Thirty Years on: Women’s Studies Reflects on the Women’s Movement

Abstract: The women’s movement has with varying degrees of success negotiated with the changing socio-political contexts in India. However, change is slow and painful and the lives of a large section of Indian women have only marginally improved. The contemporary Indian Women’s Movement is still accused of being westernised and unIndian. An important task for the movement thus is to vocally locate the feminist struggle in its diverse Indian cultural and historical settings. It is also imperative that the women’s movement begins the task of recreating spaces and building bridges so that its various fragments can once again be fitted into the larger jigsaw.

Keywords: reservation bill, reproductive and sexual rights, Forum Against-Determination and Sex-Pro-Selection (FASDSP), protection rights, women’s rights

In the 1970s, and more particularly in the period following the national emergency, the Women’s Movement in India assumed a role and form different from the one which it had in the social reform phase as well as during the struggle for independence. It is this phase of the women’s movement, which continues till the present, that is referred to as the contemporary women’s ‘movement. The anti-colonial and reform movements constituted important foundational initiatives and continued to be significant reference points for the contemporary women’s movement as well as feminist politics.1

This paper seeks to trace a representation of scholarly and reflective writings on the contemporary women’s movement in order to understand the changes in both, articulation on the part of the movement and perception on the part of scholarship. When I refer to scholarship, I refer not only to academic work, but also to all reflective and critical writing on the movement.2 This will largely be done through an examination of the ways in which Women’s studies have perceived the women’s movement and the analyses they have made of the movement.3 Such an analysis will be attempted through a study of various events and processes of the last three decades. The issues chosen are representative rather than comprehensive. This is also true of the works referred to, which are once again representative rather than exhaustive.

Some of the concerns of the contemporary Indian women’s movement were first systematically represented in the report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CWSI) in 1974. It laid bare the shocking gender disparities in the country and illustrated the invisibility of women in several sectors of society and the economy. The data provided by the CSWI lent legitimacy to the protests mounted by the women’s movement a few years later and helped to focus both state and media attention on the issues that were being highlighted.

One of the distinguishing features of the struggles mounted in the 1970s was the support received from the media, and one cannot overestimate its role in arousing public opinion in support of the women’s movement at this point in its history. It was instrumental in bringing to a wider audience the realities of women’s lives, especially around issues of violence.

Violence against women became an important rallying point for the women’s movement in its early phase. It was the widespread national campaign protesting the Supreme Court judgment in the Mathura rape case in 1979-80 which finally brought together the various isolated protests across the country and women’s groups began to speak in one voice. This campaign was also to mark the beginning of the quest for legal reform by the women’s movement.4 The reflections of women’s studies scholars on the mixed outcomes of some of these struggles for legal redressal will be dwelt on in the course of the paper.

The events of the mid 1980s and the subsequent foregrounding of issues related to cultural and religious identities were in many ways a shock to the women’s movement which had unselfconsciously perceived itself as secular. The movement has emerged from these episodes scarred and fragmented, still unable to completely grapple with issues of identity.

The 1990s and early 21st century have seen debates around the women’s reservation bill, discussions on reproductive and sexual rights including alternate sexualities and an increasing attempt at using culture as the grounds for policing women’s sexuality.

The questions one needs to ask here are how does one evaluate a movement? Can we examine a movement for its success or failure? Some of to questions we attempt to answer here arc: how successful has the women’s movement been in influencing public opinion and shaping public debate? How has the women’s movement constructed and negotiated the subject ‘woman’ at different phases of struggle?

Legislation and Questions of Violence

Discussions on feminism and the law inevitably raise a whole host of complex theoretical and political debates; not the least of which are those regarding how far the law can be utilised as a mechanism towards the empowerment of women. Law has occupied a central role in various organised efforts to improve women’s status in India. These efforts have had different foci at different points in history. They include a preoccupation with protectionism during the social reform movement of the 19th century; a quest for constitutional and formal equality during the struggle for independence and finally the attack on patriarchy mounted by the contemporary women’s movement [Kapur and Cossman 1996].

Rape: It was the widespread campaign during 1979-80 against the Supreme Court judgment in the Mathura rape case that brought women’s issues on to the public agenda. In the wake of the Mathura fury, the magnitude and tenor of press coverage of incidents of police rape and protests suggested that there was a surge of anger all over the country. Given this apparent mass support, women issues assumed political significance and political parties could no longer afford to ignore them.

The thrust of the campaign was to raise awareness and to lobby for a change in the rape laws. The campaign was well under way before questions of representation were raised. Until this point, it had not occurred to anybody to find out whether Mathura herself wanted the protest. They found, to their relief, when they did meet her, that she had no objections to the campaign though she was not hopeful of the outcome [Kumar 1993]. There were some discussions on what they would have done in the event that she had objected but the key questions of who had a voice and who had the right to speak for whom were not raised.

The major demands for legal reform were that the onus of proof should shift from the prosecution to the accused5 and that during a rape trial a woman’s sexual history should not be used as evidence. However, when the law was amended the latter was not incorporated and the former only partially accommodated cases of custodial rape. After the amendment there was little effort to monitor rape trials. Through comprehensive case studies in relation to cases of rape it can be clearly demonstrated that judgments before the new laws were passed or during the years of protests were more progressive in their interpretation of the law [Agnes 1992].

One of the major flaws in the amendment was that the campaign had been unable to dispel conservative assumptions about virginity and chastity. The demands for reforms were co-opted by more conservative political voices and eventually cast within the more traditional discourses of shame and dishonour [Kapur and Cossman 1996]. This is apparent from the subsequent judgments and also from the inclusion of a particular clause in the amended law which made publishing anything related to a rape trial an offence. This stipulation was clearly connected to the perception of ‘social stigma’ that attaches to the victim and the need to protect her identity. Far from asserting that no such stigma attached to the victim but in fact to the perpetrator of the crime, the amendment paid obeisance to existing cultural codes of shame and honour rather than questioning them.

More recently, Menon (2002) raised questions about the universality of women’s experience of sexual violence, suggesting it is possible that in different cultural contexts the codes which enable the recognition of ‘sexuality’ and ‘sexual violence’ may not be the same. This line of argument also suggests that the law locates women’s selfhood in the finite and bounded body and would be unable to address a philosophy of emancipation that seeks to transcend bodily notions of selfhood.

Nonetheless, despite its limitations, the campaign against rape marked a new stage in the development of feminism in India and networks between ‘women’s groups began to get consolidated: they coordinated their action for greater effect. The protests of the women’s movement thus began to be recognised as mainstream political action [Kumar 1993].

Dowry: The anti-dowry agitation marked the feminist assertion of the Personal as political through an activist agenda. Atrocities that took place in the private spaces of the homes and were passed off as, among other things, “‘kitchen accidents’ were brought to public light. This agitation witnessed an unprecedented public uproar, touching the imagination of the people and focusing the attention of both Indian and international media on the atrocities against women. The activists in the fight against dowry were driven by an energy which in time was ‘transformed into a brand of activism which asserted women’s agency in social change’ [Agnihotri and Mazumdar 1995].

Various women’s organisations vocalised that dowry was not an isolated phenomenon, but was linked to the inferior status and position of women in Society. Often, the written documents of the movement are unable to do justice to the multiple strands of the struggle, the range of discussions, the corner meetings and door-to-door campaigns [Agnihotri and Palriwala 2001]. Neighbourhood actions and protests were an important hallmark of this moment in history and efforts were made to mobilise opinion in the concerned neighbourhoods. These protest actions had the effect of subverting the notion of stigma and shame which traditionally attached to tad’ women on to the families that murdered their daughter-in-law for dowry. Social ostracism and visible campaigning outside their homes marked them out as murderers, a strategy which was extremely effective.6

This campaign also focused in many ways on effecting new legislation. In 1984, the 1961 act was amended, changing the definition of dowry by substituting the words ‘as consideration for the marriage’ to ‘in connection with the marriage’. The suggestion by women’s groups that a ceiling on gills and marriage expenses be imposed was not incorporated. There was also an increase in punishment. In 1986, the law was amended again to bring more stringent punishment, making the offence non-bailable and shifting the burden of proof on to the accused. Despite this there were hardly any convictions and the ground realities did not change [Agnes 1992].

Women’s groups focused on the link between dowry and the desire to accumulate consumer goods or to make quick money. As part of the consciousness raising campaign a street play ‘Om Swaha’, which was an attack on dowry, was performed in various places. However, none of this appeared to change attitudes. Parents continued to spend vast amounts on their daughters’ weddings and on dowries. Young women who were harassed for dowry found that their parents’ fears of social stigma did not allow them to return home. Women continued to be murdered for dowry or committed suicide in despair.

According to Kishwar (1988), the campaign against dowry had been wrongly formulated because it did not link the issue of dowry with that of women’s rights to property. She also pointed out that it equated dowry-related violence and domestic violence, doing a disservice to the critical underpinnings of both. Menon (2000) pointed out that the campaign did not incorporate a critique of the family itself as a patriarchal institution. Agnihotri and Mazumdar (1995) wondered whether the agitation ended up perpetuating the ‘woman as victim’ syndrome. They also point out that despite the rising number of complaints in the special cells as well as legal aid centres, the incidence of dowry continues to grow. There is a sense of defeatism in the question being asked: “Why could we not end dowry?”7

It was around this time also that some sections of the women’s movement made a conscious shift in perception from seeing women as victims of violence to perceiving them as agents in the process of social change. Discussions around questions of agency and victimhood have formed an important part of the debate in women’s studies.

Sex determination tests: Designed as a test to detect congenital abnormalities, the amniocentesis test also revealed the sex of the child. These tests were very popular, largely for reasons of sex determination and subsequent sex-selective abortion of female foetuses. Advertisements for sex-determination clinics that sprang up exhorted parents to spend a little money in the present to avoid the huge expenses of dowry in the future. The new-age merger of high technology with anti-girl-child cultural attitudes offered the amniocentesis test as a way for families to get rid of their girl children clinically if not ethically even before they could be born.

In 1984, the Forum Against Sex-Determination and Sex-Pre-Selection (FASDSP) was formed in Mumbai (then Bombay) with an intent to campaign against the misuse of the amniocentesis test. The FASDSP included concerned individuals from women’s groups, civil liberties, health, and people’s science movements. This group put together a systematic campaign that operated at various levels. They conducted research and surveys and spread information through workshops and seminars. Innovative protest marches were undertaken to raise public awareness.

The campaign had to be very careful that their arguments did not end up sounding like those of the anti-choice (anti-abortion) lobbies in the western world. At the same time, they had to counter arguments that suggested that the test would be a useful means of population control. The tests were promoted on grounds of giving women choices. FASDSP pointed out that it was ironic to talk of choices for women whose daughters were being killed for the crime of being female. FASDSP activists attempted valiantly to walk the thin line between being pro-abortion and anti-sex-selective abortion. This, however, was not easily done. Legally it is difficult to regulate post-amniocentesis abortion stringently without affecting women’s right to abortion.

With regard to the legislation, representatives of the FASDSP were invited to be on the committee to draft the bills regulating the tests in Maharashtra. However, when the bill was passed most of the recommendations of the representatives were not incorporated. In fact, when the new act was passed it included a clause to punish the woman undergoing the test if it could not be proved that she had been forced to do so. This clause was later also included when the central government passed a similar act in 1994. Activists pointed out that in a cultural context where women lack choices central to their lives it is unlikely that they have a choice in the matter of undergoing tests such as amniocentesis.

Two important concerns remain largely unaddressed within this struggle. One, that the FASDSP is unable or unwilling to confront the ethics of condoning abortions that are linked to ‘congenital abnormalities’, thus themselves endorsing a hierarchy about who has the right to be born. And secondly, if feminism endorses the right to one’s body, then how and why can this right be withdrawn in the case of sex-selective abortions? Within the legal framework, if we are to argue that women are never responsible for their decisions, this negates any agency altogether. To construct women as incapable of making choices or decisions independently could have potentially dangerous consequences for women’s struggles in other legal contexts [Menon 1999]. Clearly, negotiating questions of agency for women constitutes an important lens through which the women’s movement is viewed.

Sexual harassment: The women’s movement had also highlighted the issue of sexual harassment. This was addressed legally, though only in the context of the workplace, by the Supreme Court judgment of August 13, 1997. The Supreme Court ruled that elimination of discrimination against women in the field of employment (whether public or private) was central to women’s constitutional right to liberty and drew up a set of guidelines and norms to deal with the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers are directed to take steps to prevent sexual harassment, take disciplinary action against offenders, initiate legal action if required, refrain from discriminating against those who lodge complaints, and ensure that employees are aware of their rights. Despite the fact that the judgment is non-prejudicial, it is nonetheless inadequate to deal with the realities of sexual harassment in the workplace, for which it is intended, or elsewhere. These guidelines continue to locate redressal within a criminal justice system which has thus far largely failed to address issues of violence.

The judgment does not provide any impetus for women to come forward and file sexual harassment suits. On the one hand, there are women who are much too poor (added to which is a lack of access to information) to consider legal action. On the other band are professional women for whom the description of professionalism as equality has come to mean the ability to take what in a sexist work-culture is indulgently viewed as ‘fun’ in their stride.

While sexual harassment has at least been addressed as yet there appear to be no concrete ways to tackle the incidents of violence perpetrated by rejected would-be-lovers on the objects of their attention.8 There has been an alarming rise in the incidents of acid attacks and killings of young women who have refused the attentions of men. Situations like these not only render women’s lives acutely vulnerable, but also effectively prevent them from expressing their sexuality through apparel or manner for fear of retribution.

It has also been pointed out that there is a danger that regulatory codes in the workplace may serve to endorse conservative codes of sexual morality, which could well include a denial of women’s sexual autonomy, and that there is a need to address these questions simultaneously with those of equity [Kapur and Khanna cited in Menon 2000b].

Recent Legal Interventions

Domestic violence: The Lawyers Collective, Women’s Rights Initiative (LCWRI) initiated a campaign for a new law on domestic violence in December 1999. Following this, a series of nationwide consultations were held with women’s groups, where there was a consensus on the need for a civil law on domestic violence, and a proposed bill was formulated. Subsequently using the LCWRI bill as a blueprint, the government of India (GoI) formulated the Protection from Domestic Violence Bill, 2001:’ (Bill no 133 of 2001). There are several problems with the bill. There is a lack of clarity on the definition of violence, and the bill includes an absurd clause that violence is not domestic violence if ‘conduct by the respondent was reasonable for his own protection, or for the protection of his or another’s property’. Further, this definition only deals with habitual assault excluding sporadic incidences of violence. Nor does the bill contain any recognition of rights to reside in the shared household. Women’s groups in the country have been campaigning against this bill. However, these protests remain isolated from each other and there is no united effort. There is also some disagreement among women’s groups, where some bell that to include issues of rights to the matrimonial home in a bill on domestic ‘violence might adversely affect this right.

Sexual assault bill: Sakshi, a New Delhi-based organisation interested in issues of women and children, approached the Supreme Court via a writ petition in 1997 for directions concerning the definition of the expression `sexual intercourse’ as contained in Section 375 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code.

The positive features of the recommendations include: penile penetration is no longer the minimum required to prosecute rape; child victims are better protected; the accused can no longer refer to character or sexual history of victim; it decriminalises consensual sexual acts; specifies that girls may only be interrogated by female police officers. The problems with the bill include: it puts women in the position of being accused of rape; prosecutes same-sex sexual assault while making no positive recognition of same-sex relationships; fails to prosecute marital rape; assumes an equal society blind to gender.

The LCI, after discussions with three other organisations: — Interventions for Support, Healing and Awareness (IFSHA), All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and the National Commission for Women (NCW) —made its recommendations. Subsequent to the release of the LCI report, several women’s groups across the country were very unhappy with the non-consultative process by which the LCI made its recommendations. In the face of such fragmentation in the women’s movement, it appears to be a difficult task to come together and arrive at a unified position on the sexual assault bill.

The question of how effectively a patriarchal state will empower women has always been a matter of debate. The fact that each legislation served to bestow greater and greater power on the state is potentially dangerous, as this renders citizens weaker in relation to the state. There has always been a tension between the contemporary women’s movement and the law and that despite its pre-eminent legal strategies, there has been a strong sense within the movement of ambivalence and scepticism about the law’s capacity to effect real changes [Kapur and Cossman 1996]. However, there was also a certain amount of optimism regarding the relation between legal and social action; a sense of hope that legislative and judicial changes had been preceded by mass campaigns of protest [Jaising 1988].

Also, in the face of apparent acceptance by the state of the importance of women’s issues, the women’s movement relaxed its own vigilance and did not continue to consistently focus on campaign politics as well as on monitoring the implementation of the reformed laws. As a result, judgments continued to go against women and were premised on conservative visions of womanhood [Agnes 1992].

Nonetheless, this disillusionment did not lead to a complete abandonment of law. The consensus seems to be that while few women’s groups have complete faith in the legal system, some choose to use it more than others do [Kapur and Cossman 1996, Gandhi and Shah 1993]. In relation to questions of law it may be salutary to draw on studies of other legal systems. Kennedy (1992) has conducted an excellent examination of the ways in which gender “biases are subtly perpetuated in the British justice system through the use of page, stereotypical assumptions regarding women, exposing the implicit gender biases which work against women denying them access to real justice. The media has also played an important role in highlighting issues of violence against Women. This is not to suggest that all reporting has been pro-women but certainly a substantive part of it has. Several journalists and media persons were also actively involved in the women’s movement, and this aided the cause.9

In sum, the struggles of the first two decades of the women’s movement have made valuable inroads into both raising women’s consciousness as well as reminding the state that civil society is watching it. Mounting struggles on a legal platform has helped to highlight the necessity of eliminating patriarchal practices and values. However, the movement’s capacity to negotiate the ‘subject’ woman has been viewed in a critical light at several junctures.

