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Updated: February 7, 2012 02:58 IST

When women made more noise & progress

Soma Basu
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MAKING A DIFFERENCE — Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India: Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, K-36 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 350.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE — Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India: Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, K-36 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 350.

The book helps one to walk into the heart of feminism and bust stereotypical myths

Often associated with anger and an aggressive rhetoric, feminism in India peaked in the 1980s. It was also the period that was famously described by American journalist and Pulitzer winner Susan Faludi, as “the backlash decade”, when women made not only more noise but more progress as well.

The autonomous women's movement too organised itself on the plank of social, political, and economic equality between the two sexes. Now, the focus seems to be more on women as a political class, a shift that has placed their interests at odds with those of men. This however is not the subject of the book under review. What sets Making a Difference apart from most of the books on feminism is that it goes far beyond a collection of the personal narratives of 20 women activists recalling their experience. It makes a good read for people who want to know about feminist movement and also to genuine feminists who can reconnect to the basic issues.

The volume is engaging, and the narration honest and insightful. Every one of those who have contributed to it has been through two distinct phases — one before the movement and the other, after the movement — and a decisive moment when something changed forever. The first person accounts — sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous — bring out the divergent as well as the shared aspects of their experiences, enabling the reader to look at feminism from a broader perspective and as a people's common cause.

Galaxy of feminists

Editor Ritu Menon has collected memoirs of a galaxy of feminists and women's rights activists. They include: Vandana Shiva, Kamla Bhasin, Indira Jaising, Bina Agarwal, Norma Alvares, Vibhuti Patel, Nalini Nayak, Devaki Jain, Uma Chakravarti, Nalini Naik, Illena Sen, Roshmi Goswami, and Pamela Philipose.

The stories these leading women activists relate, naturally, have their own distinctive aspects, reflecting their family and social backgrounds. In a sense, they also speak in different voices. But then, those stories amalgamate beautifully to present a history of the struggle for civil and social rights, highlighting what shaped the women's movement and what proved pivotal in its initial years.

What emerges from the contributions is that there was no single women's movement, but several strands of it running simultaneously, each in its own characteristic way. This is because every one wanted to redraw the road map for women, depending on the kind of connection she has had with reality. For them, the contexts, the experiences, and the inspirations were different, yet they were all drawn into the movement to be put on different pedestals, not in different spheres with men. Although their family secrets were spilled out, abusive relationships exposed, and time-tested customs and prejudices held to scrutiny, the movement matured.

Brought out to mark the silver jubilee of feminist publishing (1984-2009), the volume seeks to reconstruct how Indian women evolved their own critique, rather than ape feminist ideas that swept the West in the 1960s and '70s. Now, amid all the changes in the family set-up, moral values, economic framework and political system, the spirit of perseverance in the movement is unmistakable. “The movement,” as editor Ritu Menon says, “may have dispersed and energy re-directed. But the persistence of its resistance to inequality, injustice and discrimination is proof of its staying power, of staying alive.”

Every essay records the momentous developments of the period and the forging of relationships. They include: the infamous Emergency that brought some of the contributors into contact with underground socialist movements; the custodial rape of tribal girl Mathura, Rameeza Bi, and Maya Tyagi by policemen; the Shah Bano case; the Roop Kanwar episode that exposed the scourge of dowry and sati; the Chipko movement; and the anti-price rise agitation by housewives. The book has an exclusive chapter on ‘Saheli'. How many of the activist groups such as Manushi, Kali for Women, SEWA, and DAWN came into being and what catalysed their emergence have been described.

Particularly interesting is a chapter that contains some exceptional photographs by Sheba Chhachhi that focus on the women she met and who shaped her ideas of feminism.

Quintessentially, the essays revisit the beginnings of the feminist movement from the perspective of the respective authors. The use of the non-academic language enhances its appeal. MAKING A DIFFERENCE — Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India: Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited, K-36 Hauz Khas Enclave, New Delhi-110016. Rs. 350.

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