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Feminist movements in India have, both pre- and post-Independence, seen the family and home as the nexus of organizing women’s lives. By the early 1980s, attempts to analyse this nexus had led to examining the codification of women’s rights in marriage and property. It is in this vein that this essay considers the history of the 1985 Shah Bano case and the feminist debates on personal law that it gave rise to.
The call for a common civil code that emerged from the case was extensively critiqued by feminists, liberals and secularists, as well as Muslim religious leaders. The essay traces how the sociopolitical context led to the quick descent of the issue into communal agitation, with a demand that Muslims be exempt from Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code that had been cited in granting Shah Bano maintenance from her husband. It describes how Hindu communalism had been acquiring legitimacy in the eyes of the state, and the contribution of this factor to the national fervour surrounding Shah Bano’s case.
Kumar then traces the opposition by various women’s groups to the 1986 Bill, which was introduced in parliament with an aim to exclude divorced Muslim women from the purview of the hotly debated Section 125. She explores the ‘bitter lessons’ that Indian feminists learnt from the public and state responses to Shah Bano’s case, which then posed certain questions that would become increasingly important to feminists in the years to follow. She concludes with questions of secularism–its definition and its practice–and of representation, both of which are brought to the forefront by Shah Bano’s case.
A qualitative as well as quantitative ethnography of 500 Dalit women who had been subjected to verbal, sexual and physical violence by men of the dominant castes, this essay starts as a narrative of individual Dalit women and moves towards an analysis of the reasons for the kinds of responses these women received when they tried to seek justice.
The essence of the essay’s argument is that despite the existence of adequate legal measures, Dalit women still face insurmountable obstacles while getting those measures implemented, assuming of course that they know that what has been perpetrated against them is legally actionable.
Typically, the responses to such violence include the women not seeking legal remedies in the first place; women getting blocked at the community level (by perpetrators, by the dominant caste community, by dominant caste Panchayats, by their own families, or by Dalit panchayats) from accessing legal remedies; women receiving some informal, inadequate form of justice by NGOs or panchayats; and women getting blocked by the police from accessing legal remedies.
The author finds that state impunity, dominant caste impunity and the collusion between the two is the central reason for Dalit women not being able to receive the formal redress that they ought to. To that effect, the author suggests that challenging this impunity will be the primary task of organizations seeking Dalit women’s empowerment.
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
Esther Syiem's essay traces the paradoxical nature of women’s status in Khasi matrilineal society. At once empowered and oppressed, Khasi women learn to negotiate these contradictions in their day-to-day engagements with society. Matriliny, for example, is often seen as empowering for women: this, combined with more egalitarian tribal traditions and culture, has given Khasi women greater visibility and mobility and has helped to build solidarities among them.
Despite being both visible and vocal, like their sisters across the country Khasi women too face a skewed sex ratio, a lack of reproductive choices, widespread domestic violence and a host of other issues. The author suggests that these contradictions are better understood by looking at the origin of the Khasis, a time when, because men went to war and often did not return for long periods, women were designated as keepers of the family name and of social values. These became their domain. While inheritance passed through them, much decision-making power in public spaces, particularly in the field of politics, stayed in the hands of men. Although culturally and legally, for example, there is no bar to Khasi women participating in politics or standing for elections, but by and large, despite being ‘empowered’ in other spheres, women tend to stay out.
With the breaking down of the relative isolation of tribal cultures in India, and with more women stepping out of their homes and seeking jobs, change has begun to seep into Khasi lives and transform old relationships and equations. Pointing to this as an important development, the author pleads for Khasi society, and Khasi men in particular, to be open to this change, and to embrace it without limiting the agency of women.
Uma Chakravarti’s introduction to Fault Lines of History: The India Papers 2 uses a brief history of protest in the north-eastern states of India to illustrate the contract between the state, the army and the rule of law. Detailing the spread of AFSPA as a result and a feature of this contract, Chakravarti points to particular building blocks in the story of resistance in the area — the case of Manorama, Irom Sharmila’s hunger strike, the naked protest by imas in Manipur among others — and castigates mainstream state theorists’ neglect of AFSPA’s existence and growing application as a tool of oppressive state-building. She explains how the postcolonial state’s painting of AFSPA and militarisation, and the accompanying conflicts, as ‘states of exception’ is key to the contract, which is characterised by the tension between the rule of law and the state’s avowal of sovereign emergency.
The chapter provides a valuable cross-section of the volume, summarising each author’s argument while drawing connections between them and larger themes of impunity, militarisation, conflict, revolution, state (un)accountability, ‘security’ and feminist scholarship. She interweaves material on militarised regions in the north-east of India, Kashmir and Chhattisgarh with work on caste-based structures of violence built on and around Dalit bodies, as well as on stripping and parading of women’s bodies as ritual humiliation, to highlight the implications of an aberrant state wielding its impunity as a precise and wide-ranging weapon.
