Look who's changing!

It was almost exactly a year ago that two intrepid French women picked their way through the debris-strewn and cowpat-splattered lanes of Shahpur Jat to the ‘Zubaan’ office in Delhi. Cultural consultant Aurette Leroy and Agnes Zevaco, from the French bank, BNP Paribas, had come to discuss the possibility of putting together a book and photo exhibition that would commemorate and celebrate the bank’s 150th year in India.

The result might well have been nothing more than a lavish corporate back-pat: the kind of gilt-edged commemorative volumes where more time, effort and money is spent on the packaging than on  content. But when Aurette and Agnes approached ‘Zubaan’,  a small, independent, feminist publishing house, as partners they clearly had something far more ambitious in mind.

But what would we call such a project? What should it reflect? The title ‘Women Changing India’ came up during one of the many brainstorming sessions that we had at ‘Zubaan’, where coffee and ideas flowed in more or less equal measure. We wanted to look at change through the ‘lens’ of women, for it seemed to us that, unnoticed and unremarked, this is where change was taking at every level in India — from the micro to the macro.

We were convinced (and we remain so) that not only were women’s lives, their social position, their mobility, their access to resources, their attitudes  undergoing rapid and sometimes bewildering transformations, but that at every level women were negotiating these changes, dealing with them creatively and working hard to change the conditions of their lives and of those around them. The world that our daughters and their daughters will inhabit will look very different from that which our mothers made their way in.

In today’s media the old cliché, India: land of contrasts, has given way to India: land of change.

The west is looking towards India with a complex blend of hope and trepidation. A booming middle-class is fuelling optimism about opening markets and upward mobility, whilst simultaneously painting a horrific picture of global climate change, industrialisation, loss of biodiversity, and unregulated, unsustainable growth.

And, India is looking at itself with an equally conflicted eye. Just as technological innovations are outstripping our ability to assess their impact, so too are social changes.
It often seems that no sooner is the question asked about what will be gained — or lost — than it is already obsolete.

What we hoped was that our book would provide was a kind of moment in time, snatched from the endless flux of change, a ‘snapshot’ if you like.

But alongside the 2-dimensional images, we wanted to add another dimension, one that only words could provide, so we commissioned six writers to tackle six different subjects to give those frozen moments a kind of historical and social context.

Why only six subjects, is a question we’ve often been asked. Actually, we began with many, many more. As we looked around, stories kept suggesting themselves. Some of the subjects that were discussed early on in the project, but never made it to the final book were, for example, activism and militancy; new social elite, dance, fashion and leisure; women and architecture; grandmothers and granddaughters; loving and living together; the diaspora…

There were many choices and possibilities which we finally narrowed down to five themes: political empowerment; microcredit and self-help groups; women in Indian film, younger women and their aspirations; working women moving into traditionally male-dominated sectors; and to round the book off, a series of portraits of women who have made it to the very top of their professions — whether in the corporate and business sector, in law, in literature or the arts, or in social activism of one kind or another.

The truth is that just as women in India are facing the worst kind of oppression and violence (so stories of ‘honour’ killings, of sex selective abortions, of domestic violence or of rape abound), they are also nurturing dreams and aspirations, seeking change, fighting individual and collective battles, and looking at new power equations and relationships with courage and curiosity.

We found women train drivers, truck drivers, pilots (perhaps more than in any other country in the world), priests, boxers, weight lifters… the list just kept growing.
Hence the need for a snapshot, something that indicates that there is change, and that it is much more widespread — and sometimes scattered — than we might think.

We saw our book as only one step towards beginning the important process of not only mapping this change, but also studying it, looking at what it has to offer, and finding ways of computing it.

If all this happens, perhaps the realities of changing India will look very different — and certainly more inclusive and gender-friendly —than they have done so far.

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