Forefronting Women’s Rights

Souvenir 2006

The women’s movement began with a monolithic notion of universal sisterhood. When Saheli was started, we too began our work with the same notion. Our initial years of work on communalism and Uniform Civil Code (UCC) were also based on this presumption. The movement asserted that women in all religious communities are similarly oppressed. The individual struggles of Lata Mittal, Mary Roy, Shehnaz Sheikh, and Shah Bano against discrimination in personal laws became symbolic of three religious communities.

Evolving through supporting individual women

Supporting individual women helped in evolving our feminist politics in the early years. Dealing with women’s oppression within the family, domestic violence, courts, police stations, lawyers, judges, husbands, parents, neighbours and in-laws provided ‘grassroot’ experience that formed the basis of our understanding and growth as a feminist collective. We brainstormed about guardianship, adoption, divorce and maintenance – issues that kept coming up through women who approached Saheli for help. Our critical engagement with the law and what it has to offer developed through our daily work. Further discussions on reforms in dowry law raised a number of issues like unequal rights of women in family property, different laws for different communities and therefore different rights of women of different communities. What came through clearly was that in all personal laws based on religion, women had a raw deal.

Each incident we dealt with was a learning experience. When in 1984 we took up the case of a Hindu woman from an Arya Samaj family wanting to marry a Muslim man under the Special Marriages Act (SMA) so that both of them could retain their faith, the woman’s family filed objections and various false cases. At each hearing before the Marriage Officer, they brought professional goondas and ultimately the Marriage Officer refused to solemnise the marriage under the SMA and the woman had no choice but to convert and get married under Muslim Law.

This case brought into focus for us the question of secularism and legislation. The provision of the SMA according to which any person can object to the marriage notice, which is issued before the registration of the marriage, may have its uses as a deterrent against bigamy and cheating, etc., but inevitably also gives rights to individuals and religious authorities to raise objections. In this case the family and religious leaders created such circumstances that the woman had to convert to another religion, which the couple was resisting till the end. For the woman it meant foregoing special rights and protections within the marriage that the SMA would have ensured her. This experience along with many others made us more cautious about the dimensions of religion, law and family that control our lives, and furthered our awareness of how little the State has to offer to women desiring to make choices regarding marriage and religion.

Personal laws: United in inequality

Along with the rigour of case work, discussions and debates ensued about the impact of religion on women, the reality behind the secular state and the relevance of secularism and secular laws in the lives of women. This led to the formation of a ‘Women and Law’ sub-group within Saheli. This group was to look at the various laws governing inter-religious marriages, women’s rights in the family, and marriage under different personal laws.

As we were working to take the debate forward, discussing issues, planning newsletter articles and developing strategies, the anti-Sikh carnage took place in late 1984, forcing us to confront the dark reality of communal violence. We discussed the need for a UCC in the context of issues that case work was throwing up. We realised that all personal laws had one thing in common: the secondary status that they accorded to women across all communities. Women were denied fair share in inheritance, had no share in matrimonial property, and had unequal and discriminatory rights vis-à-vis men in the family with regard to guardianship and custody of children. Our work with individual women led us to raise the issue of discriminatory personal laws from the point of view of women’s rights, and link it to the struggle for societal recognition of women’s contribution to the household in terms of unpaid and invisible domestic labour.

The history of communal conflicts and partition of the country has contributed to a situation where it has been difficult to raise issues related to personal laws in a dispassionate manner. State intervention has been governed by considerations of electoral politics. Time and again we have seen this contributing to further communalising the atmosphere, with the male leaders of minority religious communities perceiving the UCC as a threat to their religious identity. Yet at the same time the government’s disinclination to enact a UCC, or to push for reform in personal laws in minority communities, has been seen by the Hindu community as an ‘appeasement’ of minorities. Thus, viewing personal laws as discriminatory to women was overwhelmed by approaching the issue from the point of view of national integration and religious/minority identity. This posed a problem for us as our demands for equal rights to women in the family tended to get misinterpreted along communal lines. Women’s groups were also getting divided on the issue.

The first expression of this could be seen as early as 1985 - at the National Conference: Perspectives from Autonomous Women’s Movement in India, we adopted a resolution agreeing on a universal civil code for women’s rights in marriage and family matters. The resolution was adopted by a majority vote of 50 to 22, while those in minority voted both, for reform from within the community and also supported Muslim women’s rights under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). Yet, the assertion of religious identity by fundamentalists pushed the issue of women’s rights further into the private domain – making it a ‘family matter’ of the religious communities – a notion that feminists have always challenged.

