Atheist Centre 1940-1990 Golden Jubilee
International Conference Souvenir
Vijayawada, February 3, 4, and 5, 1990
[OCR, Tim Sullivan; HTML, editing, Cliff Walker]

Feminist View of the Atheist Centre
Alice Bondi

On my first visit to the Atheist Centre in December 1987, I was struck very forcibly by the emphasis put on women in the work of the Centre. In virtually all, if not all, countries of the world, women are disadvantaged in various ways in society, but because the mechanisms of oppression differ, often, radically, between one society and another, it is not always easy for a foreigner to perceive clearly just what constitutes the nature of women's oppression in another society. So I must be slightly hesitant in my statements, as I am a British woman, and cannot enter into the mind and perception of an Indian woman.

However, on my second visit in January 1990, my feeling that the Atheist Centre was doing work comparable to that undertaken by feminists in Britain was strengthened. Perhaps the greatest concrete successes of the Women's Liberation Movement in Britain have been the establishment of Rape Crisis Centres and Women's Aid, which offers refuge and assistance to women who have suffered physical and mental cruelty at the hands of the men in their lives, be they husband, boyfriend or father. These were set up entirely by women's groups, although there is now, in a few areas, some financial assistance from local and national government. At the Atheist Centre, men and women have joined together, in the name of atheism, to offer practical and emotional support to women who have suffered at the hands of men, often being deserted by their husbands. These women are treated with respect by all the workers of the Atheist Centre, a situation that I fear often does not arise in Britain where men engaged in similar work often show only too clearly their contempt for women's intellectual and practical capabilities.

Another aspect of the Atheist Centre's excellent work for and with women is performed through "Samskar" (Reformation). Jogins, women who are designated, as young girls, as the brides of deities and thereafter become village prostitutes, unable to marry or escape their lot, have been helped immeasurably by the work of Samskar and in particular Mrs. Hemalata Lavanam. The emphasis on helping women to gain confidence in themselves as human beings who deserve the very best in their lives has parallels in the consciousness-raising work done within feminist groups in Britain. Hemalata's deep emotional feelings for the Jogins is something that all British feminists would strongly identify with and respect.

During the brief time l have spent at the Centre, I have become increasingly aware of the respect shown by the men who work here to all the women who work here. All have their own tasks which are carried out to the best of their abilities, and for which they are valued. To British eyes, the women seem strong and forceful ... but I am conscious of how easily one can culturally misinterpret behaviour, so it would not do to be too presumptuous about this.

It is very heartening to me, an atheist feminist, to see that such work for the liberation of women can be performed here in India by atheists. In Britain, no mixed groups of men and women have successfully entered into this field, and all such groups have been founded and staffed by women for women. The attitudes of male chauvinism are deeply ingrained in the male psyche, and British feminists have found few men who are genuinely working to free themselves of the whole breadth and depth of such attitudes. Therefore we have chosen to work separately. But here, the example of Mrs Saraswati Gora who with her husband founded the Atheist Centre in 1940 has clearly made it possible for excellent work to be done. I salute the strength and power of the women of the Atheist Centre of Vijayawada, congratulate the community on its Golden Jubilee, and I wish everyone all the best for the next 50 years. May women's liberation be realised in your country, in mine, and in the world