Making A Difference
Edited by Ritu Menon
Rs 350 n pp 384
Never mind which city of the world it is, streets come alive when a SlutWalk is held. Quite often, the audacious garments (not so much on display in Delhi's version) steal the show from the bold message being conveyed (a protest against the culture of blaming the victim in cases of sexual violence in public areas). And then, once the linguistic subversion of the word 'slut' has been amply debated, the question veers to the inevitable: has the fashionable (but so facile) feminism that is busy championing the short skirt gained primacy over old-style feminism that fought long and hard to change laws and make living slightly easier for women? To remain relevant and acceptable to market-led living, will feminism have to be less grrr, and more prrr, to borrow an expression frequently bandied about?
Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women's Movement in India does not answer those questions. As the title suggests, it is a compilation of personal accounts from some of the leading feminists and women's rights activists of the country. The editor Ritu Menon had asked these women to talk about their forays into feminism (when, and how, exactly do you realise that you are a feminist), the struggles they waged and causes they promoted, and how they managed to sustain themselves through the difficult years. In this book, those direct, conversational narratives start speaking to you, devoid of academic jargon, their different voices amalgamating the major strands of the women's movement through the fervent 1970s and 80s.
Most of these activists are contemporaries, and certain incidents that touched lives and changed perspectives keep recurring through the book. The Emergency was a major galvanising point, bringing many of these women into contact with underground socialist movements; some, like Pamela Philipose, would discover that within these groups, it was the male intellectuals who discussed weighty matters while the women would merely cook the khichdi and type out speeches. The custodial rape of Mathura, a tribal girl, by two policemen was another defining point: movements against rape and dowry-related violence would, after all, be the two major fields of activity in the 1980s wave of feminism, as feminist economist Bina Agarwal points out in her account. And yet, women are also perpetrators of violence — apart from the archetypical abusive mother-in-law — as Ruth Vanita, founding co-editor of Manushi, found out when surrounded by a group of women during a communal riot; perfectly capable, as photographer-activist Sheba Chhachhi realised to her horror while hitting out at a policeman, of dealing out a counter blow for every blow.
The post-feminist SlutWalk generation, of course, stands accused of making the most of the progressive legislations hammered out by earlier generations and then ironing out the creases to present a chic avatar. It is a mistake to assume that reform legislation must leave a visible birthmark on the generations that reap its dividends, or that they might not exercise their choice of rejecting what might appear more militant. Interestingly, a potent yet intriguing play of choice is found in an essay on the 19th century Bengali stage actress Benodini Dasi in Framing Women: Gender in the Colonial Archive (Marg's latest issue). In her serialised autobiography Amar Katha (My Story), Benodini had stated that her career choice of becoming a 'barangana-abhinetri' or prostitute-actress was clearly her own. Pramila, an early 20th century Hindi film actress, too was exercising her choice to portray women who rode horses and wielded swords, though the movies she acted in would still treat her as the antipode of the ideal bharatiya nari.
Regressive identity politics and incipient majoritarianism caused unforeseen setbacks to the feminist movement, Menon points out in the Introduction to Making a Difference. In spite of the hurdles though, the movement matured; with many of its concerns addressed, its energies were often channelled into other civil society movements. "The trouble with feminism is that it goes straight... into the sanctity of the home, the bedroom", Menon writes — as long as it keeps doing so, its relevance will not be doubted.