Laxmi Murthy

One morning in June 1994, Delhi-ites opened their newspapers to photographs of women – saris hitched up and dupattas flowing – scaling the walls of a building in Lajpat Nagar. I identified my ample posterior in one. So did many others. This was the historic “break-in” of the secretive launch of Depo Provera, the injectable contraceptive that we had been campaigning against for more than a decade. The Drugs Controller had invited manufacturers Upjohn and Max Pharma, its Indian counterpart, to “clarify myths” about Depo. The absence of an invitation did not deter us from barging in. We might have lacked feminine etiquette, but we were able to challenge the manufacturers with our well-researched scientific and logical arguments. Uptight comments in the media followed for weeks. Why, oh why, are feminists so unruly, they moaned. If only they would just dialogue. This was before gentile ‘consultations’ and ‘interactions’ became de rigueur. Those were the days of unbridled outrage and righteous anger.

I was involved in the women’s health movement in Bombay in the mid-1980s, and moving to Delhi, gravitated towards Saheli. Here too, the campaign against sex determination was picking up pace, and protests against Net En, and other hazardous contraceptives were strong. But autonomous women’s groups frown upon “compartmentalization”, so, like all members, I was licking stamps along with trying to lick the system. Visual memories of those days are strong…the poster exhibition on hazardous contraception and women’s health was coming to life, and all were welcome to draw, or colour the hair or grass.

Quite a bit has changed for women. Just one example: mobility for women has vastly improved. Campaigns for safety in public spaces, against sexual harassment, secure public transport etc, have made a dent, and one can see a lot many more women in public spaces, even at night. Of course, more has changed for educated, English-speaking, urban, upper caste and upper class Hindu women, who have been in a position to access the policies and resources made available. But for large numbers of poor, Dalit, Muslim, Adivasi, disabled, old, widowed or sick women, life has not changed all that much. A lot remains to be done: the women’s liberation movement is as relevant today.

But at another level, I think what is needed is also to go beyond “rights”. While access to rights is basic, what next? And what about situations that are not amenable to rights alone – for instance intimate relationships. Many women come to women’s groups saying, “Just make him respect me, not take me for granted. Make him see that he loves me.” And no movement can do that. In intimate relationships, women often bear the brunt of being dumped, being more emotionally bruised etc. Women’s groups have often been forced to take, or veered towards taking moralistic positions, especially when it comes to sexual/emotional relationships. Feminists have also opposed the “Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage” provision, on grounds that women would get the wrong end of the stick. But all of us know that some relationships do breakdown irretrievably, and the “Fault Theory” of divorce is not universal.

Likewise, although some city-based autonomous groups have come some way in their perspectives on sexuality, sex work or non-heterosexual relationships, the insularity of these groups precludes a broader participation. The unspoken (and sometimes stated) superciliousness has managed to cause unnecessary dissension within groups.

What the women’s movement is still fighting for – rights, access, respect, dignity – are still far from being achieved. But the movement might benefit from listening to what women really want – varied wants, and of many shades, not a rigid, doctrinaire, humourless ideology that is far removed from most women’s lives, and caters more to a cardboard cut-out of “activist”.

The insularity and obsession with “positions” and “stands” sometimes to the exclusion of nuance and what “real” women actually want, leads to routinized protests. It is not coincidental that some of the more spontaneous, large scale mobilizations of “ordinary” citizens around crimes against women, has not been initiated by women’s groups, who have been unable to tap public outrage without getting bogged down in semantics, inter-group rivalry or rigid notions of “democratic process”. For example, the protests following the Jessica Lal and the Priyadarshini Mattoo cases in Delhi, the Ruchika Girhotra case in Chandigarh and the Marine Drive rape in Mumbai were led by broader coalitions of civil society, students and progressive groups. Maybe that’s a good thing, but one can’t help feeling that somehow, the women’s movement missed the bus.

Just like all institutions, institutionalized feminism can be stifling, intolerant, rule bound, fundamentalist, with a rigid feminist caste system. It can also be exclusionary and myopic, with space only for super committed feminist superwomen, not women with kids or other family responsibilities, sick women, disabled or older women. Autonomous women’s groups also need to creatively resolve issues of feminist leadership, and the creative exercise of power, in order not to flounder and take refuge behind the fable of “collectivism”. Yet, amid the “mainstreaming” of the movement, proliferation of NGOs and government-run women’s schemes, I miss the euphoria of the 80’s movement – the fun, the daring, the energy, the exuberance and the noise of the autonomous women’s movement. Indeed, it is these very small groups that have taken, head-on, issues that no one has wanted to or dared to touch, and ask questions no one else wants to ask, unfettered by donor agendas or bureaucracy. One can only hope that intellectual rigour, melded to passionate resistance and forging fresh alliances is bound to break new ground.

11 April, 2011

Laxmi Murthy is Associate Editor, Himal South Asia, based in Kathmandu.