This essay puts forward a series of accounts centred around the different manifestations of sexual violence in the lives of Dalit women. Unlike in the legal world, in these accounts lines between methods of assault and degrees of injury emerge blurred, and many of them remain unreported or have otherwise not been disclosed by the survivors.
Exposing the vulnerability of Dalit women to both gender-based exploitation and caste-based violence, the essay investigates the threats that follow the women into their homes, their workplace, and the streets. It also looks at the ways in which the survivors’ voice is silenced, time and again, by the authority of the ruling caste. Covering the many different structures that enable and even perpetuate such violence, the essay focuses in particular on the jogini system that legitimises prostitution even as it creates a circle of exploitation and social discrimination. This leads to an analysis not only of the incidents and functions of sexual violence, but also of the consequences that have to be borne by the survivors alone.
The authors explore different kinds of exploitative structures to identify ways in which they hamper women's claims over their bodily integrity, dignity and privacy. They show how the upper-caste discourse of a Dalit woman's sexual availability, along with the impunity for sexual crimes committed against them, is dangerous on multiple levels. It is the study of the contributing factors to this discourse, coupled with the functions and social effects of this particular kind of sexual violence, that the essay concerns itself with.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (1903-1988) was a remarkable woman of many passions and gifts. She played an important role in the struggle for Indian independence and was similarly a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement. She was India’s ambassador to Asia and Africa, an articulate and unflinching exponent of the idea of decolonization, and one of the earliest advocates of the idea of the global South. A staunch champion of women’s rights, she held views on women’s equality that continue to resonate in our times.
Greatly disheartened by the partition of India in 1947, Kamaladevi became involved in the resettlement of refugees and appeared to withdraw from political life. Indeed, the Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music and puppetry. Throughout her life, however, she upheld with all the intellectual vigour and emotional force at her command the idea of the dignity of every human life.
Kamaladevi wrote voluminously and her sojourns took her all over the world. She travelled in China during World War II, lectured in Japan, visited Native American pueblos in New Mexico, and forged links with working women and anti-colonial activists in countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. Sadly, most of her writings have long been out of print. The editors of this comprehensive anthology, which is the first serious scholarly attempt to grapple with Kamaladevi’s life and body of work, have sought to represent the wide range of her interests. The extensive selections, comprised largely of journal articles and excerpts from Kamaladevi’s books, are accompanied by a set of original essays by contemporary Indian and American scholars which analyse and contextualize her life and work. This volume should provide the resources for further examination and appreciation of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s unusual gifts and her place in modern Indian and world history.
This essay addresses the role that religion plays in sociopolitical processes in Mizoram by attempting to gauge the impact that churches have had in mediating conflicts and brokering peace in the state since the 1960s. It also examines the role of women (and lack thereof) in peacebuilding processes and explores gendered critiques of the same.
As Sawmveli and Tellis write, churches in Mizoram are centralized bodies that hold immense power, thus enabling church leaders to aid Mizo ‘militants’ in negotiating with the Indian government as early as 1966, when insurgency first broke out. However, women did not have much of a decision-making role, neither within the clergy nor during negotiations. The lack of women’s participation can be explained, according to the authors, by the entrenched patriarchy and misogyny in Mizo society. In fact, interviews with Mizo women reveal that they acknowledge the crucial role the church played in mediation, but did not see their exclusion from the process as an issue.
The essay further states that since most political parties in the region are aligned with churches, patriarchy in politics overlaps with patriarchal church culture to marginalize women. However, they also discuss the many women’s organizations that have come up over the years to facilitate women’s entry into the public sphere. Women are also reclaiming traditional proverbs that were used to oppress and belittle them—the essay cites Lalrinawmi Ralte’s rewriting of a popular saying that devalues women as crab meat in the form of what she calls ‘Crab Theology’.
Samita Sen’s essay traces the history of the Indian Women’s Movement from the 1920s to the present day. The chronological as well as thematic logic of the essay follows three primary heads: a historical background, the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) controversy, and the political implications of the reservation for women in legislatures.
The historical background highlights four critical issues: the tensions and fractures within the women’s movement, how these fractures were related to the mediated relationship between women and the conception of their ownership by the nation-state, how the differences amongst women could be managed or transcended to create a political community to which women will want to belong, as opposed to being shunted into it, and finally, the issue of women’s agency in politics.
The discussion on the UCC becomes an example of how the community and communal politics are deeply implicated in the politicization of personal laws, and how the rise of nationalism and the politicization of the ‘private’ familial domain placed personal laws at the centre of the colonial-nationalist conflict. The initial consensus amongst the women’s movement for reforming the gender discrimination in personal laws broke down by the time the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced. This also marked a shift in focus from demanding legislation from the state to a greater participation of women in state affairs.
