Women together

Tags: Society

Women's collectives can develop and create spaces for feminist solidarity, even in a context of poverty and embedded patriarchy

The emergence of women’s collectives in India has had a very different history from that of women’s groups or movements in the West. The Constitution guarantees rights to women far beyond those that are socially recognised. The implementation of these rights and the required negotiation within society then becomes the focus of much of women’s activism.

Feminist philosophy has seen consciousness-raising of the individual and collective action for systemic change as the integral part of a process of change towards equality and progressive modernity. One follows upon the other. But the development imperative translates into clear targets for state departments, who seek linear progression towards meeting these targets; while feminist goals of individual and collective consciousness-raising are rarely, if ever, met by linear trajectories of change.

In the context of a traditional society with deep-rooted gendered norms, which is also engaged in a project of development and nation-building, the meaning of ‘progressive modernity’ is itself the subject of constant debate. This has been suggested in recent research by scholars such as Jyothsna Latha Belliappa, Sonalde Desai and Gowri Vijayakumar.

The project of development has tried to homogenise many different world views into a shared thinking, drawing upon the Constitution and getting reflected in practical projects aiming at the achievement of national goals. The goal of ‘economic development’ has focus on material aspects of well-being, but includes within it an expectation of social change in the direction of gender equality.

Modernisation itself is often taken to be a linear process of change with a shift away from social roles resting on ascriptive status to the one where individual achieved status determines actions and decisions. Progressive modernity for women, interpreted within the development frame, can thus be measured in indicators of achieved status: education, employment, political participation, and so on. These, in turn, are all seen as creating pathways to empowerment.

The fact that the underlying social reality of women’s lives (and people’s lives in general) continues to place an emphasis on traditional gendered norms and expectations, and that there is a persisting presence of ascribed status in observed outcomes, is only seen as a hurdle to be overcome, a temporary constraint, in the process of change and modernisation, to be overcome by the use of law and persuasion, or small financial incentives that would influence behaviour.

The beginning of a focused surge of activism for women’s equality is often dated to the publication in 1974 of the report ‘Towards Equality’ by the Union government’s commission on status of women. Feminists placed considerable faith in the ability of development and feminist goals to be pursued together. To meet the stated goals for gender equality needs changes on a large scale, and working with the government enables scale. Thus, recognition of the numerous forms of gender disparity in the 1970s was followed by many examples of joint-action with government and feminists working together. A strategy that developed quite early was that of group formation.

The formation of women’s groups has been encouraged by the state (seeking to meet development goals – “growth with equity”) as well as supported by feminists (seeking gender equality and progressive modernisation) in the belief that both sets of goals are mutually reinforcing and more importantly, follow the same pathways of change. Organising women into groups is a part of almost every initiative for women empowerment, governmental or non-governmental.

For the government, such organising of women is a practical way to engage a large number of women and to fast-track the implementation of development projects. For feminists, formation of groups offers the possibility of collective action for change towards equality, by creating a sense of solidarity. For example, social norms might restrict girls and women from moving about freely in public spaces on their own. However, if they are part of a group there is less control and greater acceptability.

Women’s groups stand apart from broader citizen-based groups because of their central concern with issues that concern women in their daily lives, as well as their strategic ambitions. The organising of women around practical needs does not mean that gender injustices are not recognised or contested. The national literacy mission, (NLM) launched in 1988, evoked an overwhelming response from women. A core strategy was formation of self-help groups. With facilitation by volunteers, the groups discussed and mobilised to address a range of social issues, including alcoholism, education, health, and minimum wages. The combination of information, consciousness-raising cultural activities, group formation and regular meetings encouraged women’s organising, solidarity and political action.

Perhaps, the best-known example is of the anti-arrack agitation in Andhra Pr­adesh. The agitation started in a literacy centre in Nellore. A women’s literacy group spearheaded the agitation against the vending of arrack and this spread all over the state, with opposition parties and other voluntary organisations joining in. Eventually, this forced the government of the day to go in for total prohibition. In other words, women’s groups did not focus their energies only on becoming literate. The space provided by the programme generated assertion in various ways and demanding entitlements in other arenas. The role of political brokers began to be reduced. The literacy groups became a way for the deprived to protest and make various demands from the state. Regular evaluations that were carried out of the programme, however, came to focus more and more on literacy outcomes as narrowly defined or the 3Rs – reading, writing, arithmetic, and missed the social mobilisation taking place and its impacts. These unplanned and unexpected impacts had the potential for social transformation. But, because the developmental objective (literacy) was not the only agenda of the groups themselves, this led to political clashes and soon, an end of the NLM experiment.

The mahila samakhya (MS) programme was started in 1989. It brought together feminist experts and the education bureaucracy to provide the frame within which the programme could develop. Feminist movements have to confront deep-rooted patriarchal social norms, and the architects of the programme believed that a progressive state is an ally in the change process. MS is a government programme that works very closely with women activists at field level as well as at the national advisory level. At village level, women from marginalized groups become members of groups known as “sanghas”.

These provide the space where women can together reflect on their situation and identify their needs and aspirations. The programme could then respond with suitable interventions. Through such mobilisation, many examples have emerged of changes that do empower women, such as confronting abusive husbands, questioning restrictions and negotiating within the family to go out, and encouraging the schooling of girls. However, over the years, the expectation that MS will help to fulfil education goals appears to have become stronger than the more elusive aims of facilitating open-ended and empowering journeys taken by women. MS groups are more explicitly encouraged to link to other education programmes and assist in their implementation.

Both the literacy mission and the mahila samkhya programme have tried to build a synergy between volunteers/ activists/ NGOs and the government. This sets them apart from other government programmes that are also built upon women’s groups (such as the kudumbashree in Kerala, microfinance and self-help groups, and so on) but have not explicitly engaged activists in the design as well as implementation of the programme. It is, of course, possible that empowering outcomes for women can emerge from a development-focused mobilisation: the limited point being made here is to indicate the nature of the conflict that can arise when the empowerment agenda seems to threaten or slow down the smooth movement along a development track. While NLM was not a woman-focused programme, some of its biggest successes came about as a result of women’s mobilisation and action.

MS, which is a woman-focused programme, hoped to build a structure where feminist activists could have enough space within a national government programme to bring about empowerment of women on a large scale. In both cases, however, any large-scale transformative potential of the original idea has been constrained into inaction.

This is not surprising, as government-initiated organising efforts are intended to strengthen women's presence in the economy and polity as it exists; any confrontation or questioning of these frameworks, if it emerges, would be entirely coincidental, and is not anticipated (or encouraged) by the programme. Wo­men’s collectives can develop and create spaces for feminist solidarity, even in a context of poverty, geographic remoteness and embedded patriarchy.

The message of the above examples is not that mobilising women for empowerment is not required or is unsuccessful: it is, rather, that solidarity that is embedded in development programming finds itself guided into the development objectives overriding other concerns. This point can be better understood when we look at experiences of voluntary mobilising. In a traditional society, women themselves set boundaries to their actions.

Mobilising with a view to women’s empowerment needs to recognise this, be content with slow change, to meander, to deal with reverse movements and backlash, and to determine what progression is relevant and suitable to each context. Not all groups are equipped to manage and facilitate such processes. Through trial and error, given enough time, and given a minimal facilitation to ensure that complex questions stay alive, the process of negotiation within society would yield results. But attempting to match this to development programming, where speed is of the essence and clear targets are usually set, appears destined to failure.

(The writer is the former director, Institute of Social Studies Trust, and former fellow at NEUPA)


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