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Eyewitness to a Movement

Survival and Emancipation, Notes from Indian Women

Eyewitness to a Movement

Survival and Emancipation, Notes from Indian Women’s Struggles

by Brinda Karat, with a foreword by Aijaz Ahmad; Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2005; pp xx + 284, Rs 275.


arly in 2001, Monthly Review (MR) highlighted a very serious concern: an academic exchange between three prominent feminists attempting to find answers to the query, “what happened to the women’s movement?” (Monthly Review, Vol 53, Nos 1 and 5, May and October 2001). Despite their thorough academic analyses, the exchange sounded a dirge to the movement.

Brinda Karat’s jottings, done over a period of time, on the Indian women’s struggles, counteract quite ably the tone of lament, manifest in the writings of Barbara Epstein, Joan Acker and Hester Eisenstein. In the final rejoinder to the trialogue in the MR, Epstein concludes that feminism was doing better outside the US than within it. She realised that the arena most vibrant was the realm of the anti-corporate/anti-globalisation movement, more specifically referred to as the anticapitalist movement outside the US. Despite the enormous gains of the women’s movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the near absence of a mass movement in countries which had once witnessed its dynamic growth, was indeed regrettable. Belief in the causes that the movement represents, coupled with the confidence in their own growing strength: the two factors which best represent the glue that helps stem the fragility of all movements, now appear eroded. Apart from the reluctance to look at the weaknesses of the contemporary movement generated by the fear that the current wave would suffer the fate of earlier waves, other causes for the apparent “silence” were also evident. The public perception of feminism was no longer shaped by grassroots feminism, but “staff-run” organisations whose concerns were shaped by their upper middle class constituencies, and the publications of feminists in the academy. Added to this was the localisation of issues, giving rise to groups such as “neighbourhood women”. The environmental and public health issues that engaged women’s attention today, appear too distantly located from the constituencies that once invigorated them.

Posited against the rich repertoire of experiences in the women’s movement as recounted by Brinda Karat, these lamentations not only seem pale but instead signal the unfazed valour of the Indian women. The book brings together a series of articles and notes that Karat had written over the years during her association with the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), as a member, and later as its general secretary (1993-2004). This distillation of her experiences has also been largely influenced by her membership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) since 1970. The work is conveniently grouped into six sections each around a distinct theme, such as strategies adopted by AIDWA over time; globalisation and survival issues; political participation; women’s interface with communalism; and violence against women. The book ends on a personal note, recounting her rich experiences in college, Miranda House in Delhi.

The women’s movement has been grappling with certain problematic issues, which have time and again created confusion over the movement’s agenda and status. The problem of co-option militates against the actual anti-status quo, militant stance of the women’s movement, reducing them to mere co-opted agents of donor agencies. Donors promote “project based work” and propagate “good practice” models far removed from the needed agenda of critiquing, challenging and fighting back everyday practices of monopolistic investment policies. Today, the dalits, tribals and marginalised women have innumerable agencies espousing their cause; this seeming “radical” representative agenda, is a constant irritant to AIDWA, its end results sometimes are divisive, negating the ultimate ideal of sisterhood.

Absent Empowerment

The above alliances aim for empowerment but real “empowerment”, assessed through measures of economic independence and political assertion, in environments free from physical harm either in the domestic or public spaces remains an enigma. In the above context, this can only be interpreted to mean dependence on an external force, in order to seek that goal.

Other misconceptions in the popular lexicon relating to the Indian women’s movement also need clarity. For instance, the term “grassroot” is one such confusing expression, which has recently made an entry in common feminist and donors’ parlance. It refers to people, workers, peasants or landlords, who in outlook and ambience are far distanced from urban educated feminists. Such categorisation is wrong and blunts class-based analysis and weakens strategies, which are designed to alleviate differences. “Grassroot” is not a social category, but indicates the levels of work or experience. This leads to the very crucial question of who represents who in the women’s movement and at the same time raises the complex issue of identity politics.

Identity politics is indeed another factor, which the women’s movement seeks to contend with. Dealing with women’s problemswhere they are and as they are, whether dalit, tribal, Muslim or Christian has been a part of multiple strategies adopted, but, from the Left point of view it has never been camouflaged that the multiple strategies lead to an ultimate homogeneity.

While homogeneity remains the ultimate goal, the Left realises today that an exclusively class-based approach, often results in reducing the analytical category to its purely economic form, wrought either in the factory, workplace or the field. The

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

wider aspects of class oppression reflected in dominant class ideologies have been relegated either to an academic issue or simple “campaign points”. Rather these must shape concrete issues which enable the oppressed classes to find and develop alternative cultures. There definitely has been a shift in the earlier Left strategy. Today, it is felt that the mechanistic interpretations of “being” and consciousness, of structure and superstructure, of a deterministic approach which holds that all change is possible only in material terms, needs to change. The Left-led struggle sees the process of ideological struggle, as well as concrete practices against all forms of gender oppression, as part of a wider class approach to the different aspects of oppression in Indian society.

The homogeneity entailed in the above approach is of course distinguished from the project of the right wing forces in the country; instances exist which point to the usage of public funds to pulverise identities. The Gujarat government, in its mission aimed towards the shaping of a monolithic womanhood, distributed ‘mangalsutras’ free of charge to all women, regardless of their religious identity, also oblivious of the fact that this was an explicitly upper caste symbol of a married woman. Can such constructed commonality of the married female ever exist in our multiple contexts? Clearly such schemes violate the very basis of the Constitution and subvert local character. The centrality of the so-called Aryan identity can never ride roughshod over other identities. It is in this context that the problems faced with the implementation of a common civil code is also encountered. Karat reflects the widespread feeling that before such legal common ground is imposed with the apparent intention of safeguarding women’s rights, certain preceding actions are imperative, such as a common slogan, “ equal rights, equal laws”.

Polity and the Women’s Movement

One enters tricky ground at this stage because the question is, who then is the real representative of women’s issues? Also what are women’s issues? On the one hand, the highly contested space for localism and on the other, the ultimate objective of launching all struggles through a common platform may create certain ambiguities regarding the aims of the women’s movement. AIDWA today contests the notion that “women’s issues” are the forte of women alone. The kaleidoscope of experiences obtained from the field that women operate in, do not allow the representation of “women only” issues here, the voice of the oppressed women, rides over feminism’s gender specificity, beyond the men/women divide to encounter violence both within and outside the home.

So far as reservation of seats for women is concerned, it is yet an unresolved issue. Its critics, who hold that this in effect is a subversion of democracy, have taken certain absurd positions. It violates the free choice of those who do not wish to see women as their representative. Such opposition overlooks the fact that in India there has been an unstated reservation for men in elected bodies, and this militates

International Seminar on India and the New Global IPR Regime

Challenges, Opportunities and Options, 26-28 April, 2006

Organised by the School of International Relations and Politics jointly with the Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi.

Call for Papers

Sub Themes. Genesis and growth of global IPR regime; International Conventions; The politics of the inclusion of IPR in the WTO agreement; Nature and features of the IPR; Critical issues in Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks; Protection of Geographical indications and Traditional knowledge; Implications of TRIPS for developing countries like India; Challenges and opportunities therein; Critical areas of concern.

Confirmation of Participation : 28 Feb 2006 Submission of the Abstract : 15 Mar 2006 Submission of the Paper : 15 Apr 2006

Nominations Invited for:-(i) Diplomat Lecture Series (ii) Scholar in Residence Programme
Dr. Raju K. Thadikkaran, Tel: (O) 91-481-2732279
Director, School of International Relations (O) 91-481-2731040
and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, (Fax) 91-481-2732279
Priyadarshini Hills, Kottayam, Kerala-686 560 (R) 91-481-2594268
Seminar Web:
E-mail: University Web:

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 against the free choice of women who do not want the same trends to continue. The weak numbers of women in elected bodies and its consequences was referred to by the secretary general of the International Parliamentary Union; that a mere

11.7 per cent of all seats are occupied by women in parliaments around the world is an indicator of the slow growth of democracy.

The neoliberal agenda of the government is perhaps the most contentious issue confronting the women’s movement. AIDWA’s engagement has been to unravel from the labyrinth of government statistics budgetary amounts actually allocated to women. The National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in its report on ‘Gender Budgeting in India’, gave a comprehensive picture of real allocations made for women-specific projects. It is seen that though budgetary allocations for women increased by about Rs 700 crore to Rs 3,260 crore, yet there was an actual decrease in terms of percentages of total public expenditure, from 1.02 per cent and 0.94 per cent (2001-03) to 0.87 per cent (2004). The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2004, aims at providing assured employment for part of the year to at least one member per family. This starkly affects rural women, because one significant lacuna under all current rural schemes is the absence of the essential clause that at least 40 per cent of those who get work under the law should be women. The above indicates that at all costs, a “depoliticising” of the concept of gender budgeting should not be the goal. Its utility lies in its links with the wider struggle for gender justice against the current framework of neo-liberal policies.

All through, the women’s movement has faced a perennial opprobrium, that of being “the women’s wing of a political party”, implying that such categorisation puts all forms of struggles outside the pale of “real issues” and “real struggles”. This accusation is strongly contested by AIDWA today. This in essence relegates all political influence to the same negative status. As an understanding about the structures that impinge on women’s lives gradually dawned, the essentiality of the political process also has had an influence on the women’s movement. Herein lies the distinction of the contemporary phase from the earlier one, when autonomy was a desired option. However, autonomy from political parties becomes synonymous with autonomy from the political process, this in actual terms means moving a full circle back, that is, to the starting point and negating the gains of more than a century of struggles.

Karat has not attempted to enter into complicated epistemological issues, with which the women’s movement has become embroiled over time. In fact as Aijaz Ahmed says in the foreword, she “wears her theory lightly”. The careworn woman, engaged in the daily grind of life, is also oblivious of the nature, grounds, limits and validity of the knowledge derived from her mode of existence. Karat’s notes encapsulate such a reality, the reality of the everyday faced by the ordinary woman.






Applications are invited for the Sixth South Asian Orientation Course in Human Rights and Peace Studies. The last date for receiving applications is 25th March 2006. Application form can be downloaded from– and

The course will have three components:
  • A three-months long distance learning beginning 1 May 2006;
  • field work in August; and,
  • a three-week long Direct Orientation in September 2006.
  • The Distance-learning will be conducted on SAFHR’s secure e-learning platform. Participants will also receive the course material on CDs. However, familiarity with e-learning skills and proficiency in the English language are essential.

    Six compulsory modules of the course are:
  • Basic Concepts of Human Rights;
  • Constitution, laws and justice;
  • Conflicts and the Politics of Peace;
  • “The Global War on Terror”;
  • Globalization, politics of technology and environmental justice; and
  • ♦ Media and Conflict. Between 30 to 35 participants, preferably between 25 and 40, will be selected on the basis of the nature and the quality of their involvement with the issues of human rights, peace, democracy and development in the region. Each applicant has to send a filled in application form, mentioning where he or she has seen the course advertisement, with two references, and a 1000-word essay explaining the relation of the applicant’s work to human rights and peace studies and reasons for applying for the course. The selection will be guided by the necessity to have a balanced representation of participants from all the countries in the region, women activists, refugee activists, media practitioners, members of minority groups, researchers, academics, policy

    makers, leaders of non-governmental organizations and government officials. A maximum of four participants from outside South Asia will be selected. For the direct orientation, the participants will have to find their own funding to travel. SAFHR will provide boarding and lodging. The selected participants from South Asia will have to deposit a registration fee of US $ 100 the latest by 15 April 2006. Participants from outside

    South Asia have to pay US $ 400. The enrollment of the participants will be confirmed only after that. For further information on the course structure, content and methodologies, read the fifth course report at Peace%20studies%20report5.pdf

    Electronic, facsimile and postal submissions are acceptable. Those sending the applications by post or courier should do so to the HRPS secretariat at the following address:

    South Asia Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR)

    HRPS Secretariat, T-26, Green Park Main, New Delhi-110016 Tel: +91 11 51682841/42, Fax: +91 11 51682840

    Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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