I’m currently in Hyderabad, spending time with my family and trying to make headway on my research project–my Bangla classes actually wrapped up last week. Now that I’m well into the research portion of my Fulbright grant, I have been seeking out opportunities to learn more about women’s movements and practices.
I ended up really lucking out that my first day here, I went to Kadthal, a spiritual retreat with my grandparents, cousin, and a group of family friends. There, I was able to meet Sampurna Swarajya Lakshmi, a 90-something social activist—her name translates to complete freedom, truly a fitting moniker. We were able to chat for around 2 hours during which she talked about growing up during the independence movement, how she got into working on behalf of different causes, and what she believes is most important for Indian women today.
Over the course of our conversation, I truly was amazed at Sampurna’s understanding of feminism as well as her incredibly progressive mindset. (Our conversation was completely in Telugu which meant that I needed a bit of translation help–I did learn that in Telugu, the word for feminism is స్త్రీవాదం, Strīvādham.) Betrothed at age 8, Sampurna never graduated elementary school–her studies ended in the second grade. It was also at the time of her marriage that she happened to meet Mahatma Gandhi who came to the East Godavari district and specifically tried to rally women for the cause. Sampurna remembers women giving up their mangalsutras (necklace symbolizing marriage) to Gandhi, with the sentiment that one’s nation comes before one’s husband.
A few years later, Sampurna was a young mother and was identified by Durgabai Deshmukh, a famous freedom fighter and women’s advocate, to work at the Andhra Mahila Sabha, an organization that aimed to meet the social, cultural, and educational needs of women. Over the course of her 35-year career in women’s empowerment, Sampurna was able to work with women in a variety of sectors–she gave vocational training, encouraged mothers to partake in proper child nutrition and health regimes, and advocated for women who were victims of domestic assault, providing counseling and other services. I was taken aback at the breath and scope of women’s empowerment initiatives. (Mind you, this was before the second wave of feminism had even hit the United States!) After her retirement, she continued to work in the public sphere. In the early 1990s, she spent time fundraising on behalf of AIDS research and worked to eradicate stigma around the disease.
I asked her what is something that is essential for women today–she said that we need to instill confidence in our daughters from a young age. Only by being brave, can women demand their rights–in both their personal and political lives. As for her other hobbies–Sampurna pens poetry and prose. She read me a recent feminist poem that she wrote on women and society–unfortunately, I can’t read Telugu so I am unable to provide a translation here.
She also participates in international senior sports events! Sampurna has travelled all over Asia, and has a case full of gold medals from her main events–javelin and discus. After spending the two hours with her, I was more than inspired. As a western-educated woman who grew up on narratives of how we need to help the global south, I never anticipated that the grassroots movement had begun generations ago! I did ask her why she never went into politics where she could have helped thousands of women by creating progressive policy–apparently she was contacted by the state government to run for a seat but declined to continue pursuing nonprofit work instead.
After meeting with her, we all went out for lunch and then our group went to do some more sightseeing–before leaving however, I ran to Sampurna’s room (where I woke her up from her nap) and asked if we could please take a picture. She obliged and I was delighted–truly a woman I won’t ever forget: