Locating the idea or concept of leadership in a narration on the feminist movement in India has been a challenge for many reasons.
One of the most notable, but not sufficiently recognised, aspects of feminist movement is the questioning spirit or the interrogating mode of understanding and explicating ideas, concepts and language.
The feminist philosopher, Helen Longino, frames this issue well, when she says:
The feminist agenda raises questions on what constitutes knowledge and how the disciplinary divisions are created. This questioning creates a ‘politics of disturbance’. It unsettles the given and starts to plough up inherited turfs without planting the same old seeds in the field.
In another place, at another time, I called it the nethi nethi syndrome, taking off from the Upanishads, defining by negation (Jam, 2005). Hence, the questioning and redefining of the idea or concept of leadership is crucial.
Most definitions, or explanations, of leadership do have a touch of what can be called ‘inclusiveness’. For example: ‘Leadership is the art of mobilising others to want to struggle for shared aspirations,’ according to J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner (1995). This does resonate with feminist thought on leadership—whether one looks at the past or
the present, what seems to come through as leadership or expressions of leadership in the feminist movements, then and now, is providing voice and negotiating justice but, most of all, changing perceptions, ideas, methods … but always a collective effort.
However, a haunting question for feminists is: towards what is the leader, single or collective, leading?
During the heyday of the international feminist movement and world conferences (Jain, 2005), there was a demand for women to be included in councils of power and political forums to give space to women’s leadership. But we asked, ‘… do we want to sit at the table with generals?’ This was in the context of the fact that many nations had military governments. Do we want to eat part of the poisoned cake? was another, when it came to extremely unjust economic policies. ‘Let us set our own table …’, was the reply. Hence, the notion of leadership as a value needs interrogation and has to be underpinned by an ethical attribute towards justice, towards affirmation of human rights and towards freedom.
Leadership is also linked to power; feminist claims on the political arena are not just to share power, but to change the nature of power; not just to govern, but to change the nature of governance. Women have many ways of enhancing, transforming and expanding the notion of power and politics, and giving full meaning to the concept of representation and leadership.
Recalling the past experiences of leadership by the indian feminist movement.
There are so many versions, or characterisations, of the history, or histories, of the feminist movement in India. One of the standard ones is to divide the periods: move from reformist efforts to post-freedom ethos and then to the so-called new feminist movement, which, it is suggested, is more radical and which also came into being with the 1975 landmark—the first UN world conference on women. Here, Ritu Menon’s introduction to the volume of essays, Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Feminist Movement in India (2011), captures this narration with precision, as does another narrative by Samita Sen, Toward a Feminist Politics? The Indian Feminist Movement in Historical Perspective (2000).
Says Ritu Menon: ‘It is difficult now, in this new century, to recapture or imagine the enormous optimism of those early years of what is called the second wave of the feminist movement in India.’ Second, here, implies that the first wave was prior to this more radical phase.
For one, it is autonomous and, like the international feminist movement, it has no formal structures, no hierarchies, no ‘party line’, no high priestesses. For another, it is polyphonic; it speaks in many voices, using many tongues. It is often, but not always and not uniformly, feminist, and it may or may not be always uniformly secular. It is urban and rural, and though ‘political’ in the fundamental sense of the word it has not, so far, been part of party politics….
Samita Sen says:
The feminist movement in India took off in the 1920s, building on the 19th-century social reform feminist movement. The feminist movement progressed during the period of high nationalism and the freedom struggle, both of which shaped its contours….
The turning point came in the 1970s, when several events—some within and some outside India—gave a radical turn to the feminist movement…. In the 1970s, the New Feminist movement attempted to revive the Uniform Civil Code within the framework of gender politics. But women’s rights became articulated within a State-led reform agenda, re-inscribing the concerns of national integrity, modernity, and progress. (Sen: 2000)
Of particular importance to the feminist movement were agitations like the Shahada agitation and the subsequent formation of the Shramik Sangatana in the 1970s of the Bhil (tribal) landless labourers against exploitative landlords, which was triggered off by the rape of two Bhil women. Radha Kumar describes the militant role played by women in this agitation:
They led the demonstrations, invented and shouted militant slogans, sang revolutionary songs and mobilised the masses. They went from hut to hut to agitate the men and persuade them of the necessity to join the Shramik Sangatana. (Kumar, 1993)
Differences in assessment
This categorisation of time or space would, however, be challenged not only by historians but also by those who are not in national and international spaces of time and activities, but in an even earlier period of transformation; and, also, whether effectiveness should be seen in terms of what impact it has on women, or on other spaces, on ideas, on the general landscape of mind and body.