Communalism and Identity Politics

From its inception, the contemporary women’s movement saw itself as multi-faceted, and incorporated many strands under its umbrella. Various Women’s groups also made efforts to link up with anti-caste, working class *ad landless labourers’ movements. It emphasised different streams of feminist ‘,thought and was self-consciously non-cohesive [Kumar 1993].

The movement in the late 1970s constructed itself as secular but did make any effort to define its identity as such. It was assumed that affiliations with the women’s movement were based on gender and positions of difference were articulately largely on grounds of class rather than caste or religious community. Class was constructed as a modern identity unlike caste or religious community, which were seen as pre-modern identities to be transcended.

By the mid-1980s, there was an awareness of the fractionalisation the women’s movement, and various groups spent considerable energy an effort in defining their identities as separate from others. However, this sectarianism did not prepare the women’s movement for the deep schisms that would be created by the events to follow, in particular the Shah Bano case and the Roop Kanwar sati, which opened up a Pandora’s box of divisiveness highlighting cultural, religious and communitarian identities.

The events of the 1980s and early 1990s saw the political rise of the Hindu right wing and concomitantly the appropriation of apparently feminist positions by the Hindu right wing. These were couched in terms of questions like who constitutes the ‘real’ Indian woman.

In the 1970s too, feminism and the contemporary women’s movement had been attacked on grounds of being elitist, upper class, and westernised. Ironically. in an attempt to respond to these criticisms as well as to make the movement more inclusive, the women’s movement started using Hindu symbols of female power — exemplified in goddesses like Kali and the abstract female power principle of Shakti. These were not seen as problematic in the context of the post-Emergency era where the state and political parties were seen as potentially authoritarian and anti-democratic but not communal (though by the mid-1980s they would be proved wrong on this count).

Shah Bano case: It was the Shah Bano case that provided the first major jolt to the women’s movement and demanded that it look at itself and its self-definitions anew. In April 1985, the Supreme Court ruled that Shah Bano was entitled to maintenance by her divorced husband under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedures Code. The judgment upheld Shah Bano’s right to maintenance from her husband both under Section 125 and under Muslim Personal Law, Secondly, it asserted that Section 125 transcended the personal laws of any of the religious communities. Thirdly, it was critical of the way women have been traditionally unjustly treated and cited examples of Manu and the Prophet. Finally, it urged the government to frame a common civil code. The judgment was criticised on a number of grounds — feminists, liberals and secularists felt that it brought issues of religion and personal law into what was essentially a question of secular criminal law. Having asserted that Section 115 transcended personal law there had been no need to comment on personal w or the need for a common civil code [Kumar 1993].

In response to the judgment and the comments of the judges the cry of Islam in danger was raised. Muslim fundamentalists demanded that the judgment be repealed and that Muslims be excluded from Section 125. Hindu fundamentalists celebrated the judgment, as it seemed to endorse their position that Islam is inherently barbaric. In February 1986, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill was introduced in parliament which eluded divorced Muslim women from the purview of Section 125. The bill’s passage was ensured by a majority Congress government.

The bill had been widely protested by various groups through public meetings, demonstrations and a sustained press campaign. However, unlike earlier in the campaigns against rape or dowry various groups did not carry those out jointly but separately. In some instances, groups were divided on religious grounds. Kumar (1993) notes that Muslims who opposed the bill felt impelled to form ranks within their own community. The Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Muslim Women, for example, which was formed solely in order to oppose the bill decided to limit its membership to Muslims, allowing Muslim men but not non-Muslim feminists. For most of the autonomous women’s groups, this was a hard idea to accept because it appeared to lend legitimacy to the idea that the rights of women could be defined by the religious community to which they belonged instead of arguing that rights and religion were separate issues.

Reflections on the movement’s response in the Shah Bano case are premised on the need to ensure that gender issues do not get communalised. Pathak and Sunder Rajan (1992) argue that the sensitivity of the minority community to any kind of interference in their personal laws makes it difficult from a feminist perspective to take a position of condemning the act outright. Elsewhere it was suggested that minority reactions have a logic of their own that cannot be entirely dismissed. The more important task was to prevent Hindu communalists from using an issue of women’s rights to create communal hatred against the Muslims and other minorities [Kishwar 1986].

In this context it becomes important to highlight the ‘shared predicament of all Indian women within the personal laws of all religious communities’ so that one can focus on gender identities rather than religious identities [Pathak and Rajan 1992].

Roop Kanwar sati: In September 1987, Roop Kanwar, an 18- year old woman was burnt to death on her husband’s funeral pyre in Deorala, a village in Rajasthan in the presence of a crowd of several thousand people. The huge public outcry that followed this event both by those who opposed it as well as those who supported it became an issue of tradition versus modernity, and most importantly, an issue of the cultural right of the Rajput people to preserve their identity. Once again in the space of a few years the issue of cultural rights was raising its head against women.

The issue was posited as one of tradition versus modernity, where feminists protesting against sati were seen as modern, having lost touch and connection with their cultural roots and therefore not in a position to mediate in the issue. The labels of ‘westernised’ and ‘elitist’ were once again revived and the notion of the real Indian woman was created: traditional and culturally Hindu. There was little consciousness that the so called tradition of sati was being assiduously constructed in a new ‘avatar’ through the setting up of trusts and building of temples.

In seeking to negotiate their position within the debate of ‘tradition’ versus ‘modernity’, the opponents of sati sought to historisise the practice of sati by demonstrating that the social, economic and political dimensions of the contemporary practice contested the claim of a timeless sati [S. Rajan 1993].

