Keywords: women’s initiative, journal of women, University of Kerala, regional language, women faculty, editorial policy, women initiatives, women’s issues
I had always nurtured the wish to be an editor. This desire to be an editor together with the dream of uniting people in a non-hierarchical organisational structure were the basic impulses that prompted me to launch Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies in 2001.
My career as an editor dates back to my college days. I organised the first party-based elections in the Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram in 1978. Those were the days after the national emergency and the whole campus was throbbing with the spirit of democracy. I contested for the post of the Editor of the college magazine, prompted by my unwavering conviction in the power of the written word and won with a thumping majority. The next one year was most exciting with meetings with students, editorial discussions and negotiations with printers.
Working as a student editor, I learnt the first lessons in editing; planning and coordinating with the young writers who thought every word they wrote was of the highest literary merit, sourcing art materials, maintaining schedules and practice reading pages after pages. Working with so many young hands was fun. But as none of us had any training in editing, there were a lot of arguments and often we overshot the schedule. At that moment in my life, I also understood from first-hand experience, that in editing, the editor’s word is final.
After my studies, I joined government college service as Lecturer in 1983. The next eight years were really hectic for me, personally as well as academically. I got married during this period, became a mother and set up a house. There were frequent transfers from college to college, taking me to unfamiliar places and new people. I also joined the university for my doctoral research during this period. Those were testing times and the activist in me suffered. However, in 1991 I joined as Lecturer at the Institute of English, University of Kerala. The year also marked the beginning of the second phase of academic activism in my life, largely because of the freedom afforded by a university department.
Historically, the early 1990s was a crucial period in the transformation of Indian society. The economy was opening up and the anti-globalisation movement was gaining momentum among women. The feminisation of labour, the representation of women as sex symbols in the media, the homogenisation of culture, the use of genetically modified crops, environment protection, GATT and Dunkel Draft were some of the major issues connected with globalisation during this period. This was a moment when the question of choice became paramount and marked a crucial change in the social psyche as far as the feminists were concerned, because it could mean choice in matters ranging from the nature of work outside the family to preferences in sexual practises. The women faculty members of the University who wanted to respond to these socio-political and economic developments started an informal discussion group in 1992 called the Kerala University Women’s Forum or KUWF. Soon after, I volunteered to bring out a Newsletter for the KUWF as a forum for discussion.
The KUWF Newsletter gave me an opportunity to sharpen my editorial skills. I invested all my abilities in shaping the Newsletter. What began as a slim 12 page news bulletin grew into a solid 32 page information packed newsletter. It was my wish to mould it into a journal of Women’s Studies. Editing the KUWF Newsletter was a learning experience as was the editing of the college magazine. The first lesson I learnt was that big names need not necessarily mean the best. The art of saying “No” with composure was another practical lesson that I learnt. It helped me not to compromise on the standards of the published work and to carry along people with whom I differed. I recognised that people with different perspectives and inclinations would strengthen any publication and went long distances in soliciting the cooperation of academics and scholars whose work had genuine merit.
Regarding the presentation of the work, I recognised the importance of having the reader in mind always. This demanded consistency of ideas and clarity of expression. These may be classical ideas, but in practice, it helped as was vouched by many of our readers. I also mastered the art of designing the newsletter. I understood how even minor matters like the quality of the paper used would contribute to the impression the final product created. On the financial side, I internalised the principles of costing and marketing. In brief, I had hands on training in all aspects of publication. Last but not the least, the disciplinarian in me was made more vigilant through my realisation of the significance of keeping to deadlines, an inevitable attribute in maintaining credibility.
The smooth pace of my involvement with the KUWF Newsletter received a blow in 1999 when elections to the Senate of the University of Kerala were conducted. KUWF members were in favour of contesting elections to ensure equal participation in decision-making bodies. I was against participation in this election, maintaining that KUWF was not a political body. However, KUWF decided to contest the elections. But I could not relent from my considered stand, and stood my ground. I was asked to resign as editor for taking a stand against the leadership. My strong sense of identity and a feeling of having been wronged prompted me to resign from primary membership of the organisation as well and to bid good bye to KUWF.
