The Women’s Movement:Between Autonomy and Alliance-Building

Abstract: The various women’s movements have made significant contributions in two fields: in intervening to support women during communal riots and in rethinking religions and recapturing meaning in them. Two issues need to be more emphatically addressed in the Women’s Movement; one is the organisational question, since how one builds or relates to mass organisations is crucial. The women’s movement has not invested much thought in understanding that there are a variety of ‘internal colonies,’ such as dalits, adivasis, poor peasants, workers in the informal sector and indeed, women whose situation deteriorates under globalisation. The contention of this paper is that these internal colonies need to ally with each other in order to gain the Strength to overcome their oppressive and exploitative situations. Basic feminist issues like women’s participation in decision-making, sexual harassment, domestic violence, alcoholism, etc. seem always left to the women’s movement to deal with. This raises another important issue, namely that of inventing a comprehensively non-violent lifestyle in the face of globalisation as external onslaught, and the communalisation of politics as internal onslaught.

Keywords: women’s movement, women’s organisations, communalism, Dalits, Adivasis, unorganised sector, construction workers, fish workers, slum dwellers, sexual harassment, alcoholism, women’s empowerment struggle

This paper has grown out of discussions arising from about thirty years of experience in women’s organisations, and with unions in the informal sector. Looking back at the enthusiasm of the mid-seventies, one sometimes wonders whether the myriad organisational efforts of that time add up to a women’s movement at all. is the women’s movement on the move?

At the Tenth Conference of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (JAWS) in Bhubaneshwar in October 2002, we sensed a feeling of urgency among social movements, something they are compelled to have in the face of destruction of livelihoods under the onslaught of globalisation. At the same time, other discussions grappled with rising fascism fed by communalism, fundamentalism, castei sin and a technocratic growth concept which rides roughshod over people’s basic needs and democratic rights.

Shortly before this, in September 2002, the Women’s Struggle Committee in Tamil Nadu held three public hearings with the National Commission for Women (NCW) on the impact of globalisation on women in the informal sector. The response was so overwhelming that many of the women, who were there in the thousands, could not put forward their testimonies; only 108 testimonies were heard in three days, The loss of livelihoods in construction labour, agriculture, the plantations, weaving, fishing, gem-cutting and jewellery work was frighteningly visible. On each of these occasions it was obvious that we were facing a comprehensive transformation, which women’s movements could not tackle on their own.

Many social movements today demand drastic policy changes which require the building of broader alliances—especially with workers in the unorganised sector, peasants and wider secular and democratic forces—to face caste and class struggles; to protect land, water and forests from destruction; and to safeguard people’s access to their means of livelihood, while at the same time braving communal onslaughts. This realisation directed us back to the history of the women’s movement. Wasn’t this where we had come from: the anti-Brahmin movements, the struggles of the Left, the trade-unions? Wasn’t this what we had left behind in favour of ‘autonomy’? Were we coming full circle after a quarter century of autonomy? Had we conquered new spaces, or had we been co-opted? Perhaps first the one, then the other? Had autonomy brought real gains or had we lost political acumen and painted ourselves into a corner? Was it a bit of both? Do we need to build alliances? Are we capable of it? Will we be swallowed up if we do?

Burning Issues and Basic Questions

Reminiscing about our history, I’m trying to figure out what became of our most burning issues, the issues that convinced us that we needed autonomy.


The most compelling of these is violence against women. The infamous , rape cases of Mathura and Rameeza Bee which involved collective police hence appeared like the tip of an iceberg. This galvanised the Forum Against Rape (later Forum Against the Oppression of Women) as well as numerous Other groups into action. It was on the matter of violence—domestic as well as public— that our was parted with ‘mixed’ organisations. A landlord raping a dalit labourer was a ‘welcome’ issue in Left and dalit organisations, while domestic violence or comrades raping comrades were considered non-‘priority’, even damaging. It is often said that our struggle against violence has not been ‘successful’ because statistically, violence seems to be on the rise. One then into a debate about whether it is only the ‘reported cases’ or actually occurring violence which is on the rise. It is very likely that ‘real’ violence is increasing, not only in its most visible form as in post-Godhra Gujarat, Nit n in daily life, at home and in the community.

