Our Pictures,Our Words reclaims posters from the sunken histories of women’s representation. Writer-editor Ira Pande tells us why we all need to dive in
From the poem Translations, by Adrienne Rich
THE EYES and ears of women are uniquely attuned to capture their own reality in ways that VS Naipaul may dismiss as ‘that woman thing’. Yet, it is precisely this ineffable quality that reached out and became the first stirrings of a movement, that has changed the way women were once seen and treated.
Across the world, it was only by the 1960s and ’70s that women’s movements emerged. Even as activists held protest marches and sit-ins against gender inequality and male dominance, women writers and thinkers, from Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir to the troika of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, gave an intellectual rigour to issues of a larger concern. Women’s studies started to be acknowledged as a legitimate area of academic concern and slowly, universities began to adopt this discipline into their academic syllabi. Spirited debates burgeoned as women read texts in ways that had not been attempted.
Far away from these sophisticated dialogues, another kind of change was making its presence quietly felt. This was particularly the case in India where by the 1980s, in our small towns and even in some villages, women were coming together to forge a sorority that was to have a far deeper impact on the future of women in India in the 21st century. Education was certainly a contributory factor but it was the promise of economic independence that brought women out of their homes. Fed up with the tyranny of a patriarchal system that stifled female protest, they took up the challenge to fight alcoholic, abusive husbands, greedy dowry seeking in-laws, exploitative employers and landlords to make a space for themselves in village panchayats and state assemblies.
A visual journey through the women’s movement, Our Pictures, Our Words, brought out by Zubaan, brings this history alive through posters and pamphlets collected from across the country. In doing so, the authors — Laxmi Murthy and Rajashri Dasgupta — have put together a story that is both moving and revealing. Behind their simple lines and slogans is a history of denial: whether a space of one’s own or a point of view. Through the categorisations of body/societal/ community/access politics, issues of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment appear with surprisingly direct messages. Health issues, religion and personal law, and honour crimes are often dealt with more specificity and sensitivity than more sweeping narratives allow.
Importantly, there are posters that illustrate how women represent only one part of the marginalised in India. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and Chipko are two examples of how women have impacted environmental movements and where they have taken up issues that cross gender boundaries. What was a cry for a more equitable distribution of power is evolving into a movement for a more compassionate world where equal opportunities are available to all. Whether land distribution, labour laws or access to political power, women become both signs and signifiers for all those who have been deliberately denied these by vested interests.
In leafing through this colourful kaleidoscope, what drew my attention was the difference between the posters designed by city-based organisations or published by state governments and the language and symbols of those created by simple women who wish to express their feelings. These are not the slick compositions of graphic designers with catchy tag-lines drafted by ad writers. A poster from Madhya Pradesh, for example, shows a village woman in her traditional attire, swinging a little handbag as she steps out of her home. Even though it is drawn as if by a child, it speaks eloquently of a woman’s desire to be free. It must be said that political ideology often dilutes the message it seeks to convey by bringing into it peasant and worker rhetoric, cursing imperialistic powers and multinational companies. This is also why such slogans and posters become an easy target for cynics who like to believe that feminists are stirrers of hornet’s nests.
Another problem is that of a vocabulary that can speak simply to a wide variety of readers, as well as to those who cannot read at all. Take, for instance, issues of women’s healthcare. This is a subject of overwhelming concern in a country where female infanticide is rampant, malnourishment of females and maternity mortality figures are staggering and where decent healthcare for women is virtually nonexistent. Our regional languages are curiously bereft of decent words for female genitalia so that the only words we have are either terse, incomprehensible Sanskrit terms, or gutter-speak. In large parts of the country, mothers are hesitant to speak to their daughters about menstruation and childbirth because they are ashamed to articulate the crude words that denote the female reproductive organs. One innovative poster has simple line drawings of an X-ray of male and female bodies that immediately shows how the reproductive organs are placed within our bodies.
A simple poster like this achieves what several workshops on healthcare may not be able to teach. It must be never forgotten that one picture is worth a thousand words and that a simple slogan or poster has often done what all the lofty proclamations by politicians have failed to convey.