The Seventh National Conference of Women’s Movements

Kolkata, 9-12 September 2006

Newsletter Dec 2006


The National Conferences are part of a long and vibrant history of the women’s movement in India, particularly the autonomous women’s movement. From the very beginning, they have brought together women from autonomous women’s organisations – i.e. non-government, non-electoral, non-political party, non-violent and not underground groups or funding agencies - on a range of issues and concerns, and over the years, have evolved as a space for expression of our collective ideas, politics and struggles.

Since 1980, these Conferences have been held in different cities across the country – Mumbai, Patna, Calicut, Tirupati and Ranchi, and organised by a National Coordination Committee (NCC) of autonomous women’s groups, that comes into being prior to every conference, and then disbands itself. The NCC is not a registered or permanent body. In fact, prior to every new National Conference, the NCC reconvenes and collectively inducts new member groups. This also includes a larger participation of groups from the region where the Conference is being planned who take on the additional responsibility of organising things at the local level as a State Coordination Committee. And the attempt has always been to work in the spirit of democracy, sisterhood and solidarity to encourage debate and dialogue among ourselves.


The preparatory process of the seventh Conference: Nine years in the making…

The preparatory process for the latest Conference started soon after the sixth Conference in Ranchi, even as we got together to assess lessons learnt and challenges faced – both in terms of content and debate, as well as logistics and organising.

In the long span of time between the last two Conferences, we have had several meetings in different parts of the country to try and understand where to go from the Ranchi experience. Along the way, we have had to address many issues – the changing realities within the women’s movement, including the nature of women’s groups and their functioning, the diverse range of issues, concerns and perspectives, areas of debate and difference, and varied/varying concerns regarding participation and funding.

We began by asking ourselves a very basic question: In this era of conferences, summits, forums, conclaves, consultations, seminars and workshops, what purpose could/would a National Women’s Conference such as we have had over the decades serve? Yet repeated explorations and discussions with new and old groups at preparatory meetings revealed that despite all the so-called opportunities to meet and discuss that had opened up, none of them addressed our shared need to come together as a women’s movement of today – to be critical and analytical, strategic and struggling, planning and dreaming together.

So finally we got down to the brass-tacks: planning of the Conference that brought together experience of old groups who have been involved in the process since the first Conference ever in Bombay, to newer groups who felt the need to foreground their concerns and connect with the movement as a whole. This of course meant that a range of issues had to be shared, hotly debated and even muscled through at times:


Who all are/can be part of the NCC? For years, the criteria of membership of the NCC was pretty simple: Autonomous women’s groups who affirm the Declaration of the last Conference, and have attended at least one Conference. But as the years after Ranchi slipped by us, we realised we had to do away with the last criteria and welcome newer autonomous groups and formations into the NCC. What we hadn’t expected was that we would end up having debates on what we mean by the term, ‘women’s groups’ and even ‘women’! While many of us believed that this should mean groups of, by and for women, others asserted that the definition should include women’s groups that have male board members, male employees, projects with men or even mixed groups with a reasonable number of women, projects among women or women in positions of power. Furious feminist debates on gender and power ensued, and much of this remained contentious to the end, but we broadly agreed that women’s groups (that may have male board members or employees) and not primarily mixed groups could be part of the NCC. Of course, women from mixed groups would be welcome to attend the Conference. But in the later stages of the preparation of the Conference, this debate got even more complex in the context of the participation of transgendered people, male-to-females and female-to-males as well as hijras – are they all ‘women’, do they all necessarily see themselves as women, how do ‘we’ see them, is gender only biological… while we talk about challenging the binaries of gender, do we have the ability/perspective/sensitivity to actually do it? The questions were many, the answers varied, and we all realised that even as these discussions and understandings are evolving, they are posing new challenges to us - as individuals, groups and the movement as a whole.

Money matters: Then, there were debates around funding: The autonomous women’s Conferences have always resisted any kind of institutional funding – be it government or donor agencies - because we view this as our collective space as a movement, not to be owned or dominated, politically or organisationally by any one group, organisation or donor. Consequently, expenses have always been modest and typically met through collections from fund-raising efforts, individual and group donations and registration fees. Yet we realised that with the changing times (and our determination to offer women better infrastructure and facilities than we managed in Ranchi) we would have to deal with much larger sums of money than we had ever done before. But we ventured in, undeterred… and our final budget was about Rs 16-17 lakhs. But it is telling that this time much of the funds came through donations/contributions from member group and registration fees, rather than fund-raising efforts which in the past had also served as an important means to spread the word about the Conferences, our themes and focus areas, and bring together a wider spectrum of women.