However, what is more difficult to deal with is the framing of sati within the notion of female subjectivity and questions of voluntary sati. Despite the fact that anti-sati activists have phrased sati squarely as murder, to posit the sati as inexorably a victim would only render her void of any function or agency [S. Rajan 1993]. However, another position suggests that the attempt to separate and reify women’s agency and complicity and to represent violence as female agency is central to the production and reproduction of ideologies and beliefs glorifying and normalising sati [Vaid and Sangari 1991].

Hindu right wing women’s organisations: Increasingly, the women’s wings of Hindu right wing organisations have become more and more visible. These organisations appear to-take positions that are pro-women but always firmly located within the non-threatening ideology of patriarchal family Structures. Hindu women must become militant in support of their religion as well as against the possibility of physical violence but not at the cost of losing their primary identities as wives and mothers [Poonacha 1994, Menon 1999].

These include organisations like the Shiv Sena’s Mahila Agadi, the VHP’s Durga Vahini, the BJP’s Mahila Morcha and the RSS’s Rashtrasevka Samiti. These various Hindutvavadi women’s branches distinguish themselves from each other in approach, culture and appeal. However, while maintaining this public distinction in tactics and approach, they retain a single-minded Similarity of ideology and perspective. Their demand is not ‘narimukti’ (women’s liberation), which is seen as western, but `narishakti’ (women’s strength) which includes ideologies that glorify motherhood and also justify r role as instigators of violence [Setalvad 1995]. The language used is one a culturally rooted modernism in the service of the nation.

Pushpa Bhave argues that the failure of women’s organisations to connect and establish linkages with the large masses of women in urban India tin this case in Mumbai) led them to join organisations like the Shiv Sena. The Siv Sena in its own way addresses women’s unmet need for social and political participation, however limited [CWDS 1994]. Shaila Lohia emphasises the need to reach out to the mass base of rural women, and expresses dissatisfaction with the urban-elite image of the women’s movement [ibid].

The emergence of a women’s movement within the Hindu right may ‘lead us to reassess certain assumptions about women’s relationship with violence, religion, politics and the contemporary urban middle class culture. In moments of mass violence the only women who have engaged our attention have been the victims. This new development demands that we examine the emergence of the Hindu right wing woman who aspires to be able to defend herself and is inspired by Durga, a militant icon who subsumes Saraswati, Lakshmi and Kali. Women are ‘active political subjects’ especially in the *main of communal politics [Sarkar, 1991 1995]. Women have also actively participated in riots, for instance, in Bhagalpur in 1989, in Ahmedabad in 1990, in Surat in 1992 and in the tearing down of the Babri masjid [Tharu and Niranjana 1999]. In the Gujarat riots of 2002, the presence of women rioters was highlighted by the media as well.

Women’s groups have been in the forefront of supporting and joining hands with civil rights groups in protesting against the outrages during riots and also in rendering active support and assistance to members of the minority community who were affected by the riots. Even during and after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, women’s groups have been articulate voices in protest, relief work, fact-finding missions, and in the struggle for justice for the victims of the riots.

The preceding segments have been increasingly pointing to a need for the women’s movement to acknowledge a wide continuum of differences that exist related not only to acknowledged categories of class and gender but also to what have been historically seen as pre-modern categories of caste and religious community.

Unlike the feminist movement in the west, which was accused of being white, middle class and bourgeois, the Women’s Movement has always been sensitive to issues of class. Voices from within the movement and Women’s Studies have also self-consciously raised concerns about the legitimacy of urban middle class women speaking for the poor or rural women. In relation to issues of class, the women’s movement has demonstrated a tradition of vocal debate. For instance, Left parties suggested that urban middle class women in the ‘autonomous’ women’s movement could not possibly represent ‘Indian’ women and that the real role of feminists was to participate and raise questions from within mass organisations. Autonomous groups in turn pointed out the patriarchal nature of organisations like political parties, even left wing parties, and trade unions averring that political non-affiliation was a far more efficacious way to address patriarchy [Menon 2000].

Caste has been addressed when linked with issues of violence perpetrated by upper caste men against lower caste women. However, critics argue that the movement has not adequately addressed questions of difference particularly in relation to dalit women. On questions of difference in the context of caste and issues of dalit women, Rege (2000) argues that within the framework of `difference’, issues of caste had become the sole responsibility of the dalit women’s organisations. However, while an internal critique within feminism is necessary this does not ‘call for non-dalit women to freeze into guilt or to celebrate an uncritical dalit womanism’. She argues that just as at times the similarities between women have been ignored in order to underline caste or class identities so also at times differences between women have been ignored for the ‘feminist cause’. Datar (1999) argues that any position on dalit feminism is incomplete without the incorporation of an eco-feminist perspective.

John (2000) stresses the need to focus on caste and communalism as modern forms of inequality, and to stop focusing solely on poverty and disadvantages as the women’s movement has been doing for far too long. Caste and religion, she argues, have to be confronted not as residual identities but as dynamic identities which have assumed a distinctly modern form.

In the present situation of fragmented identities, the Women’s Movement needs to find ways to building bridges and talking across differences if it intends to retain its voice in defining and interpreting issues in the new millennium.

Questions around Sexuality

In the early phase, the women’s movement has addressed questions of sexuality largely in the context of issues of violence and assault.10 It is only in the last decade that questions regarding sexuality and pleasure or indeed questions of alternate sexualities have been addressed with any degree of seriousness. In the following discussion we will examine questions of representation, beauty, culture policing and multiple sexualities.

Indecent representation of women: The contemporary women’s movement has, at various junctures in the past three decades, protested against the depiction of women in the media. These protests have been premised on the depiction of women as sex objects and as servile subordinates in degrading roles. Part of the campaign included the demand for a law to regulate the depiction of women and, consequently, the Indecent Representation of Women Act, 1986 came into force.

