About the Book
The autonomous women’s movement in India is remarkable for its energy and staying power, and for the impact it has had on progressive social change in the country. What constitutes a feminist memoir? What makes it different from any other memorable recounting? Twenty women who have made a critical contribution to the women’s and women’s studies, movements recall the last quarter century of activism, taking as its starting point the impossibility of separating the personal from the public, Each memoir vividly covers the most momentous and memorable developments and campaigns of this period, recounting its triumphs and disappointments, speaking about alliance forged, reflecting on relationships lost – and found. Their inspiring, poignant, humorous and always politically engaged memoirs are a quintessentially feminist recall of movement they helped to shape.
About the Author
Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher and writer, and an active member of the women’s movement.
Perhaps I should begin by saying what this book is not. It is not a history of the women's movement in India, nor a reckoning of its achievements or otherwise. And it most certainly is not a comprehensive surveyor exhaustive account of campaigns undertaken, struggles fought, battles won. What it offers, instead, is a set of memoirs written by women who have been part of the autonomous women's movement in India over the last twenty-five years, women who were transformed, personally and politically, by their participation in it. Each one of them remains active, to this day, in a movement that has grown, changed, dispersed, diversified, institutionalised itself, perhaps, but never strayed from its overarching objective: social change, and a long-term commitment to ending women's subordination.
For each of the women who has written her memoir there was a before-and-after-the- movement phase, a decisive moment when something changed forever. An experience of discrimination in girlhood or adolescence, dimly understood then, that suddenly fell into place as unfairly and humiliatingly gendered; a realisation, after years of left activism, that male chauvinism survives progressive politics; an understanding, deep down, that patriarchal privilege cuts across class, as well as caste; a book that became an eye-opener; a relationship begun (or ended) that liberated; an involvement that changed one's perspective and the penny dropped. When their different, yet common, experiences brought them together and coalesced to form a movement, a sisterhood, however imperfect, was forged.
I asked the women whose memoirs you will read to write about what brought them to' the women's movement, to recreate that initial burst of excitement and engagement that marked their entry into it. What motivated them to activism? What sustained them? How difficult has it been to reconcile the individual impulse with collective consensus, the personal with the political? Over the years, the movement has seen. fissures, confusions, rancour, disagreements, splits, solidarities -yet it has survived. Over the years, too, feminism has evolved, changed its meaning in different contexts and in our own lives. How relevant is it still, how central is the movement itself ?
It's difficult now, in this new century, to recapture or imagine the enormous optimism of those early years of what is called the second wave of the women's movement in India. For close to two decades, from the rnid-1970s to the 1990s, it was buoyant, energetic and hugely innovative, drawing from and contributing to other social movements of the time, part of other struggles for civil liberties and democratic rights in the country. Inheritor, too, of radical youth and student movements in India and across the world; of anti-war, propeace politics; of regional and international campaigns on the environment and against cultures of war and violence: The quest for social justice everywhere, but especially among those most denied it, created intense political hopes and passions, and the women's movement was part of this great upsurge. To anyone who was in it, its transformative potential, both political and personal, was immense.
Historians of the movement will say its real genesis lay in the social reform movements of the nineteenth century, that it cut its political teeth during the freedom struggle and the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century. True enough. In this sense, the Indian women's movement has always had close links with other liberation movements; indeed, the women's wings of the major political parties have played a significant role in raising issues both within their parties, for the working classes, and in trade unions affiliated with them. But the post-Independence autonomous women's movement has a somewhat different character. For one, it is autonomous and, like the international women's movement, it has no formal structures, no hierarchies, no 'party line', no high priestesses. For another, it is polyphonic, it speaks in many voices, using many tongues. It is often, but not always and not uniformly, feminist, and it mayor may not be always uniformly secular. It is urban and rural, and though 'political' in the fundamental sense of the word it has not, so far, been part of party politics.
Yet its impact on other movements and, indeed, on national politics, has been unmistakable. Retaining its autonomy, it has allied with other forces for social change, been part of campaigns and networks and people's movements on any number of issues over the years, and in any number of ways. Of women's movements anywhere in the world, the autonomous women's movement in India is probably unique in the range and diversity of its alliances including, on specific programmes, with the government. It all seems rather matter of fact now, but the significance of changes in legislation and policy, and of the fact that women's unequal status can no longer be rationalised or condoned, cannot be overstated. Moreover, no movement for progressive social change can afford any longer to avoid or ignore the 'woman question' in its activities or practice.
What those early years of mobilising, consciousness-raising and activism did was to propel many issues considered to be domestic and personal out into the public arena, and force society's attention to focus on them. Family secrets spilled out, abusive homes and relationships were exposed, timetested customs and prejudices held up to scrutiny and to criticism or opprobrium. This was hugely unsettling. of only for families whose misdeeds were now reported and noted, but for women themselves, for whom acknowledging them in the first place was such a difficult thing to do. As Saheli and Vimochana and Sachetana and Forum Against the Oppression of Women and, in fact, every legal aid or counselling centre tell us, again and again, women would come for help, seek advice or shelter, be unable to reveal the full extent of abuse or humiliation, and return to an unsafe or inhospitable home. And so it might have remained, had the movement not provided succour and practical help when no other support was forthcoming, had it not also shifted the burden of responsibility from the individual woman's shoulders onto society.
