How Autonomous is the Autonomous Women’s Movement?

Abstract: Autonomy in a feminist analysis of the term suggests freedom from patriarchal control within the family and society; for this reason struggles against existing inequalities within the family have been a central plank of women’s demands for autonomy which, in turn, has been the inspiration behind the push for legal reform. The drive towards autonomy which became a way of defining a certain stage in the women’s movement has been perceived as a central motif of the movement, The imperative was a perceived need by feminists to break away from established political formations including left and democratic political groups with their entrenched isms, which were often interpreted by unimaginative and mechanical readings of the ‘great’ texts and the truths’ represented in them. Acceptance of feminist analyses into the analytical framework of existing theories, including dominant articulations of Marxism, is yet to be seen. The paper discusses important questions such as the viability and survival of AWGs (Autonomous Women’s Groups) as truly autonomous forces. Difficulty in securing funds have led these groups into making compromises, leading to a self willed erosion of their original position on autonomy. It is however an optimistic thought that campaigning against the violence of patriarchal practices has not reached an impasse.

Keywords: inequality struggle, autonomy, agency, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA)

The focus on questions of autonomy in the autonomous women’s movement has tended to be confined by Indian feminist scholarship to a particular set of issues pertaining to the need to establish a distance from existing political parties/formations, as well as in terms of the internal organisational principles of women’s groups emerging in the late seventies and early eighties of the last millenium. But there are other ways that we can think about autonomy in the context of Indian Women’s Movement(s); for the moment I can isolate three ways in which they have thought about and explored the question of autonomy: (i) as a goal of women’s liberation, i.e., as a way of-acting without restrictions imposed by structures, institutions and ideologies of domination and the violence entailed in forcefully imposing these restrictions; (ii) the autonomy of feminist organisations in conceptualising women’s subordination under patriarchy/ies and the intersection of patriarchy with class and caste, as well as the autonomy to evolve strategies to counter these through campaigns. This implies going beyond the existing isms and conceptualisations that have failed to adequately address the complex reality of women’s subordination; and (iii) as an organisational principle to undergird the ways in which women’s groups established themselves as distinct from political formations, such as women’s wings of political parties. Since most of the thinking and writing has concentrated on the third issue 1 I will defer my discussion on it to a later part of this essay by examining the other two fields first—only very briefly since what I have to say is both tentative and preliminary.

The way feminists have thought about autonomy is very different from the way men, even ‘resisting’ men, have and are thinking about it, because in stream Indian politics it is usually associated with self-rule—sovereignty, translated as territorial and functional autonomy. We will see at once that the first is irrelevant in the context of women 2 , and the second difficult to achieve in the embeddedness of women in the larger units of family, community region. For feminists on the other hand autonomy is a necessary condition women’s emancipation that implies freedom from oppressive restrictions imposed by social, economic and legal systems that prevent the possibility of rising agency, of being able to define one’s own social role and exercise ice in work, mobility, and in expressing one’s sexuality—indeed bodily autonomy is a critical element in the feminist understanding of autonomy. While economic choices are often constrained by structural impediments, such as access to productive resources for men and women, bodily autonomy is constrained by patriarchal institutions and ideologies that deny, or limit, choice to women as sexual beings. The issue of normative heterosexuality versus sexual orientation is an important area of thinking about autonomy from a feminist perspective. Bodily autonomy has also become a critical issue because the freedom of movement of women, and their right to access work and the public domain, are fraught with violations as they are routinely subjected to sexual harassment, regarded by many women themselves as an occupational, hazard that they accept as a necessary part of their lives, thus increasing their threshold of violence; others, however, have been fighting to create a work and public culture that respects the bodily autonomy of women.

Autonomy in a feminist analysis of the term would thus translate into freedom from patriarchal control within the family and society; for this reason struggles against existing inequalities within the family have been a central’ plank of women’s demands for autonomy which, in turn, has been the driving force of the push for legal reform. Legal changes would, to an extent (a) pro women from patriarchal violence since women are economically dependent on menor considered to be so, and are represented as being render the custodial authority of men as heads of families; (b) recognise women’s sexual a reproductive rights and their right to bodily autonomy; and (c) enable worn to be, and be recognised as, economic actors whose labour is not invisibilised even when their work is confined to the reproduction of the household. The feminist notion of women’s autonomy also includes the right to productive resources such that women have access to the means of reproducing themselves on an everyday basis; this has been the reason for the demand for land in the’ own names in land redistribution, or for changes in the inheritance laws of country.

