Women’s movements in India


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I write this as I complete thirty years as part of the women’s movement, a journey which has been both enriching and frustrating at the same time, but one which has been an integral part of my existence. Autonomous, as opposed to party affiliated, women’s organizations started making an appearance following the International Women’s Year in 1975. This was also the time that party affiliated organizations like All India Democratic Women’s Association (CPM), an All India Mahilla Dakshata Samiti (Janata Dal), came into being. Existing organizations like the All India Women’s Conference, National Federation of Indian Women too were stirring into action. Autonomy from political parties produced organizations of all shades, including the liberal, which situated women’s emancipation within existing society as well as those who did not wish to be limited just by socialism.

The cutting edge of this movement was provided by a socialist feminist stream which redefined and extended the very definition of politics with its slogan of ‘personal is political’ and situated itself in a struggle against capitalist patriarchy. The family was brought into the public arena with issues of dowry, female foeticide, wife battering, incest and the rights of women in the society as well as within the family without losing sight of the goal of a society free of exploitation and discrimination.

In a society such as ours where survival itself is an issue for 80% of the women who live on the border of or below the poverty line, it is difficult for the liberal feminists to provide leadership to the women’s movement. While the organized left struggles for equality, its base comprises of male comrades, and by and large it is not easy for it to take up issues of women’s rights if they adversely affect the interests of its active male membership. Trade unions have time and again compromised the interests of women workers when such a conflict has arisen. A recent example is the bill on sexual harassment at the workplace. The left expressed its doubts claiming that this would be used to harass union leaders with false complaints. How ironic that today the Left Front government is supporting national and foreign capital over the rights of the peasants and even theoretically justifying it.


The situation has changed tremendously since the 1970s. The society has been fragmented and Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise. Economic disparities have widened. The state has withdrawn its services in the public distribution system (PDS) and the social sector. Vast spaces have been privatized and the public sector is gradually being sold off. Opposition of the affected people is being tackled brutally and most states have curtailed civil liberties by enactment of laws overtly and through the use of private armies. Through special economic zones (SEZ) vast spaces are being usurped where the sovereignty of the country and the rights of its citizens are being compromised to serve the interests of domestic and foreign capital.


The Bhopal gas tragedy and the carnage against the Sikh community following the assassination of Indira Gandhi are two instances where I remember our organization stepping out of the strictly women-centred issues to intervene in a broader arena while focusing on crimes against women and the impact of the gas leak on the reproductive health of women. The situation gradually worsened through the eighties when communalism started dictating the agenda for women’s rights as Muslim fundamentalists acted to deny Muslim women the right to maintenance, the Akalis encouraged Sikh widows to marry their husband’s younger brother, and the Hindu revivalists wanted to glorify Sati and communalize the long standing demand of the women’s movement to bring an end to discrimination in family laws.

We had barely emerged out of this when moves towards privatization, deregulation and the new economic policies, the Dunkel draft, structural adjustment with an attendant shrinking of the social sector confronted us. An onslaught of hazardous contraceptives and coercive population control roughly made the scene complete. It was clear that the new economic policies were leaving the dispossessed to their own devices and that women were going to be the worst sufferers in this process. All these changes were being reflected in the work of the women’s movement also.

While the vision broadened, the practice was not so rosy. Various factors contributed to it. First and foremost we may consider the role of the U.N. itself. Till the mid eighties it was the women’s decade and the very agency which had catalyzed the women’s movement into action, became the cause for the movement to be co-opted. Throughout this period, large amounts of funding was made available to carry out women related activities. One estimate puts the number of NGOs at 50,000 – those that came up to use these funds. This meant that the funders’ agenda started to dominate the scene. This also resulted in a larger number of women joining NGOs, as opposed to the movement, as they believed that they could follow their politics, reach out to large numbers of women as also make a living in the process.


While it was possible for the priorities of the funding agencies to match that of organizations, say with an occasional study or a travel grant, this was an exception rather than the rule. Largely, grants only served to dissipate energy. A case in point is of micro credit projects that have mushroomed all over the country, where women are engaged in small savings from their BPL households to create income for themselves. The grants are too small to engage in even a cottage industry. The subsidy provided to these self-help groups is a mockery compared to what is being doled out to big industrial houses.

Funding for women also had a perverse agenda. Take the logic of population control agencies that are hell-bent on reducing family size. Realizing that women want fewer children and can be more in control if educated, and will have a shorter fertile span if married late, they became the advocates of empowerment of women. This was notwithstanding the technologies which took away the power of control from women, burdened them with myriad medical problems and policy initiatives which made the number of children they had a criteria for eligibility to contest elections, hold a job or to get maternity benefits.

Even the so-called women’s development programmes initiated by the government, such as education for equality, did not provide a salary for women workers but only an honorarium far below the minimum wage, job security or safe working conditions for women who were expected to empower other women. Unfortunately, many activists did not see the contradictions and enthusiastically involved themselves in such initiatives, thereby diluting the militancy of the women’s movement. The other end of the spectrum comprised of consulting feminists who were paid over Rs 8000 per day to give training in women’s empowerment.

Money alone has not been the method of co-option. The token presence of women on various committees has been used by national and international agencies to legitimize their own anti-people and anti-women policies. They legitimized their actions by holding consultations with women’s organizations over many years, even if it meant propping up and promoting organizations for this very purpose.

Collective functioning has been one of the key elements of the autonomous women’s organizations. Rather than describe my understanding of the evolution of the thought and stands within the movement, it is worth reproducing the call letter of the 2006 national conference of the women’s movements which lays down the canvas of the collective vision.


Towards a Politics of Justice: Affirming Diversities; Resisting Divisiveness (Call letter of Kolkata Conference 2006):

‘We are women from different women’s groups and various streams of life, coming from different states, having different feminist political persuasions, belonging to various cultures and religions, (with some of us refusing religious persuasions), as well as from different class, caste, sexuality, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, who work in diverse ways to challenge oppressive and patriarchal structures in society. We remain committed to recognising and respecting these "diversities", even as we seek justice for the inequities that result from those very diversities.

This Declaration is a shared expression of our politics, perspectives, and commitment to the women’s movement. First drafted in 1998 by the National Coordination Committee of the conference, it has, over the years, changed and grown to reflect our varied journeys and concerns. The conference is open to all those who abide by this Declaration.


The Indian women’s movement has many streams and hues, and we do not claim to be representative of all of them. The National Conference brings together women and organisations who are "autonomous" – i.e. non-government, non-electoral, non-political party, nonviolent and not underground groups or funding agencies. These are groups, both formal and informal, that form a distinct political stream united by a broad critique of society and patriarchal institutions, and of the intersections of caste, gender, class, religion and sexuality.

As the autonomous women’s movement, we share a broad common understanding of women’s oppression and liberation, but differ in our emphasis and practices. Yet our beliefs and ideologies have evolved into another collective way of looking at the world, of weaving theory with practice. In strategising for change, we all attempt to personalise politics and politicise the personal. This has meant confronting patriarchy and social values such as authoritarianism, aggression, competition and hierarchy in the family and society, and the oppression and exploitation imposed by dominant class, caste and patriarchal rule.


The last few decades have witnessed substantial economic and political changes in India. Yet women remain controlled by families, communities, the state and increasing corporate power. Our labour is controlled through strict sexual division of labour at home and the workplace; our fertility is regulated by a glorified emphasis on motherhood and purity; our sexuality is repressed by a double standard of morality and compulsory heterosexuality; our bodies, while youthful, are commercialised and commodified; our lives when ageing, are often forgotten. Religions and cultures depend on us, yet circumscribe us and violate our rights. These controls and power relations operate subtly as well as overtly, at the ideological and material levels, to reinforce each other through various relationships and institutions, including the family, the market, the media, education, religion, customs and the law… All, while the state, grants itself increasing powers of censorship to silence voices of dissent, while at the same time, steadily withdrawing from providing essential services to its citizens, particularly the marginalised and the poor.

At an international level, we resist the coming together of global capital, imperial power and military might to threaten the sovereignty of regions and the will of people over their own political destinies. State sponsored "wars on terror" in the name of protecting and promoting human rights, democracy, peace, justice, national security, in fact only breed militarisation, heightened conflict, increased cultural nationalisms, racism and xenophobia.

The National Conference has a vision of an alternative society based on equality, social justice and equitable development. A society that is free from violence and that believes in women’s rights, human rights, democratic processes, diversity, dignity and peace. We condemn the forces of fundamentalism and communalism that are sweeping the country, and oppose nuclearisation, militarisation and war. In doing so, we seek to find ways to create a world of peace, equality, rights and a politics of justice.


Challenging Violence Against Women: Violence against women, ranging from the visible to the invisible – from battery to sexual atrocities like molestation and rape, dowry tortures and murders, trafficking and female infanticide – continues to be perpetrated by families, communities and the state. Abortion of female foetuses is still rampant in spite of a law banning it. Violence against women and girls within the family, both parental and marital continues, as does sexual harassment at the workplace. Community-based honour killings are still common, and casteist and communal power struggles take recourse to chilling forms of sexual violence against women. Aggressive masculinity leading to rape and murder of women, including minors and adolescents, are other heinous examples. Women who desire women, including those who identify as lesbian and bisexual, as well as those who do not conform to the binaries of "men" and "women", such as transgender women including hijras, as well as women in prostitution/sex work are becoming victims of increasingly repressive norms of normality and abnormality. Norms bolstered by law that criminalises alternate sexualities perceived to threaten patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. Such laws urgently need to be repealed, and many others on sexual violence, etc need immediate reform.

Today, state and societal recognition of the problem is increasing, and legal aid, crisis intervention and support mechanisms are more easily available to women, yet violence against women also continues to rise. Despite substantial achievements in legal reform, we recognise that laws passed to protect or empower women are still confronted by societal and institutional patriarchy in implementation. The road ahead is long, but we continue to challenge violence against women in all its forms.


Challenging Increasing Communalisms, Fundamentalisms and Conservatism: As rising nationalisms, religious fundamentalisms and fascist pressures sweep the world, they pervade political space and civil society, and have become entrenched in institutions such as education, the law, and the media. Instances of virtual genocide against people from the minority communities and increasing attacks on dalits and other marginalised castes, often with state complicity, have resulted in deaths, mutilation, widespread fear, insecurity and the aggressive displacement of thousands from their homes, even as economic and social boycotts make their lives more vulnerable. And the system of justice has failed them time and again.

The increasing hold of communal forces on society and polity always have an adverse impact on women, with an increased control of family and community on women’s lives, freedoms and mobility. Even more disturbing has been the centrality of sexual violence against women during times of conflict. Alongside, have been rising waves of conservatism, moral policing and control over women through anti-women personal and customary laws as well as extra-judicial bodies like caste and community panchayats. So much so that both, within and across communities, women’s space to express dissent, debate and discuss change, and negotiate is shrinking by the day. We believe that the secular, multicultural fabric of the country must be preserved, and all politics of hate, and the forces propagating it, challenged.


Challenging Globalisation and its Impact on "Development": More than a decade of economic "liberalisation" has resulted in the withdrawal of the state from many essential sectors like health care, power and water. As they get privatised, the inequalities between the rich and poor are getting starker, large sections of the people are losing access to them, especially women and girls. Education is becoming dispensable for girls and women are becoming more migrant and homeless than ever before. Simultaneously, natural resources are being overused and polluted, forests degraded, rivers disrupted by cost-intensive and unviable mega-developmental projects, including tourism, and consequently, hundreds of thousands of people are being violently displaced by the state – destroying lives, livelihoods, and whole communities. The control and governance of forest-based resources and commons are being increasingly centralized in the hands of the state and subsequently set up for private commercial interests, displacing the existing subsistence use. Even within projects of urbanisation and industrialisation, it is the women who bear the brunt. The dismantling of labour laws and the growth of unorganised sector where large numbers of women work, has only increased women’s economic vulnerability manifold.

We oppose economic policies which adversely affect the poor and marginalised, especially women. We hold the government liable to initiate policies to ensure food security, clothing, shelter, health and education for all, and to decrease defence spending. We oppose policies that fail to protect the environment; we hold liable corporations, both national and multi-national, towards the environment, communities and society. We are committed to economic systems that guarantee peoples’ right to livelihood, allow for the participation of all sections of society in economic activity and policy making, and ensure the equitable sharing of benefits among all.


Challenging Coercive Population Policies: We resist the view that women are reproductive beings alone, to be targeted for achieving population control goals through the manipulation and coercion of state-controlled and eugenic population policies. We strongly oppose the population control programme of the "government-donor agencies-pharmaceutical companies" combine, which continues to promote hazardous contraceptives in its programmes and through the market, with little or no regard for women’s health.

We oppose coercive population policies like the two-child norm, imposed on members of panchayati raj institutions or in several states on the people at large, even denying access to irrigation facilities, as undemocratic and unacceptable measures that mainly penalise women, the poor and the traditionally oppressed castes. Such laws also impede women’s right to compete in the system as equals, give impetus to sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. We stand firm against the unethical use of Indian women as research subjects for Indian and foreign companies, private and government research agencies. We assert the need for better health care and safe birth control choices for women.


Challenging State Aggression and Manipulation: Over the last few decades, the Indian state – a powerful conglomeration of upper class, upper caste, patriarchal and large capital interests – has been compelled to respond to the demands of the women’s movement in many ways. Yet in failing to implement many of these completely it has managed to maintain the status quo, even as it has co-opted our ideas and language to acquire legitimacy. "Empowering" women, through special development programmes and granting reservations in local self-government, have not been matched by changes for women, either at grassroots or at various levels of the political system, such as the government and the political parties. We challenge the state’s projection of self-help groups as a panacea for women’s empowerment and poverty reduction, since they fail to address the root of women’s subordination and place the onus of poverty redressal on the poor, especially women.

On the other hand, arms of the state meant to protect citizens, have routinely used rape and sexual assault in order to intimidate, terrorise and control populations. Mass rapes by the army during the anti-insurgency operations in the North East or Kashmir, or of Muslim women by Hindu nationalists during the state-sponsored violence against the minority community in Gujarat, are just a few cases in point. We condemn such state violence and repression on both men and women, irrespective of whether the pretext is internal peace, national security, or the global war against terrorism. Today, the state is resorting to more and more violence to suppress people’s struggles, censoring differing points of view and silencing voices of dissent, instead of finding democratic solutions. We strongly oppose draconian legislations like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act etc., that only strengthen the abusive powers of the state, the military and the paramilitary forces, leaving behind a terrible trail of human rights abuses. Such legislations should be repealed immediately.


Challenging Divisiveness, Affirming Diversities: We believe that as women, we share common interests and goals, and hence come together in our collective struggles. But caste, nation, class, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or disability are deeply rooted social constructs which create multiple identities for many of us. Consequently, the politics of identity throws up several contradictions, yet we remain committed to recognizing and respecting these ‘diversities’ even as we seek justice for the inequities that result from them. In particular, we seek support for the struggles of women who are made further vulnerable by specific facets of their identities – as adivasis, dalits, poor and working class, religious minorities, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, sex workers, disabled, and women of other socially marginalised groups.

We believe as women we must have the right to make choices about our lives, our bodies, our sexuality and our relationships. We also recognise that these choices are not unchanging. We commit to creating the space for different choices to be recognised and evolving the supportive structures that can make all of these choices a meaningful reality. We reiterate our commitment to continue our efforts to realise these expressions of our politics and struggle, and to support the struggles of all who seek justice, with a vision that remains autonomous of the discourse of dominant powers and politics.

The National Conference calls on all women who fight against oppression, struggle for equality, justice and for the liberation of all; to affirm our diversities, to resist the divisions that social reality confronts us with; To come together for a vision of greater justice and peace.’


In the last decade a number of things have changed. The print media is bordering on the frivolous with style, page three and foreign collaborations. The visual media is running amok with the vamp and breaking news and there is little attention to serious issues. The space for demonstrations has been confined to the deserted back lane of Jantar Mantar. E-activism and on-line petitioning are the order of the day. The protest is just a click away, but it means that activists are limited to those who are computer savvy, English speaking and upper class. The jhola has been replaced by the laptop. Conferences and meetings which took place in dharmashalas are now addressed in airconditioned halls with power point presentations. There is definitely a need to question all this. Computerization has some positives but excludes potential activists and imposes limitations on where we can go, and a rethink is in order.

The women’s movement is constantly criticized for not being able to achieve anything for its constituency. Before we look at the direct impact of the women’s movement we should note that it has played a big role in catalyzing the formation of women’s lobbies in parties and mass organizations alike. In its short history the movement has been instrumental in improving legislation for women. While a lot needs to be done with regard to implementation, the fact is that this legislation has hurt patriarchal interests. The latest is the hue and cry being created by men over the domestic violence legislation – suggesting that women do not even have the right to a life free of violence, nor the right to residence in such cases.

One should judge the women’s movement only in relation to other movements, such as the trade union movement and the civil rights movements. With all the legislation the women’s movement comes out a winner while the trade union movement has lost territory to SEZs where labour laws may not apply. In this period workers’ wages have shrunk because of inflation and super profits. Civil rights have been abridged in the face of black laws and military presence which surround a large number of states. But to be the first in a lame race is no cause for jubilation – actually it is a warning sign of worse times to come. And we need to be prepared for that.


Disappointed with the left and the NGOs, the women’s movement has to broaden its own base. The opportunities are plenty. Lakhs of women have been enrolled in panchayati raj institutions as elected representatives on reserved seats, another lot is women of self-help groups. In other words it is probably time to wrest back the co-option benefits being enjoyed by the state in the name of women’s empowerment.

It is also important to intensify our participation in the mass struggles now that we are accepted as equal partners with thirty years of history behind us. It is vital to fight the forces of communalism and to get the right to protest which is threatening to undermine our strength in times to come.