Cross-border conversations

The networks women create

SOME FIFTEEN YEARS ago, a group of Pakistani women embarked on an experimental journey that was to become a template for many others to follow. Boarding a bus with their passports and visas in hand, fifty of them set off for India – a mere hour away from Lahore, where they had begun their journey.

Across the border, groups of Indian women waited to receive them with flowers and garlands, tea and sweets. In India, they travelled to different places, stayed in the homes of Indian families, met all kinds of people and spoke at public events.

In itself this is unremarkable – for what is so strange about a group of women from one country travelling to another, neighbouring country? But given that India and Pakistan see each other as ‘enemies’ and generally spew venom at each other, this was a journey with a difference. The women’s idea was to intervene where governments and states had failed, to refuse to give in to the constant rhetoric of hatred and enmity that India and Pakistan rehearse against each other, to offer friendship instead of political one-upmanship and to say, Here we are, women of South Asia, talking to each other. Look at us, learn something from us.

A few years later, Indian women returned the compliment, gathering together to visit Lahore for a women’s studies conference. There, they discussed with their Pakistani counterparts all kinds of subjects, and did not hesitate to talk about the more ‘difficult’ ones – like Kashmir, an unresolved issue between the two countries and one that raises nationalist hackles on both sides. The women resolved to speak about Kashmir differently: was there a way, they asked, that they could put nationalism aside and speak about what the legacy of the colonial partition of India had done to ordinary people, to women and children? Could they, through their conversations and their concerns, flag some important and hitherto silenced issues for their governments? For example, how the growth of militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir often put women and families in difficult situations, especially when young men succumbed to the attraction of taking up arms. Or how the disappearance of husbands and sons left women alone and vulnerable, forcing them to become heads of households, to keep the hearth secure and to earn an income.

The meeting was significant for another reason: while Indian and Pakistani women came together to talk to each other, they also created a different kind of partnership, one where they stood on the same side and extended their solidarity to a contingent of Bangladeshi women, many of whom were visiting Pakistan for the first time since their country was carved out of it. Together, they planned a tribute for their Bangladeshi counterparts, deciding to devote a full day of the conference to the commemoration of the thirtieth anniversary of the Bangladesh War of Independence. (Previously known as East Pakistan, Bangladesh broke away in 1971, fighting a long and bloody war against its parent state: hundreds of thousands of people were killed, rape and sexual violence were rampant and human rights abuses abounded.) They filled the day with song, poetry, music, discussions. The most important thing came right at the end: a formal apology offered by the women of Pakistan to the women of Bangladesh. Such an apology had not been forthcoming from the Pakistani state, although it was long demanded by Bangladesh, and could have gone a long way in healing the wounds of the war. But for Pakistani women, it was important that their Bangladeshi counterparts knew they regretted the ways in which Bangladeshis were targeted during their battle for independence. And for Indian women, it was important to stand on the same side as their Pakistani counterparts, recognising the complex histories of the battle for independence, but also offering comradeship and solidarity as women.

Examples of this kind of cross-border solidarity are legion. Perhaps because such initiatives are not premised on power, but on support and friendship, they can take place with greater ease across borders and every statement does not have to be carefully measured – as often happens in the more formal networks set up by governments and states. It is through such networks that feminist groups across the world have long shared strategies and worked towards resolving what are quite complex problems.

They’ve also learnt from each other. In the aftermath of the terrible sectarian violence against Muslims in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, civil society actors from across India came together to help provide relief and shelter for the survivors, many of whom had been displaced and had lost their livelihoods. The Gujarat riots also brought home another hard reality that Indian feminists in particular had not taken account of in their battle against sexual violence: that of mass, targeted rape; the use of sexual assault as a weapon of war and the culpability, sometimes complicity, of the state. As feminists from different parts of India put together fact-finding investigations, a unique idea came up in discussions: why not bring in a committee made up of women from across South Asia – lawyers, activists and scholars with unimpeachable credentials – who could travel to different places in Gujarat to review the situation and bring their considerable knowledge and experience to bear on the investigations?

But a problem arose: who would come from Sri Lanka? A Sinhalese feminist or a Tamil feminist? Pitched as the two sides of the ongoing Sri Lankan war, Sinhalese and Tamil feminists, and sometimes Muslim feminists too, often refused to talk to each other or to work together. How was this problem to be solved? The answer came from one of the visiting Sri Lankans. Describing the solidarity marches for peace that they had organised in Sri Lanka, she talked of how the differences between feminists had been something that troubled them too. But they had decided that rather than allow those differences to keep them apart, they would work with them. ‘Everything could not be done together all the time,’ she said. ‘We were very aware that we were differently positioned. But we’d work together when we could, and separately when it was necessary, and that way, the work would not lose out.’


PAKISTAN, INDIA, BANGLADESH, Sri Lanka – until recently, countries with a common history of colonialism and Empire, living today with their legacies: Pakistan, carved out of India; Bangladesh, carved out of Pakistan. For ordinary people, travel between these countries has never been easy – and between Pakistan and India, it’s been almost impossible. Getting a visa is like striking gold and, when you do, you pretty much have to drop everything else and go, as you never know when you might get another chance. Politicians don’t face such restrictions – their visits are often ‘official’ – but it’s interesting that while they have the opportunity to travel to each other’s countries, they do everything they can to avoid doing so, for the geo-political game is, much of the time, about power.

The Pakistani women’s visit to India was a first – the result of a clever plan they hatched to apply for visas en masse. Recognising the difficulty of individual visits, the women planned a visit together, then put in a joint application for visas and embarrassed the government into granting them. It’s easy to deny an individual a visa, but to deny a group is more difficult: there’s potential for a scandal there, and you can be sure the media will step in and make a big noise.

Once the women had set the pattern, other visits followed. Soon, groups of doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists, human rights activists, students and children on both sides were asking for group visas and getting them; soon they were visiting each other, opening up dialogues, doing away with the fear of the ‘other’. It’s these informal initiatives, more than anything else, that have kept up the pressure for both countries to talk and sort out their differences. None of this enters the annals of what one might call mainstream wisdom, for in some strange kind of way, although citizens are the bedrock of democratic states, state structures often remain indifferent to them – and indeed are sometimes even hostile.

But it’s not citizenship I want to talk about here. It’s something quite other – and that is the importance of women’s networks. These informal organisations and the ways in which they function stand in stark contrast to the more formal structures created out of the need for solidarity, or indeed power, between nation states. Such people’s networks are able to be more frank and more direct. At the meeting in Lahore, where Indian and Pakistani groups met and talked, it was not that they agreed on everything, or that they did not inadvertently adopt nationalist positions. But, unlike in the more formal structures, whenever that did happen there was enough trust among the different ‘sides’ that they could say to each other, That’s not why we came together, and the dialogue could continue in an open way.

Differences and disagreements will always be present in such networks; after all, women’s movements across the world have very different histories and trajectories. Born out of the local contexts of their societies, they have grown in different ways and although some issues remain common and resonate across the world – for example, violence against women – there are others that are contextual and specific. When such issues come up, the discussions can be difficult – but perhaps because there is no power, no national politics invested in building such solidarities, these cross-border alliances do not break so easily.

Sometimes it isn’t even a question of building solidarity around a movement. It can be something as amorphous as an idea that travels across the world and that acquires different forms in different situations. One such idea is motherhood, of women coming together as mothers to mobilise and protest. It’s not an idea that is easily embraced by feminists worldwide, for within feminism motherhood has been a contested and contentious topic. Nonetheless, it has inspired women across the world, and in diverse ways.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an association of women in Argentina who came together as mothers to seek justice for their children who had disappeared under the dictatorship in the late ’70s and early ’80s, were the first known people to work with this idea. In later years, it would reappear in different forms in other parts of the world.

