WOMEN’S MOVEMENT: Trends and Dilemmas

WOMEN’S MOVEMENT: Trends and Dilemmas

Report of a Seminar Organized by Saheli

On the Occasion of International Women's Day

Newsletter July 1999

March 8th is a historical day, a symbol of the struggle waged against exploitation and oppression by women all over the world, for over a century. It is a day to express and demonstrate our collective strength and to renew our struggle for equality and justice. This year we decided to get together to analyse the various trends within the women's movement in India, and the challenges and dilemmas we face today.

Many changes have taken place following the initial fervour of the autonomous women’s movement in the late ’70s. Issues taken up have been changing, as have strategies and forms of protest. The ’80s and 90s have witnessed a growing participation of left groups in the women’s movement. Parliamentary Left Parties, Marxist-Leninist Parties, Trade Unions and mass movements have taken up the women’s agenda in a big way. Simultaneously, there has been a spurt in the number of NGOs working on women’s issues. Because of the pressure of women’s movement, the State was forced to make women-specific programmes and policies and women-centred laws.

But the extent to which these laws and policies have actually resulted in bringing about a change in the position of women, is still a moot question. The fact that inspite of the existence of a vibrant women’s movement not only does discrimination against women still continue, but an equally disturbing aspect is the increasing violence on women. On the other hand, the gradual and insidious co-option of the demands and vocabulary of women’s movement by the State and other forces has had an adverse effect on the movement itself. The problems have been compounded by the rise of communal forces as also due to the liberalised economy. In a scenario, where so much is being talked about the rights and position of women without a visible change in the status of women, it becomes important to take stock of the situation with a view to the present trends, their weaknesses and limitations as well as to chalk out strategies for the future.

We felt that International Women’s Day would be a good occasion for activists associated with all trends within the movement to critically analyse the gains of the movement as well as the dilemmas facing us. We also thought that possibilities of strengthening our networking could be explored. With this in view, on March 6th 1999, we organised a one-day meeting titled, ‘Women’s Movement: Trends and Dilemmas,’ to initiate a debate. About 60-70 participants from various backgrounds attended the meeting and participated in a fruitful discussion.


In the morning session presentations were made by activists from Janwadi Mahila Samiti, National Federation of Indian Women and All India Progressive Women’s Association. Indu Agnihotri, who has been associated with Janwadi Mahila Samiti and is presently teaching in Vivekanand Mahila College, started with an analysis of the need for understanding the linkages between the women’s movement in India and the International women’s movement. She pointed out that while the women’s movement and women’s studies in India have resulted in developing an Indian perspective on women issues, the role and impact of international bodies like United Nations, UNIFEM, etc. should be understood and limitations recognised. The issue of interaction between the Indian women’s movement and donor agencies was raised and it was pointed out that this interaction is lopsided and skewed in favour of the donor agencies. She felt that the influx of funded money from the developed countries has led to First World centredness, which is unable to understand the complexities of Third World countries. Our experiences and issues should be portrayed from our own perspective. She emphasised that feminism has redefined our struggle and analysis that comes through the lens of feminism needs to be projected. The need to link up our struggles with the struggles of other Third World countries was stressed.

Indu also pointed out that at a time when the ground is slipping away from beneath our feet, there is a dire need to engage in grass-root activity and reach out to people. She felt that whatever questions we raise in the context of national and international changes, we have to place our concerns in a larger framework while being rooted to the ground.

She also pointed out that fundamentalists and reactionaries are setting the agenda today, while, the terms of debate of the women’s movement are different. Therefore, we need to stress where the difference lies, for instance when the BJP and the women’s movement talk of a Uniform Civil Code, they mean very different things. In addition to the above, the forms of oppression in operation today are - caste; class and region; and metropolitan culture versus adivasi culture. These complexities have to be understood and responded to.She also raised the issue of dealing the differences between the various trends in the movement. All-women unity, according to Indu, is not possible in the context of patriarchy alone. The impact of patriarchal pressures varies on women of different classes/sections and communities. She opined that we if do not understand these differences, we will only weaken our common fight.

