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Mainstream, VOL LIII , No 38, New Delhi, September 12, 2015

Role of Women in Social Movements across the World: Case Study of Telangana

Sunday 20 September 2015



by Sreerupa Saha

 Introduction: Note on Movement and Gender

Movements are not themselves actors, move-ments are something that people create to press for social change. They are spaces that are made by people to allow relationships between them that can challenge power. Social movements are generally seen as phenomena of the modern era and industrialised society, whether located in the “First” world or not. Industrialisation and urbanisation, technological advancements, and ongoing democraticisation allowed people to push for change collectively from the margins of the polity, from outside of less-than-open institutions. Sociologists have tended to define and redefine “social movements” in response to the kind of protests they saw taking place around them. American sociologists define social movements as highly organised but non-routine entities where people interact to establish new meanings about politics (and other subjects), and where they challenge power based on the making of these new meanings.

The efforts by feminist scholars to think about women’s movements and women in movements make it clear that while self-consciously feminist movements are a relative rarity, women’s movements are numerous, and women’s participation in mixed-gender movements is and has been ever-present. Indeed, feminist sociologists do not seem to distinguish women’s movements theoretically from other kinds of social movements, using and contri-buting to existing theory in their research on women; what is seen as exceptional about women’s movements is that they are led by women and for women. However, this lack of theoretical distinction between women’s movements and other kinds of movements in the making of definitions masks very real differences in the experience of activism for women on the ground, especially (but not only) when they work together with men.

Women have made their own movements or have been part of mixed-gender social move-ments because women are never just women. They are members of social classes; they are workers; they belong to racial/ethnic/national/sexual communities seeking expression, seeking inclusion, and redress from authority. But it has also been the case that women have found both making their own movements and organising within mixed-gender groups to be difficult because of their gender. The first problem, and the one common to women in their own movements or in mixed-gender movements, is the construction of the public sphere, and therefore the political sphere, as male. While the possibilities for social movement activism were generated by the changes brought about by industrialisation and urbanisation, those two processes also fuelled the ideology of “separate spheres”—the identification of public life as the proper realm of the “male” and domestic life as the proper realm of the “female”. A woman in public political life transgressed her proper space, and transgressed her proper role. As such, separate spheres ideology raised the question of whether women could legitimately protest in public at all, instituting a burden on women’s political participation not shared by men, who were assumed to be acting properly as men in “doing” protest politics.

The ideology of separate spheres, and the identification of public political space as male certainly still exists, even if it has less force with each female incursion into that space, and with each challenge to the ideology. One of the recurring and most moving themes that one finds in the stories of women’s public protest is how their very participation in movements changes their conception of themselves and their role in their communities, even when their protest is in defence of traditional values. Social space is remade and women’s lives are remade by protest action, sometimes at great personal cost. Of course, participation in social activism by men can be life-changing—but such partici-pation is a qualitatively different enterprise for women, who trangress not just the rules of politics as usual but the rules of gender as well. And in many ways, it is women’s movements, women in autonomous organisations, who constitute the greatest threat to order, as they disrupt the political field, and societal expectations of how women should act in that field through men.

 In mixed-gender settings, social movement participation is different for women precisely because of gender role expectations, specifically the responsibilities that women have in reproducing daily life. Women have tended to be the ones running movement offices, typing reports, making flyers, walking neighbourhoods with the flyers, staffing phone trees, taking minutes at late-night strategy sessions. Movement “housewifery”—cleaning up after meetings, cooking for the meetings, attending to whatever domestic needs the social movement community had—was part of what led women activists in Left movements to organise as feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. Even this kind of “domestic” participation in movement settings can be liberating if one believes in the cause, and movements also have clearly given women the opportunity to do other things. They have been leaders, though often their greatest contributions have been as leaders behind the scenes. But in a manner analogous to the way that a working woman comes home to do a “second shift” of domestic duties at home, women activists have been expected to be the ones making the coffee for the sake of the struggle. In short, the economy of social movement activism rests on women’s energies in a way that replicates gendered divisions of labour in the larger society.

Moreover, although social movement commu-nities make boundaries between themselves and the rest of society, structural social inequality finds its way into oppositional communities. Gender inequality does not go away just because women mobilise with men on behalf of interests they have in common, and this endemic inequality becomes all the more problematic when women, in the course of social movement activism with men, discover the interests they might have as women. Inadvertently or on purpose, women often find themselves working toward their own liberation as women as they extend meaningful categories of liberation to cover liberation from gender oppression.

Even if compatriot men accept women’s issues, gender inequality can cause those issues to become compartmentalised. Compartmentali-sation results from the identification, named above, of common gender interests as just plain “issues” and of women’s issues as “women’s issues”. When movements accept, in whole or in part, a women’s agenda for action, and make women responsible for it, these concerns are handed over to those in the organisation who are most structurally disadvantaged, with the fewest resources available to work effectively on them. Compartmentalisation occurs when organisations decide that the women will take care of all that women’s “stuff”.

