The late seventies and the subsequent decade of the eighties were some of the most exciting and turbulent years for the women’s movement across the country,and Maharashtra was no exception. Studying for my graduation at Fergusson College in Pune, I found myself in the company of a group of Marxist friends, who introduced me to the exciting world of politics and shattered many notions that are a product of what was otherwise a fairly typical, sheltered upper-caste, middle-class existence. Fortunately for me, many of them met on what was the terrace of the house next door; it was much later that I came to know that it belonged to one of Maharashtra’s best-known Marxist intellectuals, D.K. Bedekar! I suppose many of the debates went over my head, but I was drawn to them because they talked of things that were never mentioned in my home – words like class and feminism and surplus value, and names like Marx and Trotsky. And one day I found myself in the midst of what turned out to be the first ‘juloos’ (march) of my life! I still remember the sense of embarrassment that I might be spotted by a family acquaintance, as we wound our way shouting slogans through one of Pune’s main thoroughfares. Organised under the banner of ‘Purogami Mahila Sanghatana’, it culminated at the Deccan cinema hall, its frontage adorned by a huge cut-out of a semi-nude Zeenat Aman in the film Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram. Years later, the image returned to me in Bangalore city, where I was part of an AIDWA protest against the Miss World contest – making it clear that it was not the bathing suits that offended us, but the fact that the contest was a well-thought out strategy of the international beauty industry to penetrate the Indian market.
Somewhere between these two events, I had completed my post-graduation in Development Economics at the London School of Economics, returned to Pune in 1982 and had started to earn a living. A large number of women’s groups had come into existence by then, and ‘stree-mukti’ was a hotly debated issue in Pune, a city with a rich tradition of social reform movements led by Mahatma Jotiba and Savitri Phule, Maharshi Karve and others. A series of lectures on contemporary issues in feminist thought brought me into contact with the fledgling AIDWA unit and its organizers. What attracted me was the fact that they did not confine themselves only to issues of violence – they were equally concerned with the day to day problems of ordinary women – wages, employment, price rise, etc. And they were not only appealing to women to “speak out”, they were actually making them do so in novel ways. While AIDWA activists chained themselves to the gates of Parliament in New Delhi to protest against the denial of relief to Muslim women under Section 125 of the CrPC, and the Muslim Women’s Bill introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986, scores of women with black cloth muzzles marched on the streets of Pune, expressing their solidarity with them. I was struck by both the magnitude of the injustice being done to Muslim women, and the intensely political action that sought to protest against it. Here is an organization, I thought, that not only speaks for different sections of women, but seeks to strike at the very system that is responsible for their secondary status, and problems. I joined AIDWA in 1986 and never looked back. Participating in a huge march along with thousands of women demanding work and wages on the streets of Delhi in 1989, I met stalwarts like Ahilya Rangnekar, Vimal Ranadive and Susheela Gopalan, who made a deep impression on me and further strengthened my resolve to work for the organization.
Over the years, I too have grown with the organization and am now one of its numerous whole-timers. Along with them, I grapple on a daily basis with the myriad issues that flow out of this immensely unequal socio-economic system, with its layers of oppression based on a complex intertwining of class, caste, patriarchy and region. As the juggernaut of neo-liberal economic policies rolls along, the issues come fast and thick, at a pace that leaves us all gasping – rising prices and a weakened public distribution system, the poor working conditions of home based and domestic workers, the agrarian crisis, crimes of honour, domestic, sexual and political violence especially against marginalized sections such as dalit and tribal women, the problems of minority women, child sexual abuse, sex selection, sexual harassment at the workplace, the list is endless. Along with it is the challenge posed by fundamentalist forces that seek to co-opt women into their sectarian project that seeks to divide rather than unite. Gujarat – 2002 is indelibly imprinted in my memory, the desolate images of women in relief camps, their homes razed and their livelihood destroyed. Every time I despair at the callousness with which the ruling dispensation forces its neo-liberal policies onto ordinary people, or the power of sectarian forces to overwhelm any attempts to build class and gender solidarities across caste and community, I am reminded of the resilience of ordinary women, whose wage a daily struggle in their lives. They continue to inspire me to carry on this battle for equality.
Unfortunately the women’s movement that was so strong and articulate in the eighties, when I joined it, has become increasingly fragmented and depoliticized. Struggles have been replaced by ‘advocacy’ and joint platforms by ‘networks’, the ubiquitous term “NGO’ covering organizations of all hues without demarcation. Instead of critiquing the state, there is a tendency to accommodate within the framework of government committees and commissions. I do believe that the current juncture calls for a serious appreciation of the challenges of imperialist globalization and the resurgence of patriarchal and conservative ideologies. The fact that women all over the world are mobilizing in large numbers against their own oppression is in itself is a call to the women’s movement to once again rise to the occasion and provide the militancy and ideological understanding to support their struggles.
All India Democratic Women’s Association