South Asian Women's Day 2018: Notes from an event that celebrated queer love, diaspora feminists

On 30 November, feminist groups and their allies gathered in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kolkata, Shillong and Delhi to celebrate the 16th annual South Asian Women’s Day (SAWD). In Delhi, the celebration was organised by One Billion Rising (OBR), in association with Sangat. It took place at the Satya Sai Auditorium, and featured dance and music performances, stand-up comedy and speeches. As always, the theme of the event was cross-border friendship and love, but also focused on freedom from Section 377, and standing in solidarity with the #MeToo movement. “We feel that it’s really important to have these days which celebrate our solidarity. There’s a lot of struggle involved in the work we do, but it’s also important to bring joy and love into all of that,” says Nastasia Paul Gera, Sangat coordinator. Love certainly was the central theme of the event, as their official slogan was ‘Love has the power to end violence’.

Renowned feminist, scholar and OBR South Asia coordinator Kamla Bhasin set the tone for the evening through an opening speech that emphasised the need to celebrate not only joy, but grief in the feminist community across borders. Bhasin spoke in Hindi and English from a podium draped with a banner that said ‘men of quality do not fight equality’—a point she brought up when speaking about the men who showed up in support of #MeToo. Throughout the speech, she stressed the importance of intersectionality, as she stood in solidarity with the farmers' protest in Delhi.

 South Asian Womens Day 2018: Notes from an event that celebrated queer love, diaspora feminists

Ananya Dance Theater performs a piece on global feminist solidarities. Photograph by Suneeta Dhar

Regarding the fight against Section 377, Bhasin admitted that queer people had to teach her to speak up, and also recognised the role of Bhanvari Devi in starting the #MeToo movement. “Unless there is cooperation in South Asia, no country can deal with poverty and disease, especially in Pakistan and India,” she added, asking the audience to stand up in a minute of silence for South Asian feminists lost this year. Her speech was interspersed with calls-to-action and response naras (slogans) like ‘the women/indigenous/queer/Dalit united will never be defeated’ and ‘humko chahiye ekta’ (we want unity), creating an intimate unity that was expressed throughout the evening.

The performance line-up was a mix of local, national and international performers. Like proud parents at their children’s first recital, several audience members pulled out their phones to record the performances. This was particularly endearing when the young girls from the Center for Equity and Inclusion (CEQUIN) and Srijanatmak Manushi Sanstha (SMS) performed their fusion dances on stage. Archana Kaul choreographed the SMS fusion classical performance by East Delhi-based girls, while Jamia Nagar’s teen footballers from CEQUIN performed Bollyhop. Both performances felt intimate, evoking feelings of community and courage, especially in the rare moments of imperfections when one of the girls was slightly out of sync. The football drills performed on stage by CEQUIN’s girls during their dance added to the fun.

Gujarati comedian Preeti Das, who has also created a female-based comic collective Mahila Manch, performed a less family friendly but equally enjoyable 15-minute set. She spoke of the government, taking a dig at the ‘acche din aayenge’ idea, expressed ridicule at Gujaratis protesting against Sunny Leone advertising condoms during Navratri, and spoke on the travails of parenting. Das also touched upon the #MeToo movement, most memorably poking fun at comic Utsav Chakravorty by saying: “Dick pics are like semicolons. We don’t know what to do with them, and where to put them.”

Keeping intersectionality in mind, the evening featured a speech and a dance performance in celebration of the LGBTQ community. Navtej Singh Johar, one of the five queer celebrity figures who filed a petition against Section 377, performed a version of his dance theater piece Fana’a Ranjha Revisited. The 15-minute dance re-imagined two love stories—Heer Ranjha, and a Carnatic tale of a devotee in love with Shiva—through a queer lens, with both parts played by men. It would be difficult to describe the hush that fell in the auditorium—which had been chatty and vocal with encouragement—when Johar performed as anything other than transfixed awe.

Lawyer Vrinda Grover spoke of the journey to decriminalising same-sex relationships. “The key players are the activists who made their personal lives political, and convinced lawyers to fight,” said Grover. She also mentioned how important it was to start moving ahead, and work on getting recognition and then rights for the LGBTQ community. Bhasin came up on stage after Grover, elatedly claiming “Mohobbat toh mohabbat hain, aur hum to karte rahenge” (love is love, and we will continue to do it.).

Sufi singer and cultural ambassador for India Zila Khan also performed two songs, bringing in the audience to sing with her. At one point in her performance, the entire auditorium was belting the lyrics to the song ‘Ye Haunsla’, and Khan asked for the spotlight to shift to the audience for a shared moment of solidarity and art.

Minneapolis and St Paul-based Ananya Dance Theater brought diasporic resistance through their performance. A mix of Odissi and movement composition, the dance company’s performance negotiated with space—physical and geographical—by encouraging the audience to stamp their feet and clap their hands to “reach over the line and weave indigo connections". The piece was dedicated to the women who fought apartheid in South Africa, shifting the vocabulary of solidarity to one focused on women of colour. “I think for women in the diaspora [communities] too, there is something to be said about building solidarities that challenge hegemonic notions of nation states, and how we should see ourselves in the world. It’s so much about creating new imaginaries, and what it means to belong to the women’s movement,” Paul Gera said of including voices from the diaspora in the event.

South Asian Women’s Day 2018 was an evening that went beyond celebrating feminist resistance. It functioned as an antidote for the isolation that activists fighting against hegemonic norms experience. Certainly, by the end of the evening, I deeply felt the intimacy that disparate groups experience when first recognising their mutual desire to foster love and community. It is perhaps the reason that SAWD has been celebrated every year since 2002 in the South Asia region, creating space for alternative existences that, as Paul Gera says, offers possibilities for oppressed people to develop relationships with love, rather than violence.

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Updated Date: Dec 09, 2018 09:49:31 IST