DOWN MEMORY LANE: After two decades, a group of feminists meets to talk about their lives and politics


After two decades, a group of feminists meets to talk about their lives and politics

Newsletter May - Aug 2004

In the beginning of May 2004 a group of about 30 women came together for a day in the premises of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. The youngest of them had just crossed 40 and the oldest was past 75. What had brought these women together was their association with the feminist movement in the 1980’s. Chhaya Datar, Meena Deval along with Vidya Vidwans had toyed with the idea of this get-together earlier in the year and Chhaya and Meena saw to it that it did finally take place. The effort was to reflect on the days of the feminist movement, involvement of the individuals and the groups associated with a few feminist groups in Mumbai and Pune in that period, and further to trace the process which took these women where they are today.

One member of Saheli, whose earliest engagement with feminism was with this group, attended the get-together. The discussions that took place were reflective of a common experience that the autonomous women’s movement is undergoing today all over the country and is a continuing theme of discussion for us. The history of the Autonomous Women’s Movement (AWM) being largely an oral history, these deliberations, reminiscences, analyses and anecdotes are precious glimpses into the past that have a significant bearing on the future of the AWM.

In early-to-mid 1980s Marathi-speaking women from Mumbai were a part of two or three feminist organisations in Mumbai and were interacting somewhat closely with another like-minded group from Pune, Nari Samata Manch. ‘Stree Mukti Sanghatana’ was established in 1975 and had an office in Dadar. Being one of the earliest women’s organisation in Mumbai many women present on that day were directly or indirectly associated with it. ‘Maitrinee’ was set up as a discussion group in Mumbai in 1981-82. Women used to meet once a month for discussions on topics close to their heart in one of the schools in Dadar area. As a discussion forum the group survived for a few years before dying an unnatural death after a few years. Members of ‘Stree Uvach’ worked as a collective to evolve as a feminist publishing group. From 1986 to 1993 Stree Uvach brought out an annual issue on 8 March publishing short stories, novels, novellas and other academic articles. It also published books. ‘Nari Samata Manch’ a group founded by men and women believing in equality of women in 1981 in Pune was also interacting with women from all the three groups. Most of the women who were present in the recent get together were a part of one or more of these groups in 1980’s. Many of them had participated in the ‘Stree Mukti Yatra’ taken out to spread a message of men-women equality in 1985 visiting many cities and towns in Western Maharashtra and performing the famous play “Mulgi Zhali Ho” (“A Girl is Born”). The 30-odd women present under one roof on that day in May shared a common history, and had gone through similar experiences of living through feminism.

Who were these women?

Neera Adarkar, Vidya Bal, Vineeta Bal, Pushpa Bhave, Neena Bhedasgaokar, Vijaya Chauhan, Sadhana Dadhich, Asha Damle, Vasanti Damle, Chhaya Datar, Meena Deval, Asha Deshpande, Rohini Gawankar, Sonali Kelkar, Amol Kerkar, Vinaya Khadpekar, Sujata Khandekar, Sudha Kulkarni, Anjali Maydeo, Usha Mehta, Jyoti Mhapsekar, Veena Patwardhan, Urmila Pawar, Aundhati Sardesai, Nirmala Sathe, Sharda Sathe, Surekha Sule, Jaya Velankar, Vidya Vidwans, Neelima, Vandana,

What did they talk about?

Admittedly, there were too many women and too little time. Nearly all of them wanted to talk a lot and invariably the moderator had to remind them of the time limit they were supposed to adhere – just ten minutes.

It was an interesting experience to hear about the personal and political aspects of women’s lives. The women’s movement in the early days gave meaning to the slogan ‘personal is political’, however, very few women present talked about strictly individual concerns. Very easily they connected their lives and experiences with the feminist movement and the political processes involved. Along with sharing of experiences was the nostalgic feeling of going back to those days of struggling to define and practice feminism in their lives, seeing the connections with the lives of other women, made possible by the then newly emerged women’s groups. And even when some of them could not or did not remain active in women’s politics, feminist politics continued to define their lives. There were no regrets for choosing this path, which invariably enriched everyone’s life who became part of it. As everyone’s story unfolded and they went down the memory lane, it was clear that the journey had not been even or smooth as new developments brought forth not only the complexity of the issues involved but also of understanding and strategies to deal with them. How do caste, class, religion and community define our identities in addition to gender? And while there is certainly specificity to women’s issues, can all issues be of concern to women? How did this understanding translate into women’s groups associating themselves with many other movements and struggles and more importantly building alliances with them? Of great significance was the struggle to put women’s agenda in other movements.

One woman talked about how being a part of feminist movement helped in her personal life. She did not want to marry but could not put forth convincing arguments, which the family would accept. Being a part of these groups gave her the conviction to follow the path she wanted. She is happy with her decision even today.

Another woman indicated that Emergency period was an eye-opener, it changed her life, brought her to Mumbai and she got associated with these women. Twenty years later she is not active in the movement, does not feel the need to be so at a personal level but is very much a feminist.

And yet another one talked about how initially these feminist women looked very confident and hence different to her. She, very diffidently, started attending discussions, realised that women’s problems are after all very similar in nature, and before too long she became one of them.

The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 was a painful, landmark event in many women’s lives. The issue of communalism hit Mumbai in a big way. Communal tensions and occasional riots were, of course, known in Maharashtra but somehow Mumbai appeared very cosmopolitan, tolerant until then. The myth broke with riots in early 1993 and created a vacuum in understanding the community at large. Some women from the feminist movement changed their focus of work to communal harmony, to women from underprivileged groups and religious minority.

A similar drive to work with poor women, organising and empowering them resulted in some women concentrating on the environmental issues. Sorting of garbage, recycling, increasing awareness of ordinary people about environmental damage became issues of higher priority.

Women professionals started to look at their professional colleagues with a dissecting lens and realised that even amongst educated colleagues gender-based discrimination is rampant. Education, obviously, does not impart the notions of man-woman equality; a specific awareness has to be generated.

Some women ended on a negative note asking questions such as – has the women’s movement lost its focus? Have we as women of older generation failed to attract women from younger generation as a part of the movement? Is there still a strong movement in existence even today? Should there be a continuing need for such a movement after having spent our lives in increasing awareness of women’s inferior status?

Where do we go from here?

The get-together was not meant to provide concrete solutions, nor were there plans chalked out for the future. However, it appeared that many women whose work was focussed on women’s issues in the 1980’s have either enlarged their interests to include communal harmony, environmental concerns, international peace processes or have just quit activism in their latter years. Hardly anyone present there was still completely and whole-heartedly associated with what were considered once upon a time as ‘women’s only’ issues!

The variety and richness of experiences of women present became obvious as the meeting progressed. The day ended rather too early. One thought emerged from the discussions – the times have changed and a history of women’s movement in urban Western Maharashtra, as it was brought to light that day, should be documented as oral history. It is too precious to lose track of it completely.