The Brave Women of Pune



What does the history of the German women’s movement since the fall of the Berlin Wall have to do with the life of women in Asia? During her lecture tour through Malaysia, Singapore and India, Tanja Brandes learned that they are much closer to each other than she thought. A report.

Indian women hold their wet saris to dry in the sun during a demonstration for an old-age poverty pension
Indian women hold their wet saris to dry in the sun during a demonstration for an old-age poverty pension, New Delhi, 2013; © picture alliance, AP Photo, Altaf Qadri

I was supposed to talk about Germany, about the 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and about the women from the former GDR who have influenced and changed our reunified country. My colleague, Markus Decker, and I wrote a book about this topic, and I went on a lecture tour through Malaysia, Singapore and India to talk about it: about this topic, which I thought was something very 'German', and all its facets. The GDR. West Germany. The peaceful revolution. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the euphoria connected with this, which for many people soon led to disillusionment shortly after the reunification. The difficult years as East and West Germans slowly started to integrate.

Differences in self-perception

The title of our book is Ostfrauen verändern die Republik ('East German Women change the Republic'). It talks about the consequences of German history, about living for 40 years in a divided Germany and how this meant the development of two completely different systems: one in the West, where the women of post-war generations were preferably meant to be housewives and mothers, a role that even in the year the Berlin Wall fell was still the most common one in the West. And the other one, in the East, where women were needed in the labour force to help build up the Socialist republic that was then still young. And even today, 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is still a difference between the self-perception of women in the East and the West.

All of this is far away from Asia, from India, Singapore and Malaysia, where they deal with other topics and priorities rather than the history of East and West Germany. At least, that’s what I thought. But I was wrong.

On my first evening, four women sat with me on the small stage at the German Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. All of them are well-known in Malaysia. Tehmina Kaoosji, the journalist, who acted as moderator throughout the evening, didn't really have to introduce any of them: Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is a feminist as well as the daughter of the Prime Minister. Datuk Nicol David, on the other hand, was until recently the world's most successful squash player. Pauline Fan is an author, translator and artist. All of them are committed to equal rights and opportunities for women. What can I tell them about Germany, about the women from the East and the West, that would be relevant for them?

Visible and invisible barriers

According to a Study by the World Bank, everyday sexism is the reason why 500,000 qualified women do not work in Malaysia: because their husbands insist on a 'traditional' division of labour; because, generally speaking, it's the women who take care of the children, the old parents, and the household; because women are still often regarded as less suitable for occupying management positions. Marina Mahathir talked about her battle against the injustice with which women in Malaysia are still confronted every day. And then it became clear to me just how close we are to each other, because such everyday sexism can be found everywhere. Even in Germany. Not just 30 years ago at the time of German reunification, but also still today.

And there are the visible and invisible barriers that prevent women from having even roughly the same opportunities as men, and which take such an incredible amount of energy to break down, because women continuously have to prove not only to others but also to themselves that they can achieve something.

'They doubt less'

Three days later, at the Writers' Festival in Singapore, held in a beautiful colonial building, the former seat of Parliament, I took part in a podium discussion entitled, 'Women, Economy and Power', where I repeated what I had said in Malaysia. I also said that this is the advantage that women from Eastern Germany have over those born in the West: they doubt less. Because they were needed in the labour force, women in the GDR received support. Working was made as easy as possible for them. And from this there arose an (economic) independence, a self-awareness that was passed down from one generation to the next, with which the women from the former East Germany have influenced the reunified country over the past 30 years.

On my trip through Malaysia, Singapore and India, the question often arose how women are perceived, what roles are assigned to them, and in what role they see themselves. And irrespective of the occasion, whether during my lecture at the National Library in Singapore, in the German School in Kuala Lumpur, the Goethe Institute in Mumbai or at the Singapore Writers' Festival: I was always surprised at how intensely the women listening to me and with whom I was allowed to have a discussion identified themselves with a topic that I believed to be so very 'German'.

The greatest surprise came in Pune. I travelled to India with all kinds of expectations, to a country that, from a Western point of view, is so full of clichés. In the media, it is often only noticed if elections are coming up or if it makes it into the news with a headline about gang rape. In the opinion of the general public, India is not a good place for a woman to be.

Before I gave my lecture about our book at the University of Pune, I was shown around by Swati Acharya, a professor at the Institute for Foreign Languages. She speaks German without any accent. I met her female colleagues, the professors for Russian, French and English, as well as the Head of the Institute of Journalism, before holding my lecture in front of approx. 50 interested people. Among them, I noticed three men.

Just how progressive are we really?

The young women in the audience asked me questions about Germany and the empowerment of women. They know what they are talking about, and they were critical. They asked about the percentage of women in German parliament and how the self-awareness of women from East Germany has developed.

That afternoon, I visited Swadhar, an NGO that cares for street children in Pune. Their mothers often work as prostitutes; the fathers have disappeared, and the children are left to themselves. This project is run by women only.

'We are a developing country that acts as if it were progressive,' said a woman from the audience to me in Mumbai one day later. When I think of the female professors at the University of Pune and the brave women of Swadhar, I'm not sure if she's right or whether it's true and the same applies in many ways for Germany as well.
'Patriarchy is everywhere,' the journalist, Tehmina Kaoosji, said on my first evening in Kuala Lumpur. 'To fight against it, feminism and the struggle for gender equality must also be everywhere.'

None of us can achieve this on their own. But luckily, we don't have to.


About the author

Tanja Brandes was born in Bonn, Germany, in 1981. She studied dramatic composition, German and Romance languages and literature in Munich, Germany, and Madrid, Spain. Brandes was a political editor for the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in Cologne and the General-Anzeiger in Bonn. Since 2017, she has been working as an editor for the Berliner Zeitung in Berlin. In 2016, she won the prize for journalism from the DuMont publishing company for her story entitled, My Foreign Country, a portrait of her mother's escape from the former GDR. Brandes lives in Berlin and Duesseldorf, Germany.

About the Lecture Programme

From 5 to 12 November 2019, Tanja Brandes travelled to Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Mumbai, India for the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government.  Since its implementation by ifa in 1995, the aim of the Lecture Programme of the German Federal Government has been to convey a current and multi-layered image of Germany abroad.
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