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What A Peasant Movement In Bengal Has In Common With A Women’s Strike In USA

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Gloria Steinem, while describing the earlier differences between two prominent feminist groups in the 1960s, said, “If I had been willing to look beyond the superficial style differences of women who picketed against employers in their mink coats, I might have started to work on the vital issue of abortion two years earlier. And if more of the early reformers had been willing to look beyond the boots-and-jeans uniform and impersonal rhetoric with which some of us emerged from the male-dominated Left, they might have realized that we were neither so far from them on issues nor such a political liability as we seemed.

Gloria Steinem in Arizona, USA. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Here, Steinem tried to explain the obvious differences that occur due to differences in attitude of two different groups or movements. If interpreted wrongly, then that leads to misunderstanding which could affect the cause. But, differences in attitude in a broader sense are a productive thing. The differences between different groups of activists have always been visible in their methods of enactment and the atmosphere where the group is functioning. Two movements, while operating, find their own uniqueness while adapting to the situation. Differences stay, but the importance of differences is that they show the diverse nature of the world.

Here, I will try to explain the productive nature of different attitudes in two different movements and the reasons behind the differences.

The Tebhaga Movement was a peasant movement in both parts of Bengal from 1946 to 1950. At a time, when the peasants had to give half of their harvest to the land-owners, the peasants started the Tebhaga Movement with a demand that the land-owner will be given one third (Tebhaga) of the total harvest. The most significant aspect of the movement was the enthusiastic participation of women in large numbers. Almost every single place where the Tebhaga Movement spread, women’s participation was seen as catalytic.

The Women’s Strike for Equality happened on August 26, 1970, in New York City. The march happened with the demands of equal opportunity for women in the professional sector. Betty Freidan, the president of National Organization for Women, in her speech said, “The revolution of rising expectations of women of this city and country will only be met by full equality – full equality of opportunity in employment, in education, and in the restructuring of all institutions and professions in the world outside the home that have up until now been fully structured as man’s world.” The strike penetrated the hearts and minds of women who had never thought about protesting against the prevailing societal customs.

Betty Friedan. Source: Flickr/MollyStevens.

An important difference between the two chapters mentioned above – in women’s participation in any movement – is the difference in socio-political situations. The Tebhaga Movement occurred in a war- and famine-torn land, which suffered the disastrous Partition, and at a time when communal riots were going on almost everywhere in Bengal. The Women’s Strike for Equality happened at Fifth Avenue in New York City, which is considered to be one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world.

In 1960s USA, discrimination against women was a very visible factor in the society. The jobs that women could take up were limited in category. Mainly receptionists, secretaries, switch-board workers, cleaning jobs were available for women. And women who had different jobs were, as Freidan said, “a token few – one or two women in a Wall Street office [or] to an executive position in any insurance company, or corporation office in the city.

The march August 26 was a protest against this discrimination. It made its mark with the participation of women from various parts of the society, and not just the women who had discriminatory jobs. Freidan called it an “absolutely unexpected taking of the streets of women of this city.”

There were middle class women who had the burden to take care of their families with limited resources. There were women of all ages, and (most significantly), there were many mothers with their babies. It would be a natural thing if only the women who had discriminatory jobs had attended. But the participation of women so vehemently from different social backgrounds was a sign of women’s outburst against this eternal oppression. Women who were old and could no longer have a job also participated, so that the next generations could breathe easily. In a city like New York, where artificial lifestyle was at its peak, and there were thousands of things to cover up a woman’s pain, women hit the streets with all the pain and humiliation they suffered through the ages.

In the villages and rural areas of Bengal, like any other place, discrimination against women was present. But, during the Tebhaga Movement, the picture started to change. On December 14, 1946, in a place called Thakurgaon, a female peasant named Dipeshwari chased the police force with wooden sticks when they came to arrest the protesting peasants.

In Rangpur, when land-owner’s hooligans came to assault two protestors named Mani and Bipin Sen, their old mother tried to protect the house and made sure that her sons could flee, but the hooligans assaulted and killed the old lady.

In Jalpaiguri, a peasant named, Bidya lead the peasants to the field to cut the ripened grains, but his wife decided that, instead of men, women would do the harvesting and they would face the land-owner’s hooligans.

In Jessore, a female peasant named, Saralabala Pal, established a women’s brigade with brooms as weapons. They fought the police and made them flee.

In Balurghat, on February 21, 1947, Sunkur Chand and his wife, along with 2 others were martyred while protesting.

Between 1948 and 1949, Ila Mitra lead the Tebhaga Movement in Santali tribal areas and united the tribal women to fight against land-owners, and communal rioters.

Women protest in Kolkata (2005). Source: Wikimedia Commons. For representation only.

The women in Bengal participated actively in the movement against oppression. Women of all ages joined the movement which shows the fact that women wanted to fight societal injustices equally with men. And the movement showed no boundaries or borders or limitations of women participation which was unique and revolutionary.

The two movements described above are very different from each other. While one is concerned with women’s rights, the other is concerned with working class rights. But the common factor between the two is their extraordinary participation of women. Both the movements saw the participation of old women, who had left their agility behind, but still participated out of the pain they suffered during their childhood and youth. The women who were not doing any jobs at that time, or the women who never actively went to fields to cut grains, participated out of the feeling of concordance and harmony with the cause.

The movements, in comparison, have very little in common. But the differences are productive according to the socio-political situations of their occurrences. An opulent centre of lavish lifestyle (New York) and a famine-torn zone of destitute lifestyle (Bengal) show us two different parts of the world, with their own problems and their own ways of fighting the issues.

But with analytic eyes, one could judge how the two movements are interlinked when it comes to women’s participation. Different lifestyles should not deceive us to a misguided way of interpreting. Differences are productive. When the need was at the peak, the lifestyles or socio-economic backgrounds did not prevent women, whether in New York or Bengal, from showing their ability. And differences started to seem like similarities.

Featured image for representation only.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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