Women’s empowerment – declarations, ground realities and tasks ahead

ON 26 DECEMBER 2001, Aadhi Zameen and AIPWA jointly organised a seminar on “Women’s empowerment – declarations, ground realities and tasks ahead” to mark completion of 10 years of publication of AIPWA’s Hindi organ Aadhi Zameen. A special issue of the magazine was brought out on the occasion with 152 pages of write-ups ranging from ‘War and Women’ to a critique of the government model of women’s empowerment, impact of globalisation on women, short stories, poems, interviews of prominent women activists and leaders on the course of women’s movement, photographs from the files of women photographers, survey reports on conditions of labouring women working in the agrarian sector of Bihar or the tea gardens of Assam, and reminiscences of the struggle of first generation Naxalite women in West Bengal. More than 250 women activists and intellectuals from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar and Uttarakhand attended the seminar, which was inaugurated by renowned Hindi novelist and literary personality Maitreyi Pushpa.

Speaking to the women, Ms. Maitreyi said she was enthused to see so many toiling women in the seminar. She said that the times were changing, and women had come a long way from their position of subordination. She recalled that there were times when for every step forward, women had to bear repression at the hands of the feudal society. It was difficult to utter even a single word that challenged the status quo. She said women had used their wit and courage to forge ahead, always careful not to disturb the social balance in such a way as to alienate themselves. She said that for a long time, though women did come out of their houses and began to work in offices, factories and institutions, their roles were stereotyped – they chose jobs of nurses, gynaecologists, clerks and school teachers. They always solicited the support of the males in the family for their security. She said that through years of struggle women had turned issues related to their lives into political issues and been able to force the media to highlight the incidents of oppression of women as never before. She also emphasised that women had to bear a lot of harassment and torture to bring about this change.

Ms. Pushpa said that now that women have come to carve out a niche for themselves, the patriarchal forces are challenging them: ‘either stay within the confines of your homes or face more severe attacks’. She said that as women were speaking out against the treatment being meted out to them, they are being targeted for attacks more and more – the institutions which are supposed to provide protection and support to women have been the worst perpetrators of crime against them, especially the police and judiciary. She said this has served to suppress the movement of women, to terrorise women into submitting, to create an atmosphere of insecurity for them and force them to return to the confines of their homes. She said the forces of right reaction and patriarchy were challenging women to prepare themselves for sterner battles in the days to come, or just get co-opted by the system. She said she had hopes that the new generation would take up the challenges of the day.

Ms. Maitreyi Pushpa formally released the special issue and appealed to the audience to purchase issues of the magazine to read it. Comrade Saroj Choubey, Editor of Aadhi Zameen and National Secretary of AIPWA spoke at length on how the government slogan of Sashakt Nari, Sashakt Samaj (Empowered Women, Empowered Society) which had been floated during the ‘women’s empowerment year – 2001’ was a sham. She said that in Bihar, UP and elsewhere, grand fetes and fairs as well as get-togethers had been organised in the name of women’s empowerment where women were being served (food) by men as an example of social recognition of women’s place in society. She said that while the ‘empowerment’ drama was going on all over the country, panchayat elections were being held in Bihar after 22 long years. It was for the first time the women had come out boldly in the public arena. While CPI(ML)-supported women candidates, many of them illiterate or belonging to the poorest of the poor and lowest rungs of the caste order, were boldly campaigning amidst threats and intimidation, the other women women candidates had to come out of their homes due to stiff competition. They too were forced to walk miles through fields to meet the electorate. She said this was a positive model of women’s power in the countryside. She also gave several examples of how young girls (students of Magadh Mahila College, for example) had been organised under AIPWA’s banner on the issue of dowry. Many students said they opposed the fee hike but would continue to study rather than allow their parents to spend huge amounts of money for dowry marriages. She said that while the women in the villages were struggling for equal wages, employment and social dignity, the women in the cities were challenging the government’s anti-women policies and denial of opportunities. She recalled how Aadhi Zameen had started in a small way in Patna, and gradually, a large section of the intelligentsia as well as toiling women had found a platform to voice their concerns through the magazine. It was true that the magazine had survived all odds and remained the only women’s magazine in Hindi/Urdu which remained committed to the women’s cause and was being published without outside funding.

