Archive for November 15, 2012

Sex, Race and Class by Selma James, a review

Sex, Race and Class by Selma James

Feminism, anti-racism and Marxism – an integrated analysis for contemporary struggles around the world, a voice from the past for the future

By Amrita Shodhan

It was refreshing and energizing to read the selected writings of Selma James – an activist in the anti-racist, class and women’s movement since the 70s – and that’s the remarkable thing she combines all three perspectives when there wasn’t really such ‘a movement’ at the time either in the US or the UK.

James’ remarkable life of politics and activism, locating her analysis of class in unwaged work performed all over the world, is briefly outlined at the beginning of the book by Nina Lopez. All the collected articles are also prefaced by a short introduction situating it in the past but also providing a contemporary location and praxis.

She began as an American Jewish labour unionist in New York. Her amazing insights are even then located in the position of the black working class woman when that struggle was just becoming publicly voiced. Moving to the UK and for a brief period in the West Indies to avoid the Mcarthyism of 50s America, she has lived most of her adult life in the UK, working primarily in the anti-racist movement here and bringing to it the critical edge from the American experience of race.

Her notion of the woman’s place is briefly and simply articulated in the first piece presented in this collection, based on women working in a factory. Its promise of an engaged statement on women and class and race and work is fascinatingly held out and fulfilled in the excerpts from The power of Women and the Subversion of Community – published in 1973.  In 1972 at the conference on women’s movement in Manchester she first raised the debate on wages for housework in a pamphlet entitled Women, the Unions and Work – or What is not to be done.

Why had I missed this articulation and this writing though much of the perspective has pervaded the movement in some form or another?  Wages for housework was sidelined in the 70s movement but today it remains an area of critical engagement. I always held that my home and marriage are my jobs – but in a kind of thoughtless way.  In Selma James’ writing I found my theoretical and political grounding for this feeling. She analyses that women’s work is not merely for the individual family but for the productive system – producing labour and labourers and making them available for the factory/work place.  Hence the wage should be from those who benefit – the state/ economic system/ employer, rather than the individual family.

Her analysis of the working class movement reiterates that we must position the black working woman – often immigrant, at the center of our analysis. This perspective is most clearly articulated in her A Perspective of Winning (1973). It is important that the call to recognize unwaged women’s work is still raised–unwaged work is still not accounted for in national income. In 1985 the campaign earned a victory by the UN recognition granted to unwaged housework as part of the national income and the promise extracted from the various countries to count women’s work in the gross domestic product. This promise still remains unfulfilled.

selma James

Selma James- Photo courtesy: The Global Women's Strike Network

A thought-provoking dissonance is caused by her use of the term caste to refer to women, race and children. She uses this term to mark the groups as having specific interests related to their ‘nature’ rather than the work they do, thus they seem to be categories of identity rather than class.

However, she proceeds to demonstrate that this exclusion from class is misguided and these identity groups castes are the very substance of class. The divisions of castes are ways of creating a hierarchy of class. As she says, ‘as black feminists we are seeking to break down the power relations amongst us on which is based the hierarchical rule of international Capital’..… ‘We do not seem to convince whites and men of our feminism or upper class women of our classness, we offer them what we offer the most under-privileged women – power over their enemies. The price is an end to their power over us.’

She holds the third world as part of this struggle – actively by her work in Latin America and analytically by looking at the way in which third world economies are integrated in the world economy, being an integral part of it – as well as providing cheap labour. She recognizes the divisions that inevitably and necessarily exist and notes these as part of the strategy of struggle -  each group makes common cause and chooses who to wage their struggle with. No one else can choose for them.

Her distancing from NGOs that most movement organisations have become, criticism of ivory tower academics, the replacing of the term gender by sex, the considered re-enactment of activism and many other comments warmed the cockles of my 1980s heart

She continues to remain active with numerous political movements – she has expressed solidarity with the Occupy movement, the Venezuelan workers’ struggle or the struggle in contemporary Haiti as well as the struggle of prisoners in the US. In each association is her fundamental and crucial understanding that all these are struggles against the capitalist establishment as variously constituted and must be sustained by the divided workforce.

“Many of us have been told to forget our needs in some wider interest which is never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.” (p. 100) And she  realizes that the form and structure of such a united working class is not yet clear.

