Meandering forward


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THE recent history of women’s movements in India has to be read afresh in the new neo-liberal and communalized context. Looking at the last decade of the autonomous women’s movements in India (loosely defined as being non-party affiliated groups), it is surprising how our understanding/positions have shifted on certain issues and to what degree the concerns remain much the same as in the past. Some questions of concern are: Does the law still hold all the answers to women’s issues? Are we as an autonomous movement keeping pace in understanding the changing identities of women in the context of sexuality and identity politics? Are we, as autonomous women’s groups, still relevant in an almost ‘post-feminist’ world? Are we able to respond to working class women, or are the criticisms levelled against us of being upper class, urban elite women still valid?

This essay, for the most part draws on the autonomous women’s movement in Delhi and Bombay. Experiences of groups in the Northeastern states of living under continuous conflict situations and their responses to state violence against women, or even in West Bengal of living under a so-called progressive government, does not really inform this essay, reflective of a continued disconnect among women’s groups in the country.

Given that law needs to be forward looking, especially in traditional societies like India, campaigns for legal reform have always been an integral part of the women’s movements. The decade started with a landmark judgement, Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, where the Supreme Court defined sexual harassment at the workplace and laid down guidelines for dealing with it. The recognition of ‘sexual harassment’ in law was in itself a victory of the women’s movements in recognizing sexual harassment for what it is – a serious offence against women – and not merely coy ‘eve-teasing’, a victory beyond just language.

While the judgment was meant to be only a precursor to a statute, a law is yet to be passed. The modalities of how the law would play out, including conducting enquiries into allegations of sexual harassment by sexual harassment committees and the well settled law governing domestic enquiries for all other misconduct, still needs to be dealt with. Implications also arise for legal theory of making exceptions to principles of natural justice in the context of women’s rights. For instance, how do we reconcile the right of the alleged abuser to cross-examine the complainant with the need for ensuring that the complainant woman is not further victimized during the enquiry?


In the debates and discussions among women’s groups, as well as with the National Commission for Women, attempts were made to draft a consensus bill to address the issue. These discussions threw up the challenge of drafting an all-encompassing law which would address issues of women in both the organized and unorganized sectors. It also brought to the fore our lack of understanding of workplace situations as well as the divide between women in the autonomous women’s groups and women who primarily saw themselves as belonging to ‘left’ affiliations.

That allegations of sexual harassment would be used to further victimize male union leaders was a concern voiced by trade unionists, both men and women. This ignored the reality that women are routinely sexually harassed at the workplace, and that even women managers are harassed by male shop floor workers, a problem which would need to be addressed by trade unions. The various forms that sexual harassment can take, especially of women industrial workers by their supervisors/managers, is yet to be understood in its entirety. That working class women are forced to ‘allow’ themselves to be harassed in order to get more overtime work, to get leave or not have themselves thrown out of jobs is a reality which we as the women’s movement have to confront. An acceptance of this ‘quid pro quo sexual harassment’ might provide a greater understanding of the situation confronting working class women, and equip us to better address the issue.


But the current level of disengagement of the women’s movement with the lives of working class women is so great that we are not even aware of the working conditions, beyond guessing that it must be very bad. The movement is also ignorant about the profile of the new industrial women workers in garment or electronics factories. Till even the mid-1990s, researchers belonging to women’s groups did conduct studies on women factory workers. However, no such study has been done post the late 1990s, despite the fact that a large number of women are working in factories. In our understanding of the neo-liberal world, we see working women as only those in high profile corporate or IT jobs, earning huge amounts of money – a class of women who do not see themselves as oppressed by patriarchy since they can combine their careers and jobs with marriage and children. In this process, we have completely ignored working class women who still form a bulk of the female workforce in the country.


One group of working class women that the movement has made a conscious effort to work with recently are those engaged in sexual labour. The shift in our understanding of sexual labour has been pronounced; we have moved from looking at all forms of ‘prostitution’ as violence and exploitation of women, to accepting it as one of the ways that women earn a livelihood. This shift is in part a result of the global and national movements of sex workers and the articulation of their rights. It has not just been a linear shift, and our understanding is more nuanced as a result of the issues raised by dalit women’s groups regarding objections to caste based work, including sex work.