Around the same time, we were also becoming aware of the systematic curtailment of the rights of women under various fundamentalist regimes like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Indonesia, and the Philippines on the issues of personal laws and women’s rights within them. We extended support to women’s struggles on similar matters, and also tried to highlight them through our newsletters. While the process of understanding the linkages of patriarchy and religious forces to control women within family and marriage was on, our own strategies to deal with these inequalities were also evolving.

The Shah Bano case: The community closes in

The Supreme Court (SC) judgment in the Shah Bano case in 1985 granting a small maintenance to Shah Bano from her husband under Section 125 of the CrPC after she was divorced, sparked off an unprecedented political furore amongst political parties and religious leaders, who considered the judgement as an assault on the Shariat. The judgment also gave a call for the enactment of UCC by the government. There were protests backed by Muslim Personal Law Board and Muslim leaders who accused the SC for trespassing on their domain. The then-ruling Congress government relented under the pressure of Muslim orthodoxy and decided to bring in legislation with a view to exclude Muslim women from the purview of Section 125 CrPC.

Since Muslim women’s right to maintenance was contested by Muslim religious leaders on the basis of the Shariat, various sections of the women’s movement started looking for clauses within the Shariat to defend Muslim women’s rights. An open confrontation with religious leaders was being avoided as it would probably make women of the community more vulnerable, or would perhaps further consolidate the religious forces.

In Saheli, we attempted to grapple with the various dimensions of the issue.

Shahjehan: According to the Shariat, a woman must be given maintenance. Only the rich could have 4 wives, thus had to arrange for maintenance.

Gouri: The Supreme Court judgement is biased... But can Muslim women discuss this with their qazis?

Tara: We must talk to Muslim women about it, and hold a large meeting to debate the issue. There must be a uniform law for matters relating to marriage, and domestic issues.

Meeting on Muslim Personal Law, Daily Diary, 1985

Women were struggling for changes in various ways: within their community as well as by giving support to each other across communities. The number of women using the legal machinery following Shah Bano’s case was high. We felt we had to support all the various strategies. Hundreds of women of all communities under the banner of ‘Talaq Peedith’ went on a padayatra from Pune to Nagpur despite being stoned at Ahmednagar; and Muslim women also demonstrated in Aurangabad. With the central government’s introduction of a Bill to exclude Muslim women from Section 125 CrPC, all women’s organisations whose membership included women from different communities, started protesting.

From ‘uniformity’ to egalitarianism – asserting women’s rights

The communal and electoral politics of the ruling and other political parties not only tried to change the terms of the debate by making it a majority vs. minority rights issue, but also threw the women’s movement into disarray over the issue of a secular, uniform and just code based on the underlying principle of equal rights for women in family and marriage. With the consolidation of right wing political parties, religion started becoming one of the main determinants of electoral politics, and Hindu communal organisations started raising the demand for a UCC in a big way. Their agenda however was to consolidate the Hindu identity, to the exclusion of other minority religions. At the same time, religious leaders’ resistance to reforming the personal laws in minority communities was solidifying because of the history of, and continuing, communal politics. Over time, we in Saheli too realised the problems of continuing to use the terminology of UCC, of asserting a ‘uniformity’ that would subsume minority identity and customs into the Hindu majority. Therefore, basing our demands on the reality of women’s lives, we argued for an Egalitarian Civil Code, and hold this position till date. We located the problem in the context of the male-dominated family structure that the personal laws were trying to reinforce, and analysed it from the point of view of unpaid domestic labour of women in the family, and lack of rights in family property.

We also argued that personal laws violate the democratic rights of all citizens because they neither treat men and women as equal, nor do they ensure equality to men and women of different religious communities. In addition, they also violate the principles of secularism. The effort was thus to take the debate out of the minority-majority identity framework and place it in the context of women’s rights as citizens in a democratic country, and we continued to articulate this position well into the 1990s.

“We must also be alert to the fact that when the issue of UCC is raised by communal parties of the majority Hindu community, the Muslims being a minority community feel under attack, withdraw and the voice of reform within the community is completely silenced. The communalists demand for a UCC is borne not out of sympathy for women but rather antipathy towards all Muslims. It is therefore necessary for women’s groups to make their position distinct from the communal parties, approach women of the minority community with sensitivity and to forge alliances on the issue of ECC.” Saheli Newsletter January 1995.

There were many meetings amongst women’s groups at the national level as well as with women from other countries. The Asian Conference on Women, Religion and Personal Laws, in December 1987 in Bombay organised by Women’s Centre provided a rich exchange of information on women’s position under various laws and societies. The rise of fundamentalism and its impact on women, colonialism and family laws, the role of women’s groups and strategies for change were debated. The Conference pointed to the linkages of rising state repression, economic crises and rising influence of fundamentalism. The need to understand the political use of religion and rituals was emphasised.

