The Women's Movement in India

Publication Date01 Jul 2015
DOI10.1177/0019556120150307
AuthorRadhika Kumar
SubjectArticle
THE
WOMEN'S
MOVEMENT IN INDIA
RADHIKA
KUMAR
The women s movement
in
India has
had
a chequered history.
It
has evolved
over
time from being hand-held
by
men to
finding
and
devising its own praxis
and
momentum. The
movement
is
also layered with multiple narratives, some
of
which are dominant and some marginal, some national and
some local, which
are,
however, not exclusive but also often
speak to each other. This article attempts to make sense
of
the
multiple meanings and trajectories
of
the women s movement
in
India from various historical, empirical
and
theoretical
vantage points.
It
tries to capture the range
of
issues that the
women s movement in India has been associated with
as
also
the debates that have animated the activists and commentators.
Finally, it locates the women s movement within the context
of
economic libera/isation mapping its responses
and
use
of
various resources to deal with a new political economy
and
its
concomitant effects.
IN SPEAKING
of
the women's movement, one
is
foregrounding gender
as an identity which coalesces women on the basis
of
a shared experience
ofmarginalisation and exclusion from various spheres
of
human existence.
The attempt by women to understand, define and project their identity
and agency has taken many forms in the spatial, temporal and ideological
domain. Moreover, in this process
of
identity formation, the praxis also
shapes women's identity leading to revision and redefinition ofideas, images
and mediums. This manifests most clearly in their engagement with the
state
as
well as civil society and the market apart from forging synergies
with other social movements and causes. Notwithstanding the diversity and
fluidity which is central to this experience, there is a foundational unity
based on gaining visibility, voice and agency for women in the personal,
social, economic and political sphere which provides the broad contours for
demarcating the nature and trajectory
of
the women's movement in India.
In defining the
women's
movement,
one
is faced with multiple
perspectives. One may
try
to weave together a singular story
of
the women's
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VOL.
LXI.
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3,
JULY-SEPTEMBER 2015
movement as it gained salience at the national level aro\md issues perceived
as
common to all women relating to the domain
of
the family, law and
economy or one may also look at innumerable 'women's movements',
sub-national or local in their reach concerning specific issues which have
contributed in raising women's consciousness and can be seen
as
positioned
in a dialectical relationship with the 'national' movement both in terms
of
understanding and providing momentum. Women's participation in a
movement may not make it a women's movement (Sen 2005: 82) as women
are present in all movements, however, foregrounding
of
women's identity
provides opportunities for the women's question to gain centre stage.
The Three 'Waves'
of
the
Women
s Movement
Of
the various ways oflooking at the women's movement in India, one
approach (Gandhi and Shah in Khullar 2005) identifies phases or 'waves'
of
the women's movement in India. The first phase which
is
spread over a
century between the 1850s to the 1930s was dominated by social reform
movements. In this phase educated, upper class men were responding to
the impact
of
colonialism in two ways. Various 'social evils' such as widow
immolation (sati), child marriage, etc. and gave the impression
of
Indian
society as primitive and backward. Apart from the need to rectify this
impression, the upwardly mobile, educated and professional Indians also felt
the need to educate women so that they may become worthy companions
to their male counterparts and also present an image
of
a civilised nation.
Change was sought by recourse to legislation. Many organisations such
as
the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj played a pivotal role in this apart from the
contributions
of
many individual reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy,
Jyotiba Phule, Veeresalingam and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. The banning
of
the practice
of
Sati in 1829 and the passage
of
the Widow Remarriage
Act
in
1856 were important milestones
in
this direction. However, these
changes were not aimed at recognising or improving women's agency.
While many women's organisations made their debut in the first phase
of
the women's movement,1 it
is
argued that they did not radically depart
from the public perception
of
women having been viewed primarily as care
givers (Khullar 2005: 5).
The second wave
of
the women's movement was sparked by the
freedom struggle. The period between the two World Wars
(1919~1939)
saw the women's movement take up two issues prominently. One was
that
of
securing women's suffrage2 and the other was legislative reform
particularly with regard to personal laws (Basu n.d.). Hence women's
organisation engaged in 'petition politics'. Women's participation in the
national movement between 1930 and 1947 provided greater visibility to
women and also a shift from being seen
as
'subjects' to 'active agents'
of

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