The problem

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THE declaration by the finance minister in the middle of his budget speech, that the year 2001 would be the ‘Year of Women’s Empowerment’ elicited hardly any reaction from the general public, and was greeted with bored scepticism by most women’s groups. This was not surprising – announcements of this kind are fairly routine, and any hopes that might be raised soon succumb to natural causes in the absence of significant financial outlays to back up the grand new schemes proposed.

The enthusiasm with which various government departments and assorted NGOs planned year-long festivities to welcome the ‘national commitment to women’s interests’ was also not new – such celebrations are generously funded and provide five minutes of media fame to the sponsors and participants, if not to the issue. In any case, the committees and task forces are transient, and seldom survive until the next budget speech, when some other constituency of unfortunates – homeless people, old people, people with disabilities – is singled out for official recognition.

Given these realities, the extent of public space that women and women’s issues have been able to monopolise during most of 2001 is startling. For the first time, the issue has been seriously and professionally marketed – at least in the in the metros – by the media and leading lights of the corporate world. ‘Success stories’ are everywhere – ‘Woman conquers Everest’, ‘Girls outshine boys in CBSE exams’, ‘Woman appointed Foreign Secretary’, ‘Woman athlete brings home Olympic medal’ and the like. Women activists (even some unglamorous ones) have been invited to air their views on commercial TV channels.

There have of course been special supplements in every newspaper and magazine, but these traditional forms of attention seeking are becoming increasingly difficult to sell. There have been a series of gala events – fashion shows, dance performances, art exhibitions, award ceremonies – around the theme of women’s empowerment. Perhaps the most innovative idea came from a company in Delhi which got women achievers – entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dancers, bureaucrats – to ‘walk the ramp’ to the applause of an invited audience.

Surely all this hype and hoopla is not entirely without substance? Can it be that, despite depressing Census findings and the long faces of die-hard feminists, the Indian woman has finally arrived in her appointed place at the centre of the national stage? Can the Indian women’s movement sit back and applaud with the rest?

Perhaps this would be premature. A closer look at the ‘success stories’ would show that most fall into the ‘woman bites dog’ category – newsworthy only because they are anomalies. It would also be unwise to put all of them in the same basket – after all, ‘India bags fourth Miss Universe title’ is as likely to find space on the front page as Chokila Iyer’s appointment. Even without making any value judgements about the relative importance of a Foreign Secretary and a Miss Universe, the fact is that neither of these women has claimed membership of any women’s movement, or acknowledged it in their public statements as a factor in her success. This is the case with the majority of young women ‘achievers’ who have been profiled this year in mainstream magazines and newspapers. These women attribute their achievements to their talent, their parents, their teachers, their stars, their own grit and determination, a lucky break – anything but women’s movements and the struggles of other women to expand the spaces available to women.

‘I don’t need to be a feminist – I’m successful!’ says a young woman featured on the cover of Savvy, one of the few women in the upper echelons of the international entertainment industry. She is in distinguished company. It is not only the urban upper middle class Savvy reader who subscribes to the notion of feminists (and by association, the women’s movement) as rabid and man-hating opponents of everything ‘progressive’ – from the population policy to the market economy – on the grounds that they are anti-women. The majority of men and significant numbers of women of all categories – students, professionals, bureaucrats, politicians and development workers – share this viewpoint.

All over India, women who identify themselves as feminists are attacked for their ‘arrogance’, their ‘shamelessness’, their dress, their speech, their lifestyle. In most cases, these opinions are not expressed in discreet terms – the anger is visceral, and does not stop at words. How does one balance this with the celebration of ‘women achievers’? Is the ability of women’s movements to generate a level of public rage disproportionate to their strength a more accurate marker of their position on the national stage, than the public interest in the private lives, looks and dress sense of the ‘achievers’?

Let us consider the charges against women’s groups – incidents that have sparked off furious denunciations in the press, negative reactions in communities and violent reprisals by opponents. In every case, the hate and anger directed at the women’s groups concerned seems to be a direct consequence of their ability and willingness to venture into forbidden territory – to interrogate and challenge, if not always overthrow, some of the most venerated sacred cows of patriarchy.

