Feminist Bina Agarwal Leads Campaign for Gender Equality in India

Bina Agarwal is Director and Professor of Economics at the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi. Educated at the universities of Cambridge and Delhi, she has held distinguished positions at Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Minnesota and New York. Her pioneering and award-winning book – A Field of One’s Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia – helped place the issue of women’s land rights in the national and global policy arena. In 2005, she catalysed a successful campaign for gender equality in Hindu inheritance law. In this excerpt, she talks about her struggle to bridge the two worlds of academic rigour and grassroots relevance.

It was not always easy for me to straddle two worlds of activism and academia. Activist meetings began in the middle if the day and stretched into the evenings. To meet the demands of both worlds, I found myself running across either end of the city. Also, in the initial euphoria of democratic decision-making, even simple decisions could take hours in an effort to arrive at a consensus by seeking to convince the last septic. It was rare to decide by vote. Nor was punctuality a strong point at such meetings. I would often arrive on time to find only the organizers in the room, as people strolled in a half hour or even an hour later. Over time I adjusted to the Indian’ time clock, but still remained among the early ones.

Since the movement was led largely by full-time activists it was the professional women who had to adjust or stretch their calendars to participate. Foe the activists, organizing, lobbying, demonstrating was part of the job, so to speak; for others, such as myself, such activity was apart from my job. After several years of trying to do both, in the late 1980s I finally to the difficult decision of demarcating the role I could play constructively. I decided to support the causes I valued mainly through my writings, academic or popular, rather than by participating in the daily decision-making processes of the groups I was linked with, although I continued to sign petitions and join street rallies. It was a sensible decision which gave me time for what I was best at and reduced conflicting pulls, although I did miss the excitement of the collective process.

Over the years I have, however, sought to bridge the worlds of academic rigour and grassroots relevance in several ways. First, I have written on subject that relate to the lives of most disadvantaged women. For me, perhaps the most heart-warming reception to ‘A Field of One’s Own’ – beyond the academic acclaim and prizes the book garnered – was a simple statement by Pamela Philipose (echoed by others) who said at a large public gathering: “Bina has written a book for all of us, for the women’s movement.” Second, I have tried to write not only for academic journals but also in forms that could prove useful to practitioners and policy-makers. A 2002 pamphlet of mine entitled, “Are we not peasants, too?” published by the Population Council (New York) and translated into Hindi and Gujarati is an example. I was told by a women’s rights activist that the village women considered the pamphlet their prized procession. “Even though they cannot read it, they have memorised the page they may ask to be opened in a court room or during a village council meeting, to get across the fact that women do have land rights.”

I have also proactively shared my research with grassroots groups through continued interaction, and by conducting workshops for them in India and elsewhere, as in Bangladesh, Nepal and South Africa. Academically, critiquing mainstream economics while engaging with it, writing on gender while working in mainstream academic institutions, has not been easy, but it has brought dividends, enabling me to chart my own path in research and taking me forward professionally. Over the last two decades, I have also sought to influence policy, both by directly participating in policy forums, such as working groups for formulating India’s five year plans, and via interventions in legal reform, such as by catalysing a campaign in 2005 for the amendment of India’s inheritance laws to make them gender equal. Here, my substantial research on inheritance and land laws in South Asia proved invaluable. Opportunities to use one’s research to make a significant practical impact are rare, and I still wonder at the conjecture of factors that led to the success of the Hindu Succession Amendment Act (HSAA) campaign.

The 1980s was a period dominated (at least implicitly) by the idea of ‘romantic sisterhood’, as opposed to ‘strategic sisterhood’ – a distinction I drew while writing about the World Conference on Women in Beijing a decade later. Romantic sisterhood lay in the idea that women would get along with other women because they had so much in common – ‘all sisters under the sari’, so to speak, borrowing a phrase from Geraldine Forbes, who used to describe the idealised notions about women prevalent during the first wave of the women’s movement in India. Although the 1980s movement recognised the structural inequalities of class or caste and women’s potential tyranny towards other women within in-law relationships (such as mothers-in-law towards brides), interpersonal conflicts between women within the movement were glossed over. Yet all around us, just as women were forging bonds, so they were also falling out. Friendships were forming but also breaking up. Although the movement challenged patriarchal power relations, there was a silence around relations of power and oppression among feminists themselves. Would recognising the conflicts have fractured solidarity within the movement? Surely the opposite would have happened if we had discussed the power plays and heartbreaks. Would this not have offered an alternative vision of gender relations?

(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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