Published: 17th October 2017
These DU girls are organising history walks with a twist: Their guided tour will give you a feminist perspective of everything from the Red Fort to the Mughal havelis
Go on Safarnama's Feminist History Walk to learn about the women who shaped the history of this country. We catch up with the duo that started the initiative
History is written by those who win. And, thanks to the patriarchal society we live in, our history lessons are of tales of courageous men, but have conveniently ignored the contribution of women. Were women in history mere wins of the princes or just someone to bed? Or did they have a contribution that was not accounted for in our books? These doubts irked two 22-year-old History graduates enough to start Safarnama and organise history walks at important monuments in Delhi.
These Feminist History Walks, conducted by Delhi University's students Annapurna Menon and Aakriti Suresh, aim at normalising the history of women and engaging people to talk about it in the same way they do about the history of men. What makes it outstanding is the fact that they have moved beyond the few familiar faces of women in history. All you need to do is spare an hour and a half and you will be taken on that historic ride that you missed in school. Excerpts:
How did you come up this idea?
We were inspired to participate in GoUNESCO's Heritage Month and wanted to put our historical knowledge to use. We recognise our privilege of being able to study in an institution that has given us access to study History in a way not many people can. We wanted to bring this to the mainstream and organising a heritage walk seemed like the plausible way forward. We organised a walk in Delhi 6, looking at the historical space of Shahjahanabad from a feminist perspective. The event received an overwhelming response and we were motivated to do more. We’ve been conducting walks every month since September 2016, focusing on alternate themes in history and attracting crowds from all fields. Making History more inclusive has been one of our main motives.
We try to look at empires, dynasties and important historical events with a wholesome perspective. Also, because history brings to us the story of the victor and not the vanquished, it becomes kind of problematic to choose a personal favourite, given that our choice would conveniently ignore the marginalised
Aakriti Suresh, MA History student and co-founder at Safarnama
What are the dynamics? What monuments do you cover?
We follow a different strategy for each walk. First, we come up with the theme we want to cover, linking it to the relevant monument, and then build on the way we would like to present and what aspect of History to focus on. For the Delhi 6: Through a Feminist Lens walk, we decided to revisit the history of Shahjahanabad, popularly known as Old Delhi. We explored Red Fort and many other lesser-known havelis of the medieval period, including the haveli of Begum Samru and the Mughal harems.
Guide us through the walk.
The walks usually take about two hours. We take our participants through the expanse of the monuments. We educate them about the role of women in planning the architecture of the city, the importance of the Chatta Bazar for the royal women of the Red Fort and the presence of Mughal women in garden parties. We also aim at documenting the Red Fort's Mughal harem complex. Though only a part of the structure still stands today, we aim at deviating from the popular perception of the Mughal harem as a space of erotic activity and a symbol of seclusion of women in medieval Muslim empires, and build a new narrative.
Gender history continues to remain a sidelined ‘rejoinder’ to mainstream history that is dominated by men. A greater need is to carefully choose the nature of sources and the kind of engagement that historians make while they try to interpret the sources
Aakriti Suresh, MA History student at DU
And what do you achieve at the end of these walks?
The idea, in an historiographical sense, is to mark a break in the mainstream narrative of medieval ‘oriental’ history as a study of battles, plunder and territorial conquest. We want to bring to the table a history that’s gender inclusive and doesn’t obsess over compulsory demarcation of the private sphere from the political, but see both as complementary to each other.
As History students, why do you think the women are neglected?
There are several reasons why women have been neglected, including the image that is propagated of the ideal woman and how her rightful place is in the private sphere, a sphere that anyway doesn't deserve attention. While medieval chronicles conveniently ignored the history of women, modern scholars have also made minimal efforts to look beyond the superficial layers and reconstruct a history that brings women into the picture. Thus, as surprising and annoying as it sounds, it took us centuries for us to realise that history is not only about ‘his-story’.
Onboard: The audience for Safarnama is a healthy combination of people identifying with various genders, not just the stereotypical fixed categories of men and women
How has the feedback been?
The first walk that we conducted saw an unprecedented response. It was a very encouraging experience for us as it inspired us to develop our idea on a professional level. Since the inception of Safarnama, we have conducted more than 20 walks, covering different aspects of history. We have looked at the history of homosexuality in medieval Delhi, at the politics of Sufism, at the history of politics of food and communalism and so on. All our walks have attracted large crowds. All in all, we have gained positive feedback on the kind of work we do and we are nothing but grateful.
What kind of an audience do you attract?
Our audience is a healthy combination of people identifying with various genders, not just the stereotypical fixed categories of men and women. People from all walks of life, like students, corporate employees, homemakers, entrepreneurs, and even teachers, participate. We are proud of the fact that such an interesting mix of participants sign up for the walks as it generates a healthy conversation and allows dissemination of ideas across various layers of the society.
Yayy way: The duo has gained positive feedback on the kind of work they do and they are nothing but grateful
Tell us the most memorable part of the walk.
Annapurna: For me, it’s everything — from the ideation to the research and the trial walks with Aakriti — engaging with the audience in conversations around history is beautiful.
Aakriti: The most memorable part of any walk is the kind of satisfaction I experience when at the end of the walk the participants congratulate us for doing our job well! Our aim is to take academic History to the masses and when we see this dream coming true, the feeling is inexplicable.