25th September 2021

Asra Haque

Indian women’s rights activist, author and feminist icon Kamla Bhasin passed away today, September 25, following a brief battle with cancer.

Bhasin was a stalwart of the women’s movement in the South Asia region, who spent the better part of her life – nearly 35 years – to advocate for gender equality, women’s empowerment, and an end to gender-based violence. She was also a prolific poet and author, penning a number of slogans for the women’s movement that still echo in rallies in India today, and a series of booklets on feminism, patriarchy, sustainable development and media that have been translated into multiple languages.

Bhasin’s activism began when, in 1972, she joined a voluntary organization in Rajasthan, India, focused on the empowerment of the rural and urban poor. Between 1976 and 2001, she worked with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to identify and support innovative NGO initiatives for development and empowerment of people in South East Asia and South Asia.

In 2002, she retired from the FAO to focus fulltime as an advisor for Sangat, a South Asian feminist network. Throughout her career, Bhasin conducted workshops for women and men on gender, sustainable development and human rights. She was also Co-Chair of Peace Women Across the Globe, a worldwide network of women and ally peace activists, and in the past decade was appointed the South Asia Coordinator for One Billion Rising, a global campaign to end rape and sexual violence against women.

With the loss of the trailblazing Indian rights champion, civil society workers, women’s movement activists and close friends from Pakistan are also in mourning.

Human rights defender and social scientist Tahira Abdullah expressed her utter sorrow at the passing of another prominent feminist icon in the South Asia region.

“It is not just an irreparable loss for India, but also for feminists and peace activists all over South Asia and beyond,” she wrote in her statement to Voicepk.net. “Kamla had so many friends in Pakistan, she felt entirely at home here.

Abdullah professed that the multifaceted Bhasin will always be remembered and missed – not least for her great sense of humour, in addition to her intellect, empathy and activism.

“An acclaimed legend in her lifetime, a towering legacy left behind. Rest in peace, brave comrade,” she penned.

Former Chair of the National Commission on the Status of Women, author, lecturer and women’s rights activist Khawar Mumtaz stated that she and a whole range of women across South Asia are undoubtedly devastated by the news of Bhasin’s sudden passing.

“She was one of the most vibrant persons that I have met. Her propensity to reach out and to befriend and listen to others and communicate in the simplest words all the basic principles of what it means to be an equal citizen, for women to be treated as equal,” she fondly recalled perhaps Bhasin’s most well-known trait. “She was a friend for the last 40 or so years. And the way she reached out and the way she brought out the best in women, and gave them inspiration and hope was unparalleled I think.”

Mumtaz went on further to state that the women’s movement in the region, including Pakistan, regardless of the popular narratives of political parties, is strong because of people like Bhasin, whose work nurtured women’s bonding across border on the issue of their rights and to expel patriarchy from their societies. Mumtaz recalled that the Indian activist had learned much from the women’s movement in Pakistan, especially its resistance to Islamisation and former dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s discriminatory laws, finding inspiration from their “Aurat mangay azadi” slogan and adapting it for India with the popular “Tod tod ke bandhano ko”.

“It’s hit us hard. We knew she was ill the last two or three months, but… we didn’t know that she would go so soon. And before that she was as lively as anyone,” Mumtaz stated. “It’s a personal loss because she was a friend, we learned a lot from her. Her life and our lives were fairly intertwined that way in our struggle. Across the region, this is a moment of grief.”

Human rights advocate and defender Hina Jilani regretted the sudden loss of an extremely valuable advocate for women’s rights.

“Kamla has been such a support for the women’s movement globally. She was an outspoken woman, never refrained from making any comments regardless of how the more conservative sections of our society saw those comments,” she told Voicepk.net. “Always encouraging younger women to participate in movements. She had become an icon for many who followed her voice.”

Praising her work, Jilani recalled Bhasin’s incredible feat of organizing One Billion Rising events all over South Asia, in which young women were encouraged to speak out and not be silent against any kind of exploitation or discrimination by their government or by their society.

Since the news of Bhasin’s passing, activists, journalists, bureaucrats and others in South Asia and across the globe took to Twitter to pay their tributes to the late rights defender.

Bhasin’s funeral was held in the evening at the Lodi Road crematorium in New Delhi.


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