Introduction to the India Site
of the Global Feminisms Project

C.S. Lakshmi

The India site involves a collaboration with the Sound and Pictures Archive for Research on Women (SPARROW) in Mumbai India, headed by writer C.S. Lakshmi. Lakshmi and her colleagues filmed ten interviews in India between 2003 and 2005; she described those ten interviews in the next section. In addition, two scholar-activists from India visited the University of Michigan and Jayati Lal, Kristin McGuire, and Abigail Stewart arranged for them to be interviewed on campus. Finally, Flavia Agnes, who had been interviewed in India by SPARROW in 2003; she visited UM in 2017 and the Global Feminisms Project took that opportunity to interview her again, inviting her to reflect on changes in India and in feminism since her first interview. These last three interviews will be described after the first 10 created by SPARROW, and are described by Dr. Abigail Stewart. The timeline of key events in Indian political and social history was created by University of Michigan undergraduate student Abigail Nighswonger. The timeline separately highlights those events that particularly affected women and women’s rights.


This timeline has been prepared by Abigail Nighswonger for the Global Feminisms Project at the University of Michigan during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Overview of The SPARROW Interviews

The Global Feminisms Project brought with it the challenge of covering an entire history of scholarship and action. The challenge for SPARROW was to do it in a way that would map in a nuanced, comprehensive manner the various aspects of scholarship and the various kinds of action that women have been involved in. Here at SPARROW we felt we needed to make at least 100 films to document every bit of action and every idea that has emerged from among women’s studies scholars. However, ten films, we felt, was something to begin with.

The things that we wanted to project were those that emerged from the women’s movement and the issues that it threw up. For instance, there was a need felt within the movement to go back to the history of the freedom struggle and to explore the nature of women’s participation in it. Also, an entirely new discipline of academic study centered around women’s lives came into being only because of the women’s movement. The movement also led to all kinds of action in crucial areas of concern, such as violence, health, environment, community development, media and so on. All kinds of efforts were made to increase awareness about women’s legal rights. And there was the more direct action in the form of legal aid, advocacy and other modes of redress of grievances. And of course, apart from all this was the politics of the everyday that revolved around issues of gender, identity, caste, religion and the politics of expression. All the films in different ways connect with the women’s movement and with the ideology of feminism. The things that we wanted to present had to not only cover a wide range of issues, but also represent different regions and grapple with different languages. As far as the presentation of the themes was concerned, we were very clear right from the beginning that we didn’t want to deal with the issues in a disembodied or merely academic manner. These issues had to be linked complexly to the personal lives of these women as they elaborated on themes or shared certain experiences from their lives. We were also sure that the films would not eschew emotion or keep away from the positions that these women take in their personal lives or in their fields of action. This is because we believe that that originally feminists’ slogan of the personal being the political still continues to have validity. This then was the ground plan we had.

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The first two films deal with two pioneers in women’s studies. The film on Neera Desai deals with the freedom movement years during which she grew up. The growth of her political consciousness, her work in the field of women’s studies as also her views on the contemporary moment where we are confronted by troubling issues of communalism and fundamentalisms of various kinds. The film on Vina Mazumdar, another pioneer in the field of women studies, speaks about her innate rebelliousness, her commitment to higher education and learning and teaching, as well as her experience as being part of the group that drafted that first seminal and comprehensive report on the status of women in independent India, the report that we call “Towards Equality.” She also shared with us the experience of establishing the Center for Women’s Development Studies and speaks about the complexities involved in working close to the power center.

The film on Flavia Agnes brings up the very important issue of minority identity and the women’s movement, and also the need to fight for legal rights. The film details the working of organizations such as The Forum Against the Oppression of Women and it takes us through Flavia’s own personal journey, from a situation of terrible domestic violence to one where she is today considered an authority on laws for women.

With the films on Mangai and Mahasweta Devi we venture into the area of women’s creative expression. The themes are several, such as the spaces available for women within theatrical traditions, the relationship of art and politics, the manner in which women become characters in fiction, and many more. Both Mangai and Mahasweta Devi bring to their fields of expression their experience as activists. For instance, Mahasweta’s work with tribals is very well known in India. Really the films are about the complex dialectics between women’s activism and women’s expression.