Globalisation has led to high levels of insecurity of work, destruction natural resources and cultural polarisations of caste and community; besides, there is violence which comes in the nature of a backlash, a cultural revivalism, condoned by the police, judiciary and administration. Rajasthan taught us sad ns during the Deorala Sati of Roop Kanwar and the rape of Bhanvari Devi in the Sathin programme, which were meant to strengthen women’s status villages. Despite this, we cannot deny the fact that innumerable women’s movements and groups have encountered such violence emotionally and physically and that feminist intellectuals have dismantled it conceptually, 1 even e spontaneous massive uprisings, like that of the rural women of Andhra Pradesh against alcoholism, have temporarily ushered in periods where light, and resolve seemed to prevail.

Unfortunately, with the communalisation of politics, there has been a significant deterioration in women’s situation regarding violence. The attempt the BP to push through a bill on domestic violence which legitimised violence if it is only occasional or in defence of property,’ was opposed tooth nail by the Women’s Movement, and the Lawyers’ Collective formulated a comprehensive alternative to this bill, which was passed in August 2005. Persistent campaigning on other fronts has also led to significant gains. e.g., the campaign against sex determination and sex selection has led to important changes in the PNDT Act without jeopardising women’s right to abortion. The debate on sexual harassment at the workplace has been carried forward through cases against ministers and IVILAs in Kerala filed by women 1AS officers, and by cases against academic guides in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Guidelines and codes of conduct have been worked out which at least recognise the problem and afford women a certain amount of security.

Religion, Communalism, Fundamentalism This connects with the second great debate and practical challenge which began in the early eighties and intensified after the Sikh massacre in 1984, and after the Shah Bano judgement in 1985- 86. This was the debate on women and religion and the aborted struggle for a gender-just family law. The debate deepened into an attempt to understand religious identities and women’s absorption into the communal mindset. Simultaneously we had to confront the reality that we are divided not only by religion, but also by caste and ethnicity.

We were faced with the fact that many women in the movement were of a mindset which has sometimes been called ‘secular fundamentalism,’ i.e., having no sensorium to relate to religion, but often claiming the majority religious mindset as a secular culture. We had the double task of relating to religion after the Sikh massacres, and at the same time raising the question of whether the Women’s Movement itself could be a force against communalism and fundamentalism. 2 A few years down the line, after the destruction of Babri Masjid, we were forced to admit that women themselves can be active participants in communal violence, but as perpetrators, not victims.

We also had to acknowledge that caste and untouchability are a reality that, often, we do not know how to confront, 3 that especially in rural situations, caste and community identities can be much stronger than women’s solidarity. Despite all this, there have been quiet victories. Mary Roy, after all, has defeated the Syrian Christian Succession Act, even though she did not get her land back. The Christian Marriage and Divorce Act of 1869 has been reformed in a gender just way and Muslim women, even under the most adverse circumstances, have been getting maintenance in secular courts, despite all the negative fall-outs of the Shah Bano judgement_ And, most recently, the Hindu Succession Act has been amended to give daughters equal co-parcenary inheritance rights.

We can say that significant contributions have been made in two fields: women’s organisations have courageously intervened to support women during communal riots; women’s initiatives in rethinking religions and recapturing meaning in them here yielded many astonishing insights.

Resources, Work, ‘Development’

This brings me to the next major aspect of our experiences and debates: survival struggles related to work and to natural resources which are connected with the struggle for alternative development. Vandana Shiva’s seminal work in the late eighties raised the question of the destruction of nature, women’s knowledge systems and work skills by a patriarchal system of science and technology, in pertinent ways. Though there have been disagreements regarding an eco-feminist ‘essentialism’ in her argument, the question of women’s .relationship to forests, agriculture, water and fisheries has stayed with the Women’s Movement in a central way. My own experience in this respect has been with the fish-workers’ movement in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. Even though women arc not allowed to enter the sea, strong participation by them in the fish-workers’ movement has raised very fundamental issues about `the rape of women and the rape of the sea,’ connecting the different spheres of violence from the domestic level to the market, and the technocratic development interventions which have depleted the resource. 4

Besides, the women’s struggle in the fish-workers’ movement also takes us back to the initial question regarding the position of women in the so-called ‘wider’ struggles for a total transformation of society. 5

To elaborate on this question a bit more, I would like to go into a case study which compares an urban and a rural struggle, both of which have become more acute due to globalisation. This will help us to understand where such joint struggles between women’s movements and unions or other mixed movements stand at the present juncture and what this means for the position of women in alliance-building.

