bottom and a gang rape. A senior IAS officer and a village woman from Rajasthan.
Both have moved the courts, seeking justice for all women. Both have stood up in
the public arena to say that they have been robbed of freedoms supposedly
guaranteed to them by the Constitution of independent India. Rupan Deol Bajaj of
Chandigarh and Bhanvari Devi of Bhateri village have focussed attention on
notwithstanding the publicity given to the most famous deriere in India at the
moment, women’s groups say they have been "heartened" by the media
response to Bhanvari Devi. When the social worker from Rajasthan addressed a
press conference, almost every newspaper carried the story the next day. The
district judge may have declared the upper caste men do not rape, but nobody
doubted Bhanvari’s word. The campaign for a law on sexual harassment in the
workplace has gathered momentum because of Bhanvari’s experience and women’s
groups are planning several demonstrations in Jaipur in support of her. Rupan
Bajaj may be a talking point, but Bhanvari Devi is the rallying cry. In Nineties
India, a poor village woman has become a feminist symbol.
Greer and Gloria Steinem execute doctrinal turnabouts and proclaim the virtues
of the traditional family, and writers like Camille Paglia even suggest that
women enjoy rape, the legatees of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Aruna Asaf Ai, of
Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay and Sarojini Naidu are fashioning their own feminism.
However western influenced, our own firebrands today stand as heirs to deeper
Indian traditions of political participation, traditions rooted in the freedom
struggle and even in the reform movements of the 19th century. In
logical progression, therefore, the women’s movement today sees itself as an
ally of movements "from below".
campaigns in the ‘80s, to anti-rape demonstrations in the ‘90s, Indian
feminism has taken a trajectory that has brought it into closer contact with the
spontaneous struggles of women throughout the country. As Malabika Karlekar of
the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) says, "Even if we teach
western feminist theory, we still use examples from our own millieu." If the
freedom struggle radicalised women, then the post Independence years have
consolidated those early efforts. Teesta Setalvad, co-editor of Communalism
Combat, says the very fact that the two main political parties are vying for
the much talked about 33 per cent representation for women is an indication of
the success of the movement.
women’s movement has not only grown but also matured. Voices of self-criticism
are being increasingly raised. Dr Vrinda Nabar, fromer head of the English
Department at the Bombay University, says: "The commitment of many women to
the movement has created greater awareness. But there is not enough of an effort
to address the middle-class consciousness which is an important catalyst for change. As a result,
the suspicion that feminists are subversive women is all too common."
There is also an awareness of the need to find allies outside the
movement. Several feminists now speak of the need to reach out to other democratic forums.
And there also seems to be a recognition that unity cannot be forged only on the basis of
Ashok Khosla, director of the N G O Development Alternatives who
has worked for many years in areas of womens welfare, offers a male perspective. "A number of Indian feminists have a hands-on, problem-solving kind of
approach," he says. "And they are practical about what they want." In
fact, Shanta Gokhale, journalist and author, says that more mens groups like M AWA
(Men Against Women Abuse) are needed. "In any case, the success of the feminist
movement is essentially because issues have been tackled from within the community rather
than imposed from the outside."
Whether it is training the police to deal with crimes against
women, advising government on policies, "sensitising" district court judges or
providing legal aid, groups such as Saheli, Sakshi, Jagori and Action India see themselves
as very involved with the day-to-day labours of women. They take up issues either by
agitation, as Saheli does, or through counselling and aid, as Sakshi and Action India aim
toward. "There is a maturity in our concepts now," says a member of Sakshi.
"Whereas earlier there may have been a preoccupation with certain issues like dowry,
today we aim at empowering the entirety of a womans experience."
In her book, History Of Doing, Radha Kumar traces the
growth of the modern feminist movement in India. Its genesis, according to Kumar, lay in
the freedom struggle and later in the agitations in Shahada, Maharashtra, in the early
70s, as well as in the anti-price rise and anti-alcohol agitations of the time.
Kumar points out that the 70s feminists were mostly drawn from the far Left and part
of the urban, educated middle class. They called themselves "autonomous" and
"feminist" and built links exclusively between each other to further their
cause. Now the days of autonomy are over. Says a Madras-based Marxist feminist: "The
contradiction now is between the vast mass of men and women on the one hand and the
ruling class on the other."
"The distinctive feature of the womens movement in the
90s," says C P I(M) MP Malini Bhattacharya, "is the strong links between
women of the Third World, as distinct from the West, as well as alliances with other
democratic citizens." Describing herself as not a "feminist" but as an
"activist", Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Womens Association (A
I D WA) says the days of putting up "womens only" signs are over. "We
now reach out to all other democratic forums because womens rights are human
rights," she adds. There seems to be an impatience now with simply confining debates
to a cosy circle of believers.
There is another difference. In the 70s, says Kumar, the
emotional and individual concerns of middle class women were dismisses as
"irrelevant" because feminists were convinced that their own experience could
never be as "true" or as "real" as those of the toiling masses. But
today those concerns are perhaps not as marginal as they once were because the feminist
movement is broad enough to include the perceptions of Rupan Deol Bajaj as clearly as it
does the crimes against Bhanvari.
