Vibhuti Patel

How I came to be involved.

It was in 1972 that I started writing on the women’s question. I had translated Evelyn Reed’s book, Problems of Women’s Liberation from English into Gujarati and was active in a student’s group, Study and Struggle Alliance, and a trade union of textile workers in Vadodara. I became active in the women’s movement with the forming of the Vadodara branch of the Anti-Price Rise Women’s Committee under inspiration of Mrinal Gore, Ahalya Rangnekar, Manju Gandhi and Tara Reddy. They impressed me by their militant speeches, egalitarian ethos, willingness to do physical work, intellectual self-sufficiency and fearlessness. We were able to organize a massive rally of 5,000 working and lower middle-class women that culminated into a memorable public meeting in 1974. My association with Neera Desai enlightened me about Towards Equality Report and later on about women’s studies as an academic discipline. During the Emergency, 1975–1977, my group expressed solidarity with women prisoners and also wrote an open letter to Ajita Kunnikal Narayan who was languishing in prison in Kerala.

In 1977, I shifted to Mumbai for my PhD. 1977–1979 was an exciting time for me when I attended meetings of women’s liberationists, heard songs of Stree Mukti Sangathana for the first time and actively worked on women’s issues.

Campaigns I have been associated with.

In 1978, when a migrant housewife was raped in her hut at Mayanagar, Worli, we decided to plunge into action. We issued a leaflet in Hindi and Marathi and declared our group as the Socialist Women’s Group. We also decided to call a national level workshop of feminists and brought out background material in the form of a reading series and a contribution to feminism series in a cyclostyled form. Newly formed women’s groups in Delhi, Stree Sangharsh and Ankur, impressed me a lot due to their creative ways of thinking and an analytical vision to understand violence against women. Intense deliberations in the workshop convinced me that it is possible to reorganize our lives now, without waiting for a revolution. The slogan ‘Personal is political’ was raised in feminist literature, and now we were putting it into practice.

My extensive travelling during these years as a member of an inquiry committee to riot torn areas in Marathawada (caste), Gujarat (caste and communal), Bihar (communal), Madhya Pradesh (tribal) and Assam (communal) gave me a nuanced understanding of identity politics and its implication for women.

In 1980, the anti-rape movement brought out so many new talents in me. I started writing songs, skits, slogans, articles, resolutions and booklets on the various campaigns of the women’s movement. Doordarshan and All India Radio asked me to compère women’s programmes based on our activism. Though we were founders of the Forum against Rape, within six months we expanded its scope and renamed it Forum against Oppression of Women. Those were the days of street fighting, petitioning, sit-ins, demonstrations, rallies, arrest warrants, violence of abusive husbands and in-laws, cruel bosses and bullies. Every day, we were approached by women survivors of violence who needed institutional support. I joined Flavia, Ammu, Sujata and Rohini to start Women’s Centre that would provide counseling, legal support and crisis management for women (survivors of abuse) who approached us. There was so much publicity about our work that work pressure increased and we opened our homes to provide shelter to women. This soon resulted in a burn out. Money earned through freelancing was not enough. My house had become a commune.

During 1980–1988, I was actively involved in support work to women survivors of dowry harassment, sexual harassment at the workplace, rape and domestic violence. This also changed my attitude towards the existing system—court, law, police, government offices, employers. I strived for immediate redressal of problems (job, retrieval of streedhan, custody of child, share in property, admission in school-college, receiving part of the adulterous husband’s salary) of women who approached me. After 1980, I started accepting invitation to be a resource person for workshops of police, court, state government, local self-government bodies, employers’ organizations, Rotary-Lions Clubs, colleges and universities, churches.

As an organizer, I was actively involved in the first 4 conferences of women’s movement in 1980 and 1985 in Mumbai, 1988 in Patna and 1990 in Kozikode. I found atmosphere of solidarity, strength, sisterhood, creative learning and plural sources of feminist knowledge construction in those conferences. I feel terribly nostalgic about our group singing, group travelling, inter-generational dialogues, intellectually charged environment, emotionally throbbing scenarios, sharing food and caring for each other at the time of personal crisis and illness and determining collective destiny of women thro’ planning, policy initiative and inputs for legal reforms.

How I see the character of the movement changing:

NGOisation of women’s movement is responsible for changing character of women. Sustaining institutions are taking away lot of energy of feminists. I get to meet my buddies of 1980s days of collective action and collective wisdom in public functions organized by women’s groups, meetings of decision making bodies, grievance redressal cells in cases of sexual harassment as per Vishakha directive, technical group and task force s on gender issues by GOs and training programmes on PCPNDT Act, DV Act and Gender Responsive Budgets. Most of my contemporary feminists have been institution builders mentoring young women and acclimatizing them with feminist ethos. For them collective militant action is a STORY. They experience feminism through fighting for their individual rights and enhancing their capacities and entitlements within institutional hierarchies.

Whether or not I feel optimistic about the future:

I feel optimists because the younger generation is showing interest in feminism. Social movements have become sensitive to women’s question. Women’s studies has been mainstreamed in the academia. Women professionals-journalists, film-makers, writers in media have become pro-active in pushing women’s issues and women’s perspectives centre-stage. In spite of increased backlash violence due to male anxiety, women are marching ahead. Feminist Street fighters and foot soldiers are recognized as repositories of collective strength and analytical vision and their contribution for knowledge construction is valued.