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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.
Two prominent protests in Manipur by women in recent years, one an individual one and the other a collective one, have brought to national attention the brutalities committed by the armed forces on ordinary citizens under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
This essay highlights what those protests mean for peace in Manipur, and how women have played a critical role in exposing the impunity with which human rights are violated under the exceptional circumstances created by the AFSPA. It also questions the unethical nature of militarization and the patriarchal nature of the State.
Broadly containing two segments, it gives a background to Irom Sharmila’s protests and her reasons for choosing hunger strike as her method of protest. The discourse of conscience and Satyagraha that Sharmila evokes is brought out through interviews. This is followed by an analysis of the 2004 public disrobing by the Meira Paibis, in protest against the rape and murder of a young woman by the personnel of the Assam Rifles.
The essay shows the inversions brought about by both protests via a comparison between Irom Sharmila’s prolonged hunger strike against an exceptionally violent law, and the Indian Army Rape Us protests by the Meira Paibis. Both challenge the division between the public and the private, holding the state publicly accountable for atrocities committed in private. Food and clothing, one a biological necessity and the other an important social norm, are given up by the protestors. According to Mehrotra, this shows the power of the human body generally, and the female body particularly, to formulate and transmit subversive messages. She finds that underlying the protests is a common thread of rebuilding Manipur out of all the chaos.
This chapter from The History of Doing focuses on the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when social reform movements in India were beginning to show results and women were becoming more visibly present in the public sphere. Kumar provides a thematic history of the women’s movement before independence, beginning with focusing on the 1889 session of the Indian National Congress in Bombay where ten women delegates attended the assembly for the first time.
Using photographs and a wide variety of print sources from books to newspapers, Kumar looks at how women’s issues were raised and how women were involved in addressing these. Prostitution was one of the first such issues, referred to by the Indian National Congress at their 1888 session. The essay discusses at length the steps taken to regulate prostitution by the British in India and the level of support this received from reformers and moderate nationalists. The turn of the century saw a proliferation of homes for widows, with schemes to train widows as teachers. The Swadeshi movement in Bengal during this time period marked the beginning of women’s participation in national activities on a larger scale.
Kumar offers detailed portraits on the lives of some of the women involved in the above movements and reforms like Swarnakumari Debi, her daughter Sarala Debi Ghosal and Bhikaiji Cama. Kumar also observes that for some of these women, the bid for personal independence grew to be subsumed in a quest for national independence, but that they also returned to their homes without regret when the moment of crisis passed. A large number of the women written about in the essay were writers, both reformists and revolutionaries.
Gazala Peer’s essay, written against the backdrop of militarization and the existing Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu & Kashmir, explores obstacles faced by survivors of sexual violence in seeking redress when the perpetrators of this violence are members of the armed forces. Through cross-cultural comparisons, Peer describes the extent to which gendered sexual violence is used by nation states in war and conflict situations, and the culture of impunity that accompanies this violence – conditions that have existed, too, in Kashmir since the onset of armed struggle against the Indian state in the early 1990s. The essay establishes the role of Indian authorities in signaling impunity to their armed forces in Kashmir, and goes on to investigate the procedure and function of court martials as justice delivery systems for survivors of sexual violence.
Since AFSPA was imposed on Kashmir, the Indian government has not granted sanction for the prosecution of any armed personnel in any court of law. Although in principle the provision of prosecuting army personnel under court martial trials does exist, Peer questions whether these trials, taking place within the structure of the army itself, can ever be a substitute for trial in civil courts. To this end, Peer closely examines the context and process of the court martial, arguing that this system, in cases of sexual assault and violence perpetrated by its forces (which the army views as “breaches of discipline”), is disposed to be lenient toward the perpetrators, maintaining martial impunity.
Finally, to highlight the hostile and alienating nature of the court martial trial to survivors of sexual violence, and questioning the system’s ability to deliver any kind of justice at all, Peer walks the reader through the experience of four such survivors. Their testimonies and interviews raise serious questions on the basic norms of justice and fair trial vis-à-vis cases of sexual violence tried under AFSPA.
