The multiple struggles of women

Published : Sep 20, 1997 00:00 IST

The most significant contribution of the women's movement to the global struggle for equality is the consciousness that all struggles for liberation are indivisible.


THE Indian women's movement was born in the crucible of the freedom struggle. From the outset, therefore, our movement transcended a limited gender framework, unlike other womens' movements, particularly contemporary women's liberation struggles in the West, which found their principal purpose as addressing relationships between women and men in the public and private spheres. Questions of independence and of freedom from the colonial power were inextricably linked with the consciousness of the Indian women's movement, a consciousness of women in relation to the world, not only to men. Perhaps the most significant contribution of our movement to the global struggle for equality is the consciousness that all struggles for liberation are indivisible.

The All India Women's Congress (AIWC) was the first all India women's organisation. Its charter explicitly identified the organisation with the mainstream struggle for national freedom. Both bourgeois liberals and the Left joined together in the AIWC, and its formation coincided with Mahatma Gandhi's calls in the 1920s to popularise the freedom movement, to sunder the struggle from its upper caste, elite moorings. Thus the AIWC and those associated with it not only saw their role as fighting for the status and rights of women but unambiguously located this task within the agenda of the freedom struggle as a whole. This was the real strength that the women's movement acquired at its birth. It has remained a cherished tradition within the movement, a tradition that still lives and informs the movement through its ups and downs.

Apart from the national movement as a whole, one key area of concern for the women's movement 50 years ago was communalism and the legacy of Partition, the enormous violence that accompanied Independence. Women's organisations had to engage frontally with victims of violence, with communalism, and with divisions among women on the basis of their religious communities. Women were direct victims of both Hindu and Muslim communalists. Although the trauma finds little articulation in official literature, perhaps because women affected by the violence were concerned with rebuilding their lives, the scale of the tragedy was enormous. Activists working among women in Punjab, Delhi and Bengal were face to face with this situation. Again, the women's movement clearly had to locate its work in a broader political struggle while understanding the specific impact of communalism on women.

AT roughly the same time, another very important strand in the women's movement developed, one that has sadly not received the recognition that it deserves in academic studies of the subject. The Left-radical tendency was shaped by work among poor women. The ways in which women were being forced to deal with the famine led many women who were earlier in the AIWC to join the Nari Atma Raksha Samity (NARS). This movement rapidly grew and developed structured links with the organised Left. Members of NARS supported and participated in the historic Tebhaga struggle. Elsewhere in the country, women with Left political leanings were involved in working class and revolutionary peasant struggles, such as the struggle in Telengana. Telengana proved a very influential learning experience for the Left, illustrating how women could fight.

The multiple struggles of women - in relation to national development, in relation to politics and in relation to their own families and lives - shaped the Indian women's movement after Independence. After Independence, many of the bourgeois-liberal trend believed that once Independence was achieved the new framework of power would give an adequate opportunity to address women's problems. Thus women needed to be represented within the system and the status quo, and their concerns adequately articulated, after which their demands would be met. What the bourgeois liberal women's movement, then principally of course affiliated to the Congress, wanted was a level playing field for women; they had no problem with the game itself.

This complacency was shattered in the first six years of independent India's existence. It is ironic, perhaps, that the women's movement had to engage with communalism and fundamentalism as its principal concern considerably earlier than anyone else. The women's movement almost immediately came into confrontation with majority fundamentalism, in the reaction of Hindu chauvinists across parties on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill and Hindu personal law reform. The women who struggled against the fundamentalists waged their battle with breathtaking courage. Along with women on the Left, like Renu Chakravorty, Ahilya Rangnekar and numerous others, women like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Padmaja Naidu and others from the AIWC - emblems of the Nehruvian project as far as women were concerned - were forced to confront this reactionary, medieval face of the Hindu Right, whose position against reform was supported by President Rajendra Prasad.

These women were abused and reviled: it is interesting that they were the first targets of the epithets used against us in the anti-sati and other subsequent women's movements. 'Westernised', 'removed from Indian tradition', 'false secularists' were just some of the terms that were used; perhaps the only phrase you won't find in the debates was 'bal kati' (short-haired). After years of struggle, the Indian women's movement won a partial victory. More important, however, was that the real nature of the Indian state and the real face of bourgeois politics was exposed for all to see.

THIS heightened struggle, however, faded out in the 1960s. It was a period shaped by wars, and all mass movements, in the face of these crises, withdrew, became more introspective. In this period, the AIWC went its own way, focussing on welfare and social work. The Left trend, for its part, was trying to expand its constituency and consolidate its existing spheres of influence. By the 1970s, the Left women's movement was in a position to influence trade unions on the issues of women's work and workplace equality. The 1970s saw the first major phase of retrenchment in traditional industries, particularly textiles and jute. Women's groups on the Left were deeply concerned about the situation, since it was clear that women were the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

Women on the Left won at least some major victories during the 1970s: they contributed, perhaps in the most signal manner, to the passing of important laws on equal pay for equal work. There were, however, no joint struggles incorporating all kinds of women's organisations. Perhaps this was owing to the rather widespread illusion among some people that a woman Prime Minister would somehow act decisively to better the condition of women as a whole. Nothing of the kind happened. The divisions between the bourgeois-liberal women's organisations and Left women's organisations became deeper. The fissures, it is evident, were not simply over arcane ideological issues, but concerned the everyday lives of real women in a desperately immediate way.

