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Down to earth, she prioritised the needs of women

She prefers to call herself a women's activist rather than a feminist. A regular columnist in several local and national newspapers, she peeped into Bollywood through her role as Shahrukh's mother in Ashoka.

Born to leaders of the Indian National Army Col. P.K. Sahgal and Lakshmi Sahgal, she chose to enter the public sphere as an activist after she did her masters in Kanpur. She was elected to the Parliament from Kanpur in 1989 and later to the National Commission for Women in 1992.

An active member of the largest women's organisation of the country almost since its inception, she was noticed during several crusades the organisation launched against multinational companies and government authorities demanding justice for women.

The all-India president of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), Subhashini Ali, took time off her busy schedule while in Tiruchi for an informal chat with Prathibha Parameswaran.

"I PREFER to be called an activist than a feminist," she says, as soon as someone refers to her so. "Feminism is a label, it has a gender connotation," she hastens to explain. She joined the Left when the trade union movement was at its peak and was active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s.

"I was not very sensitive to women's issues during the time. I was more involved in the trade union and anti-war activities during the period," she recollects. In 1974, she moved to Mumbai and joined the Shramik Mahila Sangh and started devoting more time to issues concerning women. In 1982, the Sangh formally merged with the AIDWA and Ms. Subhashini became a part of the association.

What according to her are the main issues confronting women now? "It's difficult to point out one problem as important than the other. What we need first is a strong organisation that can face the challenges. We need to prioritise women's issues in the political arena," she explains. "A plethora of issues, such as the right to vote, secondary status meted out to women and irregularities in law, has to be addressed," she adds.

Like all Left leaders, she has strong views on globalisation and feels that it has made an adverse impact on the lives of women in India. "Globalisation has ushered in a consumerist and exploitative mindset. There is a great desire to keep the labour costs low, of which women are the worst victims," she points out. She refuses to acknowledge the influence of globalisation as modernising. "Who says globalisation has improved the society. I find the society being ritualistic and superstitious, holding on to blind faiths and customs as ever," she says.

"In a globalised scenario, women are forced into docile labour and at times forced to take up the duties of the State," she observes. There is a marketing strategy attached to even the marriage of a girl, Ms. Subhashini notes. Dowry and slave labour are all issues that are detrimental to the growth of the country.

To counter the effect of globalisation, which she calls "devastating," she hopes to build AIDWA into a stronger organisation. "We need to make women aware of their problems, linking the larger picture to their day-to-day lives. Campaigns against dowry, the portrayal of women in the media, civic amenities and condition of women labourers are a few issues we prioritise now," she says. She hopes campaigns could be extended to the trade unions as well, who ultimately could tag along with AIDWA to seek equal wages for women labourers. Though, one is naturally sceptical about a predominantly male organisation agreeing to fight for the cause of women, "The unions are progressive in their outlook. I am sure they will be receptive to the idea," she says.

She envisions women from all parts of India even from the most rural areas joining the fight for their rights. "We are always at the grassroot level. We are roping in women from marginalized and minority communities such as Dalits and Muslims," she informs. "Our intervention in the Imrana case has at least prompted the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to reconsider its laws. We cannot bring about a change by merely changing laws. We need to incite a debate on the issues," she says.

Now, she is leading farmers and women in their battle for water at Ganga Nagar in Rajasthan. Asked about her inspiration that kept her going during her struggles, she smiles before she responds, "I am inspired the most by those poor women who suffer, endure and fight. They are the ones who put the cause beyond the self and fight for the good of all women in this country."

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