Souvenir 1988

Autonomous women’s groups, including Saheli, are increasingly aware of their responsibility to forge joint programmes to improve the working and living conditions of women. While women were politicized during the freedom struggle, their own concerns were subsumed under the need to struggle for freedom. Over the last four decades, political parties have developed women’s fronts which have taken up issues concerning women. While the All India Women’s Conference played a role in bringing about new legislations, the left parties have involved women in a number of working class struggles. However, several issues central to the women’s question have been left untouched by these parties because they are considered apolitical. Women have also played limited leadership roles within the party.

Since the 1970s, a whole generation of women have refused to postpone the struggle against patriarchy in their day-to-day lives. Issues such as wife battering, dowry deaths, female foeticide, have been brought into focus and renewed the struggle for women’s rights. With the slogan ‘personal is political’, a perspective has developed which on all the different aspects of life in which oppression takes place.

By challenging existing political parties and their forms of organization, autonomous women’s groups and other small social action groups are searching for a way to break out of strait-jacket definitions. There is search for a new kind of politics, collective decision making as opposed to ‘leadership’, and retaining autonomy and identity while joining larger struggles.

What do we mean by liberation?

The notion of women’s liberation in India has been variously misinterpreted by vested interests, leading to labels such as ‘aggressive’, ‘sexually permissive’, ‘man-hating’ women. A cursory glance at the issues taken up by women however shows that the above notions are false. We are struggling for a society where men and women from all classes have an equal opportunity to realize their full human potential. Discrimination between the sexes, and that based on caste and colour, are often justified on the basis of innate biological differences. While women are different from women in their reproductive capacity, their disadvantages in society are clearly based on the dominant social system and therefore can be eliminated only by changing the structure of society.

While we condemn South African racist policies, we do not recognize discriminations closer at home, such as men having more natural rights than women. In most countries of the world today, women are seen as lesser human beings. They have systematically less access to food, education, jobs, money, freedom of speech and mobility, when compared to men of their class, or nationality. The legal systems of most countries do not treat women equally. While with structural transformation in some societies these gaps have been reduced, in others fundamentalism is taking over and widening this gap.

Women not only face gender oppression, but are also exploited as workers and peasants. Class, caste and ethnic oppression create multiple oppression for women. Therefore, the liberation of women has to come about not only from their subordination as a sex, but the other oppression as well. In other words, women’s liberation has a general aspect – the struggle against exploitation based on race, class, caste, ethnicity and religion; and a specific aspect – the struggle to end subordination based on gender. The two forms of subordination are interlinked. For example, unless exploitation of labour ends, women’s labour at home and their contribution to society will not be recognized. Not only do individual women get low paid jobs, but women dominated professionals/jobs remain low paid. The army of unemployed female labour pulls down overall wage rates for men as well as women. It follows that women will have to struggle against their own oppression as well as join other struggles to change society.

Why Autonomy

In Saheli, we started with a limited common understanding. We provided mutual support and help and created a forum to reach out to individual women struggling for their rights in isolation. While some of us came from the left tradition, other were politicised through their own personal experiences. We are now able to formulate the need for autonomy more clearly, based on our theoretical and practical understanding.

Starting with our own experience, let us see what various political parties have done for the cause of women. Today, the Congress (I) has a women’s wing, a ministry for women’s development, and celebrated International Women’s Day with great pomp. But the same party passed the reactionary Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act (which denies women a right to maintenance), by issuing a whip to its party members. The Janta party allowed its members, Syed Shahbuddin and Kalyan Singh Kalvi to flourish despite their open support to the Muslim Women’s Bill and Sati respectively. The BJP is still justifying voluntary Sati. At any rate, even the professed objectives of these parties are not to bring about an egalitarian society.

While the left parties profess equality for all, their approach is narrow. They concentrate on their trade union fronts, and continue to profess that once women join social production and struggles with men, the basis for equality will be laid. All this, said in the face of women losing their existing jobs, sounds more like wishful thinking than a strategy on the women’s question. Left parties attack feminists for ‘dividing the working class movement’ by making working class women discontent with their men. They treat the family as private and by doing this mask its relationship to the growth of capital. By excluding the contribution of domestic labour in their analysis, they fall short of developing an overall strategy for liberation in which women play an important role. Most of their campaigns are limited to either wresting concessions from the State or exposing the State. The women’s question is raised in a muted way. However, we believe that our demands have to be addressed not only to the State but also to the society at large.

At present we believe no political part can deal comprehensively and honestly with the women’s question. This is because a party has to cater to more than one sex – a party cannot afford to work against the majority of its membership which is at present male, as its leadership. Take the simplest demand of asking for women not to be retrenched. In mining, women have traditionally held jobs alongside men. Today mining is undergoing extensive mechanization. The historical experience of other industries shows us that mechanization involves redundancy and retrenchment of workers. Invariably it is the women workers who get retrenched first (as in the textile mills in India earlier this century). Male dominated managements find it easier to retrench women while male dominated trade unions seldom fight for women’s rights to retain their jobs. If it is a choice between female and male workers, society’s ideal of woman as housewife is invoked to persuade women workers to return to the home. If husband and wife work for the same company, the wife may be retrenched while the man retains his job and social status. His status may even improve if the mechanization leads to upgradation of skills for a reduced number of workers. Jobs have gone from mothers to sons, but not from fathers to daughters. Whenever women have lost jobs, they have lost status, autonomy and often their sole means of survival. There are many such contradictions between the interests of the sexes at present.

If we take the question of dowry, a recognized social evil, we find that one rationale for its practice is lack of inheritance rights for women. While one may argue against inheritance altogether, in a class society one has to talk of equal property rights. Similarly, raising any demands of equality within the family sphere is to deny men what they, at present, have – power and control. When our vision of an egalitarian society is accomplished, everyone may have more control over their lives and collectively over the society, but in the interim, those who have control will have to learn to share it.

Translated into practice, this means that any party will have to sacrifice the interests of its membership i.e. men, in the interim to gain potential members, i.e. women, and no party is likely to do so.

The participation of women in politics as equals and not as followers is integral to their aspirations being met. After independence, no party has made serious efforts to bring women into the mainstream. The autonomous women’s movement, in its decade of existence, has successfully influence political parties from the outside. Today most parties have set up women’s wings and take up women’s issues, though in a limited way.

The need for autonomy also arises from the need to concentrate on issues regardless of electoral alliances and the unpopularity of some humanistic demands. The 1984 massacre of Sikhs, the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, Sati, and now the 59th Amendment do not elicit an unqualified stand from any party because of obvious vested electoral interests.