Romila Thapar, writing in the first edition of Indian Women, makes the point that participation of women in the Independence movement led to greater participation of women in the post-Independence era than their Western counterparts (Thapar, 1975). She says, ‘Participation in the politics of the national movement was an act of patriotism and political life became a respectable vocation for a woman.’
This is an important base as it helps to understand the role and contribution of several women leaders from the political firmament who made a difference to women’s lives in the 1950s and 1960s. While women who picketed shops, marched in processions, or went to jail or threw bombs, did not question male leadership or patriarchal values, it did generate in them a sense of self-confidence and a realisation of their own strength. Many returned to their homes, but others continued their activities in the public arena. An example is the story of Chameli Devi Jain, who left a traditional Jain home with nothing but a pair of sandals and the sari she wore to picket shops that were selling imported textiles, and was arrested and jailed in Lahore. On her return ‘… she resumed the role that she always played—as the centre of the family angan—she remained close to the extended kinship group and inculcated in one and all, the philosophy of simplicity and of wearing home spun’ (Jain, 2012).
However, these ‘political’ women did shake the ground under other women, especially in the areas of economic and social support. For example, a challenge to the characterisation of old as conservatives, and new (1970s) as radicals, came from a committee that was set up by the Congress Party in 1939 named ‘Woman’s Role in Planned Economy (WRPE)’, comprising women political leaders of those times, that gave a report that would match the informed recommendations in the current times. The Report covered seven areas: civic rights, economic rights, property rights, education, marriage, family and miscellaneous issues such as widowhood, caste, prostitution, etc.
Says Nirmala Banerjee:
The Report of the WRPE is worth our notice, if only because of its historical relevance: it shows that, even then, Indian women were by no means the icons awaiting male handouts, as has been visualised by many scholars. In the final report, they did demonstrate a clear understanding of the issues at stake and an ability to put them in the framework of contemporary national and international thinking. They could also set up a network of working groups in different parts of the country in order to get region-wise inputs.
The sub-committee insisted that the traditional vision of the man in front carving out new paths, and the woman trailing behind with the child in her arms, must be changed to ‘man and woman, comrades of the road, going forward together, the child joyously shared by both’.
Perhaps the most radical recommendation of the WRPE, looking back, concerned women’s unpaid labour, both in the family’s economic activities and in the household. About the former, the WRPE recommended that the economic value of the work must be recognised and, in lieu of payment, ‘she should have the right to claim all facilities given by the State to other workers (e.g., medical help, creches, training, etc.’ (p. 103).
The 1950-65 period had one more aspect which was enabling, which is missing in the current scenario—namely, women leaders with political clout, but who had an interest in women’s rights. The role of these persons and their organisations is often seen as less radical, and more heavyweight than the peasant and worker movements that were part of the New, as outlined by some of the records of the history of feminist movements.
However, they made significant and enduring changes to the political economy. Some of them led all-India women’s organisations, but many were individual political persona who, however, had a sense of identity with women’s concerns. Aruna Asaf Ali, an important freedom fighter as well as a voice of the Left, led the National Federation of Indian Women, an organisation that took up issues of women workers, amongst other things. Other significant women who were in Parliament or in the cabinet were Renuka Chakravarty and Lakshmi Menon, and each brought with her, agendas for women’s emancipation. Dr Phulrenu Guha, for example, who was the Chairperson of the Committee on the Status of Women, encouraged and put forward an outstanding report on this issue in 1975.
Another such powerful leader was Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who had emerged from the freedom struggle from the socialist wing of the Congress Party and was a prominent figure of the times (Chattopadhyay, 1983). Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was instrumental in setting up the All India Handicrafts Board and, as its first chairperson, championed the idea of the ‘use’ and relevance of craft as a means of livelihood as well as a consumer good, not only as an art object (Nanda, 2002). Another such initiative was the Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB), which was set up in 1953 by Dr Durgabai Deshmukh. It undertook setting up socio-economic units, taking care of abandoned women, giving livelihood and educational options to those who are excluded from the mainstream, and continues to provide sustenance (Jain, 2011). Another known figure, Suchitra Kripalani, set up the Lok Kalyan Samiti in 1952 to extend a health cover to the deprived, with the objective of implementing welfare programmes for women and children through voluntary organisations.
