Of women and writers

Bhutan Today,19 May 2010



Kunzang Choden, the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English, and Urvashi Butalia, co-founder of India’s first feminist publishing house, during a mutual dialogue in the literary festival, talked on women, their place in society as writers, feminism and female portrayal by the media.

“The silence of women in the literary world is not to be shattered but to be heard,” a line from Kunzang Choden’s paper “Shared dreams of women in the SAARC countries,” presented a decade ago is perhaps most representative of the status of women writers in the country.

Elaborating on it, the author said that women in contemporary Bhutan are more inclined to look “beyond and about” instead of listening to the silence of the women of yore.

Women who never had the opportunity to express themselves through writing but who told stories orally, knew their genealogies and channeled their creative energy into expressions like exquisite textiles and other handicrafts.

“Their voices have to be heard, whether eloquent and articulate or faltering and diffident,” she said, “It is very important to know what happened before and not to assume that because we are in the 21st century of globalization we can ignore it.”

Bhutanese women, in olden times, faced numerous obstacles in the pursuit of knowledge, because it was synonymous with religious studies. But that did not extinguish the creative yearning in them.

And now, this yearning is slowly finding fulfillment even as growing female literacy and exposure is creating a platform for women writers in the country.

Urvashi Butalia, citing sexual violation as an example of women in India suffering in “very, very deep silence,” said that it is voices such as theirs that need to be heard.

A self proclaimed feminist, she said she finds it “pretty wonderful” to be called one. For her, feminism is a very simple philosophy.

“It is the air I breathe, the person I am, the identity I occupy. It is what makes life meaningful for me. It is a belief that every human being has the right to a life of dignity and humanity.”

She said that it is very important for Bhutan “to be open to ideas from elsewhere” while adopting one’s own image of a political philosophy like feminism because the South Asian culture is “enormously open and absorbing” without being totally impermeable to its own sense of cultural identity.

On women being portrayed as objects of desire by the media, Urvashi said that previously, when negative portrayals were protested against, “appallingly” positive stereotypes came into focus.

“(We have) to fight for something that is both inclusive and captures the complexities of woman’s life, in the media,” she explained.

To end the session and as an assertion of women power, Kunzang Choden said that women have to be strong and confident about themselves.

“To be confident the way you are and not to fall for something that is sold to you,” she said was what being an independent minded and real woman meant after all.

By Peky Samal in THIMPHU