Making visible, making known, making public in order to make for change, has been a cardinal strategy of the women's movement worldwide, and in India as well. One of the most important, yet invisible, areas has been women's unrecognised, unpaid, unwaged contribution to national economies, both in the form of housework and through their work in the informal sector. Feminist economists have termed this women's productive and reproductive labour; Gabriele Dietrich has a far more evocative and fundamental formulation: she calls it the production of life. The sterling success of the women's movement and particularly of SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association, with its membership in the tens of thousands in getting the government, the Census, the National Sample Survey Organisation and the International . Labour Organisation to acknowledge women's major contribution to the country's gross domestic product is, in my view, an outstanding example of what 'making visible' can accomplish. That women's labour is still undervalued and, invariably, underor unpaid is not a failing that can be laid at the movement's door; that it dignified this labour and enabled women to organise in collectives and unions of their own, empowered them to devise and even run their own banks, is certainly one of its critical achievements.
Delinking 'family planning' from population control and hitching it instead to safe contraception for women and to their reproductive health has been another intervention with far-reaching implications, both in policy terms and for changing the discourse on population and development itself. Activism around women's health remains a very important element to this day; the campaign against coercive contraception via injectibles, implants or forced tubectomies is one of the most sustained in the country. Joined later by the fight against sex pre-selection and abortion or, more baldly, female foeticide the movement's focus on women's reproductive rights has actually highlighted entrenched social and ethnic biases and the widespread social sanction that son-preference and controlling women's sexuality enjoy. However, there's no giving up or giving in; as Saheli, which has been at the forefront of this struggle, says:
We have worked with women's organisations, health groups, women's wings of Left parties, mass-based organisations and NGOs from the very beginning of our campaigns. We have thrashed out issues, lobbied and protested for jointly we are stronger, we are formidable.
Saheli: Twenty five Years of Continuity and Change. Like individual women, the movement, too, has had its decisive moments. The Mathura and Rameeza Bi rape cases in the late 1970s led to a snowballing campaign against, and culminated in criminalising, custodial rape by the police. The review petition on the Mathura judgement filed by Lotika Sarkar, Vasudha Dhagamwar and Upendra Baxi was the beginning of public interest litigation as we know it now. Bride-burning or dowry murders as they came to be called, and the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act, 1984; the Chipko movement; the anti-price rise uprising by housewives; the UN Conferences of 1985 and 1995; and the challenge to Muslim Personal Law by Shahnaz Sheikh in 1985 also come to mind. Shah Bano, Roop Kanwar, Bhanwari Devi and Vishakha. DepoProvera and Net-Oen. The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994. Reservations for women via the Eighty-fIrst amendment to the Constitution in 1996. The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005. Babri Masjid, 1992. Gujarat, 2002. Each of these marked a milestone for the movement, leading not only to changes in public perception and in the law, but also to great strides made in analysis and action.
Post-Roop Kanwar, the political economy of dowry and sati was laid bare for the first time, located in the structural violence against women and de constructed from a feminist perspective. As they were debated and discussed, the specifics of dowry deaths and widow immolation ramified into a much more complex consideration of domestic violence and abuse; of marital, caste, communal and custodial rape; and of the central place that women's sexuality occupies in any patriarchal arrangement of social, familial and gender relations, whether of class, caste or community. The more we unravelled this tangled skein, the more knots we found we had to untie. When Shahnaz Sheikh filed her petition against Muslim Personal Law in the Supreme Court, saying it violated her fundamental right to equality, a whole Pandora's box of oppositional rights was opened up: the constitutional guarantee regarding freedom to practice and propagate one's religion militated against the prohibition of discrimination on grounds of race, sex or religion; community rights of protection confounded individual rights to privacy and choice. A secular state, which nevertheless sanctioned discriminatory religious laws; a Uniform Civil Code (UCC) versus multiple unreformed practices based on custom and religious injunctions. But what was being regulated and policed so assiduously? Why such anxiety around marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody, guardianship and succession? A deep distrust of women's sexuality and the potential for sexual waywardness which would disrupt patriarchal families, communities and caste boundaries, unified the brotherhood of men across religion and class.
And so it continued into control of women's bodies, mobility, decision-making, labour, speech, education. You name it, and it was strictly regulated. The trouble with making visible, with exposing what was well concealed to light and air, is that it is denied, at best; denounced, ridiculed and dismissed, at worst. And the trouble with feminism is that it goes straight to the heart of the matter into the sanctity of the home, the bedroom, to the crux of sexual politics. And so the denunciation has come not just from the conservatives and conformists; but from the progressives and social reformists, too. From the academy, the executive, the judiciary, the legislature not openly, perhaps, but through dissimulation and timorousness. For it's a fact that feminism is one of the most difficult isms to live with because it calls into question every one of the settled equations between men and women, family and society, citizen and state, church and state, the powerful and the powerless.
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