Madhu Kishwar’s Book on Indian Women

Madhu Kishwar’s Book on Indian Women

Both the Infinity Foundation and ECIT are interested in bringing to light the numerous Indic contributions to the civilizations of the world, and also dispelling common stereotypes about India that prevent Indian civilization from receiving the appreciation it deserves. To achieve both of these goals we are pleased to support the following research and book writing project to be undertaken by Madhu Kishwar, which will focus on a commonly misunderstood topic, Indian women. This book will explore past factors that have given rise to misunderstandings concerning the position of women in India, the present situation, and the future outlook for Indian Women.

Proposal for a Book on Indian Women

The proposed book will be both an attempt at stock taking of where Indian women stand at the end of the second millennium as also to put forward an agenda for the coming years / millennium. It will examine what we have inherited by way of past legacies, how they have influenced our present and what has the future in store for us?

Chapter One: Not too long ago in history, if somebody had called out for a creature called ‘Indian woman’ nobody would have responded to that description. The book will start with an exploration of when and how such a creature called ‘Indian woman’ came into being, who brought her into being and for what purpose? What kind of picture was sought to be evoked when some people first began to use the term, ‘Indian women’. What common characteristics were they expected to have?

How and when did it come to be decided that the position of the Indian women needed changes, required reform? In other words, how and when the creature called Indian woman become the object of self-conscious, social engineering and reform efforts on her behalf?

Chapter Two: In this segment,I will cover with the following canvas: How did the agenda of social reform come to be determined and by whom? Why did the women’s question become the centre piece of the social reform movements of the 19th century. What kind of issues got picked up for reform and to what effect? Why did certain other aspects get to be ignored? Who was made to fit in the category of reform recipient? Why were others ignored or not even recognised as qualifying for the status? What was the net outcome of these efforts at reform which began in the mid 19th century and continued through the period of freedom movement. I will undertake this excercise by picking on two specific examples of reform effort – one led by Arya Samaj in Punjab and the other by Pandita Ramabai in Maharashtra. These two offer interesting contrasts and have left two parallel streams of reform whose legacy is alive and active even today.

The Arya Samaj movement for reform in women’s status was led and initiated by men. The most outstanding contribution in this regard came from Lala Devraj who worked hard to ensure that women did not remain passive recepients of reform but became active participants and even emerged as leaders of the movement. This movement could function in opposition to colonial state because it had strong roots in civil society and the leaders derived sustenance from their own castes and communities. The issues they chose for reform included women’s education, bringing women out of purdah, opposing child marriage, propagating widow remarriage and combating what they came to consider as religious and social obscurantism and superstitions in an attempt to “modernise” Indian society. Why and how these issues came to acquire salience? Were there other important issues that got ignored in the process? How successful was this movement in achieving its goals? Why is it that women’s active participation in the movement did not lead to widening the horizons of the Arya Samaj? Why did women leaders act as a more conservative force than men?

Pandita Ramabai was one of the few women who tried charting her own independent course though her work was an offshoot of the Prarthna Samaj led efforts for women’s reform in Maharashtra. The issues she took up for a start were not very different from those the Arya Samaj grappled with. She was much respected for her learning and independence. However, when she converted to Christianity and became dependent on western missionary support for her social work, she lost her special status within the mainstream reform movement and became progressively marginalised even while she continued doing pioneering work for women.

By telling the story of 19th century reform movement through a comparison and contrast in the approaches and interventions of these two individuals of extraordinary commitment, courage and compassion, I will analyse how the legacy left behind by these two different strands in the reform movements is alive even today in similar parallel stream and continues to influence later day agendas of reform.

Chapter Three: This segment will deal with the continuity and changes between the 19th century reform efforts and the period of freedom movement, especially after the entry of Gandhi on the political scene.