The Organisational Question

One question which is under-discussed and not sufficiently addressed in the Women’s Movement is: the organisational question. If total transformation in order to be democratic needs mass participation, then how one builds, or at least relates to, mass organisations is very important. This is not to underestimate the myriad small, transformative experiments which have been going on everywhere; but we need to acknowledge that the toiling masses can best be reached through issues related to their struggles regarding land, water, forests, the right to work and to basic amenities. In their urge to create new spaces and institutions, women’s movements have often been confined to starting projects and becoming NGOised. Apart from this, many feminists have been inclined to use government channels like the Women’s Development Programme in Rajasthan and the Mahila Samakhya programmes in different states. While this has indeed been a shortcut to very wide interaction at the village level, it also made the movement dependent on the state to some extent, while the state itself, as we all know, cannot be relied upon to be truly interested in women’s liberation.

The latest to succumb to this have been the self-help groups, designed to draw women more actively into a capitalist-consumerist economy. Because the state controls the loans, any protest can be quelled easily by withholding them. Even NGOs that have worked on self-help schemes independently and with a critical perspective, arc facing difficulties with their members decamping to ‘safer,’ protest-free environments. While women have been in the forefront of many working class struggles, the need to keep the home fires burning, to bear and bring up children, along with the daily toil of wage labour, presents us with a dual difficulty: to protect and sustain autonomous spaces, yet simultaneously relate to ongoing survival struggles in which we inevitably have to cope with male leadership.

In our urge to build and protect free spaces, we have often been in danger of losing our political acumen. The socialist inspiration of many pioneering feminists in the seventies has lost its sparkle; our minds have silted up in the daily struggle to sustain the nitty-gritty of projects and interactions. In the nineties, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the success of the Chinese state-capitalist miracle numbed our political imagination.

I will discuss my two case studies in order to show that alliance-building is necessary and possible, and that our hard-won autonomy has not been in vain and need not get subsumed.

Case Studies

Conceptual Framework

The two case studies deal with one urban and one rural situation, with an organisational perspective of ‘mixed’ movements which at the same time work in close alliance with relatively autonomous women’s movements. They however, need to be placed in the context of globalisatio. In the urban situation, globalisation has contributed to ‘urban removal’ – the pushing out of urn-dwellers from localities close to their workplace, the eviction of vendors m central places in the city. In the rural situation, the promotion of intensive aquaculture has led to the destruction of agriculture and unemployment among agricultural labourers, mostly Dalits. In both situations the struggle revolves around the right to work and to spaces to live and work in; thus, the question natural resources is closely connected to the right to work and the right to dwelling.

While the Women’s Movement has acknowledged women as ‘the last oily,’ it has not invested as much in understanding that there are a variety of ernal colonies,’ such as Dalits, Adivasis, poor peasants, workers in the informal sector and indeed, women whose situation deteriorates under globalisation. The contention of this paper is that these internal colonies need to ally with each other in order to gain the strength to overcome their oppressive exploitative situations. Such alliance building broadens our understanding the connection between subsistence labour and wage labour, and extends concept of what constitutes production.

This alliance-building is by no means easy, as each sector and movement pre-occupied with the logic of its own demands and dynamism. Adivasi movements are closer to the struggle over the resource base and protection of subsistence production; Dalits, many of whom are landless, are cut off from resource base, as even water is withheld from them, though traditionally, also managed irrigation systems. Their focus is therefore on human rights violations and on untouchability. Unions in the unorganised sector focus on labour issues. While many of their members are Dalits and Adivasis, their voices are not taken as representative. Women are present in all sub-sectors are therefore under the pressure of multiple identities, while struggling to a specific common identity as women—which is at the root of the quest autonomy. At the same time, the emphasis of the class struggle has shifted from organised labour to the informal sector. In movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Adivasi subsistence farmers have allied with prosperous farmers of the Nimad, while at the same time Dalit landless labourers, boatmen and fisher people are an integral part of the struggle. It is important to explore forms of organisation which transcend narrow, traditional boundaries, and incorporate the experiences of all sectoral struggles which are also connected with ecological struggles. We also have to find ways to accommodate that labour which floats between sectors and forms a labour pool for different jobs at different times, and therefore does not clearly belong to any one labour board.

