Popular representations of the women’s movement in India have created many misconceptions about its size and scope—from the assertion that the movement relates exclusively to urban, middle-class women, to the claim that there is no ‘mass women’s movement’ to speak of. Debates within the movement itself take in these issues, but go one step further in posing a different set of related questions: what, if any, is our definition of a women’s movement? How far has the movement been able to address the issues of caste and class? What has been the relationship between ‘feminism’, non-party, autonomous women’s groups and the left? How far have activists within the movement been able to build a theoretical perspective, to conceptualize issues that tie in at the base of the struggle? What, in other words, has been the ideology of the movement?
The essays in this collection address these questions both directly and indirectly. Written by activists from within the different movements, as well as by researchers, they deal with popular movements over the past few decades in which women have participated in large numbers. The ways in which such movements have had to define struggles and issues to ‘accommodate’ women in their ranks have charted out new dimensions for women’s struggles in India. These dimensions have not only gone beyond existing definitions of ‘feminism’—a concept that has acquired a value-loaded connotation of being ‘narrow’—but have also exploded the common left standpoint that women’s issues do not matter in larger struggles against class exploitation. It is argued here that an understanding of the nature of these struggles becomes important in order to gain a perspective on the women’s movement that is more truly representative of the aspirations of the generality of Indian women than most currently available feminist theory.
ILINA SEN was a professor of sociology, trade union activist and President of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies (IAWS), as well as a faculty member at the Mahatama Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalya, Wardha, and the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She was also a Senior Fellow in the Nehru Memorial Library, and was closely associated with women’s and mine-workers’ movements, such as with the Chhattisgarh Shramik Sangh in Madhya Pradesh. Her other books include Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir (2014) and Sukhvasin: The Migrant Woman of Chhattisgarh (1995). She was affiliated both with the Indian Council for Social Science Research and the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, and published on demography, women’s work, and the theory and practice of the women’s movement in India.