Urvashi Butalia: A pioneer in feminist publishing and activism

Urvashi Butalia’s remarkable journey embodies the profound impact of literature, publishing, and activism in challenging societal norms and advocating for gender equality.

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As this year marks the 40th anniversary of pioneering feminist publishing and the 21st year of Zubaan’s impactful presence, Smita Dwivedi engages in insightful dialogue with Urvashi Butalia, where she delves deep into the inspiring narratives that fuelled her passion, culminating in the establishment of Kali and Zubaan Books.

AABP: What were some of the defining experiences from your childhood that shaped your interest in feminism and social justice? And who were your mentors or role models, and how did they influence your career path?

Urvashi: I think the people who shape our thinking are often those closest to us. For me, my feminist model was my mother, who was a great feminist herself. She was a working woman, a teacher who had four children, ran a household filled with relatives, and still had time to teach us that her two daughters were in no way unequal to her two sons. While she handled the housework because she had to, she made it no secret that she disliked it and felt the time spent in the kitchen was not what she wanted to do with her life. And later in life she also ran a women’s organization helping women facing domestic violence to deal with abusive families and to secure their rights. So she was really the person from whom I learnt to value women, and their stories.

AABP: How did your experience growing up in India inform your understanding of gender and identity?

Urvashi: Well, I understood early on that there was no such thing as: a woman cannot do this or that, or a woman’s place is in the home. My dad, who was a very modest man, also did not push us in the direction of marriage or any such thing. By the time we came to university in Delhi in the late sixties and early seventies, the universities were filled with students talking, protesting, asking questions. It was a really vibrant scene. We were young, and full of questions, there were so many movements going on all around India – Naxalbari, Chipko, anti-price rise, Bodhgaya, and so many more. We were inspired by them. Many of our contemporaries abandoned their studies and went underground to join left movements. In the universities, feminisms were just coming into their own and women too were protesting and making demands to the state. It was a really exciting time.

AABP: What was the inspiration behind founding Kali and Zubaan Books?

Urvashi: Kali was a dream, until it became a reality. Today, we are 4 decades old, Kali began in 1984 and this is 2024, so that’s how old or young feminist publishing in India is. Zubaan is now 21 years old.

The motivation to start Kali came a bit later. When I finished my Master’s here in Delhi, I knew for certain that the one thing I did not want to do was to teach English literature. Quite by chance, I landed a freelance job in publishing, with the Oxford University Press (OUP). And I fell instantly and irrevocably in love with publishing.

At the same time, I was also very involved in the growing women’s movement and there we had a lot of questions about issues like dowry, violence against women, etc but could find no literature about it at all. So I spoke to my bosses at the OUP to ask why we don’t do books about and by women and they were just not interested. And so, I decided I would do it myself, and that is how the idea of Kali was born.

I carried that idea with me to the UK where I worked with a publisher for two years, Zed Books, and then I came back in early 1984 to set up Kali. Ritu, my business partner in Kali, joined me once I was back.

Zubaan was created in 2003 when Kali shut down after Ritu and I decided to go our separate ways. Basically Zubaan carried forward Kali’s mandate, but also expanded it and brought in children’s literature and more popular, accessible books.

AABP: What challenges did you face and how’s the journey so far?

Urvashi: The evolution of women’s writing and publishing has been remarkable yet challenging. While there’s been a surge in women’s presence in publishing roles and an increase in books by and about women, diversity in author profiles remains limited. Independent publishers face resource constraints, making it difficult to promote new voices effectively.

The impact of Covid-19 on print book sales added to these challenges. Despite aspirations for accessibility across different formats, financial limitations hinder progress. However, our commitment to feminist values and creating inclusive environments persists, driving our efforts to amplify marginalized voices and promote gender equality in both content creation and organizational practices.

For us, there are also other challenges. We are keen to make our books accessible across different platforms, we want to do audio, to do books for the visually impaired, to do large print… but being poor as church mice doesn’t help! We also want that our belief in feminism and women’s dignity, in gender equality and equity, all this is brought not only into the content we create, but in the ways in which we create such content, in our working environment, in the ways in which we build a diverse workforce and a feminist institution.

AABP: What role do you see storytelling and literature playing in promoting social change and gender equality?

Urvashi: Not only in promoting gender equality, I think storytelling can and does play a major role in keeping open the space for conversations in our society. But we have to be willing to listen to the wisdom in stories which are often handed down generationally and carry the wisdom and experience of so many who have come before us. Sadly, academia often dismisses this kind of knowledge as anecdotal and privileges data based knowledge. But while data are important, we have to ensure that we are also attentive to the human being who is at the end of that data. This is why literature and publishing are so important, they are about stories.

AABP: Can you share some insights into your journey as a feminist writer, publisher, and activist in India?

Urvashi: I don’t often think of myself as much of a writer. I want to be, I have always wanted to write, but since I chose to work in publishing, my writing took quite a backseat. Still, I do write and I love it, and I often think that I have been lucky to have the good fortune to match what I love doing, writing and publishing, what I am professionally involved in, and my politics. So for me all of those are closely connected.

AABP: Is there any aspect or project you are currently working on that you would like to share and what advice would you give to young writers?

Urvashi: I feel it’s important to keep being passionate, to read more, and to bring what you learn from it into your work for change.

I’ve just finished a book I have been working on for ages, it’s on the life of a hijra friend of mine, Mona Ahmed, and I am now waiting for a couple of friends who are reading it to give me feedback on it.

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