Shortly afterwards, in Nagaland in north-eastern India, groups of mothers came together to form the Naga Mothers’ Association. Focusing initially on countering drug addiction and alcoholism in the region, their work soon extended to travelling deep into the forests of the state, to collect unclaimed bodies of men killed in the ongoing conflict that has racked the region, and to give them decent burials. Eventually, the Naga Mothers became ambassadors for peace: they walked hundreds of miles to the borders of their state to meet with leaders of the factions involved in the conflict. Their campaign, Shed No More Blood, called for an end to killings and a return to peace.

A few years earlier, the neighbouring state of Manipur saw yet another movement of women, the torch-bearers of Meira Paibi. Mostly older women, they would hold up flaming torches and go on peace marches, urging the paramilitaries to stop killing and demanding the repeal of an extrajudicial law, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, that gave the army unprecedented powers. They also turned their attention to rampant problems of drug addiction and alcoholism. Later, the Meira Paibis would come to be involved in what became a major protest movement. Enraged at the rape and murder by the army of one of their young members, the women staged a unique protest in front of the army’s headquarters in the city of Imphal in Manipur. Twelve of them, all in their seventies, arrived together in front of the army headquarters and stripped naked, daring the army to rape them. To see a mother naked is something that, in the Indian psyche, shames the viewer – and the Meira Paibis used this effectively against the army.

In the early ’90s, in the north-western state of Kashmir, Parveena Ahanger began the Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) after losing her son – it was suspected that he had been taken and killed by the army after they falsely identified him as a well-known militant, with whom he shared a name. The APDP fights for information about the disappeared and evidence of their deaths, in order to give parents the closure they need.


THE LARGER WORLD of geo-political and economic power is full of alliances, created around a range of ideas that offer a particular kind of solidarity: economic, political, regional, ex-colonial and more. Some are more successful than others. Some are constantly under threat. Some become defunct as time goes on, while others try to reinvent themselves. Sometimes they’re able to bring their collective wisdom – and collective power – together on the world stage to lobby for changes; at others, the priorities of the more powerful nations prevail. Sometimes, the entire network is threatened if a member decides to opt out, or if a state goes rogue and has to be expelled.

Not so in women’s networks, building as they do on the collectivity and lack of hierarchies basic to feminism. They’re able to function relatively independently, drawing on collective strength and international solidarity when needed. This is not to romanticise such networks – for there are, as I’ve said, many differences and sometimes even conflicts. And they are often ephemeral and transitory, coming together for a particular campaign and dispersing afterwards. But there’s a difference in the way they function, in their reasons for coming together and in what is invested in them. They draw their strength from solidarity rather than power, and from learning or knowing that there are others like them out there. There’s also an implicit recognition that the issues they are addressing, as feminists, need all the strength and solidarity they can get, and it’s the context of the wider battle that always underlies and informs the ways in which such networks function and share ideas.

Because power is not the broad frame of such networks, the entry or exit of a member from their numbers does not necessarily lead to crisis. Many years ago, in response to the numerous ongoing conflicts, women’s groups across the world started Women in Black, a ‘network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence’. Groups of women wearing black would come together across the world on a particular day, and place themselves silently at a location in their cities or towns. It did not matter that they were not there in great numbers, or that not everyone turned up all the time, but the fact that they were there meant something both for them and for their broader struggle. Similarly, the Take Back the Night campaign still continues to resonate in different places – and it’s no longer clear where it actually originated.

Building solidarities, sharing ideas, organising campaigns across the world, giving them local shape and context, and recognising that the struggle is a common one – these are things women’s networks have brought to the world. The networks are not always egalitarian, the hierarchies do not easily disappear, and some voices are always louder than others. But perhaps because these networks are voluntary, perhaps because they are not so much about power as about other sorts of priorities, they have something to offer: a different way of looking at things, a different way of building alliances and a different way of moving forward.

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