The act is problematic in that it confuses the issues of indecent representation and morality. Nor does it specifically articulate that the depiction of women in positions of servility constitutes indecent representation. This leaves the provisions of the act open to the interpretations of the court. This act like other legislations serves to buttress the state’s own power to make far-reaching decisions that are not always progressive.

The women’s movement’s agitation paid the greatest attention to the ways in which women’s bodies were sexualised by the media and in films. Consequently, the implication was that anything sexual constitutes obscenity and that respecting women means treating them as sexless or asexual [Agnes 1992]. This line of reasoning serves to reinforce notions of women’s chastity and honour and further curb women’s freedom of movement and self-expression both sexual and otherwise. This could also lead to a curb on information and a ban on, for instance, sex education for young people in schools.

The Hindu right wing ideologues have also taken up the issue of obscenity with much enthusiasm though their agenda is vastly different. For instance, both .the Hindu right wing and the secular women’s movement (including politically affiliated and autonomous groups) opposed satellite television, though they were motivated by very different agendas. The Hindu right wing’s opposition was mounted on the grounds that satellite television promoted a promiscuous western culture threatening to Indian cultural values. The women’s movement, on the other hand, articulated its opposition to sexist and discriminatory representations while also simultaneously critiquing the representation of women as subservient beings in the context of traditional cultural and family settings. Despite these very different positions, both the Hindu right and women’s groups have often ended up protesting against the same representations and also calling for Censorship. This strategy is doomed to failure, as censorship almost inevitably serves conservative and status-quoist ends, silencing political dissent and marginal voices particularly in relation to sexuality [Ghosh 1999], Freedom of speech has been the Women’s movement’s foremost weapon in the fight against violence, sexism and discrimination, and, argues Ghosh, the feminist choice here would be to choose advocacy through debate rather than erasure. To conflate sexuality with sexism will mean that women have less space and voice, not more.

Beauty contests: The women’s movement has protested against beauty contests on the grounds that these contests both glorify the objectification of women and serve to obscure the links between consumerism and liberalisation in a post-globalisation economy where Indian markets are now accessible to the multinational sponsors of these contests. Feminist protests at the Miss World contest in 1997 in Bangalore held processions with mock ‘queens’ crowned as ‘Miss Disease’, ‘Miss Starvation’, ‘Miss Poverty’, ‘Miss Malnourished’, ‘Miss Dowry Victim’, etc, in order to highlight the issues of poverty, and lack of nutrition and health care in the country. It has been suggested that this focus on multinational cultures and consumerism could well end up sounding similar to the positions assumed by the right wing which alleges that these contests are western imports which contaminate Indian culture and women [John 1998].

The focus on women as ‘victims’ could well serve to erase images of women as subjects with agency, sometimes suggesting that feminism is a movement devoid of joy, Not only were the images of ‘women as victims’ used as juxtapositions to the women in the beauty pageant, the contestants were also cast in the role of misguided victims. The contestants’ insistence on the voluntary nature of their participation was ignored by women’s groups. They were seen inevitably as victims in the thrall of a false consciousness. Not only did the context and content of the arguments made by women’s groups serve to deny agency to the contestants, they also could not contribute to addressing the increasing aspirations and anxieties built around the desire for beauty or sexual success.

At another level, the location of protests as being against the glorification of the objectification of women could also end up endorsing a more conservative position which might decree that women’s bodies and their sexuality must be controlled, especially in public. The women’s movement’s critiques of the 1997 Miss World contest in India could potentially be read as an effort located in the protection of the nation conceived in terms of desexualised womanhood [Oza 2001].

The other voices in this debate were those of the consumer market sated in a discourse of individual choice and freedom. These then could and ten are perceived as promoting a more open-ended sexuality for women. Ghosh (1999) suggests that these pageants relocate the visible female body from the private sphere to the public domain. This act is potentially subversive norms of sexual control creating possible spaces where alternative notions gender and sexuality can be played out.

While it may be too optimistic to imagine that pageants might subvert the very sexual norms they are premised on, it is nonetheless valid to assert that any suggestion of banning beauty contests smacks not only of censorship but also a denial of the democratic freedom of expression and could be read as contradicting the feminist assertion of women’s rights to their own bodies. Culture policing: The protests against the 1997 Miss World contest in Bangalore led the organisers to relocate the swimwear round to Seychelles, fearing a disruption of their programme. This act can be located within conservative notions of ‘decent’ apparel for ‘Indian’ women. In recent years there have been several instances when efforts have been made to enforce dress codes for women. For instance, women in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh have come under censure for their conduct and apparel. The intention is to prevent women from wearing jeans, minis or figure hugging tops and tights. In another instance, Ritu Verma, president of the Delhi University Student’s Union was quoted as arguing that all the cases of eve-teasing that have come to them concerned girls wearing western outfits (The Times of India, March 6, 2000). The 2001 episode of the Lashkar-e-Jabbar forcing Muslim women in the Kashmir valley to don `burkhas’ on the threat of acid attacks is another case in point.

The women’s movement’s response is remarkable only in its absence. While the media has cautiously pointed out the loss of choices and spaces this has meant for women, the issues are often presented as those of identity politics. The imposition of such strictures against women by Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists needs to be linked together and combated on the same platform.

Another area of restriction involves several disparate dictates that couples not be seen together in public unless they are married (to each other). Members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad banned the celebration of Valentine’s Day in Kanpur on the grounds that it encourages displays of vulgarity. The Valentine’s Day ban is also justified in the cause of ensuring the fidelity of women (Outlook, February 28, 2000). In Mumbai, in the mid- 1990s, the Shiv Sena government disallowed any public displays of affection by couples. This again can be seen as an effort to locate female sexuality within private spaces.

