Prajnya Gender Talks, November 2021 || Women’s Movements in Maharashtra: A Visual and Oral History by Dr. Vibhuti Patel

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November, 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the speaker

Dr Vibhuti Patel has been active in the women’s rights movement since the early 1970s. She is a TISS alum and has worked at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies and School of Development Studies, TISS. Currently, she is Vice-President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and an Expert Committee member of the School of Gender and Development Studies, IGNOU, Delhi. She holds a PhD in Economics and was awarded a Visiting Fellowship to the London School of Economics and Political Science from the Association of Commonwealth Universities, UK. 

Over the last 40 years, she has authored and co-authored 12 books; edited and co-edited 9 books and contributed over 100 papers as chapters in various books edited by others. She has also authored and co-authored 34 research monographs and reports. As an Expert Committee member of the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls of the United Nations Human Rights Council, she contributed to the Report on Women’s Human Rights in Changing World of Work, 2020.

Setting the Context

In this Gender Talk, Dr Patel takes us through the history of the women’s movement in Maharashtra, and the issues it has fought against over the past five decades, through her personal experiences, learnings, and photographs. 

History of the Women’s Movement in Maharashtra

The women’s movement in Maharashtra has its roots in the Bhakti Movement of the 12th-16th century, the social reform movement of the 19th century (which saw social reformers bring women’s issues into the discourse) and the freedom movement of the first half of the 20th century. The women’s movement gained its own space and voice primarily from 1975 onwards. 

1. First Wave

The first wave of feminism in Maharashtra was marked by the efforts of the first generation of English-educated women against child marriage, widow burning, female infanticide, and women’s deprivation of education and suffrage. 

Women social reformers and patriots such as Savitribhai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, Tarabhai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai and Dr Rakmabai Save focussed on ending those institutions that oppressed women and establishing those that would promote equal rights. This journey that began with the 19th-century social reform movement and culminated in the 20th-century freedom movement led to constitutional guarantees such as equality, freedom and equal opportunity for women irrespective of class, caste, creed, race and religion. 

At this time, Maharashtra took the lead in articulating the concerns of women in rural, urban, and tribal areas. It was in the early 1970s that tribal women from the Dhule district organised a long march to Mumbai to assert their demand for an “Employment Guarantee Scheme” in the context of drought-induced loss of livelihoods, hunger, and malnutrition. In their long march, they sang, “Walk, my sister walk, get organised and fight for women’s liberation…”

In 1972, hundreds of women from all walks of life – teachers and students, journalists, researchers, working women and domestic workers, devadasis and Adivasi women, students, and youth enthusiastically took part in the Women’s Liberation Movement Conference held in Pune. In the city of Bombay, working women organised a massive rally with the slogan, “We want husbands, we want jobs.”  

In 1974, the Anti-Price Rise Women’s Movement gained momentum. Incidentally, the International Women’s Year with the motto of ‘Equality, Development and Peace’ (1975) concided with the onset of the Emergency, with women’s celebrations and arrests occurring concurrently. 

Women’s issues were relegated, with the belief that if social transformation happened, women’s issues would be resolved. Women’s groups vehemently disagreed and asserted that women’s rights could not be postponed anymore. Autonomous women’s groups emerged and discussed gender-based violence, and paid and unpaid work, amongst other issues. Rural groups discussed locally-pertinent issues. Finally, in 1976, the Equal Remuneration Act was passed and the first PIL was introduced in the Bombay High Court by a woman employee of a Multinational Corporation in Mumbai. 

The post-Emergency period was marked by the emergence and proliferation of new special interest groups of women writers, students, scholars, journalists, employees, officers, and workers under the banners of socialist and left political parties as well as autonomous women’s groups. They forged a united front and jointly commemorated March 8, International Women’s Day as an act of solidarity and sisterhood that symbolised women’s strength. 

In 1980, in response to the Supreme Court’s misogynist judgement on a gang rape of teenage tribal girl Mathura of Chandrapur District in Maharashtra, the first collective action began in Mumbai and the Forum Against Rape was formed. 

2. Second Wave

Educated middle-class women actively involved in movements for students’, workers’, peasants’, tribals’, and Dalits’ rights drove forward the second wave of feminism. These women abhorred benevolent male paternalism and upper-class females’ charity and philanthropy, declaring themselves as the champions of women’s rights. 