Whither the Conference? Considerations that have always determined the venue of the Conference have been the need of the local women’s movement to make a larger impact in their areas, and in turn for the movement to reach out to newer regions in the country, as well as to understand and address local issues. Equally important has been the concern that the local groups should feel confident and keen to take on such an onerous (not to mention, often thankless) job of organising the Conference in their city/town.


Thus many options were considered, prime among them Guwahati or Imphal in the North-east, but unfortunately the logistics proved too overwhelming even before we could begin. Then came the possibility of holding it in Ajmer, but this option was dropped because of unresolved debates about the participation of men in the NCC, as well as the political affiliations of the groups who were ready to take on the organising at the local level. Moreover, these were the years of severe drought conditions in Rajasthan, which made it almost impossible to organise a Conference of this scale. Gujarat as the next venue had to be dropped because of the earthquake of Kutch, and in subsequent years, the anti-Muslim carnage, which absorbed the energies of local groups, much as we all collectively wished to assert our strength and politics in the heartland of Hindutva! After this, we explored the option of holding the Conference in a central place like Wardha where the NCC would take on all responsibilities amongst ourselves, but we soon realised that the absence of a local coordination committee would be a major weakness in the plan. Soon, the women of Tamil Nadu bailed us out of this situation by offering to host the Conference in Chennai. Relieved and excited we began to move ahead with other aspects of planning, but this too was not to be. The Tsunami tragedy occurred and groups from the entire region could barely stretch themselves to address the needs of the victims, much less organise a women’s Conference. Finally, in 2005, groups from Kolkata offered to host the Conference and we set our sights on Kolkata.


The Maitree network comprising many women’s groups and NGOs in West Bengal took on local level organising, and soon we were on our way to another spate of preparatory NCC meetings to plan and finalise everything – from the revised Declaration to the number of toilets required, themes to sessions, content to coordinators, and budgets to registrations.

Over the years, Saheli has remained an active member of the NCC, participating (and maybe even precipitating some) debates and discussions on the Conferences, their content and nature, issues of organising and participation. So while we share the satisfaction of having been part of the process that finally made the Kolkata Conference happen, any critique that emerges in the post-Kolkata evaluation is also self criticism.


Box 1

Kolkata Chalo!

And so it was that the seventh National Conference of Women’s Movements finally came together. Titled “Towards a Politics of Justice: Affirming Diversities, Resisting Divisiveness” its focal themes were Globalisation, Fundamentalism, Family and Violence. As always, the Conference was open to all women who are in agreement with the Declaration that challenged violence against women, increasing communalism, fundamentalism and conservatism; globalisation and its impact on ‘development’; coercive population policies; state aggression and manipulation, and challenged the politics of divisiveness, while reiterating its faith in affirming diversities of our identities.

The plenaries and sessions were planned such that adequate representation and importance be accorded to old issues as well as urgent issues emerging for the movement. As a movement, all of us from various states and regions of the country have, over the decades come together on a shared identity of being women. Yet over the years, there had been the parallel realisation that while we may connect and come together as women, there are various differences amongst us too - streams of life, ages having different political beliefs, belonging to various cultures and religions and from different class, castes, ethnic, sexual preferences and linguistic backgrounds - constructs that define our identities. And we felt that the time had come to recognise these identities and differences, and yet strive together to find common ground. So even as we were aware that such identities can be self-limiting, we went on to find cross connections and common issues between each of our struggles.

By September 9, Salt Lake stadium, Kolkata was decorated bright and cheerful by the untiring volunteers who worked day in and day out to get the signages, sets of declarations, maps of the venue, and the brilliant exhibitions in place. The registration area welcomed participants with cheerful posters and banners from groups and movements from all parts of the country, and created a lively ambience that held us together throughout the Conference!

The Opening Day. A burst of feminist energy!

The opening plenary set the stage for the conference by focussing on the history of the earlier conferences and the Indian Women’s Movements with special reference to the organising in West Bengal and the North East. Jayanti Sen presented the history of Women’s Movement in West Bengal while Monisha Behl of the North East Network talked about the history of the Women’s Movement’s in the North East.