Women in Movement: Some Illustrations across the World

Women in movement politics, in the public arena, and in the disruptive fields of activism face the burdens of gender expectations and transcend these expectations. Women in women’s movements, feminist, proto-feminist, or otherwise, are spared the problems engendered by mixed-gender activism, but it is women’s autonomous movement work that threatens the status quo the most, as it disrupts political and gender norms. Women, as activists in movements far and wide, have been and continue to be a problem for power and authority, and thank goodness for that.

It was a little difficult to describe the participants of the 1950s and 1960s American social movements as alienated and atomistic; the largely middle class social base of those movements—the Black Civil Rights movement, the student movement, the peace and anti-Vietnam war movement, other racial/ethnic liberation movements, the environmental move-ment, the gay and lesbian liberation movement, and remobilised feminist movements—precluded scholars from seeing protestors as only malcontents. Instead, American sociologists analysed movement participation as rational expressions of politics by other than institutional means. Influenced by organisational studies and economics, what came to be known as the “resource mobilisation” paradigm arose, where, as the name suggests, questions of how movements came into being through the mobilisation of resources were central.

By the beginning of the 1990s, there was renewed emphasis among scholars of American social movements on the interactional processes involved in making social movements. This shift was fuelled in part by the European “new social movement” theory, developed by those attempting to make sense of social activism in the increasingly post-industrial, prosperous societies of Europe. In the US, scholars began to take more “social constructionist” views of movement politics, seeking to understand how the availability of resources and opportunities dovetailed with the use of cultural meanings by groups, and the creation of new collective identities. Most recently, some sociologists have argued for a much broader “contention” model of movements, which sees struggle as endemic to both institutional and extra-institutional settings, and just as likely to be about cultural issues as about classically political or economic matters.

The Indian Scenario

The roots of the Indian women’s movement go back to the nineteenth century male social reformers who took up issues concerning women and started women’s organisations. Women started forming their own organisation from the end of the nineteenth century first at the local and then at the national level. In the years before independence, the two main issues they took up were political rights and reform of personal laws. Women’s participation in the freedom struggle broadened the base of the women’s movement. In post-independence India, large numbers of women’s autonomous groups have sprung up challenging patriarchy and taking up a variety of issues such as violence against women, greater share for women in political decision-making, etc. both at the activist and academic level. India has a rich and vibrant women’s movement but it has still a long way to go to achieve gender equality and gender justice.

In post-independence India, the women’s move-ment was divided, as the common enemy, foreign rule, was no longer there. Many of the Muslim members went over to Pakistan. Some of the women leaders now formally joined the Indian National Congress and held positions of power as Ministers, Governors and Ambassadors. Free India’s Constitution gave universal adult franchise and by the mid-fifties India had fairly liberal laws concerning women. Most of the demands of the women’s movement had been met and there seemed few issues left to organise around. Women’s organisations now saw the problem as one of implementation and consequently there was a lull in the women’s movement.

Women dissatisfied with the status quo joined struggles for the rural poor and industrial working class such as the Tebhaga movement in Bengal, the Telangana movement in Andhra Pradesh or the Naxalite movement. Shahada, which acquired its name from the area in which it occurred, in Dhulia district in Maharashtra, was a tribal landless labourers’ movement against landlords. Women played a prominent role and led demonstrations, invented and shouted militant slogans and mobilised the masses. As women’s militancy developed, gender based issues were raised. There was an anti-alcohol agitation as men used to get drunk and beat their wives. Women went round villages breaking pots in liquor dens.

 Women in Telangana Movement

The Telangana People’s Struggle was the armed resistance of women and men to the feudal oppression in the Telangana region of the princely state of Hyderabad. Subsequently the movement for a separate State of Telangana resulted in success. Declaration of the formation of separate State was finally announced. Nizam’s state of Hyderabad consisted of three linguistic regions—Telangana, which consisted of nine districts of Telugu-speaking people, Marathwada, five districts of Marathi-speaking people, and the three Kannada speaking districts of Karnataka. The Telangana struggle, led by the Communists, was a struggle against the autocratic rule of the Nizam and the feudal oppression of the zamindari system. In villages controlled by the communist peasant guerillas, vetti (forced labour) and bonded labour stopped, agricultural wages rose, the seized land was returned to the peasant owners and other land distributed. For peasant women and men this was a struggle for life and death. Women and men from the city of Hyderabad were drawn into it for it held the promise of freedom from cultural and intellectual oppression. To analyse the ideological framework in which women struggled the experiential dimensions of that struggle its implications for the women’s question must be understood. This is an attempt to broaden the history of the struggle by recovering the subjective experience of women to capture women’s voices from the past and to present issues as they were perceived by women. The fact that not many women were there at decision-making, or leadership levels, does not make their participation peripherial for, given the structures, the real question that needs to be posed is whether women could have been present at the decision-making or not.

