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Politics of plurality

With the passage of International Women's Day on March 8, questions about the women's movement still remain: Should educating women and mobilising them to participate in social change be given priority or should problems of the individual be addressed?

The two faces of women ... exploitation or independence?

EVEN as senior officers were ordering meek women employees to organise functions to mark the day of women's empowerment, cosmetic companies like Ponds launched advertising campaigns for International Women's Day on March 8. These two forms of celebration have generated extreme reactions among activists and those who have been connected with the women's movement. While some see celebrations by cosmetics companies as a victory, arguing that the movement is growing and turning into a festival of sorts, others are disappointed. This group of people is not only irked by the shallow ritualism of commemorating particular days, but also the slow erosion of the thrust of women's liberation as the axis of the movement.

Those who are unhappy with the co-option of the Women's Day by forces of consumerism maintain that this institutionalisation of a vibrant anti-establishment movement is an antithesis of the radical values embodied in early feminism. Mary Wollestonecraft, author of the path breaking document, "A Vindication of the Rights of Women", who was born in a poor family in the 18th Century struggled for her education and career as a writer and strove for a relationship with men based on intellectual and mutual compatibility. The 19th Century feminists, fighting for the right to vote, resorted to militant tactics like chaining themselves to the gates of public offices. Around the same time, Marxist thinkers like Friedrich Engels identified the bourgeois family as one of the chief oppressors of women, something that the radical feminists would reiterate more than a 100 years later.

In India, in the same century, Jyotiba Phuley, a social reformer from Maharashtra, strove to educate the lower castes and women. He taught his wife, Savitri, to read and write and she became the first woman teacher in the State. But Savitri had to face the humiliation of being pelted with stones and cow-dung as she set upon her daunting task.

Though the movements for women's rights differed in their ideological moorings from the communist-led struggles that were organising working class women, it was in a similar background that International Women's Day came about. The memorable struggle of women working in garment factories in New York, who marched for better work conditions on March 8, was declared as International Women's Day in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, the German communist leader. The "Second Wave" feminism of the 1960s too was an intense upheaval all over the world — this time against the external manifestations of patriarchy and the internal ones within political groups and the family.

Thousands of women joined the National Organisation of Women (NOW) in America and, putting aside their domestic duties, came out in the streets in August 1970 in a national strike. The movement for the Equal Rights Amendments Act was a prolonged one, showing that women's liberation was much more than burning bras.

In India, the Mathura Rape Case in 1980 sparked off the autonomous women's movement and women's organisations emerged in several towns, dealing with violence against women in its various manifestations. Militant campaigns against rape and dowry deaths, with actions like blackening the faces of wife-murderers and their social boycott led to important changes in the rape laws and those pertaining to family violence, marriage and divorce.

However, vibrant as this movement was, the slow and insidious process of co-option began to dull the edge of militancy. The increasing trend of making careers in the movement, of taking up jobs and research projects became easy options.

This is led to a proliferation of crisis centres for women in distress. But what may have begun as pooling in of individual resources to provide shelters and legal aid gradually turned into professional non-governmental organisations (NGOs) where paid staff render professional services.

The debate within the movement between focussing on ``consciousness raising'' (creating awareness and mobilising women to participate in broader movements for social change) and doing ``case work'' or mitigating the problems of individual women in a practical way continues.

In India, voluntary organisations have mushroomed in towns and villages — organising workshops and seminars on women's issues, giving legal aid, health training, providing for self-help savings and other schemes, doing developmental activities, creating an image of tremendous growth and proliferation of the women's movement.

In such a scenario, it is time to evaluate the work of voluntary organisations, to assess how much of an impact their work has had. In the process of rethinking the last 20 years of the women's movement in India, a number of other factors also come to mind. Firstly, the middle-class character of the members of the women's groups is perhaps a factor restraining them from going one step further and integrating them with working class or rural-based movements. Besides, the newer trends in feminism emphasising the politics of difference, or extolling femininity have also impacted the essence of feminism. With these politics of plurality, certain questions emerge.

For instance, would the profession of modelling or participation in beauty pageants be an expression of independence and entry into feminist space or falling victim to a consumerist culture that turns women into sex objects? Would 33 per cent reservations for women in elected bodies, women in the police force, judiciary and bureaucracy be expressions of women's empowerment or merely an assimilation of women into the exploitative State machinery?

Women's Feature Service

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