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'The main point of the women's movement was to gender human development'

By Rashme Sehgal

Dr Radha Kumar, author of a history of the women's movement in India, counters the charge that the women's movement has focused narrowly on dowry and sati and not sufficiently on important development issues such as women's health and education

Radha Kumar is Visiting Professor at Jamia Millia University, and trustee of the Delhi Policy Group, where she is directing a programme on ‘Durable Peace Processes and Partners’ jointly sponsored by the India International Centre. Formerly Senior Fellow in Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Dr Kumar has also been Executive Director of the Helsinki Citizen’s Assembly in Prague and an Associate Fellow at the Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.


What are the issues that your book on women’s movements focuses on?

The book provides a historical overview of the women's movement from 1800 AD up to 1990 AD. It’s a big-sweep book. It is meant to be introductory, about women's rights and feminism. I look at who the people were who led the women's movement in the early-19th century and what their roots were. It deals with the social reform movement and also looks at different women’s organisations. In independent India , the book becomes thematic and focuses on dowry, the campaign against rape, environment, Bhopal , gas-affected women and also deals with women-led movements such as SEWA and Chipko.

The 19th century saw the birth of a new consciousness that looked at women’s rights. The first campaign against purdah, women's health, literacy and other subjects were all launched at this time. It was led by a mixture of prominent women leaders such as Annie Besant, Margaret Cousin, Kamladevi Chattopadhay, Sarojini Naidu, Pandita Ramabai and also male leaders including Rammohan Roy and Jyotiba Phule.

Did the movement have an all-India impact?

It’s difficult to say. I would say the impact was pretty regional. Kolkata in Bengal , Pune and Mumbai in Maharashtra and Chennai were big centres of social reform. Karnataka was a centre of the early trade union movement. Punjab came a little later. What was significant was that it helped open options, which in turn made it possible for a professional class to emerge. By the late-19th century this had started in full swing. Women's colleges had been set up and women had begun to enter the workforce. The independence movement was a great leveller because it allowed women to come into the political sphere.

Was there a movement after the initial years (mid-19th century) and if so, did it have a cohesive stand on development?

The women's and social reform movements of the late-19th and early-20th century were all development-focused --- they dealt with women's health and education, eradication of purdah, dowry and sati, working conditions, and by the early-20th century also included political rights (to franchise and representation).

Did the post-1970s women's movement bypass larger developmental issues with its focus on rape and dowry?

No, I don't think so. The post-1970s women's movement did not focus on rape and dowry alone -- the urban women's groups were actively unionising women, both in established unions like CITU and in new unions such as SEWA for unorganised women's labour. And the rural women's groups actively mobilised rural women, especially landless labour (later some of these groups were to help elect the first women's panchayats in India ). Also the mainstream women's groups, those affiliated to the Congress, left and socialist parties, were very active against rising prices, and on issues like housing and water.

To cite an example, the declining water table has had grim consequences, especially for rural women who have to traverse greater distances to collect fuel, fodder and water. This increasing workload has had a detrimental effect on their health and it is against this depressing backdrop that the Chipko and Appiko movements arose. Closely linked to the Chipko movement in Garhwal and Kumaon was the anti-alcohol movement, which has spread to many parts of India .

The difference is perhaps that the new, explicitly feminist, women's groups that were formed in the late-1970s were able to bring together a wide coalition of women's groups, including those affiliated to political parties, to campaign on issues of violence against women, such as rape and dowry, which in any case got a lot more media attention than unionising women.

What were the larger developmental issues as perceived by the women's movement?

The main point of the women's movement was to highlight the issue of human development, and especially to gender it. That is, to gain widespread acceptance of the principle that economic and national development will surge only if it is based on human development, freedom from hunger, disease and attack, education, opportunity, and equal rights to all. The Indian women's movement also drew attention to the urgent need for child development -- protection of the girl-child, healthcare for infants, declining sex ratios, etc.

Does the movement still exist and if it does, how is it looking at development issues?

I would say that the women's movement in India has grown so hugely that it is difficult to categorise it as one movement; rather there is a focus on women at different levels by almost every social and economic group. Perhaps the one defining distinction of the past decade has been a thrust towards encouraging women's self-help and entrepreneurship skills -- this is a trend that is reflected in the corporate world, government planning, NGOs and women's groups.

Do the left parties have a different perspective on development and has this impinged on the mainstream movement?

I am not an expert on the left and so would hesitate to offer any but the broadest of generalisations -- on the whole one could say the left parties are more focused on issues like unionisation, wages and prices; while the women's groups are more focused on issues like health, education and violence against women.

How did you get interested in this subject?

I started working on this subject because I was quite active in the women's movement. When I started doing background reading, what surprised me was the enormously wide variety of open debates and discussions that had emerged on this subject from the 19th century onwards. A whole strand of preachers doing social reform, women activists, nationalist leaders, members of the left movement all had distinct views on this subject. The All India Women's Conference was formed in the 1920s.

Was this movement influenced by the western feminist movement?

There has always been a connection between the West and India . During the 1920s-30s, the language of the contemporary Indian woman was very similar to her European and American counterparts. The women's movement had a very strong Maoist influence. Some of these Maoist groups were Naxalite affiliates. The Maoist- Dalit movement also made its presence felt in a big way.

Did these Maoist groups propagate violence as seems to be the case today?

I don't know. I don't think these Maoist women’s groups were wedded to the gun. The Naxalites propagated the taking up of arms in order to have a violent revolution. The Maoists did not advocate this. They were very reform-oriented. Their slogan was that women held up half the sky. I'd say that today these women's groups are no longer particularly Maoist. Today, there is the farmer’s movement, the social demarcation movement and so on.

What was the thrust of these Maoist followers?

They were movements for peasant rights, anti-big landlord farming practices and so on. The armed struggle also continues. The Maoists are known to control some districts in Andhra Pradesh. In all, 157 districts stretching along the east, from the northeast to the south, are controlled by Maoist groups. Most women’s groups are Maoist-oriented but they are not close to these armed groups today.

What has the focus of the urban groups been?

The urban women's movements focused on violence against women, whereas the rural women’s groups focused on work-related rights. Peasants' groups, bonded labour, sharecropping were some of the issues of the rural groups. In contrast, dowry, rape, sexual harassment and wife-beating have been the focus of the urban groups.

What was the situation in terms of rape and dowry during the 19th and early-20th century?

I don't think anyone has done a survey to gather statistics on the issue of violence against women or of violence against women in the workforce. Since there are no figures available, it is difficult to indicate whether there has been an increase or a decrease. The only conclusion one can arrive at is that we are a society that has been very violent towards women for a very long time.

Take the issue of the decline of sati. This is a very suspect generalisation to make because there are no clear figures or information available regarding the prevalence of sati. The figures collected in Bengal , where there were a large number of sati cases, indicate it was exceptional rather than the rule. In Bengal , sati was related to famine, in Rajasthan, on the other hand, it was related to war. Rammohan Roy got an abolition act passed but it was the 30 years of famine which saw cases of sati. We didn't have it before that and it ended after the famine ended.

What about dowry deaths? Were there no dowry deaths in pre-independence India ?

Dowry murders are an entirely modern phenomenon which started occurring amongst the neo-rich in Punjab from the 1970s. The families in which this occurred were involved in the transport and communication industry. It seemed to invariably occur when the wife's family was no longer in a position to meet the demands and so the husband would remarry within six months (of committing the murder) so that he could get hold of more money. I did not encounter any reference to dowry deaths right up to the 1970s. There was the practise of stridhan -- originally dowry -- which occurred in the north, at the level of the elite, and was definitely linked to prevailing land practices.

What about rape and sexual exploitation?

In feudal India , the big landlord had the right to pick out any pretty girl amongst his tenant farmers. This was a widespread practice prevalent across all societies. Today, this would qualify as rape. Again because of lack of statistics, it’s difficult to quantify how much of an increase there has been in these cases. What I am surprised about is that there has not been a decrease. What happened during colonial rule should not be happening in a democracy today.

Has the women's movement not been able to reduce the crimes being perpetrated against women?

No, I would not blame it on the women's movement. In India , we have failed to create a service-oriented government. We have not been able to create a rule of law. The women’s movement here is wider, richer, and more active than counterparts anywhere else in the world except South Africa . Getting things to change is much more difficult here.

Are you satisfied with the progress made by the women's movement?

Change is so slow, it makes you cynical, it makes you despair. I'm no longer an activist. I work in foreign policy issues. The daily grind when I was an activist and which was a pretty soul-destroying process, is behind me. The problem is not with the women’s groups, which have succeeded in creating a consciousness so much so that more and more corporate entities are coming forward and giving aid and credit incentives to self-help groups like SEWA. It’s very impressive. The problem is our failure, during the last 30-40 years, to improve levels of governance. The police force has not grown, we have the lowest figures of police per citizen, judges per individual and so the result is that we have created a lawless society.

The women’s groups have had an impact on a wide range of activities. Women at the political level may not have seen an increase, but today we can see self-help groups run by women; they are in organised trade unions, rape crisis centres, trauma centres, women's shelters; they are running plenty of legal reform and campaign groups and are in panchayats. All the major political parties have their own women's organisations.

(Rashme Sehgal is a senior journalist and writer based in Delhi .)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2005