 Feudal exploitation of the peasantry was more intense in the Telangana districts of Hyderabad state. A major dehumanising factor for the peasantry was the prevelance of vetti both in jagir and khalsa areas. It was against such a system that the Telangana peasantry fought and did more than all else to bring down the autocratic feudal regime. Women from the poor peasantry were there in the fields facing the enemy day and out. As rich and middle peasants were exploited by these landlords in one way or the other, they too joined the struggle. A number of women were drawn into it along with their husbands or brothers. Women from the city of Hyderabad joined the movement sometimes on their own, more often because of the involvement of a member of the family.

The Telangana struggle undoubtedly brought several gains to the peasantry. Many who received land in the land distribution progr-amme of the party continued to own it and their tenancy rights were guaranteed by a Tenancy Act, brought about as a result of the struggle. The struggle brought women out of the four walls of their homes. Women from the city did not come in as large numbers as from villages. The struggle lasted as long as it did due to the support it received from the people. Women stood forth facing the enemy. They evolved collective forms of resistance which were spontaneous and untaught. The fear of rape and sexual torture did not deter women from keeping secrets and protecting members. Women were couriers passing on secret messagas, often disguised as boys. Almost the entire burden of finding shelters and running the dens in the city fell on women. Rajeswara Rao, the leader of the CPI, said: “We praise women when they come, but we did not do anything to encourage them to come, because their protection was a problem. While the movement did, to an extent, break the social barriers between men and women, it is also true that women were seen as mainly responsible for its problem........” When the movement was called off, women were asked to go back to their families. Brij Rani asks: “What do you think it means, to yield weapon in the struggle and sit before sewing machines now?”

P. Sundarayya’s chapter on women in History of Telangana People’s Struggle (New Delhi) can be classified as a contributory history. He records in details the resilience, the selflessness and the heroism of women who fought in the squads or rose to positions of importance in the organisation. He writes of sisters, wives, and mothers, who supported the men in the family, and of hundreds of women who were part of resistence. The list of martyrs includes 20 women who were raped and killed.

By the 1930s women‘s organisations had survived strong opposition and established branches in Hyderabad. At first the meetings were places for upper and middle-class women to socialise but they soon became forums for the discussion of women‘s issues. Their work on behalf of education and social reform nurtured women leaders who increasingly became aware of larger political and economic issues. When it was clear India would become independent, the Nizam began to negotiate with the British regarding his future. The Communist Party saw his regime crumbling and called on the All-India Trade Union Congress, the All-Hyderabad Student‘s Union, and the women‘s organisations to join it and the Andhra Mahasabha against the Nizam. At its height the Telangana movement included 3000 villages and over three million people.

Baji and Begum were two sisters, their whole family was involved in the struggle. Baji was in the struggle from its very beginning. For her to come out of purdah and take part in the movement was a courageous act. Razia got involved later. She was in jail. She now teaches at the university. Their house was situated at the centre of radical activity in the city at that time.

 Women played an important role in this struggle. There were deliberate attempts to mobilise women and in doing so the issues especially important to them—wages, wife-beating, childcare, hygiene, the right to breast-feed infants during work, food and even lavatories—were discussed. In the final analysis, the very fact that these issues were raised was enough to gain the loyalty and support of women. Women fought, side by side with men, for land, better wages, an end to forced labour and against exorbitant interest rates. And they were the victims of some of the worst atrocities. In the liberated areas peasants seized and redistributed land and put an end to bonded and forced labour. In 1948 the Hyderabad state was incorporated into India by a police action and the Indian Army moved to suppress this uprising. By 1950 the Communists decided to follow the Chinese model and designated Telangana as the “Yenan of India”. In response, the Army intensified its efforts causing moderate sympathisers to withdraw their support. In 1931 it was obvious there was little chance of victory and the movement was called off.

The Telangana movement had brought substantial gains for the peasantry. Many were able to retain the land they had acquired and forced labour ended. The biggest benefits for women that emerged from the success of the Telangana Movement was the end of forced labour, the end of the shocking system of adi bapa and the forced making of concubines.


As has been the case across the world, so also in India and more specifically in the Telangana movement, the role of women was never highlighted although they ranked top in the quotient of suffering and pains. International politics, seen in this paper as an aggregate of the experiences of national politics, must take into account this rather gendered version of social movements across the globe. Reflected in the case study of Telangana movement, this paper suggests that womenfolk sacrificed everything—their comfort, their home and family, their education and even their dignity by supporting the men-folk of their region in support of the struggle for separate Statehood.

The role of women was that of silent background concerned support for the demand for Statehood but even as their dream materialises it is an important issue to see their agonies and sufferings come to an end through better health care, education and dignity.


Roth and Horan, ‘What Are Social Movements and What Is Gendered About Women’sParticipation in SocialMovements?A Sociological Perspective’, www.tmiller.

Basu Aparna, Indian Women’s Movement,Indian women movement.pdf

Vasantha Kanabiran, ‘We were making history’: life stories of women in Telangana People’s Struggle, 1989, Kali for Women, New Delhi.

The author is an Assistant Professor, Shirakole Mahavidyalaya, South 24-Parganas, West Bengal.

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