Women’s History Roundtable, October 2018: Muthulakshmi Reddy and the Making of a Feminist Public by Professor S Anandhi

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Dr. Anandhi’s presentation focussed on Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi, and placed her within the broader context of the creation of a feminist public sphere in late colonial south India. Dr. Anandhi argued that Reddi’s story is an important component of this process, as her name is ubiquitous in Madras, and has been associated with a number of initiatives (many of which do not actually reflect her politics or views). Dr. Anandhi explained that an examination of the mainstream public sphere in the first half of the 20th century in south India does not accurately or adequately represent the political discourse of the times, as it was defined by elite bourgeois men who incorporated women into their political agenda to suit their own vision of reform and Indian revival. This is particularly evident in the matter of women’s education, which ‘progressive’ male leaders felt was the best way to demonstrate that India was a modern nation, ready for self-rule. None of these leaders felt women’s education was an end in itself to benefit women.

 

Given that the public sphere was defined and inhabited by elite men, Dr. Anandhi suggested the rise of a “counter” public sphere during the same era – a feminist one, created and defined by women. Many women’s organisations gained prominence during the 1920s, but the earliest feminist organisation in India was one co-founded by Reddi in 1917: the Women’s Indian Association (WIA). Dr. Anandhi therefore noted that by studying the life-story of Reddi, we could gain some insights into the nature of this alternative public space defined by women, particularly because Reddi and others shifted the debates about progress and nationalism by extending it into the domestic sphere, so women could relate to these questions more effectively.

 

At the centre of Dr. Anandhi’s presentation was a reading of Reddi’s autobiography, which was published in 1929. Dr. Anandhi suggested that Reddi’s autobiography was not simply a story of her life, but a more political manifesto of her ideas. Though Reddi was fortunate to have the support of her father in her educational endeavours, she found schools and colleges were male-dominated institutions, with policies that often ended up preventing women from accessing education. In her autobiography, she suggests that women themselves should marshall forces to help educate each other, with more educated women sharing their knowledge. Reddi’s autobiography thus calls for the creation of a collective female public sphere based on the shared experience of being denied access to male-dominated public spaces.

 

Dr. Anandhi went on to discuss Reddi’s interest in the uplift of Devadasis, for which she is probably best remembered today. Though other sources tell us of Reddi’s own personal investment in the community, Dr. Anandhi noted that there was nothing in her autobiography – an otherwise candid document – to tell the reader about it. Instead, she seems more interested in talking about her own life story.

 

In detailing Reddi’s activities for the uplift of women through the WIA, Avvai Home, and the national movement; Dr. Anandhi noted that all her political work was based on helping to improve the status of Indian women. For example, Reddi made several suggestions to the Simon Commission about how to improve women’s access to education as well as what the curriculum should consist of in order to create a class of educated and employable women. Dr. Anandhi noted that this reframing of the public sphere by a ‘politics of care’ allowed more women to participate through the framework of ‘helping’ their countrywomen access education and healthcare.

 

Questions and discussion after Dr. Anandhi’s presentation revolved around Reddi’s family support; her sometimes contentious relationship with the Congress party; her exchanges with Gandhi, and her role in creating transnational feminist connections.

 

This report was compiled by Dr. Swarna Rajagopalan

 

Women’s History Roundtable September 2018: Diversity and Inclusion in the IT Sector by S Shakthi

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Shakthi’s paper examined the Diversity & Inclusion policies in the IT sector. She talked us through the processes behind how and why gender policies are framed, with a specific focus on  workplace sexual harassment in the sector. Her presentation was based on her research and fieldwork analysing how the 2013 law on sexual harassment is interpreted and implemented by IT companies in India.

Tracing the growth of IT sector in India, Shakthi spoke about how the it has become an important driver for India’s economic growth in the recent years. With 34% of employees (i.e. about 4 million employees) being women, the sector’s workplace sexual harassment policies provide interesting insights. Using semi-structured interviews, Shakthi was able to gather data from a variety of employees at various levels in the organisation, including non-managerial junior employees, managers and key members from a diverse group of stakeholders.

Unlike the Vishakha Guidelines, which only prescribe rules to make workplaces safe and are not binding, the 2013 Act makes it legally binding for companies to put into place  a number of measures to address workplace sexual harassment. However, there are a number of inadequacies in the conceptualisation of the Act as well as its specific articles. For example, the Act lays emphasis on the formation of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), rather than searching for ways to change the broader workplace culture. In this way, the Act focusses on the nitty-gritty of procedure to address complaints, but does not foster an inclusive workplace environment.

