When Zubaan asked to me to write about my involvement with the Indian women’s movement I had to think back in time. I can’t honestly say I was part of the women’s movement in India. I was a witness and still am. I started my career in rural Madhya Pradesh designing science education programmes for rural school children. In 1973 I went to the US to study and moved back to India at the end of 1990.
During this time I visited India almost every year, as my field of interest and work was and is development. At that time I was not aware of any current women’s movements. In 1978, on a visit to India, I met Vina Mazumdar and Ela Bhatt as part of an article I was researching on the changing women of India. Vina Mazumdar had put together, with others, the impressive Status of Women in India Report in preparation for the 1975 UN World Conference on Women and Ela Bhatt had just started SEWA. In this and subsequent visits to India I met Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia, Gouri Chowdhury, Kamla Bhasin, Madhu Kishwar, Sonal Shukla, Vibhuti Patel and Devaki Jain – women who were bringing about change where they were and providing thoughtful leadership to women and other movements. In the early 1980s I met the writer and environmentalist Anil Agarwal. We travelled to Chamoli in Uttarakhand and wrote about women in the Chipko movement. In 1984, I made a film on sex selection with Mira Nair in Mumbai, meeting local feminists and activists who felt strongly about the issue. I attended the second Indian Association of Women’s studies in Trivandrum and got to know about the many concerns of women in and outside academia.
Still living and working in the US, in 1986 I moved to Italy to manage the Women’s Feature Service (WFS), a news feature service on development issues written by women journalists. The India office generated many articles about how women were working to change their reality. I was geographically closer to India and visiting more often and got to hear about and see the movements more regularly. The reportage on struggles of women was better, and women got a little better at handling the media.
In 1991, the WFS moved to India as an independent organization and I was able to witness firsthand, the women’s movements. It was a good time to be back in India. The economy was opening up; there were new challenges to women’s movements. In 1992, there was a special event in Jhansi, Madhya Pradesh, on women and the literacy movement. I took a video crew and we produced a documentary called ‘Where Women are Leaders’. The revolutionary bill that provided 33 per cent reservation to women in Panchayati Raj Institutions was passed in 1994, bringing 1 million women into local governance. Through the WFS, the freelance journalists reported on movements – which by then had spread to issues of violence against women, sexual harassment at the workplace, inequality in wages and job opportunities, and many other issues. These were local and regional struggles, with some national level activity. I attended gatherings of national alliances and regional groupings on these issues. The WFS wrote articles and produced radio programmes and documentaries (which were broadcast on All India Radio and Doordarshan, respectively).
I witnessed the commitment, passion and hard work of women as they articulated issues and organized around them. However, while this came from a good place, it did not transfer into the kinds of changes that were needed. This, in my view, was because the strategies to achieve the goals were not thought through and little energy was spent in learning to work with one another, as individuals and groups. This is still true today as there are many differences, in ideology and processes, and competition among groups. There was a great deal of talk and discussion about the problems of women and their causes, with emphasis on patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism and religious influences. The theoretical and lived reality of women’s lives needed solutions that addressed the complexities and not generalities or ‘isms’.
The campaigns spearheaded by women’s movements (rape, sex selection, land, liquor, etc.) have focused on laws and policies and called for punitive measures, which cannot be long term. The kind of engagement needed at every institutional level – family, schools, religious orders, governance – was not considered important. In a country where law and order are extremely poor, I was and still am surprised at the faith women’s movements have in just introducing or amending existing laws.
Is the women’s movement changing? I am not sure. At meetings I hear some senior women saying young women need to come into the movement, while young women say there is no place in the movement for them. The movement from the 1970s till now has been decentralized and highly localized. Representation at the national level is done by select NGOs, which come together in coalitions for some campaigns (e.g., 33 per cent reservation for women, violence against women), but otherwise there is no visible and consistent lobbying in Parliament in the centre or states. A larger, holistic view of a woman friendly India is needed and that articulation has barely begun.
The changes in women’s lives – in education, opportunity, personal growth and aspiration may have a lot more to do with the growth in the Indian economy and individual women seizing these opportunities. Women’s movements have not been strategic enough to navigate and negotiate places that will either empower women or give them a life of dignity. There are individual women and NGOs who doggedly pursue this, assisted by the UN system, international donors and foundations that have supported women’s struggles, and some sympathetic bureaucrats in government.
For the women’s movement to have a real impact, it needs to step outside its circle and engage with those who can become their allies – the government, media and other groups. Changing hearts and minds is a real challenge and requires a very strategic approach. I am an optimist so I believe that women’s lives will change for the better. Some of this will be the result of women’s movements.
April 14, 2011