In another act of censorship, film-maker Deepa Matta came under attack for her script of the film Water’, which addresses issues of sexual exploitation of young widows in Varanasi in the early 20th century, and the filming eventually could not take place. Some years ago, Mumbai saw violent mobs outside cinema houses screening Deepa Mehta’s film ‘Fire’, They succeeded in preventing is the film from being screened for some time before it was resumed. John and Niranjana (1999) point out the significance of the overwhelming support for e film ‘Fire’ and the broad-based public outcry against attacks on it. Gay and lesbian groups played a key role in opposing the film’s unwarranted withdrawal raised key issues regarding both questions of obscenity as well as gay/ lesbian rights. However, these issues tended to get lost in the dominant focus the Sena attacks. Moreover, critiques of the film itself were nullified in an environment that sought to protect the right to freedom of expression and thin as great a distance as possible from the agendas of the Hindu right.

Multiple sexualities: The women’s movement was not initially receptive the idea of recognising non-heterosexual forms of sexuality. As recently as 1994, at the fifth conference on women’s movements in Tirupati, there was hostile reaction to an attempt to pass a resolution recognising alternative forms of sexuality. Attempts to challenge heterosexual normality were unacceptable not only to conservative sections within the movement but also the left wing, which derided such efforts as elitist and trivialising of the ‘real’ issue of the movement. However, such a resolution was passed at the 6th conference in Ranchi in 1997 [Menon 1999]. However, this has not in a broad se facilitated a critique of the heterosexual norm. The growing gay and lesbian movement in India has also received its share of attention from the media. This movement is also focusing on, among other things, striking down provisions of Article 377 of the Constitution which outlaws all ‘unnatural sexxual practices’.

Vanita (1999) expressed the hope that the women’s movement can move and merely reforming heterosexual marriage and family and a perspective ‘thin which women are victims, towards a more liberatory language of articulation through rethinking the constructions of gender and sexuality and *dating varied kinds of conceptions of family and collective living.

There are several significant areas addressed by the women’s movement commented upon by scholars that have not received the attention they deserve in this paper and it is worth mentioning these if only to point out need to examine them in greater detail. Women’s health has been addressed by the state largely at the level reproduction and has in the post-Cairo period co-opted the language of rights. The women’s movement, while often focusing attention on struggles related to reproductive rights, is nonetheless aware of the need to expand the notion of health beyond this limited perception. Issues of discrimination at work h been addressed both by left wing parties and the autonomous women movement. These have focused on wages, kind of work, employment security; hours of work, quality of work environment, right to organise, impact liberalisation and structural adjustment on women workers, as also sexism within trade unions themselves. Complementarily there is also a large body of work that examines gender issues in the area of development. The issue of political participation, specifically that of reservation, is one that has contributed to a well-documented debate within the women’s movement.11 Closely connected with issues of communalism and identity politics is the debate on the uniform civil code — a source of acrimonious debate within the women’s movement.

Questions related to the environment have also been a cause of concern for women activists, particularly in relation to issues of sustainability, livelihoods, knowledge systems, degradation, community resources, and science and these have been the site of both struggle and debate [Agarwal 1994, 1999, Shiva 1988, Dietrich 1999]. Another issue within the movement is that many of the former `autonomous’ women’s groups are now non-governmental organisations (NGOs) funded by the government and international funding agencies, a source of concern and hostile discussions.

One often-unexplored area is the creation of a dialogue around spirituality within feminist debates. An interesting development has been the growing strength of cyber-feminism. Even though this is limited by access to the Internet, it nonetheless constitutes an important new medium to spread awareness and effect change.

Concluding Observations

If one returns to the questions one started with, the picture that emerges is multilayered and multi-hued: there are within the women’s movement several ands, concerns and positions. Among the various issues raised by scholars some themes recur. These include the construction of the subject ‘woman’, questions of victimhood and agency, the Indianness’ of the women’s movement, questions around sexual autonomy and freedom of expression, the need to build linkages with other movements as also to be able to appeal to d connect with a larger audience in the quest for gender justice.

The women’s movement has with varying degrees of success negotiated with the changing socio-political contexts in India. In one sense the movement been overwhelmingly successful in shaping public consciousness and ringing gender issues to national attention. It has compelled governments to knowledge the inequities of gender and address these through law and policy. On the other hand, change is slow and painful and the lives of a large section ‘Of Indian women have only marginally improved. There has also been some agree of co-option as well as complacency that has set in — in that once the state addresses gender concerns through its legal and policy mechanisms the task is seen as complete.

Three decades after the emergence of the contemporary Indian women’s movement, it is still being accused of being westernised and unIndian. While it is true that a great deal of the intellectual traditions of feminism are rooted in western enlightenment traditions of rationality and modernity, the ways in ,which these are re-appropriated by Indian feminists have been specifically Indian. An important task for the movement, therefore, is to vocally locate the Indian feminist struggle in its diverse Indian cultural and historical settings.

There is also a need for a greater debate within the movement on questions of ‘agency’ to rethink strategies that allow for an acknowledgement victimhood which does not imply a denial of subjecthood or agency. Similar ions are needed in regard to concerns around sexuality which must be mired on the feminist principles of multiplicity, openness and choice.

The women’s movement was somewhat unselfconscious in its construction of the category ‘woman’, in that it treated gender as a pre-existing category. Gender as a source of identity is perhaps one of the most difficult to mobilise. Women, indeed all people, are socialised to see themselves as belonging to a religion, a linguistic group, a cultural community, a region, a village/town/city. But as far as the gender identity is concerned we are merely taught a series of roles. To be a woman does not necessarily mean to have an identity as a woman.

In an endeavour to once again highlight the identity of gender it is extremely important to once again forge close links with the media. But this by itself will not be enough. We also need to take our concerns into school and college classrooms in an effort to promote feminist pedagogic practice with the goal of making intelligible the feminist cause to a larger group of people, both women and men. The greatest challenge in this will be to emphasise the multiplicity of ideas, priorities and strategies while conveying an agreement on the larger cause of gender equality and justice.

