Speaking Story...

Diya’s Reproductive Justice Story

My RJ story begins at the gate of a temple in the eastern province of Bengal, in India in 1944. My grandmother, Bela, who was twelve years old at the time, was told by her mother that she could not accompany her into the temple as she had just begun menstruating. This threw Bela into a fit of rage. How could a body that is primed to create life pollute the goddess’s home? If anything, her presence should add to the sanctity of the place. None of the moral justifications by priests and older women made any sense to her. So, standing in front of that temple gate, young Bela came to the conclusion that religion was an elaborate conspiracy designed by men. Out of their jealousy towards the power and beauty of women’s bodies, they had decided to shame women and keep them locked out of important places. That was the day, as the family lore goes, that my grandmother became the first in the long line of naribadis (feminists) in our family.

This incident occurred a few years before India’s independence. In the coming years, Bela would witness tremendous changes sweep the country. She would see her country first gain Independence from the British, only to be broken into pieces in the next instant. She would witness an unprecedented level of death and suffering—first, due to a man-made famine that claimed three million lives and then, due to Partition, when another fifteen million people were turned into refugees on their own land. My grandmother told me stories of stepping over bodies on her way to school and trying to listen to the teacher’s instruction over the cries of hungry people wandering the streets.

When she turned fifteen, Bela was abandoned by her parents, who could no longer afford to keep her at home. A distant relative took her in to live with him in a Communist commune. Here she gained a new religion that would replace the one she had lost. In the Party, she finally found an intellectual home, even with all its imperfections. Here was an ideology that preached that no one’s life, body or work is more or less sacred than another’s. Such a simple and elegant message resonated with her and gave all her rage direction. She threw herself whole-heartedly in the Communist movement—organizing refugees, leading marches and, eventually, ending up in prison for her beliefs.

While Bela was fully committed to the Communist cause, she was always wary of the ways in which patriarchy threatened to poison the collective dreams of revolution. Her male comrades, including the man who would eventually be my grandfather, were, at best blind to their privilege and, at worst, actively sought to marginalize women’s voices. In spite of the hypocrisy of the men, Bela remained in the Party, in part, to prove to the men that she would not pushed aside so easily. Besides, she later confessed to me that she had the courage to stay on because had reasoned that many of the men she distrusted were not true Communists anyway—they were weak men who were unlikely to survive the worldwide revolution when it came.

Alas, the revolution never came, but my grandmother never stopped fighting. All her life she continued to fight for the dignity of women’s lives and bodies. Wherever she heard news of women facing exploitation, she rushed to be at their side—if for no other reason but to serve as witness and to stand in solidarity. She had a passion for seeking out women in places where they worked and collecting narratives of their laboring lives—be it in the mangrove swamps where women harvest shrimp while knee-deep in muddy waters or on the streets of Sonagachhi where women sell sex for a living. My grandmother’s passion for the working lives of women taught me that reproductive justice means more than the right to bear children under conditions of one’s own choosing. It means having the right feed them, educate them and see them thrive.

Moreover, her obsession with collecting women’s stories taught me that a reproductive justice framework must not only consider whose body counts, but also evaluate whose knowledge counts. Many of my grandmother’s writings made it into daily newspapers or were presented in activist circles. However, many more have been lost or ignored simply because they were written in Bengali and because my grandmother did not have the formal education that is prerequisite to be published.  She often sardonically observed that the further you are in terms of your linguistic, class, and even geographic location from the lives of Indian women workers, the more legitimacy you will have to speak on their behalf in academic and policy-making spaces. Reproductive justice, then, is also a matter of whose stories get to survive and inform how we imagine our present world and forge our collective futures.