This is not to say that all women’s groups are supportive of the struggles of sex workers. There are many groups working with sex workers and their children who still look at prostitution as inherently exploitative of women since morality regarding sex itself forms part of the discomfort around sex work. That sex or sexual interactions can exist outside of romantic/emotional contexts is not a notion that is easily acceptable to even progressive movements, including groups in the women’s movement.

Having said that, various women’s groups are working with sex workers in understanding and formulating demands and engaging with various forms of collectivization of sex workers, be it the DMSC in Kolkata, VAMP in Sangli or the Karnataka Sex Workers Union and Sadhane Mahila Gumpu in Bangalore. The objections to the recently proposed amendments to ITPA were endorsed by the National Network of Autonomous Women’s Groups. That the ban on women in dance bars in Maharashtra was challenged not just by the Bar Dancers Union, but also in a separate petition by several women’s groups including the Forum Against Oppression of Women, is indicative of the engagement of women’s movements with women in sexual labour. All this contributed to a session on sex work at the 7th Conference of Women’s Movements in India held in Kolkata in September 2006. It is unfortunate that this had to wait till the Seventh Conference.


Each conference of the women’s movements has grappled with a new issue – of single women in the Calicut conference or lesbian women in the Ranchi conference. Issues of lesbian and bisexual women have come to the fore in the last ten years, after the Ranchi conference. The rich discussions around sexuality and heteronormativity that the queer movement, specifically the queer feminist movement, brought into the women’s movement has helped us to better understand patriarchy. They have also helped expand the debates on our bodies and sexual labour, including sex work.

The path towards focusing on issues of same sex relationships and marginalized sexualities within the women’s movement has not been an easy one. Starting from their names to having their ‘politics’ questioned, lesbian groups and groups supporting lesbian issues have been forced to defend themselves. Even as late as 2001, women’s groups belonging to left parties in Delhi did not want the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) to participate in the March 8th rally, on grounds that focus of the rally would be lost if the CALERI banner was part of the joint rally. When Stree Sangam in Bombay changed its name in 2000 to Lesbians and Bisexual Women in Action (LABIA), feminists from within the women’s movement expressed discomfort with the ‘blatantness’ of the name.

This defensive position that they were constantly pushed into explains the stand taken by queer groups in addressing issues of same sex sexual violence. In a meeting of women’s groups, queer groups and child rights groups on the 172nd Law Commission recommendations on sexual assault in early 2001, queer groups were vehemently opposed to including sexual violence between same sex people within the ambit of sexual assault laws. It was felt that the absence of anti-discrimination laws seriously impairs the rights of same sex people, especially in situations of misuse of the law. Given the socio-political context, the chances of gay people having to face false allegations of sexual assault would increase. In addition, we also felt that the incorporation of gay people into the legal context should not be limited to only addressing violence.


The women’s movements continued engagement with issues of violence was reflected in the campaign for a comprehensive law to address domestic violence, which gained momentum in the last 4-5 years. It was largely as a result of this campaign that the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) was passed by Parliament. Apart from whether a combination of civil and criminal jurisdiction helps, an argument which practicing lawyers are still debating, another debate around the PWDVA continues to be on the efficacy of foregrounding legal reform. The usual questions about implementation, sensitivity of the judges, ability of magistrates dealing with criminal matters to engage with ‘women’s issues’ remain.

An important aspect of the PWDVA, apart from reiterating the rights of women to residence, is that for the first time in law, domestic violence is not reduced only to marital violence. Relationships ‘in the nature of marriage’ are recognized, albeit only though the lens of protecting women from violence. Since the law is recent, and both lawyers as well as women’s rights activists are still learning to use it effectively, we should explore its usefulness in other situations, for example, to protect women from violence in their natal homes.


Along with domestic violence, the women’s movement was forced to sharpen its understanding of politics around sexual violence against women. In the targeted violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, the sexual violence perpetrated on women from the Muslim community was so glaring that even mainstream media was forced to acknowledge the prevalence of gang and mass rape.