Radha Kumar's chapter tracks the history of protests against dowry in the contemporary women's movement, starting from the first demonstrations at Hyderabad in 1975 and leading up to significant legal amendments in the early 1980s. Interspersed with historic photographs of the movement in its crucial stages, the essay captures the wave of protests that spread across the country, bringing disparate groups together to revolt against dowry-related crimes.
As stories of torture were brought to attention in public discourse, feminists challenged the dominant ideological mode that rendered violence against women a private, family matter. This violence was not only physical, but also mental, often leading to incidents of bride-burning and abetted suicide. Kumar's essay delves into the way such incidents garnered public outrage – particularly in Delhi, where the campaign was more sustained – and how, over time, feminists expanded their methods of seeking redress. The campaign, as it gained traction, sought action not only through legal investigation, which had been negligible in dowry crimes, but also through social pressure on the perpetrators.
Kumar's essay finally covers the consequences of the prolonged campaign, in particular those of changing legal attitudes. There had been a marked shift from an indifference regarding practices of dowry harassment and bride-burning to a series of amendments that set in place several protective as well as investigative measures for cases concerning dowry victims. The movement had then achieved, after initial setbacks, some important victories, and Kumar's essay captures this not only through its text but also through a range of photographs from the period.
This essay discusses caste, gender and the state, and the relationship between the three in the context of militarization under Peshwa rule in eighteenth century Maharashtra. Analysing materials available in the Peshwa daftar, Uma Chakravarti illustrates the different ways in which the state played a decisive role in upholding the caste system and in installing social codes to legitimize women’s sexuality.
Chakravarti points out how the Peshwa state upheld Brahmanical social order by prohibiting ‘untouchables’ from approaching the temple of Vithoba (which also housed a shrine for Chokhamela, a saint belonging to the Mahar community who were historically considered ‘untouchable’, was associated with the regional Varkari movement), threatening punishment if they failed to conform. Chakravarti casts doubt on whether this traditional practice helped bridge the gap between the upper and lower castes by looking at the effects of the development of other religious practices with the consolidation of the Peshwai.
The institution of marriage and other codes that legitimized women’s sexuality, additionally, were major elements at play in the Peshwai’s organising of gender relations. Chakravarti explores ideological structures of enforced widowhood, the difference in punishment that women and men who committed adultery faced, and the role of the state in arranging marriage for girls between ages seven and ten. Connecting caste with women’s sexuality, the essay gestures towards Brahmanya’s investment in the undiluted purity of its women.
This essay looks at case studies of sexual violence against women combatants and sympathizers in Northeast India to examine the special vulnerability of this category of women to sexual violence. As Roshmi Goswami points out, at present there are over fifty armed groups in the region making a plethora of demands and situated at different stages in the continuum of conflict. The author argues that women have borne the brunt of this ongoing turmoil—whether they have been specifically targeted by security forces or rival militant groups. Sexual violence is deployed to torture, humiliate people or to punish and humiliate an enemy group or a community that is perceived to be the ‘other’.
The case studies include those of Thangjam Manorama, Snehalata Duara and Roshmi Bora. These cases bring out how issues of sexual violence often remain outside the purview of ‘peace negotiations’, and how the legal regime has provided impunity for armed forces. Goswami also dwells on how the relative or perceived agency of women combatants ends when the ‘militant’s uniform’ is given up. Ex-combatants are often deeply traumatized having experienced and seen violence at very close quarters, and are in need of long term gender-sensitive psychosocial counselling, which is hardly available in reintegration packages and schemes.
The author concludes by questioning the term ‘post-conflict reconstruction’, pointing out its problematic position: ‘reconstruction’ implies restoration to a former status quo that might not be beneficial to women. She states that for feminist peace activists, genuine conflict transformation necessarily brings the notions of justice and peace together, which would entail correcting inequalities and discrimination while ‘reconstructing’.
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.
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.
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’.
In this essay, Geetanjali Singh Chanda explores the idea of the nation, and its representation as a house or home in postcolonial Indian English literature. The author identifies that this literature has a dual parentage that manifests in its narratives, where characters with fragmented identities negotiate to make India their home.
Chanda explores this depiction of ‘Indianness’ through three prominent literary works: Nayantara Sahgal’s Rich Like Us (1983), Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road (1991), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). She focuses on the treatment of history within these narratives, and the struggle of characters to reconcile their personal or national history with the post-colonial present. This is done by connecting the events in the text to a significant historical event—like the Indian Independence in 1947, or the Emergency of 1975, which becomes the setting of both Rich Like Us and Nampally Road.
While an exhaustive study of the novels’ characters and storyline shows differences in their narratives and the authors’ perspectives, Chanda identifies common themes of disillusionment, belonging, and a complicated relationship with a house, which in each narrative becomes symbolic of the characters’ relationship with the nation. Women in particular seem to have tenuous relationships with the house, often being marginalized in the idea of the nation. But their relationships with each other seem to transcend national and ethnic identities, and help them navigate through the nation. Chanda focuses on these relationships in particular, associating the motherland with the biological mother.
This essay uncovers how the writings of women have emerged as forms of protest in Assam, a region torn by political violence and prolonged militancy. For Tilottoma Misra, these voices are doing more than simply responding to a need to represent the marginalised; they are attempting to depict the trauma that the women experience in their lives. In discussing the power of the narrative, Misra lays out those aspects of traumatic events that a literary discourse can grasp more expansively than a strictly historical narrative.
Through a discussion of women's writing in the last ten years, the essay explores ways in which women have been affected by violence committed by both the armed forces as well as the militants. Questions of representations do figure prominently in the essay, and the author refers to short stories and poems to illustrate the experience of living through traumatic incidents and moments of devastation. The texts also reveal a desire to create subjects who are able to rise above their immediate political locations and see suffering in a more universal light.
Written by women during times of conflict, these stories and poems help explore nuances of the ways in which one's psyche is affected by the same. With a population facing discoveries of mass graves and an increasing breakdown of basic civic amenities, Misra poses urgent questions as to the role of the writer in such difficult times.
Writing in Dalit Women Speak Out, authors Irudayam, Mangubhai and Lee situate this essay within brahmanical patriarchal discourse of dishonour and blame, which stigmatizes Dalit women who are victim-survivors of violence. Their interviews with five hundred Dalit women investigate the nature and forms of violence faced by the women, and bring to light not only instances of violence within Dalit households, but also the overwhelming number of cases that relate to rapes by male members of dominant castes.
These personal narratives articulate the dilemmas that confront women when facing themselves and society after being subjected to violence. The fear generated following any type of violence, and the impunity with which much of the violence occurs, all contribute to changes in the victim-survivors’ social interactions and sense of belonging to their families and communities. The authors focus on both the immediate and long-term consequences of violence on women vis-à-vis their right to health, dignity, life and security. With the help of the study they demonstrate how short-term physical injuries have the capacity to inflict long-term mental suffering, which can exacerbate feelings of helplessness and fear of further violence. The lives of Dalit women become conditioned to violence rather than freedom, which can lead to the curtailment of women’s mobility in public spaces.
For this essay, Adrienne Germain draws from her professional life, especially her interactions with female sex workers in the Indian subcontinent. The author details how action around sex workers is often centred on “rehabilitation” and “relocation” as though all women in sex work had been “forced” into it by circumstance. Germain believes that this position deprives these women of their agency and fails to respect their autonomy as individuals.
The central theme of the essay is the difference of opinion among feminists, and between some feminists and the sex workers’ movement, on if sex work is or can be an autonomous choice by women, or is always and only a form of violence and exploitation of women. Another important theme dealt with in the essay is the interface of sex work and HIV, where policy makers often see sex workers only as a vector of the disease with programmatic interventions often not recognizing these workers as agents of change themselves. She mentions her engagement with several non-governmental organizations in India that led her to realize the need to establish and implement sex workers’ labour rights.