In Delhi, a group of women forces their way into a ‘respectable’ home, ask to meet the daughter of the house, whom they say is being imprisoned by her family, and leave with the girl despite the wrath of her father. A group in Chennai organises a conference of sex workers, where these ‘women of the night’ talk openly about their lives and demand that their profession be decriminalised. Women in a Bihar village surround a brahmin tola, ‘capture’ three young men who had raped a dalit girl, shave their heads, garland them with shoes, and refuse to release them unless their families pay up.

Hundreds of women come out on the roads of Kolkata in the middle of the night, shouting slogans against violence. A woman in Mumbai goes to a feminist organisation for help in dealing with a violent husband, and ends up walking out on him even though her friends and family oppose her decision. Women’s groups in Uttaranchal surround liquor shops in villages and destroy the stock after chasing away the drinkers. Women’s groups in Bengal protest the dismissal by a well-known company of a woman who has complained of sexual harassment, and challenge the report of an enquiry committee that gives the employer a clean chit, even though a well-known woman activist chaired the committee. Women disrupt a devadasi initiation ceremony in a Karnataka village, chase away the priest and threaten the parents of the girl with arrest. And so on.

Celebrations would still be justified if these victories could be plotted as points on a steadily advancing feminist front, a wave of change moving inexorably forward to touch and convert every man and woman in the country. If the self-congratulatory flavour of statements by women from public platforms on ritual occasions would appear to endorse this notion, it is vehemently opposed by voices from within women’s movements who are questioning and confronting difficult issues that are not always visible to those on the outside.

Central to the emergence of this process of questioning is the disintegration of the notion of ‘The’ Indian women’s movement as a cohesive entity held together by a set of common core issues. The acknowledgement that women have identities and loyalties that transcend universal sisterhood has not been easy. Conflicts within women’s groups – between middle class and working class women, between women from different castes, between heterosexual and lesbian women – were usually smoothed over by dominant voices within these groups by referring to them as sources of creative tension.

Later accusations of domination and more aggressive assertions of difference, first by dalit women and then by lesbian women within feminist groups, were, more often than not, seen as betrayals on the battlefield. The fact that these assertions of difference have grown into strong sites of feminist theory building and struggle, has forced their protagonists into re-examining their own political positions and internal practice of equality.

Advocates of a greater acceptance of heterogeneity within women’s movements have constantly been challenged by others, who point to the threat posed by relativist notions of difference to feminist solidarity and united political action around common issues. The refusal of radical dalit groups to participate in joint demonstrations with other groups, as much as the deliberate exclusion of lesbian groups from national platforms, are indications that this threat is real. Occasionally, the notion of threat to feminist solidarity has been used to forge a temporary unity which, when it collapses, exposes the actors concerned to ridicule.

The move to put up a single ‘women’s movement candidate’ in the Lok Sabha elections some years ago is a case in point. The resulting fiasco has been deplored by the sponsors of this move as an indication of the lack of solidarity between women’s groups. Others cite this incident as conclusive proof of political naivete, if not a self-seeking and wilful blindness to ground realities. The dwindling numbers of women at rallies in support of supposedly universal issues like reservations for women in Parliament or freedom of artistic expression, are also indication that at least some assumptions of unity and common interests are based more on wishful thinking than on strategic dialogue and consensus.

In any case, mass mobilisation and street protests appear to be increasingly passe as forms of political action. Today, the older generation – women who were students in the seventies – constitutes a significant proportion of the women for whom dharnas and morchas still hold meaning as forms of protest and who can be relied upon to ‘come out on the streets’ at short notice. In contrast, there seems to be much less energy in feminist activism on campuses.

