Women’s Movement And Media Action: Paradoxes And Promises

By Kiran Prasad

-- Reproduced with permission from 'Women and Media: Challenging Feminist Discourse', Edited by: Kiran Prasad, 2005: The Women Press, New Delhi --

The status of women is one of the contemporary development concerns at the international as well as the national levels. Historically women enjoyed a respected position in the ancient cultures of India, Persia and Greece. But over time the situation was drastically altered and women were isolated from major developments that may have led to their modernization and autonomy. This chapter focuses on the growth of women’s consciousness about their subjection to various forces and the rise of feminist thinking, the international women’s movements, the role of United Nations and its agencies in women’s development and women’s movements in India from the early period to the present. It also highlights the inherent paradoxes and promises of the women’s movement and new directions for the media to sustain the momentum of women’s struggle for their rights.

The International Women’s Movement

The women’s movement is unique in scale and dimensions; it has emerged as a world movement led by women to gather in its wake women in several countries and encompasses half the population of the globe. There is domination, violation or subtle control of women by men in virtually every racial, ethnic, religious and cultural group. Feminism is a revolutionary movement arising out of a sense of outrage at such treatment of women, for ending several forms of harassment of women, violence, sexual exploitation, job discrimination, exclusion from public life and unequal educational opportunities. Feminism attempts to bridge the gulf that exists between women, to create solidarity among them, to assert their rights and to provide mutual support in finding their own identity (Chakravarty, 1994; Mandavia, 1996). The movement calls for a restructuring of all development paradigms to include the special perspectives of women.

The history of the feminist movement is based on the fundamental desire to improve women’s lives and aims to value, support and unite women worldwide in discovering their identities. It is paradoxical that there are several arguments in favour of animal rights and rights of various sections in society but society is reluctant to concede that women’s rights are an inalienable dimension of human rights. The exclusion of women from religious and political processes in society for nearly three millennia and scant effort to record their history led to the absence of women in official world history. This deliberate eclipsing of women from public affairs led to the struggle for equality, social participation and legitimate share of autonomy and status enjoyed by their male counterparts.

In all formal education, what is taught is men’s knowledge; the silencing of active theorizing women takes place in almost all education systems (Kramarae, 1989). Much of the theorizing is based on the honouring of men; entire systems of books, courses and dialectics have been created around individual men whose names are used to label theoretical frameworks. Despite the existence of many women theorists who have dealt extensively with communication theory, methodological issues and interpretations, none of them figure as originators of knowledge (Kiran, 2000: 100). Women scholars began to piece together incidents and events in the lives of their foremothers and to collect all available data; everything from unrecognized literary masterpieces, memories, old records, letters, diaries, to forgotten documents in old archives or those which might be part of family heirlooms and also examined any allusion to women in the abundant records of male struggle for supremacy (Dupuis, 2000:274).

The French Revolution proved to be a fertile ground for several women writers and activists arguing the women’s cause. Inspired by the debate on liberty, equality and fraternity, during the French Revolution, Mary Wollestonecraft of Britain wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) which stimulated debate on women’s legal and social rights in England and North America and later spread to several countries raising the pitch of local debates to an international movement. Nevertheless, “the incessant activity, the strong appeals, the debates, newsletters, newspapers and pamphlets published by women in nineteenth century France, deportations, guillotining, did not earn women a piece in men’s national records” (Dupuis, 2000: 275).

Society literally adopted biblical scriptures to confine women to their homes and did not approve of those who wanted to speck in public. Women were constantly reminded by the clergy and press to keep themselves out of the public sphere and this stand was endorsed by the government, law-courts, universities and all other social institutions. The Grimke Sisters, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, who were the first women to speak in public in the United States in the 1830s, were attacked in church sermons, pastoral letters, newspaper editorials, and even faced angry mobs that pelted them with eggs or tomatoes. They nevertheless drew audiences and Frances Wright an educated Scotswomen quickly followed suit. Other women who dared to speak in public were derisively called “Fanny Wrightists”.

The support of men sympathetic to women’s rights helped to break the patriarchal barrier of blocking women’s voices. Writing and ideas about women when supported by men were more readily absorbed into the mainstream of the written philosophical tradition; thus John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1861) an analysis of women’s position in society, which developed over a 28 year working relationship with P. Harriet Taylor would appear to have a way of “piercing the patriarchal armour internationally, where women’s writings (a language unfamiliar to male expression, thought and experience) might be dismissed as foreign, irrelevant, and trivial” (Dupuis, 2000: 277).