Yet, the elitism of the feminist concept continues to be
transformed by its legions. The women who protested against the Mathura rape case of
1979-80, the campaigns of the mothers of " dowry death" victims in 1982, those
who marched against the sati incident of 1987 and in the agitations around Bhanvari, it is
not necessarily upper class women who are in the fore f ront. In securing forest rights
for women, in securing rural credit in Rajasthan, in anti-arrack and literacy agitations,
women have called for rights in a manner that makes the doctrine that emerged in the 1960s
in North America largely irrelevant. "It is in the remote areas," says author
Nisha Da Cunha, "that the real triumphs of feminism lie."
"The Indian womens movement has a history of its own," asserts Urvashi
Butalia of the Kali For Women publishing house. "No doubt some urban activists may
have been educated in the West, but our agenda comes from a reality rooted here."
While the West may have fallen prey to "introversion" and
"de-politicisation", Indian feminism is in the summertime of its campaign years.
While the rather narrow sphere of sexual politics may occupy trans-Atlantic thought, here
it is the nuts and bolts of the female predicament that are central. How to secure
ones livelihood, to stop menfolk from consuming too much alcohol, to ensure that
women get good post-natal care and to guarantee literacy for children. In the turmoil of
modernising India, campaigners must be made of sterner stuff than theories.
When Action India, a womens organisation, travelled to Saharanpur to raise
awareness about equal rights, they realised the limits of their
own awareness. Rajbala, an elderly resident of the area, posed a question to which Action
India had no answer. "Equality? Equality with whom? Equality for what? Will my
stomach be filled with equality? I dont want equality with my man. I want equality
with you, you who have cars and send your children to English-speaking schools."
In a situation of extreme poverty, trying to secure equal rights for women is
meaningless. Where men and women are both demeaned by poverty, why ask for equal status
with a man? "Our attempt," says Gauri Choudhury of Action India, "is to
create a non-oppressive, non-patriarchal place for women to at least voice their
grievances." The effort of womens groups now is to try and ensure economic
well-being of a community and thereby create conditions that are conducive to equal
With the announcement of the structural adjustment programme, womens
organisations have united on the pattern of development they feel will jeopardise the
position of women further. "The economic reforms will benefit the First World and
impoverish the Third World," says Premila Dandavate of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti.
The term "feminisation of poverty" focusses on the unseen masses of women
employed in the informal sector of the economy who will be forced into even greater
deprivation because of the reforms. The opposition to the free market has forced an
antagonism with the operation of western big business in India.
"The introduction of the contraceptive, Norplant, in India," says a
spokesperson for Sakshi, "is big business for the West. Yet the contraceptive is
extremely hazardous for Indian women. Reproductive health is necessarily of much greater
importance for us than it is for women of the developed North."
The issue of abortion, a vital demand for western feminists that it should be
treated as a choice to be made only by the pregnant woman in India is fraught with
complications. The practice of amniocentesis and sex determination ultra-sound tests means
that abortion is often not a choice but is imposed by social pressures. Thus a
pro-abortion crusade can often play into the hands of forces inimical to the feminist
Indu Agnihotri at C W D S says that several precepts of western feminism are being
examined in the light of Indian conditions. "As far as contraceptives are concerned,
we want them, but they have to be safe. We re g a rd abortions after sex determination as
wrong. Also, unlike in the West, Indian feminism has never really been anti-family
although we oppose patriarchy within the family structure."
In the land of Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati and Jayalalitha, the slogan "my
sister, right or wrong" must be re-examined. Agnihotri points out that not only was
it a woman prime minister who promulgated the Emergency, but women have often incited
crowds to violence during communal riots. "So the notion that women are an inherently
non-violent force is being questioned. We now aim for issue-based rather than gender-based
In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vina Mazumdar and
Agnihotri state that several activists have established a dialogue with reform movements
and religious groups within the religious framework. In the opposition to fundamentalism,
there is even a debate among feminists to retrieve religion from fundamentalists and
high-light the positive aspects of socio-religious reform.
Indian feminism in the 90s is trying to reach a stage where it draws on indigenous
traditions of emancipation for its growth. As such it works within the confines of Indian
society instead of trying to overthrow the system from the outside. So religion is no
longer denied, but communalism is combated; the family is not sought to be destroyed, only
reformed from patriarchy; equality with men is no longer seen as the ultimate prescription
for freedom; and abortion and contraception are no longer absolute imperatives for the
health of Indian women. "Irresponsible conscience-raising," says Karlekar,
"is, I think, a thing of the past. The point is, after exhorting women to revolt,
where will they go? Can we offer jobs? Or shelter? It is important to look at the entire
"The Indian movement," says Sumita Ghose, a member of the URMUL trust of
Rajasthan, "has to operate within communities, not among individuals. In the past,
urban-educated women were seen leading demonstrations on the streets, now women all over
the country are concerned with land rights, equal accession to family wealth and securing
their own livelihood. Struggles that are perhaps more pragmatic than ideological."
Ideology still divides, but not as crucially as in the West where perhaps it would be
unthinkable for left-wing and conservative women to work together. In India the Seven
Sisters a group of seven womens organisations with differing political
affiliations have worked together to secure law reform, press for petitions and
function as a pressure group on the government. Says feminist lawyer Lotika Sarkar:
"We have nothing to do with the West. We are very down to earth. And as far as
womens issues are concerned, there is a united front."
So, there is a new identity-in- the-making for Indian feminism in the decade when the
movement has come into its own as a pressure lobby on the government. It is hybrid, yet
rooted; western in theory but indigenous in practice; rationalist in inspiration but at
the same time forced to come to terms with some aspects of Indian custom and tradition. Contradictory? No, uniquely Indian.