Shakthi noted that in order to change the overall climate of sexism in the workplace, companies need to go above and beyond the minutiae of the articles in the Act (such as the formation of ICCs and provision of cabs for safe transportation of women employees). Simply adopting these concrete measures is not enough to address the larger problem of workplace sexual harassment – which continues to be trivialised.

While acknowledging that the Act has helped bring the topic of workplace sexual harassment into the realm of public discourse, and that women feel emboldened by it; Shakthi noted that it is still riddled with loopholes. One example is the ‘false complaint’ clause. Conceptually, it is seen as a way to safeguard alleged harassers against false accusations by (mostly) women, who are portrayed as being likely to use the Act as a tool of ‘revenge’. Shakthi critically pointed out that this clause overlooks the power dynamics in a corporate environment. These unequal power dynamics are not based solely on gender. In her interviews, Shakthi found that the role of caste & language in creating hierarchies in the industry was significant. Additionally, the use of acronyms like POSH – prevention of sexual harassment – also trivialise the issue.

After a broad examination of the Act and its shortcomings, Shakthi’s paper also touched upon the specific local conditions that affect the execution of workplace sexual harassment policies. Factors such as structural inequalities, the importance foreign clients ascribe to adhering to laws, and brand image management. These factors affect the implementation of the Act, as the ICC factors in the interest of the complainant, status of perpetrator in the organisation, the company’s market status, and media coverage while overseeing complaints.

The Act, unfortunately, has little information on how to train people and who should be trained on workplace sexual harassment guidelines. It also empowers corporate agents (rather than the judiciary) to mete out punishments for acts considered criminal offences in India. Interestingly Shakthi’s paper also talks about the impact this has had on ICC members. Responses ranged from “emotionally draining” to a “sight of tension” as members grappled with the challenges of taking on the role of proxy judiciary.

 

This report was compiled by Nandhini Shanmugam and Sweta Narayanan

Women’s History Roundtable July 2018: Gulika Reddy on Gender and Activism in Schools and Beyond

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Our WHRT speaker on July 14th was Gulika Reddy. Gulika Reddy is a human rights lawyer and also the founder of Schools of Equality, a nonprofit which runs programmes in schools, encouraging students to think about equality and diversity.

 

Gulika began by tracing her own interest in human rights law, particularly women’s rights. In her early years in the profession, she often heard certain lawyers justify domestic abuse and ask victims to let it go, in order to “save the institution of marriage”. This discourse brought home the importance of women’s rights and discrimination and violence against women. After regular interaction in the social justice sector, she started Schools of Equality to provide experiential and activity based learning to help increase awareness on gender based discrimination and violence.

 

Gulika then introduced the audience to two activities that they used in schools.

 

In the first activity, the audience was asked to talk about what words came to their minds when they heard the words “masculinity” and “femininity”. The responses ranged from muscular, bold, strong, assertive to fragile, lucky and non vulnerable for the former; and dainty, shy, fragile, passive, hysterical, emotional and nurturing for the latter.

 

For the next activity, the audience was asked to get up and walk around and find a partner, and ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you actually like doing?
  2. What is one thing which is usually ascribed to your gender, which you dislike doing?
  3. What is one thing which is not ascribed to your gender, which you wish you could do without being judged?

 

The responses ranged from nurturing children, housework, dressing up and cooking (for the first two questions), and sitting in a particular way, having to justify things for the last question. The audience was then asked how such issues could be combated. Two members shared experiences of how they broke such stereotypes, by calling out rigid and sexist office rules, and by teaching their own children and family members about problematic mindsets.

 

Gulika continued the session by talking about her work at the schools they interacted with. Schools of Equality does sessions for children, parents and teachers; and she spoke about the different issues and situations that crop up while interacting with each target group. She noted that for children below a certain age, they mostly did sessions on bullying; while for older children they focused on sex education and gender identity awareness. SoE started off with two schools and did a baseline survey, after which they started taking workshops to different places; and now they operate in both Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

 

Gulika went on to emphasise the importance of having conversations with people about issues of gender, regardless of how averse they may be to the topic. She talked about how sometimes in classrooms, when students open up about certain issues they’ve faced, their peers learn a lot more from the sharing of experiences rather than textbook material on awareness. She then opened the floor for questions, and had small discussions on issues of scaling, combining training teachers and teaching students, and the relevance and utility of law in the battle for social justice. The session ended with some informal discussions within the group.

 

This report was compiled by Malavika Ravi. 

Women’s History Roundtable: June 2018 Bader Sayeed on “Gender Justice and Personal Law”

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Bader Sayeed is an eminent lawyer who practices at the Madras High Court. She is also the founder of the NGO Roshni.

