women in a man’s world, of dealing with violent, indifferent, oppressive or incompatible marriages and families, there were no prescriptions, no manifestos or blueprints. Only a certainty that, together, women could support each other, find alternatives and create a better world.
I will never forget my first day in Saheli. Each one of them made me feel as if I had grown a couple of support pillars around me reaching out to me to help. I was the first ‘case’ of Saheli.
Ashima, Hyderabad, July, 2006
As our work expanded, we came to understand various other kinds of violence in which women’s lives are enmeshed: sati, sexual harassment, marital rape and violence against lesbians; through our work on health, we also exposed the violence of coercive population control policies and the misuse of technology to eliminate female foetuses. Violence in its overt and implicit forms – from sexual harassment at the workplace to violence and rape by the armed forces in the north-east, Kashmir and other areas of conflict; political violence and the violence of development – has been an essential part of our interventions and campaigns. And, yet, the fact remains that from sexual violence in so-called ‘normal’ times to situations of caste and communal conflict and attacks in the name of family and community ‘honour’, the cycles of violence and control over women’s lives grow ever more pervasive.
Confronting ‘Home Sweet Home’ and other myths
I am the unfortunate mother a girl who was burnt at the altar of greed. Coming to Saheli, listening to the sorrows of other people, one forgets one’s own sorrow. It sometimes seems that the whole world has turned its face away from us. But we have come into a new world here – we must work to end dowry, help women to stand on their own two feet.
Satyarani, First Four Years. Saheli, 1985
In the course of our early work, it became apparent that a major factor contributing to the silence shrouding violence against women within marriage and the family was the widespread perception of it as ‘acceptable’, a ‘private’ matter to be dealt with through ‘adjustment’ and ‘compromise’ (by the woman, of course!). Consequently, public discourse on the issue was extremely contentious and, not surprisingly, it was women and groups like us who got labelled ‘home-breakers’ for speaking out. A reality that continues unto this day with the strongest of women anxiously asserting that they are “not feminists”. But to them and everyone else we say, “Never mind, but we are!” Card-carrying members in a manner of speaking… without the cards, of course!
Supporting women who suffered domestic violence and helping them recover their sense of self was not easy. To quote the Saheli newsletter of April 1987:
‘At our level, what we really try to get across is empathy with the woman’s pain, bewilderment, insecurity, and show her that there is an alternative, which also is not easy to cope with, but that it would be her choices which count with us and not the demands and expectations thrust on her. We try giving her a sense of security, the knowledge that she is not alone in her struggle, and show her linkages between her personal oppression and the oppression of women within our society.’
Extending help, legal aid, skills-training and jobs was challenging at many other levels, too. It seemed as though every system was pitted against women. Our work constantly brought us up against patriarchal forces in the form of unsupportive families and neighbours, dismissive police constables, unscrupulous lawyers, unsympathetic magistrates and a hidebound media that persisted in blaming the victim. Even we were not spared. When we gave shelter to a young woman who wanted to leave her home, the police accused us of running a brothel and charged us with abduction! (Women’s Feature Service)