International dimensions


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THE international dimension of the Indian women’s movement – can such a diffused terrain ever be mapped? Well, only in as much as the notion of human rights, from which emanates the rights of women, is a construct formed by the collective experiences of humankind.

When Draupadi, in the Mahabharata, is said to have appealed to the ‘eternal law’ during her moment of humiliation in King Dhrtarastra’s court, could it not be framed in terms of her right to life, which also includes her inherent right to live with dignity? Or when Mary Wollstonecraft argued in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), ‘Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man for she will grow more perfect when emancipated,’ was it not early recognition that structural inequalities between the sexes are socially constructed?

Susan B. Anthony stood trial in 1873 for ‘knowingly, wrongfully and unlawfully’ exercising her vote. When she informed the judge that his verdict of guilty had trampled underfoot every vital principle of government – ‘My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored. Robbed of the fundamental privilege of citizenship, I am degraded from the status of a citizen to that of a subject’ – was she not enunciating the principle of equal citizenship for all women everywhere?

There was lively international interest in the social struggles waged in India in the early decades of the last century, including those that concerned women directly. Margaret Cousins, a British suffragette visiting India, reported how thrilled she was that the United Provinces had decided to confer the right to vote on women in 1923. ‘What an experience it was for me to sit there and hear those Indian politicians, and to watch record being made of unanimous vote being given in favour of granting women franchise and that in a province as large as Great Britain!’ Ten years earlier she had been jailed in Dublin for protesting against the omission of women’s participation in the voting for the Home Rule Bill.

The mass mobilization of ordinary women in the national movement against colonialism had a resonance in the most unlikely corners of the globe. Above all there was widespread recognition that the Indian Constitution was a document sensitive to women because it guaranteed the right of non-discrimination between the sexes, even while making provision for such affirmative action that may be considered necessary to eliminate existing discrimination. Article 15(1) of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste and gender. Article 15(3) authorizes the state to make ‘special provisions’ for women and children.



The problem lay, of course, in translating and expanding the legacy into a sustainable transformative process. There were two broad developments that went towards creating what feminist academics have variously termed ‘the third phase of the women’s movement’, ‘the contemporary women’s movement’ or the ‘new women’s movement’. The first was the formal process, set in motion in 1967, when the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. This led in turn to 1975 being named the International Women’s Year, and the years between 1975 and 1985 being declared the Women’s Decade.

But in tandem with the official initiatives was a deep popular dissatisfaction over the failure of the state to deliver. In many ways, the early 1970s represented a period of great flux when the need to look beyond established political institutions to gain justice and equality was widely felt and articulated. Women too formed part of that clamour for change.

The theoretical underpinnings, themes and methodologies of the movement emerged from the assimilations and tensions which marked the relationship between the formal and informal processes. The ‘global sisterhood’ theme that emerged at the first UN sponsored international women’s conference in Mexico in 1975 was quickly put to the test. At the mid-decade Copenhagen conference in 1980, when its Jamaican secretary-general Lucille Mair spoke of a new international economic order, there was distinct flutter in the dovecotes of the West. The complaint was that raising such issues would unnecessarily ‘politicise’ the movement and cause it to be marked by the traditional divides of mainstream international politics. But the divides existed nevertheless and the activists from the South who had met on the sidelines of that conference expressed their resentment over the patronizing ways of traditional western feminists who, despite their flawed and incomplete analysis, presumed to speak on behalf of all women.



The Nairobi conference, which marked the end of the Women’s Decade, gave official vent to this by calling attention to ‘development’ as a vital issue for women’s empowerment. The food crisis, the debt crisis, the cultural crisis, were all perceived as feminist issues. In India, the formal process had some unexpected dividends. The Status of Women Committee, constituted by the Union government as part of its obligations as a signatory to the 1967 Declaration, was one such. Its report created what American scholar Leslie J. Calman, in his book, Toward Empowerment – Women and Movement Politics in India (West-view Press), termed as a ‘climate of expectation’.

The data compiled by the Status of Women Committee on the inferior position of Indian women in religious and family life, in heathcare and in law, with regard to economic, educational and political opportunity ‘served as a jolt to many educated and politicized Indians.’

‘Toward Equality’ recognized that the status of women constituted a problem in almost all societies in the world, but it also saw the Indian situation as unique in that it was inherently linked to traditional social structures based on caste, community and class. The members of the committee perceived a change in the status of women as a good indicator of the pattern and direction of social change brought about by factors like modernization, democratization, development, urbanization, and so on. It noted that ‘if the direction of that change is towards a more egalitarian distribution of roles between men and women then the direction of change is a wholesome one. If, however, the various modernizing forces result in an intensification of inequalities, then we are moving away from the spirit of the Constitution.’

On the ground, the report provided valuable evidence to back what were sometimes only inspired hunches thrown up by experiences on the field. For instance, the argument for political reservations for women in local bodies, which was some twenty years later translated into law with the enactments of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments, was enunciated for the first time in this document. It was a measure that has subsequently inspired similar interventions in other nations.