Ms. Sayeed spoke about some recent developments in Muslim Personal Law, devoting considerable time to the question of the abolition of the triple talaq. However, she made it very clear that legislation (however progressive) could only be effective with thoughtful implementation as well as a focus on changing societal mindsets. At a time when people in power can make inflammatory statements about religion and gender (including rape threats), legislation is but the first step.

Ms. Sayeed, in fact, was of the opinion that the Indian constitution was an excellent one, and emphasised equality and secularism. However, in reality, the spirit of the constitution is being betrayed everyday by the arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions imposed by those in positions of power (for example, the ban on beef). Noting the treatment meted out to Dalits in particular, Ms. Sayeed wondered where the principle of liberty and dignity of the individual had been lost since the writing of the Constitution.

Being an experienced lawyer, Ms. Sayeed also admitted the difficulty of fighting injustice in India – even in the courts. For example, while she obtained an injunction overturning the validity of certificated of divorced issued by Qazis, she was distressed to note that these certificates still continued to be considered valid in various communities. In this way, Ms. Sayeed drove home the point that legislation can only go so far in improving the rights and status of women and minorities in India.

Ms. Sayeed concluded by noting that while Indian legislation contains adequate protection for women and minorities, it is necessary for society (especially those in power) to change their mindset and espouse a more secular attitude towards our countrymen and women. In addition, Ms. Sayeed believed that the Constitution of India is still sound, and there is no need for additional legislation to improve upon in. What is necessary is for more Indians to read and understand the Constitution of India.

 

This report was compiled by Prajnya’s interns, Athmika and Varsha

The Madras Neo-Malthusian League

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While writing a term paper on debates about contraception in Madras State, I came across an organization called the Madras Neo-Malthusian League. The following article is an excerpt from the paper I wrote. 

 

The Madras Neo-Malthusian League (MNML) was formed in 1928 in Madras. Its membership was mostly confined to elite, upper class Brahmin men. The MNML leadership made no real effort to collaborate or form links with nationalist organizations in the Presidency, but focused on establishing international connections with leaders of birth control movements in other countries, notably Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes and Edith How-Martyn.The MNML’s ideology had its roots in the Malthusian theory of overpopulation, but where Malthus advocated only abstinence[1] and celibacy as methods of population control; the MNML saw the propagation of contraceptives as a natural extension of the Malthusian world-view.[2] The MNML also sought to “entrench the systematic regulation of human reproduction in order to bring about a desired demographic change”[3], in order to build a ‘stronger nation’. In this way, their agenda can be characterized as eugenic.[4] However, while the focus of eugenics in the west was heredity, Indian eugenicists focused on caste-based marriages as a site to bring about demographic change,[5] thus centering marriage as a site in which “the task of revitalizing the nation as a whole” was undertaken.[6] As Sarah Hodges succinctly says, “eugenics in India fed into, and was supported by, late colonial debates on national progress, scientific modernity… and marriage reform”.[7]

In order to carry out their agenda of ‘revitalizing the nation’ through demographic change, the MNML saw the lower classes and castes as the appropriate targets for birth control advocacy. As MNML leader P S Sivaswami Iyer put it, birth control was seen as being “essentially for the benefit of the masses”[8], in order to control the “profligate breeding of the urban poor” and “alleviate” their burdens.[9]

A few significant points should be noted regarding the nature of the policy and activities of the MNML. Firstly, as I stated earlier, the members of the League were primarily Brahmin, upper class men. Their meetings were conducted in English, and they were more concerned with opening international dialogue than national conversations about birth control. Many scholars have suggested that the MNML’s agenda was to use contraception as a means to justify Brahminnical control of society and its reproduction, as well as control of women and lower castes. As Anandhi points out, MNML members such as Krishanmurthi Ayyer alluded to Hinduism’s “natural” and “unconscious” propagation of birth control within its sacred texts, thus creating a caste privilege and using this to justify the legitimacy of celibate widows and vegetarianism (which was perceived as reducing fertility!), all of which were upper caste practices.[10] Thus, “in privileging this Brahminnical Hindu construction of ideal bodies as reproductive, the bodies of lower classes/castes were represented by the neo-Malthusian as invested with uncontrolled sexuality requiring outside intervention”[11] by Brahmin men, who were innately “sexually responsible”[12]. Sanjam Ahluwalia describes this as “eugenic patriotism”, a position adopted by MNML leaders who “valued certain reproductive functions over others, yet presented their specific class, caste and gender interests as universally beneficial to an emerging nation”.[13]Secondly, it was not only non-Brahmin sexuality that was perceived as requiring the control of Brahmin men, but also female sexuality. The MNML did not believe that women knew, or should know, anything about contraception. In fact, when Margaret Sanger requested the President of the MNML, Sir Vepa Ramasesan, to arrange a woman speaker at a birth control rally, he replied, “we are not aware of any organization of Indian women interested in considering the problems that would be raised in a Birth Control Conference”.[14] Sir Vepa Ramasesan added that no medical woman in India had any knowledge of birth control, or the desire to advocate its benefits. Incidentally, this was untrue. While medical stalwart Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was not in favor of contraception, Dr Devadesan was a passionate advocate of birth control in Madras.[15]

