Indian Women and Protest:
An Historical Overview and Modern Day Evaluation
Therefore in order to evaluate the position of women in India today it is necessary to first look at some of the fundamental changes that occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in particular the nationalist and independence movement. These movements and the changes they brought about in
It can be said that the evolution of the Indian women’s movement in the nineteenth century grew out of a cultural and nationalistic response to the British colonialists condemning of the treatment of women as barbaric and directly connected to Indian religious practices (Chatterjee: 1989). It was the colonialist’s contention that the traditions of Indian religions accounted for the suppression of women, not their social or economic condition. This led nationalists to take up the women’s cause and frame it in the wider context of an attack on Indian tradition in general. This they did by drawing the distinction between ‘ghar’ and ‘bahir’, or the ‘home’ and the ‘world’; the dichotomy used to divide the inner spiritual world and the outer material world. Chatterjee (1989) interprets this dichotomy as a way of maintaining the positive elements of western materialism; economic practices, good governance, rationality, science, etc, with the higher, spiritual nature of Indian culture; the identification of traits that are distinctively national.
This dichotomy helps us to understand how women’s gender roles were redefined within the nationalist’s political project. Women became protectors of the spiritual domain, the home or ghar.
Education of women became a popular idea in
This new form of oppression can be seen as imprisoning the women in a ‘nonactivist and nontransformative’ state, whose superiority over all others meant she now embodied ghar and the ‘unchanged domesticity in an age of flux’ (1998:93). This transformation of the women to this new elevated position in Hindu society restricted them to this newly defined gender role. This role was to play a crucial part in right-wing politics in the future.
It was around the 1970’s that the contemporary women’s movement began to be more radical and active, especially against the Indian state who for a time declared a state of emergency which led to the repression of all political and progressive groups, not just women’s (Ray: 1999). This repression led to a fight back by women’s organisations which greatly increased their scope and power. Today issues are fought over a large spectrum of issues including; union rights, abusive partners, the rights of ‘dalit’ women (the lowest caste in the Hindu religion), worker’s rights, sexual assault and much more (Ray: 1999). It is not just left-wing and progressive causes that are fought over by women, but right-wing issues too.
Hindu nationalism, the kind of nationalism that led to the new form of oppression that Chatterjee (1989) described, still has a large say in women’s issues in
However this elevation of the individual through sexuality gives women the power to enter political debate with religious symbolism, muddying the waters of the Indian states already shaky secular status. This extension of the dichotomy of ghar and bahir, and the empowering affect the ‘protective inner sanctum of the home’ (1995: 162) has on Hindu women enables them to attack politicians, Muslims and the secular state, often in a violent way. The assertion of female dominance over Muslim men has led to widespread violence against them. Propaganda from the right has helped build up the caricature of the Muslim man as attacker of Hindu women and therefore attacker of all Hindu’s. It is the case that this violence is an example of the right-wing Hindu movement’s abilities to co-opt women’s issues in the name of their own causes.
Tanika Sarkar in Jeffrey & Basu (1998) relates this to intercommunity strife and conflict, a feature of Indian life that the Hindu Right has sought to stoke through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The Indian women, then, became a symbol of the whole Hindu community and ‘has emerged as crucial mobilizing impulse, since much of the violence was composed around allegations of abductions by Muslim criminals’ (1998: 97).
The Indian woman is not, however, defined wholly by the right’s attempts to appropriate them. Many millions of women are engaged in a variety of protests against such gender distinctions as ghar and fight many other battles, small and large. Before we detail some of these battles we must first look at how these battles arise and why.
For example Ray (1998) claims that in Calcutta there appears to have been fewer organisations set up by women concerning women’s issues than in Bombay. However this is only a superficial appearance as it is because the organisations in
The differences in issues in the two cities can be explained by Ray’s (1999) concept of differing fields. What this distinction also does is help outline that women in
The ‘political’ field is said to be occupied by the state and mainstream parties, and are often working within the already established order. ‘Protest’ fields operate within the political fields but are often in direct opposition with those in power or those contending for power within the political field. These fields both have historical and cultural roots in the locale they are situated in and therefore so do the movements that arise from these fields. So the issues that are seen as important in
So we see that in
Protest by women in
Desai (1996) shows us that the Indian women’s movement has become more affective by distinguishing between national and local level organisation. Through autonomous, flexible and informal structures and collective types of organisations the Indian women’s movement has been able to achieve in both political and cultural spheres: National organisation and collective work with other groups to achieve political goals and local successes through initiating collective responsibility in cultural matters. Desai (1996) points out that the flexibility of women’s groups has enabled more successes and is being copied internationally. This dispels the notion that gains can only come nationally through bureaucratic structures, the Indian women’s movement has shown that through cooperation and consensus building great successes can be achieved.
This is supported by Bush (1992) in his study of the Indian states response to and dealings with issues of domestic violence. When the state recast the problem of violence as a social issue it had the affect of providing protection against violence but no actual empowerment. This led to only superficial successes. This study points out that the institutionalisation of women’s movements may lead to diminished effectiveness. Therefore the more open, autonomous form of organisation can be more beneficial to the Indian women’s movement. Whilst Ray (1999) insists that no women’s organisation can have complete autonomy from their field of operation, their history, etc, we can say that these groups have a large degree of autonomy concerning outside political influence, thus showing the large amount of groups operating in a protest field.
We can conclude then that whilst the Women’s movement in
Bush, D. (1992) ‘Women’s Movements and State Policy Reform Aimed at Domestic Violence against Women: A Comparison of the Consequences of Movement Mobilization in the
Desai, M. (1996) ‘Informal Organizations as Agents of Change: Notes From The Contemporary Women’s Movement in
Jeffrey, P. and A. Basu ‘eds’ (1998) Appropriating
Patel, I (1998) ‘The Contemporary Women’s Movement and Women’s Education in India’, International Review of Education Vol. 44, No. 2/3
Ray, R. (1999) Fields of Protest,
Ray, R (1998) ‘Women’s Movements and Political Fields: A Comparison of Two Indian Cities’ Social Problems Vol. 45, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 21-36
Sarkar & Butalia ‘eds’ (1995) Women & Right-Wing Movements,
Social Problems, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 21-36 Women’s Movements and Political Fields: A Comparison of Two Indian Cities
by Raka Ray
 Mobilization: An International Quarterly Volume 1, Number 2 / September 1996, Informal Organizations as Agents of Change: Notes From The Contemporary Women’s Movement in
 Gender and Society, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), pp. 587-608
Women’s Movements and State Policy Reform Aimed at Domestic Violence against Women: A Comparison of the Consequences of Movement Mobilization in the
by Diane Mitsch Bush