Since this is the period which witnessed the growth of the feminist movement in the West, I would also explore what kind of interaction came into existence between reform efforts here and the reform efforts in the West, notably in England and America – the two countries of whom the Indian intelligentsia was most aware of and influenced by. The chapter will also examine the characteristic features of the women’s rights movements in India as compared to the women’s rights movements in the West, especially with regard to the following:

a) Role played by men: Why is it that men took such a leading role in women’s rights struggles in India? Reasons for their obsessive involvement on women’s issues?

b) Responses to western influences: Even while opening themselves to western influences in some areas, including enthusiastic adoption of western education as ‘modern’ education including for women, why did the Indian intelligentsia (including the women among them) remain sceptical of ‘westernised’ women? How and where were the lines drawn between the two? c) How was the idea of women’s rights sought to be reconciled to the changing role and idea of the family?
d) Methods of struggle and definition of the “obstacles” in the two movements.
e) In sharp contrast to the women’s rights movements in the West, why is it that certain rights came to Indian women without as much as a fight, as for example, – the right to constitutional equality, right to political participation, right to vote, right to hold political office, the principle of equal wage for equal work.
f) Women’s own self view as engineered by these movements.
g) What categories or groups of women came to be mobilised and influenced through these movements?
h) The over all balance sheet of these reform movements.

Chapter Four will deal with the changes introduced by way of legislation or institutional reform in the 50’s and 60’s to supposedly honour some of the promises of the freedom movement.

The main focus of this chapter will be the controversy around the Hindu Code Bill which came to be projected by Nehru and his reformer colleagues as the ultimate proof of their commitment to gender equality. Customary practices of diverse communities in India with regard to marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, maintenance and child custody rights were sought to be replaced by a uniform codified law to be applicable to Hindus across the country. Has the reform and uniformisation of Hindu customary laws achieved its purpose? Did the reformed laws live up to their promise? If not, why not? Were they indeed a giant step forward as claimed or were they based on ill-informed zeal and viewing of Indian society through colonial perspective? The special focus of this analysis will be the many clever ways through which the practice of disinheriting daughters from family property was institutionalised and given new legitimacy even while the government reformers claimed they were attempting to give equal inheritance rights to women.

Chapter Five: will deal with the other important legislations introduced in the next two decades for strengthening women’s rights. This essay will explore as to why the issues that proved contentious in the West and for which western women had to wage long drawn out struggles, (eg the right to abortion and equal work for equal pay) did not evoke much opposition or hostility when the government initiated moves to enshrine them as legal rights for Indian women? Why has their reach has remained very limited and confined largely to the upper strata of our society? How and why this bias considering that our Nehruvian polity swore by socialism and assumed wide ranging, even draconian powers for the ostensible purpose of bridging the rich-poor divide?

The highlight of this chapter, however, will be the dynamics behind the enactment of the anti-dowry legislation in the mid 60’s. Why did this issue gain sudden importance in the 60’s? This was clearly not an important issue during the 19th century reform movements. What factors led to the need to curb the giving and taking of dowry through central legislation, something hitherto controlled by community norms? I will also analyse the basic flaws in the conceptualisation and drafting of this law which made it altogether unimplementable.

Chapter Six: This will deal with a new outburst of women’s protest and struggles that began in the early 1970’s in rural areas and late 70’s in urban areas. The rural women’s struggles around survival issues like scarcity of water, fuel, fodder, demand for minimum wages, protests against domestic violence and drunkenness as also against sexual violence were by and large off shoots of farmer’s movements or organisations of the landless poor. However, within a short period many of the activists invovled in these struggles were coopted by international aid organisations and their energies channelised towards their agenda of “development of the under developed.” What have been the political implications of this shift? How is that a large, overwhelming segment of those involved in movements for social justice and civil rights inspired by Marxism have been brought under the payroll of western aid agencies and made to become part of a national network of NGO’s. How have the issues of poverty and marginalisation of rural communities been addressed under the “development agenda”?

It is noetworthy that, very little attention was paid to the rural struggles till the emergence of new women’s organisatins in urban areas who also were soon coopted by international aid organisations.

The complascency of the middle and upper middle class women was shaken in the late 70’s with the realisation that many of them were facing brutal forms of violence in their marital homes, with hundreds and thousands being burnt to death every year by their own husbands and in-laws.

This chapter will explore how initially it came to be believed that all this violence was related to dowry demands and how a widespread movement came to be built against “dowry deaths” and “dowry murders”, the debates and splits triggered off within women’s organisations on this issue, the demand for making the existing Dowry Prohibition Act more stringent as well as the moves to enact special laws to deal with domestic violence. The main focus of this chapter will be to explain some of the most glaring contradictions emerging out of this phase of women’s movement: Why is it that despite the repeated attempts at making anti dowry laws more and more stringent, the culture of giving and taking dowry has spread both horizontally and vertically? Why is it that even those communities which had no tradition of giving dowry till a generation or two ago have taken to this practice with gusto despite it being declared illegal? Why is it that communities which practiced bride price till recently have also switched over to dowry? In short, why has the anti dowry movement remained confined to aggressive sloganeering? Equally important, what has been the impact of the fairly draconian laws introduced in the 80’s and 90’s to curb domestic violence? Why is it that on the one hand women’s organisations complain that most victims of domestic violence manage to get very little protection from the existence of these laws while on the other hand many allege that these laws have come to be misused and abused by women and their families for monetary blackmail and vendetta?

Chapter Seven will deal with the specific nature of women’s organisations that have emerged in India during the current phase of women’s movement, how they contrast and compare with women’s organisations that were the offshoots of 19th century reform movements and the 20th century anti-colonial movement in India, how dramatically the scenario changed with the coming in of interenational aid organisations with a specific mandate of lending financial and political support to feminist activism, how the agenda of “development of the underdeveloped” has come to be hegemonic in the discourse of women’s organisations? What impact has it had in defining women’s politics in India? How are issues and priorities being worked out? What impact, if any, do women’s organisations have on civil society? What have been the fall outs of their dependence on international aid organisations which have increased their global linkages through regular conferencing? Has it led to a more global vision on women’s issues? Why is it that the most of those whose own politics thrives on women’s global networks created through western aid money, tend to resort to phobic forms of nationalism and advocate economic isolation for all others except themselves?

Chapter Eight will provide an account of some homegrown movements for women’s rights (more in the Arya Samaj and similar 19th century reform efforts) which are not connected to either government sponsored NGO activity or those functioning under the umbrella of western aid agencies. In this I will provide a detailed account of three specific movements:

a) Shankar Guha Niyogi led Chhatisgarh Mukti Morcha, an organisation of mine workers in Madhya Pradesh which not only took up the concerns of women as workers but also of women’s abuse and exploitation in the family all this within the framework of a socially responsible trade union movement.
b) Pandurang Shastri Athavle led Swadhyaya movement of socio-religious reform. Within this unique and massive movement which has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of families (both rural and urban) in Maharashtra and Gujarat, women’s rights are sought to be strengthened as part of a self respect movement of communities by development of a new culture of social cooperation, and abstinence of all forms of violence, including self abuse through addiction to harmful intoxicants. c) Sharad Joshi led Lakshmi Mukti Andolan which was an offshoot of an important component of the farmers movements in India. In sharp contrast to the activism by urban women’s groups which tend to clamour obsessively for law reform and for statist intervention, the SS sponsored L.M campaign focused on voluntary transfer of land rights to women, closure of liquor shops in villages, curbing domestic violence by appealing to the self respect of men and promoting women’s participation in panchayats and zilla parishads.

Chapter Nine: The final chapter will attempt an over all stock taking of various efforts at stregthening women’s rights, the successes and limitations of these efforts as well as the insights gained on what approaches work and what doesn’t work in India. Given the situation of political ferment in India, what space are women’s concern going to occupy in the political domain in the coming millennium? What steps do we need to take to ensure that Indian women are no more trapped in stereotyped images of oppression and abuse?