The speakers also included Nandita Shah of FAOW/Akshara, Mumbai and Aleyamma of Sakhi and SEWA, Kerala who spoke about the history of the conference and the details of the current conference respectively.  The keynote address was given by the well-known (and more importantly, our favourite) feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, who talked about challenges from the right – economic and political – with special reference to Gujarat.

The plenary area came alive with the spirited sloganeering led by groups from each of the 22 states that were represented over 2500 women. The participants for the first time included women from Burma and Bangladesh too, interspersed with women from various states singing songs of the movement in their own languages. The vibrant cultural performances by each of the groups generated a surging excitement in every participant, quite befitting the flavour and sentiments at the Conference. And it was heart-warming to see old friends catching up and new friendships being made.


Second Day. The day of deliberations.

The second day saw the participants split over making a tough decision about which session to attend. While some were seen deciding on the basis of the years of their own experience, some chose sessions based on where there were more participants (or less!) based on each individual’s comfort with crowds! These sessions aimed to cover issues being dealt with women under a specific identity, which would then be discussed along with others on the third day to draw out common forms of resistances and strategies that the movement should adopt to be able to address these. The various identities and the broad issues identified by them were as follows:

1. Adivasi/tribal women who discussed issues of and passed resolutions on the right to livelihood; issues of compensation and rehabilitation, violence and governance. The session was coordinated by Anandi, Gujarat.

2. Women in Sex Work/Prostitution saw presentations by several organisations focussing on various aspects of the debate: Is sex-work work or violence? Do women in the business have the right to do any work that they decide to, including sex work? What are the organisational strategies to combat violence faced? What can women’s groups do to extend meaningful solidarity to their struggles? They also demanded that the Conference oppose the new amendments in Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act which would amount to their loss of livelihood and shelter. The session was coordinated by Forum Against Oppression of Women, Mumbai.

3. Marginalised sexualities and genders - The session saw presentations not only by the LGBT groups, but also the transgendered women/hijras who participated in the National Conference for the first time. The discussions focussed on the challenges of organising as marginalised sexuality groups, the struggles and strategies evolved, as well as issues of living queer lives and relationships, including resisting marriage. The session was coordinated by Sappho, Kolkata and Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action, Mumbai.

4. Women migrants - Starting from identifying some of the root causes of migration in both rural and urban milieus, the workshop progressed to analysing the new dimensions of migration and the situation of migrant women in different contexts. The session was coordinated by Jagori, Delhi.


5. Women as religious minorities - This session identified the issues of rights of minorities related to citizenship and social security, with regard to Christian, Tribal and Muslim women. Attempting to break the stereotyping of Muslim’s issues as those of Talaq, polygamy and matrimonial rights; discussing Gender Just Laws and taking on the issue of sexuality as well as fundamentalism of both the minority and majority communities was felt to be the need of the hour. The session also reflected on the role of the women’s movement with regard to religious minority rights. The session was coordinated by Awaaz-e-Niswaan, Mumbai.

6. Women in the unorganised/informal sector - The participants in this session spelt out how globalisation and liberalisation policies are impacting them in various ways by making them lose work and access to natural resources like land, forest produce, grazing lands, vending spaces etc. It is therefore imperative that they are recognised and get their due rights in terms of protection and regulation of working conditions and social security. The session was coordinated by Sakhi and SEWA, Kerala.

7. The session on Survivors of Violence looked at our expectations, strategies and relationship between women’s activists, survivors of violence and the state with regard to communal conflict, sexual minorities, violence and legal reform. The session was coordinated by Nirantar, Delhi; Vanangana, U.P.; and Swayam, Kolkata.

8. Women and Agriculture - The discussions of this session centred around issues of Food security and agriculture, displacement by Mega projects, mechanisation of agriculture, common property resources and land, and concerns of Tribal and Dalit women in agriculture. The session was coordinated by Initiatives of Women in Development (IWID).

9. Women and Displacement - Through testimonies and analysis, the session explored how displacement is intertwined with migration, violence, economic disenfranchisement, minority cultural identity, agricultural marginalisation, mainstream “big” development and communal tensions. The participants passed several resolutions condemning the manner in which state and private interests collaborate to displace communities and women. The session was coordinated by Sahiyar, Baroda.

10. Women Living Under State Violence - This workshop focused on how the state engages in direct and indirect violence through its development policies, globalisation, neo-liberalism and their impact on women. Strategies with regard to state violence in the areas of women’s health, education, and draconian undemocratic laws were shared. The session was coordinated by North East Network and Maitree, West Bengal.

