Nandita Gandhi

Feminist Thoughts from Here and There

The thought “Hey, I was history!” zipped through my mind, when a young activist wanted to interview the 1970s feminists. Questions followed: how did you get involved in the women’s movement? What were your experiences?  I rummaged through my past to find that defining moment. I found, that unlike the comic books, there never is a flashing bulb type of realisation in one’s thought balloon.

My context was the 1970s, the fading dream of a socialist, self sufficient nation and the consequent search by ‘the midnight’s children’ for political alternatives and social change and economic development. You could not be a student in Bombay University and not run into someone speaking of the Dalit movement or hear of the student protests or be influenced by the numerous Marxist-Leninist in the campus. Instead of a teaching career, I opted to join a small group of engineers trying out alternative development models in the ‘small is beautiful’ Schumacher way. Like me, many women had joined alternative Left groups, the J P Movement, working with Adivasis or in slums. They also searched for a politics as we schooled ourselves in competing Left ideologies, looked for organisational forms that valued our efforts, and comrades that appreciated us.

History was made by Mathura. The young tribal woman had no idea that she had created a storm in our minds and hearts at the injustice done by the rapist policemen and the Supreme Court in the year 1979. Women from alternative groups, teachers, students, professionals converged together to protest. We did not know each other. Our bond – we knew that our respective groups would not take up the issue of rape. We knew that they would be sympathetic but argue that it was a sub-narrative to the larger class struggle. Our fear – where would all the Mathuras go whilst the class struggle was being waged? Where would we go? I felt that this was my struggle as much as other women’s. I was struggling along with them not for them. I was not the outsider, supporting and ideologically aligned with them. Socialist Feminism gave me the opportunity of maintaining my class perspective whilst incorporating a feminist one. A multiple identity let us retain our membership in our respective groups as well as the women’s group. A form of political ‘double burden’!

My excitement and commitment grew as the Forum against Rape became the Forum against Oppression of Women [1980] and we protested against dowry murders, domestic violence and sex selective foeticide. One of my favourite campaigns was the Train Campaign. All of us travelled in local trains and most of us had the experience of trying to squeeze into the ladies bogie, jostling past and arguing with shameless male trespassers. Women commuters grumbled but felt helpless. Men had over 10 ‘general’ compartments, which women could not even enter and only one 2nd class women’s bogie! And yet we did not have a right to travel in it without being sexually harassed. Which political party and women’s wing would take up this issue? It was not as big as price rise, not a worker’s issue and it did not encompass all women. Six million commuters suffered in overcrowded compartments. The solution would then be to demand for more trains. Once again a women’s issue lost in the gigantic overall-ness of a general issue. The Forum women would have none of it. We held a demonstration [1982] in front of the Western Railways headquarters. Lots of press coverage but no response. So we travelled in groups, ticketless, pushing men out of the compartments at each station from 6 in the evening to midnight for a week. Seeing us, other women took courage and action. I would like to believe that our actions not only got some police men on the stations but later saw the introduction of the now popular ladies special trains.

Mathura had transformed us into feminists. I wore the not so popular and maligned label quite proudly. It gave me a flexible and ever expanding lens to analyse my world. How did you come into the movement? Would you call yourself a feminist today? I asked my interviewer. Many of the young activists had been radicalised in foreign universities or cities. Others had movement based mothers and aunts, who had inspired them. A few had taken the research route or were so shaken up in feminist oriented workshops that they opted to join or take up women’s issues. A difficult context, much harder than mine, which had simply engulfed me in its movements. A globalised environment bereft of debate, idealism and a rainbow of ideologies. So had we entered the ‘post feminist’ age?

In common understanding, post feminism means having gone beyond feminism. Perhaps the new generation of young women feel that a lot has been achieved and we need to go beyond labels. No labels? No identity on the political landscape? Or do we need new ones? And what about me in a post feminist age? I do get a bit annoyed with new terminology. Words and concepts along with our actions create our politics. When we use the common term gender for just about everything, I wonder why we don’t call ourselves ‘genderists’ believing in ‘genderism’. It does go into diluting our strategies. Many of the younger activists would identify themselves as feminists but think that they would rather go beyond the label. The ‘tacit feminists’ dwell on subjectivities and many engage in micro programs. Another category can be called ‘identity feminists’ whose focus has shifted from women to marginalised sections of women in our society. Then there are the queer feminists taking up sexuality issues and have turned the earlier notions of pornography and sex upside down.

Feminism with whatever name is just as relevant today as it was earlier. I am optimistic. I believe that together we will re-invent feminism and push it in different ways and forms.