Professor details feminist movement in South Asia

“War does not lead to peace. It leads to more war. The cycle has to be broken somehow,” Anita Anantharam, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies, said Nov. 14, when she gave a lecture about feminism in South Asian countries.

She told students about “women’s fight to be sovereign bodies,” particularly in India and Pakistan.

The issue started in the 1600s with the creation of the East India Company, she said. The company was designed by the British to conduct trade with India.

Eventually, however, the British realized that they could profit even more by slowly taking control of India, she said.

Anantharam told the audience how the British claimed that the “Indians needed to be civilized.” She said they outlawed Indian practices and took over sections of the country from corrupt Indian rulers or Indian rulers with no biological heir.

Eventually, the educated class in India was speaking English, which resulted in their being treated as “interpreters” between the masses of India and the British ruling them, Anantharam said.

She noted that in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mahatma Gandhi urged the Indian people to reclaim their country through non-violence, in addition to calling for the Indian people to “reject English and turn inward instead.” He also encouraged them to speak Hindi, Anantharam said.

She discussed the oral tradition of women, passing on poetry and stories, that often become a way to spread political messages through metaphors to the masses. This allowed women to retain their social identity while speaking out on the issues, Anantharam said.

This, to Anantharam, is what was so important about poetry. She said that in America, people tend to think of activism as protesting out in the streets. But to women in South Asia, poetry is just as effective a tool.

She provided the example of “The Cloud Messenger,” a poem in which Fahmida Riaz, a Pakistani Urdu poet, uses metaphors to write about sensuality, a topic that would be more difficult to talk about bluntly.

Anantharam said that Americans tend to “get obsessed about things like the veil. (We) don’t look at other issues – land rights, health care, food.” She argued that such issues were more important to South Asian women than the veil.

After the lecture, a question-and-answer period soon developed into an open, conversational discussion on issues ranging from feminism to Buddhism to politics.

Janice Ogin, senior physics major, said after the discussion that she had been unfamiliar with many of the topics discussed in the lecture and was surprised “that there were female leaders in India.”

Heema Tambakuwala, sophomore nursing and women’s and gender studies major, and also the organizer of the event, said, “I think (Anantharam) got her point across. (It was) very informative.

Saadia Hussain, junior communication studies major, agreed, calling the lecture “enlightening.” Hussain said that many of the issues Anantharam spoke about are “not emphasized enough.”

Anantharam said that there is still a lot of work for feminists to do in South Asia and elsewhere. “We could become much more active as a community here,” she said, encouraging students to start taking action in political issues like the war in Iraq.