Commemorating change, changing commemoration

Among the many “international days” initiated by the United Nations, the best known is the one for women. Given its widespread institutionalisation by nation-states as well as private corporations targeting the woman consumer, many may now know something about its history. It began over a century ago as a commemoration of the struggles of women factory workers and was first organised by socialist movements as “international women’s day”.

From the 1920s onwards, it began to be celebrated annually by communist parties, first in the Soviet Union and then in China. Much later, the United Nations “established” International Women’s Day in 1977 in the wake of the International Women’s Year in 1975. In India, as elsewhere, movement-led campaigns and gatherings on March 8 spread from the 1980s.

Savitribai Phule’s legacy

In the last few years, Dalit and Bahujan feminists in India have been issuing a call to use this occasion to celebrate a different legacy, that of Savitribai Phule, long ignored by upper caste histories of women’s rights. Savitribai’s own biography is now being gradually recovered, rescuing her from being restricted to the role of the intrepid wife of Jyotiba Phule, who is himself celebrated for his dedication to the cause of “social justice” against women’s caste-differentiated enslavement. Born in 1831, Savitribai was colonial India’s first woman teacher. Her death on March 10, 1897 has made it possible to commemorate her life and legacy as “our” International Women’s Day. The Bahujan-feminist perspective emphasises the central importance of access to a non-Brahmin form of education for the larger agenda of transforming the gender, caste and labour structures in our society.

Shaheen Bagh, the lockdown

As we educate ourselves about alternate histories of struggle, we must also ask what it is we would want to celebrate in 2021, whether on March 8 or March 10? What has the last year given us? A year ago, the city of Delhi (where I live) was witness to horrific riots mainly targeting Muslim property and lives. Its purpose was to bring months of peaceful protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to a violent end, protests that had been led by Muslim women. A series of sit-ins in parks and public places in several cities, most famously on the highway abutting Shaheen Bagh, during the cold winter months from December 2019 to February 2020, were brought to a sudden halt. This was followed by the even more shocking spate of arrests of those alleged to have been the leaders of these peaceful protests, many of them young women and students, on the charges of having incited the very riots that ended the protests.

Then in March came the state’s policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic — the world’s largest and strictest country-wide lockdown announced with four hours’ notice. The planet was eerily drawn together by the very isolation created by efforts to control the pandemic’s spread. We were treated to silent, empty streets, images of sparkling blue rivers, the smell of clean air, loud birdsong, and animals emerging from their hidden habitats. Indians glued to their screens soon received another shock as they witnessed hitherto invisible city-dwellers — migrant workers and their families — forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to their rural homes in search of food, shelter and care. Videos of women carrying bundles and small children along deserted highways and railway tracks were headline material. Everyday life became unviable for vast numbers and relief workers were hard pressed to meet their basic survival needs.


The home in focus

In the months that have elapsed since, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of writings about the effects of the pandemic and lockdown across the world. Much has been said about the “inequality virus”, even though its worst victims have been elderly men living in some of the richest countries of the world.

One sphere in particular has come into sharp focus in these pandemic discourses, that of the home. Being “locked down” meant being “locked in” — workers who could do so had to work from home, children had to study from home, and even people who had lost their jobs had to stay at home. Overnight, the home became the centre of attention — the very sphere that feminists have long been struggling to make visible. In “normal” times, the home silently houses the labour, work and care responsible for the reproduction of society without due recognition. Many men forced to work from home by the pandemic were seeing for the first time the other kinds of “home work” that they had always taken for granted. Some were more ready to condemn domestic violence — another kind of “home work” that had been going on for ages.

Data | Domestic violence complaints at a 10-year high during COVID-19 lockdown

Women figured prominently in the attention the home was now receiving. New questions were being asked: Would the absence of paid domestic workers in middle-class families make the men of these families more willing to take on domestic responsibilities? Would the institutions of the state finally give care work and housework the recognition due to them? Unfortunately, as life limps back to a strange new “normal”, the answer appears to be no. Although women took on the greatest burdens when life was in crisis, they should not expect recognition of any kind.

But violence against women was not confined to women’s homes even during the pandemic.

Also read | A greater impact on women

New movements

From the State of Uttar Pradesh in particular, came many reports of extreme sexual assaults on, and even the murder of, Dalit girls who stepped out to work. The accounts are numbing, regardless of whether they also include information about the arrest of perpetrators. The only silver lining here (as with the Hathras rape case) has been the leadership of a new generation of Dalit women demanding accountability from the state.

This winter also witnessed the birth of a new social movement near the borders of Delhi, as farmers brushed aside pandemic protocols and arrived en masse to protest against the new farm laws. While media images focused on the weather-beaten faces of older men, there were also women who spoke out about their rights as women farmers. These protests are showing no sign of abating while they offer new lessons about the worlds that make possible the food we eat.

We cannot know what Savitribai would have said on March 10, 2021 to the Shaheen Bagh dadis, to students, mothers and farmers, to the families of the victims of violation. But we do know that nothing stopped her and her comrades — not being thrown out of the family home for breaking caste codes, nor the widespread enmity they encountered — from working for the new Satyashodhak Samaj of their dreams.

Mary E. John is at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 7:35:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/commemorating-change-changing-commemoration/article34014306.ece

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