11. Women with Disabilities - This session was planned to acquaint women with disabilities with the history and struggles of the Indian women’s movement as well as the underlining the similarity of disabled women with all women, as well as the specific issues of women with disabilities. Other discussions addressed issues related to Disabled Women and Globalisation, and Disabled women and Fundamentalism. The session was coordinated by Association of Women with Disabilities, West Bengal.

12. Caste based Identities - The workshop focussed on the spectrum of concerns of caste-based exploitation and oppression of women, explore the interconnections between gender and growing communalisms, internal fundamentalisms and casteism, and map out the challenges as they stand before us today. In doing so, the session sought to look at the inter linkages of women’s experiences as bound by caste rigidities especially in the areas of citizenship rights, state policy, sexuality and control, and media, stereotypes and self-expression. (See box 4 at the end of the article for more detailed report). This session was coordinated by Saheli and Sama, Delhi, and the active support of CADAM.

Self-Organised Workshops – The varieties of issues taken up have been increasing over the years. As a result, the conference made space for fringe or additional workshops and meetings on the evening of the Second Day. The issues covered in these were:

Politics and democracy in Burma; CEDAW shadow report; Domestic Violence Bill; Questioning gender; Feminist counselling; Employment guarantee Act; Communal Violence Bill; 11th Five year Plan; Sharing session for queer women; Women affected by natural disasters and young women building alliances.

While the above reporting of sessions might make it seem that the Conference became solemn and sombre from the second day itself, it was actually filled with fun performances by the drummers, amateur and professional singers alike, food stalls that sprang up from second day onward, and interesting literature, publications and attractive shopping to do at the various stalls put up by women’s organisations from across the country! The all time favourites of course were clothes, scarves, bags, healthy tit-bits to eat from a group working on alternative health practices, books, manuals, and t-shirts screaming out individual choice of slogans on homosexuality, women power, collective struggles and so on.

Third day. Seeking to strengthen the interconnections.

The morning plenary witnessed the discussion on “Progressive Ideologies and State Power: Rhetoric and Reality”. The idea was to explore the reality of life, under governments which supposedly represent progressive ideologies, especially when viewed through the lens of gender. In order to draw parallels and contrasts, session saw analyses of the policies in the so-called progressive left governments, the hypocrisies within and the ways in which they too continue to marginalise and oppress the weakest sections of society. Krishna and Soma Marik from Maitree Network, West Bengal reflected on experiences, especially of women’s groups in West Bengal, K. Ajitha critiqued the role of the organised Left in Kerala especially on issues of development and gender, while Rooprekha Verma from Lucknow, exposed the insincerity of the backward class politics in Uttar Pradesh. All the speakers also spoke about how difficult it is to raise any voice of criticism against such regimes in these times of rising economic, religious and political right-wing politics.

Minimising loss in translation. While every session in the Conference was multi-lingual – from plenaries to workshops that were conducted at least in English, Hindi and Bengali – to some sessions like the one on caste issues that went into four languages (English, Hindi, Tamil, Kannada), our previous experiences of Conferences told us we still needed to create a space where women could engage with the proceedings of Conference in their own language.

Hence on the afternoon of the third day of the Conference, ten language sessions were planned, in which brief reports of the all the sessions of the previous day were shared. True to the democratic spirit of the Conference, the exact nature of sharing was left to groups who had taken on the responsibility of translations. Not surprisingly, some language groups had stimulating discussions and reports on sessions while others were straight ‘reporting’. But from all accounts it was an effort well worth making!

Thematic sessions on Globalisation and Fundamentalisms.

The language sessions ended with the presentation of a conceptual paper broadly linking the discussions of identity based groups with the overarching challenges of globalisation and fundamentalism that are posing serious threats to our rights, well-being and existence. The idea was that we would have a series of large discussion groups that would bring in their experiences, and more importantly, the strategies with which they confront and resist these forces.

Despite our hopes that there would be many such parallel sessions, each vibrant with their own heated debates and discussions, only two sessions were finally held on globalisation and one against fundamentalisms. The sessions on Globalisation focussed on sharing of experience of resistance and also of strategies adopted. The strategies that worked successfully were discussed in detail.