An important rallying point for women in their movement for equality, freedom and the right to expression was their economic dependence on their father and husbands. Women were regarded as “non-persons” and had no control over their earnings. Women as mothers managed their homes even under extremely trying conditions but they were not allowed to open a saving bank account in most countries including England and North America. It was only in 1907 that women in France were given this right with the State realizing women’s capacity as the thriftiest member of society and the potential of collective savings of mothers to boost the national economy. There was no legal recourse for women or their children if men drank away the family’s earnings. This left many women and children in life-long penury and extreme deprivation. “This particular social blight directed women to actively, support the religious temperance movements which attempted to ban alcohol from society altogether in the misguided belief that the absence of alcohol could restore harmony to afflicted families” (Gurko, 1976: 48-51). Women in the early days of the movement were aware of the reality of their lives and the idealized stereotypes dictated by cultural and traditional norms. The women’s movement in contemporary times has had to contend with several situations that existed during its early days. “Forget post-feminism (whatever that was), pre-feminism is alive and well ... It is striking how a number of recent events have revealed the enduring power of traditional stereotypes – not least the bad girl and the good mother, now defined by the Vatican as showing the traits of ‘listening, welcoming, humility, fruitfulness, praise and waiting’” (Roberts, 2004).

The women’s movement used slower methods of education, information and persuasion as they gathered at rallies, held congresses, wrote articles, treatises and books, signed petitions and declarations, and so on (Dupuis, 2000: 282). Because there were no mass media or rapid transportation system, the spread of the movement was very slow mainly by word of mouth. The movement consisted of scattered groups who agreed that women’s rights were a natural extension of rights to women already enjoyed by men. But as the nineteenth century drew to a close, it became clear to women in Britain that women could attract men’s attention, only on male terms – by the use of militant tactics in their campaign. Emmeline Pankhurst who toured Canada in 1911, explained their actions saying “men were more concerned with property than they were with people, so only by destroying property would the women be able to strike at men where it hurts the most” (James, 1977:38)

British women then used men’s tactics, destroying property, threatening the life of the Prime Minister, serving jail terms, going on hunger strikes, and making front page headlines in all the newspapers. The movement took a violent turn and challenged the laws under which men operated; the armies and policemen with which they enforced their law-system; and the reputation and fortunes they sought to establish and to preserve through the legal and political system (Dupuis, 2000: 282).

Among the many women thinkers of the twentieth century, Virginia Woolfe’s writings presented the obstacles that prevented women from attaining self-reliance and distinct identity. In A Room of One’s Own (1921) she explains that it was impossible for women to develop creativity without minimum independence and personal space. She argued that if young men as inheritors of the family fortunes were encouraged to fend for themselves and carve a niche in the world, women fell behind as servants and possessions, with strict socialization patterns ingrained in them even by their mothers. They had no space or time to call their own and could not write down their thoughts and experiences even if they had a chance at the minimal education accorded to them.

It is astonishing that feminism in the twenty-first century continues to grapple with the question of creating space for women within their lives. “Feminism, however, is not only about achieving social justice, it is also about creating a space which allows women to become something other than how they have been traditionally defined by men. Women, against the odds, are attempting to balance autonomy and dependence; self-fulfillment and a desire and obligation to care for others. In the present climate, as hurdle after hurdle remains in their way, they are encouraged to blame themselves – instead of examining how and why the hurdles were constructed in the first place. Bring on the backlash - at least it makes us think” (Roberts, 2004).

In the middle of the twentieth century, Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex (1949) was published as a result of her long years of painstaking research of the French and European traditions. This book clearly established that the problems and poor image of women arose from the affirmation of the past and a gross neglect of the growth, development, the talents and opportunities of women in specific societies. Her work is a classical expose and a foundation for an intellectual defense of women and their rights to a different experience (Dupuis, 2000: 286).

The next wave of influence came after a decade with Betty Friedan’s (of United States) book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan adopted a sociological approach and went from door-to-door meeting housewives isolated in their urban apartments and homes striving to live up to the stereotyped and traditional role models and attempting to transform their houses into shining models portrayed by soap and floor-wax commercials. She observed “there was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I came to call the feminine mystique. I wondered if other women faced this schizophrenia split and what it meant” (Friedan, 1963). She highlighted ‘the problem’ in women’s lives: a problem unnamed, and not yet articulated, but shared and immediately understood among women (Spender, 1985: 9-10). The women’s problem or women’s question a term widely used today assumed a growing focus and greater clarity in the successive years of the movement.

In the sixties, American women formed self-help groups that met in ‘conscious raising’ sessions through the Natural Organization of Women (NOW) and this drew them out of the isolation in the ‘private sphere’ of their homes, and into the problem-sharing and problem-solving networks of greater feminine sphere (Dupuis, 2000: 289). Many of these groups were short lived, but the major ideas and writings on radical feminism developed out of some groups in New York City. The liberal feminists were intensely active in rape crisis centers, abortion clinics, monthly strategy meetings, pickets, marches, state legislative sessions, and congressional hearings (Ryan, 1992: 2).

