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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 12, March 14, 2015

Reflections of a Socialist Feminist

Saturday 14 March 2015, by Nandita Haksar

The following article was written for Mainstream on the occasion of the International Women’s Day (March 8) but could not be used earlier as it reached us late.

I was sitting with a migrant worker from Manipur and played the song ‘Bread and Roses’ to her. The images with the song were of women fighting for an eight-hour day. I asked how she liked the song; but she had been watching the images and asked: “Did the women get an eight- hour day?” “Yes, at the time they did.” “But I work a twelve-hour shift and we do not have a union to take up our cause.” She is just one of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who are working without any protection of the existing labour laws and have no organisation to fight for their rights. They do not have any idea about the origins of the International Women’s Day.

I still remember March 8 in the early 1980s. I do not remember the exact year but I had just started practice in the Supreme Court. I had decided to join in the celebrations with my women friends in Kutsia Park in Old Delhi but the problem was that my client, a young doctor from Andhra Pradesh, was with me. He was wanted in a serious case for helping a top Naxalite leader escape the jail and his bail petition was to come up later that day.

I did not want to risk letting him wait for me in the Court while I went for the celebration because the notorious Andhra Police were in town. So I took him along to the Park and made him promise to make himself invisible behind a tree.

I ran off to join more than a hundred women, mostly from the various slums in Delhi and some middle class activists. We had a drum and we sang and danced. It was one of the very few occasions I let go and danced with abandon. Then I went and picked up my comrade from behind the tree and went to Court and got him bail.

My heart was with the women shouting “hum Bharat ki Naari hain; phool nahin chingari hain” but my head was with the comrade who was fighting to change the world and I shouted as lustily: “Agar koi swarg hai to utaar la zamin par”, the swarg being the heaven of socialism. I did not stop to ask why there was a growing abyss between the feminists and Communists. After all, the historical origins of the International Women’s Day lay firmly and deeply in the Socialist movement.

Perhaps Uncle Nikhil sensed that I was troubled by the seeming contradiction between my commitment to socialism and being a woman. It was in the early seventies, when he took my classes at his home in Kaka Nagar trying to teach me the history of communism and instilling the Marxist methodology. On one of my birthdays he presented me a volume of writings by socialists brought out by New Masses. He marked one particular page for me in his tiny, precise writing.

I turned to the page: it was a poem called: ‘To a revolutionary girl’ by Maxwell Bodenheim. My favourite lines were:

You are a girl,
A revolutionist, a worker
Sworn to give the last, undaunted jerk
Of your body and every atom
Of your mind and heart
To every other worker
In the slow, hard fight
That leads to barricade, to victory
Against the ruling swine.
Yet, in the softer regions of your heart,
The shut-off, personal, illogical
Disturbance of your mind,
You long for crumpled ‘kerchiefs, notes
Of nonsense understood
Only by a lover.
Long for colors on your dresses,
Ribboned sleeves, unnecessary buttons
Bits of laughter chased and never
Dying: challenge of a hat
Buoyant over hair.
Youth and sex, distinctions
Still unmarred by centuries of pain,
Will not be downed, survive
In spite of hunger, strikes, and riot-guns,
Sternness in the ranks.
We frown upon your sensitive demands:
We do not like romance…..

But Uncle Nikhil did not understand that I was not disturbed because I could not find time to romance but I did not seek dresses, unnecessary buttons but equality in relationships; I was struggling to define myself as a person in my own right, not be known as a wife or a mother or a girlfriend... But I did think it was a huge compliment to be thought of as a revolutionary.

It was precisely because of this patronising attitude that many of us, socialists, left the Socialist, Communist political parties to find a place in the emerging feminist movement.

The first International Women’s Day organised by the autonomous women was in 1979 and the issue we chose to focus was Rape. It was a time when I could not even utter the word out aloud and the fear of rape lay deep down in my heart all the time I travelled at night through Delhi’s streets.

Just the idea that we were going to talk about rape out in the open and even bring out a magazine called Manushi with its first issue on Rape was thrilling. The idea of focusing on the issue of rape was from feminists who were excited after reading a newly published book by a Western feminist, Susan Brownmiller. The book was called Against Our Will. The most quoted passage from the book is:

“Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times along with the use of fire and the first crude stone axe. From prehistoric times to the present, I believe that rape has played a critical function. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.”

The words struck a chord deep in our hearts because we knew there was a truth in them we all felt even if we could never had articulated it in such clear terms.

But even when we took up the issue of rape the cases we focused on were rapes of poor and marginalised sections of society: tribal girls, prostituted women, landless labourers and women belonging to the minorities.

The movement in those early days was dominated by socialist feminists and they tried to link the struggles against oppression of women and class exploitation. They argued that patriarchy and class are interlinked in many ways.

Some of the early feminists even contacted the legendary trade union leader, A.K. Roy, and asked him to support them but he was horrified: how could he, a leader of the working class, take up the issue of rape!

By this time the contradiction between socialism and feminism had begun to tear me apart. I read about the debates Lenin had with women comrades who wanted to take up issues such as love, prostitution and again Uncle Nikhil presented me with the text of the debates in which Lenin describes the theory of love as a glass of water idea of love.

But by then I had given up on the idea of finding equality and dignity in love and put my heart and soul into human rights work.

Again and again my work as a human rights activist came into direct conflict with the feminists. The feminists focused on the violence within the family and the community and therefore demanded that State protect women from the family and the community. My own book called Demystification of Law for Women focuses attention on Family and Religion as the two sites of women’s oppression.

