New Internationalist

Breaking the Silence

August 1980
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Women in India are beginning to protest strongly against the infamous ‘dowry deaths’ and other violent crimes against women. Neerja Chowdhury reports from Delhi. Violence against women is not just a prerogative of the industrialized world. That’s why Subhadra Butalia, a determined 59 - year-old Indian woman decided to form the Istri Sangharsh Samiti (Women’s Struggle Committee). Her decision was confirmed when she saw a newly-married woman set on fire by irate in-laws in the house directly opposite hers-another of the grisly ‘dowry deaths’ that have become a national scandal in recent months. The girl gave a dying statement in hospital that her husband’s family had set her alight because she had not brought the dowry they demanded. Two years later, the guilty have still not been brought to trial. In fact the case was not even reported to police until six days later when another women’s group, Mahila Dakshata Samiti, began to investigate the murder.

As the law stands eyewitnesses are essential in these cases. Neighbours fearing police harassment are seldom willing to cooperate. Butalia was not so reluctant. Nevertheless the trial bogged down because she says, ‘no one is interested in pursuing it.’

Photo: The Times of India
Anti-rape protesters in India Photo: The Times of India

Istri Sangharsh Samiti holds frequent street demonstrations to rouse public opinion. Rape, an issue that disturbs all women, receives much of the attention. The controversial Mathura rape case has come under intense public scrutiny. Mathura, a minor-age girl from the village of Maharashtra, was raped by two policemen. They were found guilty by the High Court but later acquitted by the Supreme Court. According to the verdict the girl had loose morals and the whole affair was peaceful. The case had since become a ‘cause celebre’. Says Butalia, ‘A woman has a right to sleep with who she pleases, but that does not mean any man can force himself on her.’

The Mathura case is under appeal to the Chief Justice of India for review and many women’s groups are fighting to have the Supreme Court judgement overturned. Istri Sangharsh Samiti has asked that the rape laws be amended and that all rape trials be held behind closed doors. ‘In India the trauma and stigma of rape are borne by the woman,’ says Butalia.

But the most effective work of these new outspoken Indian women’s groups has been the anti-dowry campaign. Over the last three years, the Mahila Dakshata Samiti group has investigated over 400 individual cases of harassment or suspected murder related to the dowry issue. Thanks to this pressure, the ‘burning of the brides’ has become a point of debate all over the country. Students discuss it - their newspapers report dowry deaths every other day. A growing awareness of this and other violent crimes against women is an important part of the Indian women’s movement.

Manushi is a catalyst. Though only four issues of the Indian women's magazine have appeared its scrappy style and gutsy articles are sparking lively discussion amongst Indian women. 'We want to be the link between various women's struggles which go virtually unreported, says editor Madhu K ishwar. So far issues have highlighted dowry deaths to sexual violence, equal wages to housework and prostitution. There is also a regular column on women and the law. The 10,000 English copies and 4,000 Hindi ones are subsidized to make them available to a wider audience. And the audience is growing. In Calcutta some enthusiastic students want to bring out Manushi in Bengali.

In Mahasamund, a Manushi centre has been set up to help tribal women find self-employment. Articles are also used by women's groups in the slums of Bombay and Delhi.

After reading Manushi one Calcutta mother unfolded her life history of discrimination and humiliation in a letter to the editor. 'My only concern, she wrote, 'is to educate my two daughters and make them strong women capable of bravely facing up to the world.'

The women's movement is mushrooming in India. According to Kishwar, 'it was only when we started publishing that we became aware of many small groups like us all over the country.'

Neerja Chowdhury

This feature was published in the August 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 090

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