The next decade saw a marked change in the tone of women’s writings. In 1971 Germain Greer’s The Female Eunuch alerted women to the reality that in spite of having legal, educational and political rights, it would fail to raise their status unless women consciously overcome their childhood conditioning and acculturation as these were the forces that kept them quiescent and denied them justice in societies. Robin Morgan attempted to break the stereotyped image of women as hostile to each other and rallied them together “in a great sisterhood” to foster political action by small groups of women to improve their lives (Dupuis, 2000: 288). On the other hand, Shulamit Firestone was convinced that man was the enemy and the cause of women’s oppression and took the extreme stand of artificial insemination, test-tube babies and a total separation of the sexes (Spender, 1985). Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) took the radical feminist view and called for the removal of sex/gender differentiation by eliminating the family and replacing it with institutionalized child rearing, artificial reproduction, bisexual sexual relations (Ryan, 1992: 49).

The growing body of feminist scholarship in the context of intercultural and international feminist movements has led to distant feminist theoretical focus on all existing knowledge including communication (Kiran, 2000: 97). To trace the stages: “Feminist scholarship has evolved over time ... from a focus on sex differences (the traditional approach) to a focus on improving society and making women more like men (the reformist or liberal approach), to the current focus of giving voice to women (the radical feminist approach)” (Dervin, 1987: 110).

One of the most broad-based definitions of feminism that emerged in the nineteen eighties from the activism of diverse groups was that: “Feminism is a movement for the liberation of women which, because women’s oppression is deeply embedded in everything must necessarily, then be a movement for the transformation of the whole society (Charlotte Bunch quoted in Ryan, 1992:84). Unfortunately, women’s struggle for their rights went undocumented as a major part of the human struggle and “this gave girls nothing to prize or value as historical womanhood; nor did it sensitize boys” (Dupuis, 2000: 283). Women had lost their worth in society mainly due to the systematic decimation of their contributions and higher levels of son preference prevailing in several countries. By the 1980s activists from diverse segments of the women’s movement converged in the definition of feminism as a desire for equality of women, a breakdown of all artificial barriers based on gender/sex characteristics, fundamental change in the social, political and economic structure, the empowerment of women and a raised valuation of female values (Ryan, 1992: 89).

One of the most explosive issues debated within the women’s movement in the 1980s was pornography. In 1978 a conference on Feminist Perspectives on Pornography was organized by Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media to address violence against women through sexual and violent images. In 1979, Andrea Dworkin’s book Pornography was published and Women Against Pornography (WAP) was formed in New York City. Anti-pornography activists took the stand that pornography was the root cause of violence against women and adopted the slogan “pornography is the theory, rape is the practice” (Morgan, 1977:169). The women’s movement in the 1990s has assumed the dimension of inclusive feminism involved with issues of war, environmental destruction and foreign policies of developed nations. The 1990s confronted the women’s movement with continued economic insecurity and the challenges of social practices of exclusion and hierarchy based on gender and other social characteristics of race, class, ethnicity and religion embedded in women’s lives. Commenting on the nature on contemporary feminism, Roberts (2004) writes: “Thirty years ago, feminism concentrated its attention on external conditions – sexual violence, unequal pay, poor reproductive rights, sexism. What has gradually become clearer is that the internal restraints on women, forged by decades of conditioning and hugely exploited by our consumer society, inevitably also weaken the collective nerves to force change. So women are kept in check, while profits flourish. It is conditioning that, for instance, whispers to a woman that she is only truly validated by the attention of men. That what she does a great deal of the time – “mothering” others (“fathering” has yet to acquire a broader definition) – is marginal to what really matters. That she is second best, by the very fact she is female and not male”. The women’s movement seems to have come to a full circle; in which women seemingly have it all but still have nothing.

An important development in feminist thought was postmodern feminism which pointed out that standpoint feminists had attributed a common perspective to all women and had constructed alternative models of knowledge organized around that perspective. This reflected the partialness of their perspectives as particular women. They were extrapolating from their experiences – usually as middle class white women and suggesting ways of thinking and knowing that would apply equally to all women. The effects of this discourse intentionally or unintentionally were oppressive to other women, particularly women of Asia and Africa. Postmodern feminism would be explicitly historical, attuned to the cultural specificity of different societies and periods. Postmodern feminism would replace unitary notions of women and feminine gender identity with plural and complexly constructed conceptions of social identity treating gender as one relevant stand among others, attending also to class, race, religion, ethnicity, age, caste and sexual orientation.

