File spoon-archives/marxism-international.archive/marxism-international_1997/97-04-03.022, message 6

Date: Mon, 31 Mar 1997 12:45:27 -0800 (PST)
Subject: M-I: Women's Struggles in India


Actually, I happen to be an Indian who was born and bred in the US, and I'm
currently writing from Turkey. I used to follow those matters pretty closely,
but I have nothing from the past year or year and a half. I'll give you a few
impressions circa 1995.

>But as you can see from what I said before that point, I share your anger
>at how gender-equality issues have been used by imperialists.

Yes, but what is much worse is the extent to which many feminists have been and
are buying into that. More below.

>Another subject of Mani's investigation around this issue is what kind of
>arguments are used by each side to advance their position, and I think her
>finding is that throughout this debate, women mostly remained the object
>rather than subject of discourse.

"Mostly," of course, is understatement. I don't think that one could
legitimately claim that women even started becoming a subject of any such
discourse in India until maybe the 1980's. In Rammohun Roy's time, it was
highly understandable. The profundity of the backwardness and decadence into
which Indian society at large had settled by that time is such that it's
surprising that even a privileged aristocrat like him could rise up to inject
however feeble a breath of something new into the air. Of course, one could
point out that, even in the Western world, with the exception of a few people
like Mary Wollstonecraft, women had until that point been almost entirely an
object in the discourse on the "woman question."

Throughout the rest of the 19th-century social reform movements and, in a
different form, in the Gandhian movements, the main point around which the
rhetoric revolved was that of "saving" women. One of the main thrusts, for
example, in the widow remarriage movement, was of a few men of high social
standing marrying widows to save them from what was, of course, a horrible
life, and to provide an example for others. The trope of the privileged person
(whether by reason of aristocratic birth, like Rammohun Roy, or simple
holiness, like Gandhi) sacrificing himself (or occasionally herself) for others
has been a dominant one in political movements (even including class-based
movements like trade unionism) in India since the beginning of time (which most
Indians think they have the sole claim on). Even today, it's a very rare member
of the lower classes who repudiates the idea of condescending saviors.

>That sounds about right to me. You are Indian, right? Are you still in
>India? Can you say more about the state of women's struggles there? I would
>very much appreciate up-to-date information. I think the interplay of class
>forces and ideologies is becoming even more complex, with the import of
>postmodernism in India itself.

I have been meaning for some time to write something about the connections
between postmodernism and various kinds of new social movement arising in the
third world, most notably in India. I think that Marxists have not been
spending enough effort on understanding these movements, what they portend, and
what, if anything, can be done with them. 

The ideological landscape in India is profoundly confused. Even to begin to
understand anything in India, one has to appreciate the multiplicity of the
lines of fracture, and the near absence of any kind of coherent view of bipolar
opposition (such as labor-capital or people-state). In addition to the serious
divisions along the lines of class, caste, religion, ethnic identity, language,
gender (and none of these is just for show -- the caste system is Byzantine in
complexity, with government policies leading to bizarre blocs such as those
between upper castes and untouchables against certain middle-level castes,
there is a major religious minority comprising 11% of the population, in
addition to some major divides in Hinduism itself, there are 15 major languages
spoken, there are sizeable pockets of indigenous tribal populations -- at least
there are only two sexes), there are disarticulation of local authorities from
central authorities, state governments from the national government, local
leaders with private armies from government of any kind, all riven through with
a bizarre network of patron-client relations which determine everything that
goes on.

This kind of background makes it impossible, for example, to understand the
Indian labor movements in the kind of way that Marxists typically analyze labor
movements. It also explains why popular resistance in India has taken such
fragmented and incoherent forms.

What are the forms? With regard to women's struggles in particular, I would
classify as follows: anti-domestic violence/rape/bride burning groups,
associations of petty producers, rural uplift/literacy/empowerment programs,
legal support of various kinds. Actually, all of these functions often exist
under the aegis of a single group. There are, of course, other categories, but
they're generally not as significant.

In general, the state of women's rights in every sphere is abysmal. Although
for many purposes, there is formal equality under the law (including an equal
pay for equal work clause, unlike in the US), in practice, this means nothing.
The Indian Supreme Court has, within the past few years, upheld decisions
exonerating rapists because, well, what can a guy do if he gets excited, for
example. All in all, no right of legal redress whatsoever exists, with the
combination of hostile police, a mind-numbingly slow legal process, and
stone-age judges. 

As a result, there has been a considerable rise in women's groups taking things
into their own hands. Such efforts (a bunch of women beat and belabor an
accused rapist, for example) are sporadic and individually oriented, but they
do of course provide something of a deterrent in certain communities.

I'll mention a little about a few groups I know of. First, there's a feminist
(although they make a point of not calling themselves feminist) journal called
Manushi. Like almost everything in India, it is run as a private fiefdom, in
this case of a rather interesting woman named Madhu Kishwar. She rejects
Western bourgeois feminism, traditional leftism, any and all kinds of statism.
What she puts in its place is not clear. If one could define the political line
of the magazine in one word it would be Gandhian, but that tells one little in
practice. Manushi is probably the most influential "leftist" feminist journal
in the country, but it seems to have very little of a theoretical core, and,
consequently, is apt to take rather surprising views. For example, it (meaning
Kishwar) supported GATT, with an article ostensibly looking at its impacts from
the point of view of a typical peasant, who would benefit from removal of the
negative government subsidy to small agricultural producers. If anything, it
seemed more to be taking the rural elite -- rich peasants and landlords -- as
its constituency. Similarly, it (as many women's organizations) often advocates
collaboration with reactionary forces such as religious groups and leaders of
traditional communities.

Then there's SEWA  -- the Self-Employed Women's Association -- in Ahmedabad.
It's basically a cooperative of sorts composed mostly of female hawkers --
women who sell vegetables and fruits on the street. It helps them with legal
questions, police harassment, and credit, primarily. About 10 years ago, it
fought a major battle to get them the legal right to do business, since
licenses were subject to severe restrictions earlier. Although it has the form
of a mustual association of petty producers, it, like the majority of NGOs in
India, is run by elite and middle-class women who help poor women as volunteers
or (a few) full-time paid workers. Its founder, Ela Bhatt, arranges all kinds
of international funding, including World Bank (if I remember correctly), and
is an honorary member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of India's

Jagori (Awakening) is an example of the most common type of group. Based in
Delhi, it's an all-purpose women's issues group, taking on primarily matters
like domestic violence and sexual harassment. These are dealt with not only in
the city, but also in educational programs in rural areas. I talked to the
woman who runs it a few years ago. The question that was uppermost in my mind
was, given the tremendous extent of the class divide in India (the bottom 50%
or so of the populace is malnourished), why the vast majority of the new groups
springing up were specifically feminist, usually with only a minor element of
class involved. She was a sensible, intelligent young woman, and she firmly
maintained, even when I asked her straight out, that gender is more important
than class, that poor women and rich women have their interests more in common
than poor women and poor men.

The vast majority of women's groups, once they get big enough, get funding from
first world nonprofit foundations, many from the World Bank and similarly
progressive institutions. Although there are efforts directed at poor women,
they are almost all based on an ideology of class collaboration, of
middle-class women teaching poor women how to protect themselves from men. This
has gotten rather long, so I'll try to give a more coherent picture of the
situation in India in a later post.


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