Alongside the Hindu right wing and state bodies, the women’s movement must also take on the newly emergent forces of the market. A strong left wing presence in the women’s movement has thus far perceived the market as a potential source of contamination. We must first recognise the market as a worthy adversary before we can begin to challenge its claims. In many ways, the market offers a strangely democratic space for debate and one that the women’s movement would do well to claim as a potential turf for negotiation. Unlike the state, where the citizen is largely a client, for the market the individual is first and foremost an actor-consumer. While it is true that this actor is sought to be moulded into a puppet consumer this process nonetheless offers room for resistance. Can the women’s movement use the strategies of the market to re-sell itself to a larger audience and reclaim its right to speak on behalf of a larger constituency of women? Can we reclaim the language of choice and restore its radical edge?

It is imperative that the women’s movement begin the task of recreating spaces and building bridges so that the various fragments which now constitute the women’s movement can once again be fitted into the larger jigsaw. This intervention must be sought with the knowledge that each of the fragments has a separate and whole identity but that within such diverse and individual positions there is still space for us to evolve and agree on common agendas.

The larger understanding behind such an endeavour must be an acknowledgement that the benefits of such collaboration will accrue to us all. It is only as a collective that we can become a force to contend with, both politically, in electoral terms to address democratic politics and stake our claim as free citizens, and economically, as a constituency of consumers who acknowledge and claim an informed role in the market.

In the 21st century, more than ever, there is a multitude of voices. These voices, which bring with them different cultural, political and historical backgrounds, can only enrich the debate that the women’s movement must undertake. We need to embrace the discourses of difference not by culturally relativising acts of violence against women (purdah, dowry, sati, fasts) but by acknowledging that all of our herstories contribute to the eventual creation of a rich and powerful struggle.


[This paper is an edited version of a much longer paper originally written as a background paper for the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT University, Mumbai. I would like to thank Maithreyi Krishnaraj for her insightful and thought provoking comments on many different versions of this paper. I would also like to acknowledge the financial support of the RCWS in the writing of this paper.]

1 It is important to note that the women’s movement has hitherto been examined in terms of these two phases, the reform phase and the contemporary phase. Often the two decades immediately preceding and following independence are lost to cogent analysis as if any mass activity had ceased to exist. The 1930s and early 1940s have been largely subsumed into writings on the freedom struggle where women appear as marginal actors where they are present at all. Gender issues in immediate post-independence India focused on the granting of constitutional equality and the eventual passing of the Hindu Code Bill, dismembered into four parts. Feminist scholars, notably Butalia (1998), Menon and Bhasin (1998) and Das (1995) have pointed out that the travails and pain of women during and following partition have been neither heard nor thought to be worthy of being recorded.

2 A reference to ‘the movement’ is not to suggest that the movement was monolithic or homogeneous, There is a tacit acknowledgement of the various strands that made up the women’s movement. Nonetheless, in the late 1970s and the early 1980s it was possible to refer to the movement in the singular, as it articulated more or less cogent concerns, in ways that were impossible to do in the late 1980s for reasons discussed at length in this paper. As Kumar (1995) points out, the phase of the contemporary Indian women’s movement’ itself is a debatable one. While there is broad agreement that the movement is not a monolithic construct, we must acknowledge that the various initiatives feed into a network of women’s groups and contribute to the growth of the process of feminist thought.

3 The distinction between women’s movement and Women’s Studies is a deliberate one underscoring the activist and academic roles undertaken. This distinction, however, is made with the understanding that several individuals have actively assumed both roles.

4 Prior to the Mathura rape case, several campaigns were led in various parts of the country: in Hyderabad against the Rameeza Bee rape, against incidents of police and landlord rape in Sangammner, Patiala and Malur village, and also in various places in Karnataka [Kumar 1993].

5 There were heated disagreements among various groups within the women’s movement with regard to the clause on shifting the burden of proof on to the accused. One section of people felt that this clause could be used by the government to implicate male activists, while another pointed out that there were in any case several other ways in which they could be implicated in other kinds of situations [Akerkar 1995: WSI5, Kumar 1993].

6 Unfortunately, however, the effects of such shaming often did not last for long. In many cases the husbands of the murdered women remarried a few years later.

7 More recently, young women are taking matters into their own hands when the issue of dowry is raised. For instance, the recent case (May 2003) of Nisha Sharma of New Delhi, who called the police on her wedding day when the dowry demand was raised.

8 The Sangita (Rinku) Patil murder in 1990 was one of the early cases reported in the media.

9 An edited volume brought out by the RCWS, SNDT University, Mumbai, `Women’s Oppression in the Public Gaze’ (1994) underscores the reportage by newspapers on violence against women in various forms through specific illustrations.

10 For instance, John and Nair (1998) point out that in Radha Kumar’s The History of Doing (1993) all references to sexuality are contained under the head ‘sexual assault’.

11 See for instance the work of Kishwar (1996), Kannabiran and Kannabiran (1997) Sharma (1998), Dhanda (2000), John (2000), Menon (2000).


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This article was earlier published in the Economic and Political Weekly, October 25, 2003.


SHILPA PHADKE. Principal Investigator of the Gender and Space project of PUKAR exploring the gendered dimensions of public space and safety in Mumbai. Has taught sociology and anthropology at St. Xavier’s College, Ratnam College and the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. She has published in the area of population policies and women’s studies. Her areas of concern include gender and the politics of space, sexuality and the body, cultural and media studies, gender and pedagogy, feminist legal studies, and development issues in the context of globalisation.

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Principal Investigator of the Gender and Space project of PUKAR exploring the gendered dimensions of public space and safety in Mumbai. Has taught sociology and anthropology at St. Xavier’s College, Ratnam College and the Nirmala Niketan College of Social Work. She has published in the area of population policies and women’s studies. Her areas of concern include gender and the politics of space, sexuality and the body, cultural and media studies, gender and pedagogy, feminist legal studies, and development issues in the context of globalisation.

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