There are some other breaking-out histories from sub-national spaces which, rooted in mythology, deal with empowerment of women. Akka Mahadevi, the famous mystic belonging to the Virashaiva Bhakti movement in 12th-century Karnataka, challenged a seminary to look at spirituality not as body defined, by presenting herself in the nude to the seminary. Awaiyar, saint-poetess of the Tamil country in the 13th century, created oral literacy as she was denied education, propagating the fragrance of Tamil literature, and also speaking about morality and spirituality. She acted as a messenger between warring Tamil kings and brought peace among them (Srinivasan, 2002). While these were of earlier centuries, they were radical initiatives and challenged the idea that ‘the new’ was born in the 1970s.
Hence, the argument on which phase was radical, and which conservative, needs to be seen within a broader historical frame as well as with a lens which also includes hard-core economic support.
A significant stream of the feminist movement – women’s studies
An actor in the feminist movement which played, and still plays, a leadership role is the Women’s Studies movement. Madhuribehn Shah, coming in as the Chairperson of the UGC, introduced the programme on Women’s Studies in the UGC in 1985: a unique, enabling and lasting contribution to the feminist movement. There are currently 67 Women’s Studies Centres (WSCs) established in various universities and colleges in the country. Establishing the women’s studies centres showed brave leadership, of charting new terrain (which was discredited as not really a ‘discipline’), and which also broke the dichotomy between the classroom and the feminist movement.
It is the typical offspring of a feminist movement for justice, recognition and emancipation from subordination. It embraces within itself, academia and action, theory and practice, voices and scripts. It has been a powerful tool for calling attention to the intellectual and ideational skills of women across the world, and to the importance of role distinction between men and women in society at large. This difference was uncovered by women’s studies at both material and intellectual planes.
Scholars in women’s studies challenge the philosophical underpinnings of human knowledge and critique-existing paradigms in all intellectual disciplines (Rajput and Jain, 2003).
With women’s studies being recognised as a politically significant activity in the quest for equality, some of the pioneers got together to organise the first National Conference on Women’s Studies in 1981 at SNDT University, Mumbai. This historic conference viewed women’s studies as a ‘critical perspective’ that needed to be integrated into all disciplines and recognised the need for universities to focus on the women’s question through research, teaching and engagement in activities. To further these aims, the conference resolved to set up the Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS), which was registered as a membership-based organisation in 1982. IAWS foregrounds the collective voice to central issues at its regular national conferences and in its publications.
Women’s studies domains created new knowledge-challenging theories as well as giving voice to women’s ideas and proposals in all domains—as well as drew attention to the value of women’s collective efforts at self-strength (Jain, 1980). But while these efforts led to the healing of some wounds and broadening of
the space of women’s collective efforts, no real change took place, or has taken place, in accommodating women as intellectual leaders, as people with game-changing powers or attributes (Jain, 2007).
Enter the internet and the new feminist movement.
Apart from the women’s studies centres serving as the powerhouse and catalysts of the ‘feminist consciousness’, what has emerged as a new force has been the World Wide Web, or the Internet. The Internet has enabled many networks—categorised according to age, topic of interest, etc. These groups galvanise opinions and offer collective voices on public issues. Social media has given a voice to those who were previously denied. The Internet and debates in specific have given individuals a chance to express their opinions, assert their intelligence, and potentially reach out to other feminists, even those who have yet to be identified as one. In other words, it has made ‘leadership’ more diffused. At the same time, the energy and visions generated by mass feminist movements have been gradually percolating to the society and polity outside the consumer world of the middle class.
It is relevant to recall here that the nature, form and content of the feminist movements that give expression to the discontent have also undergone radical change. They have been providing peoples’ suffering an expression of vibrant dissent and resistance, and mobilised a section of the media. There are civil-society network campaigns; legal and judicial activism; civil disobedience; non-party political processes; carnivals; humour, laughter and performance; demonstrations, etc., to harness the creativity of marginalised people and has brought them to the ‘front line’. Modes of questioning, protest and dissent have been changing to open up places and spaces for debates, discussions and political mobilisations. Most significant is that the intentions of the State, and its claim that it is an embodiment of popular aspirations, are being questioned.