Her prose at once theoretical and inspirational has provided a renewed praxis to consider and work with. The re-ordering of community as outside women   (in the context of the new conservative movement in Britain), putting motherhood on the political agenda rather than women in boardrooms all made her politics at once meaningful and important in the 20th century.

Sex, Race and Class- The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011, Oakland: PM Press, 2012

Original articles published on can be reproduced but due acknowledgement to the website is obligatory


Denied abortion, Indian woman dies in Ireland


By Team FI

Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian woman died at the Galway hospital in Ireland, after being denied a life-saving abortion, reports Galway Pro-Choice organisation.

On October 21st, Savita Halappanavar was admitted to the University College Hospital, Galway, after complaining of severe back pain. Though asked at first to go home as her doctor expected her condition to be fine, Savita suffered a miscarriage. She was then told that the foetus had no chance of survival and that it would be all over within a few hours.

However, the foetal heartbeat continued over next two days and repeated requests by Savita and her husband to remove the foetus were denied. By Tuesday, her cervix had been fully open for nearly 72 hours, increasing the risk of infection. Savita developed septicemia. The foetus was not removed until Wednesday afternoon, when the foetal heartbeat stopped. Her condition did not improve and she died on Sunday, October 28th.

According to a press statement by Galway Pro-Choice, had the foetus been removed when it became clear that it could not survive, her cervix would have been closed and her chance of infection would have been reduced.

Though abortion is illegal in Ireland, in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that Irish women are entitled to abortion when it is necessary to save their life. However, this legislation was never passed. Leaving a woman’s cervix open constitutes a clear risk to her life. What is unclear is how medics in the country are expected to act in this situation.

“Deaths like Savitas’ are the most severe consequence of the criminalisation of abortion…We must reflect long and hard on the implications of Savita’s tragic and untimely passing, and we must act to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.” says Sarah McCarthy of Galway Pro-Choice.

“We have to understand that the real, devastating tragedy of Savita’s story is a part of a larger picture. Irish governments have repeatedly failed to clarify the legal status of abortion in Ireland. We don’t yet know how many Savitas have died in our hospitals before in similar circumstances”. States Feminist Society of the National University of Ireland, Galway.

For years now, women’s rights activists in the country have been demanding legalisation of abortion.

Photo courtesy: The Irish Times

Related reading: The Silencing of Women: The Irish Abortion Laws and Religion


Activists demand release of Kudankulam fisherwomen

power plant By Eunheui

By Team FI

Women’s rights activists in India have written to the Prime Minister and the Tamil Nadu chief minister, demanding immediate release of the three fisher-women who were arrested for taking part in the anti-nuclear protest in Kudankulam.

Xavier Ammal, Selvi and Sundari were arrested on September 10th when the police cracked down on the dharna organized by the villagers who are from the villages in the vicinity of the nuclear plant. They are currently lodged in Trichy women’s prison.

The three women have been accused of sedition and waging war against the state .The FIRs record that the villagers were armed with deadly weapons like “aruval (machetes), knives, sticks and crowbars.”  However, according to activists, television footage of the September protests and police action bear testimony to the fact that the protestors were unarmed.

Xavier Amma injured her hand after she ran and fell into the sea to escape the baton-wielding police. Both Selvi and Sundari have small children and Selvi’s son is epileptic.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant, a joint India-Russia project, is one of many that India hopes to build as part of its aim of generating 63,000 MW of nuclear power by 2032. Construction of the plant has been delayed following mass scale protests by the locals and People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE).

According to PMANE, more than 1 million people live within the 30 km radius of the plant which far exceeds the AERB (Atomic Energy Regulatory Board) stipulations and evacuating such a large number of people quickly in case of a nuclear disaster could be unfeasible.

A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has also been filed against the government’s civil nuclear programme at the Supreme Court of India.

Featured photo: Kudankulam nuclear power plant- by Eunheui-Flickr

Kandhamal, no woman’s land?

Kandhamal Orissa

Two minor girls were gang raped and one of them was murdered in Kandhamal last month. Orissa police is yet to take any action while local and state media remain silent

By John Dayal

The gang rape of two teenage Dalit girls in Kandhamal, Orissa and the murder of one of them subsequently during the Dussehra festival in October has created not just panic in their villages, but a sense of disgust among rights activists for the pathetic attitude of police and the State Child Right Commission.

The writer met the surviving victim who is now working as a casual labourer with her parents in Bhubaneswar, capital of Orissa.

