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


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)