This was the most trying period of my life. I had severed all ties with the organisation I had helped to build. I was anxious as to the future of the organisation. I was also hurt by the thought that my friends in KUWF had moved away. I kept asking myself where I had gone wrong. I had high hopes as to the interventionist role KUWF would play in feminist politics. But that was not to be. Pushed out of the organisation, I had no idea as to the direction I must take. I lay awake for hours thinking of different possibilities. Finally, because of my commitment to issues concerning women, I decided to form an organisation that would focus on studies and research in the area of feminist studies. Women’s Initiatives, a collective of Women’s Studies scholars was thus formed in the year 2000.
The collective was founded with a contribution of Rs. 1000/- each as seed money from its seven founding members including myself. It was registered with the aim of establishing a forum for studies and research on women’s issues with particular reference to India in the Context of globalisation. The early meetings of the organisation were held in the houses of the members, and heated discussions on women’s issues and related topics used to take place over steaming cups of tea and home-made samosas and vadas.
150 When We Dared to Publish: Experiences of an Editor
The idea of Samyukta was concretised in these discussions but the real spirit behind it was Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair. She was my classmate from schooldays and our friendship was based on healthy competition. She is the granddaughter of the distinguished scholar and critic Sri. Suranad. Kunjan Pillai and always had an edge over me in Malayalam. She had an instinctive understanding of the language and was equally good in English. She had just finished her doctoral dissertation under the late Ayyappa Paniker and though we were in touch with each other, it had never crossed my mind that at some point in my life she would extend her warm support to realise my dreams. We had detailed discussions on every aspect of bringing out the journal and the framework of the journal was finalised in the course of these talks. It was in one of these discussions that I had with Jayasree that the name ‘Samyukta’ signifying unity and collective effort was accepted as the most suitable name for the journal. We also decided on the design and the topics that could be covered in the next few numbers. We prepared a list of eminent scholars who could be contacted for papers. Since both of us shared a common interest in women’s autobiographies, we decided to focus the first number on that topic. We were able to obtain the manuscript of the autobiography of a Brahmin woman who had converted to Christianity and this proved to be the high point of the first number.
Deciding on the format of the journal was much easier than deciding on an editorial policy and content mix. This took long discussions of more than three months, towards the middle of the year 2000. At the beginning, we decided to focus on two areas: (1) Censorship against women and (2) Translations into English from the regional languages of India. A review was conducted later when we decided to continue the emphasis on translation, while broad-basing to socio-cultural areas.
To achieve these ends, we charted a multi-pronged strategy. This included organising conferences highlighting the issues of censorship, publishing material not readily accepted by mainstream publications, carrying translations from regional languages in every number, having special issues on translations and holding workshops for translators.
The content mix in Samyukta was chosen so as to appeal to the academic audience as well as the ordinary reader. In addition to articles, creative pieces and book-reviews, every issue of the journal carries an interview with a person who has done interesting work, an autobiographical account or excerpts from a longer autobiography, profile of a feminist and the re-reading of the contributions of a major thinker from a feminist angle.
The expressed policy of the journal was to contest censorship against women at all levels – socio-politico-economic and domestic. Forces that were at work to silence women included right-wing governments, conservative religious establishments, poverty and illiteracy, systemic mechanisms of social control, customs and prejudices, family pressures, discriminatory publishers and lopsided systems of global media distribution. As an advocacy group trying to help women have a stronger public presence, we were against all kinds of censorship, even the very subtle forms of control within the family, and wanted to find ways to fight it.
It was to do justice to the writings in regional languages which were pushed to the margins because of the dominance of English that we decided to give due weightage to writings in translation from regional languages. Writers in ‘regional’ languages or the bhashas do not get a countrywide readership unless they are translated into English or Hindi. Women writers in regional languages are doubly disadvantaged. They are placed low in the pecking order of literature in their own language on account of gender. They find themselves at the bottom of the heap in the context of ‘national’ literature on account of language. It was our aim to correct the asymmetries of gender and language to the extent possible.