For many young women in universities, the perception of feminism is that of an all-or-nothing ideological package which includes a commitment to other social issues, many of them (like nuclear disarmament or opposition to liberalisation) distinctly unfashionable. Even if one were to accept that priorities have changed and students would rather look for an entree into the corporate world than connect with social issues, this situation should give feminists cause for concern. If the parallels between feminism and other movements for justice and against oppression are no longer as obvious as they were in the seventies, could it be because feminists who genuinely support these other movements are disinterested in explaining themselves to the unconverted and are resistant to questioning from sceptics? Have feminists lost the missionary zeal that fuelled learning circles, discussion groups and other platforms for debate and discussion in the seventies? Or could it be a reflection of a growing separateness from other movements – a crisis of alliances that women’s movements are facing today?

The ‘autonomous’ women’s groups – so named by their members in order to distinguish them from women’s organisations affiliated to political parties – have always formed the solid ideological core of women’s movements in India. Women from the urban middle class constitute a significant proportion of the membership of these groups, which remain limited in their mass base. The political spaces within which these groups operate are shrinking rapidly as the issues of struggle around which they organised their work – domestic violence, reproductive health, education – are incorporated into the agendas of governments and donors.

Though this kind of mainstreaming has been one of the demands of women’s movements at the global level, the ‘projectisation’ of these issues has blunted their political edge. While effectively maintaining their distance from political parties, their dependence on funding makes it difficult for autonomous groups to sustain their ideological autonomy in the face of pressure from donors. In their eagerness to prove their pro-women credentials, international funders are wooing movement groups to espouse global issues, whose relevance in the international context is assumed to be enough to override local realities. Women’s groups thus find themselves bombarded with requests to take up projects around issues on which they have neither conviction nor expertise, leading to a dissipation of their energy and struggles, and undermining their credibility with their constituencies.

Women’s movement groups are also facing difficult choices in their own internal practice. Most of these groups were formed in the eighties by activists who had been part of early struggles, and were convinced of the need for creating institutional frameworks for the practice of feminist values that gave women the space to express their own ways of being and working. Today, many of these organisations have come to the painful realisation that a feminist perspective is not in itself sufficient to create an alternate workplace characterized by values of cooperation and respect for difference, which also fulfils the more practical imperatives of accountability and productivity.

The minimalist approach to structures, boundaries and ground rules adopted by many feminist organisations, purely because they were in direct opposition to more ‘male’ models, has not prevented the emergence of hierarchies of authority and responsibility which the rank and file sees as a betrayal of their expectations. Authoritarian leadership styles are being questioned, and fingers increasingly pointed at the contradictions between personal lives and political principles.

In any case, overtly feminist groups are now in a minority – the alacrity with which the NGO sector has stormed the gender bandwagon has resulted in a large number of women’s organisations that do not profess a commitment to any school of feminist thought. It is a fact that women’s movements in India today are more vulnerable than ever before to having their agendas co-opted, leached of their political content and repackaged by governments and donors. Thus, issues thrown up by women’s struggles are re-invented as aseptic ‘gender projects’ that suck up resources and result, at best, in cosmetic changes in the material conditions of women’s lives while papering over the lack of real change in their social position.

Those who consider themselves ‘real’ feminist groups have responded by drawing their ideological boundaries more rigidly than before, taking hard lines on core issues and refusing to dilute their stands in the interests of political correctness. Unfortunately, this siege mentality, with its insistence on ideological purity and the consequent ‘policing of the borders’ has weakened the culture of critical thinking and internal questioning that was characteristic of feminist women’s groups in their initial phase.

In a situation where a significant section of people in the country refuse even to accept that women’s subordination is a reality, women’s movements cannot allow their cutting edge to be blunted by assumptions of moral superiority and imperviousness to critique of their ideologies and practices. That these questions and critiques are being raised and discussed at internal forums is evidence of the resilience and energy of women’s movements, and of their recognition of the need to confront internal contradictions.

This issue of Seminar seeks to contribute to this process by bringing together women from different women’s movements and streams of feminist thought to reflect on some of the central debates and critical challenges facing contemporary women’s movements in India.