The main concerns of women’s organisations during the second wave were manifold. They stressed the declining sex ratio (due to selective fertilisation) and the gender gap in education (as confirmed by the 1991 census). The  Forum for Women’s Health was set up to fight for women’s reproductive rights and bodily integrity. 

Discussions regarding gender-based violence expanded from rape and dowry murders to domestic violence and marital rape, and organisations such as the Women’s Centre in Mumbai were set up to provide institutional support to violence victims. 

The Network for Women in Media was set up to monitor women’s portrayal in media, promote alternate portrayals, and support young professionals. Women’s groups highlighted and protested the religious mediation of patriarchy, and called for women’s increased participation in politics and decision-making; women had become heads of social movements but were still not included in official politics. 

The movement also brought attention to unpaid care and domestic work, and unrecognised paid work and pioneered the recognition and rights of alternate sexualities. However, the LGBTQ+ movement was persecuted and remained a civic rather than a state issue. 

Additionally, Dr Patel mentions that during the Bombay riots of 1992-93, women played a key role in relief work and reporting. She talks about the atrocities that Dalit women in particular faced at the time. 

3. Visual History of the Women’s Movement in Maharashtra

Dr Patel displays a few incredible and iconic moments from the women’s movement in Maharashtra, some of which are shown below. 

Figure 1: Public Meeting in Pune against the Mathura Rape Case Judgment (March 1980)

Figure 2: Stencil-Cutting of the Open Letter to the SC in the Mathura Rape Case (September 1979)

Figure 3: National Conference on Perspective for Women’s Liberation Movement in India (December 1980)

Figure 4: Urban-Rural Solidarity – Women Demanding Drought Relief in Rural Maharashtra (1986)

Figure 5: Indian Association for Women’s Studies Conference in Pune (1988)

A slice of history: Interview with Ammu Joseph on women and media

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Ammu Joseph was recently interviewed for the University of Hyderabad FM radio station. She spoke on women and journalism and the space for serious writing on gender issues. Listen for a wonderful eyewitness account of the history of the women’s movement and changes in Indian media.

http://uohpodcasts.in/womens-magazines-have-become-vehicles-of-commercialisation/

March 24, 2012, Hyderabad, Usha Raman interviews Ammu Joseph.

PS: Ammu Joseph has been a Friend of Prajnya from the beginning and has recently joined our Advisory Panel.

Lakshmi Krishnamurti

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Lakshmi Krishnamurti passed away on June 12, 2009.

We had always intended to start our Oral History work with her. But that is not to be and it serves to remind us not to dilly-dally over this work, waiting for the perfect funding and the perfect moment.

The imperative of starting what we describe as the ‘Freedom Generation’ project immediately is precisely this. Those who were young women in the critical years of the Quit India// Dravidanadu// Pakistan movement years, are now in their 70s-80s-early 90s. Their stories are our true legacy and one we want to secure without delay. So if you want to help us get started on this work of recording and archiving their memories, please get in touch today: prajnyatrust@gmail.com.

We called Lakshmi Krishnamurti in March to invite her to our quiz. She expressed inability to come for health reasons and we promised to call on her but never got around to it, regretfully.

Lakshmi Krishnamurti, social activist and freedom-fighter, RIP and thank you for the difference you made.

Kindred spirits.. 2!

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And this article by Meghnad Desai in the Daily News and Analysis: Time to give women their due, May 11, 2008.

PS: Mr. Desai has drawn my attention to this edition of We, The People that debates the necessity for reserving seats for women. You can watch it at the NDTV website, by clicking on the following links: video-prime shows-and then going to the second page which lists We, The People shows.

Kindred spirits!

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A young filmmaker has launched a project to document memories of Pakistanis, who witnessed trials and tribulations of the Partition of India in 1947.

Islamabad: A young filmmaker has launched a project to document memories of Pakistanis, who witnessed trials and tribulations of the Partition of India in 1947.

The Oral History Project by Pakistan’s non-resident filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is trying to preserve stories of ordinary Pakistanis, who lived through the pain of Partition.

Chinoy’s Citizens Archive of Pakistan has hired summer interns to meet the older generations and preserve their stories for posterity.

The interns will collect photographs, visuals and other material about the Partition.