The Conference raised questions like whether we need to work within the framework of religion or outside it. Various positions within the women’s movement on the issue of codification of personal laws came up. We at Saheli reiterated our position on a civil code based on justice and equality for women. Some participants suggested positive interpretations of religious texts and some expressed their apprehensions of such interpretations, which could also be challenged. Some talked of an optional code, and some of reform within the personal laws.

The National Conference on Women, Religion and Family Laws in January 1989, organised by Women’s Centre and the All India Council of Christian Women, held in Bombay supported the goal of working towards a UCC free of gender biases, while protecting the plurality of religious and tribal identities. In the meanwhile, attempts to amend outdated or unjust personal laws must also be supported. This period is important as it clearly marked a change in the use of terminology, dropping the word ‘uniform’ and adopting ‘egalitarian’ with a view to dissociate ourselves from the demand of right wing parties for a UCC. The 8th March, 1989 pamphlet by Saheli thus voiced ‘Enactment of an Egalitarian Civil Code’ as one of the demands.

The hesitation on the part of some sections of the women’s movement to disentangle the issue of women’s rights under personal laws from religious identity issues, as well as attempts to turn the issue into a minority-majority identity issue by various communal and political forces, and the appropriation of the demand of UCC by BJP and Hindutva forces, meant that the women’s movement was under lot of pressure on the question of reforming personal laws with a focus on women’s rights. Broadly, three positions emerged on the issue in the late 1980s: First, reform from within, which was seen as a strategy to involve the community in the process of change and thus neutralise opposition to it. Second, an optional code, premised on the argument that it would give a choice to those who want to get out of the personal law ambit and use a secular law. A third position, supported by Saheli, was that we need to move beyond the minority-majority debate, raise the issue of women’s rights unhesitatingly and link it with women’s labour in family and marriage.

The common thread between the three different approaches is that reform was needed so as to eliminate the discriminatory aspects of the personal laws. In addition to these three positions, another approach proposed to take up areas like matrimonial property, where women do not have rights but which do not come in direct conflict with personal laws.

Consolidation of fundamentalism in the 1990s

The growth and consolidation of right wing forces in the late 1980s - namely the BJP and the Sangh Parivar - threw formidable challenges to feminist, secular and democratic forces. The RathYatra led by LK Advani and the intense protests against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission reserving quotas for backward castes, saw the consolidation of reactionary forces in an unprecedented manner.

Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid by Hindu communal mobs on 6 December, 1992 and the communal violence in its aftermath, a lot of rethinking took place on the issue of a civil code for women. The pressure to support only reform within personal law as a strategy seemed mounting. In protesting against the targeting of the Muslims by Hindu fundamentalists, there was hesitation about whether this was the right time to talk about the civil code. In the wake of severe challenges posed by communal parties, it became all the more important for women’s groups to clarify many misconceptions by stating clearly that only gender justice can be the sole underlying principle of an ECC, the term that we had opted to make our position clear and different from communal parties. The arguments of plurality and diversity in the country, and thus the need to continue with diverse personal laws, was confusing the issue. In Saheli, we believed that we needed to discuss the linkages between culture and religion, rather than equating the two. While the women’s movement hesitated, the BJP included the demand for a UCC in their election manifesto which, in the heightened communal situation, was essentially being used to whip up hysteria against Muslims, and did not reflect any concern for women. The political parties, religious and fundamentalist forces were continuously distorting the issue of women’s rights to a minority-majority debate; they also revived the argument of national integration. There was a need to bring the focus back to women’s rights.

Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a broad forum named People’s Movement for Secularism (PMS), of which Saheli was a part, was formed in the aftermath of communal violence had a view to work towards reducing communal hatred. In a two day workshop in July 1995 held by PMS on the issue of Personal Laws, the discussion again broadly reflected three strands on the issue of improving women’s rights covered under personal laws. The first strand was that the demand for reform should come from within the community, and there should be separate reform and codification of each personal law. A number of women’s groups were working amongst Muslim and Christian women and creating an opinion for reform within the personal laws. Secondly, it was suggested that the Special Marriage Act be amended and made into a secular non-sexist law. It could then be optional for people married under the same. A campaign could be launched to propagate it and encourage people to come within its purview. In other words it would be an Optional Civil Code. The third strategy was to scrap all personal laws and formulate a new Egalitarian Civil Code, the basic principle of which would be gender justice.

Women’s organisations at this time were also emerging as a strong anti-communal force. However, an environment free of communal tensions and hatred was most essential to take forward the demand for reform in personal laws, or for some kind of equal code for women of all communities. At the same time, amongst ourselves, we needed to understand how the prolonged situation was undermining our strength to fight for women’s rights in family and marriage. We also needed to take this understanding to women and communities to create a milieu in which the issue of personal law is understood in the context of women’s rights. This was a formidable task since both state policies and positions of political parties were dictated by electoral politics; religious leaders of the communities were unwilling to lose patriarchal control over their communities.

