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)

Obituary: Leela Dube, pathbreaking anthropologist (1923-2012)

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OBITUARY: Prof. Leela Dube (1923-2012)

by Vibhuti Patel
Professor and Head, Department of Economics, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai-20. 

In passing away of Prof. Leela Dube on 16th May, 2012, we have lost a stalwart who enriched a discipline of anthropology by bringing insights of women’s studies and enriched women’s studies as a discipline by brining sharpness and technical expertise of an anthropologist.

Dr. Leela Dube’s academic career began in 1960 at Sagar University and she moved to Delhi in 1975. She played a crucial role in shaping Towards Equality Report: Committee on Status of Women in India (1974), GoI discussion of which in the Parliament of India brought women’s studies centre stage in the Indian academia via UGC and ICSSR. Dr. Leela Dube successfully executed innumerable research projects for both these apex institutions for higher education.   She was a mover and shaker in Indian Sociological Society in the nineteen seventies and was responsible for introducing women’s studies concerns in the mainstream sociology. She played crucial role in World Sociological Congress in 1984 in which women activists and women’s studies scholars played dominant role thro’ Research Committee (RC 32). Leeladee chaired a panel on “Declining Sex Ratio in India”, in which Dr. Ilina Sen gave a historical overview of deficit of women in India throughout history of Census of India, Prof. Veena Mazumdar passionately spoke on the finding of towards Equality Report and I spoke on “Sex Selective Abortions-An Abuse of Scientific Techniques of Amniocentesis”. Leeladee summed up the session with her insightful comments on tradition of son preference in India. Her greatness lay in synthesising complex concerns and providing an analytical framework in a lucid and convincing way. In a debate on sex selective abortions carried out in EPW during 1982-1986, her contribution was immense and her predictions about direct relationship of deficit of women and increased and intensified violence against women has proved to be true in the subsequent years.

Due to team efforts of women’s studies scholars (that included Prof. Leela Dube), RC 32 got institutionalised in World Sociological Congress. She invited many activists (that included me too) for an 12th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, Zagreb, 24-31 July 1988 to present paper on “Codification of Customary Laws into Family Laws in Asia”. In the Congress, Leedadee’s speech on feminist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock provided new insights into departure of the feminist anthropologists from its colonial legacy of “Big brother watching you”. Power relations between the North and The South in construction of knowledge and hegemonic presence of ETIC approach in academics were questioned by Leacock as well as Leeladee who propagated “dialogical approach” in anthropological and ethnographic research.

I respected her from distance. I was too awe-struck to go close to her but always appreciated her sharp, witty comments during academic sessions and tea and lunch breaks at innumerable seminars, workshops and Indian Association of Women’s Studies conferences held every two years. She was appreciative our campaign against sex selection. During 1981 and 1991, I got to listen to her speeches, deliberations and arguments as I used to be one of the rapporteurs in most of the programmes in women’s studies held in Mumbai and Delhi. Each time I heard her, I got more motivated to read her papers and later on her books. Her work on Lakshadweep island’s matrilineal Muslim tribe was eye-opening, so was her deconstruction of polyandry in Himalayan tribes in the context of women’s workload of collection of fuel, fodder, water, looking after livestock and kitchen gardening in mountainous terrain resulting into high maternal mortality and adverse sex ratio. She showed interconnections between factors responsible for social construction of women’s sexuality, fertility and labour rooted in the political economy.

A co-edited volume Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development by Leela Dube, Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener and Published by Oxford University Press (1986) provides international perspective on the anthropology of women in the context of socio-political setting of India, Iran, Malaysia, Brazil, and Yugoslavia

Her meticulously researched piece “On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Patrilineal India” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 23, No. 18 (Apr. 30, 1988)   has been used by women’s groups for study circles and training programmes.

Volume in the series on Women and Households, Structures and Strategies: Women, Work, and Family (1990) Co-edited by Leela Dube and Rajni Palriwala has been extremely useful in teaching women’s studies in Economics, Sociology, Geography, Social Work and Governance courses.

Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia by Leela Dube, Brookings Institution Press in 1997 argues that kinship systems provide an important context in which gender relations are located in personal and public arena.

Her highly celebrated book Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields (2001)  by Sage Publications is a landmark contribution in feminist anthropology in India. It examines gender, Kinship and Culture by sourcing a variety of distinct and unconventional materials such as folk-tales, folk songs, proverbs, legends, myths to construct ethnographic profile of feminist thoughts. She provides a nuanced understanding on socialization of girl child in a patriarchal family, “seed and soil” theory propagated by Hindu Scriptures and Epics symbolizing domination-subordination power relationship between men and women,

Her last publication was in Marathi; Manavashastratil Lingbhavachi Shodhamohim was published in 2009.

After Prof. Iravati Karve, Prof. Leela Dube was the only scholar who made a path-breaking contribution in anthropology with gender sensitivity. Leeladee made a mammoth contribution in bringing academic credibility for women’s studies thro’ her scholarly endeavour.

In 2007, Leela Dube was conferred on the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society, and in 2005 she was given prestigious UGC National Swami Pranavananda Saraswati Award. She remained intellectually charged and busy with scholarly pursuit till the end.

Corrigendum: Mukul Dube informs us that Leela Dube passed away on May  20th, not 16th. “Leela Dube died on the 20th of May, 2012, not the 16th. I was with her at the time.” We apologise for the error.