But my work in the human rights movement was entirely on the ways the State violated the human rights of the poor and the family and community was the only protection against the State.

Indian feminists started focusing exclusively on the issue of violence against women: from murder due to dowry, rape, domestic violence and later on sexual harassment in the work place. Then I did not realise that the seventies was the very time the International Women’s Day was appropriated by the West and made into a weapon for cultural domination and even to justify wars.

 In fact Violence Against Women has become the main focus of international attention ever since the United Nations and Western countries endorsed the idea of celebrating March 8 as the International Women’s Day in 1976. In 1993 the United Nations passed a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and next appointed a Special Rapporteur to monitor the problem the world over. It was the first time in history that the world recognised the need to address a problem called violence against women.

Since then the United Nations has addressed different aspects of violence against women: from domestic violence to women in conflict areas. It has also created a special fund to help NGOs working in the area of violence against women.

The United Nations Declaration defines violence against women to include:

(a) physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the house-hold, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation, and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;

(b) physical, sexual and psychological violence, occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, traficking in women and forced prostitution;

(c) physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.

In other words, violence against women within the family, community or State are recognised. But violence against women by the corporates is not even mentioned in definition.

Although women in all parts of the world have taken up cudgels against the transnational corporations, the Indian feminists have seldom focused on the violence against women by corporations.

The 16-point agenda outlined by the UN Women Executive Director to eliminate violence against women are all addressed to the State as the primary institution which must protect women and it has the means to do so.

The widespread violence against women has outraged Indian citizens; it has led to increa-singly urgent demands for actions: the demand for rapists to be hanged; lawyers who express their repugnant views to be deprived of their licence to practice; banning films; the demand for stricter laws for juveniles accused of crimes against women... even if all the journalists, lawyers, judges, politicians and godmen respon-sible for crimes against women are in jail the world will not be a safer place for us, any of us.

Because these criminals are being produced by a system and it will produce them much faster than we can ever hope to jail these men (and yes, women too) for crimes against women.

The demands for stricter punishments, change in the laws of evidence, bans and curbs of speech, death penalty, more prisons, more lock-ups and more police, more security and more CCTV cameras will only strengthen the State which is responsible for the rise in crimes.

The problem is that liberal and radical feminists have an understanding of power relations but no critique of the State.

And then I heard of the barbaric act committed by the Naga mob in Dimapur. The fact was that the man accused of the rape (as yet far from proven) was attacked not because the mob had any concern for the plight of a woman. It was a way to vent their anger against the outsiders, especially since the man in question was an outsider, a non-Naga and a non-Christian.

There were no protests in Dimapur when the Nagaland Police arrested a man from Bihar for cyber crime against a Naga woman student. It was the first such case in the State. But there were no outrage against the man and he got away with a light sentence; the policeman who arrested the cyber criminal was given an award but the Naga woman lives with the nightmare that refuses to go away.

There was almost no protest in Nagaland or Naga areas of Manipur when a Naga women’s organisation rescued more than 50 children from a Jaipur children’s home run by a Pastor from Kerala, Jacob John. A Naga lawyer even threatened to file a case against the Naga woman whose crusade led to the arrest. The man is in jail in Dimapur. The man stands accused of raping, sexually abusing Naga children in his custody sent by parents in the hope of getting their children a decent education.

The Nagas will have to answer: how a people who call their State a Christian State can allow such dehumanisation? Has this to do in part with the growing fundamentalism in the society?

Why do so many issues get mixed up in every discussion when we talk about crimes against women? Just when we were discussing the merits of ‘India’s Daughter’, a documentary film, the BJP raised the issue that BBC was trying to defame India.

Whether BBC is biased against India or not is a much larger issue and perhaps needs to be discussed and debated. But till ‘India’s Daughter’ was banned no one raised the issue of BBC’s bias. There are many organisations and activists who have raised the issue of BBC’s biased reporting, whether it is the Palestinians or people of colour. Indira Gandhi even threw out BBC at one time but the BJP leaders, who were voicing this sentiment, had no evidence of BBC’s bias or otherwise. They were just inciting xenophobia.

As a human rights lawyer, I have so often written and taught that prisons should be abolished; that till the time we have prisons they should be institutions for reform, not retribution.

Feminists and other citizens have been crying out for revenge; but can revenge make us any more secure?

A journal of psychology says Justice is legally and ethically defined and is about righting a wrong that most members of society (as opposed to simply the victim) would agree is morally culpable. And the presumably unbiased (that is, unemotional) moral rightness of such justice is based on cultural or community standards of fairness and equity. Whereas revenge has a certain selfish quality to it.

There are complex debates on restorative justice versus retributive justice even in cases of crimes against women.

But we have not even begun that conver-sation. The reason seems to be that the people who are dominating the conversations about violence against women have no vision of an alternative society. For them, the only solution is here and now; it is revenge, not justice.

The USA and its allies have hijacked an important part of the feminist movement to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and are using it to fuel Islamophobia. The irony is that the West has an alliance with the Islamists and they also have a War Against Terror in which the prime target are the Muslims. Muslim women have the most difficult task of fighting both imperialism and fundamentalism. They have also have to fight the imperialist feminists.

The more I think about the meaning and relevance of the International Women’s Day, the more I think of the women in the early years of the last century who said they were fighting for bread but they were fighting for roses too. We must not let the history of the Day be obliterated from the memories of women. The vision of socialism is as relevant now as it was when it was articulated.

The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.