An autonomous feminist collective
We from the Forum Against Oppression of Women met Rhonda and worked with her in the horrible year of 2002 following the genocidal carnage that killed more than 2000 women, men and children from the Muslim communities in the state of Gujarat, India; destroyed their property, livelihood and places of worship; and displaced nearly 100,000 people.
Even for the subcontinent, which has seen many such incidences of communal violence, 2002 was unprecedented. To add to it, the political party responsible for the carnage was in the seat of power in Delhi. In the face of the seeming collapse of the national system of justice, some of us, groups from different parts of the country decided to put together a panel of feminists -- jurists, activists, lawyers, writers and academics from all over the world as the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat. The idea was to use the experience and expertise in dealing with such and similar conflicts across the world to get a feminist understanding and intervention for justice in Gujarat.
Rhonda was one of the 9 members in the panel. The panel first met in Mumbai with the organising women’s groups. They then visited areas in and around Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Panchmahals in Gujarat between 14th and 17th December in three separate teams. During their visit in Gujarat the panelists met with 181 women and 136 men. People from 7 districts in Gujarat deposed before the panel. They spoke about the violence that had occurred in more than 84 different societies, towns and urban areas and 66 villages within these districts. Around 320 people spoke to the panelists during the IIJ.
In those strenuous and tough times the memories of hope for many of us were the strong connections we made with feminists across borders and boundaries. We learned from each other and felt affirmation in our beliefs through the courageous words and actions of tireless feminists like Rhonda. Her vast experience in dealing with human rights violation across the world brought in specific contribution in terms of applicability of International jurisprudence in national context.
The report of the International Initiative for Justice, was published as “Threatened Existence: A Feminist Analysis of the Genocide in Gujarat” in December 2002. Through the writing of this report Rhonda and her other team members helped in bringing out the limitations of justice in sexual offenses, due to inadequate legislation, as well as pointing out the obstacles and limitations of national and international legal remedies, while sharpening legal definition of Genocide”
The experience took its toll on each of us. In Rhonda’s words:
“It was chilling to confront the pain and terror of the survivors in Ahmedabad… Among the things I will never forget were the eyes of the many women and several children who came to tell their stories, beautiful eyes, which like their lives were filled with terror instead of the promise of the future; eyes that are particularly familiar to me from the photographs of the ghettoised Jews of the Nazi holocaust and those of the Palestinians today resisting the crush of Israeli occupation… I will never forget the hope dashing moment in the widow’s community when we learned of the huge and unanticipated BJP (Right wing Ruling party) victory. Taking my hand the woman next to me said, “Now they will never let us survive…"
"Learning of the utter lack of domestic recourse, even from the Supreme Court, forced me to sadly relinquish my earlier admiration of the progressive role in protecting human rights and reflect on the dangers of the growing right-wing control of the courts in the US, my country. The parallels between the growing fascism in India and the US are sharp and the Gujarat experience brought home the damage the Bush administration inflicts throughout the world in the post 9/11 demonisation of the Muslims as terrorists…”
Despite the fact that the entire initiative was hectic, the travels tedious and the sessions tiring, Rhonda brought her specific insights and experience into this extremely traumatic journey for several of us, with utter sensitivity and strength. We were privileged to have her participate in this historic initiative for us as feminists in India and remember her warmly. Her loss is being felt deeply.
Love and solidarity