The MNML chose to disperse information about contraception via informal “man-to-man” conversations. Wives were informed (by their husbands, of course) on a “need-to-know” basis only,[16] thus maintaining their “sexual innocence” and allowing their husbands to “exercise sexual control over them”.[17] Malthus himself might have agreed with this, in fact, as Chandrasekhar observes, “one can read the Essay (An Essay on the Principle of Population) from cover to cover without encountering a passage that indicates Malthus ever thought women had anything to do with population”.[18] Anandhi views this agreement of views as a motivating factor for the formation of a neo-Malthusian League, as it increased “the ease with which the upper class agenda of Malthus and the Brahminnical Hindu agenda of upper caste Indian men could come together and reduce women to reproductive bodies requiring male control”.[19] Thus, though the views of the League clashed with the views of nationalist leaders on the subject of contraception, both perspectives “converged in privileging reproductive sexuality and inferiorizing other forms of female sexuality”.[20]Finally, the League’s championship of contraception can be seen as a way in which its leaders deployed their larger agenda to defend social and sexual practices such as child marriage, which were increasingly coming under attack. In order to mask their defense of these practices, MNML leaders sought to present early motherhood rather than early marriage as being the root of a ‘weak nation’.[21]

It should be noted that the League was widely discredited for being ineffectual and hypocritical (one League member had thirteen children!).[22] The members of the League seemed to address their speeches to each other rather than the ‘masses’ they claimed to be speaking to. No practical steps were taken by them, though contraceptives were distributed by some leaders, these activities were on a very small scale.

Hodges, however, sees some merit in the MNML as a voluntary association “outside the formal political realm”.[23] She does not dismiss it as simply another facet of patriarchy. I find this conclusion less convincing than Anandhi’s assertion that in spite of the fact that all proponents and opponents of birth control involved in the dialogue spoke in terms of reproductive control (i.e. the concern of a man and a woman engaging in intercourse), “it was mediated by concerns of maintaining class, caste and other boundaries through regulating women’s body and sexuality”.[24]


[1] In “A Dirty, Filthy Book”, S Chandrasekhar asserts that Malthus “never advocated contraception; on the contrary he indirectly condemned it” (p 11)

[2] Susanne Klausen and Alison Bashford, “Fertility Control: Eugenics, Neo-Malthusians and Feminism” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 99

[3] ibid. p 98

[4] It should be noted that not all eugenicists were supporters of contraception. Critics of birth control felt that rather than performing the eugenic role of creating “docile” workers’ bodies, and gradually breeding out the poor, it might actually produce a landscape of “moral licentiousness in the form of sexual excesses” (Hodges, 2008 p 44)

[5] Sarah Hodges, “South Asia’s Eugenic Past” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press: 2010) p 231

[6] ibid. p 228

[7] Sarah Hodges, “Indian Eugenics in an Age of Reform” in Reproductive Health In India ed Sarah Hodges (London: Orient Blackswan, 2006) p 116

[8] Sarah Hodges, Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India 1920-1940 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008) p 53

[9] ibid. p 56-64

[10] S Anandhi, “Reproductive Bodies and Regulated Sexuality: Birth Control Debates in Early 20th century Tamil Nadu” in A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India ed Mary E John and Janaki Nair (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998) p 143

[11] ibid. p 144

[12] Sanjam Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) p 42

[13] ibid. p 18

[14] op. cit.  Ramusack (2006) p 64.

[15] ibid.

[16] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 82

[17] op. cit. Ahluwalia (2008) p 48

[18] op. cit. Chandrasekhar, p 12

[19] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 145

[20] ibid. p 145

[21] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 74-75

[22] ibid. p 49

[23] ibid. p 50

[24] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 140

16 Days Campaign/ Women’s History Roundtable: 8-12-12: Sheila Jayaprakash on law, gender violence and society

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Law, Gender based violence and Indian Society

This month’s Round Table seminar was a special one. In keeping with the theme of Prajnya’s 16-Day campaign against gender violence, Madras High Court lawyer Sheila Jayaprakash spoke about the laws relating to gender violence.

