“Hope in the stubborn instances of resistance” – Assessing the current state of the women’s movement in India

Tithi Bhattacharya recently caught up with Kavita Krishnan on the prospects for the women’s movement in India today and questions of strategy


TB: December 2014 marked two years since India erupted in mass protests against gender violence that inspired us globally. Where do you assess that battle for women’s rights to be at this two-year anniversary?

KK: Advances made in the movement are facing real challenges. The most important feature of that movement was its rejection of victim-blaming and its focus on women’s autonomy and freedom. We rejected the notion that women needed to be locked up for their ‘safety’, or that men from certain communities need to be profiled and policed in order to keep women safe.

In the past year, however, there has been a renewed push from the right to impose restrictions on women’s behaviour and choices in the name of their ‘safety’, and to use ‘women’s safety’ as a pretext to unleash sectarian violence on minority Muslim communities.

Much of the Western media gets it wrong when it goes on about India’s ‘rape statistics’.

Rape is not a problem that is noticeably worse in India than in many other parts of the world. What India’s data on rape cases actually hides is another dirty secret: the denial of autonomy.

A recent study of Delhi’s rape cases by the news daily, The Hindu, found that a shocking 40% of what is classified as rape is actually “parental criminalisation of consensual sexual relationships, often when it comes to inter-caste and inter-religious couples”.

The women in these ‘rape’ cases, then, are victims not of rape, but of coercion and violence by their own parents and families, in their own homes.

This only affirms that the December 2012 movement had it right when it raised the slogan of ‘women’s fearless freedom’, rather than tightening restrictions on women in the name of ‘women’s safety’.

TB: While this paints a dispiriting picture of Narendra Modi at the helm of the country and the gains of the movement against gender violence being clawed back, we have seen several protests all over India precisely against these attacks on gender rights. How do you account for this new militancy?

KK: I think that really is the silver lining – the fact that the women’s movement and the youth movement are together finding new ways to defy Hindu majoritarian politics and assert women’s freedom.

A ‘safety audit’ conducted by women’s organisations in Delhi on 16 December 2014 found that “the single biggest factor that would make women feel safer is the presence of other women in public spaces”.

So, instead of the neoliberal bid to clear streets of vendors and working class people and introduce CCTV surveillance on citizens in the name of ‘women’s safety’, it is more people, more vendors, more women on the streets that makes women safer.

I take great hope from the ‘Kiss of Love’ protests that have gone viral across India, with young people holding ‘kiss-ins’ to defy the majoritarian ‘moral police.’

TB: In the Global North we are currently in the process of figuring out how best to coordinate and strengthen solidarity between different kinds of struggle – for instance, how the anti-racist struggle can inspire the battle for gender rights or how the battle for labour rights can draw strength from the battle for justice for Palestine. How do you see this process of concrete solidarity-making working in the case of India? Are the struggles, say for instance, against communalism [ethno-nationalism] trying to find common cause with the struggle for gender rights?

KK: Yes, there are efforts to actively build solidarity between the Dalit rights movement, the movement against communalism, and for gender rights.

Connections are being made between menial labour being assigned to Dalits on the basis of birth, and domestic labour being assigned to women. Also between Dalits facing violence for daring to study, play music in public, ride a bike, or love a woman from a ‘higher’ caste – and violence on women being justified in terms of women’s ‘provocative’ clothing or sexual relationships defying caste or community taboos.

We are stressing how it now remains impossible to challenge communal hate-campaigns (of the ‘love jihad’ variety, for instance) without asserting women’s autonomy, including their sexual autonomy and right to love or marry without parental or community approval.

TB: Where would you assess the state of the labour movement to be at in India at the moment? Is the women’s movement connected to it, and if so in what ways?

KK: Both movements have been drawing connections between the denial of women’s autonomy in homes and in society, and the attempts to enforce docility of women workers in factories producing for global capital.

A good instance is the recent report on the textile factories in Tamil Nadu.

These textile mills are part of the supply chains for major European and US clothing brands.

The main workforce, migrant women workers, mostly from rural Dalit communities, are forced to live in company dormitories, described by a woman worker as ‘semi-prisons’. Women (most of whom are adults between 18 and 22 years of age) are not allowed to keep cell phones, and are only allowed to call parents from the hostel phone, in the presence of wardens.

Supervisors at work scold women for speaking to co-workers, especially male co-workers, and hostel wardens likewise maintain clo se surveillance to ensure that women do not leave the hostel premises, unless accompanied by a warden. These conditions, of course, help ensure that the women are less likely to unionise – if you aren’t allowed to speak to fellow workers, how can you unionise?

What is interesting is that these conditions are justified by the factory managements with much the same arguments used by university and college administrations to justify discriminatory rules for women: saying that the restrictions are in keeping with “our State Tamil Nadu culture and the expectation of girls’ parents” regarding “safety and security” of the women workers.

TB: This is very significant, Kavita.  I have written about this braiding between neoliberal capital and spurious notions of ‘tradition’.  Can you elaborate more?

KK: I keep getting journalists from the Western media wanting to discuss ‘honour crimes’ as some kind of cultural horror story peculiar to South Asian communities. But they are not very interested in seeing how factories producing for global capital use the same narratives of sexual and social humiliation and control in order to discipline women workers!

The Indian prime minister has been calling for multinational corporations to ‘Make in India’. At the same time, he has shrugged off the government’s responsibility to enforce labour laws, ushering in new regulations that allow companies to ‘self-certify’ whether they are compliant with labour laws. This means that the government is officially turning a blind eye to labour law violations and assuring corporations that they can exploit cheap labour, cheap lives and barely disguised forms of bonded labour, especially that of women, children, and oppressed castes, in order to ‘Make in India’.

What the above instances underline is that we can hardly fight for women’s autonomy as workers if we don’t also fight for their social and sexual autonomy. The right to have a mobile phone is not a frivolous one. If a college student needs one to talk to her boyfriend as well as her comrades, a woman worker needs one to talk to her colleagues and comrades, as well as her boyfriend!

TB: We all know the challenges we face globally from the neoliberal ruling class. So I am going to ask you a slightly different question: where do you locate the resources of hope and the battle against neoliberalism, in India and elsewhere?

KK: I think it’s a very tough battle ahead in the coming days in India. The current regime we have, headed by Modi, is trying to take India hurtling down the neoliberal path – undoing hard-won safeguards against forced land – grabbing from peasants and indigenous people, rural employment and food security entitlements, as well as labour laws.

All this is being done, even as there is a brazen push to define ‘Indian’ interests, not in terms of resisting imperialism and neoliberal policies, but in terms of ‘Hindu’ hatred for Muslim and Christian minorities.

Effective resistance to this twin offensive is going to call on the collective resources, resilience and creativity of movements of the people.

But hope, I find, does lie in the stubborn instances of resistance – by working class movements, peasants’ and adivas’ movements, women’s movements, student movements – that seem to defy doomsday predictions and refuse to be silenced and quelled.

Tithi Bhattacharya is a professor of South Asian history at Purdue University (USA).  She writes extensively on Marxist theory, gender and justice for Palestine. Kavita Krishnan is the Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and a leading activist in gender and labour rights in India.


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