The recognition of the differences among women and of the importance of acknowledging them led to the destruction of universal notions about women’s identity and experience. The women’s movement which communicates the struggle against oppression of women is founded on the identity and experience of women across cultures. In this context international feminism as a movement is limited due to the differences between women. Colonialism, slavery, racism and imperialism have created hierarchies of oppression in which some women benefit from the oppression of others. Women of the Third World accuse western feminism of ignorance of their problems. Western feminist movements must gain knowledge of the position and needs of other women to remove Euro-centrism and racism from their movement, to strengthen and enrich international feminism and give women more models of action (Bulbeck, 1988: 148-153). In spite of some limitations, the struggle of women in the west especially, France, Britain and the United States, influenced the women of other countries.

Role of UN and World Conferences in Women’s Development

The United Nations established in 1945 is an association of 191 member states which have pledged themselves to cooperate in solving international, political, economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and to maintain international peace and security. The major programmes and funds devoted to achieving women’s development are United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank.

The UN Charter in its preamble declares that member states were determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. The UN Commission brought women’s status and gender justice to global attention by declaring 1975 as the International Women’s Year. The UN programmes through several action plans and strategies are aimed to further women’s development.

The United Nation’s International Women’s Decade (1976-1985) played an important role in spurring the women’s development movement. The stimulating efforts of the four UN Women’s Conferences and the preparations that went into them lent further impetus in bringing women across the globe together consciously for amelioration of their state of decadence. In 1975 the UN inaugurated the Women’s Decade at a conference in Mexico City, which spurred the 1978 breakthrough of a number of scientific and reflective writings about women and development. As a preparation for the Mid-Decade Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, the UN secretariat attempted to gather statistical information about women’s living conditions through public sources from all regions of the world. This was the first attempt at providing a global picture of women’s situation. Parallel to the official UN efforts, several alternative conferences organized as grassroots initiatives brought about greater contact and co-operation between researchers and activists worldwide. These efforts culminated in the Forum, convened in Nairobi in 1985, running simultaneously with the third UN Women’s Conference. About 16,000 women met at the Forum to share their experiences on women’s conditions and evolve strategies to solve the problems of women. In some of the Third World countries, including India, many groups were actively fighting against the oppression of women in particular, and also against racial discrimination, class and caste dominance (Prasad, 2004b: 6-7). At the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 there was a great focus on reproductive health and population control, which are vitally linked to the issue of women’s development.

The widely accepted international treaty or bill of rights for women is the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was ratified by 160 countries in 1977 including India. The CEDAW has evoked resistance from some countries to the concept of full equality for women and provisions ranging from equality in nationality and citizenship, sharing family property and women’s participation in the military and the clergy. The general reservations have risen mainly due to the conflict of some provisions of the Convention with existing national, customary or religious law. Some nations have modified or withdrawn their reservations as a result of constructive dialogue with the CEDAW review committee.

First World Conference on Women

The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was accepted by the First World Conference on women in 1975 at Mexico City and adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. The declaration stated that discrimination against women, denying or limiting as it does their equality or rights with men is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity. The conference evolved a World Plan of Action and the Declaration of Mexico on equality of women and their contribution to development and peace. The 1975 conference and declarations of the International Women’s Decade led to the growth of several new women’s organizations that forged strategies and linkages across nations and regions. The World Plan of Action of this conference had the following goals:
1. Marked increase in literacy and education;
2. Equal access to opportunities;
3. Increased employment;
4. Elimination of discrimination;
5. More women in policy-making positions;
6. Increased provision for welfare services;
7. Part in civil, social and political rights;
8. Recognition of the economic value of women’s work;
9. Promotion of women’s organization within institutions; and
10. Development of rural technology and support.

The international women’s movement began to gain momentum paving the way for the Second World Conference.

Second World Conference on Women

The UN Second World Conference on Women at Copenhagen, Denmark in 1980 was organized to take stock of the progress made since the First World Conference and to outline the action plan for the second half of the Women’s Decade (1976-1985). 1326 delegates from 145 countries took part in this conference. The conference report stated that while women represent 50 percent of the world population, they perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than one percent of world property. The Programme of Action emphasized the equality of rights, opportunities and responsibilities for promoting participation of women in development not only as beneficiaries but also as active agents of change. The dependency of women on men that led to their vulnerability was viewed as the major obstacle in social development. The 1980 Programme of Action stressed on increasing self-reliance among women by promoting their organization, education, training, employment and legislation for ensuring gender equality. The review of the work in the first half of the decade for women indicated that the lives of women had worsened in several countries. It became clear that legislation and development action could do little to change women’s status without access to information and attitudinal change in developing countries. Self-reliance of women became the strong theme of the Nairobi Third Conference on Women.

Third World Conference on Women

The status of women and achievements of the UN Decade for Women was reviewed at the Third World Conference held at Nairobi in 1985. The major themes of the Conference were equality, development and peace with sub-themes of education, employment and health. The review of progress made revealed that the decade had played an important role in catalyzing legal reforms and prompting overall equality. Some important issues that were focused in the Conference were abuse against women and children, informing women of their legal rights, legal aid to women and pornography.