The next two films on D. Sharifa and Shahjehan Aapa explore several layers in personal struggles that evolve into more generalized commitments to women’s issues. They take up the problems of women’s identity and gender within particular communities and the different ways of dealing with these problems. What both the films highlight is the need to scrupulously contextualize women’s struggles, for instance the support that one gets from one’s family, the support that one gets from one’s community, one’s marital status; all these are factors that critically impact women’s struggles. These two films also take up the issue of violence and the status of women within the family and deal with these issues from entirely different points of view. Sharifa has set up an organization called STEPS in Pudukottai, Tamilnadu. This is an organization that takes up women’s issues and offers assistance and advocacy. Very similar work is done by Shakti Shalini, the organization started by Aapa in Delhi. These two films document the working of these organizations, particularly Sharifa’s pathbreaking struggle to build a Mosque for women.

The film on Lata PM, known as an environmental activist, deals with the issue of environment in general and the particular politics surrounding the River Narmada. The film also deals with both the public and personal dimensions of the issues of health, caste and gender. And finally, Lata shares with us her experiences of being a full-time grass roots level activist.

The last two films, on Thokchom Ramani Devi and Jarjum Ete, take us to the northeastern region of the country, which we felt needed to be brought into focus because of its specific problems. Thokchom Ramani Devi is secretary of the All Manipur Women’s Reformation and Development Samaj. She talks to us not only about her own life and activism, but about the immense struggle that still confronts women activists like her. Her group has been fighting against alcoholism and has been engaged in a protracted struggle against the army, which has been given special powers in the region. The film reveals how women have even staked their lives fighting for these causes. Jarjum Ete is chairperson of the State Commission for women in Arunachal Pradesh. The film that we have made on Jarjum Ete offers some hope in terms of the efforts being taken to deal with women’s lives and women’s history in a region, in a tribal region, which has a very distinct culture and a very different attitude towards women.

These ten films made by SPARROW traverse great distances in terms of themes and regions: the freedom movement, later on the setting up of academic institutions for action oriented studies on women, the complexities of the women’s movement, community and regional identities, personal struggles, political actions – all these make up the body of these films. These films are about issues, but they are also about these women for whom their personal lives and the action that they are committed to are combined in one sphere of existence.

Overview of The India Site Interviews at the University of Michigan

In April 2004, Professor Ruth Vanita, from the University of Montana, who was visiting UM on a sabbatical, agreed to be interviewed for the Global Feminisms Project, by Jayati Lal, professor of sociology and women’s studies at UM. Though at that time residing in the U.S., Professor Vanita was raised, educated, and had a long career in India as a scholar of literature on women’s sexuality, and an academic activist, before moving to the U.S.

In November 2004, Urvashi Butalia visited the University of Michigan, and Professor Jayati Lal (Sociology and Women’s Studies) interviewed her for the Global Feminisms Project. Butalia is a distinguished scholar-activist in India, particularly engaged with publishing feminist work both within India and internationally.

Finally, in 2017 Flavia Agnes, one of the SPARROW interviewees, visited the UM campus for a conference. She agreed to add a new interview with the Global Feminisms Project on campus (where she was interviewed by a student, Rebecca Rosen), as an opportunity to reflect on the changes in India and in the women’s movement, since her first interview 14 years earlier.

Procedures for Producing Final Interview Videos and Transcripts

Most of the interviews were conducted in English; however, two were conducted in Hindi, two in Tamil and one in Manipuri. These interviews were translated at SPARROW, and only the English transcript was provided to the Global Feminisms Project. The interviews conducted by SPARROW were extremely long—sometimes extending over several hours and more than one day. The materials provided to the Global Feminisms Project were edited by SPARROW staff and provided only in edited form to the archive. The three interviews conducted at UM were recorded in their entirety, in English, and are not edited in any way.