Arti Sawhny

My Journey with the Women’s Movement

The decades of the seventies saw a surge of youth energy engaging with issues of poverty, development, exploitation and involving themselves in processes of change. It was the era of the J.P. movement for ‘Sampooran Kranti’, the ‘Naxalite movement’ and it was also a time when the presence of the autonomous women’s movement began to be felt across India. The overall ethos was that of dissatisfaction; polity was in turmoil and the search for alternatives was on. Delhi University had become the hub of activity. While there was all this churning and action, in contrast, only a short distance away there was another world which had remained unaffected and had continued to show a lack of concern. The medical college where I studied was located in this insulated and dehumanized world, and there was almost no scope for articulating the sense of alienation one experienced.

My decision to opt out of the rat race and head for rural Rajasthan stemmed from a deep need to do something meaningful and to use my knowledge to reach the out-of-reach. However, medical education had blinkered my vision and in my earlier interactions my world view was that of medical problems and solutions therein. It was later exposure to issues of caste, class, exploitation, poverty, the excesses of the population control drive with forced sterilizations, and the plight of women that helped me make broader linkages. However, I was still located within the paradigm of the ‘rural development model’ and was restless. It was now apparent that the bulk of the prevailing medical conditions was creations of the prevailing imbalances within the overall society and needed to be tackled at that level.

This search prompted me to embark on a ‘bharat dharshan’ in the late 1970s in order to meet people involved in processes of societal change and widen my understanding. It was by sheer coincidence that I came across women who were part of the Forum Against Oppression for Women, Bombay, and got to attend some of their meetings to discuss the fallouts of the ‘Mathura rape case’. I attended the first conference of the autonomous women’s movement in 1980 in Bombay, which was my introduction to the autonomous women’s movement – Delhi groups, Manushi; the slogan ‘personal is political’; Women’s Day, etc. At a later stage, during my travels in Madhya Pradesh, this prompted a spontaneous Women’s Day celebration in a small town Pipariya, and later the composition and performance of a dance drama on the stages of a women’s life, in Hoshangabad. Both these occasions drew on the talent of ordinary women and the response was overwhelming. Subsequently, at a meeting of the Medicos Friends Circle in Udaipur, when one of the project directors from the Women’s Development Project (WDP), Ajmer asked me to help them work on the issue of women and health, I was delighted – this gave me an opportunity to put into practice the shift in my own knowledge system.

My one-year involvement with the ‘health project’ provided opportunities for intense interactions with the Sathins and village women across eight blocks of Ajmer district, Rajasthan, though ‘shivirs’, workshops and village meetings. The interaction on issues of sexuality and fertility began with discussions on drawings of women’s bodies with the reproductive organs. This process helped to deepen our understanding of the prevalent notions of sexuality and fertility. Further, it was also an exposure to the local forms of expressions and folk drawings, which had a much more holistic world view, with a shared understanding of the symbols that were being used by the women. Pehli Kitab: Sheerer Ki Jankari took shape through a collective process which spanned a year. However, this fueled new debates on collective authorship versus individual authorship; the issues related to copyright, and it also brought out the contradictions which exist within the alternate publishing processes.

The health project exposed us to the energy, enthusiasm and dedication of the Sathins (the grassroot worker of the WDP). As part of their training the Sathins had reflected on their own oppression as ‘women’ and had understood existing social stereotypes based on gender and the need to change these. They had realized change was within their grasp and there was nothing to stop them. Grassroot level women’s collectives had by now mushroomed across villages and a range of developmental, social and domestic, and gender issues began to be taken up. The existing feudal and patriarchal structure began to be challenged. This met with a lot of resistance and opposition. However, the Sathins drew strength from within the Sathin network as well as from the upper level WDP functionaries during the initial stages of the programme. ‘Jajams’ or village forums were designed to bring women from different strata of society together on a common platform. At this stage, there was apparent camaraderie amongst the women working at the different levels of the programme.

During this time, we came across severe famine conditions and famine works started by the government to provide some employment to those struggling to survive. The contradictory nature of the state was exposed by the ruthless manner in which the population control programme was being implemented simultaneously. Employment at the famine works was conditional to being sterilized in order to fulfill targets. The prevailing condition of the sterilization camps was appalling; young, anaemic and sick women were being driven into being tubectomized out of desperation for employment; men and women had been registered three to four times under different names in different sterilization camps; and there was a lot of exploitation at the famine work site and full wages were being denied.

We responded to this by bringing out two issues of the Sathin-ro-kagaz (a newsletter). The first responded to issues of the population control excesses and gave related information. The second spelt out the norms of measurements and payments for the famine works. The response to these was overwhelming. There were several spontaneous protests, and all sections of the village community began reading the newsletter. Within WDP, we were accused of violating our mandate by not confining ourselves to the issue of ‘health’. Tensions arose between the employees at different levels of WDP and the health project was wound up. Women workers within the hierarchy of WDP were forced to take sides. Seeds of the Sathin Union were sown.

The Sathin Union provided the Sathins with an opportunity to reflect on their own exploitation within a programme that purported women’s empowerment. They now realized that they did not even have the status of a worker and received a paltry honorarium of 200 rupees per month. The contradictions within WDP became apparent. The union meetings became forums for raising issues for worker status, and also provided grassroot networking for local and common issues as women. The union was a registered trade union and did not take external institutionalized funding. The union parchas began to be read within the village community and discussions revolved around the nature of the state.

The Sathins as well as village women had begun redefining the socially accepted stereotype of ‘woman’ and gender relationships, and were breaking out of the confines of a caste ridden feudal society. The challenges were great but the support was overwhelming, both at the state and national levels. Sustaining the union was increasingly becoming difficult and there was a need to link up with larger networks. The choice was difficult. Women’s wings of the left political parties and anganwadi unions supported the struggle for workers’ rights but the space for the fight for rights as women was limited. Within the autonomous women’s movement an entire section stayed away as they felt giving support would legitimize government programmes for women’s empowerment. The onslaught of globalization further deepened the struggles and the women’s question now began to be looked at within the neo-liberal models of development. Funding and notions of autonomy became major issues of discussion, and there was large scale NGOization of the autonomous women’s movement. Democratic spaces were greatly reduced. The women’s question was absorbed within state run programmes on the one hand and it had begun to find some space within peoples’ movements on the other.

Currently we are at a difficult phase in history, where retaining the space for the women’s movement is in itself a struggle. There is a need to reflect on the woman’s question in the changing context and guard against dangers of being swamped by the forces of globalization.

arti sawhny