The drive towards autonomy which became a way of defining a cert stage in the women’s movement has been perceived as a central motif of movement, and led to the tag, the autonomous women’s movement’. imperative was a perceived need by feminists to break away from established political formations including left and democratic political groups with t entrenched isms, quite often less creative and enabling than they could because these isms were interpreted by unimaginative and mechanical readings of the ‘great’ texts and the ‘truths’ represented in them. Going beyond existing theory, women’s groups began to emerge in the late seventies and early eighties, seeking to establish the autonomy of theory and action from the dominance of a solely class-and-repressive-state-framework of the left and democratic Movements, of which they had been a part, to focus on women’s interests, gender-centred concerns, and the control of female sexuality as a critical aspect of institutionalised male domination, understood under the concept of patriarchy. The inability of existing Marxist interpretations to recognise gender as an independent axis of stratification—like their inability to analyse caste—and as an organisational principle that impacted class itself 3 by sweeping all thinking on it under the primary-secondary hierarchy of contradictions, led to the position that patriarchal arrangements are feudal remnants, referred to by Many a young Marxist theoretician like Samanti Avshesh, that would disappear with the revolution. [Countering this view required an independent space in order to come up with expanded formulations that would adequately explore women’s subordination as well as the particular hierarchies as they operate in India. This would mean, for example, an acceptance that both class and caste are reproduced in Indian society by the working of specific characteristics of indigenous patriarchy in the form of endogamous marriage, entailing a repressive form of sexual governance that reproduces both caste and class—or what I call the bio-genetic map of inequality in India— with the complicity of women. Space for debating women’s goals, tactics and strategies as an independent venture outside other political groups was thus also an important aspect of the feminist understanding of autonomy. This aspect of the feminist exploration of autonomy has been the most long-lasting in terms of the contribution made by autonomous women’s groups to theory; to conceptualising patriarchy as a structure that uses violence to sustain itself as well as to reproduce itself; and of leading campaigns against violence of all types, from rape, dowry killings, widow immolation, sexual harassment, sex-Selective abortions, and for the claiming of rights such as sexual and reproductive rights, and the right to bodily autonomy. The vigour and vitality of the women’s movement has forced both the left political parties—particularly its women’s organisations with whom alliances on issues have characterised the campaigns of the women’s movement—and social movements to fraternally ,support, or grudgingly adopt feminist concerns in their own campaigns. However, I strongly believe that we are yet to see an acceptance of feminist -analyses into the analytical framework of existing theories, including dominant articulations of Marxism. A certain tension, therefore, remains between feminist groups and other left groups, even though coalitions and alliances have seen creative interaction between the two.

Among the most notable features of conceptualisations by the autonomous women’s groups, particularly on working out strategies and campaigns for redressal, is the use of ‘counter-violence’ as a way of resisting the incredible levels of violence women are subjected to, as other oppressed groups are in distinctive ways. In this, women have implicitly moved away from theories of revolutionary violence as a way to resist structural violence. This is explained partly by the peculiar location of women—as individuals isolated in their respective families which is the space in which much, though not all, of their oppression takes place, 4 and partly because women—despite our initial formulations of sisterhood—do not constitute a class which can simply move from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself position, through struggle. Further, because the AWGs’ analysis of violence and its concomitant association with patriarchy and militarised nation-states, has led to specific feminist thinking on either rejecting violence altogether, through somewhat simplistic notions of ‘women as intrinsically nurturant and peaceloving,’ or thinking about the way even counter-violence can become oppressive and distorted in focus, and so make for a lack of accountability, AWGs have subsequently rejected theories of counter-violence and evolved a more complex understanding of violence than even those organised groups that take recourse to violence, have done. Feminist discomfort with violence was recently highlighted in responses to the lynching of Akka Yadav in Nagpur by a group of dalit women who had been at the receiving end of his terrorising; while we understood why these women had taken the law into their own hands, and some of us even saluted their courage in doing what they did, most of us could not endorse it; the largest consensus was around the position that recognised the failure of the legal and social system in India that allowed the Akka Yadavs to flourish, thereby giving rise to the desperation that led to lynching as a remedy for the violence women face.

Among the most pertinent questions being raised today about the autonomous women’s movement are those regarding the viability and survival of AWGs as a truly autonomous force—i.e., how autonomous is the AWM now? Who, and what, are they autonomous from? How effective a force are they to have a wide impact on civil society, and to combat entrenched and institutionalised male power in our society? What is their relationship to the state, and to global economic-and political developments which have created new hierarchies in a rapidly changing scenario? The difficulties of moving from issue-based campaigns and coalitions to long-term interventions in ‘providing support to distressed women, creating and expanding a range of interactions with women over a variety of issues have led to important concerns around funding and financial support to women’s groups engaged in such ventures.

In the early phases of the movement, women who were the backbone of the AWM, which in a fundamental sense was also urban, were either employed in jobs such as teaching, office work, legal practice, advertising, id journalism or had family financial support—always a tricky’ thing, as much of the energy of the movement went into questioning the institution of the family as it existed. This was possible because the campaigns focused on single toes and worked through coalitions of individuals and groups. As the work expanded and the need for full-time workers grew, questions of financial support became imperative; and as the movement gained in strength and visibility, both in India and across the globe, international funding became available. NGOisation and international funding are now both ubiquitous and critical to understanding the autonomy of the women’s movement at a global level. What implications do these developments have for questions of autonomy from a feminist perspective? Apart from a 9 to 5-isation of the movement and the emergence of the career feminist—of women activists who are specialists in a single issue: health, sexuality, micro-credit, reproductive rights, sexual harassment, etc—without a larger understanding of the interrelatedness of these issues and the complexity of patriarchal practices, there is considerable evidence also of donor-driven campaigns in which fund providers determine the priority areas of intervention, merely by their acceptance or rejection of projects that they will support. It is not unusual for donors to tell you that they will no longer fund a project on adult women’s literacy but will do so on descent girls, as older women are past their reproductive years and no longer important element in fertility control, or that they will fund sexuality because the anxiety around AIDS, or that they will not fund a film on communalism ‘tout will do so on popular culture.5 The current buzzwords are SHGs (Self Help Groups) and Peace: naturally, therefore, feminists are concerned with the politics of these choices. A new phenomenon at workshops and seminars is the presence of a donor representative who sits silently but watches over the proceedings, a matter we are not even debating internally, and therefore making us all complicit in the erosion of our original position on autonomy. The question then is: how autonomous are the agendas of the AWGs? Apart from the flip-flop that is a consequence of the instability of programmes, and the funds required and sanctioned for them, women’s groups are faced with the difficulty of explaining to their constituencies why they have to stop doing something that they seemed passionately committed to; often anger is expressed by groups who had been engaged in a particular campaign or project being suddenly abandoned because funds are no longer available. Women’s groups could thus lose their credibility in the already difficult situation that they work within. Autonomous Women’s Groups broke away from political parties because they could not autonomously conceptualise or strategise within the existing hierarchies of political formations. Has the logic of the move away from parties, from left and democratic groups, been neutralised by the global funding imperatives of the AWGs? Can they reproduce themselves without funds from international funders? If one looks at how limited the reach of the AWGs actually is;.. is the move ‘towards international funding even worth it? 6 A comparison with women’s groups affiliated with one particular political party raises some significant points to think about; I will use the example of the CP(M) affiliated All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) to open up some lines of enquiry.

In the last decade or so AIDWA has grown to occupy an important place in the public domain on issues of gender. It has a membership of eight million Women and has intervened in 50,000 cases in which women required support. 7 Charismatic leadership coupled with sustained work by a committed and sensitive group of women, and a degree of dialectical interaction with issues raised by the AWGs, unacknowledged perhaps, have made the AIDWA a significant cadre-based force capable of intervening on a range of issues—some specifically addressed by them as a result of their close interaction with on-the-ground issues—such as caste and communitarian killings in the name of ‘honour in Haryana and Punjab. AIDWA has thus also moved far beyond the understanding of the CP(M) on caste and will hopefully, help the party build a more theoretical understanding of social contradictions specific to India; to my mind they may thus provide theoretical leadership to the party if it were to acknowledge it. One issue on which I find a certain reluctance to engage with on their part—from a less than creative and sensitive position—is that of enforced hetero-normativity and its oppressive dimensions. This makes for a rather blunt engagement with the workings of patriarchy and its imperative of control over sexuality. I hope this will expand both in terms of theoretical understanding and in working on coalition campaigns in the future. Given the discussion above, a question we may now raise is: has the autonomous women’s movement’s role in campaigning against the violence of patriarchal practices now reached an impasse? I do not think so, despite the questions I have raised and what I have said in the previous paragraphs. The need for autonomy from existing political formations still exists; we see it for `example, with dalit women’s groups who have emerged over the last few years; autonomous women’s groups have played, and are playing, a vital role in linking up with other such groups in South Asia and have led in moves towards peace between these nation-states. Among the finest examples of building both theory and practice across the international arena was the Women’s Tribunal on Gujarat 2002, aptly titled “International Initiative on Justice for Gujarat.” Not only was there a mutual enriching and sharing of understanding by a group of women from India, South Asia, Europe and America, but participants also brought ,their respective strengths—in law, social science analysis, counselling and medicare—to bear on understanding the specific nature of Gujarat 2002. The feminist engagement with the centrality of sexual violence in targeted killings of a community, as part of what they collectively acknowledged as a genocidal project, was much enhanced by intense interaction during the tribunal hearings, while sharing experiences, and in finally writing the report. Individual women ‘ from various autonomous groups have continued to support the pursuit of justice lit some cases of sexual violence, through a long and torturous path in courts Gujarat, Delhi and, currently, Mumbai. The sexual violence in Gujarat has reopened the issue of rapes in 1984 in Delhi, and why they were never taken as they should have been, given that rape had been a critical issue in the very genesis of the AWGs in the late seventies. There are thus many areas of reflection in thinking back on the strengths and failures of the autonomous women’s movement.