Ms. Vidya Rajwar, Convener of Uttarakhand unit of AIPWA, mentioned how the women of Uttarakhand had been promised a better deal in the empowerment year by the erstwhile CM Nityanand Swami. BJP had come to power using the issue of Muzaffarnagar rape, she said. Also, the CM had promised a liquor-free Uttarakhand. Women, who had rallied in a big way with the BJP were thoroughly disappointed to see the volte-face of the government which had not only promoted the main accused of the Muzaffarnagar rape but had also boosted excise through sale of arrack. She said that the women of Uttarakhand were also being deprived of the rights over forest resources through the forest bill. Ms. Rekha Dhanik, an AISA activist of Uttarakhand mentioned how corrupt politicians belonging to the VHP and RSS as well as the Congress and mafia were holding the sway in the campuses, making life extremely insecure for girls.

Comrade Gita Singh, Secretary of Kanpur AIPWA, enunciated in great detail the problems of working women of Kanpur. She said most of the small industries, with a majority of women workers, were facing closure, and women were being forced into contract labour or home-based work. She said that the conditions of work had deteriorated considerably. A case in point was the Nirma washing soap industry where several women complained of sexual harassment.

Comrade Shoba Singh from Lucknow emphasised the need for exposing the populist slogans of NDA government at the Centre and working towards organising toiling women like beedi workers, chikan workers, women government employees as well as anganwadi workers and women agricultural labourers against the all-out attack on their hard earned rights in UP. She also said no government that represented the feudals, kulaks and capitalists would even dream of empowering women in the true sense. It is the revolutionary women’s organisations that have to do this. Sunita of Delhi AIPWA asserted that right from women of the slums to the factories, campuses and government offices in Delhi were being marginalised through the present economic policy and it was only through a broad-based movement of women encompassing all these sections could one fight for the liberation of women. She strongly felt that even women working in the NGO sector were facing a lot of exploitation. Ms. Tripha Wahi, a social activist and teacher in Delhi University, mentioned how the present system was co-opting women activists and how difficult it had become to organise women for a joint cause. She said that while a lot of tall talk was going on about women’s empowerment, the future looked extremely bleak for furthering the women’s cause. Citing several examples of oppression within the campus, she said it was only through a stiff ideological battle that the struggle for women’s emancipation could be carried on in this trying phase. Comrade Bhasha Singh, a journalist, candidly spoke of the change in values in the past decade. She said the Saffron regime had legitimised traditional, patriarchal values and the phase of right-wing revivalism had affected the lives of many women who had been espousing democratic values only a few years back. Ms. Savita Singh, a teacher and scholar of political theory said that it was important for the women’s movement to find its bearings in phase of ideological confusion. She said it was important for activists to understand the causes for the oppression of women. While she agreed that Marxist theory had provided the key to women’s liberation, she went on to add that it was feminism that had opened up a whole new world before us, giving us deeper insight into the hitherto invisible suffering of women. She said feminist theory had enriched Marxist theory and it was a must for all thinking people to delve deeper into it. Several other speakers like Uma from AISA Delhi, Sashi Yadav, Secretary, Bihar AIPWA, Manjulata from Rajasthan AIPWA, Jasbir Kaur from Punjab, women activists from Ajmer Mahila Samooh and Kaindha village, Kanpur addressed the seminar.

The seminar was conducted by Kumudini Pati and presided over by AIPWA President Srilata Swaminathan. Comrade Srilata Swaminathan pointed to the twin danger of globalisation and communal-fascism for the women’s movement. She emphasised that the BJP-led government at the Centre had been whipping up war frenzy for its sectarian political interests and it was women who would have to bear the brunt of attacks in case there was a war. She called upon all progressive women to oppose war. She said although the government had been presenting a rosy picture of women’s position in society, the truth was that they were being economically marginalised, socially oppressed, culturally being pushed to a condition worse than the middle ages. She said that it was the toiling who were being suppressed and repressed the most, what with black laws like POTO being sought to be imposed. She also cautioned that the forces of right reaction were trying to silence women’s voices and impose anti-women codes and cultural values on women in the name of religion. She called upon all right-thinking people to come forward to support the women’s movement.

Revolutionary songs were rendered by Comrade Iqbal Kaur of Punjab and students from Uttarakhand. The seminar ended with a resolve to redouble efforts for forging stronger ties with organisations and individuals working tirelessly for the freedom of women and support the progressive women’s movement outside the country, especially in the Third World.

– Kumudini Pati