Women in People’s Movements

The urban organisation, Pennurimai Iyakkam (Movement for Women’s Rights), is a women’s organisation which works among the urban poor in Chennai, Madurai, Trichy, Coimbatore and several rural pockets in the vicinity of these cities. It has evolved in close relationship with a construction workers’ union since the late Seventies. The rural movement is the Gram Swaraj Movement (Village Self-rule Movement) which has organised landless labourers and small peasants on the land question in the Cauvery Delta in East Thanjavur and Nagapattinam districts of coastal Tamil Nadu. This region, which was earlier known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, is now scarred by prawn farms which have been promoted since the mid-eighties, but over the past ten years it has seen a vigorous struggle against intensive aquaculture. Another important component of the Gram Swaraj Movement is a protracted struggle against illicit liquor and for total prohibition. The movement has a very strong women’s wing. This case study argues that a renewed deep alliance between women’s struggles and workers’ and peasants’ struggles in the unorganised sector has come about under the pressure of globalisation. It is necessary to critically analyse the nature of integration between women’s and workers’ struggles and to understand the common issues arising between urban and rural situations.

Pennurimai Iyakkam and the Construction Workers’ Struggle

Pennurimai Iyakkam and the construction workers’ union, which were first formed under the name of Tamil Manila Kattida Tozhilalar Sangam, both date back to the late seventies. In 1989, there were 25 lakh construction workers in Tamil Nadu, and approximately two crams (20 million) in the whole country. It is anticipated that from the, present 22 lakhs, the strength in Tamil Nadu will go down to one-tenth its present numbers due to mechanisation. This is all the more grave, as due to mechanisation in agriculture and import liberalisation of agricultural goods, the rural workforce faces rampant unemployment. Normally, rural workers find the construction sector a natural refuge during the lean seasons; once this refuge is destroyed, destitution will be rampant. Both these problems affect women more than men, as many more female workplaces get lost. Caste-wise, it is the Dalit population who traditionally worked as agricultural labourers and as Chitthaal (small person), the term used for the so-called ‘unskilled’ labour in construction work which involves mainly the lifting and carrying of construction materials such as bricks, Mortar, water and sand.

Union struggles led to state level legislation and the formation of a national federation which came into being under the name of National Campaign Committee for Comprehensive Legislation in Construction Labour (NCCCL) has been fighting for national legislation on regularising employment and implementing basic social securities like accident compensation, health tare, stipends for children, maternity leave, child care, financial assistance for marriages and in case of death, as well as pension schemes, corresponding to 20 days of daily wage. Over the years, after massive struggle and agitation, two national acts on construction labour have been passed, facilitating the establishment of tripartite boards. However, the struggle for activating these boards continues unabated.

Let us now look at the development of the Women’s Movement in order to understand how globalisation has made itself felt among women slum-dwellers. The PI was originally an activist organisation in which a middle class core group tried to form a mass organisation, tackling culture-related issues of women’s oppression alongside survival issues like housing, basic amenities, and domestic violence. I remember that one of the first demonstrations held was in front conducted on the British High Commission against virginity tests in Heathrow airport conducted on Indian women travelling to the U.K. to join their betrotheds. This was certainly not a mass issue, but a cultural one related to neo-colonial forms of discrimination.

Housing issues and the taking up of basic amenities related directly to the immediate situation of slum-dwellers catered to the survival issues of women construction workers. So did issues of domestic violence and sexual harassment, which also came up in the movement. In the mid-eighties, PI was involved with the eviction of fish-workers on the Marina, where kattamarams (small fishing boats) were forcibly removed from the shore. However, the women activists did not have the stamina to form a fishworkers’ union at that point; they kept working closely with the construction workers’ union.