The Emergency proved a watershed in the history of the Indian women's movement, as it did for so many other struggles. One reason was the production of the first Status of Indian Women Report by the Government, in response to the International Year of Women declared by the United Nations in 1975. One has to say that the Indian women's movement has benefited from the high profile of the international women's movement, for this influenced international institutions to look at gender issues. In India, we were fortunate that the Status of Indian Women Report, which was recommended for all U.N. member-countries, was brought out by a committee of women of great integrity. The outcome was a seminal document, giving an across-the-board stock-taking of the ways in which women had benefited and lost out after Independence.

The struggle against the Emergency saw the emergence of many new women's groups, which rejected the politics of earlier women's organisations and looked instead to ideas generated by feminist groups in the West. Issues of gender gained significance in academic discourse and among younger women in universities in the 1970s. Even in Delhi's less-than-radical colleges, agitations against 'Miss Fresher' contests, for example, took place. If the Emergency ensured that these tendencies could not fructify, these groups sprung up as part of the movement for democracy and later emerged as autonomous groups.

So now there were three tendencies in the Indian women's movement - the bourgeois liberals, the Left, and the autonomous groups. Soon a fourth one emerged - non-governmental organisations (NGOs) committed to providing women services and facilities and rejecting mass politics as a means to bring about gains for women.

In the initial phase, the new tendencies completely ignored and denigrated the traditions of the Indian women's movement, and their politics was built around narrow gender politics. The central part of the critique of the older women's organisations was that the role of women in the family, and the personal space of women, had been completely ignored. There was some weight in this argument. In the course of development of the women's movement - and I include the Left women's movement in this - not enough attention had been given to the role of a woman in an unequal and oppressive family situation. The question, indisputably, had to be dealt with. How it had to be dealt with became the focus of a vibrant debate.

FROM the Left point of view, the fundamental question was how a homogeneous sisterhood could be assumed, given stark inequalities and exploitation based on class and caste. What about the role of the state, the judiciary or the communalists? Although there was suspicion and hostility among the different tendencies, the need for joint struggles and wider mobilisations was paramount if women's rights and security were to be protected. The first big joint struggles centred on anti-rape and anti-dowry issues, but slowly their scope enlarged to include the macro-policies of the government from a gender viewpoint. The development of women's studies and research centres also played a role in this. The integration of different issues facing different sections of women, particularly poor women, formed part of the joint movement. Although contests and differences remain between the different trends, one of the strengths of the women's movement in India is the conscious attempt to work together on areas of common concern.

The phase of joint struggles was to be central to the women's movement's firm resistance to communalism. With the rise of the Hindu Right in the 1980s, a series of bloody communal riots swept India. Women were systematically targeted by Hindutva forces in traditional women's spaces such as the temple and the bhajan mandal. Using these women as agents, the Hindu Right sought to penetrate otherwise inaccessible homes. At the same time, women were the principal victims of riots, and therefore opponents of violence. Women's groups were at the forefront of investigating these riots, and establishing the responsibility for them. More critically, through organised actions, women's groups fought communalism at a time when neither the government, nor the courts, nor the law and order apparatus, nor bourgeois parties were willing to act against fundamentalism. The strength of this unprecedented, across-the-board, sustained unity was illustrated when Hindutva groups set up women's organisations of their own to counter the secular women's movement.

What lessons can be learnt from the evolution of the Indian women's movement? One immediate area of concern is the movement's inability as a whole to address adequately the issue of caste. On the Mandal issue, for one, there were severe fractures within the movement over the issue of reservations. Many organisations simply could not come out in support of Mandal, a fact that does, sadly, reflect on the movement and its character. Oppression by upper castes should certainly be a core concern of the movement, and if middle class women's resistance prevents this from being so, it is a reason for concern. Issues concerning the rights of minority women, too, need stronger support. The Shah Bano case forced the women's movement to address questions of community identity and women's secular rights - not only a right to maintenance but education and workplace rights. From 1986 onwards, the Left women's movement made a conscious effort to draw in Muslim women and this provided a valuable network resource to fight communalism.

Over the last five years, women's groups across the spectrum have engaged with new issues and have come to understand that the burden of structural adjustment lies on poor women. Women have not only been affected by changes at the workplace but also at home. In Beijing the contribution of the Indian delegation on this issue was noted and commented on by people from around the world. In this area of struggle we need to focus attention on those who have had relatively little contact with the women's movement so far: agricultural worker women who are mainly Dalit, Adivasi women and women from the minorities. Reservation for women in Parliament and in State legislatures, though vital to strengthen democracy by giving them due representation and to recognise their enormous contribution to society, will not by itself bring about these objectives. In the years to come, the women's movement will have to build on its history to face the new challenges that have emerged in a transformed world.

As told to Praveen Swami.
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