By the time we’re in our teens, all of us Indian school kids have memorized by rote the names of our country’s freedom fighters. Today, these names line the streets of the national capital. But by some cruel trick of modern urban town planning, these names are usually men’s. And pleasant though it may be, a drive through Central Delhi doesn’t quite do justice our country’s female figureheads.
In spite of this, we know, countless Indian women did their part in pushing the fight for freedom forward. And as the country drew closer to achieving its sovereignty in 1947, women too looked forward to their own Independence. But when the world’s longest Constitution was finally put into effect, Indian women found that they had only been granted equal status on paper. Colonialism was replaced by Indian patriarchies as the main obstacle to women’s rights. And with far too many promises left unfulfilled by the state and by society at large, Indian women began to fight for what was owed to them.
Whether at an English grammar school, a madrasa, or Sanskrit schools, learning was always reserved for British loyalists or well-to-do Indians. And women and ‘lower castes’ were actively prohibited from these spaces. But many recognized the value of women’s education. So in 1848, Savitribai Phule set up the first school for women in Pune, with the help of her husband and fellow reformer Jyotirao Phule. And many followed suit, like Dalit reformer Jaibai Chaudhuri who set up a girl’s school in Nagpur in 1924.
All political activity was run underground when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975, but when it was finally lifted, women’s organizations burst forth, marking the official beginning of an organized and national women’s movement. The period saw the birth of autonomous feminist groups like the Progressive Organization of Women, which began to take up issues like domestic violence, ‘dowry deaths,’ and rape, in a focused manner.
As a result of women’s groups campaigning, attention was now being paid to issues that impacted women’s private lives. The anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh, and similar movements in Himachal Pradesh highlighted the issue of domestic abuse that women faced from alcoholic husbands. Women participated in large numbers in anti-price rise movements in Bihar, because economic changes would seriously impact the quality of their lives at home. These movements simultaneously tied women to the home, and to public spaces where they would protest.
While the transition from private to public had happened much earlier for women who did skilled or unskilled labour outside the home, the issue of women’s labour was taken up in an organized way in ’70s. SEWA, or the Self-Employed Women’s Association, and other trade unions, began to raise the concerns of working women, with regard to wages, working conditions, safety, and more.
By 1990, a considerable body of work was being developed by and about the women’s movement. It was the heyday of liberalization in India, permitting a freer flow of both ideas and solidarity between women’s groups and feminist organizations internationally. The decade saw a higher frequency of women’s conferences, and much academic interest in the issue of gender in South Asia. But the women’s movement also began to assess its own shortcomings where caste, class, sexuality, and other issues were concerned.
The Nationalist project had involved an over-emphasis on ‘Indian’ traditions and customs founded on the social subordination of women. The figure of the ‘mother,’ or ‘Bharat Mata’ as the damsel-in-distress had fuelled the nationalist passions of many Indian men. And the self-effacing, all-sacrificing Indian woman was the new standard to aspire to. But the Indian women’s movement demanded that individual women be seen as agents in their own right, not as extensions of their male relations.
Between scholars of Indian history and those old enough to remember, the decades immediately after Independence are described as a time of great anxiety and restlessness about war, hunger, and poverty. And women’s feelings of disappointment, even anger, weren’t very different from the general sentiment of the time. Gender-based violence is as “deeply entrenched” in Indian society today as it was 70 years ago, but what separates us from everyone in 1947 is that back then they were uniquely positioned to author an India which was truly equal and free.
However, much of that spark still exists today. The December 16 protests were a watershed moment in the Indian women’s movement, as issues over and above those mentioned here came to be discussed on a massive scale. The women’s movement pushes forward in figures like Soni Sori and Irom Sharmila, who continue to fight against state sponsored sexual violence. It pushes forward in the young women of Pinjra Tod who challenge patriarchal control in university spaces. And it pushes forward in every one of us who believes in freedom, justice and equality for all.
Banner image source: Pinjra Tod/Facebook