NEW DELHI: Feminist icon, poet, author and a pioneer of the women’s rights movement in South Asia, Kamla Bhasin, died in Delhi after a short battle against liver cancer. She was 75.
Bhasan remained committed to the causes she fought for until the very end, participating in an online meeting from her ICU bed just hours before her death. Bhasin was diagnosed with cancer at the end of June.
Bhasin had two children with her late ex-husband – daughter Meeto, who died by suicide in 2006, and son Jeet, 41, who has cerebral palsy and is dependent on caregivers.
Born in 1946 in Shahidanwaali village in Punjab (now in Pakistan), Bhasin completed her graduation from Maharani College, Jaipur, and post-graduation from Rajasthan University, before moving to Germany to study sociology. After returning to India, she worked with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for 25 years. During this time, she reached out to women across the country.
Bhasin was the founder of Sangat, a South Asian feminist network, and co-founder of Jagori, a women’s resource centre. She was also the South Asian coordinator of the One Billion Rising campaign, besides being associated with several other organisations.
She is known for improvising and popularising in India the ‘Azadi’ slogan, which she picked up from Pakistani feminists, as well as for her poems written for children, the most notable being ‘Because I’m a girl, I must study’. She wrote more than 30 books on women’s rights and eight children’s books, along with several songs and poems.
During the 1980s and ’90s, Bhasin was part of key feminist struggles in the country, from the protests against dowry deaths to demonstrations that led to changes in the way rape and sexual assault were prosecuted in the country.
She also contributed to the movement by creating booklets on feminism, patriarchy, violence, which were translated into multiple languages and formed the basis of Women’s Studies in several organisations.
Bhasin first visited Pakistan, after the Partition, in 1983 at the invitation of the Family Planning Association of Pakistan to help them structure their work on women’s empowerment. She met noted Pakistani lawyer Asma Jahangir and other activists of the Women’s Action Forum.
Through the 1980s, Bhasin and Nighat Saeed Khan from Pakistan, among others, helped women across the border forge connections as they met for workshops, discussed pertinent issues and strategies of protest that drove the feminist movement in both countries, and exchanged and re-wrote songs that would often be sung in these protests.
Bhasin’s appearance in Satyamev Jayate, a show on social issues hosted by actor Aamir Khan, where she talked about the need for a paradigm shift in understanding rape – not as the survivor’s loss of honour, but the perpetrator’s — was as significant as her path-breaking speech at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995 which were received with a standing ovation.