The author also discusses her positionality and mentions the emotive barriers or discomforts that still remain for her around sex work, which she attributes to differences in life experience. She describes these “emotive barriers” as stemming from the fact that she cannot fully imagine the choices, as much as she respects their right to sex work. In addition to general opposition to defending the rights of women in sex work, she discusses how many women perceive these sex workers as a direct threat to themselves, to their marriages, or to a social order in which they feel “safe”. The author states that in the broadest sense, both feminist and sex workers’ movement are founded on the commitment to women’s autonomy especially control of their bodies. She concludes with a call for solidarity and for women to unite across diversities to mitigate the challenges around sex work.
This essay puts forward a study, conducted across four states, that brings out the challenges faced by seventeen Dalit women when availing health services in government and private medical institutions. These accounts are placed next to interrelated and essential elements of the right to health, allowing the reader to understand the different forms of medical negligence faced by these women.
The essay shows that both private and public health-care systems position Dalit women at the periphery for reasons of caste, class, and gender. The narratives cover cases where women approached medical institutions with their ailments and also situations where medical practitioners coerced them into family planning operations. The authors note that these narratives are a telling comment on the way government medical state treats Dalit women patients in contrast to non-Dalit patients. The manifestations of the negligence faced by the former group include long waiting periods, indifferent verbal responses, rude verbal responses and refusal of treatment.
The authors argue that the negligence has had consequences on other spheres of these women’s lives: economic, psychological, and personal (their identities as Dalits and women), and this make them more vulnerable to discrimination. The conclusion of the essay shows the reader medical negligence from a systemic angle, by examining the social and political positions of the medical personnel, their value systems, geographical settings and underlying power equations.
Written by Farida Abdulla, this essay is a personal account of her experience in Kashmir—before, during and after the enforcement of centralized government rule over the area. Born and brought up in Kashmir, she reflects on the seething resentment of people treated like more border territory than citizens of the country.
Through the essay Adulla looks at ‘what’ instead of ‘why’; she does not delve into the historical context of the rule, but focuses on the effects of such a rule on the local population. By narrating two incidents strongly embedded in her mind, she attempts to show the complexity of the situation, and the pain and confusion of the people living there. Trapped between the government- sanctioned armed forces and the ideological militant resistors, Kashmiri people are often unable to distinguish between the two groups, and are in constant fear for their lives.
She raises questions about security and autonomy, especially in the case of women. While the struggle of women in India has been a long and arduous one, their status becomes even more unstable in a region fraught with suppression and violence. Female voices are either lost in the larger masculine struggle, or are subsumed in the singular narrative of rape and sexual abuse. Abdulla hopes for a safe space for people divided by religion and gender to resolve their conflicts and live in peace and dignity.
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.
Often cited as the most militarised zone in the world, the Kashmiri landscape is full of contradictory narratives. This essay intervenes in this crossfire of accounts in order to investigate the voices of survivors of sexual violence in the region.
This essay illustrates how sexual violence in the context of Kashmir takes on another layer of meaning as a deliberate strategy employed by the armed forces. It targets both women and men and has a bearing on their daily lives that are subsumed under the shadow of militancy. The events of Kunan Poshpora and Shopian, then, are only a few out of many incidents which speak volumes about the lack of accountability and the culture of silence in the terrain.
As a researcher and activist, Sahba Husain looks at the turning points in the narrative of sexual violence in the region and its emergence out of the margins. Much of the analysis in the essay also stems from personal accounts of survivors who have different allegiances and religious backgrounds, which has affected them differently and has allowed the author to delve deeper into their varied experiences. The aftermath of sexual violence and the challenges it poses in a patriarchal society, especially in the anxiety-ridden conflict zone, broaden the scope of engagement with the very notion of this kind of violence. The essay examines these concerns, as it initiates a move towards a more inclusive and incisive way of thinking about impunity and silenced narratives in the Valley.
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