The 1970s also saw the emergence of the term ‘patriarchy’ as part of the vocabulary of feminism in its attempts to come up with a structured analysis of the women’s condition. Radical feminists located women’s oppression in patriarchy, which they perceived as a structured expression of male domination and control over women which permeated all social, political and economic institutions. The crime of rape, for instance, was no longer regarded as a random, unpremeditated act, but one of great violence perpetrated by the powerful upon those who are, more often than not, powerless, poor, disadvantaged in some way. Rape, which had hardly figured in the public discourse until that point, now became the subject of animated discussion.

In 1976, Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, expressed for the first time a raw anger against what she characterized as the ‘conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.’ Brownmiller may have overstated her case, but there was something compelling in the manner she dissected social responses to rape and exposed the ways in which a violated woman was further violated by society and the institutions of crime and justice.

As if to prove the thesis right, the Indian Supreme Court in 1979, reversed a verdict of the Bombay High Court convicting two policemen accused of raping a young tribal girl, Mathura, in a Maharashtra police station. The justices of the apex court chose to believe that the girl had willingly submitted to sexual intercourse since there was reason to doubt her character and since the ‘alleged intercourse was a peaceful affair.’



The ruling caused an uproar over what constitutes ‘consent’ in a crime like custodial rape and whether a woman’s previous sexual history can be regarded as a mitigating factor. Not only did four professors of law from Delhi University write their now famous Open Letter to the Court castigating the judgement, women all over the country protested loudly, shocked that the highest court in the land had turned, as one pamphlet from those turbulent days put it, ‘the prosecutor, the defendant and the accuser, the accused.’

In Bombay, one of the many women’s groups that had spontaneously arisen as a direct consequence of the Mathura rape case, initially named itself Forum Against Rape. Before long, this was changed to Forum Against the Oppression of Women, an indication of the increasing awareness of the entire spectrum of gender violence, ranging from wife battering and sexual harassment to dowry murders and female foeticide. The manner in which these issues were articulated in India were marked both by commonalities to and differences from the manner they played out in the West.



In India, for instance, it was even more difficult to break through the silence over rape precisely because it meant a loss of respectability, not just for the raped woman but her entire family. Wife battering – first fought in the jungles of western suburbia – was, more often than not, played out in an entirely different setting here. In one instance, the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, while struggling for land rights for women in Bodhgaya, realized how greatly the local women feared being beaten. They took it up as an issue, along with the demand that the ownership of seized or government distributed land be in the names of the women.

Similarly, the classic study of the woman’s body, Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971) by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, may have impacted directly only on the lives of a small percentage of urban women in this country, but some of its insights helped craft responses to issues like contraception, health care and even sexuality at a more general level. Coercion in contraceptive research and services was a theme that was struck early – at the first International Women’s Conference at Mexico City, held in 1975. In fact, there was consensus that the right to reproductive choice was grounded on the notion of bodily integrity and control and that reproductive freedom was a human right.

The time to test this premise in this country came soon enough, when the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, imposed the Emergency. The government, anxious to come up with a quick fix solution to the problem of a burgeoning population during an interregnum when all civil liberties stood suspended, engaged in the most blatantly coercive methods of family planning, including mass sterilization of men and women. The public outrage over this saw the exit of the Indira Gandhi government, though the abuses perpetrated by the medical establishment in the cause of population control, euphemistically termed as ‘family welfare’ after the Emergency, escaped notice.



Subsequently, the Indian Council of Medical Research went to the extent of injecting the long acting contraceptive, Net-en, on a group of women without their informed consent, provoking three women’s groups situated in different parts of the country to file a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the move. Initiatives of this kind were helped greatly by information and data supplied by health volunteers and women’s activists living abroad.

Responses to issues like the ones just cited varied greatly, partly because what constituted the ‘women’s movement’ was itself so amorphous. Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, in The Issues at Stake described it as a conglomeration of hundreds of organizations, with no single one being representative of it. The groups ranged from public charities and trusts to those listed with the Welfare Board as mahila mandals; some were recorded as trade unions, others as co-operatives and media organizations. The great majority, perhaps, were just unofficial, unregistered bodes or caucuses functioning from within mixed organizations. Their ideologies also varied from radical feminism, with its privileging of patriarchy, and socialist feminism which based women’s oppression on class and which saw patriarchy as essentially emanating from capitalist relations, to poststructuralist feminism, with its innate opposition to the philosophical approaches of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on objectivity and rationality.

But by far the deepest divide was that between women’s wings of political parties and ‘autonomous’ women’s organizations. The latter groups were based on the principle of independence from formal political parties, which, they believed, had done little for the women’s cause. While this approach made for a freshness of vision and a more integrated approach, the lack of ideological clarity and the heterogeneity of views among the members of these autonomous groups made them more vulnerable and less stable.



The question of finances was a particularly vexed, almost intractable, one. While some groups have struggled to sustain themselves with their own fund-collecting drives, others have accepted foreign and state support. Whether this does, in turn, influence agendas and actions is an issue that has been debated at some length within the Indian women’s movement, but with little consensus. At the national women’s conference at Patna in 1988, many activists had voiced their fears that the easy availability of foreign funding could lead to cooption or lack of accountability; it could also create hierarchies within and between organisations. But in reply some pointed out that a great deal of very useful work would not have been possible without outside resources.

