"Feminism isn't about making women stronger. Women are already strong, it's about changing the way the world perceives that strength." - GD Anderson
For centuries, women have borne the burden of being called the 'weaker sex'. But a look at the history of women's movements and history shows that the tag is nothing more than an excuse to exclude women from the public sphere - a domain historically claimed by the man. Through eras and aeons, women have been told they are unequal to men, especially when it came to politics, war, or even having a career.
But time and again, women have risen up from the depths of patriarchal apathy to claim what's rightfully theirs or against the misogynistic practices that denied them the right to live and grow with freedom and equality. While the women's rights movements across the world have been spearheaded by women, feminist thinkers, activists and even ordinary women have not shied away from taking up the mantle of protest, be it against oppressive government policies, sexual violence, bad governance and environmental degradation. In India, where women are both revered as the goddess and abused in the same breath — where women are mothers but also expletives - women have taken on various roles as leaders and fighters.
On Women’s Day, here’s recalling some of the most powerful and impactful movements led by women in India in recent decades.
1. Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protests
The Shaheen Bagh protests started as a form of collective public action against the much-criticised CAA and NRC which critics claimed was unfairly targeting certain sections of the population. The protests, named after the northeast Delhi neighbourhood, started on December 15 2019, at the peak of the anti-CAA movement, and continued till March 24, 2020, when the government announced a total lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. The protests became an important and much-needed space for debate and discussion. One of the hallmarks of the peaceful protest was that it was led almost entirely by women and became a platform for Muslim women, one of the most marginalised sections of the population, to come out of their homes and shackles and voice their protests. It was one of the first movements in India that were led by Muslim women at such a mass scale. From students, homemakers, children to even the ‘Dadis’ (grandmothers) of Shaheen Bagh became part and prominent faces of the protests. The solidarities formed mostly by Muslim women at the peak of the protests have continued and converted into new collectives, protests sites, emotional support groups and individual acts of courage in the face of attacks on freedom and faith of the Muslim community in India.
2. Chipko Movement
Women have played a key role in several environmental movements in India. One of the first and foremost came on March 26, 1974, when a group of 28 women, led by Gaura Devi in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region clung to trees to prevent them from being felled. Other leaders from Uttarakhand such as Suraksha Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi and Chandi Bhatt, Virushka Devi and others too went on to become renowned environmental activists. The movement followed the Gandhian Satyagraha style of non-violent protests and became a benchmark for several future environmental movements. The Chipko Movement is one of the first examples of eco-feminism in the country where women not only played a vital role but also were the mainstay of the movement and participated as the biggest stakeholders. After all, the cutting of trees affected women most with deforestation causing the depletion of firewood, fodder, water and other household necessities.
3. Narmada Bachao Andolan
The Narmada Bachao Andolan led by activities Medha Patkar is yet another women-led environmental movement against the construction of a multi-crore project involving dams over the Narmada River. The movement started in 1985 and was focused on the displacement of thousands of people in the region who would be left homeless. An estimated 2,50,000 people stand to be displaced if the project is carried out as per plans. The movement was led by a collective of people including tribals, activists, students, environmentalists and farmers. It mainly opposed the Narmada Dam Project which ostensibly aims to provide electricity to states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra through which the Narmada river passes. Under Patkar and Baba Amte, the movement grew and used several tactics like hunger strikes, mass and public demonstrations and collusion with public celebrities as ways to further their cause. Patkar, who herself has been at the forefront of the strikes, satyagrahas and protests, has even been to jail several times. The Narmada Bachao Andolan has won the Right Livelihood Award in 1991 and enjoys the support of the international community.
4. Anti-Arrack Movement in Andhra Pradesh
Tired of their domestic abuse and their unemployed husbands spending all their money on locally made alcohol (arrak), the women from the small village of Dubagunta in Andhra Pradesh began a movement that forced the state and several private agencies to bring complete prohibition against country liquor in 1990. The movement started after a national literacy movement that was gaining ground in Nellore brought to the fold hundreds of women who came together in mass gatherings to discuss their problems. The high levels of consumption of arrak among men as well as women was found to be the root cause of the economic amd domestic strife in the women's lives. The culmination of the dialogues was the anti-arrack protests - a call for a total ban on manufacture, sale and consumption of country-made arrak. As protest fanned out across the state, the women tool on the murky and powerful crime-political nexus behind the production of arrak, which was a major source of revenue for the state government. The illicit liquor trade brought in high volumes of revenue to both alcohol contractors and politicians. The women started with destroying ingredients used to concoct arrak at home and raided local hooch sellers and distributors to destroy their licenses. They also started policing their husbands at home. At its height, the movement, led by strong women leaders like Vardheneni Rosamma, managed to mobilize over 10,000 people from 300 villages and even gained political traction from parties like BJP and the left. Despite opposition fr local bureaucracy, criminals, even law enforcement agencies, the women managed to convince the government to bring about a total prohibition of liquor in thr state.
5. AFSPA protests - Irom Sharmila and Mothers of Manipur
Manipuri women have for decades been involved in protests against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Activist Irom Sharmila, known as the 'iron lady' of Manipur, was prompted by the killing of 10 civilians by the 8th Assam Rifles in November 2000 to sit in peaceful protest against the incident. She went on to embark on a seven-year-long hunger strike against the draconian law that critics claim gives the armed forces in the region power to arbitrarily arrest and execute locals. Not just Sharmila, women of the state have been at the forefront of the struggle against army excesses in the region. In March 2004, a group 12 Manipuri women stripped in front of Assam Rifles in protest against the rape and killing of Manorama Thangjam allegedly by security personnel. The protesters have gone down in history as the 'Mothers of Manipur'. The 'imas' from the Meitei community continue to seek justice for the brutal killing and images of their 'naked protest' have brought international attention to the issue and pressurised the government to negotiate with local leaders.
While we have collated just five, scores of other local level movements led by women in India have brought massive changes in Indian governance and laws. While the collective women’s movements have shown success, individual actors of bravery and independence by women have also inspired many and even brought about changes in legislation. Acid attack survivor Laxmi Aggarwal became the face of the protests against acid attack after she lost half her face to an acid attack at the age of 15. Today, Laxmi inspires thousands of victims of acid attacks and domestic violence to live a life of dignity and respect.