TWI Substance: Bishakha Datta

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Without the point of view of women, what’s the point?’ – Bishakha Datta, Executive Director, Point of View, in an interview with Pooja Garg, Founder Chief Editor, The Woman Inc.

Bishakha Datta

PG: How did you get involved in this work? They say there is usually a personal experience which propels such passion. Is there a personal experience/ story behind what started this for you?

BD: I was a journalist and documentary filmmaker in the mid-1990s, before the Internet came to India. I’d cover lots of feminist events and conferences and really felt these groundbreaking ideas needed to reach lots more people, specially those who weren’t part of feminist circles. And I wanted to create change through what I liked doing best: using media in creative ways. So I invited a bunch of badass women to support me and Point of View was started – in 1997, the year an Independent India turned 50 – to promote the points of view of women, as we used to say then! Because without the point of view of women, what’s the point?

PG: What were the challenges you faced when you started? Have they eased since then?

BD: I was 33 years old when I founded Point of View. I had no idea how to run a program or an organization, let alone a non-profit. I didn’t know how to raise funds or build a team. I’d written about feminism as a journalist but I was new to feminist movements – and felt a bit intimidated by all the great work they were doing. Would our tiny organization measure up? Would we be able to change women’s lives by highlighting their voices? (The word amplify didn’t exist then.) So many doubts but also so much possibility. So much to learn. Such a steep hill to climb…but we’re now much higher up, where the cooler air has blown away many of these challenges.

We worked on cutting-edge issues around gender and sexuality right from the start, such as sex workers’ rights. In those days, there was a big divide between feminists and sex workers and it was a real struggle to get women’s rights groups to accept sex work as work, and sex workers as feminist activists. Similarly, we included trans persons in our definition of ‘women’ right from the start, but this was a big debate in feminist spaces then. So we struggled with how to think about all these things.

PG: What are the new challenges you face today?

BD: The world had already totally changed in the last two decades, even before Covid-19 started making us think of even more fundamental changes. One of the big changes is the arrival of digital technologies, including the Internet. In the last decade, we’ve completely re-invented ourselves so that we have our feet on the ground and our head in the cloud. Or one foot in the past, terra firma, one hand in the present, or on the mobile. Re-inventing ourselves meant doing a whole bunch of things all of which were challenging: defining the issues of the moment, locating ourselves as ‘phygital’ and actually making that happen, building an inter-generational team, aligning values, priorities and politics across generations.

Since 2015, we’ve had three new programs at Point of View: sexuality and disability; sexuality gender and digital technologies; digital storytelling. You’ll see that we put sexuality before gender, because it sometimes gets lost otherwise, even in feminist spaces!

Because these are such new areas, there aren’t that many people working on these issues in India – our biggest challenge is finding team members with substantive knowledge not just of gender and sexuality, but also of disability or of digital technology. Team members who can dig in and build a feminist Internet in all its beauty, richness and diversity!

PG: What is the one achievement that you prize more than any other, and why?

BD: Since 2015, when Point of View was reinvented as on-off, or online-offline, I feel we’ve built the organization we were almost destined to be: a cutting-edge intersectional inter-generational feminist organization that straddles multiple movements. We’re really known for our unique approach that combines past and present, digital and physical, strong substance and creative approaches. We are recognized as a pioneer, leader and field-builder in our work on digital technologies and disability. We work at the grassroots, with low-income communities through more than 50 partners, and are present at global policy forums, and I am really proud of this grassroots-to-global approach.

I am particularly proud to say that Point of View straddles multiple movements: women’s rights, LGBTQI rights, digital rights, sex workers rights, disability rights – we’re either actors or allies to these movements. What makes it all happen is our Intergenerational team – a mix of women and non-binary folx in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Also proud of our open enabling culture, our flexible work options – we’ve had remote options in place for years – and our ability to handle and support team members’ mental health, chronic illnesses etc.

PG: How has the thought / perception within the area you work in changed over the years? Is there a story that you might want to share about how the perception has changed?

BD: In the late nineties, when Point of View started, there wasn’t a critical mass of women and other marginalized genders talking about patriarchy. Today, it’s there – and we see it online everyday, where sexist behaviours are called out on a daily basis, specially insidious, relatively invisible forms of sexism. There’s much wider understanding of everyday sexism and misogyny now – and wider understanding of patriarchy as a structural force, something that shapes people’s thinking, beliefs, attitudes etc and manifests in every way, shape and form – from comments, thoughts, ideas online to family behaviours and preferences to community, society, media, policy etc. We see this everyday, especially online.

There’s also a much wider understanding of gender expression and gender identity as a spectrum, not a binary. And of sexual expression too as a spectrum that goes beyond straight queer LGBTQIA etc.

PG: Is there a certain misconception that you wish people would change within the area you work in?

BD: There’s very little understanding of the lives of one of the most marginalized groups we work with: sex workers. And of sex work. Sex work is still not  seen – by all feminists – as a legitimate form of work and sex workers are not seen as workers – they constantly face stigma and get very little respect. But who can live without respect? Who can live without rights? Who can live without dignity? This continues to enrage and anger me: how dare feminists exclude some women from the purview of their politics? And what form of power do they exercise in dubbing other women as ‘illegitimate’?

At Point of View, we’ve worked with sex workers – via grassroots collectives such as SANGRAM in Maharashtra – for the last two decades. We’ve seen how forming collectives have changed their own understanding of themselves, their self-definitions, their aspirations…how they have gained respect in their own eyes, and rights by coming together. One of our most ambitious projects, in collaboration with SANGRAM and VAMP, the sex workers’ collectives, was My Mother, The Gharwali, Her Maalak, His Wife, a theatrical production enacted by sex workers – where they presented their lives and realities in their own voices to middle-class audiences across the country. It was wonderful to see audiences finally beginning to rethink sex work, and challenge the biases and myths in their own heads.

PG: What gives you hope for the area you work in?

BD: Young feminist activists, who are proud to call themselves feminists, who are really digging into intersectionality, and who are coming up with new ways to change lives – that’s what gives me hope. And voice, speaking out about one’s own life, reality, experience – and speaking against power abuses, violence and violations, that always gives me hope. As the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz famously said, “Bol ke lab azad hain tere”.

As more and more women, trans and non-binary folx speak out their lives, a feminist future is unfolding.

PG: If you had the chance to change any one policy in the area of your work, what would that be, and why?

BD: I would decriminalize sex work – so that millions of adult women and trans folkx who sell sex for a living get the rights, respect and dignities they deserve. At the same time, I would tighten laws against trafficking, to ensure that women and girls can’t forcibly be pushed into this against their will.

PG: What makes you get up and do this everyday of your life?

BD: I ask myself that too from time to time! From the time I was a journalist and documentary filmmaker to my current more activist avatar, I’ve remained unendingly excited at the prospect of enabling women to unlock their voices, unzip their realities. Whether it’s through a workshop, one of our award-winning zines, via social media or by making movies, I am perennially interested in what’s invisible, marginal, considered illegitimate. Constantly stimulated by coming up with creative solutions around ‘artivism’, where art and politics are skilfully combined.

PG: What is your vision for the future? How do you see your work and organization shaping up?

BD: We will continue to be an organization that straddles earth and sky, from the grassroots to the global – in all the work we do. Feet on the ground, head in the clouds. Don’t want us to lose touch with our roots – low-income grassroots communities of women, trans and non-binary people – even as we go to global. We want to remain phygital – online, offline – intersectional not just in our politics but also in the domains we occupy. We want to be the gender and sexuality in digital technologies; and bring an understanding of these technologies to the marginalized communities we work with – as is evident in these unprecedented times, digital is a big part of our future and we don’t want anyone to be left out of that – without rights – just because of caste, class, income, ability etc.

PG: If you had just three words to describe yourself, what would they be?

BD: Restless, creative, empathetic

PG: What are the three things that people don’t know about you?

BD: That I wanted to learn to play the drums when I was a kid but ended up learning the piano – now that’s a gendered choice my mum made for me. That I would love to be a DJ. And that I love to dance.

PG: If there was one poem or book that has inspired you the most on your journey, which one is it? What makes it special for you?

BD: It’s hard to find just one! So maybe I’ll go with the one that popped into my head right away: Written On The Body by Jeanette Winterson. I love the way it talks about love romance bodies being embodied. It’s light and deep, playful and abstract, and beautifully written. It’s a masterpiece of feminist content and aesthetic form  – I’m a real fan of the intersection where aesthetics and politics come together meaningfully – that’s what I love about this.

Bishakha Datta (@busydot) works on gender and sexuality in digital spaces, runs the non-profit Point of View in Mumbai, writes and films non-fiction, is part of the wikipedia family, and serves on several non-profit boards. In all her work, Bishakha explores marginal, invisible, and silenced points of view – or those considered illegitimate. Her documentary work includes In The Flesh, a film on the lives of three sex workers, and Taza Khabar, which delves into a unique women-run rural newspaper. Books she edited include Nine Degrees of Justice, a collection of essays on the struggle against violence on women in India, and And Who Will Make the Chapatis?, an anthology on rural women’s political participation. Bishakha, who started her working life as a journalist, is currently writing #Selling Sex, a book on the lives and realities of sex workers in India. She is the editor-in-chief of the online imprint, Deep Dives, which publishes long-form journalism on ‘the way we live now’. Bishakha, who was a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, is currently on the boards of the non-profits APC, ARROW, Breakthrough, and Dreamcatcher.

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