Wardha’s Conference Addresses Gender Justice and Civil Rights of Women

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“Our forests and water have been appropriated, we have been displaced by development projects, our daughters have been snatched away and we, ourselves, have been left destitute. Who is responsible for global warming? Multinational Corporations or tribals?” asked a tribal woman.

“Women are suppressed in homes, discriminated at work places and denied equal wages in employment. Gandhiji’s ideals that were anti-liquor are being violated,” stated Kumud Pawde, dalit writer and the veteran of Vidarbha’s anti-caste movement. She went on to observe, “What comes by birth and can’t be cast off by dying? It is caste.” Kumudtai’s struggle to study Sanskrit and then teaches other Dalits has been a powerful story of resistance.

These were some of the strong voices that emerged at the 13th national conference of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) that was hosted by Wardha-based Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalay. In fact, Wardha, with its century old anti-caste movement and its agrarian, literary and Gandhian struggles, was the appropriate venue for a conference that had as its central theme, ‘Resisting Marginalisations, Challenging Hegemonies: Re-visioning Gender Politics.’

The conference touched on many of the current debates that concern India and Indian women today, from the lack of civil rights and gender justice to state repression – symbolised powerfully by the frail figure of Irom Sharmila, whose decade long fast-unto-death for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958 has remained unaddressed by the government – and sexual violence faced by women in conflict zones like the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir.

Other major debates revolved around the appropriation of natural resources. As Dr. Ilina Sen, professor, feminist scholar and one of the convenors of the conference, revealed, Vidarbha was first exposed to globalisation and cash economy during the years of the American Civil War, when cotton began to be cultivated there for the first time. The region saw major anti-caste movements and there were tribal movements that shook the might of the British Raj – like the Bhumkal movement of 1910 in neighbouring Bastar, when local tribals resisted British forces moving into their forests. But the irony, Sen pointed out, is that this same region is today the site of the largest number of farmer suicides in India.

“We arrived at this theme – ‘Resisting Marginalisations, Challenging Hegemonies: Re-visioning Gender Politics’ – because we have been realising for some time that there is a critical need to evolve an analytical stance through which the women’s movement and women’s studies organisations can understand marginalisation,” explained Anita Ghai, President, IAWS.

At the conference there was a widespread perception that women’s oppression across society was growing, and it needed to be better understood and studied. Some themes like the marginalisation of minorities – especially Muslim women – just don’t figure in mainstream discourse and academic inquiry. Jamila Nishat of Shaheen, who works among Muslim women in Hyderabad, spoke about how scores of underage Muslim girls are still being trafficked to the Middle East. According to Nishat, one woman called Rehana wrote a letter to her mother stating her stark tragedy: She had been sold for the 17th times in 27 years. Yet, an issue like this does not figure in policy making.

One of the positive changes noted by those at the conference was the Delhi High Court’s verdict decriminalising homosexuality and striking down Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Another welcome trend that was flagged was the fact that many more rural women were becoming grassroots leaders thanks to the 73rd amendment. This in turn had led to many revolutionary changes in rural governance. But it has its flipside, as well. As Geeta Charisivam pointed out, many of these women have now become “part of the corrupt Indian State.” “The panchayat system is producing a model of female citizenship excluding trade unions, human rights groups, the women’s movement, which in effect brings back the old class relations,” she said.

Another issue that demanded attention was conflict and its impact on society, especially women. A research scholar from Jammu and Kashmir, Inshah Mallick, said that three decades of violent armed conflict in her state has claimed over 70,000 lives, with more than 3,000 being victims of disappearance. “Conflict has challenged the traditional role of women who are soft targets of military wrath,” she argued.

Sociologist and Independent Researcher Bela Bhatia, who was back from a visit to the Kashmir Valley, talked of the alienation she discerned in the region with slogans like, “Go India, Go Back” commonly written on the walls. She observed that it is the women who are now offering resistance, disturbed as they are by the disappearances of their sons and husbands and the high levels of violence.

Interestingly, the conference also showcased a rich cultural diversity, ranging from feminist paintings and music to documentary films, poetry and autobiographies. Pakistan’s popular Urdu columnist Zaheeda Hina’s presentation of her own story moved the audience, while Sri Lanka’s Nafeesa Rooby presented her work in Tamil and Bangladesh’s Shaheen Akhtar’s Feminist writings were applauded. The song and dance performances during the cultural interludes rejuvenated the delegates. For instance, Nageen Tanvir’s repertoire of traditional Chhattisgarhi songs provided a regional flavour, even as Bastar tribals – reputed for their musical instruments – presented a unique musical ensemble. Meanwhile, Gangubai Bhil of Jhabua conducted a workshop on Pithora paintings, helping women gain an insight into her culture. “I used to help my mother paint pithoras (horses) and other motifs on walls,” she recalled. Now based in Bhopal, she heads a team of tribal painters who travel to different places and paint Bhil motifs on various backgrounds.

Deepa Dhanraj’s ‘The Advocate’, a documentary film on the famed human rights lawyer, the late K.G. Kannabiran, brought tears to many an eye, given his recent passing away. Documentaries by Anand Patwardhan, Suma Josson and Anu Srinivasan were also screened, most of which dealt with human rights and related topics.

The message from the conference was clear: Women’s Studies in India was not just an ivory tower phenomenon. The discipline had cultural dimensions and clearly was influenced by women’s social activism. Nothing symbolised this more than the unique felicitation ceremony that took place as part of the proceedings, when pioneering women of Vidarbha – Malti Ruikar, Leela Chitale, Nalini Ladke, Seema Sakhare and Sumantai Bang, an 86-year-old Gandhian who had joined the nationalist movement along with her mother – were recognised for their pioneering contributions. They were fine exemplars of radical thought in action; freedom fighters in the true sense of the term; women who despite their advancing age continue to contribute to women’s studies and the women’s movement.