IN this note we will make a review of the autonomous women’s movement in India organised under the National Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements. It is not our intention here to take up a critical review of the general stock of bourgeois feminist theories but to examine a couple of feminist theoretical perspectives which are foundational to the autonomous women’s movement.
The National Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements represents a wide participation of various women's organisations belonging to diverse streams ranging from radical to pure feminist groups, urban women’s groups as well as rural women’s organisations, feminist intellectuals and women writers etc. The overwhelming majority of these women's groups are NGOs or NGO-backed. Some of these organisations have done exemplary work in many specific areas concerning the women’s movement. The National Conference has, over a decade and a half, succeeded in giving some sort of national character to the grassrootist women’s groups. The first national-level conference of autonomous women’s groups took place in Bombay in 1980, in the context of the then anti-rape campaign. The autonomous groups were defined as, “those who had created their own space as distinct from women’s wings of established political parties, state supported women’s groups as well as mixed organisations of men and women”. According to a note circulated by the National Coordinating Committee — a body that prepares for the national conferences — on the eve of the Fifth National Conference held at Tirupathi, the First Conference was attended by around 200 women from around 38 organisations. The focus of the conference was rape and other forms of atrocities on women though various other issues related to the women’s movement were also taken up.
The second conference was also held in Bombay in 1985 in which around 380 women from 56 organisations took part. This time the conference was not limited to some specific issues but was called to discuss the perspective of the women’s movement and laid the ideological basis for the autonomous women’s movement. Feminism was declared to have provided many of these organisations, “not only a structural critique of society and of patriarchy, class, caste et al, it has also evolved into a way of life, another way of looking at world, another mode of weaving theory with praxis”. Therefore, it is claimed, that “in strategising for change, we have at tempted to personalise politics and politicise the personal. This has meant confronting patriarchy within the family, social institutions, religion and the stale as well as challenging core values like authoritarianism, aggression, competition, hierarchy and centralization”. On this basis, all issue like personal laws, dowry, rehabilitation centres for women in distress etc., were discussed.
There was an attempt lo broad base the participation for the 3rd National Conference held at Patna in 1988. Since the venue was the capital city of Bihar, participation of our women’s organisation could hardly be ignored. Hitherto the conference participants were only small women’s groups. Hut this time the powerful left-led mass women’s organisations, especially our Pragatisheel Mahila Manch, was targeted for interaction. Many of these autonomous women’s groups had earlier participated in our National Women’s Conference organised in Calcutta.
Hence they made a departure from their position on not allowing women's organisations associated with political parties, made a welcome exception to the left-led women's organisations and only rightwing parties were restricted from participating. The feminist perspective was sought to be imposed on all the participants through a draft as the basis of participation. Yet, because of the overwhelming pariticipation of women from our side, the conference was projected as an all-IPF show by the media. Far from the feminist perspective influencing the women’s movement led by Marxist-Leninists, many autonomous group activists left with good impressions about our movement. A section of the conference still tried to challenge our participation opposing politics of any kind and our comrades rightly challenged the participation of foreign-funded groups.
Around 760 women from 101 organisations from 16 states participated in the Patna conference. The topics discussed were violence on women, health, ecology, religion, culture, communalism and patriarchy etc. Anyway, for the first time, the autonomous women’s conference took up for serious discussion the struggles of the rural women, their role in the agricultural labourer and peasants movement and the feudal violence on rural women etc.
The 4th Conference was held in Calicut in 1990. A National Coordination Committee consisting of representatives from different organisations was formed to prepare the conference agenda, from which we were excluded. It was decided to exclude the women’s organisations led by left/ML parties a gain. However the conference made a different departure from its ‘autonomy’ criteria this time. Under the pretext that "various national, international and government agencies had formed organisations which employed women as well as activists from the movement and these organisation were taking up issues concerning women in different forms”, various governmental organisations, apart from NGOs, were also allowed to participate officially.
The Conference this time had strong anti-left overtones and in a left stronghold it created only a negative impact. Ajita, a romantic revolutionary of yesteryears and later a ML renegade, was the main local organiser. Since we still wanted to work with the autonomous stream despite differences we decided to send a delegation of women comrades from different states. They were not allowed by the organisers to participate in their official capacity but only as individuals. Thus though the Calicut Conference was a step backward there was progress in certain other respects. Besides women-specific issues like rape, domestic violence etc., the autonomous women’s movement was also addressing issues like environmental degradation, housing and development policies. Despite the aversion for politics, the focus on issues like communalism and state violence was objectively forcing the movement to articulate its response to the events in mainstream politics.
Despite the participation of 2890 women from 113 organisations, the Conference could not have much impact on Kerala. The background paper of the NCC sums up the Calicut experience thus: “The heterogeneity of organisations like governmental and non-governmental, autonomous and far-left led to sharp contradictions emerging, leading to debates in perspective and ideology, and posing a. challenge to the women's movement”! There were also sharp internal differences among autonomous groups. The venue of each conference was a serious bone of contention. Each NGO-backed women’s group fought for organising the Conference in its own area. Membership of the NCC was another area of contention.
The venue of the next conference was Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. Meanwhile a powerful mass women’s movement independent of the autonomous women’s groups had developed in Andhra — the anti-liquor agitation — which was led primarily by the Marxist-Leninist forces. The autonomous women’s movement is relatively more comfortable with the ML-led women’s groups in Andhra than with us because of the shared grassrootism. Anyway, we were not invited for the conference. In view of the upsurge in women’s movement in Andhra, the 5th National Conference was organised in Andhra. Before the conference some feminist groups based in Hyderabad joined issue with a leading intellectual associated with the ML movement to prepare the ideological climate for the conference. But there was repetition of Patna in Tirupati and the ML-led women’s organsations prevailed. On the positive side there was a greater focus on communalism and New Economic Policy. Though about 3000 women participated in the conference the Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements was by now a truncated organisation with many prominent autonomous groups not participating in it.
Despite our dissociation with these conferences we continued cooperation with many autonomous groups, we took part in the North Zone Conference of the Autonomous Groups and many of them were invited to participate in the first All-India conference of our women’s organisation.
Gender oppression is central to feminism. Feminists give primacy to fighting the hierarchical and oppressive relationship between the sexes to achieve gender equality. Class, caste and communal oppressions are fitted into this paradigm. With this point of departure, their primary emphasis in practice shifts to gender-related issues like rape, dowry, dowry-killings and other forms of domestic violence, the unequal division of labour at home, the regulation of fertility and women’s control over her body, the repression of women’s sexuality and the commercialisation and commoditification of their sexuality etc.
Many autonomous groups have done pioneering work in all these areas and have made impressive advances in mobilising women to fight on all these issues. It must be admitted that we are still lagging behind in these areas. We also started late on such issues. Though there can be no two opinions on the need for women's organisations, whether autonomous or radical, to take vigorous initiatives on all these issues, there is a difference over priority and emphasis. We stand for organically combining gender-related issues with basic class-related issues within the mass women’s movement. And then there is a sea of difference in the theoretical approach towards these issues. Feminists have never been able to convincingly explain how they can fight gender inequality inside the family in isolation when this institution of family itself is an inalieanable part of an oppressive, uncivilised and barbaric social order of a class society.
There are differences within the autonomous stream itself on this. Rajani Desai has argued in one of her pamphlets, “the overriding fact still remains that most men still do not fashion even the socalled men’s world and most women share their lives with these most men”. She adds : “The feminist trend tends to see the contradiction between men and women as antagonistic. Further, it tends to equate the oppression by the man in the family with the oppression by the exploiter at the place of work, and it represents both as equal ‘enemies’” (Rajani Desai, Sulabha Brahme and Sharayu Mhatre-Purohit in “The Material Basis For Women’s Liberation — Against the Current Trend in the Women’s Movement).
We have already seen how the Conference of Autonomous Women’s Movements define autonomy. They equate government with political parties in general and then they equate all political parties irrespective of whether they are right or left. They don't bother to see whether a given political party fights for the emancipation of women or goes against it. They don’t make any distinction between the class character of different political parties just as they don’t recognise class differences among women. In this context let us quote Rajani Desai again: “Women do not form a class by themselves but form a part of each economic class. And for this reason, despite superficial similarities, the demands of one class of women can never be the same as those of another. That is why different political parties have different lines on the question of women’s rights. Each party approaches this question in keeping with its ideological orientation. Therefore, women’s movement comprises a variety of trends. Indeed, there cannot be a single autonomous women’s movement, because there is not an objective common material base on which it can be propelled forward. The bourgeois and reformist points of view on the women’s question either ignore or play down the class roots of this question. They reduce this problem to one of relationships between man and woman”.
Though the autonomous women's conference has subsequently relaxed their condition on governmental women’s organisations, for obvious compulsions, they have gone back to their hostile position on left-led women’s organisation. This shows that their claims of democracy, pluralism, and avoidance of competition and aggression within the women’s movement etc., are bogus. In trying to place themselves in the middle between the right and the left they only reveal their own petty bourgeois class character which explains their ideological hostility towards the left. But communists cannot be wished away from the democratic struggles with impunity. Objectively they are part and parcel of every democratic movement and are in the van of every democratic protest. The democrats can ignore them only at the cost of lapsing into deep sectarianism and compromising their own professed democratic credentials.
For them the question of autonomy from foreign funding is, however, beyond debate. The absurdity of taking funds from the imperialist government agencies and and on the other hand railing against their neocolonialism doesn't strike them. Some radical feminists take a grim view of the foreign funding. To quote Rajani again : “The feminist trend today is proliferating and being nurtured by heavy foreign financing — directly, and indirectly (through the Government of India). It would be naive to ignore the role of the huge foreign funding for the ‘women’s cause’. It would also be naive to imagine that it is free of its own ideological weightage in a situation where a ‘target-oriented’ approach effectively means that women get a share of the non-opportunities. It can only be aimed at diverting people’s attention from the main fact of non-development, want, and non-opportunity, and a desire to divide people (in this case, division between men and women) in their fight over the crumbs. This, needless to say, aptly suits the interests of our rulers who, therefore, support these programmes wholeheartedly”.
The feminists reduce the question of politics to the level of Foucaultian micro-politics — personalise politics and politicise the personal. Personalising ‘polities’ depoliticises the person. And politicising the personal — interpreted as confronting patriarchy within the family, social institutions, religion and the state — reduces every political conflict to the level of a gender conflict. Not only the conflict within the family is put at par with the conflict in every other social institution but all these conflicts are attributed to the basic gender divide. Communalism is bad because communalists are men! There is violence on women because state institutions are ‘manned’ by men! If a private and ‘personal’ issue like domestic violence or rape is brought out into the open as public crimes and made into a political issue then that is most welcome. But the feministic approach to politics is not limited to this positive side. Their own practice runs counter to this anarchic log-jam. There own opposition to communalism and NEP takes them into the thick of the ma(i)nstream politics. Despite the feminist fetters and attempts by the NGO ideologues to confine all these movements to the well-programmed grassrootist limits, objectively the movement breaks out of these restrictions.
The impact of the feminists’ call for politicising the personal and intensifying the gender conflict within the family on their own following is difficult to gauge. Here too Ms. Desai has something to say : “... the specific methods of resolving their contradiction with men are distinct. They are primarily those of discussion, persuasion and collective assertion — not of combat which characterises their confrontation with their employers and exploiters. Even if women (and progressive men) may collectively beat up the occasional incorrigible male among their men folk, this is the exception that proves the rule of the general method of persuasive correction and self-correction of others”.
It is because of their limited view of politics, the sincere attempts by the feminists to link up with other mass movements suffer from a serious structural flaw. They only land up with the dalit, tribal and other groups floated by their NGO ‘brethren’. Unlike the left parties they are not able lead a mass following among women workers, agricultural labourers and peasants. Abstracting out the question of political power from such movements they lapse into all sorts of developmentalism and rehabilitationism, of course, from within the narrow gender point of view. To quote Rajani again : “ ... to single out women to examine the impact of development on them can in certain situations prove diversionary ... So also does the attempt to build up an autonomous women's movement. And both, by being diversionary, could go against the long-term interests of women”
Well, we can go on debating these differences and they are not to be resolved overnight. But considering the overall weakness of the women’s movement of all shades in India and the gravity of the challenges like communalism and NEP will it not be proper that communists and feminists should take a new look at each other and in spite of all the differences find out ways of cooperating.