TYGRE BOLSTAD / PANOS PICTURES
The women’s movement in India may have ducked issues of class, but the political parties
of the Left ignored gender before that – and both still prefer to avoid any reference to caste.
Urvashi Butalia goes in search of a proper place for each in the struggle to transform society.
Sisterhood, cutting across classes, religions, ethnic divides, castes, has been a cherished article of faith for feminists in India. It’s what unites: we might well have coined a new slogan to match the old one about workers of the world uniting. We would call upon sisters of the world to unite and somehow, magically, they would.
A series of developments over the last several years has resulted in some rethinking. The increasing appeal of fundamentalism, both Hindu and Muslim, and the rise of right-wing fascism have relied in large measure on the participation of women – who’ve not hesitated to turn against and be violent towards other women just because they belong to a different religious group. Where, activists have asked, has sisterhood gone?
More or less contemporaneously, the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign capital – what is known as ‘globalization’ – and its creation of a new class made up largely of women workers, have led feminists to think that perhaps they need to think of class too, in addition to gender.
If feminists have been guilty of ignoring class, the Left movement in India – for whom the class struggle has been no less of a cherished article of faith – has been equally guilty of ignoring gender. Founded in the 1930s, the Indian Communist Party’s leadership today remains heavily upper-class, upper-caste and male. Not only are there no women leaders of any stature, but most of the Party’s trade unions remain male-dominated – and most have been reluctant to address what they see as ‘troublesome’ issues such as domestic violence and sexual harassment.
With one movement privileging class above all else, and the other gender, both the organized Left and the women’s movement seemed to have missed out on other aspects, such as religion, ethnic identity and – that most-difficult-of-all issues – caste. Increasingly these categories were being used to mobilize groups, creating a kind of internal unity but at the same time resulting in a ‘difference’, as they measured themselves up against what they were not.
Achin Vinaik, a political activist and scientist, believes that ‘many of us make the mistake of thinking class is located only at the bottom. Actually it is much more at the top. Look at Reaganism and Thatcherism. Look at the kind of capitalism we have today. Do you think the corporate world doesn’t know what class is about?’
The question then is, will the class struggle change the world, or will the women’s movement do so? Or is it that groups – some based on caste, others on ethnic identity – are all engaged in the process of social transformation, and no one category should be privileged over the others? ‘What we need to be thinking of,’ says Vinaik, ‘is a sort of radical pluralism – many categories, a juxtaposition of agencies working for radical transformation. And with the working class no longer the hub.’
But there’s a danger with ‘radical pluralism’ as well. There was a time in India when the Left, or broadly socialist movements, attracted thousands of young, idealistic, politically committed people. Whatever their differences, they were able to forge alliances across their somewhat varying but broadly similar positions. Today, as activism becomes more and more specialized, the danger is of connections disappearing. And that’s when the plus of pluralism can become a minus.
Actually, says Uma Chakravarti, a teacher at Delhi University, ‘what we need is more sensitivity to other forms of oppression than the one we may, as a particular group, privilege. That’s the common factor different groups need to hang on to. That’s what will enable us to keep a broad, democratic horizon without falling into the “primacy” thesis. Why, for example, do we no longer connect capitalism and women’s oppression and therefore issues of class and gender? Why not connect the struggle of marginalized groups with the women’s movement? The common factor is oppression – it may simply wear a different face each time. And each time, we’ll need to match the strategy to the face. But that doesn’t mean we forget about all the other faces. That’s what change is about.’
Urvashi Butalia is a writer and editor. She works in Delhi with Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house, which she co-founded in 1984.
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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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