When Indian author Arundhati Roy, popularly known for her powerful writing, political activism for the sub-altern and open critique of right extremism in India, said, “There is really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard,” — it resonated with several womxn authors, academics, artists, and creatives in India.
In a diverse country like India that continues to be deep-rooted in conditioned casteism and patriarchy, the work of womxn, especially those who come from marginalised communities, has neither been given its due credit nor been included in the mainstream paradigms of literature, art, and academia. Moreover, their representation in these discourses has been mainly limited to as either objects of male desires or secondary characters with no concrete identity of their own.
Their rich body of work remains largely absent from the colonial educational curriculums. Their struggles and stories, desires, and descriptions of how they see and live the world are hardly ever experienced through poetry, prose, and art. Robbing womxn of their credibility and entitlement to their opinion is not just a consequence of internalised misogyny, but also a perpetrator of it.
Breaking these shackles, however, is the ‘Sister Library,’ a safe space bringing together ‘books of, for and by women’. Housed in a small place in Mumbai, the Sister Library is an initiative by 29-year-old Aqui Thami, an activist and PhD Scholar from northeastern India. The Sister Library started as a travelling project, a library that toured India and set itself up in art and literary festivals and only found a permanent home earlier this year.
— Sister Library (@SisterLibrary) May 15, 2019
The books – comprising a range of genres from icons like Audre Lorde to Arundhati Roy; Sheila Jeffreys to Savitribai Phule – are from the personal collection of Thami, who has only read womxn for the last five years.
The Sister Library also has powerful zines on a variety of subjects from artists across the world. Some of these have been designed by Thami and some have been created by the local community in Mumbai’s Dharavi — facilitated by Dharavi Art Room and Bombay Underground that Thami has been associated with.
Apart from being a space where womxn can come read and engage in dialogue irrespective of caste and class barriers, the Sister Library holds several events to encourage intersectional feminism and propagate feminist readings and art — and the next one, named ‘Antariksha’, is happening at SOAS. Organised by the SOAS India Dance Society in collaboration with the Sister Library, Antariksha is a night of music, dance and poetry performances by people of colour, being held on Thursday 5th December, 6.30pm onwards at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre.
From Kathak to Madossini, reggae to Bharatnatyam, spoken word poetry to theatrics – the powerful performances, all from people of colour, will have strong social and political undercurrents. You may check out the details of the performers here.
The event will also be exhibiting work by womxn from the community in and around Sister Library. Limited edition zines, artwork, badges, postcards from Bombay Underground, Dharavi Art Room, Sister Library, Aqui Thami, Reluctant Superhero, and more south Asian local artists will be on sale throughout the night. Tickets for the event cost £5. All the money raised will go towards funding the space of the Sister Library and the Chota Library — a community lending library in Dharavi, Mumbai.
SOAS holds a particularly interesting space in the British Academy. Given its strong political voice – especially in the Asian and African discourse – a feminist community-owned space, like the Sister Library, for reading art and activism does not just resonate with the ethos of SOAS, but can help further the agenda to give due credit to work by womxn.
Sasha Patel, a fourth-year B.A History and South Asian Studies student from SOAS who got involved with the Sister Library earlier this year while interning in Mumbai, elaborates on this, “Having an event for Sister Library in London is important for multiple reasons like contradicting white/western-centric narratives of feminism and encouraging awareness of feminist activism and literature from the Global South.
“Similarly, I also feel it’s important to raise funds for a grass-roots cause that helps women directly in their community. It’s a privilege for us to be able to show-case works directly from minority and non-upper caste women in South Asia.”
Encouraging the idea of transnational feminism, Thami’s feelings concur with Sasha’s. Expressing her gratitude towards the event, she states, “We need to build a community that exceeds mechanisms and parameters of patriarchy like borders and nation-state. We have to remind ourselves what our foremothers have taught, that, nobody’s free until everyone is free, even if our shackles are not the same. Thank you for doing this event at SOAS. This is surely a testimony of victory, our tactics sisterhood is much stronger than their hegemonies.”
- Devyani Nighoskar is a 23-year-old SOAS student from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her M.A in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. You may check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo