AUTONOMOUS POLITICS: On the razor’s edge


Souvenir 2006

autonomy. n. power or right to govern oneself or itself; free-will. autonomic, a. spontaneous; involuntary. autonomous, a. self- governing.

Saheli was formed in 1981 in what is known as the second wave of feminism that saw the birth of many women’s groups across the country. In India, it was characterised by the post-Emergency scenario that saw many women leave Left parties and socialist formations because of either being marginalised within them or for the lack of focus on women’s issues. This period also corresponds to some major events in the West. The campaign against rape in the late seventies in India saw a militant women’s resistance that spread across all towns and cities. In Delhi, particularly, the protest against dowry deaths was gaining momentum. There was a highly felt need to create women’s organisations to address our problems in society and bring them to the public’s attention. The impetus was to link our individual and collective struggles with the emancipation of women across the world. This bonding, this sisterhood, came together through joint activity and consciousness-raising. It drew sharp reactions from the Left and socialist formations for being sectarian and the usual palliative that women’s problems would be addressed in a new democratic setup. Isn’t this dividing the class struggle? Do you need a separate women’s movement? Are all women equal? The questions and reactions were the same here as they have historically been across the globe whenever the women’s movement demanded women’s place in society. Our struggle for visibility of women’s issues raged on and we swiftly began to make a difference. Yet over the years, the co-option of gender issues or ‘mainstreaming’ of women’s issues has been a mixed bag. The cacophony of voices from politicians and UN agencies to soap operas and the popular media makes us wonder – are they really talking about us? Talking about us women? Is this the visibility we wanted? So, do we see the relevance of autonomous politics today? Yes, it is perhaps more relevant than ever. Do we not see its problems and limitations? Of course we do.- Working with groups from the established Left to the extreme Left has been a formidable challenge. The struggle against the patriarchal notions of marriage, family and heteronormativity continues to be subsumed under more ‘pressing’ agendas; we continue to be the trouble makers; and we continue to fight against strategically being ‘used’ by large political formations and revolutionary agendas.

- Navigating our way between funded NGOs and women’s fronts of political parties has been arduous but not without its gains.

- Maintaining a critical distance from state bodies like the Commissions for Women, or the Department of Women and Child Development, without being painted into a corner and yet insisting that we too should be heard has been tricky and challenging.

- Not jumping onto the bandwagon to Beijing and the many international networks has not been without paying a small cost.

Isn’t the system getting more powerful even as we struggle? Have we remained autonomous? Isn’t autonomy from institutionalised funding an important criterion for autonomous politics? It sure is, we will say. And hastily also add, a wee bit sadly, ‘it was’. We realise it, we know it – but we are struggling in our own small way to stick to what we identify as ‘autonomous’ politics without becoming purists. We have been a very impure lot of women in any case – for all these 25 years!

What have been the challenges? How do we see other movements? Are we anxious about the immediate future? Has the notion of universal sisterhood been able to transcend the divisions among women? It has been a difficult journey, rife with apprehensions about becoming a small island or becoming self-righteous and pompous. Yet, the same politics have bound all of us to Saheli. It has sustained in us the clarity and the fervour to put women’s interests at the forefront. We have also struggled to learn and enhance our understanding along with the struggle for articulation by other marginalised groups that have often experienced the domination of the mainstream women’s movement. For example, it has been a bitter and hard battle for lesbian feminists to claim a space within the women’s movement conferences, or rallies on International Women’s Day. We know what we are struggling against – a highly misogynist patriarchal society! And therefore autonomy is essential.

Impact of the Autonomous Women’s Movement

So how much difference has the autonomous women’s movement been able to make? A significant impact actually, both on other progressive movements as well as on society at large. Beginning with the campaign against rape in the late seventies and early eighties, the women’s movement threw up a gamut of issues that formed the crux of our understanding of women’s subjugation and invisibility, control and discrimination. We struggled against rape; domestic violence; dowry murders; sexual assault; marital rape; commodification of women in advertising; sex determination tests; coercive population control measures; discriminatory religious personal laws; witch hunting; Sati and many other issues. Women have struggled since ages and been part of many movements but this time we were talking about what was affecting us as women, our lives, our bodies and our labour. About the violence in our lives; about our sexuality; about the hold of religion on us; about laws governing us; and about the ambiguous role of the State in our lives.

To do this, we have had to break free from all social and political forces that were claiming to represent us. Being autonomous and speaking for ourselves was crucial. It was no sacrifice – it was exhilarating. It also helped us to understand the autonomy of the struggles waged in Chhattisgarh, in Uttarakhand, struggles of adivasis and of Dalits. It was the oppressed making their own claims in their own voices in these movements. To fight against injustice and to be able to nurture a vision of a new society, autonomy was essential. We never once looked back; we only forged newer alliances. And we also recognised the stumbling blocks.

Kaun saathi kaun dushman hai, haa ji

Kaun saathi kaun dushman hai, haa ji

Iska faisla! Iska faisla karenge nahin aap

Dhire dhire aai hamein chetna, haa ji

Dhire dhire aai hamein chetna, haa ji

(from a song of the autonomous women’s movement)

Needless to say, the present-day challenges of institutionalised feminism are formidable. A good question for anyone to ask is: how autonomous is the women’s movement today? Traditionally, the definition of ‘autonomous’ is always cited as freedom and ‘autonomony from the government, male structures, funding, political parties…’ and perhaps a few more freedoms too. It doesn’t automatically tell us – then what? In feminist practice over the years in Saheli, this has implied being watchful about how our efforts seem to get subsumed under the broad agendas set by big parties, the government and donor agencies. As academics and research in women’s studies became lucrative, we women too became a precious commodity as statistics and as voices! As NGOs flourished, we saw many young earnest souls coming to us with resumes for jobs. How long could we remain autonomous in the midst of this mainstreaming that is unquestioningly lauded as a ‘success’?

Autonomous Politics in Organisational Functioning

Behind this obvious ‘independence’ that we have fiercely fought to retain, there has been a consistent and deep engagement with processes based on autonomous politics. The following areas inform the sum and substance of our politics where day-to-day functioning is concerned, namely, collective functioning, fund raising from non-institutional sources and issue-based alliances and solidarity actions.

Collective functioning: The small-group Collective has posed many challenges, not only to Saheli but to all such groups. It is an ideological reflection of a desire to be active decision makers of our destiny in a society that has for far too long run on domination and control of socially marginalised groups like women, Dalits, adivasis, sexual minorities, workers and peasants. While organising ourselves, we have strived to reflect in some small way an image of a society we wish to live in – which will be of our making. In Saheli, the organisational processes we follow and the practices that continue to evolve over time are characterised by a healthy and sustained rejection of any one-up(wo)manship. Dealing with a diversity of views within the group has been both absorbing and enriching instead of a rigid manifesto, or a ‘stand’ advocated by one person and imposed upon the rest of the group.

Fund raising from non-institutional sources: Financial autonomy has been significant as it nurtures and sustains autonomy in the most meaningful way. We are not only averse to the idea of institutionalised funding but also to any one big grant from an individual. In contrast, we greatly value our reliance on a large set of individual donations and contributions for our literature, and value the manner in which this helps us remain connected to a larger support structure. More importantly, being free of the constraints of funded projects helps us remain autonomous and nurture the creativity and spontaneity that becomes the first casualty of institutionalised funding. We have never had to compromise on our politics or put it in any way that seems pragmatic and just right for some stated intention. As women, we speak, articulate, organise and strategise as we think from our experience and from women’s experience, without any project guidelines as the determinant. We make our mistakes and we are eager to learn. Needless to say, it may have its flip side like endlessly changing deadlines or no visible ‘target group’ or ‘beneficiary’.

Issue-based alliances and solidarity actions: From inception till date, we in Saheli have seen the struggle for women’s liberation as intrinsically related to all other progressive and democratic movements. We find our solidarity instinctively in tune with efforts that have traditionally been ignored by the Left, like questioning the development paradigm; or supporting the struggles of LGBT groups and sex workers. Based on our location and energies, we have stretched ourselves to support in our own small way the struggles against religious fundamentalism, caste violence, war and militarisation, nuclear weapons, displacement, factory closures, basti demolitions, homophobic attacks, repression of people’s movements and many other struggles. This has entailed working in joint formations with both NGOs and Left organisations and very often as in Delhi, a combination of the two. And yet on occasion, we have found ourselves isolated in trying to articulate our politics.

However, the long journey of autonomy has been our strength in remaining focused on joint work and with different ideological stances. More strongly than ever, we realise the relevance of autonomous politics. For instance, we are always the first to object vociferously against the assertion that majority fundamentalism is held to be worse than minority fundamentalism – as feminists we are deeply critical of fundamentalisms of any kind, as well as the politics of opportunism. Whether it is displacement caused by development projects or religious fundamentalism, we attempt to highlight the impact of such terrible events on women, and articulate how it makes the position of women even more vulnerable; how the patriarchal stronghold tightens in all events from war and caste violence to factory closures and basti demolitions. The basis of our informed interventions comes from skilled feminist political practice over the years.In a historical sense, we women have always fought for the visibility of women’s oppression, rights and desires. The struggle will always be ongoing.