Grassroot mobilisations, successful cyberspace campaigns, virtual information networks, – there’s more to the Indian Women’s Movement than meets the eye
By Ritu Menon
On any given day the Yahoo group Feminists India carries dozens of postings on dozens of issues, from protesting Vedanta’s “support” of balwadis and anganwadis, to campaigning for tribal activist Soni Sori’s right to a fair trial and demanding accountability from the police for her abuse in custody, to the politics of Slut Walk. The group sends open letters (including to Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha on equal rights for Tamils), invitations to seminars, book and job announcements, information on campaigns, requests for information, statements of solidarity, comments on legal judgments – all in a day’s work. Recently, Shyam Benegal and Gul Panag responded to an Open Letter sent by FeministsIndia by withdrawing from judging a short films competition sponsored by Vedanta.
It’s true that an internet presence may not have the same immediacy or visibility as being out on the streets, but the activism is still around and its reach is considerable. To all those who feel the women’s movement in India is on the wane, perhaps a more accurate assessment is that it is more dispersed, has deeper roots, and has shifted from being urban and middle class to more hinterland and, often, even more rural. In major metropolises, for example, the objective is not simply demanding that “eve-teasing” be treated as a crime;rather it’s working with the police, with college students, with planning and civic bodies to ensure safe cities for all – women, children, the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged. If the 1980s-1990 s were a time of consciousnessraising (as much for society as for ourselves) with all the exhilaration and energy that this generated, the 2000s may well be about actively working towards change, not just in laws but on the ground, in society.
Of course, one misses the excitement and togetherness of demonstrating on the streets and the sense of accomplishment at having a law amended or an act passed. But the movement is older now, more mature, and the environment has changed – we’re in a globalised, connected India today, and forms of protest and mobilising, of negotiation and intervention, have had to take this into account.
About seven or eight years ago, Akshara, a women’s resource centre in Mumbai that has been in the forefront of the movement since the 1980s, decided they needed to reach out to young people in the city. Not via your usual fete-and-sports events, but through a sustained and continuing engagement with them on gender issues. Today they work with 18 “low-resource ” colleges in the city, and over the years the students have fanned out to district colleges and reached several thousand others. With Xavier’s College and five other institutions in Mumbai, Akshara carried out a safety audit of the city, monitoring 22 locations with the help of 150 students. Their Blow the Whistle Campaign resulted in setting up a police helpline 103, responding to crimes against women, children and senior citizens. “The response from students has been amazing, ” says Nandita Shah of Akshara, “especially from the boys”.
Resisting and reporting violence against women has, unfortunately, remained a staple of the Indian women’s movement, but its ambit has expanded to address a range of civic issues that encompass unsafe spaces for women in cities, ensuring safe travel in public transport, sexual harassment at the workplace, including the space where women street vendors ply their trade. In 2005, Jagori spearheaded a Safe Cities project in Delhi with (like Akshara) a safety audit, and in 2009, the Delhi government launched the Safe City Campaign in partnership with Jagori and UN Women. Its Awaaz Uthao programme has set up collectives in 15 communities across the city, made up of the police, schools, the municipality, women and other “stakeholders” to identify key concerns regarding safety, and then working to address them.
Meanwhile, Jagori Grameen in Himachal Pradesh works with women farmers in 45 villages, encouraging them to replenish natural resources through organic agriculture. “There is a direct link between the patriarchal exploitation of women and the capitalist exploitation of land”, says Abha Bhaiya of Jagori Grameen, “land and women, both are seen as objects of exploitation. ” SAFAL (Sustainable Agriculture, Forest and Land) recognises women’s work as agriculturists, as well as their role as ecologists.
Closer home, the link between alcoholism and increased levels of domestic violence is inescapable;anyone who has ever come to the aid of abused and battered women knows that in the background there lurks a man who has blown up a good deal of his money on liquor, often illicit. In the mid-1990 s, women in Andhra Pradesh, among them the poorest from the poorest districts, converged to launch the anti-arrack movement, forcing the then government to shut down the liquor vends in the state. A huge victory, but shortlived, because everyone knows the nexus between liquor barons, law enforcement agencies and political henchmen. Prohibition was repealed. In July 1996, Asmita – a women’s organisation in Hyderabad that had campaigned actively and participated in the anti-arrack struggles – and NAWO (the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations) organised a state-wide rally of women, protesting the lifting of prohibition. Twelve thousand rural women showed up in Hyderabad! “The streets were jammed, ” recalls Vasanth Kannabiran of Asmita, “and we had to keep getting food packets for all the women. The meeting went on right through the day, but not a single TV channel or newspaper made even a passing reference to one of the biggest mobilisations in the state. It was a total blackout. ” The 12, 000 women not only spent their own money to attend, they lost a day’s wage as well. There’s a price to be paid for empowerment, as many women know, but once empowered there’s no turning back.
Large-scale mobilisations like this, and many others by dalit women, fish-workers, sex-workers, and even domestic workers, are the result of years of work on the ground, a result of exactly that diffusion and dispersal that, to many, seems to indicate the “decline” of the movement. Just look at the impact of the literally hundreds of trainings of women in panchayats that have been done by women’s groups ever since 33 per cent reservation for women at the district level came into force. There are over a million women in panchayats now and thousands of them have been introduced to gender issues and to the critical importance of women’s political participation. Talk about taking governance to the grassroots! But Asmita (Hyderabad) has gone a step further – they have sent a series of Open Letters to the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh in an attempt to initiate a dialogue with them on gender – and they have gone public with these interventions.
It’s impossible to enumerate the number and variety of initiatives in this space, but in a country as complex and vast as ours there can be no single women’s movement. There are many movements, in many parts of the country, and women will take up those issues that are critical to their region and context. Women in the North-East have intervened directly in political negotiations because of the nature of struggles there, the presence of the armed forces, and protracted militancy. This cannot be compared to, say, the work that Nirantar (Delhi) does with rural women in sundry districts of UP, helping them publish their own newspaper, Khabar Lahariya, or what Pennurimayi Iyakkam, working with the urban poor in Madurai, does on shelter and housing, But they are all, in the final analysis, aimed at empowering women, whichever route they take.
This article was originally published in The Times Of India -The Crest Edition. Ritu Menon is a feminist publisher and writer, who has recently edited “Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India”.