There were various levels at which these debates and actual work against communalism was going on. There were different trends within the women’s movement, and the position advocating for reform from within was gaining ground. The women’s movement was at the forefront of all anti-communal campaigns and other work. There were also attempts to re-look at history, reinterpreting religious texts so as to find liberating spaces in them for women. However all the efforts to combat communalism and change the terms of the debate on UCC did not help in containing the rise of right wing forces in the country. Disturbingly, some slogans of the women’s movement, such as “Hum Bharat ki naari hain, phool nahi chingari hain...” were being taken over by the Sangh Parivar.

All of these events sparked deep introspection within the women’s movement as to how cut off we are from understanding the significance religion has in people’s lives. Many questions regarding fundamentalist politics and secularism were also raised. Should the BJP be the only focus of attack? How do we deal with BJP bringing up the issue of Kashmir and the demolition of mandirs in Pakistan? How can we use secularism as the central theme of our campaigns? To take the issue forward a number of tasks were outlined for the group to develop a campaign against myths being spread and used by BJP, expose the role of Congress, critique of established Left, including a door-to-door campaign defining and asserting secularism. We also planned to organise more discussions on religion, personal laws and revivalism.

A series of meetings and discussions on personal laws were organised in various forums including colleges, with a view to raise the issue of an ECC in the context of the Congress government’s statements on the UCC and the revival of the Travancore Succession Act. It was also decided to reach out to the basti areas in which Sabla Sanghs worked, and also to look into tribal and customary laws. The issue of an ECC was also raised in the meetings of Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA) and later in the PMS. The need to reach out, to discuss these issues on a wider platform, to introduce ideas in schools and colleges was sharply felt, and we, along with our colleagues in the joint forums, reached out with simple pamphlets breaking myths about religions as well as songs of harmony. “Mandir Masjid, Gurdwarey ne Baant liya Bhagwan ko…” was an oft repeated and popular movement song.

In women’s conferences, such as the regional conference in Kanpur in 1993, communalism was the main theme, and strategies to tackle it were debated at length.

The Autonomous Women’s Movement Conference in Tirupati in 1994 pointedly raised the issue of share of women in parental/family property. Patriarchal attitudes at the level of society do not allow women to take advantage of the reforms that have come in certain laws. State policies still continue to recognise men as head of the families and land continues to go in their names.

Post 1995, the BJP was no longer using the UCC as an election issue, and this was perhaps a reason for the debate on ECC to become more muted. However, the period saw many individual legal struggles and progressive decisions by the Supreme Court, as well as reforms in laws. Nevertheless, we at Saheli felt it was important for us to reach out to a wider public to talk about inequities in religious laws vis-a-vis women’s rights. So among several activities, we also performed a street play on the issue, Farq, written by Tripurari Sharma.

The Saheli pamphlet of 8th March, 1996 was perhaps the last time we reached out on the issue of ECC. We again reiterated our position by raising the issues of women’s domestic labour and their lack of rights in matrimonial and family property. The pamphlet also focused on the problems women face when they move out of marriages because of prevalence of discriminatory religious personal laws. Ever since then, we have continued to participate in discussions and debates on this issue, whether these discussions advocated reform from within the community, e.g., drafting a model Nikahnama for Muslim women, or by responding to initiatives taken by the ruling governments to improve the rights of Hindu women. As we discuss later, there have been divergent views within Saheli, and with other groups as well, both at the level of analysis and at the level of strategising.

In the public domain, a clear reaffirmation of religious faith and rituals was underway, including promotion of family and matrimonial values through media by projecting images of women (mainly rich and Hindu) who are supposedly both modern and traditional. Many regressive rituals have now become part of the market economy, and commercial interests are vigorously maximising their profits. In a period of such sweeping social and political changes, it has become difficult to raise many issues.

Changes around us were rapid as we faced various kinds of pressures – polarisation of society on communal lines, violence in its brutal forms during communal riots and targeting of women, mobilisation and participation of women as aggressors in communal violence, construction of ‘Indian women’ as Hindu, and the commercialisation of rituals which reinforce one particular religion as dominant.

State response to the whole issue was not showing any change. In mid-1999, women’s groups received a questionnaire from the Law Commission regarding the property rights of women governed by Hindu Law. This once again triggered a debate within the group as to whether to participate in such a process or not.

Does participation in processes initiated by the ruling government to give token privileges to Hindu women and ignore the interests of all sections of women call into question our commitment to secular feminist politics? Would this amount to compromising the collective voices of women? How do we address the question of participation in any process that aims to better the rights of any section of women? Would it mean an ideological shift from our earlier stands? All changes in Hindu personal laws have happened in this way, with the governments of a majoritarian Hindu country taking the lead. This has constantly widened the inequality with other personal laws.

