A Glimpse of India’s Women Movement Through The Years

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Pamela Philipose has been both an observer of, and a participant in, the women’s movement from the head days of the late Seventies, when outrage over the Mathura rape case coalesced into social activism. Writing on women – as a media professional and as a woman – has been a life-altering experience for her; in many senses the story came home, changing way of seeing and living.

Women’s groups were among the more articulate social forces in post-Emergency India. Many ordinary women were becoming part of what came to be known as the second phase of the Indian women’s movement in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The central concern was sexual violence, perhaps because it shone the torch on the unequal relations between the genders for the first time in the country’s history. Even an ‘establishment’ organisation like the Mahila Dakshata Samiti began to interrogate the innocuous ‘stove deaths’ of newly married women and concluded that many of them were actually dowry murders. When the Supreme Court overturned the verdict of the Delhi High Court and exonerated two policemen accused of having raped Mathura, a young tribal girl, in a police station, there was a national outcry. An Open Letter to the Supreme Court was written by four law professors from Delhi University directly confronted the judge who delivered that verdict:

Your Lordship, does the Indian Supreme Court expect a young girl, 14-16 years old, when trapped by two policemen inside the police station, to successfully raise an alarm for help? The Court gives no consideration whatsoever to the socio-economic status, the lack of knowledge of legal rights, the age of the victim, lack of access to legal services, and the fear … which haunts the poor and the exploited in Indian police stations…

If there could be no avoiding class, there could also be no avoiding patriarchy. It was there at every level of society, and it was also obvious that an issue like violence against women could be a deeply political and class issue. It was logical then for a woman like me, with left leanings, in search of socially relevant activity, to gravitate to the cluster of amorphous organisations which saw themselves constituting the “autonomous” – as opposed to the party-led – women’s movement. They presented a total contrast to the group I had just drifted from: while one was disciplined, centralised, singular in ideology, secretive, hierarchical, male-centric and represented the radical Left, the other was chaotic, patently rudderless, largely female in composition, and embraced a plethora of political cultures, ideologies and strategies, all of which were broadly left of the spectrum. Coping with the chaos, the lack of planning – random meetings held at random places or spontaneous decisions to stage impromptu demos – was daunting, especially in a city like Bombay, strung out like a line of washed linen. But the energy on display went straight to the head and the spontaneous reaching out to each other, across a hugely wide spectrum of backgrounds and ages, touched the heart.

The questions and quests that had emerged in the late Seventies lingered on with the arrival of the Eighties. The new decade – which many today recognise as the most significant one for the Indian women’s movement – began on an emphatic note. The Forum Against Rape, the ide of which was engendered on the fighting streets of the city and dispersed through pamphlets distributed in offices, trains and stations, was formally inaugurated in February 1980 at the Cama Hall, in the stone heart of South Bombay. I remember the excitement of that moment. Ahilya Rangnekar, the grand old communist woman leader, spoke on the occasion, as did Indira Jaising, the prominent feminist lawyer. Vijay Tendulkar, one of Marathi literature’s finest and socially aware minds, who consistently disturbed the peace of the suburban middle classes through his provocative, non-conformist theatre, hailed the brave women who were ushering in a revolution. ‘The Times of India’, which normally looked askance at any activity that threatened the established order, took note of the event and reported on a “mass signature campaign that has been organised for a reopening of the Mathura case and a review of the loophole-ridden rape law which results in an astoundingly low rate of convictions”.

You could make what you wanted of the Forum. Marxist-Leninist groups dismissed it as an exercise in revisionism, many voiced apprehensions that it was “blindly anti-men”, but there were as many, including men, who saw it as a social force that had the potential to transform society. Women activists perceived it in more personalised terms – as a platform, a network, a shelter of their own, something that everybody could claim but nobody could possess. While it was located in Bombay, it seemed to stand for Everywoman, whether she was battling the timber mafia in the high Himalayas, campaigning against dodgy contraceptive injectables in Delhi, fighting for dues as a fish vendor in coastal Kerala, or protesting court verdicts in Hyderabad.

As awareness of the multi-dimensional aspects of violence grew it was clear that addressing them would demand multidimensional agendas and actions, whether they were struggles to change existing laws or to raise awareness on safety for women in public spaces. In keeping with that realisaton, the Forum Against Rape was re-christened the Forum Against Oppression of Women (FAOW). It was a period of activism all over the world. In San Francisco and New York, women were marching and raising slogans like ‘Let’s Take Back the Night”. In Bombay we felt we needed to take back not just the night but the day, and not just the public space but the private space as well.

(Excerpted from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price (Softback): Rs 350)

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