The first one, a class VII student of Dadamaha, had gone to witness a ‘yatra’ (play) at nearby Simanbadi village on Thursday night when the youths sexually assaulted her. Sub-divisional police officer (SDPO), Baliguda, Arjun Barik said the girl apparently attempted to raise an alarm, she was tied to a tree and strangulated to death with her scarf. The body was found from the roadside near Masanipada village 26 October.

An autopsy was conducted on the body at Daringbadi public health centre and a case was registered on the basis of an FIR lodged by her father. There have been no arrests so far.

The second girl, a resident of  Ritangia village in Tiangia block, was also 13-year old, and a student of class VIII in a local school. Her father is now a security guard in Bhubaneswar, and the girl lives with relatives to continue her studies. On 27th October, she went to see the Dussehra festivities, which attract a large crowd. On the way home, she was abducted by six men, taken to the nearby forest and raped by all six of them. She collapsed.

She regained consciousness after one of the rapists sprinkled water on her face. One of them put a shirt on her and brought her close to the village. She was found in the marketplace in the morning, and taken to her aunt’s house.

Initially the local police did not help at all. She was brought to Bhubaneswar and taken to the offices of the State Commission for Child Rights. This is where she was subjected to mental torture by those designated to help children in distress. The chairperson was rude and said this was a police matter and that she could not do anything even if she believed the story of the girl.

In the all-woman police station set up for registering crimes against women in an environment friendly to the victims, the office on charge was absent. When Inspector Itti Das came to the office at last, she too was rude, and even more crude. According to the woman social worker who had accompanied the victim to the police station, the woman inspector said “you would not be alive if you had been gang-raped”. The implication was that the girl was covering up, had gone with the rapists of her own accord.

The police filed a report at last, and referred the report to the Raikia police station in Kandhamal. The victim was finally given a medical examination on 3rd November, a full week after her traumatic experience. The medical report has not been given to the police yet.

Activists who are now counseling the girl, who was still in a state of shock when we met her, are aghast at the manner in which the child right chief, a government appointee, and the woman police officer behaved with the young girl.

Surprisingly, the local and state media have chosen not to investigate the story.

John Dayal is an independent journalist and civil rights activist.

India revokes Roche pegasys patent

Roche Pegasys

The judgment is considered to be a major victory for health rights activists in India who have been fighting for affordable medicines

By Team FI

In a landmark judgment, the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) has set aside the first ever product patent on a medicine granted in India to Roche for Pegasys, a medicine used to treat Hepatitis C.

The judgment was delivered by Justice Prabha Sridevan last week while hearing an appeal filed by a Mumbai-based non-profit organization, Sankalp Rehabilitation Trust.

In 2005, to comply with its international trade obligations, India re-introduced a system of granting product patents on medicines. In 1970, it had changed its patent law to disallow such patents precisely because they had resulted in high prices of medicines in India. This was the first product patent granted under the amended 2005 patent law.

The Indian patent law provides for several tiers of protection to ensure that only genuine inventions are protected by patents. For instance, it allows “any person” to file an opposition challenging its grant. This could prevent a patent from being wrongfully granted in the first place. If a patent is granted, it can still be challenged by a “person interested” in a post-grant opposition or in a revocation proceeding.

Sankalp had filed a post-grant opposition, which was rejected by the Patent Office. In the appeal filed by Sankalp before the IPAB, Roche sought to place a narrow interpretation on who a “person interested” could be. It argued that Sankalp is not a “person interested” because it was not a business competitor or a researcher. This issue probably arose for the first time before the IPAB. Rejecting Roche’s contentions, the IPAB held that a patients’ group that is a “person interested” in whether a patent is revoked or not.

Justice Sridevan noted that the revocation of a patent could bring down the costs of the medicine as well as increase supply. She also held that public interest is persistently present in intellectual property law.

On the merits, the IPAB revoked the patent on the ground that Roche’s claim of combining interferon (a protein known to treat Hepatitis C) with an inert PEG structure using conventional methods to obtain predictable results was obvious to a person skilled in the art. The IPAB also held that Roche failed to prove that the medication showed enhanced efficacy over other known pegylated interferons – a requirement under section 3(d) of India’s patent law.

According to Lawyers Collective, the group that represented Sankalp, the judgment now paves the way for Indian companies that may decide to launch biosimilars of the Pegasys medicine in India

Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, Roche has been operating in India since 1993.

Featured Photo courtesy: Roche