In summing up this essay on the place of AWGs in the contemporary political conjuncture, some key questions that may be posed are: has the primary principle of organisational autonomy—from political parties, from the state, from other manipulative forces, both local and global now become a secondary consideration? Has its original strength now become something of a constraint that is being circumvented through rationalisations? What role are the AWGs playing, and likely to continue playing, in the future? Among its important contributions is conserving the space for political negotiation and a dialogue with other groups and movements on feminist issues. In the contemporary moment there are, broadly, four political actors in a dialectical relationship with each other, in a four-way interaction: AWGs with a feminist and democratic perspective; left women’s groups linked to political parties,8 malestream/mainstrearn left political parties; and social movements like the environmental, anti-nuclear, and peace movements that have come together in the National Alliance of People’s Movements. As things stand, there is a role and place for all these groups, and thus for the AWGs, in critically raising feminist issues in all transformatory movements working towards a less oppressive society.


1 The best known work on this issue is by Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, Issues at Stake, Delhi, Kali for Women, 1991.

2 The only parallel to the focus on territorial autonomy by marginalised groups in certain regions such as the North-east and Jammu and Kashmir, is the question of bodily autonomy in feminist thinking—i.e., the body as a kind of space which is under the control of men in a patriarchal society which must be retrieved from such control, a point that is discussed later in the essay.

3 See my book, Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, for a fuller discussion of the relationship between caste and patriarchy (Kolkata, Stree, 2003).

4 See for example, Inside the Family, People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PURR), 1983, for a discussion of the peculiar location of women and their vulnerability within the family in the context of dowry killings.

5 These are examples based on real situations, not a figment of my imagination!

6 Not all AWGs have accepted or relied upon international funding for their work: for example Saheli, in Delhi, accepts no funds from anyone and raises money for its collective work through the sale of calendars (with a feminist message) or collections from concerts of feminist musicians; and Vanagana has found a novel way of raising funds: since Vanagana’s work is in the field of violence against women in rural areas many of the women survivors have become part of Vanangana’s work. A section of them has set up a catering service that caters for events, and the activities of the group have been financed by the ‘profits’ of this project until recently, when the group moved to a funded status. sure there are many such creative ways in which funds are raised—I have cited only those that I have come across in recent years.

7 Brinda Karat, Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women Struggles, Delhi, Three Essays Collective, 2005, back blurb and p.xi.

8 The discussion around the Women’s Reservation Bill bears out the distinctive spaces and agendas of the AWGs vis-à-vis the left women’s groups such as the AIDWA; on the whole the AWGs have remained unexcited about the substantive gains of the Bill—this may be partly because of their understanding that the wider structural constraints on women do not yet allow for women’s genuine participation in politics, or because of their original discomfort with being part of a political Party.


UMA CHAKRAVARTI. Distinguished feminist historian. Taught history at Miranda House from 1966-98. She has long been associated with the women’s movement and the democratic rights movement. She has published books and scholarly articles. Her books include Rewriting History published by Kali for Women. Highly regarded for her scholarly insights into the status of women in early India.

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Distinguished feminist historian. Taught history at Miranda House from 1966-98. She has long been associated with the women’s movement and the democratic rights movement. She has published books and scholarly articles. Her books include Rewriting History published by Kali for Women. Highly regarded for her scholarly insights into the status of women in early India.

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