Urvashi Butalia – India

Linked with When culture kills – Urvashi Butalia’s View From the South, and with Pratham.org – India.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Urvashi Butalia, born 1952 in Ambala in Punjab, is the face and voice of feminist literature and publishing in India. In 1984, she set up Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, from a little office in a garage and with almost no funds. Two decades later, Kali has succeeded in bringing to the fore the marginalized voices of Indian women. Her parents, Subhadra and Joginder Butalia, had relocated to what became India after Partition when The Tribune, where Joginder worked, had shifted there. Her mother began as a teacher, and taught both at school and university.

She says: “Early in my life I realized that knowledge is a most powerful weapon, and the silence of women across the world was premised on the denial of knowledge and information”.

Find her on wikipedia.

She is a consultant for Oxfam India.


Urvashi Butalia – India

She works for Kali for Women (Feminist Publishing in Asia), which is part of Zubaan Books.

The third of two brothers and a sister, Urvashi was brought up to believe in honesty and self-reliance. Her mother worked even as she bore four children, and looked after her own brother and sister, who became refugees after Partition. Urvashi’s parents brought up their children with no thought to gender inequity.

They were all educated in a co-educational school. When her father was offered a job with The Times of India in Delhi, Urvashi and her sister Bela went to a girls’ school where their mother taught, and where education for them was free.

Urvashi earned a Masters in literature from Delhi University in 1973 and a Masters in South Asian Studies in 1977 from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Involved in student politics while at university, she became leader of the students’ union in her college, Miranda House, and worked for women and girl students. She was the vanguard of a campaign for women’s colleges to become members of the Delhi University Students’ Union, until then the preserve of male students.

Urvashi participated in crusades to make the university a safer place for women, for better hostel conditions for girl students, against the commodification of women through beauty contests, and several other campaigns. It was this that led, in the early 1970s, to her involvement in the then nascent women’s movement in India, where she was initially part of a large umbrella group called Samta (Equality), the parent group that founded the journal Manushi.

Urvashi was on the original founding collective of this now-legendary journal.

She then moved to a more militant group calledWomen Activists- (see also under Women Activists), one of the key groups that took up the scrimmage against dowry and rape, participating in discussions and lobbying hard, especially when the Law Commission of India took up these laws for revision. She also worked with Stree Sangharsh on two street plays on dowry and rape that traveled across the country.

She began her career in publishing at the Oxford University Press, New Delhi, in 1973. She then moved to academics, joining as a senior lecturer in Book Publishing at the College of Vocational Studies, Delhi University. On a sabbatical, Urvashi joined ZedBooks, London, to work as promotions manager and editor with their women’s studies list. By 1982-84, the plan to set up Kali was already in place. She spent the time at Zed to make the necessary contacts, gain experience in international marketing and promotion, and work on the setting up of a women’s list.

Urvashi had begun to feel very strongly that, while a great deal was happening in the women’s movement in India, it found little reflection in what was published. Mainstream publishers were just not interested in women’s writing, not considering it seriously enough. The little that was published usually came from the West. While at Zed, she also became familiar with other feminist publishers worldwide (see one in London) with whom she worked closely to organize, over the next 12 years, international feminist book fairs. The first fair was held in 1984, then in 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994, the last in Australia.

In 1984, when she returned from London, Urvashi set up Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing press, with Ritu Menon.

Kali allowed her to combine her political interests and commitment with her professional ones. Neither she nor Ritu had money to put into publishing, so both quit their jobs. They raised money by offering editorial and production skills to produce books for other people, thus saving enough money to invest in Kali. Some money came through grants and pre-selling the books they planned to do abroad to raise money from rights.

They paid themselves nothing, working, for all they were worth, what was little else but a garage operation from Ritu’s home.

Kali began with two books, but soon developed into one of the best-known and most-respected feminist presses in the world. Urvashi and Ritu had decided to try to be self-sufficient within five years and not rely on funding. Through a mix of thrift, planning, and low overheads, they managed. Soon enough, Kali began to earn enough to keep itself going through book sales alone, an autonomy that allowed the publishing house to employ others, and gradually expand.

While Kali faced no real contrariety in material terms, its arrival was greeted with some expectations and equal skepticism. Many publishers wondered whether women would be able to run a business, especially one that spot-focused on women’s writing. Would there be enough writers, they asked. Do women actually read, they wanted to know. And why focus only on women when there’s a whole world out there? The two women stuck to their belief that women, who comprise half the world, cannot be classified as “only”. It is a belief that has, over the years, proven to be well-founded and justified.