The impact of globalisation made itself felt particularly during the early nineties when World Bank (WB) projects for urban development started to affect slum-dwellers in drastic ways. From 1992 onwards, a WB project in Madurai promised to clean up nine canals with a view to beautifying the city and restoring the flow of water. 6 One has to understand that housing issues—evictions, resettlement, basic amenities—were the life-blood of the Madurai section of the movement. The movement was then galvanised into activity in 1993 when, just before Deepavali, the tank wall of Sattayur Tank was breached, leading to rampant flooding in several parts of the town. Investigations showed that the breach was man-made and executed without prior warning. Between December 1993 and January 1994 large-scale evictions took place. This led to long-drawn out struggles for compensation and resettlement, which affected about 5000 families in different localities. As it turned out, this was indeed an introduction to the above mentioned World Bank scheme which aimed at removing people from the canal banks of Madurai. This project was planned and executed with secrecy. With great difficulty, activists managed to lay their hands on the project plans but were misled by the administration all the time. Evictions often took place without warning or resettlement. In some cases, even when resettlement was attempted, people returned to their original places as they needed the work opportunity (household labour, vending, cycle rickshaw plying, construction labour) in the locality. Over the years it emerged that rampant misappropriation of funds had taken place and that people had been resettled in localities which were never affected by eviction. 7 When the corruption was made known to the World Bank, the project ceased. The main outcome has been an increase in the mosquito population in some of the canals!

In terms of the growth of people’s movements, encountering the WB in this fashion also led to an alliance with the faraway Narmada Bachao Andolan, a massive people’s movement against big dams in the Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which succeeded in stopping the WB from funding the Sardar Sarovar Project in 1993. This occurred at the time when the WB project affected the Madurai P.I. members. The contact later fed into the formation of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) in 1995. The NAPM consists of over 150 peoples’ movements led by Narmada 13achao Andolan, National Fishworkers’ Forum, Samajwadi Jana Parishad, Sarva Seva Sangh and many others.

The Gram Swaraj Movement

My second example is the Gram Swaraj Movement, centred at Vinobha ,Ashram, Kuttur, in the Kizhvalur Taluk of Nagapattinam district. This movement was founded by two freedom fighters in the early 1970s, after the wage struggles of agricultural labourers led to the burning of 44 Dalits in a hut on December 25, 1968, most of whom were women, children and old people.

The situation in Nagapattinam and adjacent districts changed decisively ring the early nineties when globalisation policies made foreign exchange earnings a high priority for debt-servicing. In 1992, the two founders, Jaganathan and Krishnammal, decided to devote their energy to an intensive Swarajya Padayatra (foot-march for village self-rule) of what had become Nagai Quaid-e-Milet district. By the end of 1993, it became evident that nsive aquaculture had begun its devastation in Sirkali Taluk of the district, seating unemployment, draining groundwater for prawn tanks, causing salination of soil and water, polluting the earth, sea and rivers with their effluents waste and, in the process, not only destroying the local eco-system, but also the entire way of life of local agricultural and fishing communities.

Over the next two years, the Gram Swaraj Movement strengthened gram sabhas (village assemblies) and people started tampering with big machines like bulldozers and earth-movers which were used to dig the prawn tanks. ‘They also developed a spirituality inspired by Tamil Saint Ramalinga Adigalar Vallalar) who is known for his emphasis on self-knowledge and light. Krishnammal herself is a Dalit and has been devoted to social transformation hi a way which goes much beyond conventional Gandhism.

In 1995, the Tamil Nadu government enacted the Aquaculture Regulation Act which was favourable to prawn companies. The government itself promoted intensive aquaculture for foreign export earnings through advertisements and incentives. 8 The Gram Swaraj Movement filed a writ ‘um in the Supreme Court and obtained an interim order which prohibited tie occupation of cultivable land; and the pumping and sucking out of groundwater. It also restricted the spread of prawn farms. However, the Supreme Court Interim Order was violated by many companies, leading the Gram Swaraj Movement to file contempt of court proceedings against several companies (Bask, Bismi and Swarna Matsya). In the meantime, the Supreme Court decided to request NEERI (National Environmental Engineering Institute of India)9 to study the effects of aquaculture in eight coastal states. Their report fully established its devastating effects, and based on this and other similar assessments, a revolutionary judgement was given on December 11, 1996—all prawn farms within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) in the country should be demolished. This was based on a Public Interest Litigation (No. 561 of 1994) of the Gram Swaraj Movement. However, the prawn companies exerted considerable pressure on the central government and influenced the ministry to move the Aquaculture Authority Bill in order to scuttle the Supreme Court judgement. Going against normal procedure, the Bill was first tabled in the Rajya Sabha and passed without discussion, by voice vote. However, from April/May 1997 onwards, the Gram Swaraj Movement and many other organisations like the National Fishworkers Forum (NFF), Coastal Action Network (CAN), Campaign Against Shrimp Industries (CASI), People Against Shrimp Industries (PASI) have campaigned relentlessly to prevent the Aquaculture Authority Bill from being tabled in and passed by the Lok Sabha.

On December 11, 2000, the third anniversary of the judgement, 10,000 people, the majority of them women, went in procession in Nagapattinam under the leadership of Krishnammal Jaganathan. Simultaneously, 300 supporters from the Women’s Struggle Committee in Chennai were harassed by the police, while Jaganathanji and 200 supporters were arrested and released after several hours. Since 1997, satyagrahis have again and again entered the lands of prawn companies and demanded their closure. On Quit India Day in 1997, 1000 people entered the 400 acre (Bask) farm at Perunthottam; 800 people were arrested and imprisoned in Cuddalore jail for 20 days. On the second day of this agitation, 500 women entered the lands of Magna and Prawnex companies. They were arrested for a day. From June 9, 1999, Jaganathanji was on a 58 day-fast, eating only one meal a day. On the 58th day, after a demonstration by 5000 women, the state government promised to close all the prawn farms in Nagapattinam district, but went back on its promise later. Ever since the non-violent action of December 1995, nine false cases have been foisted on the people, implicating nearly 1000 villagers. The Gram Swaraj Movement has declared that, under the 73rd amendment of the Constitution, gram sabhas and panchayats are entitled to control land, forest, water and all natural wealth. Thus, we are facing a situation where the state constantly violates its own laws and commits contempt of court.

Women in Mass Movements: Caste/Class Alliances against Globalisation

It is evident that land, urban and rural, is a key factor in the above mentioned struggles. Land is less and less available to the urban and rural poor: likewise, water, including drinking water, recedes further and further from the reach of people—the tendency is to privatise it. The edge of the struggle against globalisation is sharpened by workers in the informal sector: construction workers and other manual labourers in the cities, agricultural workers and fish- workers in the countryside. Women are in the forefront of each of these struggles, either in alliance with the trade unions or as an integral, yet distinct, part of Gram Swaraj Movement. A large section of workers in each of these movements, especially among women, are also Dalits. They work as household labour, scavengers, vendors, cleaners in police stations, tailors in cities, and agricultural labourers in villages. They are massively displaced due to mechanisation, land alienation, import liberalisation of agricultural goods and export-oriented farming. The voices of these Dalit women are not represented either in mainstream Dalit movements or in `autonomous’ women’s movements, yet they need to be recognised in their own right. This is all the more important as attempts are afoot to integrate Dalits into the capitalist mainstream. The Bhopal Declaration of January 2002 has propagated the integration of American Blacks in American civil society as a model for remedying the violation of Dalit human rights in India.10 This move completely negates the fundamental economic problems of Dalits and Adivasis in India under globalisation. The Bhopal conference was called on the initiative of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, who has tried to make a name for himself with water management in villages, but has become notorious for his brutal suppression of the Narmada struggle.

