In the dark night of the Delhi gang rape, the rising of the young has been an inspiration. Every corner of conventional power has been shaken into acknowledging this uprising. The majority of those who are engaged in it are the young, largely women students and almost an equal number of young men. Many of us so-called elders merged with them. I for instance, spent some time at the protestors' meetings in Jantar Mantar. While the mobilisation is across the board, not bound by leaders or strategies or pre-determined demands, it is definitely a moment for negotiating the feminist agenda.
While many of us, of the older generation of the women’s movements have been inspired and overwhelmed by the vitality, solidarity and balance of the young protesters, we also notice that this extraordinary rising, particularly in Delhi - and the response it has evoked in the spaces of power. Leading personalities are not only recognizing this crime, but also the entire machinery of Government was put to protect this unknown girl. While leaders’ statements by themselves hold no promise, they revealed that there was anxiety and recognition of what can be called women as a collective voice – strong and challenging the system, with street power.
This recognition of the power of the challenge has led every conventional power place to bend its head in order not to be brought down. This is an opportunity it has given us, the spokespersons for women, the biggest ever presence in the overpowering system of governance -- from heads of political parties, including the Prime Minister, and other levels of political persona, through to the leaders of opinion across different domains. Across the board, they bent. A space has opened up for negotiations by women in areas other than law or reservation in politics. It is important to grab this opportunity and enter into it with the other demands that we have been voicing: jungle, zameen, work – recognized and unrecognized - and to prevent other forms of brutality that women, especially among the less privileged groups, face.
The lively sharing not only of information but of ideas for action, the coming together across networks, locations and even political differences / platforms in response to the brutal rape of the young student in Delhi, reminds me of our times, - the 70’s. In the 70’s and even perhaps in the early 80’s; women’s organizations apart from individual women leaders came together in solidarity and hammered out a unified set of proposals, responses to acts of injustice. It was of course not only rape and other acts of violence against women, but also went into economic injustices. While there was no internet, the advantage then was that there were many pan-Indian, membership-based women’s organizations and of course, there was the telephone.
At that time, the combination of seven All India women’s organizations called themselves the Seven Sisters. These were National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), All India Democratic Womens Association, (AIDWA), All India Women's Conference (AIWC), Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), Mahila Dakshita Samiti, Joint Women's Program and the Centre for Women Development Studies (CWDS). Other centres like the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST) were in solidarity even though they did not have an all India presence. Mobile crèches, an organization which was working with the children on the construction sites, was one of the most brilliant, forward-looking organizations in Delhi at that time, touching the rest of the women’s movements but looking also at economic injustice.
These organizations had deeply different political premises or ideologies, some times even in “war” with each other. NFIW and AIDWA belonged or could be deemed as the women’s wings of the two communist parties -- CPI and CPI (M). The AIWC on the other hand, though assumed to be Congress driven, was neutral and oriented to social welfare, though strident women from the freedom struggle such as Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay were its presidents. The YWCA, as can be imagined was progressive but politically neutral. The Mahila Dakshitha Samiti was clearly part of the Janata Party, and strongly defined as anti-emergency and therefore against the Congress, especially its leadership. Yet when there were issues such as the Mathura Rape case, all the seven sisters with the hangers-on such as ISST and others, took out processions with deep solidarity. It was not limited only to the Mathura rape case but extended to issues such as setting up of the National Commission on Women and other policy structures
That period had one more aspect which was enabling, which is missing in the current scenario - namely powerful women leaders representing a variety of ideologies and creativity. Aruna Asaf Ali who led the NFIW was powerful in that political sky, having been herself an important freedom fighter as well as a voice of the Left. Other significant women who were in Parliament or in the cabinet were Renuka Chakravarty, and Lakshmi Menon. Dr. Phulrenu Guha was Chairperson and led the Committee on the Status of Women. The arrival of Pramila Dandavate and Mrinal Gore as MPs with the arrival of the Janata Party, made a big difference to the value of the forum or front. They were clearly leaders of the women’s movement coming from various platforms in Maharashtra, as opposed to the others who were women from political movements but with a strong understanding and solidarity with women. Suman Krishna Kant and these two women set up the Mahila Dakshta Samiti in Delhi
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was another striking figure of the times. A socialist of the democratic socialist movement, whose interest in craft as a means of livelihood matched Gandhi’s charkha as a means of livelihood in its passion and in its success in setting up the administrative structure of such a programme. Lakshmi Menon who may not have had such a fiery presence later on became a passionate leader for literacy for women. She would mobilize every person she met to achieve total literacy for women by the end of 20th century -- something we failed her on. Madhuriben Shah coming in as Chairperson of the UGC introduced the programme on Women Studies in the UGC, a unique, enabling and lasting contribution to the women’s movement. She was also passionate about adult literacy for women.
Those times had an energy and a presence of women as leaders in the upper levels of the public space which are absent now. On the other hand the characteristics of that public space, including the ways in which many of us participated in it, made it more stodgy, less ‘on the edge’ than the young feminists’ engagement today, which I see through the various collectives and networks that have come up through Yahoo Groups, and other Social media tools
To that extent I would say this generation of feminists have broken the shackles of that era’s priorities and ethos. They are more analytical, more strident, less elite and definitely less inhibited. It is exciting to notice the strong strident presence of the young feminist groups in the public space today. Our experience of finding common ground for protest and for proposals despite strong ideological differences in the 1970’s should encourage them not to get dismayed by the strong differences even today on the analysis as well as the responses to the gang rape of the 23year old student.
The nameless heroine and the horror of her experience, and the extraordinary solid, persistent occupation of public space by the young marchers and protesters, has broken the stone wall of indifference to the power of the collective will and intelligence of the feminist movement. In my view it is the first time that all the citadels of power and privilege are shaken. It is vital that the women’s movements, young and old, grasp this space, use this interest and fear of women’s political strength, the strength of numbers, the strength of voice to bring to the public domain what could be called women’s opinion on national issues and concerns and make a difference. We have always been an add-on and not a central political, economic and social force. Now we have a chance to become that.
The blinds have been pulled up: our tribute should be to keep up the blinds that She has helped to raise...not let them, the other, pull them down.
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