The conference resulted in the document Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the year 2000 which was adopted by the 157 member countries that participated in the conference. The document gave special attention to education, legal reform and their implementation, the linkage between violence against women and peace and also recommended another world conference before 2000. The Forward Looking Strategies were concerned with equality before law, education, food, health, housing, environment, employment, sharing of domestic responsibilities by all members of the family, agriculture, industry, trade, science and technology and communication. The obstacles to women’s development lay in the lack of political will of governments in creating sufficient awareness, just laws through legal reform and promoting attitude change in society.

Fourth World Conference on Women

The Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China in 1995 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the United Nations. The theme of the Conference was Action for Equality, Development and Peace. The critical areas of concern that emerged from the deliberation of the conference were inequality in power-sharing and decision making at all levels; lack of awareness of and commitment to internationally and nationally recognized women’s rights; poverty, inequality in women’s access to participation in economic policies and the production process; inequality in access to education, health and employment and means to maximize awareness of rights and use of their capacities to promote advancement; violence against women including effects of national and international armed and other conflicts on women.

The UN committee for 1995 World Conference on Women reported that:
1. Violence against women emerged as a truly universal issue crossing cultural, geographical, racial, class, religious and ethnic boundaries. Existing laws in many countries offer very limited protection for women. Domestic violence is often regarded as a ‘private family matter’.

2. Job opportunities for women have generally been confined to clerks, sales persons, maids, household workers and the informal sector. They receive lower wages than men for equal work and drop in and out of the labour force because of child bearing and rearing responsibilities.

3. More than ten million women are engaged in prostitution in the world and at least two million are children.

4. Women and girls in both developed and developing countries still do not have equal access to education and training. In parts of the world, girls and boys now have the same access to schooling and yet imbalances continue.

The singular achievement of the Beijing Conference was the acceptance by the world community that discrimination against girl children begins even before birth. The Beijing Platform for Action gave recognition to the rights of the girl child and made it clear that the status of women could not be improved without a sense of self-esteem and human dignity among girls. India, China and many of the SAARC countries launched awareness campaigns on the poor status of the girl child, female infanticide and female foeticide. The adverse sex ratio in several countries including India reflects the poor status of girls and women.

The Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) spelt out two strategic objectives with regard to women and media that are aimed at promoting women’s empowerment and development: 1) increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making and through the media and new technologies of communication, and 2) promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media (Tiongson, 1999). The former concerns their behaviour change and the latter explains the images of women portrayed in the mass media. The Platform also recommended action to develop within mass media and advertising organizations, professional guidelines and codes of conduct and other forms of self regulation to promote the presentation of non-stereotyped images of women consistent with freedom of expression.

The Beijing Conference also focused on the “feminization of poverty” due to loss of livelihoods caused by the impact of globalization and liberal economic policies on the lives of millions of women in developing countries. The Structural Adjustment Programmes led to the withdrawal of state support to several women’s welfare programmes. The conference called for greater allocation of resources to women by government agencies and multilateral donor organizations.

Development Efforts of International Agencies

The investment in women’s capabilities and empowering them to exercise their choices is regarded not only as valuable in itself but is also the surest way to contribute to economic growth and overall development (UN, 1995). The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Agenda 21 mentions women’s advancement and empowerment in decision making, including women’s participation in ‘national and international ecosystem management and control of environment degradation’ as a key area for sustainable development (Wee and Heyzer, 1995:7). The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, discussed the population issue not just as a technical, demographic problem, but as a choice that women should be empowered to take within the context of their health and reproductive rights. The Copenhagen Declaration of the World Summit on Social Development (WSSD) called for the recognition that empowering people, particularly women to strengthen their own capacities is a main objective of development and that empowerment requires the full participation of people in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of decisions determining the functioning and well-being of societies (Geethakutty, 2004:153-154).

The SAARC Convention on Prevention and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution was signed by India on January 15, 2002 and ratified in May 2003 (The Hindu, June 9, 2003). The Convention seeks to promote cooperation among the SAARC countries to effectively deal with trafficking in women and children, repatriation and rehabilitation of the victims of trafficking and prevention of use of women and children in international prostitution networks, particularly where the countries of SAARC region are the places of origin, transit and destination. According to UNICEF estimates, at least one million children are forced into the sex trade globally, most of them girls between ten and sixteen years of age in India, Thailand, Taiwan and Philippines. A report of the Department of Women and Child Development suggests that around 30 percent of the sex workers in India are below eighteen years.