Mainstream publishers have increasingly turned to publishing women’s writing in India and elsewhere.

Distribution and marketing remained a problem for a publisher of the small size of Kali, but the women developed alternative logistics. They followed some unusual paths, such as using the money earned from the more profitable books to finance pamphlets and short books used by NGOs and women’s groups. They also published a little in Hindi, and worked closely with groups publishing in Indian languages to have their books translated by Kali. Kali owed its very birth to the women’s movement, so it relied heavily on these links: its most loyal readership, its most sustaining readership, remained women within the movement.

In 2003, Kali for Women bifurcated into two sister imprints, with Urvashi setting up Zubaan (literally, tongue) Books. While Zubaan and Women Unlimited, Ritu’s imprint, will publish the same kinds of books as Kali did, the houses will also try to grow in different directions. Zubaan has taken on the publication of books for young adults, an area that has received scant attention in India. It is also working very closely with Pratham, a large NGO involved in non-formal education for poor children in municipal schools, producing books in four or five languages.

It is also entering into strategic relationships with other publishers for the promotion of parts of their list. Furthermore, Zubaan’s mandate is to grow with the women’s movement: in line with the broader understanding now available of gender and feminism, Zubaan is publishing books that reflect this. Some male authors are also being included in its list.

Urvashi has also written and edited books on a range of subjects that include fundamentalism, communalism, gender, media, and history. But perhaps her best-known work is The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, which has been published in several international and Indian languages and has won a number of awards. An oral history of the Partition of India, this book changed the way history was looked at by focusing on those on its margins, and by attempting to expand and stretch the definition of how canons are created.

The importance of this book is widely acknowledged; it has led to an opening of people’s histories of Partition – in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan – where such histories have not hitherto been explored. It has catalyzed research works on one of the most defining periods in subcontinental history. In doing so, it has contributed to improving relations between India and Pakistan, and has served as inspiration for a play, an exhibition of paintings, and a film.

When Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the then Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, met for a summit on peace in Agra, a newspaper article by an eminent writer, Rajamohan Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi), recommended that the two states-persons read this book in preparation for their discussions.

Urvashi has also been part of groups that have striven for conflict prevention and violence amelioration.

As chairperson of the Aman Trust, Urvashi has worked in Kashmir and the northeast of India, looking particularly at the impact of conflict on the lives of women. Her book on Kashmir, Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir, has internationally been very well-received.

Violence against women has concerned Urvashi greatly, and she has been part of groups that worked on this issue. She recently coordinated research on gender and conflict for a United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) report and wrote the chapter relating to this subject in an UNRISD report to be released at Beijing Plus Ten in New York (Gender Equality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World).

Urvashi’s involvement is both at the grassroots level, where she conducts workshops and holds talks with women’s groups and women activists, and at the national and international levels, where she writes, publishes, lectures, and participates in discussions.

Urvashi’s two-decades-long devotion to the production and dissemination of knowledge revolves around her key interests in the “making of canons”, and making knowledge move from the North to the South and within the rocky acreage of the South itself (essentially, the production of “Third World literatures” (an introduction, or on amazon, or see as definitions) and their reception in the developed and developing worlds).

Her work has brought to the fore the marginalized voices of women, and of the disempowered. Her examination of the media and its functioning, especially in developing countries, and her representation of women and minorities in the media, have helped develop a body of knowledge on how the media constructs identities, nationalisms, and cultures (see scolar articles about by Google search). Most crucially, Urvashi has helped develop a space for, and corpus of, women’s voices (Google Scholar-search) in the mainstream consciousness. (1000peacewomen).

She says also: “It’s clear that conflicts today are very modern conflicts, fought not only with an arsenal of sophisticated weaponry, but also with words and pictures, using the media, with arguments and discussions. They’re battles over territory, sovereignty, homeland, power and above all, control, not only of resources, but also of that age-old thing, the mind” … (full text).

Somebody had to do it and Urvashi Butalia is doing what is right, publishing the books written by women and making an inroad into the traditionally male dominated publishing industry, both in India and abroad. (on the group soc.culture.british).

Find her and her publications on amazon; on UNjobs; on Google Book-search; on Google Scholar-search; on Google Blog-search.


ARENA Council of Fellows (2003-2006);

Articles in Dec 2003 issue of New Internationalist.

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