Meanwhile the session on Fundamentalisms sought to understand more deeply peoples’ relationship with religion, discussed the need to engage with theologians, to create preventive, redressal based strategies by engaging with the education system, to build strategies and alliances with larger civil society groups, and resist the efforts of family, media, courts and police as major institutions which play such an important social role in building the base on which communal and fundamentalist forces build their strength.

All sessions asserted the need to continue the struggle against these forces in different ways and at different levels using a variety of strategies, but unfortunately not much seems to have emerged in terms of concrete plans and joint campaigns of strategies.

The Closing Plenary. Looking challenges in the face.

In order to focus on the challenges we were taking home with us, the theme of the Closing Plenary was “Broadening the Women’s Movement: Affirming diversity, resisting divisiveness”. To bring alive the various dimensions of these challenges, groups representing four different key questions had been asked to make presentations that would provoke us all to think further, look wider and question ourselves deeper:

 -     The issue of disability and difference. While the Kolkata Conference was enriched by the active participation of disabled women, clearly we have a long way to go before we develop a more holistic understanding of the realities they confront. Hence, they used the plenary platform to talk about all their issues, since unfortunately, hardly any non-disabled women had gone for the session.

-      The question of caste and diversity. Dalit women’s groups have been part of the Conference process since a long time, yet the fact remains that we, as a movement, are yet to recognise that Dalit issues are central to the women’s movement. In order to move positively together towards the future, and learn to celebrate our diversity, the group from Karnataka inspired us with a colourful performance, set to poetry.

 -   The challenge of morality and sex work. This was the first time that sex workers (and bar dancers’) groups attended the Conferences in large numbers. Given the hot debates surrounding their work – be it in the session on sex work or caste, or even in the cultural space, they chose to read out a statement of their demands and their position on sex work, and finally, still left us on a cheerful note with a song about condoms!

 -   The need to re-examine gender. Challenging binaries of men and women based on biological constructs, and addressing the entire debate on the participation of transgendered groups, an inspiring set of readings forced us to realise that the road to re-understanding gender is long and winding.

And yet together, the presentations gave us a sense of what binds us all, the strengths with which we move forward together. Needless to say, all these presentation were interspersed with much singing and sloganeering, and responses from several women who participated in the conference: young women for whom this was the first experience of its kind, old compatriots who could see the newer directions the movement is taking; women from Burma who felt enthused with the support from the Indian women’s movement and provoked us all to think of linking our fight for democratic rights with theirs; adivasis who felt that their relationship with the movement was renewed; the women from the north eastern parts of the country, who felt supported and strengthened in their struggle against the armed forces; women facing displacement who went back with greater resolve to fight their respective state governments. Some other groups drafted and circulated there issues to get support from the thousands of women present in form of signature campaigns.

Crucial questions from Kolkata

And so it was that with 2500 women coming together after nine years in Kolkata a new energy and new sense of togetherness has been affirmed. Yet countless questions continue to niggle: While many women were satisfied with the sessions they conducted or coordinated, wasn’t there a lack of heated debates in several of them? How much did groups and individuals engage with issues not directly on their current agendas? How open are we to addressing the many issues that stare us in the face, or are we finding it easier to stay ghettoised in ‘our’ issues? Or are we indeed, becoming a gathering of organisations working our own constituencies, committed to our own projects and ventures? With the exception of the arguments around sexuality, did we get beyond sharing of experiences to the nitty-gritty of what drives us or even what divides us? Is there enough restiveness in the movement to hope for the change in society that we all believe we dream of?

Programmatically too, several dissatisfactions linger. What could we have done to strengthen the linkages between the discussions in various identity based groups? Could we have found a better way to draw out the connections between our identity based issues and overarching challenges like fundamentalism, globalisation, patriarchy, violence and the institution of family? Did the decisions to avoid common resolutions, and therefore common action plans/agendas, leave groups from more isolated parts feeling dissatisfied? And what were the reasons for the lack of attendance of women and women’s groups from West Bengal? What could we have done, or has the dominant ideology of Left parties marginalised the need for women to mobilise separately?

And while we did manage to make new breakthroughs with online information and registrations for the Conference, did we not in the bargain, slack off in reaching out to groups that are off the e-circuit, women who could have benefited much more from the Conference? How much did we organisationally and collectively manage to expand the spectrum of women beyond ‘constituencies’ and field areas of member groups?

Closing Rally. Humri Ladai Chaalu Chhe!

Yet, despite all the questions that we were all asking ourselves, the much awaited tempo rally in the city of Kolkata was the high point of the Conference. It showcased the autonomous women’s movements faith and belief in ourselves and our politics, when nearly 30 tempos filled with much sloganeering, singing and cheering passed through the narrow streets and under the low bridges of Kolkata roads. Through dense markets and residential areas, we reached out with our message of “Behenein maange AZAADI”, “Pitrasatta se AZAADI”, “Globalisation se AZAADI”, “Homophobia se AZAADI”, “Hinsa se AZAADI” (We want freedom from patriarchy, globalisation, homophobia, violence…). The diverse character of our movements and the participation at the Conference came through the various languages in which the songs were being sung and slogans being chanted. The colourful and boisterous rally left us with sore throats, but soared spirits.

For a lot of us, the Conference was the first of its kind we attended, and somewhere, the coming together of nearly 2500 women from across the country, maybe with different expectations, but shared zeal, made us all feel assured of one fact - that whatever be the points of differences in our views and we might be struggling in our efforts to find the ‘solutions’ but that we all are together in our battles and that “Chaalu chhe, bhai chaalu chhe… humari ladai chaalu chhe”!

And we know now that even though over the years, many of us have complained about the countless preparatory meetings, the work involved and the enormous task of organising, attending and holding sessions at the Conference, the truth is that it has probably been one of the richest forms of exchange and interaction we have had within the women’s movement over the years. And we know that now that the Kolkata Conference is over, this is something we all miss. Yet we know, it shall be the base on which we build a greater future together.

This is a brief overview of the conference to update our readers. A detailed report is being worked upon by the NCC members and would soon be made available.

Box 1

The First National Conference was in Mumbai in 1980 at the height of the Anti Rape Campaign. The issues taken up for discussion were rape and legal amendments. Around 200 women from 38 groups attended.

The Second National Conference was once again held in Mumbai in 1985 and took up the issues of Personal Laws, Domestic Violence, Dowry, Organisational Structures and Collective Functioning, and Functioning of Women’s Crisis Centres. Around 56 groups or 600 women participated.

The Third National Conference shifted to Patna in 1987 and saw the participation of women from 101 groups and mass organisations. Given the new location and composition of the participants, the Conference took up the issues of Health, Religion, Purity and Pollution, Work, Patriarchy, Culture and Media, Funding, Agricultural Workers’ Struggles, Peasants’ Movements, Property Rights of Women in the context of Land Distribution and Housing Programmes and Violence, including Domestic Violence.

The Fourth National Conference in 1990 moved to the south, to Calicut, Kerala, where women from 113 organisations attended it and for the first time there were evening sessions on a variety of new issues like relations between mass movements and autonomous women’s movements. The issues taken up in the full day sessions were Religious Fundamentalism, Casteism, Law and Family Courts, Domestic Violence and Rape, Work, Health, Ecology including Development Policies, Women’s Studies, Media, Political Participation. A special session on Single Women was held for the first time.

The Fifth National Conference was held in 1994 in Tirupati, in order to focus attention on the massive mobilisation of rural women in the anti-arrack struggles in Andhra Pradesh. About 3000 participants discussed issues like Violence, Health and Population, Politics of Identity, Struggle for Survival, New Economic Policy, Women and State, Politics of Organising, Dalit and Tribal Women’s movement. For the first time, in spite of reservations and opposition, there was a special meeting of Lesbian and Bisexual women. There was a large participation of women from far-left Marxist Leninist political formations.

The Sixth National Conference saw steadily rising numbers of participants to 4000 in Ranchi in 1997. The issues taken up were Displacement, Anti-woman Character of the State, Increasing Violence Against Women, Adivasi Women, Dalit Women, Muslim Women, Gender Just Laws, Natural Resources, Sexuality, Different Perspectives from the Women’s Movements, Communalism, Health and Mental Health, Family and Support Structures, Labour and Electoral Reservations. Evening meetings were on Women who Love Women, Sex Workers, Sexual Harassment, Tibetan Women and Herbal Medicine.

Box 2

Just before the conference!!

In addition to local West Bengal groups who were working round the clock to get the Conference going, many of us from Delhi and Mumbai – Saheli, Forum Against Oppression Of Women (FAOW), LABIA, Awaaz-E-Niswaan and Sama - arrived early in Kolkata to help with the pre-conference preparations. This involved a lot of logistical work like preparing the stadium, creating materials for the conference and the like.