For Sen, a new feminist politics has to address struggles of class, caste, community, religion et al, without displacing gender as the central concern, making this essay one of crucial importance for understanding the origins of the issues facing feminist politics today.
The midnight knock on the door and the disappearance of a loved one into the hands of authorities is a 20th-century horror story familiar to many destined to “live in interesting times.” Yet, some stories remain untold. Such is the account of the internment of ethnic Chinese who had settled for many years in northern India. When the Sino-Indian Border War of 1962 broke out, over 2,000 Chinese-Indians were rounded up, placed in local jails, then transported over a thousand miles away to the Deoli internment camp in the Rajasthan Desert.
Born in Calcutta, India, in 1949, and raised in Darjeeling, Yin Marsh was just thirteen years old when first her father was arrested, and then she, her grandmother and her eight-year-old brother were all taken to the Darjeeling Jail, then sent to Deoli. Ironically, Nehru – India’s first Prime Minister and the one who had authorized the mass arrests – had once “done time” in Deoli during India’s war for independence. Yin and her family were assigned to the same bungalow where Nehru had also been unjustly held.
Eventually released, Yin emigrated to America with her mother, attended college, married and raised her own family, even as the emotional trauma remained buried. When her own college-age daughter began to ask questions and when a friend’s wedding would require a return to her homeland, Yin was finally ready to face what had happened to her family.
The narrative of Chhattisgarh's indigenous population is one of violence, displacement, and as this essay will explore, several cases of sexual assault. The authors trace sexual violence and repression at the hands of the police, the Salwa Judum, and the state and central governments, all of which have enjoyed a great degree of impunity in the region.
The conflict between the state and the left-wing insurgent groups has created an environment of fear, and with it a number of impediments to the documentation of sexual violence in the affected areas. It is in this vein that the essay traces the stories of Soni Sori and Meena Xalxo as two out of many cases of torture and extrajudicial murder, most of which do not emerge into the dominant narrative. The essay also analyses the circumstances and effects of migration on the people that did manage to flee the conflict-ridden zones, as well as those who were forced to move to the Judum camps where living conditions were abysmal.
Guneet Ahuja and Parijata Bhardwaj are lawyers who have fought for the implementation of adivasi rights, and this piece relies on sources both 'official' and oral, which when taken together are telling of the extent of violence occurring in the region. The essay is a detailed analysis of what happens when authorities dismiss human lives as mere impediments to development, and state forces reject a distinction between civilians and warring groups. It concludes with a call to end excessive military campaigns against the state's own people and engage with the cause of the Maoist struggle, and, very significantly, to provide reparations and fundamental rights to those who have suffered for many, many long years.
In 'Kidnapping, Abduction, and Forced Incarceration', the authors examine, first, the various methods of kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration—on the basis of a study of 47 narratives—and then analyze these forms of violence’s implications for Dalit women’s fundamental rights.
An examination of the relationship between kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration, and violence concludes that non-state actors employ the method of forced incarceration to mete out punishment in the form of sexual and physical assault against Dalit women who do not conform to caste-class-gender hierarchies. An analysis of the study data, write the authors, shows that there are three broad categories of methods of kidnapping/abduction: the use of force, allurement through false promises, and other false allurements or ruses. Often, more than one method is utilized; throughout these categories, verbally coercive tactics (like threats) were used to further intimidate or torment the target.
The essay also notes that state actors, primarily the police, engage in their own forms of forced incarceration by the filing of false cases or the illegal detention of Dalit women. Unlike with non-state agents, the authority of a single police official, as a member of a dominant caste and as an agent of the state, is enough to successfully enforce an incarceration. This, the authors assert, shows the ascendency of caste norms over the rules of law.
The physical isolation and restriction from dominant caste male-dominated public spaces re-emphasizes and compounds the caste-class-gender-based social exclusion and vulnerability to violence that Dalit women face, argue the authors. Kidnapping/abduction and forced incarceration are used to both degrade Dalit women’s identity and to mould a collective negative identity fashioned along inequitable caste-class-gender parameters, conclude the authors. Kidnapping, Abduction, and Forced Incarceration thus highlights how these forms of violence negate their agency and reinforce notions of passive submission to exploitation and violence at the hands of the dominant caste.
With the Indo-Naga peace negotiations going into their twentieth year and no concrete resolution in sight, the area stands witness to many dying hopes. In this chapter, Dolly Kikon takes an insider's view to re-contextualise incidents of violence in the conflict-ridden terrain of Nagaland. The essay is a product of on-field research and experiences as it analyses the social and legal consequences of sexual violence that exist in the area. It is a singular analysis of Naga society, in that it tracks the different spaces that a survivor of such violence must operate in as it delves into the power relations that characterise each one. It is in this context that the story of one such survivor, called Beth, emerges. Beth's account speaks about the emergence of a culture of impunity that is embedded in the social relationships of Naga society. By locating violence inside the home, the essay investigates these relationships as well as the processes through which such impunity has become an obstacle for women's rights and justice. The area of focus is the Naga woman and her experiences of occupying a space that is fraught with conflict and sexual abuse. This figure is studied as an often-neglected survivor of cultural violence, whose voice is constantly suppressed by the masculine gaze, be it of the insurgent elements or the state armed forces. The essay is replete with real-life experiences and accounts, as it studies the forms of masculinity and suppression that have become pervasive in conflict zones where over the years violence has become naturalised beyond belief.
In the run-up the fourth World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India in January 2004, civil activists and student organised a major series of seminars in Delhi University to discuss the Forum and its politics. The 'Open Space' seminar series, as it came to be called, picked up on the idea of the Forum as a relatively free space, where all kinds of ideas could not meet and be discussed. The book, the first in a series that explore the new ideas generated by the discusssions took place on all these issues, comprises chapters based on the transcripts of presentation made by academics and activists during the seminars, as well as discussions on the questions arising from the presentation. Can the World Social Forum helps us to conceptualise and actualise a new politics? Can this new politics? Can this new politics be free from violence? Can the experience and knowledge of great movements such as the movements for environment, and the women's movement, contribute to the creation of a new politics? How can such a politics be sustained? The essays in this book, written in an easy and accessible style, are informed by these question. they offer the reader different and complex ways of understanding the processes that have helped to shape the world social forum and the new politics that seems to be emerging, and what all this represents, for life, society, and politics more generally.
A fascinating, multi-disciplinary exploration of water, wells and women’s spaces in Gujarat.
Centuries ago, in the arid landscape of Gujarat, where water is scarce and rains scanty, stepwells sustained life and enabled crops to flourish. Women played a major role in the construction and patronage of many of these stepwells, which were unique structures that linked three worlds: the subterranean, the earthly and the celestial. Women also frequently served as inspiration for their construction — these were often built to honour a virtuous wife or benevolent mother, a local goddess or a beloved mistress. As a gathering place for women, the stepwells also became a favourite subject in folklore. Every stepwell yields tales of love and betrayal, courage and sacrifice. Through a historical analysis and visual documentation of these distinctly female spaces, Purnima Bhatt sheds light on the relationship between women, water, architecture and religion. Examining the artistic and aesthetic aspects of these structures, the author describes the art of the stepwells as looking beyond the patriarchal gods of classical Hinduism and celebrating the feminine principle. She also explores the idea of these wells acting as indicators of women’s changing social and economic status and challenging the stereotypes of the passivity of women. Her focus on ‘the woman factor’ aims to give voice to countless women who are forgotten and neglected by history, thereby making the invisible, visible.
Kalpana Sharma's essay explores the multiple roles that women came to occupy in the riots that took place in Mumbai post the Babri Masjid demolition. As the news of this destruction – carried out on 6th December 1992 – was broadcast across the country, it triggered communal violence, resulting in two phases of riots between the Muslim and the Hindu communities. The essay looks at the people who were some of the most affected by the carnage in the city, the urban poor, and highlights how their specific spatial and economic locations had a great bearing on their lives in this period. By studying the chawl dwellers, the slum inhabitants, and the people who resided on the pavements and analysing how each group had varying responses to the riots, Sharma's study explores what degree of significance their religious identity held during this time.
Sharma argues in her essay that the role of the women during these riots was not defined by their gender identity alone, or even their religious affiliation, but also by their class and their location in the metropolis. Her essay is an attempt to understand why and how these factors held the importance that they did, as her study spans areas of Mumbai which were all affected directly by the chaos. She adopts and reinforces a perspective that is broad, in that it explores women's roles during the riots not only as victims, but also as active participants, ready to fight for survival, and as peacemakers who played key roles in bringing communities together in difficult times.
The women's movement in India has a long and rich history in which millions of women live, work and struggle to survive in order to remake their family, home and social lives. Whether fighting for safe contraception, literacy, water and electricity or resisting sexual harassment, they are participating in vibrant and active women's movements that are thriving in many parts of India today. Fields of Protest explores the political and cultural circumstances under which groups of women organize to fight for their rights and self-worth. Starting with Bombay and Calcutta, Raka Ray discusses the creation of "political fields"- structured, unequal and socially constructed political environments within which organisations exist, flourish or fail. Women's organisations are not anonymous or free agents; rather, they inherit a "field" and its accompanying social relations, and when they act, they act in response to it and within it. Drawing on the literature of both social movements and feminism, Ray analyses the striking differences between the movements in these two cities.
Raka Ray is an Assistant Professor in the department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization are gender and feminist theory, social movements, and relations between dominant and subaltern groups in India. She is editor of Feminist Studies.
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