The South Asian Conference organized the eighteenth sitting of the ‘women’s court’ at Dhaka, Bangladesh from August 12-14, 2003 where South Asian women who had endured torture, beating, rape and other abuse narrated their problems. The ‘court’ called for grassroots education for the long-term eradication of patriarchal values that was the root cause of human trafficking and violence against women. India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Philippines participated in the conference. The conference concluded with a call to set up regional and international courts to award exemplary punishment to those who torture women (Habib, 2003). It is highly ironical that violence against women and trafficking has assumed global proportions with assistance of new technologies. The website www.worldsexguide.com throws light into the new age ‘e-flesh trade’ in several Asian cities including those in South India (Rajiv, 2004).

The UN Conferences led to the generation of worldwide data on the situation and status of women thus stimulating research on women’s studies at the national and international levels. Increased action by NGOs led to sensitivity to women’s issues and social movements. The Asian Women’s Research and Action Network (AWRAN) and International Institute for Research and Training for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) were established to promote the participation of women in economic, social and political development of every country through research and training activities. The United Nations agencies and programmes that focuses on women include the UNDP, UNFPA, WHO, FAO, UNESCO, UNIFEM and ILO.

Women’s Movement in India

The women of Asia, Africa and several countries in the Middle East have borne the brunt of social sanctions and exploitation. Over the passage of time women have been marginalized in every sphere of human activity. In third world countries, women’s activism had historical roots in the struggle for nationalism, workers rights and peasant struggles. This approach recognized that women’s circumstances were as much a function of factors such as class, race, ethnicity and historical context as they were of gender. The international women’s movement had an impact on women in different countries and enabled them to highlight their depressing conditions, problems and issues. The impact took different directions and evolved multifarious strategies which in itself challenged the framework of the women’s movement.

India occupies a strategic position in Asia being the largest of the South Asian countries with a population of over one billion. Women constitute a population of 495.74 million with 360.52 million in the rural areas and 135.22 million in the urban areas. The human development status of women shows wide inter-state and intra-state variations. India’s human development is marked by a paradox that has seen a systematic decline in women’s status despite recent advances in women’s education and economic status. It is indeed puzzling that economic development of women has not brought commensurate change in their social development. Women continue to labour under the brunt of oppressive traditions, exploitation, suffer from lack of self-worth or identity and are routinely subjected to violence even at home. The inhuman nature and rising crime rates against women and increasing socio-psychological stress is ample evidence of degradation in women’s status. It is absurd that in a country where even women’s dress is dictated by tradition, women must take responsibility for family planning, AIDS and a host of other maladies affecting society. Women and society in general are in great need of self-introspection and self-conscientization to overcome the downslide in human values and empower women (Prasad, 2004a: v).

Early Period

In India’s long history, there were countless women who were torchbearers of society but in due course they become invisible with widespread gender bias that led to the steady decline in their status. There are literary evidences concerning the high position of women in the social order; the Rig Veda refers to a number of women scholars, poets, mystics and seers. Twenty women seers and authors composed portions of the Vedas (Johnsen and Altekar, 1987: 10). Women in Vedic era enjoyed an “unsurpassed advantage and opportunity” (Findly, 1985: 38) and they formed a vital intellectual core of the population in the early millennium. “A broad class of female teachers… was prevalent throughout society, and it is probable that teaching was the most common profession open to women. With teaching, a women could become economically self-reliant and, with a wide range of subjects to offer (grammar, poetry and literature, in addition to theology and philosophy) she could attract a broad range of students, male as well as female” (Findly, 1985: 40). The status of women in the Vedic era reached a high point with the philosopher, Gargi, one of the foremost thinkers of her time, whose engagement in a pivotal debate is recorded in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (c.600BCE) (Findly, 1985: 52).

In the subsequent centuries, women lost their position of excellence and opportunity and they were reduced to the lowest social status regarded unfit to acquire knowledge and isolated on various religious and traditional indictments. The Manusmriti conferred an inferior status on women and this heralded a long phase of disenfranchisement of women that led to several cruel practices such as sati. Women were regarded as a corrupting and debilitating influence and there was great emphasis on men’s need to overpower, dominate and devalue her (Sjoo and Mor, 1987: 193). In the epic Mahabharata, Gandhari (mother of Kauravas) was regarded a legendary character as she blindfolded herself after marriage to the blind king Dhritarashtra. She was the ultimate ideal of a chaste wife who followed her husband even in lifetime of blindness. In contrast, Kunti (mother of Pandavas) who married an impotent King Pandu used her divine power to have sons from different men. Kunti even had a son Karna before marriage but there is no record of her being abused for it. Kunti also directed her five sons to treat Draupadi as their wife. Draupadi’s situation is unique in that a wife with five husbands did not invite any attack from the society at that time. This discourse later turned to one of social criticism of subjugation of women as can be seen in Ramayana where a pregnant Sita was banished from the kingdom by Rama merely on the comment of a washer-man regarding Rama’s rule of the kingdom.

In India the rise of the women’s movement began as early as in pre-colonial times in the bhakti and sufi movements of the seventh and eighteenth century. Mirabai broke away from feudalistic norms of society that ordained marriage and widowhood as the ultimate life situation for women. She chose the path of asceticism and spiritual liberation.

Pre-Independence Period

The formative input to the women’s movement was provided during the nineteenth century with the ferment in the Western world towards an egalitarian social order which reached the Indian sub-continent during the interaction with people of the west in the colonial era (Sethi, 1999, 336-37). Parallel to the independence movement, ran the social reform movement targeting all social practices that went against women such as child marriage, sati, widow remarriage restriction, polygamy, the purdah system and female infanticide. Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj which played a pivotal role in women’s awakening. He campaigned for abolition of sati in 1815 and initiated a debate on women’s education. Though sati was abolished in 1818 in Bengal it was only in 1929 that an all-India Act banning sati was passed. It is indeed paradoxical that Roop Kanwar, a young widow was burnt alive to become a sati in 1987 in Deorala, Rajasthan. The tradition of sati thrives in parts of north and northwest India where women worship the patron goddess of sati in temples.

Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned for the enactment of the Widow Remarriage Act and the abolition of polygamy. Jyotiba Phule launched a national campaign to educate girls and women including widows. It is a fact that despite all charges leveled against men for perpetrating gender injustice, many enlightened men played a significant role in creating a new consciousness in women and in building better gender relations in society.

The Indian National Freedom Movement gave impetus to several women’s associations and many women joined the movement to work for their own uplift as well as to create new space for women’s action. Sarojini Naidu, a prominent leader of the freedom struggle, inspired many women to occupy leadership positions and break the shackles of oppressive traditions that kept them away from public life. The emergence of the Home Rule League by Annie Besant, the All India Women’s Conference by Margaret Cousins and the Women’s India Association at the national and regional levels paved the way for a new consciousness, that of women’s solidarity and their role in the socio-political reconstruction of society (Sethi, 1999: 343).

These women’s organizations focused their attention on women’s education, political rights, quality health care and sanitation, maternity benefits for women workers and skill training for income generation. Though women began to enter public life in various capacities, they were still responsible for the care of children and this situation raised their consciousness about imbalances in society. The recognition of the unfair burden placed on women- of bearing the brunt of household chores as well as being the wage-earner outside - opened a new discourse on gender equality and women’s rights.

Post Independence Period

The Constitution of independent India gave equal rights to all its citizens before law. The report of the sub-committee appointed in 1939 to study women’s role in planned economy was submitted in 1947. It recommended that economic independence was necessary for autonomy of women and legal rights for attainment of gender equality. But all efforts at reform failed with most legislations being stiffly opposed by the orthodoxy or enacted halfheartedly. Women’s rights debates received minimal attention in the fifties and sixties as the new government devoted all its energies to poverty alleviation.

The women’s movement gave rise to the anti-alcohol agitation in various parts of the country in the seventies and eighties. Various women’s groups including Mahila Samakhya in Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Tehri Garhwal and Pithoragarh have waged a war against the liquor trade and alcohol abuse. The Mahila Samakhya, Nainital’s magazine Baini (younger sister) covers information on the anti-liquor agitation and confiscation of alcohol along with other development oriented information (see Joshi, 2004). The anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh grew out the inspiration gained by women in adult literacy classes. In 1992, Women of Dubagunta in Nellore, one of the poor dry districts of southern Andhra Pradesh, organized and agitated to force the closure of the arrack shop in the village. Newspapers published this story and women all over the state marched to the arrack shops and sought to stop the auction of contracts to sell arrack. The press, in particular, Eenadu, the largest circulating Telugu daily covered the anti-arrack movement spearheaded by the women for a year (Gopalakrishnaiah, 1997: 19). But prohibition was withdrawn in 1994 as the State wanted the additional revenue generated by liquor sales.

The anti-price rise movement is largely spearheaded by women in the face of rising prices of necessary commodities. The media ignores the gender audit of expenditure and revenue budget but mostly mentions women only as ‘housewives/mothers’ in the official and mainstream budget discourse ignoring the existence of women as workers, cultivators, managers, decision-makers and entrepreneurs (Patel, 2004). The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) called for gender budgeting – the budget data should clearly present allocation for women’s components. The AIDWA general secretary, Brinda Karat called for an end to discrimination faced by women in all spheres of allocation and use of natural resources on the basis of affirmative action (The Hindu, July 10, 2004). Media reporting of the price-rise agitation and the budget are confined to women only in the context of them being middle-class housewives and responsible for household expenses not as professionals or workers in the economy.

The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was registered as a trade union in 1972 with membership of over 25,000 urban and rural women to build alternative economic structures in the form of women’s cooperatives. SEWA campaigned against injustice against women, long working hours and inadequate health care facilities. SEWA has been very successful in using both traditional and modern communication media including videos and internet technologies for building networks with various women’s groups in India and abroad.