Into this ocean of waves, or rising above them, appeared the response to the gang rape in a moving bus, of a 23-year-old student. In the dark night of the Delhi gang rape, the rising of the young has been an inspiration. Every corner of conventional power has been shaken into acknowledging this uprising. The majority of those who are engaged in it are the young, largely women students, and almost an equal number of young men. Many of us the so-called elders merged with them.
While this mobilisation is across the board, not bound by leaders or strategies or pre-determined demands, it is definitely a moment for negotiating the feminist agenda. There is recognition of the power of the challenge, as it has led every conventional power place to bend its head in order not to be brought down. This is an opportunity; it has given the spokespersons for women the biggest-ever presence in the overpowering system of governance from heads of political parties, including the prime minister, and other levels of political persona, through to the leaders of opinion across different domains. Across the board, they bent.
A space has opened up for negotiations by women in areas other than the law or reservation in politics. This space also offers an opportunity for feminist movements to grab or enter this ether with the other demands that people’s movements have been voicing: jungle, zameen, work—recognised and unrecognised—and other areas of protecting other forms of brutality that women, especially among the masses, are facing.
This lively sharing, not only of information but of ideas for action, the coming together across networks, locations and even political differences/platforms in response to the brutal rape of the young student in Delhi, reminds one of earlier times—the 1970s. In the 1970s, and even perhaps in the early 1980s, women’s organisations, apart from individual women leaders, came together in solidarity and hammered out a unified set of proposals and responses to acts of injustice. It covered, of course, not only rape and other acts of violence against women, but also examined economic injustices. While there was no Internet then, the advantage was that there were many all-India membership-based women’s organisations and, of course, there was the telephone.
Seven all-India women’s organisations, separated by political ideologies, mostly associates of principal political parties, came together and called themselves the Seven Sisters. These were the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW); All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA); All India Women’s Conference (AIWC); Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA); Mahila Dakshita Samiti (MDS); Joint Women’s Programme (TWP) and Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS). Other centres, such as the Institute of Social Studies Trust (ISST), were in solidarity even though they did not have an all-India presence. Mobile Creches, an organisation which was working with children on construction sites, was one of the most brilliant, forward-looking organisations in Delhi at that time, touching the rest of the feminist movements, but looking also at economic injustice.
While these organisations were sometimes even at ‘war’ with each other due to their political ideologies, when there were issues such as the Mathura rape case, all of the Seven Sisters, along with women’s studies centres such as the ISST and others, took out processions with deep solidarity. It was not limited only to the Mathura rape case, but extended to issues such as the setting up of the National Commission on Women, and other policy structures and issues.
However, despite all these extraordinary initiatives and networking in the past, real negotiating of feminist understanding of justice, of human rights, of economic reasoning, had not lifted the blinds of the ‘other’ (Jain, 2013)—what is often derided as the male stream instead of main stream, until the shock of the 16 December 2012 event.
But the rising after 16 December has changed the terms of trade. This rising provides an important illustration of a feminist movement, which is spearheaded by women, but drawing together a wide range of categories of people towards what can be called one purpose or one voice. The gathering and protests were unique for their inclusion of diversity, for their persistence, width and impact on the public domain.
This collective voice drew attention to an issue that is not new, but one that had remained in cloistered spaces. This was the issue of the sanctity of women’s bodies. For the first time, the attention that was called to women’s bodies has not been trivialised or used in questionable terminology, but seen as a deep and undesirable scar on India’s body. It has roused the conscience of an assortment of India’s citizens, who are usually divided by caste, location, religion, class and age. The feminist movement, which can be called the Jantar Mantar movement of December 2012, superseded and overpowered this fracture.
It could be suggested that the feminist movement led, or has revealed how a movement can lead, a broad range of citizens across India to speak in one voice on violence against women, or what is now broadened as sexual violence.
Some explorations for the future.
There is a role for feminists to illuminate the special qualities and ethics of women, and to politicise the national and world wide feminist movements around it. There is also a role for development agencies and personnel to reorganise their understanding and there is also need to upturn economic reasoning to accommodate the urgency of women’s condition.
The issue of violence, especially against women; the issue of women’s rights as human rights, which are linked to the struggle against violence, and the political restructuring of a kind that also restructures the economy need to come onto the agendas of the various streams of the feminist movements … The time is now!