Remembering Kamla Bhasin: A "Behenji" Who Became A Firebrand Feminist

Deepshikha Chakravarti
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Remembering Kamla Bhasin: The eminent poet, feminist and women’s rights advocate passed away at 75, leaving behind a long history of activism. Bhasin led a life on her terms breaking many societal barriers. Her personal life was marred by numerous challenges and tragedies- child abuse, the untimely death of her daughter and a broken marriage that led to domestic violence. Despite all this, Bhasin powered through her life, driven by her cause to champion equality and kicking the hornet's nest time and again by challenging patriarchal dictates via her poetry and books.

Recently I got a chance to interview Bhasin for SheThePeople and when I hear of her passing, I couldn't help but recall my conversation with her that had stayed on my mind long after the interview was over.

She would not have us address her as “ma’m” and insisted we call her by her first name at most add a di at the end a short for elder sister "didi". You may ask what is the big deal in that, but trust me it is rare that people who have achieved so much stop you from calling ma’m. And at such moments you realise that how we internalise our systems because it was equally difficult for us to drop that “ma’m”.

"Behenji" goes to Münster

Bhasin’s life was full of ups and downs, she was born in undivided India and moved to a village in Rajasthan at age one. During the interview, she said, aur partition ke baad bina chale hi mera gaon Pakistan chala gaya.

She shared that there were no books apart from the school books in her home when she was young and that her mother was an illiterate woman. She was the fourth among six siblings. Her father was a doctor in Rajasthan. Reading as a habit was an acquired skill for her and she could not read for long durations. She often said, “books don’t make you a feminist, injustice does, violence does.” Growing up when she went to college in Jaipur she was labelled the “Behenji types.” Bhasin clarifies, “I had three sets of clothes, and had to wear what was washed and dry so often end up being not so colour coordinated.”

After her graduation, she got a fellowship and went to study Sociology Development at the University of Münster in West Germany. She also became the South Asia coordinator of One Billion Rising. Her most famous work remains Sangat - A Feminist Network and the poem Kyunki main ladki hoon, mujhe padhna hai. She recited a refurbished, feminist version of the popular poem Azadi at a conference in 1995 which was an instant hit. She shared one version of the poem with us as well.


You can watch it here:

Challenging stereotypes and battling personal tragedies

In Indian society, woman's role as a daughter, sister, mother or wife is quite clearly defined. Women are also not encouraged to carry out several customs owing to their gender- like cremating their loved ones. Bhasin, however, lit her mother’s funeral pyre. But for her and her family the decision was more rational, since she was the one caring for her mother in her last days, rather than a step taken to challenge patriarchy. 

She was never shy of talking about the problems she faced in her marriages, being divorced twice. The biggest setbacks of her life however, were her son’s disability caused by a vaccine reaction and her daughter ending her life due to mental health issues. Her second husband was bi-polar, she revealed during our conversation and she spoke at length about the lack of mental health facilities like psychiatric wards and nurses.

kamla bhasin Kamla Bhasin with her kids

Views that united and divided feminists


Kamla Bhasin also highlighted how important economic empowerment of daughters was in our society. Beti padhao was not enough, parents need to ensure that she has right to their assets after their death too. One of her popular slogans was “beti dil mein to beti will mein” meaning if your daughter has a place in your heart, she should find a place in your will. She believed that if you have to implement the Indian constitution in its rightful sense then you have to be a feminist as that is what the constitution of India stands for equality.

 However, in the recent past, she was often called out for having a very binary view of feminism and some of her statements were called out by queer groups. While Bhasin's brand of feminism might not be endorsed by many today, her voice, her views are indelible. She had the guts to speak her mind always, never caring about what others might think or how they may react. One can safely say, Bhasin's body of work is a reflection of her views and it will continue to provoke us- to react, to think and to formulate our own views.

The views expressed are the author's own.

Kamla Bhasin Kamla Bhasin passes away