Kamla Bhasin believed in the power of love, not the love of power

Feminist activist Kamla Bhasin (1946-2021) posing in front of her favorite electric car. Photo: Collected


Feminist activist Kamla Bhasin (1946-2021) posing in front of her favorite electric car. Photo: Collected

A year ago today, a mentor, guide, sister and friend – not just to me, but to thousands of South Asians around the world – left the world behind, leaving behind a gaping hole in our hearts and in the feminist movements of the region. Kamla Bhasin, a prominent feminist, gender trainer, writer and poet, was born in Punjab (now Pakistan) and raised in India, but has always rejected narrow definitions of citizenship and identified as a South -Asian. She always said, “We want peace in South Asia, not pieces of South Asia. And truly, she belonged to all of us – she was loved, admired and respected across the region, helping to support feminist movements in each of our countries, but most importantly, bringing us all together under a common platform to fight patriarchy, capitalism and chauvinism.

I met this amazing person 35 years ago, and perhaps it would be appropriate to mention that his friendship, guidance and love changed me for the better. And it’s not just my personal experience, but that of countless others who have had the good fortune to call her their friend and mentor. She left an indelible mark on those she trained or worked with – she planted the seeds of activism in those who were not previously exposed to feminist thoughts and galvanized those already working on issues of women’s rights to fight harder against patriarchy and violence against women.

I first worked with this larger than life personality in 1996. Proshika, one of the largest national NGOs at the time, invited her to facilitate a series of gender training sessions for their senior managers, mainly male staff members. Kamla Bhasin had long understood that it was essential to engage men in the process of transformation. During the sessions, she didn’t need PowerPoint presentations, different training methods or pen or paper – she spoke with conviction, provided examples from our daily lives and found ways to engage with each participating, making us laugh, cry and sing along the way. . She moved us all and made us confront our own prejudices and hypocrisies, in that characteristic way that only Kamla could.

In April 1998, Kamla designed and facilitated a workshop in Koitta, Bangladesh, where SANGAT – which stood for South Asian Network of Gender Activists and Trainers and later became The South Asian Feminist Network – was first organized, in the aim of bringing together experienced and aspiring women activists and scholars from South Asia to learn from each other and advance the feminist movement in the region. Each year, Kamla helped design and facilitate a month-long gender course, which is now well known as the most comprehensive and compelling feminist training in the region.

While the theoretical discussions led by notable activists and scholars from the region broadened our minds, the music, dancing and laughter during and after the sessions broadened our hearts and solidified our brotherhood and solidarity. Anyone who attended these trainings would testify to how their lives have changed forever because of it. SANGAT, under Kamla’s leadership, has been instrumental in connecting fragmented movements for peace, justice and gender equality in South Asia. Kamla could have been the executive director of a large NGO or donor agency, or a bureaucrat, but she never wanted those positions. Leaving behind a successful career in the UN, she has dedicated her life to inspiring thousands of human rights activists, trainers and friends across South Asia so that we can work together, in putting aside our differences, to create another world. And she believed that another world was possible. She didn’t believe in hierarchy; love was at the center of his life and his teachings. She truly believed in the power of love over the love of power.

When she traveled to Bangladesh, she refused to stay in fancy hotels. She stayed with us or with Khushi (Kabir) Apa. She was an extremely organized person and enjoyed meticulously ironing her clothes herself. She loved Bangladeshi cuisine, especially aloo bhortachicken curry and dal. She was a brand ambassador gamcha, and from time to time she asked to be taken to Elephant Road to buy her favorite white tableware from Shinepukur or white handkerchiefs from Gausia. Kamla, who was also an actress, would thrill us all with her endless supply of “Sardarji” jokes. She taught herself to speak Bangla on her own and insisted on speaking it when she was in the country. She loved Tagore’s songs and joined in whenever we sang.

Kamla was a multi-talented personality. She has written several booklets in plain English so that development practitioners from different backgrounds can read them easily and understand complex concepts. Her children’s books challenge gender stereotypes and offer new ways to explore and see the world. She created powerful slogans and legendary songs. She was the spirit behind the message, she was the heart of every training she provided. She spoke the truth, she had the courage to point out what was wrong and the commitment to work for gender equality, justice and the empowerment of women. He was an amazing person with contagious energy, doing yoga, organizing trainings, writing poems and songs, running around the world with his message of love and solidarity, and supporting small NGOs and groups led by women.

I miss you Kamla Bhasin, and I feel like there aren’t enough people born in this world like you. You were a beacon in this sea of ​​injustice. You will remain in our hearts and minds wherever you are. As Tagore, whom you admired, said, “Let your life dance lightly on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.”

Fawzia Khondker is a women’s rights activist and core member of Sangat Bangladesh.

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