Women’s Movements Undergo Different Kind of Renewal During IAWS Conference

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The 13th conference of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS) took place at Wardha from January 21-24, 2011. Bringing together scholars, activists, researchers and dreamers, the conference once again reaffirmed the tense yet productive and rewarding relationship between Women’s Studies and women’s movements.

The conference also signified an arrival – of Women’s Studies as a discipline, that could and indeed did take stock of its conceptual and political strengths and mark out its future trajectory, as was done in the concluding plenary on Women’s Studies.

The choice of location, the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, Vidharbha, Maharashtra was not accidental. The region is currently home to the various crises that characterise our times, and which all social movements, including the women’s movement have to confront. Rather tellingly, Ilina Sen, the local organiser and long-time activist, speaking at the special plenary on Central India, traced the latter’s history, from the early modern period, when cotton cultivation brought it into the orbit of imperial trade and control.

The conference was vibrant, colourful, exhausting, and attended in large numbers by young people, including those in social movements. Pre-conference planning, of the themes, plenaries and sessions, bore fruition in the wide ranging and exciting discussions that the university premises were witness to – and much colour was lent to the proceedings by song, dance, film, theatre and by the art of the Gond and Bhil women, who conducted workshops for interested people.

As is the tradition with IAWS conferences there were numerous resolutions passed in the general body meeting, including a unanimous resolution for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA); repeal of all anti-sedition laws and penal provisions existing in India; inclusion of domestic workers within the draft Bill for Prevention of Sexual Harassment; no amendment to sec 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC); and extending the universal Public Distribution System (PDS) to include ‘dal’ (lentils) and oil, among others.

Sen, chairing a session on women’s movements, gestured towards a different kind of renewal. Expressing concern that women’s movements in India appear to have retreated from the streets, with activists in parts of the country turning into paid ‘professionals’ that worked for various non-governmental organisations, she spoke of the need for the movement to re-connect with its own past, and keep in focus the need to challenge the fundamental constituents of patriarchy, such as property, family and caste.

Each session saw speakers requesting Women’s Studies scholars and activists in the women’s movement to re-think their stance on a range of issues. A young woman from Kashmir, speaking on the subject of militarisation in the Valley and how that has re-defined familial and gender roles, drew attention to the manifold uses of faith and identity for women, and asked for a feminist re-think on these matters.

The relationship between power and subjection, a longstanding feminist theme, was also explored, with new and varying emphases. Discussions and presentations on the body and sexuality foregrounded questions about sexual labour, the abled body and its limits, desire and perversion, performance and subversion, stigma and masochism. Here, the women’s movement came in for critique, for being insufficiently interested in questions of sexual agency, transgression and pleasure. The conference in this sense helped define a critical impasse that we need to address, but not through a politics of blame alone.

Writers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan exchanged their stories of female heroism and undying optimism in surviving the trauma of war and devastation. They read from their work, and also spoke of the political and personal contexts that framed their writing.

Each of these sessions witnessed exchanges that were indignant, productive, angry and exhilarating. There were those who spoke with the righteousness and anger that comes from a sense of, often unexamined, political solitude and the frustration that is so endemic to the times. This was particularly so, when participants expressed anger over the continuing and terrible sexual violence that dalit and adivasi women are subject to by the agents of the Indian state.

Troubling and painful, such expressions of dismissive anger made it clear that we need to work on public memory, on what we have done and said in the past reflectively, and in critical moments redefine our location, as feminists.