HANDLING HIERARCHIES: Swimming against the tide


Souvenir 2006

‘Question Authority!’ urges the yellowed sticker on the familiar battered green cabinet in the office under the flyover - a commandment that Sahelis through the ages have been quick to articulate. In attempting to challenge male-dominated social formations, Saheli did not want to replicate hierarchical structures and traditional leadership based on the authority of one person or ‘head’. If we wanted to challenge patriarchal structures, which are based on privilege, cut-throat competitiveness, and one-upmanship in society, we had to evolve a different style of functioning within the group.

Saheli began as a collective… a conscious decision to evolve decision making processes that were in keeping with feminist principles of equality, consensus, participation and validating personal experience.

By working and taking decisions collectively, we attempt to make the best of varying inputs of each member of the group, nurturing and developing individual input, instead of “dissipating it in the competitive survival-of-the-fittest/smartest/wittiest spirit of the large organisation”, to quote Cathy Levine.

“Can we please speak to the Director of Saheli?” … “Who is the head of Saheli?” - a common enough query all of us have had to deal with, in person and over the phone. There is disbelief that a group can actually work without a ‘leader’. Although being a registered Society we fulfil formalities by filling formal posts like Chairperson, Secretary and Treasurer, the real decision making power is vested in the Saheli Collective.

Yet, Saheli has never been completely ‘structureless’. From small issue-based sub-groups with co-ordinators, to core groups and internal co-ordinators, we have experimented with different formats over the years. There have been full time paid workers, full time volunteers, part timers (paid and voluntary), and a larger group of Sahelis – sometimes called the ‘Collective’, sometimes the ‘General Body’, sometimes the ‘Support Group’, and sometimes ‘Friends of Saheli’.

Feminists and power: An uneasy balancing act

The notion of power has been a critical one in the context of feminist politics and women’s groups. Women, and feminists in particular, have a complicated relationship with power, given our collective history of powerlessness and oppression. It is almost as though we are unable to deal with power in a positive sense. The distorted wielding of power (which is generally rampant) has made most of us shy away from power and leadership as they are conventionally defined.

Not surprisingly, there have been some frustrations from the very beginning. The Daily Diary was one of the ways we devised to talk to each other, to keep everyone apprised of developments and ideas, resentments and pleasures, since all members of Saheli did not meet everyday.

Re-visiting old records, remembering old times and talking to Sahelis, old and new, an interesting fact emerges: despite the changing cast of characters at Saheli, even within the various alternative structures we tried to create over time, we have never shied away from examining the notions of power and privilege from the point of view of our caste, class, cultural background, education or language skills. How do we look at, reconcile/resolve these issues in our personal lives vis-a-vis political work? How do these factors play themselves out within the micro context of Saheli, and the larger contexts of the women’s movement, progressive movements and society at large? What is our understanding of the word ‘empowerment’? Do we want to move towards a situation of ‘no power’ or ‘equal power’? If anything, these questions have repeatedly come up, and are constantly the subjects of intense, and emotional debate.

In Saheli, the commitment to work towards equalising power to the greatest possible extent has been a guiding principle from the very beginning. However, even when there is no formal hierarchy, informal hierarchy is often more difficult to recognise and to tackle.

The constant effort to share information (since we have always acknowledged that information is power!), share contacts, skills and perspectives, comes from a belief that all Saheli members should participate in decision-making, despite the differences in our experience, background, class, caste, age, language skills, personalities and egos - realities that Saheli as an organisation has repeatedly had to tackle, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so successfully.

The fact is that even for a group that sets out to look the world and its problems in the eye, many unexpected surprises lurk around the corner. While on the one hand, the diversity of women drawn to the group enriched its experiences and nuanced its understanding of women’s oppressions, on the other, the very same diversity presented its own challenges. Even within a group that comes together with a shared vision and agenda, class differences, differing skills, fluency in languages (English versus Hindi, of course, being the recurring theme here), powers of articulation, earning abilities, financial securities, etc. manifest themselves. These are factors that, in fact, determine each woman’s input and contribution to the group, the roles she can play, the roles that wittingly or, most often, unwittingly fall into her lap. Equally potent, even if not equally visible, were caste differences that, at the very least, limited our ability to understand a whole spectrum of issues that affect women of marginalised castes.

Power within the group can arise from a range of factors: public profile (recognition as Saheli – in meetings, in print – by-lines in articles, TV appearances, interviews); length of association with Saheli/the women’s movement; connections with other movements; access to information – both within the organisation and from outside (from other groups, individuals, written documents, government agencies, funding agencies etc.); contacts with other groups or individuals; inter-personal and communication skills; fund raising abilities; the ability to theorise and so on. Much of the above depends on time availability, personality of the individual, the ability to articulate in English and access to telephones, e.mail and the Internet.

Yet, at Saheli, the attempt has been to tackle the more obvious manifestations of power in a spirit of co-operation and to recognise every member’s contribution. For instance, it has been a policy not to attribute newsletter articles to any one or two persons names, since this would lead to a public recognition only of those who were articulate and had the ability to write. Similarly, it would fail to acknowledge the inputs of others into the newsletter – be it to type, translate, proof, edit or even post the newsletters.

In fact, for several years, we would only issue statements and allow newspaper articles that were published in the name of the group. This changed when we began to realise that articles and statements under the names of individuals had a greater chance of being published. Not surprisingly, television as a medium challenged our notions of Collective representations. Who should talk on TV? How should the group be projected? Should the same persons always represent the group (a difficult proposition for a bunch of camera-shy feminists!)? And then we worried: how do we get ‘our point’ across if we want to stay invisible?

Following a period of flux and upheaval after the Saheli ‘split’, one of the attempts to tackle this uncertainty was to form a core group of members to help get the group out of a morass. While this experiment carried on and off for years, there was a sense of discomfort about viewing it as a ‘permanent’ solution.

The Annual Meeting of 1990 was a watershed of sorts, where decisive moves were made to change the direction of Saheli’s work - from focussing on helping individual women to campaign oriented work. This meeting was also one of the major meetings where power structures – formal (Core Group) and informal - were discussed at length. There was open recognition of situations in which certain persons were regarded as ‘leaders’, whose opinions counted more than of others. While some were of the view that dominating persons wielded power, others acknowledged that it was also the fault of others in the group, which led to this state of affairs. Unless everyone was equally willing to take up responsibilities and be accountable, it would be difficult to tackle inequalities in experience and in the handling of issues.

It appeared that most Sahelis agreed that one or two persons could not be held responsible for the unequal power dynamics. While the organisation is made up of people, it also has a dynamic of its own and is greater than the sum of the individuals in it. It produces a certain ethos, a certain power, which individuals cannot change unless there is a major transformation in attitudes, accountability and responsibility. The attempts to democratise power and minimise imbalances have been ongoing, though not always successful. The perception that ‘some people’ are running the show behind the scenes has been a source of tension throughout Saheli’s lifetime. However, not everyone perceived it to be a ‘problem’. Those with limited time and the desire to plug into a particular activity were not quite interested in participating in the (rather exhausting) process of collective decision-making!

The journey may have been exciting, but it certainly hasn’t been easy… there have been few models to measure ourselves against, and the goal of participative democracy a veritable chimera. Starting out with a principle of consensus-based decision-making, it soon became apparent that consensus was not possible on all issues. However, there has been no effective mechanism to accommodate divergent views beyond trying to ‘hear them out’… and then go with the majority. The urge to work in a non-hierarchical way was not only based on a theoretical understanding, but also on a gut-level conviction that libertarian causes can be furthered only if the means employed were also democratic, participative and egalitarian. In periods of turmoil when the organisation was undergoing internal debate, it also became important to achieve a sense of balance between means and the ends. Yet, we didn’t always succeed in doing so.

Caught in the world wide web

Ironies will never cease to exist. In the late nineties, when the Internet and email had just started, we found ourselves in yet another tangle. We were still coping with the inequalities of access to the telephone or familiarity with the computer, and here we were thinking of opening an email account! The discussions, yet again, went back and forth… should we/shouldn’t we? How will we keep women with no access to a computer, the Internet and most importantly, English, abreast of our discussions? How will they participate in decision making processes? Yet, like everyone else, we did finally get drawn into the web, with some very ironical results.

For the first few years, some of us would email each other and then try to balance things out by having lengthy conversations with those without email. But today, interestingly, email in Saheli (as, we suspect, in many other groups and e-lists) has become the most widely-used way of sharing information with everyone, allowing the possibility of each one having their say. However, inequalities do exist still in terms of who is more comfortable with the medium, how much access one has to it, who feels how free to express anger or joy in a mail, etc. And if the immediacy of the medium has been one of its greatest gifts, it has also pushed us to change our notion of ‘response time’ especially in this era of e-activism… when you can come back at the end of the day and find 50 mails waiting to be read in your inbox!

And of course, we are still debating about whether or not to have a website! So, don’t be too surprised if you log onto www.saheliwomen.org and get ‘Page under collective consideration’.

Individual initiative and collective functioning

While planning out activities in Collective meetings was a norm of functioning, individual initiative was also able to enthuse Saheli to carry out particular campaigns. For instance, when Jyotika arrived one day fretting and fuming about an objectionable hoarding near the Saheli office, no one in the group had any problems responding to the issue and the strategy of blackening the hoarding quickly found favour. We were taking direct action, and articulating an issue from the feminist perspective. There was collective functioning, the financial cost was almost nil and the public attention was great! Everybody was so excited. What a perfect way to be! It was only later that we would get into the more complicated task of defining ‘obscenity’ and how the law on it would soon get used against women and the freedom of expression! These are challenges we haven’t really been able to respond to adequately.

Yet, all individual initiative could not carry the group with it, and this, too, could become a cause of friction. ‘Some’ people were perceived to have the ability to make ‘their’ issue a Saheli campaign, but others could not carry the group with them.

Typically, Saheli has been characterised by vibrant, energetic bursts, followed by periods of lull. A discomfort surrounding the regarding of certain people as ‘resource persons’ to initiate/co-ordinate a specific campaign like media or health, led to extensive debates about Saheli membership and what it entailed. It was felt that those initiating specific campaigns must be integrally involved with the day-to-day and routine running of the organisation. Nurturing Saheli was not the task of only full-timers, but a process that every Saheli had to be a part of.

Core Group: Calling spade a spade?

Despite wanting to be and stay a collective, we have often felt the need to adopt a different structure. Among our experiments has been the formation of a ‘Core Group’ that sought to ‘formalise’ unstated (though obvious) informal hierarchies of Sahelis with more time, more initiative, full time members and those who prioritised Saheli. Membership was part voluntary, and part persuasion. Many were uncomfortable with the idea of a Core Group, which they felt militated against the feminist vision of Collective, participatory decision making. Others felt that it was simply making visible an invisible hierarchy, thus making it easier to ensure accountability. Still others saw it as a pragmatic decision meant to tide over a bad time.

A Core Group, sometimes called Chinta group, was usually a smaller group of five or six Sahelis who were able to devote more time to get the group together for a common program, plan ahead, and also evolve ways to relate to members with less time. While one view was that the Core Group was a functional mechanism to pull the group out of a period of stagnation, there were apprehensions that the Core Group could solidify inequalities and concentrate decision making in an undemocratic manner. There were also concerns that relying on a Core Group might signal a more long-term or permanent moving away from collective decision making. The essence of access to participation was, however, even carried into the Core group, since it was open to any Saheli member who felt she could give time and prioritise Saheli work.

Dealing with informal hierarchy: Experiments with truth!

In keeping with the feminist vision of co-operatively and collectively working together, Saheli had decided not to have a designated leader. But over the years, some questions have arisen, like: Is leadership needed in women’s groups? If so, of what kind? Can there be ‘collective’ leadership? Is there something like a ‘feminist’ leader? When the stated politics is non-hierarchical, what are the kind of power imbalances that develop? What are the ways in which these can be addressed? One way of dealing with informal hierarchies has always been to improve our style of functioning and refrain from ad hoc-ism. To respect a culture of meetings, take decisions and adhere to them and prevent decisions being overturned by an opinionated few has not been easy, but a goal to strive for.

Most women’s groups, including Saheli, face a crisis of leadership (of course among many other crises!) because of a lack of definition of any alternate styles of leadership or exercise of power. Can there be a feminist notion of leadership? What would this constitute? Taking initiative, having an overall idea about the perspective, work and functioning of Saheli, the ability to take decisions – on her own as well as in consultative processes of decision making, co-ordinating among members, being in constant touch, inspiring others, encouraging and sometimes persuading others to give inputs, being more answerable/accountable and thus filling in the gaps left by others. This sounds reasonably simple in theory, but it’s not quite so in practice. There is still some unresolved discomfort with power and leadership (broadly perceived as control) which surfaces now and again in Saheli.

A new (and improved) experiment. An initiative to share leadership was the ‘rotating co-ordinatorship’ that began in 2000. For a month, each member ‘takes charge’ of Saheli, thinks ahead and helps the group to plan. As Vineeta said, “This kind of initiative and leadership is forced, but good.” And Shweta adds, “The coordy should be able to stretch herself a little bit. We can’t katrao so much. Being a coordy makes you feel more part of the group and more in touch with Saheli work.”

While the ‘co-ordinator of the month’ formula has been one of the most successful models of sharing power (and learning to respect it at least for 30 days at a time), we are aware that there is no single solution to address issues of hierarchy and inequalities in organisations. Times change, individuals are different, and the needs of the group also alter over time. Each response has been accompanied by much soul searching and discussions, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Yet, giving up the goal of collective functioning would be like giving up a dream.