From statistics, we can see that crime a

gainst women is on the rise in spite of an increasing number of legal remedies and deterrents which exist today. Ms Jayaprakash divided crimes against women into two categories: those committed within the home, and those c

ommitted outside the home. The former fall under the ambit of civil law; while the latter are subject to criminal law proceedings.

Ms Jayaprakash raised questio

ns about the effectiveness of laws relating to crime against women. Have they actually been helpful, or do they j

ust look good on paper? She took us through the various laws which are intended t

Even those legislations that are intended to protect women are based on extremely unequal assumptions. For example, in a case of adultery, only the “other man” can be prosecuted if a married woman is having an affair. Implicit in this system is the assumption that the man is at fault, even though the woman is a willing participant. In effect, this system of prosecution controls the sexuality of a woman. Therefore, these so-called protective measures actually handicap rather than empower women.o empower women in India, starting with the Constitution, which affirms that all citizens (regardless of sex) have a right to equality. There is a qualifier which comes with this: the Constitution states that special laws can be enacted for the protection of women and children (historically marginalized and oppressed groups). Additionally, the Constitution states that customs that are derogatory to women should be dismantled. However, in a contradictory move, India has failed to ratify the section in CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), which calls for the dismantling of such cultural customs! The explanation given by the heads of state for this failure is that it would be insensitive to impose this on religious minorities, and their customs should be respected. Thus, Ms Jayaprakash concluded that while there is formal equality for women, it remains just that: formal.

Ms Jayaprakash believes that the way forward lies in positive equality rather than formal equality or protective equality. For example, in a workplace, the onus should be on the employer to ensure the safety on women. Thus, while formal equality is all very well, there need to be ways for women to access this equality.

With reference to crimes outside the home, there have always been laws relating to them. However outdated the terminology of these laws is (a prime example being “outrage to modesty”), the fact remains that there are ways to seek legal redress for those crimes which are euphemistically referred to as “eve-teasing” as well as rape. We learned that the Social Welfare Board has a policy of offering monetary compensation to rape victims. Ms Jayaprakash pointed out that it isn’t compensation or even enhancement of punishment (from imprisonment to death) that will help eliminate the incidence of rape. What is likely to work better is the surety of conviction and also a time-bound investigation. The latter is particularly important, as Ms Jayaprakash illustrated with a story of a rapist who was convicted 17 years after his crime, and escaped punishment because the Judge said that he was too old and frail to be a menace to society anymore!

One of the major problems while prosecuting a case involving rape is the slow processing of physical evidence such as sample analysis, which can take upto 3 years! Additionally, much of the physical evidence is destroyed because most women are simply not aware that their clothing and their bodies and the only tangible evidence of rape.

Ms Jayaprakash also spoke about the importance of sensitizing the police force. When a woman comes to report a rape, it is important that the officer recording the report does so in a sensitive manner. It is important that policemen recognize that the victim is in a state of emotional distress. Ms Jayaprakash has held many workshops in police stations to sensitize policemen.

Law relating to crimes against women within the home starts and ends with the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961.

The way the law perceives cases of dowry death or rape by an individual in a position of power (e.g. in a hospital or a mental asylum) is very different from the way a criminal offence is perceived. In the case of the former, the accused is seen as guilty until proven innocent. However, judges often have trouble adjusting to this mindset when they are used to looking at a case the other way around i.e., innocent until proven guilty.

Civil laws dealing with domestic violence all relate to remedies within the home, namely, divorce. However, there are multiple problems associated with this. The concept of equal division of assets is nearly unknown in Indian courts, and the woman often leaves the marriage with nothing. As a result, most women prefer not to recourse to divorce.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act addresses the all-important issue of Right to Shelter. This requires a drastic change in the mindset of judges, because it implies that the abuser (usually the husband) has to leave the marital home. This goes against the grain for many judges, and is especially confusing in the case of a joint family.

The definition of abuse has also been expanded to include economic abuse as well as sexual abuse. Economic abuse includes not allowing the wife to seek employment outside the home, or have her own funds. The inclusion of sexual abuse in the category of domestic violence is an important step forward as it implies that marital rape is a punishable offense. However, in practice, this section is not used frequently as reporting marital rape or sexual deviance usually carries a significant amount of psychological trauma with it.

Thus, domestic violence is a crossover between civil and criminal law – while it comes under the ambit of civil law, it is punishable under the Criminal Code.

The discussion which followed Ms Jayaprakash’s presentation was prolonged and covered many aspects of the law and domestic violence.

Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh