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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.
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.
This piece was written after the abduction of the author's husband by ULFA terrorists in Majuli, Assam where they worked as social development workers in 1996–97. In this chapter, Ghose explores her experience of learning to cope with the aftermath. Moving from personal reflections to discussing universal aspects of such suffering, she throws light on the far-ranging impact of violence that often goes unacknowledged. She then captures the different stages that an individual undergoes in the period of suffering, and consequently looks at strategies of coping which are effective and can transcend harmful responses. By shifting the focus onto the individual's own reaction to violent events, Ghose is able to break down the mistakes that one is susceptible to making almost reflexively – mistakes that perpetuate a cycle of violence.
Written in the form of a prefaced monograph, the title of this piece is drawn from a short course that the author attended in Delhi, which gave her the fresh perspective and strength needed to make this reflective essay a reality. Ghose's insights on responding to events of violence or conflict are embedded in a critique of certain forms of protest as well as what she calls the commonly held 'victim attitude'.
For Ghose, strategies of coping become methods of achieving much more. In a world full of violence and rage where a vicious cycle of the two is kept alive, it becomes imperative to rise above feelings of aggression and victimisation that inevitably cause more harm than good.
Sahba Husain, in her capacity as a consultant with Oxfam, worked in Kashmir at a time when the conflict was already 15 years old. This essay discusses her experiences as a part of the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project, where her task was to examine the psychological impact of violence on people's lives as well as the echoes of such violence. It brings to the forefront the increasing rates of psychological disorders and cases of suicide, and the utter paucity of resources for dealing with the deteriorating mental health situation in the region. The essay’s observations on trauma and health stem from the author's empirical study of the population of Kashmir, for whom life has been rendered uncertain. Husain explores how faced with loss, suffering and prolonged stress, women in the region have become susceptible to depression and anxiety too, but often cannot seek treatment due to social constraints. By capturing certain experiences of the people, the essay evokes the drastic transition that has taken place in their lives after militancy and has left Kashmir in the dark. The refrain of fear that is pervasive in the region only affirms that no one, irrespective of age, gender or class, has escaped the massive impact that militancy and the AFSPA have had. Husain's piece is a reflective one as she discusses the challenges she faced during her work, which were integral to her subsequent disillusionment with the Indian state . Her essay, too, shatters a certain monolithic image of Kashmir and sheds light on the psychological trauma and health issues that people from the Valley face. It is, finally, a reminder of the patience, endurance and strength that women have displayed in their desire for justice, and above all, peace.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This essay traces the women’s movement in India in the mid-seventies and early eighties, when the issue of violence against women took prominence. Author Urvashi Butalia draws on numerous instances of violence, including among others the rape of Rameeza Bee in 1978, dowry-related violence, and the immolation of Roop Kanwar in 1987. She also looks at the women’s movement’s engagement during this time, which ranged from lobbying with the Law Commission to bring about changes to the rape law, to the efforts of Delhi-based groups like Mahila Dakshata Samiti and Stree Sangharsh against dowry.
In both the rape and dowry campaigns, as also in the campaign against sati, the primary target of women’s demands or grievances was the state, with the belief that the state had failed in its ‘duty’. The essay also traces how one kind of action flowed into another, giving rise to different challenges for the women’s movement.
Butalia also critically examines how inclusive or otherwise the women’s movement has been. She discusses how the broad category of ‘woman’, which many had assumed provided an overarching unifying identity, did not represent a homogeneous group whose broad identity held them together; they could even consent to strengthening the very structures of patriarchy that worked against them. The essay also dwells on how the rise of militant communalism and the polarization of identities along religious lines resulted in major changes and rethinking within the women’s movement in India.
This essay examines women’s writing in the 19th century on the oppression of widows, focusing on voices that writer Uma Chakravarti believes have been invisibilized over the years. Stating that the history of social reforms and widowhood has been predominantly understood from a knowledge-based male perspective, Chakravarti proposes balancing the discourse with several female perspectives based on experiencing widowhood first-hand.
The essay is divided into three parts – the first section focuses on women’s works on widowhood, examining the writing of Sushila Devi, Tarabai Shinde and Rakhmabai. The second section looks at widows from Poona Widows' Home writing about their own experiences, and the third at writers like Pandita Ramabai and Parvati Athavale who were actively involved in providing support to other widows. From scathing criticism to personal experiences, the works criticize the then existing male-dominant Reformist movement, which focused only on widow remarriage, and outline the problems faced by widows, such as deprivation of basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, and the enforcement of unpaid and unacknowledged labour.
Chakravarti thus claims that these works were responsible for expanding the boundaries of the discourse around widowhood, making widows the subject of the issue than mere lifeless objects. She critiques these works, analysing the ideologies and influences of each writer. Through the topic of widowhood, Chakravarti demonstrates how women writers went on to discuss issues of female agency and autonomy, and critique larger patriarchal structures such as religion and family, which reinforced oppressive practices against women.
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.
This essay is a historical overview of Dalit literature, focusing on the contribution of women writers. The authors Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon show how the Dalit movement gained momentum with the rise of Dalit centric newspapers and literary societies, which gave a voice to the Dalit people. Led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, this literary movement was strengthened through talks, discussions, analysis of folk songs, and by spreading literacy and encouraging research. By the 1960s, Dalit writers had created a huge collection of short stories, poems, novels, autobiographies and analytical pieces. The authors focus on the gradual increase of female voices and perspectives in Dalit writing – on topics ranging from religious customs like funerary rites, birth control, to mixed marriages. Some women included larger criticisms of patriarchal societal norms in their writing, advocating for equality. They were especially emphatic about the need for education, urging other Dalit women to take initiative by educating their daughters. The essay also looks at writings on Ambedkar himself, and on Buddhism, the religion that Ambedkar heavily propounded, and later embraced. By providing excerpts of their writings, the essay shows how the women often had differing points of view, leading to healthy discussions and critiques. Appreciating these works for their literary merits as well as social significance, the authors suggest that they helped people understand and appreciate their own history, and facilitated the spread of radical ideas of identity and self-worth.
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.
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.
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.
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