Interview with Feminist Academic Urvashi Butalia

Zoom Interview recording:


Interview conducted 29/7/2020

Urvashi Butalia, one of India’s pioneering feminists, has strived to make women’s voices heard for over three decades. She founded the first feminist publishing house in India, Kali For Women, in 1984, and later Zubaan Books in 2003. Through my personal project, Shakti Stories, I have visited her publishing house and spoken to her about the culture of sexual violence in India. In these unusual times, my meeting with her was over Zoom.

When I first met her, I asked her how she was inspired to start working for the feminist cause through academia and publishing. “When I approached my male bosses [about publishing female authors], they looked bewildered” , she told me anecdotally. “‘Women?’ they asked. ‘What about women? Do they write? Do they read? Is there anything to say?’” She quickly realised that if men were not going to amplify women’s voices, then she had to.

Today, we discuss the effectiveness of policies that are supposed to protect women. But we first address the elephant in the room–the COVID-19 pandemic. She says, “public rape has declined, obviously because people are not in the streets, or on public transport. But inside the house, it’s very difficult to say. What we can see now is that domestic violence has risen. The first indication of that came from the National Commission of Women, when they reported that they were receiving more domestic violence calls. Most response services have been suspended in face of the medical emergency, so the helplines that women would normally call were hardly available”. This shows me that issues of violence against women, despite being potentially life-threatening, are not often prioritized by government authorities.

Ms. Butalia also tells me that “judges expect rape victims to behave like rape victims. They are not allowed to be angry”. She told me of one case in which a traumatized victim was actually held in contempt and arrested for asking that the activists who supported her during her case be present in the courtroom where her rapist was present. The Indian legal system, while having gone through significant reform following the 2012 Delhi rape case, is still dependent on subjective and likely biased perceptions of judges, should the victim even choose to report. According to Ms. Butalia, the conviction rate of reported cases is slightly less than 30%, but that is only in cases where victims choose to report. The vast majority of cases usually do not go reported, for fear of retaliation against the victim, expense, reliving trauma and a lack of faith in the justice system.

Another barrier to justice is that medical examinations, even in non-COVID times, are extremely difficult to obtain. She says, “if the evidence is not collected at the right time, there is no hope for justice, as our system is very evidence-based”. Not many hospitals are equipped with rape kits, and are not briefed on medical protocol for sexual assault examination. There are a lot of gaps, including that women are not often asked (or allowed) to recount the exact events, even though this is the moment when memory is clearest. It takes very long to get samples tested, by which time the sample may be compromised. Judges are also not familiar with the law–Urvashi tells me of a case in Uttar Pradesh where a lawyer had to remind the judge that rape trials are to be held in camera, and not publicly.

This interview gave me a firsthand account of activism against sexual violence, coupled with the credibility and research of an academic. It proved to be a very valuable resource in my investigation.



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