Similar questions were raised at the meeting held in 2005 to discuss the Bill introduced in Parliament by the UPA government to amend the Hindu Succession Act, 1956.

Over the last two decades, the specificities of women’s experiences and oppression as linked to their religious and caste identity have become clearer than before. There has been increasing evidence of how practices of class and caste respectability and privileges produce inequalities amongst women.

Confronting communal carnages, visibilising sexual violence

In November 1984, Delhi witnessed the killing of Sikhs and massive communal violence following the assassination of the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Saheli was faced with a situation of communal violence for the first time, and we learnt many lessons by plunging into relief and rehabilitation work with Sikh survivors. It also deepened our understanding of the impact of religion and politics on the lives of women. The strengthening of religious identities at the cost of women’s rights started emerging as a serious concern in Saheli meetings. It was around this time that the Akali movement was also demanding a separate Sikh personal law which had the danger of curtailing Sikh women’s rights in marriage and family.

Our work on communal violence opened us to the issue of sexual violence on women as a means not only to terrorise the ‘other’ but also in the context of community honour. We realised that sexual violence on women of the other religions, communities or castes during riots and wars in order to humiliate the ‘other’ community/nation receives widespread social sanction. During the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, our work with affected women did uncover the issue of sexual violence, but it did not get rigorously documented at the time. Again, in the riots all over the country following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, reports of violence against women came in; but this was not taken up as a major issue by the women’s movement.

In 2002, during the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat, the scale of brutality unleashed on women with the complicity of state agencies and Hindu civil society shook all of us. At the same time, it was apparent that present legal frameworks, both national and international, were inadequate to deal with situations like Gujarat. The lack of independence of state bodies like the National Commission for Women (NCW) became amply clear, when the NCW, in line with its BJP government patrons, failed to recognise, much less condemn, the violence against Muslim women in its report on the violence, or to make any substantive moves towards their relief and rehabilitation. The Forum Against Oppression of Women, who had been working extensively in Gujarat soon after the carnage, spearheaded the International Initiative for Justice in Gujarat (IIJ): Redressing Violence against Women, committed by State and non-State actors in Gujarat. In December 2002, we joined hands with other women’s groups and brought to light the systematic sexual violence against women in the carnage, and examined inadequacies of the present legal and judicial system in dealing with this kind of state-sanctioned communal violence.

In particular, it became amply clear that the criminal justice system as it exists in India at present is not capable of dealing with incidents of sexual violence, particularly that of a communal nature. What the experience of Gujarat shows more clearly than ever is the need to eliminate unjust evidentiary requirements that prevent prosecution without medical reports and other corroborating evidence.

Even as we were debating the utility of a law to specifically address sexual violence, drafts of proposed legislation prepared by civil society groups began to be circulated for comments. However the Communal Violence Bill, 2005 forwarded by the government, although drafted in the backdrop of the carnage in Gujarat ignores the use of sexual violence as an engine for the mobilisation of hatred and destruction. In fact, the definition of ‘communal’ does not include the category of gender against which violence is unleashed. The Bill continues to view sexual offences against women under Section 354 and 375/376 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), thereby placing a number of crimes against women during such riots outside the purview of this law. The Bill continues to carry forward all the problematics of the existing provisions of the IPC with regard to rape cases, particularly with respect to the definition of rape, consent, evidentiary requirements, problems related to investigation and prosecution and treating sexual crimes within the paradigm of shame and stigma. The Bill not only continues to keep silent on the occurrence of such violence but makes it impossible for women to take recourse to any redressal mechanisms, thereby rendering it invisible.

Sati: Still a burning question

When a young widow Roop Kanwar, was immolated on her husband’s funeral pyre on September 4, 1987, it appeared only as a small news item in the national newspapers. Gradually, as the news spread, and the initial disbelief gave way to anger, the incident triggered off nationwide protests against the regressive practice and its subsequent glorification. Our prediction in our pamphlet of March 8, 1985, was eerie in its accuracy: “We hear horror stories of our sisters in Muslim countries being pushed into purdah....Can we not see a future similar to this for our Hindu women who could be made Satis...to maintain the honour of Hinduism?” Even as the Congress government led by Rajiv Gandhi was silent on the matter, and the BJP’s Advani lauded the ‘brave act’, there was an expectation that Saheli would respond to the situation. And respond we did.

The anti-Sati campaign triggered questioning about the ideology of Sati, and its glorification, chunri mahotsav, as well as the role of politics, politicians, ministers and community leaders. We viewed with alarm the consolidation of the linkage of state and religious forces and their increasing control on the community through attempts to legitimise anti-woman practices in the name of tradition.

