Travelling down the memory lane, I see through the uncurtained window of a neighbour, a woman being kicked and slapped by him almost every third day. The kicking–slapping sessions used to be absolutely silent, without any sound from either of the two. The silence created an aura and elevated the act almost to the ‘dignity’ of a ritual. Like many other rituals, it produced discomfort, almost revolt; yet it was there as an ‘inevitable’, beyond question or escape!
Located in a small city without much exposure to modernity, as a child I was witness to many discomforting inevitables – a sweeper boy being beaten with sticks just because he slept on the parapet of a higher caste Hindu’s shop, lesser-than-human category of people called ‘servants’, the contempt-filled existence of those whose husbands had died or dithered, obsessive worries of parents regarding their not-so-fair-skinned daughters, and so on.
The window and all these events were deeply disturbing, leaving bad scratches inside. Incapable of even formulating questions with clarity, I remained confusingly restive and angry. The anger and the scratches kept company much longer, growing bigger as I grew, making road for the forthcoming protests and interventions, beginning from school and college hostels to the wider areas of the university and the society. In the study of philosophy, my faculty of reason, as well as my faith in it, flourished which helped me in the formation of ideology and social critique.
The impressive images of slogans, raised hands and saree-wrapped feet marching steadily in solidarity were not much available, at least not with much credibility and impact though some of them entered my consciousness later along with discourses of some marginally active women’s organizations as well as the readings of socially committed literature. Acquaintance with the women’s movement was more through literature and media, but none of the ‘hit-and-stay’ moments are registered in the mind. The closest memory of such moments is that of Uttarakhand movement which was mainly led by women where the stories of, and about, Razia Sajjad Zaheer and Rashid Jahan had greater impact.
My street and gali-mohalla encounters with gender issues came via my obsessive concerns on communal questions. My concern for secularism, democracy and equal citizenship introduced the issues of women’s rights to my agenda as my involvement with communal issues deepened. Incidentally, posters were my first mode of expression on gender. The first public event on women’s issues organized by me was an exhibition of handmade posters alongwith some plays and songs on communal harmony.
Women’s movement has grown tremendously over the period. Happily, it has diversified its concerns for a great variety of women’s groups and classes along with widening the range of issues. Emerging from imagery of victimhood, it is bringing forward the rights-claiming images as well. In this sense, the women’s movement in India seems to be maturing.
However, as I see it, it has some challenges and shortcomings too. The challenge is to save it from a variety of co-options such as, the market forces which are redefining freedom, choice and autonomy of a woman in a patriarchy-friendly manner. While modernity is being re-shaped as only a handmaiden to the tradition, the womanhood is being re-rooted into body-centric and sexually usable confines. To hold on to its moorings of autonomous personhood and equal citizenship for women is a big challenge for women’s movement. Equally serious is the co-option of the movement by the fundamentalist and divisive forces which celebrate women’s participation in nation-building to serve certain forms of xenophobic or jingoistic nationalism. Many more hurdles are lurking in the gallery where women’s movement has to tread very cautiously.
And this can be done only by developing a robust ideology on gender, a wider vision of human society and a clear critique of existing structures of culture and religion. The biggest shortcoming of the women’s movement is that more often the activists spurn ideology and jump into activism without any clear understanding of the issues or even without a clear strategy to handle the phenomenon which leads to grave mistakes and sends wrong message.
Secondly, the approach of the women’s movement is still too exclusive, mostly grappling with the distortions of femininity. I feel that in today’s scenario, not only there is a need to pay more attention to masculinity and the third sex, but also to include in our account the constructions and the constraints of the world as men see it.
Roop Rekha Verma(Professor)