The question we will have to ask ourselves is whether, in the ‘mixed’ composition of people’s movements in the process of alliance-building, a feminist perspective can be identified and safeguarded. This is not a new question. Ilina Sen raised it in her book, A Space Within the Struggle, as did Nalini Nayak in her book, A Struggle Within the. Struggle. 11 R. Gita drew if attention to the specific problems of women in construction work and also pointed out that the split in the union had to do with the lack of women’s participation in decision-making.12 Women within the P.I., during the recent padayatra, expressed frustration at having spent a great deal of energy on union work, but feeling ‘unrecognised’ for it. Does this mean that women have yet again been instrumentalised by the working class movement? There is no doubt that in the historic padayatra from Kanyakumari to Chennai, elderly chitthal women formed an energetic core, marching, singing and dancing with incredible stamina; likewise, the Gram Swaraj Movement is to a large extent carried forward by the energy of women.

One uniting factor (with a feminist dimension) in these movements is the struggle for total prohibition, which at the same time is a struggle against violence and for the education of children. Neither health, nor nutrition, nor safety of life and limb can be safeguarded without curbing alcoholism. Creative non-violence is a uniting factor in all the struggles under review. The prohibition angle is more dominant in the rural situation, while among the men in the unions it is much more difficult to gain support for this issue. Sustainable livelihoods, access to land and water, the right to work and comprehensive social security, food security and freedom from violence—all these are demands which cannot be met without fighting globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation. The demand to Quit WTO today unites urban and rural movements, and is symbolic of the attempt to counteract the terror of the market and to focus on production of life and livelihoods. We may tentatively conclude that people’s movements fighting against globalisation have internalised the production of life and livelihood, a feminist conceptualisation, to counter the production of profit and market totalitarianism. At the same time, basic feminist issues like women’s participation in decision-making, sexual harassment, domestic violence, alcoholism, etc. have not been thought through and resolved by each organisation—it is left to the women’s movement to do this job again and again.

What Moves the Women’s Movement?

Coming back to the initial question, whether the Women’s Movement is on the move, it appears that the movement moves forward in the broad survival struggles of the urban and rural poor, and in the alliances which need to be built in these struggles. Production of life and livelihood versus production for profit permeates the major ecological struggles, as well as the struggles of small peasants and workers in the unorganised sector, including fishworkers_ In the fisheries sector, over many years, the women not only had to struggle for recognition as workers, they also more actively brought to the fore the ecological question, problems of destructive technology and the fact that the fish resource itself is in jeopardy if the ban on monsoon trawling is not strictly implemented.

In the seventies, the Women’s Movement started off with a struggle against violence. Even at that time, rural struggles against the neglect of the countryside, against the violence of the Green Revolution and the ensuing violence expressed in incidents like the murder of 44 Dalits in Kizhvenmany in December 1969, had already come to the fore. 13 It turns out that this struggle against violence comprises not only the full spectrum from domestic violence to communal and caste violence, it also relates to the violence of an exploitative science and technology which leads to the destruction of the resource base and the extinction of species. In the medical field, such technological violence has led to sex-selective abortions, apart from instrumentalising women as guinea-pigs for new reproductive technologies.

In the field of energy production, highly sensitive issues like nuclear energy, big dams and the connections between dams and bombs have cropped up.14 This has also led to the building of peace movements, especially after the Delhi riots of 1984, the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992, the nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998 and the genocide in Gujarat in 2002. In all these crisis situations, women’s groups have taken the initiative in relief-work, documentation, media-work, peace marches and consciousness-raising. Yet, it has proven extremely difficult to find a cohesive structure for intervention. Political party-related women’s organisations have picked up issues raised by autonomous groups and have swung into joint action, but such co-operation is issue-based.

The two major challenges before us seem to be: one, the organisational question and two, the question of inventing a comprehensively non-violent lifestyle in the face of globalisation as external onslaught, and the communalisation of politics as internal onslaught. The problem is that destruction takes place so much faster than constructive work; it can be achieved by money power and opportunism, and quick results can be shown. Real transformation is extremely slow and tedious. This is particularly true of gender questions, as socialisation practices are very hard to transform. In this sense, even small constructive interventions like childcare services and working with adolescent girls is very important. Alternative schools and health work in remote areas cannot be underestimated. Unions in the unorganised sector are of crucial importance, especially those which are clear in their struggle against globalisation and communalism. Unfortunately, even a mass organisation like SEWA has compromised on these issues and was therefore ineffective after the Gujarat violence, while on the other hand SEWA, Trivandrum has become very active on both counts.