Raising a public debate against what began to be called ‘voluntary sati’, we highlighted the dismal position of widows and their lack of control of over property and other productive resources. Issues of religion and religious/community identity had to be dealt with on the streets for the first time. Women’s groups in Rajasthan and in other parts of the country, including Delhi, took out protest marches. However, we were appalled at being pitted against other women. Foremost, our credentials were questioned: Did we really represent ‘Indian’ women? Recounting a rally during those days, Bharti says, “There were only 8-10 of us at one rally. We just lay on the ground and refused to get up. We managed to prevent the rally glorifying sati from passing that way!” We debated various strategies to take on the conservative and religious forces: rallies, demonstrations, legal intervention and public discourse. Sometimes, decisions to hold demonstrations were withdrawn because of the backlash and its consequent impact on mobilisation. “For us, it was a very different situation – we had to be in direct confrontation with religious forces. The other issue in Sati was that of control over sexuality – how do you bring this up with the public?” asked Anjali Deshpande, active in the anti-sati campaign.

The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1988, a response to pressure from women’s groups, fell short of calling Sati a murder because of the supposed religious sanction behind it. Another deeply problematic provision was that it also held (along with others) the woman who attempts to commit Sati liable for punishment for one to five years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 5,000 to Rs 20,000. The debates and strategies discussed in the two joint forums which emerged during the wake of the anti-sati agitations: the Joint Action Committee Against Sati (JACAS) and the Sati Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (SVSM), underlined the tensions between the autonomous groups, and the party-based groups, which had to keep electoral politics in mind.

In October 1996, when all the 32 persons charged with public burning of Roop Kanwar were acquitted because of the paucity of evidence, women’s groups protested. Barely two weeks later, a puja commemorating the 400th anniversary of Sri Sati was organised with great pomp in Delhi by Rani Sati Mandir Trust of Jhunjhunu (where Saheli members, clad in uncustomary saris and bindis went surreptitiously to check out what was happening). Despite our protest and police complaint, no action was taken to stop the puja. To our consternation, the organisers - to escape any legal action under the anti-sati law - claimed to be worshipping their kul-devi Narayani Devi!

It seemed like the issue of Sati would never be laid to rest. On 11 November 1999, there came another shock – that of 52-year-old Charan Shah from Mahoba, who had allegedly committed Sati. A joint team of activists including Saheli, investigated the circumstances of her death, and concluded that the death was not, in fact, a simple case of suicide, but should be acknowledged as Sati, and highlighted the need to understand social pressures and religious ideologies that lead to these so-called ‘suicides’ and their subsequent glorification. The joint campaign could not be taken further because of contradictions in positions of the autonomous and political party groups, who seemed reluctant to take a strong stand against institutionalised religion and its sanction for the propagation of such violence against women.

When all the eleven accused in four of the 22 cases on glorification of Sati filed in 1987 were acquitted in January, 2004, Saheli, along with several women’s groups, protested and demanded that action to be taken against all those official witnesses who turned hostile, and that the rest of 18 cases be conducted with the support of legal experts and not just the public prosecutor.

On May 7, 2005, Ram Kumari, a 75 year old widow immolated herself on her husband’s pyre in a village in UP. The glorification that followed this incident was in clear violation of the law. Protests followed, by women’s groups, including Saheli, demanding that action be taken against those who allowed for the glorification to take place.

These incidents of widow immolation, though seemingly few and far between, are grim reminders that the issue of Sati is still a burning one. One that impacts all women, embodying as it does the ideology that the only ‘pure’ or ‘Sati’ woman, is one who kills herself.

Myth of sisterhood: Women as agents of fundamentalism

Aggressive Hindutva politics led to mobilisation of women within their political outfits so as to build on the notion of women as repositories, carriers and saviours of Hindu culture even if it required the use of violence and communal hatred. While the right wing was using women’s relation with religion negatively, the women’s movement was unable to use it positively. We had experienced this in our campaigns against Sati too.

In 2002 in Gujarat, we witnessed one of the most ghastly carnages in the post independence era where women’s bodies became the leitmotif of violence. Not only the scale and brutality of sexual violence on women was disturbing; the active role of state actors and an active and mostly silent approval of the Hindu community were equally shocking. We had time and again raised our concerns on the communal mobilisation of women, but even then we found it difficult to absorb the reality of the role and participation of Hindu women in this event, especially when we realised how right-wing Hindu women had openly played a major part in eliminating Muslims and brutalising women under the agenda of Hindutva.

The increasing communalisation of women along with growing right wing ascendancy undermined even more greatly the long standing struggle of women’s movement against patriarchal control wielded by the structures of caste and religion. That the Hindutva agenda has most disturbingly channelled the participation of women, adivasis and Dalits against Muslims is a challenge to all of us to strengthen our work in vital ways. It highlights the dire need to make our work more widespread and reach out to all levels of society.

