India’s Nalini Nayak Supports Women Workers in Fishing Sector

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Nalini Nayak is based in Kerala and has been involved with coastal communities and their issues for over three decades. She is a founder member of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, where she has taken the initiative to collectively evolve a feminist perspective in fisheries. She is presently general secretary of the Self Employed Women’s Association, Kerala, of which she was a joint founder. She is particularly concerned with issues of women workers in the unorganised sector. An excerpt from Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India: Making A Difference.

Although I was born and raised in Bangalore, I have lived my working life in Kerala, based in Trivandrum. This life has revolved/evolved around two major movements: the fishworkers’ and the women’s movements. Both have led me through a range of related subjects, understanding myself as a woman and the way I see and do things in relation to the men I work with; the complex relations between human dynamics and the environment in the context of modern science and use of technology; the otherwise unspoken complexities of sexuality and religion and the way they shape our thinking and interactions; besides, of course, the new knowledge of the otherwise forgotten or deliberately suppressed role that women have played in the development of society and how overarching patriarchy has appropriated it all. All these discoveries and experiences have simultaneously filled me with wonder, made me seethe with anger, stimulated me to react and deepen my social involvement, linked me with others whose commitment and vision have inspired me, widened my horizon and, finally, filled me with humility as time keeps advancing, creating a history of which I do not feel a part.

I had already been living and working in the fishing community for over a decade before I became a feminist. It’s not that I wasn’t working with women specifically in the community, helping them organise – working in a mixed team that had helped build a successful cooperative movement among fisherfolk, I was very convinced that women in the community occupied a significant space and needed to be organised as women, as well. There were many firsts in this organising initiative – women on church committees; the local women’s organisation running the village ration shop and controlling cash offerings at the prayer shrine; and women organising to demand the right to travel on state transport buses instead of walking miles to the market with their fish. I didn’t really understand what more there was to ‘women’s empowerment’ as I felt the women we worked with were an integral and important part of the fishing economy and had begun to take matters into their own hands. I also didn’t think it was important to participate in the first meeting of the autonomous women’s organisations as I had questions about the very concept, ‘autonomous’. We were living and working in a mixed team of men and women, building up a process in the fishery where both participated. So what more? Moreover, we were in Kerala, a highly politicised state where autonomous groups and movements were not only almost non-existent but also highly suspect. Better to keep away from such ‘autonomous’ outfits. I did, however, participate in a women’s discussion group called Prachodana in Trivandrum where we read and discussed various books – ‘The Family’ by Engels, ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir, all of which I found very interesting.

In 1980 I took up a full-time job as a social worker in a high-specialty hospital. This was my first regular job and for the first time I was being confronted by other women and men about my status as a single woman: why didn’t I wear a chain around my neck, why did I walk so fast, didn’t I have parents? – implying that they should have seen to it that I was married off by the ripe old age of thirty-two! These stereotypical questions didn’t put me off; what really shook me were other questions from women activists who met me through my fisheries work: “Why do you think women should not fish?”, “Why do Christians call God Father/Lord?”

It was only in 1985, I think, when I participated in a discussion in Bombay where Chhaya Datar presented the work she had done at the Institute of Social Studies (The Hague), that things changed for me. Presenting her study of the Nippani workers, conceptualising women’s exploitation, she analysed the concept of patriarchy as a category with a material base, operating to the disadvantage of women in all the institutions that make up society. Being analytical myself and having used the Marxist social analysis framework developed by Francoise Houtart and Genevieve Lemercinier, this hit me like a great flash of light. Eureka! I could not stop my mind whirling as I saw all our work in fisheries in a new light – how patriarchy not only controlled women through all the social institutions, but also basically controlled their labour. Yes, it made sense. Though there were a number of blank spaces and doubts, the desire to struggle through them was strong because I had understood the logic. There was no turning back now.

I shared all this with my women colleagues – Aleyamma Vijayan, Mercy Alexander, Vanitha Mukherjee, to name a few – insisting that we orgnaise a discussion in order to understand patriarchy. Though some of them were skeptical, we decided to invite Chhay, Gabriele Dietrich and Nandita Gandhi to Trivandrum to expose the others, including our male friends, to a session on patriarchy. That session changed the thinking of my women colleagues, and from then on we worked with a totally different consciousness, began to engage much more politically in our work with women. Although it took us a while (we kept distinguishing ourselves from liberal feminists), we finally became quite unapologetic about saying, “yes, we are feminist.”…

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

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