We had barely arrived in Kolkata when we carted ourselves off to the stadium – to the grounds where the plenary and food tents were being erected, and into the accommodation and session spaces being created within the stadium. What followed was a (very) thorough check of the plumbing, water supply, electrical requirements and of course, most importantly, the bathrooms! Uh, well…

Whole days were spent at the Swayam office, making directional signboards with tent numbers and session names, until eventually everyone got into the act, working shifts so that any given time, there’d be at least a dozen people sprawled on the floor, napping till it was their turn to work… to write “Toilet”, “Food”, “Registration”, “Session Room No. XX” and so on, by turns in English, Hindi and Bengali!

And soon we had worked out a neatly efficient assembly line system, tearing coupons, putting papers in envelopes, etc. until we were all but stapling, ripping and sorting in sync – this, to a chorus of ‘dum lagake stapler’ and ‘behna maange stapler’ (to prepare us for all the slogan shouting that lay ahead).

Though everyone was thankful to come out with their sanity intact, it was nice to see people seamlessly floating in and out of the process, with everyone doing their bit.

There was work to be done at all levels, from bothering contractors to get the bathrooms cleaned to drawing out maps of the venue and putting up signs, and our workforce expanded all the way up to the first day of the conference as more and more women arrived on the scene.

Box 3


While the sessions had engrossing discussions, the stalls and the poster exhibitions kept the 'wanderers' busy with the books on feminism, on the spot screen printed t-shirts and various curios from across the country being sold.

For the first time, the venue was planned keeping the access of the disabled women in view - there were ramps for the plenary, toilets, food areas among other arrangements, which might not have been sufficient but were at least the beginning of a learning process for many of us, thanks largely to the active role played by activists of the Association of Women With Disabilities throughout the preparatory process.

The food stalls that sprang up spontaneously on seeing thousands of women throng the venue and the conference-organised food area which made us confident of hosting huge daawats without any mess and much expense - kept our gastronomic needs well looked after!

And the discussions around these stalls, mostly centred around contentious issues while the women made their arguments crisp with bhel, kadak chai and the Bengali specialities! And this included the protest by some participants against the decision not to let hijra participants stay in the venue. “Hijra saathiyon ko alog kyon karte hain? Saath rehenge to pyar aur samajh badhega!” (Why are we keeping our hijra friends apart? We can only understand and love each other by staying together), they declared.

Box 4

Session on Caste-Based Identities: Co-ordinated by Saheli, Sama and CADAM

Over the last two decades, the linkages between women’s experiences and oppression linked to their religious and caste identity have become clearer, as has evidence of how class and caste produce inequalities amongst women. The session in the Kolkata conference offered an opportunity to explore the various dimensions of how gender and caste intersect, to share our experiences and address the challenges; to understand the relationship between the caste-based movements, caste-based women’s groups and the women’s movement in general; and strengthen the interconnections, with a special focus on the role that the autonomous women’s movement needs to play at this political juncture.

The morning plenary provided the framework for the spectrum of concerns of caste-based oppression of women, and to explore the interconnections between gender and growing communalisms, internal fundamentalisms and casteism, and attempted to map out the current challenges. Fathima Burnad from the Tamil Nadu Dalit Women’s Movement spoke about the impact of globalisation on the lives of Dalit women and highlighted the inequities in the development paradigm. Then, Kashibai, Sholapur, VAMP/Sangram, from a traditional Devadasi family, passionately pointed out that though discomforts and discrimination existed, she had gained immense power of negotiation by being a Devadasi. She also felt that she had made a mark by owning land and educating her children, etc. which was a huge achievement for a Dalit. This was followed by Rajni Tilak, CADAM/Saheli who spoke about the different trends within the Dalit movement, and raised the concerns about why Dalit women's issues have not been taken up by the mainstream women's movement. She pointed out that even in conferences such as these, involvement of Dalit women in the decision-making process was low, and participation in sessions on Dalits was also not very high. She stressed the importance of making linkages between movements - Dalit, women's movements, democratic rights movements. Saraswati, Dalit activist from Bangalore, illustrated the situation of Dalit women in the Powrakarmika Union (union of municipal sweepers), through anecdotes, which she used to bring out their strength, humour and wit. The vibrant discussion that followed centred around: organising to fight globalisation; the Hinduisation of Dalits, the need to respond to the issues of OBCs; the question of whether the Devadasi system is not an oppressive Brahminical tradition; and the fact that Indian women's movement has finally begun to understand that Dalit women's issues are all women's issues!