The concern is not unfounded. The current obsession with issues like population and AIDS among western donors may have contributed to a sudden proliferation of health and women’s groups working in these fields. But like Gandhi and Shah argue, perhaps the way out is not to get locked in the pros versus cons argument and instead ‘shift to the importance of understanding and retaining one’s autonomy, both financial and ideological.’



The bigger question, of course, is where does the movement go from here? At the more formal level, from Mexico (1975) to Beijing (1995) represents a long journey. In the process, there has been a marked dissipation of the initial dynamic, with the earlier spontaneity and energy being replaced by a tired and mind-deadening bureaucracy. Equally, many unpopular views and outrageous suggestions inspired by the international women’s movement have now become part of everyday discourse.

Take this business about accounting for the economic value of women’s unpaid work. It may once have evoked hoots of laughter, but in 1995 the UN valued the ‘invisible contribution’ of women to the global economy at $11 trillion. Non-state actors, whose efforts were at one point of time regarded as unworthy of attention, are today seen as part of the ‘national machinery’ to bring about change. While the UN recognizes the state as having the primary responsibility to carry out the recommendations of international conventions, it has now been forced to go one step ahead. The Platform of Action at Beijing officially recognized NGOs and community organizations from the grassroots level upwards as facilitators of decentralized planning, implementation and monitoring.

The problem, however, is that while a great deal of progress has been made in terms of words in the statute books and international conventions, the promised revolutionizing of human relations, especially gender relations, has not happened. What’s more, new forms of gender injustice have emerged.

As the world globalizes and hierarchies and inequalities sharpen, aided in part by the top-down development models promoted by the government in tandem with multilateral agencies like the World Bank and the IMF, large numbers – including women – are pushed to the margins, or left out of the loop altogether. As markets grow and people’s control over them shrink, it is women again who are more likely to be among the most disempowered. As patterns of ‘development’ emerge which only add to existing structural asymmetries, it is women who are very often left to cope with managing households on the brink of devastation.



As global frontiers shrink, it is trafficking in women and children that has become more widespread. The increasing feminisation of sweatshop labour, the very fact that female foeticide in India is most evident in precisely those regions that are relatively more prosperous, the high percentage of female headed households in Below Poverty Line groups and the widespread sexual and family violence that women continue to face – are all indicative just how tenuous the gains achieved during those years of struggle actually are and how important the women’s movement continues to be.

There is a great need to hold onto and expand the scope of international instruments like the international bill of rights for women – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) – incidentally ratified by India in 1993. It has proved an extremely useful aid in wresting social justice for women everywhere in the world since it sets standards of accountability that have been agreed upon before the international community and which make it obligatory for signatory states to modify discriminatory laws and practices.



Indeed, it has been used in telling ways. The Supreme Court, in its judge-ment on the Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan and Others, recognized sexual harassment as a human rights violation for the first time in India, using CEDAW and other international instruments along with the equality and right to life provisions in the Indian Constitution. Then again in January 2000, when the Government of India presented its periodic review to the CEDAW Committee at the UN in New York, Indian activists highlighted the numerous areas in which the Indian state had failed its women.

Among the issues they raised was that the country had no special anti-discrimination law and that the state’s approaches to gender equality had largely reinforced ‘protectionist’ measures that tend to treat gender differences as natural and incapable of change. They demanded that, as mandated in CEDAW, the approach be governed by the substantive model of equality, which recognizes gender differences as a basis for ‘reasonable classification’ and takes into account existing social norms and historical disadvantages for devising corrective measures.

On violence, the women were categorical that the state had shown little desire to intervene and regulate structural forms of violence, both in the public and private arenas. They argued that there was a clear lack of political will in ensuring that the state mechanisms of law enforcement respond to even the few cases that get reported. The universal and the particular will, in all likelihood, continue to shape the contours of the Indian women’s movement.

New articulations like the ‘capabilities approach’ formulated by Martha C. Nussbaum, Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, give promise of this. In fact, Nussbaum is convinced that ‘it is possible to describe a framework for such a feminist practice of philosophy that is strongly universalist, committed to cross-cultural norms of justice, equality and rights and at the same time sensitive to local particularity.’ To prove her thesis that a universalist feminism need not be insensitive to difference, she studied collectives of poor women in India and concluded that certain basic aspirations to human flourishing are recognizable across differences of class and context, however crucial it remains to understand how context shapes both choice and aspiration.



In her latest work, Women and Human Development: the capabilities approach, Nussbaum lists ten central human functional capabilities that cut across all cultural barriers, which she believes are the foundation of a productive life – the good life – and which ultimately form the basic minimum that governments must provide their citizens, both men and women. It goes like this: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses-imagination-thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species (being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants and the world of nature), play, and control over one’s environment. In many ways, Nussbaum’s list reflects all that the women’s movement has striven for over the last three decades.