The response from women’s movements to the violence was immediate. Members of autonomous women’s groups from across the country were in Gujarat from around 10 March 2002 and involved themselves in relief work. One of the first reports documenting the enormity of the sexual violence faced by the women was a report titled ‘Survivors Speak’. Later in the year women’s groups organized a panel of international feminist lawyers and academics as the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat to tour the areas most affected by the violence. Its report, ‘Threatened Existence’, provides a feminist analysis of sexual violence against women, especially during times of conflict.


Gujarat 2002 reinforced the understanding that women do identify themselves with only their religious groups and perceive themselves as having other identities. The unprecedented participation of women in the looting and violence exposed our lack of understanding of women in all their identities and our inability to deal with women participating in communal violence.

The continued targeted violence against the Muslim community from 1992-93 to 2002 and thereafter has also meant further violations of Muslim women’s rights from within the community. Focusing on the protection of the community has simultaneously implied that women’s freedom has been curtailed, not to forget the actual violence that women were subjected to in relief camps.

It is not that the women’s movements have ignored religious identities of women; the specificity of the oppression that minority women face, particularly Muslim women, has always been a major concern for the movement and a point of conflict with the state. One of the new concerns that the movement is grappling with and learning to respond to is the rise of parallel legal systems like jati panchayats and Muslim clerics issuing fatwas, most of which are meant for ‘reining in’ women.

One of the major demands of the women’s movements from the mid-1980s was the enactment of a gender just personal law. Even though the premise of a gender just law and a uniform civil code are completely different, the movement dropped the demand after the right-wing political parties like the BJP stepped up their rhetoric for a uniform civil code.

The debate whether Muslim women’s rights ought to be seen in a religious framework, with a demand for reforming the Shariat, or in a broadly ‘human rights’ perspective, is now old and has somehow lost steam. Apart from groups like Awaaz-e-Niswan in Bombay which work mostly with Muslim women, several new groups working specifically on Muslim women’s rights have emerged post Gujarat 2002. Some of them are also part of the Muslim Women’s Rights Network, a network for women’s groups to debate and campaign for Muslim women’s rights. Unfortunately a lack of discussion around gender just laws/uniform civil code and Muslim women’s rights within Shariat/within a secular human rights framework has meant that more recent women’s groups are not exposed to these debates.


Apart from all these issues that the women’s movement has grappled with over the last 10 years, one major development within the autonomous women’s movements over this period has been a change in the nature of the groups. It was in the early 1980s that many autonomous women’s groups came into existence. Most were voluntary, with women members having full-time jobs for the most part while being activists within the movement. Over the last ten years, most of the groups have morphed into non-government organizations and new NGOs working with women’s issues have been set up. This NGOization has led to established hierarchies within groups and organizations, negatively impacting the process and importance of collective functioning.

The one aspect that set apart women’s groups from other movements was an absence of formal leadership. This is no longer the case. Added to this is the politics of funding which comes with NGOization, with programmes and activities decided on the basis of the funding available for each issue. This, in part, explains the number of groups working on anti-trafficking issues or having ‘community based programmes for women’ as opposed to women’s groups responding to everyday situations that we as women face.


The few remaining voluntary non-funded autonomous women’s groups have in turn become inward looking, rarely engaging with women outside of their class-caste positions. The sexual harassment of urban women in Bombay affects us and the nature of our response more than the rape of dalit rural women. The nature of our campaigns have also changed as a result of this disengagement; there is little street protest or reaching out to people, or even active sharing of our understanding with mass organizations of women.

For instance, whenever women are organized either at the community/basti level or even as workers, the forming of self-help groups is always seen as the first step. However, the critique of SHGs and micro-credit from within the women’s movement does not adequately inform the process of organizing. On the other hand, because we do not have a ‘mass base’, we have the space to take radical positions especially with regard to sexuality or issues which have a moral tinge, without having to put the question to vote.

The major challenge facing us as automous groups is to both retain our autonomy and freedom of ideas as also to better relate to the changing realities of women’s lives.