The four Workshops in the afternoon provided an opportunity for sharing of experience from different parts of the country.

Caste and Women’s Citizenship: The workshop focussed on democracy, reservation, education and rights. Caste assertion within parliamentary politics and struggles for recognition outside it illustrate how central caste is to India today. Questions loom large on how these measures are working on the ground, especially with regard to women. Presenters included: Dipta, Nirantar, Delhi; Bhanwari Bai, Mahila Jan Adhikar Samiti, Ajmer; Sanjo Kol, Sarpanch, Chitrakoot (NACDOR); Dr Ajita, Delhi; A Sarpanch, Bihar; Urmila ji, NCDHR, Manoranjini, ALF, Bangalore and Ruth Manorama, Women's Voice, Bangalore.

Caste, Gender and State Policy: ‘Development’ within the country remains skewed both in terms of the urban-rural divide, as well as the caste and class structure, so unequal access to opportunities and resources is compounded by deliberate exclusion. Despite the rhetoric of change, Dalits, backward castes and other backward castes still bear the brunt of oppressive state policies, as well as economic fragility. Presenters included: Deepa, Preeti and Riddhi from Sama; Sridevi, Safai Karmachari Andolan, Andhra Pradesh; Jayamma, Powrakarmika Union, Bangalore, Sapna Gayen, Durbar Mahila Samanvay Committee, Kolkata, and Rani from Kanpur.

Caste, Gender and The Public Image: Media, stereotypes and creative counter-expressions: In addition to blatant violations, exclusions and violence, upper caste control of resources, media and most other public spheres, perpetuate a range of invisible violations we need to address. Namely, issues of representation in the media, caste stereotypes and creative counter expressions. Presenters included: Shweta and Deepti, Saheli; Urmila Pawar, Maharashtra, Durga, Dalit Media Centre, Chattisgarh; and Heera Pawar, Maharashtra.

Caste, Gender and Sexuality: Control, conflict, violence and autonomy: Gender relationships within and between caste communities function as a nodal point through which caste supremacy is typically contested and reproduced. Sexual violation of women has always been a critical factor in reproducing upper caste/male supremacy, especially in situations of caste and community conflicts. Presenters included: Sheelu, Tamil Nadu Women's Collective; Renuka, TNWC; Sanjugkta, Sheba and Manjiri from AALI, Lucknow and Nidhi, Saheli.

The morning plenary unanimously passed the following resolution: We the women at the session on Caste Based identities at the 7th National Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements firmly resolve to fight against caste-based discrimination in every sphere of women’s lives: livelihood, political participation, education, control of sexuality, biased representation in media and even within the women’s movement and other progressive movements. We will continue to struggle for equal opportunities for women of all oppressed castes and demand affirmative policies and their effective implementation. Together we resist the forces of globalisation, fundamentalism, casteism and patriarchy.

Box 5


Every evening, the Salt Lake Stadium came alive with music and dance, singing and theatre, readings and poetry, the main plenary pandal as well as the central lobby. Performances included Dalit drummers from Tamil Nadu, a lesbian group from Shillong, a dance troupe from Kolkata, and even the subversive play, Queering Ramayana, by the Kolkata-based Sappho.

But the one that evoked strong feelings, tears and hot political debates was a performance by bar dancers from Mumbai who had come to participate in the Conference. When they took the hall by storm with their dance and jhatkas, part of the audience was soon rocking and enjoying the show…and some showed their appreciation through cash, others were deeply troubled by the fact that the show was evoking such ‘male’ behaviour among fellow-feminists. Attempts to bridge the gap between the positions by dancing and sharing the stage together with them failed. And debates raged well into the early hours of the morning...challenging the caste-based nature of such professions, the distinctions between sex-work and the entertainment industry, the discomfort surrounding the transaction of money in both, issues of morality, pleasure, guilt, joy, sexuality, and free expression.

Long after that evening was over, and in fact, much after Kolkata and the Conference (and even in a post-Kolkata evaluation meeting that we called in Delhi), we find that it is these debates around sexuality - from the transgender issue to bar dancing and sex work – that are still raging, both within our own groups and across them. Clearly the time has come for us to listen more carefully to the varied voices within the movement, and think about our own prejudices and comforts, morality and judgementalism… and maybe even our definitions of feminism.