Following this point of crisis, we also felt that it is crucial to examine whether the notion of an identity ‘as women’ and solidarity among women is tenable. We felt it necessary to articulate ways in which the assertion of a gender identity is possible in the face of the militant assertion of a religious/communal identity. We needed to make inroads into the communal psyche as an attempt at reorienting the discourse toward an assertion of women’s rights in the family, community and polity. This is an uphill task in times of increasing polarisation, growing ethnic and communal divides and the ascendancy of the right wing in the global era. The challenge remains and needs to be addressed with all our strength.

Control by caste and community panchayats

Rising communalism has contributed to a polarisation of society on communal lines. Not only are male religious leaders tightening control of communities, there is a trend towards asserting community identity, even among women. Even as the atmosphere is getting increasingly vitiated, we grapple with the challenge of reaffirming solidarity based on a common struggle towards women’s rights.

Growing casteism, verdicts of caste and community panchayats to control female sexuality, increasing ritualism and Hinduisation of women’s lives required further understanding of the specific nature of patriarchal violence and control on women of different castes and communities. In order to understand women’s experiences of religion, caste and community in their every day lives, we carried out a survey on the ‘Impact of Religion, Caste and Community on Women’. While we were working on the survey, the case of Imrana (raped by her father-in-law and then prohibited from living with her husband) and Gudiya (forced to leave her husband when her first husband, presumed dead, returned), revealed as to how issues of violence against women and their denial to choose are legitimised by community and caste Panchayats. Contrary to the general public view, such regressive tendencies are not limited to Muslim communities. Within the Hindu community, from Sati to rape, parading women naked and cutting noses of women at the orders of caste and community panchayats is common. Clearly, when it comes to controlling and subjugating women, religion makes no difference.

The growing hold of caste and community Panchayats, and the impact of control over women’s lives is reflected in the denial of the right of women to choose their partners. Grave atrocities committed on women who dare to form relationships outside the caste and community also escape the law, because of the prevalent societal attitudes intending to control the sexuality of women. The systematic use of rape and sexual slavery on marginalised communities – Dalits and adivasis, is another aspect of violence that is frightening in its routineness and ‘normalcy’.

Jointly combating communalism: Awaaz Do, Hum Ek Hain!

The struggle against communalism and religious fundamentalism has been a major issue that drew us into joint work and alliances with other like-minded groups in the city of Delhi. Whether it was the Delhi riots in 1984 or the Seelampur riots in 1993 or the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 or the Gujarat Carnage in 2002, such events would spontaneously bring together a wide array of progressive forces that included women’s organisations, students’ unions, trade unions, democratic rights groups, cultural groups, theatre activists, media professionals and many others.

In November 1984, the communal violence against Sikhs following the assassination of Indira Gandhi was the first time ever that most of us we seeing systematic violence targeted against a minority community. Tension was rife across the city. As we stepped out on the roads and the city limped to ‘normalcy’, we became aware of the extent of loss, the destruction wreaked, the number of widows and children left behind since male bread winners were targeted the most. Many old men and women who lost their sons spoke of the horrors of partition. Relief camps were overflowing with such families. Missing people were being traced. Letters were being written to relatives in Punjab that families were moving. The shock and the palpable grief is fresh in our memories even after 22 years. This also brought the realisation that we cannot work in isolation, and we became part of joint initiatives like Nagrik Ekta Manch (NEM) to do relief work and the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA) to fight communalism by mobilising public opinion and organising protest actions against the perpetrators of the killings. Jan Ekta Abhiyan was created to seek punishment for the guilty.

SVA was one of the most focussed and sustained campaigns of the time that worked round the clock and had numerous discussions and debates in all the depth required for us to act cohesively. The rallies in Old Delhi were deeply impressive. The making of the Constitution of SVA itself was an energising process. We were articulating for ourselves along with many others and listening to others. There was a lull for a couple of years and SVA was revived again in the late 1980s. The years 1989-90 saw renewed energy in attempting to tackle the Hindutva mobilisation around the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. Fierce arguments on slogans and strategies took place. We along with other women’s groups made many inputs into the discussions on the impact of religion on women. Action and discussions matched in equal proportion. As we look back now at later formations, the debates held in SVA seem well thought out, the effort spent considerable, and the writings and material produced for mass circulation, immense.

The formation of the People’s Movement for Secularism (PMS) took place immediately in response to the demolition of Babri Masjid. The communal unrest it unleashed from December 1992 to the early months of 1993 kept us all on our toes. Even SVA was meeting in full swing. Saheli was part of both. PMS action plans included protests, peace marches, leafleting in schools, colleges, residential areas, office complexes, bastis and industrial areas. Intense relief work at Seelampur, fact finding at Ayodhya, visits to affected areas in Delhi, campaigning against anti-Bangladeshi propaganda by Madan Lal Khurana in the Jamia area, intense door to door campaigning, preparing people to come out, expressing solidarity, creating vigil groups at all entries into the Jamia area near Okhla, protesting against the communal violence that broke out in Mumbai.

It was with the organising efforts of PMS, when it revived once again, that a full fledged debate took place in the city on the issue of a civil code in response to the BJP taking it up as an election issue. It helped us in Saheli to respond to the debate and to all other issues raised from different perspectives by other groups.

In 2002, the Aman Ekta Manch was a spontaneous response to the anti-Muslim carnage in Gujarat. As another Delhi-based forum that brought together women’s groups, NGOs, human rights groups and a host of individuals in AEM we all worked together to draw attention to the issue by sitting on dharnas and hunger fasts, leafleting and rallying for peace even as the violence in Gujarat continued unabated. Simultaneously, relief work - collecting funds, clothes and medicines, began on a large scale. We took part in school, bazaar and locality based campaigns. Visits to Gujarat were also organised in rotation, and volunteers helped with rehabilitation efforts, since the state and central governments had practically washed their hands off relief and rehabilitation. We also tried to exert some pressure on State agencies which were directly responsible for providing relief and rehabilitation, like the Women and Child Development Department in the State of Gujarat, and the NCW to pressurise both the central and state governments to respond to the needs of the Muslim community generally and women in particular at that point of time.

The solidarity expressed and the impact of the joint actions would seem to be the only effective response in the dark times. Joint work invariably entailed protest demonstrations against the perpetrators, peace marches, relief work in affected areas, sending relief material and donations to affected areas, fact finding, mass distribution of leaflets along with songs and slogans, petitioning the government for urgent interventions, mobilising public opinion, street plays, workshops in schools and colleges and many other means of expression and activity.

The challenges ahead

Today the loss of radical militancy has not only been at the level of women’s movement but in the Left and secular movements too. Also the secular movement has been more or less irreligious, whereas in this situation where there is strong reaffirmation of religious faith, the challenge before us is how to reach out to people. Although the BJP as basically a middle class party has never been able to get a large margin of Hindu votes, how do we deal with the large silent Hindu majority? Our work on this issue has made it clear to us that when religious fundamentalism wields power, it affects the lives of women in different ways, for example, the veiling of women in Iran or Afghanistan, or withdrawing the opportunities of education and employment from them. All these issues were raised and debated in the meeting organised by Saheli on 10 August, 2002 in Miranda House, Delhi University.

In our experience, while the issue of communal violence and hatred and how its long term consequences of destroying the social fabric were raised and carried forward by many progressive human rights, civil rights and secular organisations, the issue of sexual violence on women remained mostly the concern of women’s groups. In addition, the present legal frameworks, both national and international, were inadequate to deal with situations like Gujarat, both in the case of killings of Muslim community and destroying their livelihoods and in the case of sexual crimes on women.

The growing hold of caste and community Panchayats is yet another challenge before us today. Dalit feminists have helped challenge our monolithic understanding and we see more clearly today how gender is regulated by caste, religious and community identity. It is in fact unthinkable to form strategies against patriarchal oppression without addressing caste exploitation and upper-caste privilege. Such an understanding will create political possibilities of bringing radical anti-caste struggles together with feminist struggles. Both can feed richly into the struggle against patriarchy in a casteist society. With a view to deepen our understanding on these linkages we organised three meetings in 2003 with Prem Chowdhry on ‘Intercaste Relations in Contemporary India’, Rajni Tilak on ‘Dalit Women’s Movement’ and Anuradha Naidu on ‘Self Respect Movement – A Brief History’.

With the visible rise of communalism and casteism, alongside an attempt to create a pan-Hindu identity, religion has had a deep impact on women at many levels. Women have been pushed into more conservative roles, where the notion of the Bharatiya Nari (or women as the repositories of culture and religion) is played out in popular TV serials as well as promoted along with a jingoistic national project. Most women, from majority and minority communities are being pushed more into the fold of the community, and any deviance from recurrent dress code diktats, increased visibility/adherence to religious symbols, or choosing a partner out of the caste/community is met with severe reprisal, even amounting to murder.

On the other hand, even as caste based political formations have gained ground in various parts of the country, the democratic rights and electoral participation of Dalit and backward castes face vicious attacks and intimidation.


The changing times have only added to the complexity of issues, and we feel the need to explore ways of working more effectively to make a difference. Our sustained efforts over the years form a clear pattern and yet the following concerns, remain uppermost in our minds: