Since time immemorials the status of Indian women has remained very low. And, India being a patriarchal society to its core, equality, dignity and freedom for women, though worshiped in certain customs in the country, had to be struggled for, mainly since the early nineteenth century, when the women and their issues gained traction, in wake of cross cultural comparison between the east and the west.
- The women’s movement in pre-independence era/ period can be divided into two phases: first or the initial phase was when their cause was espoused by early reformers and second phase when they themselves began to fight for their cause.
- The early reformers, largely enlightened (English educated) Indian middle class men, condemned social evils like purdah, sati, female infanticide, child marriage and enforced widowhood and initiated various reform movements.
- Later , in the second phase, since the Non-cooperation movement in 1920-21, the women themselves began to be involved in the movements that espoused their cause. However, the second phase continued to be dominated by men.
- After India gained independence from British rule in 1947, the women’s question disappeared from the public arena for over twenty years with the Constitution guaranteeing equality to all its citizens of caste, creed or gender, through articles 14 and 16.
- However, from mid-1960s onwards, due to disillusionment with the developmental policies and lack of change in conditions of women, which had been assumed to improve dramatically, along with the marginalised groups, the time saw an upsurge of movements around land rights, wages, security of employment, equality, etc among others. Some of the issues like work, population policies, atrocities on women, including rape and liquor related domestic violence attracted women into these movements.
- From the 1970s onwards, through the 1990s, various movements were launched, sometimes localized, sometimes with a bigger spatial reach, on these issues, and public awareness heightened. A positive development in the post-independence phase is that women’s issues have been taken up by women’s organizations as well as by mainstream political parties and grassroot movements, some eminent individuals, organized associations and even journals.
- Now, let’s take a look at some of the major women’s movements and organisations in the post independence period.
National Federation of Indian Women
It was established in 1954, by several leaders from Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti, a women’s movement in Bengal linked to the Communist Party of India. It was the first women mass organization which brought together women from all walks of life and worked for women empowerment, emancipation of women and children, and for building a gender just society and country.
It mobilized women for awareness raising, mass campaigns around all issues and developments that impact women’s lives with such constructive work projects as adult literacy centers, production units for needy women, training for employment, free legal aid for victims of violence and social oppression. It has played a crucial role in pressurizing the Union government at different times to bring in gender sensitive laws such as Hindu Code Bill 1956, Dowry Prohibition Act 1961, Maternity Entitlement Act, Child Marriage Prevention Act, Domestic Violence Prevention Act, MG NREGA, RTI, NFSA , among others.
Many eminent personalities and well known freedom fighters were associated with NFIW like Aruna Asaf Ali, Pushpamoye Bose, Renu Chakravartty, Hazara Begum, Geeta Mukherjee, Anasuya Gyanchad, Vimla Dang, Vimla Farooqui.
Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was born in 1972, as a trade union of poor and self employed women, at the initiative of Ela Bhatt. Women involved in different trades were brought together by their shared experiences of low earnings, harassment at home, harassment by contractors and the police, poor work conditions, nonrecognition of their labour, to list just a few. It grew out of Textile Labour Association, TLA, India’s oldest and largest union of textile workers founded in 1920 by a woman, Anasuya Sarabhai, who had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s involvement in the Ahmedabad textile strike, in 1917.
Aim of SEWA
- SEWA aimed at improving the working conditions of women through a process of training, technical aid, legal literacy, collective bargaining, and to teach values of honesty, dignity and simplicity, the cherished Gandhian goals to which SEWA subscribes.
Goals of SEWA
SEWA’s main goals are to organize women workers for full employment and self-reliance:
- Full employment: It wants women to have work security, income security, food security and social security
- Self-reliance: It wants women to be autonomous and self-reliant, both economically and in terms of their decision-making ability.
Anti-Price Rise Movement
In 1973, the United Women’s Anti-Price Rise Front was formed to mobilize women against inflation, as a result of drought and famine conditions that affected rural Maharashtra early in 1970s.
- It took the shape of mass women’s movement for consumer protection and demanded that government should fix minimum prices and distribute essential commodities.
Form of Protest
- Large groups of women, numbering between 10,000 and 20,000, would hold demonstrations at government offices, houses of members of parliament and merchants.
- Those who could not get out of their homes would express their support by beating thalis (metal plates) with lathis or belans (rolling pins).
Nav Nirman Movement
Anti-Price Rise Movement spread to the neighbouring state of Gujarat, where it was called the Nav Nirman Movement. The movement has the distinction of being the only movement in post independence India that led to the dissolution of an elected government of the state. It started as a students movement and, later, grew into a middle class movement that attracted thousands of women.
The spiraling costs, corruption and black marketing in the state, were the causes that flared the agitation in the state.
Form of protest
The methods used by protesting women and students included:
- Mock courts where judgments were passed on corrupt state officials and politicians.
- Mock funeral processions.
Anti-liquor movements in India have a history of their own since the preindependence times and they continue to erupt from different parts of the country, at different points in time. Here we will look at two Anti-liquor movements in Uttarakhand and Andhra Pradesh.
In 1963, Vimla and Sunder Lai Bahuguna, started a movement in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand against the awarding of contracts to sell liquor in a village close to the ashram, set up by members of Sarvodaya movement. The government agreed to cancel the contract.
Later, in 1966, the movement spread to draw women, who picketed the liquor shops, demanding prohibition on sale of liquor, ultimately forcing liquor shops to close. Protests continued in the following years, with many women being jailed, for protesting and picketing liquor shops. Eventually, in 1972, the government agreed to impose prohibition in Uttarakhand.
In a village in the interior of Dubagunta in Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh, women had registered in the adult literacy drive on a large scale in the early 1990s. It is during the discussion in the class that women complained of increased consumption of a locally brewed alcohol – arrack – by men in their families
Reason for discontent
A discontent had been brewing amongst the women, in the region due to following reasons:
- The habit of alcoholism, which had taken deep roots amongst the village people, was ruining the physical and mental health of men.
- It affected the rural economy of the region.
- Indebtedness grew with increasing scales of consumption of alcohol.
- Men remained absent from their job.
- The contractors of alcohol engaged in crime for securing their monopoly over the arrack trade.
- Women were the worst sufferers of these ill effects of alcohol, as this resulted in the collapse of the family economy and they had to bear the brunt of violence from the male family members.
Spread of movement
- Women in Nellore came together in spontaneous local initiatives to protest against arrack and forced closure of the wine shops. Some women, even, armed themselves with sticks, chili powder and broomsticks and forced the nearby arrack shops to shut down. This movement in Nellore district slowly spread all over the state.
- The movement ultimately forced the government to ban alcoholic beverages throughout the state in 1995, but it was, later, abandoned partially in 1997.
A critical analysis
After independence, a vigorous, although, uneven women’s movements have taken shape in India. Women from diverse castes, classes and communities participated in the movement along with activists drawn from a variety of political trends, parties and groups, belonging to various ideologies making the movement heterogeneous.
These campaigns contributed a great deal in increasing the overall social awareness, about women’s questions. Focus of women’s movements gradually shifted from legal reforms to open social confrontations like the one we discussed above. While most of the movements, in preindependence phase, were dominated by only certain classes of women, the women’s movements in post independence phase have seen participation from various sections of women.
Newly enfranchised with ideas of West, the feminist movement failed to make an impact because of the poverty levels of the country, engrained thoughts about women and also the wide spectrum of differences in the status of women across regions and castes. Cases, like Shah Bano case were seen politically rather than on gender equality basis. Labour division is, still, viewed by feminists as being
on gender lines and there is not assuring change on the ground in the status of women.