Our next set of concerns after completing the official formalities of starting the journal were centered on the actual production of the journal. We wrote to our friends and established contacts. We decided the format, designed the title and finalised the fonts to be used in different sections. The style of documentation was finalised. We decided that proofreading should be a joint venture in which all members should take part. Even in packing and posting the journal we had little help; but it was fun and we enjoyed it.
Once we had formalised the editorial policy, we obtained registration for the journal from the Registrar of Societies, the Registrar of Newspapers and the Inspector General of Publications. Clearance was obtained from the Government and the University of Kerala. Clearance was also obtained from the Police (Undertaking as per the Anti-Terrorist Act), the Reserve Bank of India and the Income Tax Department.
During these formative days of the journal, the lessons I had learnt from my association with KUWF stood me in good stead. I was careful not to repeat any of the earlier mistakes, personal as well as academic. The organisational structure of KUWF had replicated the mainstream patriarchal form. My rift with the organisation was largely on account of what I saw as an authoritarian way of running the organisation, giving little space to people who differed from the leadership. Moreover, in KUWF there was the tendency to personalise issues, stressing who said what rather than what was being said. So, I thought it better to do away with a centralised command structure in Women’s Initiatives. I also recognised that had failed to appreciate the democratic process when differences arose with KUWF. I should have been less adamant and more accommodating. I realise now that I was also falling into the trap of personal prejudices. The organisation was too close to my heart for me to be able to distance myself and judge matters objectively.
Samyukta that we built up so assiduously is now a peer-reviewed journal. It is reviewed, indexed and cited widely. It has earned high respectability in academic circles. But, till the year 2005 we did not have an office. We still have no regular staff. We make no payment to contributors. We do not take any remuneration ourselves. We do all the work – from selecting the material to editing, proofing and even the final posting of the journal – by ourselves. There is a sense of collective responsibility among the members of Women’s Initiatives who take turns to run the journal.
Some of the most eminent figures of the literary and academic world have cared to send their notes of appreciation for our efforts along with their willingness to help in the making of the journal. I still remember the words of Kamala Das who expressed her approval of the journal by saying that “It is a privilege to be published in Samyukta“. Keeping up her promise that “I’ll do whatever I can,” Sanjukta Dasgupta guest edited a section of the July 2004 number. Vasanthy Shankaranarayan, noted translator took the volume with her wherever she went and won us scores of subscribers.
I can say that it is the spirit of equality and desire for critical thinking that motivates Samyukta. There is no hierarchy, with the responsibility for the journal shifting from one editor to another. The journal is in fact a search for an alternative organisational model -different from the mainstream patriarchal model. There is no centralised authority and the power to veto any suggestion is vested with each member. A single veto results in the dropping of a suggestion. It is this spirit of oneness that we cherish and what creates a strong bond between us. Over the last fifteen years, Samyukta has become our home and we are the members of the Samyukta family.
Since its inception in 2001, under the auspices of Women’s Initiatives, Samyukta has been at the forefront of academic deliberations related to women’s issues. As a journal that systematically addresses issues of silencing that women have endured through the ages, Samyukta answered a long-felt need for an exclusive forum of publication for women in India, where the only other journal devoted to Women’s Studies is the Indian Journal of Gender Studies brought out by Sage. The thematic concerns were chosen by us in such a way that the journal acted as a site for identifying the direction the discipline of Women’s Studies should take in the University system. All of us shared the opinion that the system has to become more inclusive, catering to both academic and non-academic audiences. Comprehensive research articles in Women’s Studies, autobiographical narratives, in-depth interviews, detailed profiles of eminent feminists, the best in creative writing and translation, book reviews – all find a place in Samyukta.
The contemporary times demand a wider definition of censorship. It cannot be confined to the act of removing objectionable portions of a work. It also involves the gagging of voices of the marginalised, where the weaker sections are not provided with a venue to voice their concerns. Here we find that the privileged in society censor the contributions from or about the underprivileged. As long as a section is rendered voiceless, it will continue to remain invisible. It demands real fortitude from those at the periphery, like tribals, dalits, minorities and women, to struggle against this discourse of censorship. It is against this background that a journal like Samyukta gains its relevance. The journal negotiates the issue of gendered censorship by providing a space for women.
Democratising access to the episteme of knowledge has been the unspoken motto of Samyukta since the day of its inception. The nexus between knowledge and power results in the formation of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ when it comes to the field of knowledge. Diffusion of knowledge, which leads towards the identification and critiquing of injustice, instils a sense of empowerment in the psyche of all, thereby doing away with intellectual hierarchy. This is particularly true in the case of women because they constitute a section of society which was always pushed to the periphery. Women were kept out of the intellectual scene by denying them access to knowledge. Samyukta has become alert to the fact that the greatest discrimination is discrimination in terms of knowledge.
In the twenty-first century, the situation has changed for the worse. Now the majority of women gain accesses to knowledge but here, patriarchal systems decide the type of knowledge to be acquired by women and even the manner in which they are supposed to use it. Besides, it is most demeaning to note that the critical faculties of women have been numbed by the gendered consciousness of the society. Our attempt is to awaken the spirit of analysis and questioning in women, leading towards an inclination on their part to take up research in new vistas of knowledge related to Women’s Studies. We strive to recompense for the historical prejudice against women which has been carried on to the twenty-first century. Hence, the journal stresses on two fundamental ideas: (1) Those who have access to knowledge have the responsibility to share it. (2) The unequal distribution of power between men and women is to be corrected through the ‘unconditional’ dissemination of knowledge and freedom to use it.
From the purely conventional lines of study, we have dared to venture into new areas of enquiry. The primary agenda of the journal is to assist the Universities to bridge the gap between the academic and non-academic realms by offering courses in Women’s Studies. It is our confidence that the discipline will help to see through the centuries’ old subjugation of women. To make this possible, we choose topics aimed at tracing the historical trajectory of women’s status in society followed by the analysis of reasons for their subordination even in the twenty first century. This we have found, eventually leads towards the identification of strategies for empowerment. The articles are selected with care so that they help to sharpen the critical faculties of women which have been rendered dormant through generations of patriarchal ideology.
Empowerment of women in letter and spirit is OUT major concern. When I say this, I am aware of the fact that empowerment is a word that has lost its critical edge through repeated use. The journal acts as a platform to explore the reasons for the subordinate status of women. Attention is particularly focused on reevaluating writers who have been ignored/misunderstood. A space to voice one’s concerns is highly consequential for anyone endeavoring to scuttle the power structure. Silencing the ‘other has always been one of the priorities of those in power since time immemorial. It is in this discursive pattern of society that Samyukta seeks to create a niche for itself for dismantling the ideology of patriarchy writ into the socio-politico-cultural sensibility. The journal seeks to compensate the major lacunae in the opportunities for publication accessible to women. It thus becomes instrumental in creating venues of expression for women, leading towards a better understanding of the literary modes, themes and ways of expression preferred by them.
It is the philosophy of breaking the binaries and opening systems that would help us in our journey into future. Our attempt is to strive towards an opening up of a range of topics in research and publication. This requires the deconstruction of all forms of binaries, academic and non-academic. We aim to identify and popularise new areas for the accomplishment of women’s empowerment. This necessitates the determination to overcome conventional modes of thinking so as to incorporate the new realities. Naturally, it calls for the inclusion of those topics which were till recently taboos even to be mentioned, such as same-sex love and pornography. As has already been mentioned, we aim to throw light on untrodden paths and approaches for the universities and upcoming researchers to take up in future. The ultimate aim is to create outreach opportunities beyond the university classroom in order to make a difference in one’s community, whether at the local level or on the world stage.
Our activities during the last twenty-five years can be summarised as efforts towards autonomy and freedom from patriarchal control within the family and society. My success or failure can be measured by the extent to which 1 have been able to act without restrictions imposed by structures, institutions and ideologies of domination. This is what 1 have learnt:
• There can be no such thing as a definitive set of principles in feminist publishing. • Power relationships are real.
• Values enter into feminist analysis at different levels.
• Non-market activities are important to the economy.
• Human beings are complex, and they are influenced by more than just material factors.
• People compete, cooperate and care.