The Pixel Project is pleased to present the annual guest “16 For 16” article from our partner, Breakthrough – a global human rights organisation working to make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. Their cutting-edge multimedia campaigns, community mobilisation, agenda setting, and leadership training equip men and women worldwide to challenge the status quo and take bold action for the dignity, equality, and justice of all.
This year, Breakthrough India shines the spotlight on 16 activists and advocates who have worked and/or are working to end violence against women in India.
We have come a long way when it comes to addressing violence against women and gender-based discrimination. In this fight, women from different walks of life have become flag-bearers of the cause by mobilising communities and tirelessly standing their ground. While we still have a long way to go, this is an homage to those women who have worked towards quelling violence against women in multiple forms, from physical to emotional and even financial.
Here’s looking at the lives of 16 women and their contributions–specifically in politics, law, activism, arts and literature, among many other areas–to ending violence against women in India.
Researched and written by Breakthrough India.
Anti-VAW Activist in India #1: Anubha Bhonsle
Anubha Bhonsle is the founder of Newsworthy, a digital platform that offers decluttered and succinct news. She is an award-winning journalist and author who has reported on politics, conflict, human rights, and gender. In 2016, she published the book Mother, Where’s My Country? based on her reportage on Irom Sharmila’s fight against the Manipur insurgency. Anubha was awarded the Chameli Devi Jain Award for Outstanding Woman Mediaperson in 2013. In her book, she wrote: “It is said that when people are dead graves aren’t the place to find them. They are in the wind, the trees, in the eyes of people left behind.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #2: Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy is an Indian author, political activist and women’s rights advocate who is most famous for her book The God of Small Things which won the 1997 Booker Prize for fiction. She also won the National Film Award for Best Screenplay for the film In Which Annie Gives It To Those Ones. Over the years, she has won a number of awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award, the Sydney Peace Prize, and the Norman Mailer Prize, among others. She was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2014. Roy has stated: “Forcing a woman into a hijab, or forcing her out of one, isn’t about the hijab. It’s about the coercion. Robe her. Disrobe her. The age-old preoccupation of controlling and policing women.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #3: Babytai Kamble
Babytai Kamble’s contribution to the fight for Dalit women’s rights and liberation is nothing short of extraordinary. Born into a Dalit family in Maharashtra, she experienced first-hand the violence and discrimination that her community faced. However, she refused to be silenced and instead used her voice to advocate for justice and equality. Her book, The Prisons We Broke, chronicles the experiences of Dalit women and gives voice to their struggles in a society that sought to silence them. Her work serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of amplifying marginalised voices in the fight for social justice. In her book she cites a man’s view of Dalit women which provides an eye-opening example of misogyny: “Who, just tell me, who the hell is that new girl? Doesn’t she know that she has to bow down to the master? Shameless bitch! How dare she pass me without showing due respect? At this, the girl’s in-laws and other elderly men from the community fall at the man’s feet and beg for mercy.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #4: Bindu Ammini
A lecturer of law and a Dalit activist based in Kerala, Bindu Ammini is among the first two women of reproductive age to enter the Sabarimala temple after the Supreme Court of India’s September 2018 ruling to allow every Hindu pilgrim, irrespective of their age, caste, and gender, to do so. However, when Bindu Ammini entered the temple along with Kanaka Durga, they were met with physical, verbal, and mental harassment. As recently as January 2022, Bindu Ammini was repeatedly assaulted by an RSS member (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu right-wing organisation). In addition to multiple attacks, she was also cyber-bullied, with a fake pornographic video that uses her face being circulated. When asked why she entered a temple at risk to her well-being, she said: “I was doing it to reclaim the dignity of womanhood, so what after-effect could I have imagined?”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #5: Farah Naqvi
Farah Naqvi is a women’s rights activist and a member of the National Advisory Council, an institution that exists to advise and assist the Prime Minister of India. She works with Nirantar, an organisation working in the field of gender and education. Naqvi has written two books, including Waves in the Hinterland: The Journey of a Newspaper which focuses on the women reporters of Khabar Lahariya, a newspaper written in the various rural dialects of Hindi and run with largely women reporters. Khabar Lahariya was started and supported by Nirantar.
Anti-VAW Activist in India #6: Flavia Agnes
Flavia Agnes is the founder of Majlis Law, an organisation of women lawyers and social workers who “work for the protection and promotion of women and children’s rights through legal representation, advocacy and training.” Majlis Law has given legal support to over 80,000 women and social support to over 100,000 women in India. Agnes is also part of the Global Feminism project, created in 2002 to collect the stories of feminists and activists across seven countries and archive them within their specific socio-historical context. She has been awarded the Bharatiya Manavata Vikas Puraskar by Power Brands for her work representing disenfranchised women and has said of her country. She said: “We do not have adequate [sexual assault] survivor support measures. Survivors need legal and medical aid, trauma counselling, skill training, help in relocation.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #7: Irom Chanu Sharmila
Irom Sharmila is a civil rights activist from Manipur who is best known for her incredible 16-year hunger strike against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, a controversial law that grants virtual immunity from prosecution to the Indian Armed Forces in “disturbed areas.” Also known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, her steadfast determination and unwavering commitment to non-violent protest made her a symbol of resistance against state violence in India. Irom’s sacrifice and struggle have inspired countless individuals around the world to fight for their own human rights and justice. Of her hunger strike, she said: “I felt like the people were due to awaken…I would just tolerate until then.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #8: Kamala Das
A fearless feminist voice much ahead of her times, Kamala Surayya (born Kamala Das) was an author who wrote openly about sexuality, sexual desires, menstruation, and love in the post-colonial era. Known by her pen name Madhavikutty, her work was derived from her personal and lived experiences of being a woman. Her writings were greatly revered yet controversial because of how unabashedly she wrote on themes that were still not talked about openly. Of the challenges of being a woman writer, she said: “A woman had to prove herself to be a good wife, a good mother, before she could become anything else. And that meant years and years of waiting. That meant waiting till the greying years. I didn’t have the time to wait. I was impatient. So I started writing quite early in my life.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #9: Nandita Das
Nandita Das is an actor, director and women’s rights activist who is working towards the prevention of violence against women and the promotion of gender equality. Her filmography includes Listen To Her, a short film written and directed by her about the increase in domestic violence in India during the pandemic, and India’s Got Colour, a music video about colourism in India. She famously acted in Fire, a landmark depiction of queer relationships in film in India. She has also been involved in causes including the “Dark Is Beautiful” campaign and HIV/AIDS awareness. She is the first Indian to be inducted into the International Hall of Fame of the International Women’s Forum in Washington, DC. On being a woman working in film, Das says: “At times, I wonder about the notion behind the label, ‘women directors’. Maybe it is because women constantly juggle many roles… It is a challenge—balancing home, shoots, and holidays.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #10: Nangeli
Nangeli’s actions in 19th-century Kerala are a powerful example of the impact of one woman’s interventions in fighting against oppression and creating positive change. As part of the lower-caste Ezhava community, she is said to have faced the breast tax, an “oppressive” tax paid by women of her caste. After years of paying such unfair taxes, Nangeli refused to submit any longer and cut off her own breasts and presented them as payment for the tax, dying in the process. Her bold statement sparked outrage and eventually led to the annulment of the tax in Travancore. Ambedkarite Today wrote of Nangeli and others in her caste: “They toiled hand to mouth, toeing lines drawn by caste, and bowing before the pretensions of their superiors. Nothing about them was remarkable till Nangeli stood up.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #11: Soni Sori
A schoolteacher turned political leader, Soni Sori has long been on the front lines of fighting for tribal rights and against human rights violations. She has protested police violence against Adivasis and was arrested and subjected to sexual violence by the Chattisgarh state police. For the time period that Sori was in prison, Amnesty International called her a “prisoner of conscience”. Since her release, she has gone on to join the Aam Aadmi Party and has won several awards for her work to fight for justice for the tribal community. In 2018, she was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award. Sori has said: “My aim in life now is to get justice for us tribals.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #12. Thenmozhi Soundararajan
Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit activist, artist, and filmmaker who uses her art as a means of fighting against caste-based oppression and violence. As the founder of the international Dalit Women Speak Out campaign, she has worked tirelessly to raise awareness about the experiences of Dalit women and to challenge the systemic inequalities they face. Her activism has been instrumental in creating a platform for Dalit women’s voices to be heard and empowering them to take control of their own stories. Thenmozhi’s work is a powerful reminder of the importance of art and storytelling in creating social change and challenging oppressive systems. She has said: “I am a daughter of a people who have been oppressed for thousands of years, I am also the artifact of centuries of their love and resilience. In that there is a hope for everything. May a thousand flowers bloom in your heart and in mine for our liberation.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #13: Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju
Dr. Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju is a prominent LGBTQ+ activist and medical professional in India who has created a powerful online community, Advocacy Unlimited, where queer individuals can share their experiences, and victims of violence can find support and resources. Her tireless efforts and unwavering commitment to creating a safer and more inclusive society have earned her numerous accolades, including being named one of Forbes India’s 30 Under 30 in 2022. She has said: “Even when feminist spaces allow for the visibility of some degree of queerness, the cisgender, upper caste, rich, lesbian woman is still entitled to far more space and a louder voice than a Dalit trans woman sex worker. Pathologisation of trans identity, stigma that makes them invisible, laws that seek to voyeuristically examine and erase—all play into the exclusion of trans voices in queer/feminist spaces.
Anti-VAW Activist in India #14: Uma Chakravarti
A renowned historian and filmmaker, Uma Chakravarti has published several pioneering works, including “Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy” which highlights debates on gender, caste, and class. A former professor at the Miranda House, Chakravarti has also directed four documentaries: A Quiet Little Entry, Fragments of a Past, Ek Inquilab Aur Aaya: Lucknow 1920-1949, and Prison Diaries. She has said: “Women are regarded as upholding the traditions by conforming to them; men on the other hand uphold traditions by enforcing them—not upon themselves but upon women.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #15: Viji Palithodi
Viji Palithodi is a 55-year-old tailor, who formed Penkoottu, which translates to “friendship between women.” She won the basic right for saleswomen to sit during work hours by organising the Irikkal Samaram (strike to sit). Palithodi made history by leading the women’s union Asanghaditha Mekhala Thozhilali Union and in 2018, she was listed in BBC’s 100 inspiring and influential women. When talking about that honour, she said: “‘Please provide basic facilities for workers instead of felicitating me.’ That’s how I began my speech, during a merchants’ association felicitation when I was selected as one of BBC’s 100 influential and inspiring women in 2018.”
Anti-VAW Activist in India #16: Vrinda Grover
Vrinda Grover is a human rights lawyer, researcher and women’s rights activist who works towards the prevention of violence against women and the promotion of gender equality. She has prominently worked on several human rights cases, such as that of Soni Sori (an Adivasi teacher and activist who was assaulted by the police). As a lawyer, she has contributed the creation of the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment against sexual assault, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 and others. In 2013, she was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Grover said: “Many Dalit victims and their families in India are not informed of their rights and atrocities committed against them are crimes. Institutionalised impunity for crimes committed against Dalit women in India must be addressed. The police’s reluctance and deliberate omissions to register complaints and arrest perpetrators must be questioned.”
- Anubha Bhonsle – from Faculty School of Modern Media (UPES)
- Arundhati Roy – from Wikipedia
- Babytai Kamble – Source: The Print.in
- Bindu Ammini – from “Activist Bindu Ammini attacked in Kozhikode; third assault since Sabarimala entry” (The Federal News)
- Farah Naqvi – from Edexlive (Beyond the burqa: What Farah Naqvi wants us to understand about Muslims)
- Flavia Agnes – from LiveLaw (Triple Talaq: Women’s Rights Activist Flavia Agnes Submits Model Nikahnama Before SC)
- Irom Sharmila Chanu – Source: Press Trust of India, via The Wire
- Kamala Das – from “Love and sexuality in the writings of Kamala Das” (The Week)
- Nandita Das – from Wikimedia (Nandita Das at the screening of Gattu in 2012)
- Nangeli – Art by Orijit Sen. Courtesy Scroll.com
- Soni Sori – from Wikimedia (Soni Sori speaking at the Bhopal Jan Utsav 2017, <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Thenmozhi Soundarajan – from Wikimedia (Thenmozhi Soundararajan presents on a Whose Knowledge panel at Wikimania 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju – Source: Hindustan Times
- Uma Chakravarti – from Wikimedia (Payasam (Mukul Dube), CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)
- Viji Palithodi – from “We were humiliated when we pleaded for washrooms” (Village Square)
- Vrinda Grover – from Wikipedia (Vrinda Grover receives honorary degree at SOAS University of London)