“If you know of a friend, family member or someone in your community, who travelled from India to Pakistan in 1947, please send us their name and information,” reads a post on Citizens Archive of Pakistan’s website.

“By conducting and collecting oral histories and photographs their stories are recorded, preserved and made accessible for generations of Pakistanis to come. As with all historical records, oral histories provide important information on incidents from the past,” a note on the website reads.

Twenty-two students from Karachi’s elite schools — Indus Valley School of Art, The Lyceum and Karachi Grammar School — have been hired by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan to collect and record the memories.

The interns will interview and photograph citizens who crossed the border.

“It is very important to find people, who have lived through the Partition and record their version of history. Pakistan is more than 60 years old, so these individuals should be older; if they die a part of history will die with them,” Chinoy told the Daily Times.

This seems to be a moment in which many of us are thinking about the importance of oral history. I read this report with interest, sympathy and a certain growing sense of urgency.

Here, at PSW, as we work towards setting up the Prajnya Women in Politics and Policy Resource Centre, we know the importance of acting right away.

Women’s political mobilization in this region was jumpstarted by the anti-colonial and social movements of the mid-twentieth century. Women were foot-soldiers and leaders, but still mostly nameless, faceless and story-less. All of us know someone or the other who was in the freedom movement, and is now growing old. At PSW, the desperate desire to document their lives, their work, their stories before it is too late, motivates our decision to focus our first project on this generation of women.

Our team is growing steadily, and the fact that it is entirely a voluntary team shows a commitment that vindicates our vision. However, I read this article with anxiety because time is running out on us and while our Resource Centre can easily become a bricks-and-mortar reality next year or the year after rather than this year… with every passing day we run the risk of losing an important story forever.

We can scale back on overheads and publicity but we really need resources to get going with our oral history project, and we need them now. PSW’s volunteer team needs to be able to devote all its time to this project rather than what is leftover from full-time jobs elsewhere. We need cameras and tape-recorders. We need to be able to accelerate the process of getting background research done, to train people to do good interviews and to train people we can send out into the field.

I know exactly what Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy means when she says parts of our history will be lost if we don’t make the time to document this generation’s experiences and memories. There is a sense in which it doesn’t matter; after all, this is not a subcontinent with perfect historical records and still we thrive. In that sense, however, nothing matters. The IPL teams do not have to have designer sportswear; good cricket should be enough. There is no need to get stronger and stronger painkillers; if they work sooner or later, that’s good enough. Unilateral, arbitrary systems of justice are fine because that is how it has been through most of history. And histories that fail to notice the work of half of humanity are also acceptable, whether that half is defined by ethnicity, caste or gender.

But it isn’t acceptable. Not to us. And it shouldn’t be acceptable to you either, whether you are male or female. A strong society needs strong men AND strong women, and a strong democracy needs all its citizens to be engaged and pro-active. Our children learn to be this way by learning about those who have gone before; and our daughters need role models as much as our sons do.

Indian women poured into rallies and protests, courted arrest, sold their jewellery, fought with their families and gave up fine clothes and home comforts so that you and I could live in this India, where we can buy cars that ferry us to fancy stores to buy traditional or modern or avant-garde diamond jewellery and designer clothes. They bought our freedom to hold all kinds of political opinions with their youth and gave all their energy to setting up institutions which could help the disenfranchised and helpless. Chennai alone is home to several of these. They spoke out, whether or not they had been schooled. They gave, no matter how little they had. To those of us, who grew up in the homes of such women, India, freedom and the spirit of public service are our most precious inheritance; they made sure we grew up with that passion.

I want to stop short of making this a straight appeal for donations in cash and kind, but really that is our need now. We need to start paying salaries and ones that people can live on. We need to use some equipment to start recording and researching and we will definitely need money to pay the recording crew.

Some day, we will be like other think-tanks, no doubt, and get big money from the big grant-makers. But for now, we need to hear from others like us, who care about such matters. People who share our views and our spirit. Women professionals whose careers are possible because of the pioneers who ignored glass ceilings. Businesses whose profits come from the careful spending and the impulse purchases of women. As for anyone who has ever said that Indians respect women, in the spirit of Eliza Doolitle, I say, “Show… me… now!”

If you want to get involved, email us: prajnyatrust@gmail.com. Take ownership of the way your history is recorded. Support the Prajnya Women in Politics and Policy Resource Centre.