Emphasising the importance of reaching out to women, Indu commented that the debate on the women’s question is largely being carried out in English, which we find in women’s studies too. To reach out to the vast majority, there is a need to speak in the language of the masses.

Amarjit Kaur, Secretary, AITUC and General Secretary, National Federation of Indian Women began her presentation by speaking about gender discrimination in childhood, and the different expectations from boys and girls. She described her early beginnings as a political activist as a student in the ’70s when she encountered the deep-seated differences in responses of male and female students all over in India. Tracing the history of the women’s movement, Amarjit argued that a number of changes have taken place in the last two and half decades, which have made the issues even more complex.

She traced the secondary status of women to the time when women were removed from the process of production, and were reduced to being a property of the man. Amarjit emphasised that the real issues today involve a fight for women’s just share in economic activity. She mentioned the campaign for the Agriculture Bill, and the need for struggle to ensure the interests of women. She decried the present economic policies of the government, where newer models of washing machines are presented as “gifts” to help women in being household labour. She stressed that women at the grass roots, who have been the backbone of all movements have to be kept at the centre of all our campaigns. She also criticised the communalisation of women’s issues, which she felt, has resulted in misguiding people by projecting distorted facts.

Touching upon 33% reservation for women, Amarjit opined that it is a step towards women’s empowerment but the strength of elected women will come from education, and they should be concientised to raise women’s issues - otherwise there is no sense in having elected women representatives.

Kumudini Pati of the All India Progressive Women’s Association spoke about her early experiences in student politics in Allahabad University.She pointed out that sheer vandalism and attempts to intimidate women candidates deterred many women from taking an active interest in student politics. Relating incidents when during elections posters with her photograph were defaced, and humiliating things scribbled all over, she spoke of the tough fight of women leaders to get taken seriously in student politics. Taking equal part in protests and agitations, and facing the consequences like court cases and jail, had an impact, and gradually, women did find a place in active politics on the campus, and were able to challenge the patronising attitudes of male leaders. This process of politicising students, especially women,resulted in taking up women's issues like violence, sexual harassment and the secondary status of women.

AIPWA was formed in 1994, and was influenced both by the ideology of the Left and feminism. The discourse with the Autonomous Women’s Movement (AWM) was ongoing at that time. Kumudini emphasised the need for dialogue, and felt that it would be more helpful if neither the Left nor the AWM is viewed by the other as monolithic. So far, mutual criticism has characterised the interaction between the Left and Autonomous groups.There is a dire need to move beyond this, she felt. A more open attitude would stimulate dialogue and alliances more than categorising the other with unchanging labels.

Identifying the struggle against the State as a priority, Kumudini expressed the need to form alliances of all progressive forces. While the Right is organising women and forming a mass base, there is need for us to effectively reach out to women. We have to fight the State, bargain, pressurise, and avoid the pitfalls of getting co-opted by either the State or international funding agencies.

Articulating some of the questions before her party now that the CPI-ML (Liberation) is no longer underground, she said that one important debate is: How far to go on the Parliamentary path? Can it be used in favour of the women’s question? Speaking on the issue of the ever-increasing massacres and blood baths in Bihar, Kumudini declared that it is not a question of violence versus non-violence. It is an issue of caste oppression.

State repression is a major issue for progressive forces, said Kumudini. Police excesses, army rule in Assam and other states of the North East have had a deep impact on women. Resisting these violations has been part of our long experience. She expressed the need to take forward the debate on Marxism and Feminism, and evolve a dynamic and relevant amalgam of the two ideologies in order to meet the challenges of tomorrow.


In the discussion that followed the above presentations, a number of questions were raised. A major question emerging from the floor was the dalit question, and the fact that Left parties had not given much importance to the issue. It was felt that the caste question had been subsumed under the class question, and this amounted to ignoring the Indian reality. While it is true that most of the poor are dalits, and class does overlap with caste, caste oppression is of a specific nature, which needs a specific response.

Another significant point raised was that although Left parties were theoretically in favour of equal opportunities, their party structures are dominated by upper class and upper caste men. A specific query about the number of dalits and number of women in decision-making positions in Left parties revealed that we still have far to go. A point was made that while many women in the Left parties were agitating for 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies, their own parties were not in favour of reserv ation for women in Central Committees or any decision-making bodies. The representatives of these parties frankly admitted that the battle had just begun, and fighting male chauvinism within the party and Trade Unions was part of their agenda.

The issue of lesbianism also came up for debate. Members of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights commented that in recent times, whenever Left parties, who avowedly stood for democratic rights, were asked about their position on lesbianism, they invariably stated that they had written an article on the film ‘Fire’ in their magazine. Or their attitude was one of mere tolerance, and not in positive support of lesbians.

The issue of reservation for women was discussed in the background of a question regarding the basis of the number 33%. The speakers elaborated on how this figure had come about, and that women’s groups were accepting it as a first step in political empowerment for women. A debate ensued about whether or not reservation would bring about genuine empowerment. Some felt that it was mere tokenism, while others felt that if used effectively, it could ultimately lead to ensuring a better position for women.


The post-lunch session began with the Saheli paper on “The Autonomous Women’s Movement: A Critical Perspective”. A brief history about the emergencies and nature of Saheli as an autonomous women’s group in 1981 was given. The group emerged with the understanding that though women are a heterogeneous group, still there is some commonality in the lived experiences of women which are related to their being women. The need to raise women’s issues in a focussed way and with a different perspective was acknowledged. It was in this context that several autonomous women’s groups, comprising mainly of middle class urban women, emerged in the 1980s. In this process, a strong critique was made of many party based and other mass oganisations where issues affecting women were getting minimum or no attention. Clearly the new groups that were formed promoted a new analysis of women’s issues, thereby demonstrating a new quest for autonomy from their oganisations. But despite this new quest for autonomy, the need for building alliances with other mass-movements was always consciously emphasised. As a result, in the last twenty years, the strategies for aligning with mass oganisations and mass movements have dominated the debates both within and amongst various women’s groups.

It was pointed out that since then the development of women’s movement has been a very complex process, and definitely full of doubts and dilemmas. The process involved an understanding of the relation between the position of women and socio-economic development process, the need to share their experiences, (National Conference of Women’s Movements became an important medium for this), to understand and define the concept of patriarchy, feminism, autonomy, liberation, women’s labour, the continuing debates on strategies for change and relation with other movements and struggle to keep the separate identity of women’s movement while working with other movements and groups. But this process also resulted in exerting pressure on various movements, organisations, political parties and the State to incorporate women issues in their agenda. Though all this gave visibility to women issues and resulted in an emergence of many policies, programmes and laws, the women’s movement now had to confront many newer forces unleashed by these responses. Since this response was not accompanied by a significant change in the position of women, and did not help to change the mindset of people at various levels, and more importantly did not help to mitigate violence against women, the manner of this State intervention and response by other political actors and forces needed to be questioned. At the same time while women’s position did not show a significant improvement, this massive response resulted in co-opting a number of women issues.

The paper also pointed to another major trend that affected the women’s movement, i.e., the influx of foreign money for various social and of mass movements, a large part of which came for the women’s movement and women’s studies. In present times, the questions of funding, the role of NGOs and alliances with left oganisations needs to be thoroughly debated and strategies evolved.

The number of NGOs and government supported women’s programmes had increased and so did the number of women working in them. The paper raised issues about their functions and their perspective on women issues. The problems related with foreign funded groups and the government supported women’s development programmes were pointed out in the context of their ‘depoliticising’ effect on women working in them. Their accountability to funders and/or their governments hinders these NGOs from raising political questions, which is a crucial aspect of any movement, or struggle oriented work. The issue of NGOs becoming implementers of State programmes, which may be anti-people, was also raised.

In addition to the above, the paper also pointed out the challenges being faced by women’s movement, in the present times. These include: (a) rising communalist, fundamentalist and casteist forces, and mobilisation of women on sectarian basis undermining their common oppression and possible solidarity, (b) present liberalization process, (c) shrinking democratic spaces, (d) role of community and caste groups. The challenge, in view of all these increasing pressures is how to keep the focus on struggle for women’s equality.

Anjali Sinha, of Lok Dasta/Progressive Students Union presented the experiences of her group.She described their involvement with the women’s movement while working in certain villages and towns of Northern Uttar Pradesh as well as in Delhi. Despite their limited experience, they feel the need to share their experiences with different streams of the women’s movement. She narrated in detail the manner in which they consciously tried to increase their contact with women students and with women of toiling classes both in U.P. and Delhi. They also made special efforts to reach out women in various towns of the country through discussion, camps and workshops. In this process, they discovered that many issues could get their space in the agendas of various left political parties only because of the efforts of women’s organisations. Of these, the most important ones were the issue of patriarchy and to put the issue of women’s subordination in a way that could be widely understood.

She pointed out the limited focus of communist movement in preparing a woman activist and the over-emphasis on subsuming the women’s question within the question of abolishing the capitalist system, has led to a very narrow perspective on the whole issue.

In addition to the above, Anjali pointed out other problems on the manner of involving men and women in women issues. She felt that women’s issues are considered to be the concern only of women and women in the party normally tend to work only on women issues, as if other issues are of secondary importance to them. She felt that it is more important that men are gender-sensitised.

The other question is how do we look at the problems regarding women. For example, is it possible to solve the problem of women’s oppression through a feminist perspective only? Perhaps, it is equally important to analyse patriarchy along with concurrent social and economic situations as well as governmental systems. In addition to this, those who create gender vs. class or caste vs.class dichotomy, are not correct in approaching the issue. The complexity of the problem can be understood only by taking into account the linkages between these various categories.

Similarly, she said that they find it problematic that if you are a Marxist you can’t be a feminist and if you are a feminist you can’t be a Marxist. What is important is that being a Marxist, one has to understand the position of women in its various aspects in a social system and similarly a feminist also needs to extend her understanding so as to situate women’s oppression in totality.

Despite these ideological differences, Anjali felt the need to work with women’s organisations having a correct perspective. She also pointed out that women’s organisations always tend to project themselves as non-political. Being non-party based, does not mean being non-political too. She also questioned why women’s organisations feel the need to project themselves in the manner.

After the main presentations, some participants made brief interventions focussing on specific issues.

Bhanwari, from the Ajmer Anchal Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti, Ajmer, Rajasthan, spoke about the issue of displacement due to construction of a highway near Ajmer. She also spoke about the discrimination based on caste and gender in the Panchayat. In the face of police repression on a daily basis, rural women, mostly dalits, have been trying to carry out their struggle for social change. She also pointed out that rural women struggling for their rights do not receive much support from urban women and city-based women’s groups, whose priorities seem to be different.

Adding to this observation, Indira, from the Samanvaya Samiti, Bisalpur Bandh Kshetra, Tonk, Rajasthan, commented that there was a great amount of fragmentation among sanghathans (mass organisations). Several movements have faded out, while others have been deeply affected by the economic and industrial boost, which has taken place in the Ajmer region.Indira felt that the disintegration of women’s groups, and the lack of support to rural women’s movements need to be analysed, and solutions sought.

Nirmal Choudhury of the Purogami Mahila Sanghathan, Delhi, asked the basic question: “Where is the movement going?” She said that we seem to have come to a standstill. After a concerted movement of 25-30 years fighting for rights in various spheres, we still have not achieved much. There has no doubt been a growth of awareness about women’s rights, and the government has also responded to this force (women’s movement). Yet, the results have not been commensurate with the extent of struggle, she felt. The reason could be located in the breaking-up of women’s groups due to external influences - funding, government pressure, and political pressures. Nirmal asserted the need to work together towards a collaborated effort and collective movement.

Members of the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) began by expressing their appreciation at the space made in the meeting for them to voice their concerns. They spoke about the hierarchy within society, and even within social movements, where lesbian issues are marginalised. An interesting example given was Pastor Neimuller’s famous poem “Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak...” which is widely circulated by progressive groups, but from which the line on homosexuality has been censored. The existence of the line on homosexuality in the original poem was a revelation to most people in the room. While pointing out that lesbianism can also be a life and death issue, the recent tragedy of Mamta and Monalisa in Orissa was related. They were a lesbian couple who attempted suicide - one died, and the survivor had a murder case slapped on her. Though this was a human rights issue, it is unfortunate that no women’s group went to investigate or offer support. It was left to two men from the Aids Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan to constitute a fact-finding team and go to Orissa.Yet, they felt that the women’s movement had made some progress, and spaces were opening up to discuss lesbianism within the movement.


Reservation for women was an issue several participants focussed on. One view was that there was a need to discuss different forms of co-option.Fears were expressed that too much focus on reservation might result in diverting the energies from many other issues.

Responding to this comment, another participant pointed out that 33% reservation should not be looked at in isolation. We need to assess whether Parliamentary politics change when women get into the Parliament. A similar sentiment expressed was that women’s reservation was a political issue where autonomous women’s groups could support Left groups. The women’s movement, it was felt, should not stand at the periphery, but should push to the centre and make space for women.

Adding to the discussion, another participant commented that reservation is symbolic of weaker sections getting representation. If reservation is acceptable for dalits, then the women’s movement should think it acceptable for women too.The same view was reiterated by a few other participants also.

The issue of the murder of Meena More, woman representative in the Thane Corporation was also brought up. It was felt that though this was a political killing, no questions asked about this death. Carrying forward the point, another participant said that amidst all the hue and cry for reservation for women in Parliament, there was a need to study the impact of women’s political participation at the Panchayat and Corporation level. What do women Corporators have to say after spending 5 years in power? Though there is a report available of the Mumbai experience of local self- government, there was a dearth of such data from elsewhere. Sexual harassment is also an issue for women in local self-government. It was felt that there is a need for training and exposure of elected women so that their participation in politics is effective.

A slip of the tongue by one participant, calling ‘arakshan’ (reservation) as ‘akarshan’ (attraction) drew many laughs. She used the opportunity to stress the fact that many women were being attracted to the opportunities opened up by 33% reservation, and the women’s movement should encourage them. According to her, the issue of land ownership for women was an issue not taken up by the women’s movement, and this was a serious gap. She also wondered how we could save ourselves from co-option if the government starts working on the issues of the weaker sections. Should the government not take up these issues? How can activists check the distortions, which invariably creep into government handling of these issues?

The issue of co-option of women’s issues was taken further. The Women’s Development Programme (WDP) in Rajasthan is a typical example of government co-opting women’s initiative. In fact, the WDP experience also revealed the different perspectives in the women’s movement, since all women’s groups do not support the Sathin Union. Another participant added that the government has time and again been forced to take up women’s issues. Yet, the limitations within programmes like WDP and Mahila Samakhya are by now well known. Even minimum wages are not ensured, leave aside other rights. The real motives of the government need to be exposed, she felt.

Due to shortage of time, many important issues could not be discussed - NGO-isation within the movement, the role of funding, caste and communal politics, the use of legislation in the movement etc. Yet, the meeting concluded on a somewhat positive note. The fact that an atmosphere had been created to frankly talk about the dilemmas facing us, was itself a source of strength. The possibilities of collaborating on issues despite differences in focus and perspective were also heartening. Fighting isolation, and making links with progressive trends is the only way to fight the onslaught of reactionary forces and State pressures.