The mainstream of self-destruction is world-wide, as the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath have shown. Movements against exploitative globalisation and rising fascism are also worldwide, as the battle of Seattle and similar events demonstrate. The World Social Forum is one such attempt that draws these forces together, It is important to understand that women are not a `sector’; but since we are distributed across many sectors, we are obliged to side with the survival struggles of the dispossessed, the eco-system-people, the Dalits, Adivasis and Tribals of the North East, workers in the informal sector, peasants and artisans. Without this solidarity we will only be able to create enclaves of activity which give some women some space, but which also keeps us enclosed in a destructive system.


1 Kalpana Kannabiran, Vasant Kannabiran, De-Eroticizing Assault. Essays on Modesty Honour and Power Calcutta: Stree, 2002.

2 Gabriele Dietrich, ‘Religious Conflicts and Changes in Indian Political Culture’ in: COELI, No.70, Summer 1994, pp_ 12-27. Gabriele Dietrich, `Women and Religious Identifies in India After Ayodhya’ in: COELI, No.71, Fall 1994, pp.12-26.

3 See my earlier articles: Tait Movements and Women’s Movements’ in: Reflections on the Women’s Movement in India — Religion, Ecology, Development Delhi: Horizon India, 1992, pp.73-93. ‘Violence, Dalit Feminism and the Healing of Fragmentation’ in: Vikalp-Alternatives. IX .3, 2001, pp.61-76. ‘Dahl Feminism and Environment’ in: Religion and Society 45 .4, Dec. 1998, pp.89-99.

4 Nalini Nayak, A Struggle Within the Struggle, Trivandrum: PCO Centre. Gabriele Dietrich/ Nalini Naik, Transition a Transformation? A Study of the Mobilisation, Organisation and Emergence of Consciousness among the Fish Workers of Kerala Madurai: Centre for Social Analysis, 2002.

5 Ilina Sen: A Space Within the Struggle. Women’s Participation in People’s Movements Delhi: Kali for Women, 1990.

6 Project Management Group, Madras, Storm Water Drainage Master Plan for Madurai LPA and Surroundings (Nov 1992).

7 For details see, Adlin Regina Bai, Organisational Perspectives on Land Alienation under New Economic Policy in Madurai City with special Reference to women Slum Dwellers and Street vendors, M.Th. Thesis, Centre for Social Analysis, Madurai 1999, p.169.

8 See David Cherian, Aqua Culture in Tuticorin and Cochin. Its Effect on Eco-System and People. March 1995, M.Th. Thesis, Centre for Social Analysis. See also LAFT1 Report 1993 to 1997, People’s Action to protect the .Coastal Ecology, Vinobha Ashram, Kuthur, 1997.

9 NEERI: Investigation Report on Impacts of Aquaculture, Farming and Remedial Measures in Ecologically Fragile Coastal Areas in the States of Andhra Pradesh and Tamilnadu Nagpur, 1995.

10 The Bhopal Declaration adopted by the Bhopal Conference: Charging a New Course for Dalits for the 21″ Century Bhopal, Jan. 12-13th 2002.

11 Ilina Sen, A Space Within the Struggle.

Nalini Nayak, A Struggle Within the Struggle.

12 See above Note 13.

13 See also Gail Omvedt’s article ‘The Rural Roots of Women’s Liberation’ in; Social Scientist Dec. 1975.

14 See the political writings of Arundathi Roy, especially The Greater Common Good and The End of Imagination and the ensuing debates on Dams and Bombs.


GABRIELE DIETRICH. Feminist scholar and activist. Teaches Social Analysis at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Madurai. Deeply involved with women’s movements especially among slum dwellers and workers in the unorganised sector including fisheries. She has also been working with the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). Has published widely on women’s movements, organisational questions, ecology, communalism and culture.

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Feminist scholar and activist. Teaches Social Analysis at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Madurai. Deeply involved with women’s movements especially among slum dwellers and workers in the unorganised sector including fisheries. She has also been working with the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM). Has published widely on women’s movements, organisational questions, ecology, communalism and culture.

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