A committee constituted to study the status of women in 1974 submitted its report in 1975. The report highlighted the adverse sex ratios, life expectancy, literacy, work participation and opportunities for women. The coincidence of the publication of the report with the declaration of the International Year of the Women led the government to reformulate its policy on women. A National Plan of Action for women was prepared which identified specific areas of action for the implementation of special programmes for women. The Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-1985) saw a shift from perceiving women as targets for welfare to involving women as participants in development and a separate chapter was devoted in the plan document to ‘Women and Development’. Some of the strategies in this plan approach are joint property titles (in the names of men and women), homes for homeless women under the Indira Awaz Yojana (IAY), 40% reservation of women in all anti-poverty programmers, and exclusive credit schemes and skill training to promote women’s employment. Despite regarding women as partners in development the ‘family’ rather than ‘women’ continued to be the basic unit for intervention. In 1988, the National Commission on Self Employed Women and Women in Informal Sector released the Shramshakti report. India drafted a National Perspective Plan for Women (1988-2000) in response to the Women’s World Congress at Nairobi (1985) declaration Forward looking strategies for the advancement of women up to the year 2000. It was only in the Seventh Five Year Plan (1985-90) that the concept of ‘Women’s Empowerment’ began to be considered as a development strategy.

Fifty Years after Independence

The year 2001 was declared as the Women’s Empowerment Year by the Government of India and the National Policy for Empowerment of Women was released in 2001. Women’s participation in local governance was hailed as a significant step towards women’s empowerment. But the preliminary findings of a study commissioned by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in five states of Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan from 2001 to 2002 revealed many panchayat members especially women preferred to be disqualified to not having a son. Women’s participation in panchayat elections was thus restrained particularly due to the widely prevalent son preference. It was also found that 40 percent of all women candidates studied in the five states were disqualified or involved in legal processes (The New Indian Express, Jan 16, 2003). The state of Karnataka in South India led the way in 1987, bringing about sweeping changes in the programme of self government (Panchayat Raj) reserving 25 percent of the seats in panchayat bodies at the village, sub-district and district levels for women. This is an essential step in enabling the voice of women to be heard in the ordering of affairs at the grassroots levels. Several workshops are being organized for women panchayat leaders and members to make them aware of the benefits of government schemes and funds and how they can exercise their power independently (Bharmal, 2002). But the role of women in the political life of India is still marginal.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) appealed to women legislators to strive to bring in legislation to curb the alarming rise in atrocities against women, domestic violence and sexual harassment at workplace. It also demanded a review of economic policies and halt privatization of the public, education and health sectors, implementation of PNDT Act to ban female infanticide, barring those who resorted to crime against women from contesting elections, sanction of house sites and housing to women, announcement of media policy recognizing equality of women (The Hindu, February 24, 2004).

The Joint Action Front for Women, a conglomeration of women’s groups, demanded a budgetary increase for education targeting women and girl children, the passage of Domestic Violence (Prevention) Bill and implementation of a national policy for women for which a monitoring committee was recommended. The Front also appealed to the Prime Minister, to give preference to women while making appointments for the posts of Governors, ambassadors and other high positions (The Hindu, July 10, 2004). The Front also suggested the appointment of a commissioner for women’s rights in the wake of growing violence against women, the establishment of a national resource centre for women now pending for two decades, a check on incidences of sexual abuse, prostitution and sex tourism. The Front also demanded appropriate policies and laws to ensure maternity benefits, minimum wages and equal pay for equal work for women in the unorganized sector and the constitution of an advisory committee to review the budget to formulate a gender-just budget.

The rising violence against women in the North East India led the North East Network, Shillong to issue a signed petition to aspiring politicians and parties during February 2003 to recognize violence against women as an urgent problem for redress in the State (see Choudhury, 2004). The alleged rape, torture and murder of Thangjam Manorama Devi by security forces in Manipur sparked off a widespread, long drawn, violent, unprecedented and historic protest in the State. About 40 women staged a nude dharna in front of the Assam Rifles Range Office, Imphal protesting the killing of Manorama carrying a banner “Indian Army Rape Us” (The Hindu, July 17, 2004).

All the newspapers gave wide coverage to the nude women’s protest with photographs but did not give any photos of the torch-bearing women in their later reports. The media found the nude protest sensational whereas the later kinds of protests were regarded less news-worthy and exciting. Women’s organizations, particularly the Meira Paibi (torch-bearing women) defied the indefinite curfew and staged sit-in protests in Manipur. The Manipur Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi, was severely critical of the women vigilantes and other NGOs for destroying government property (The Hindu, July 24, 2004). This historic protest shows that “though Manipur has a long history of women’s activism, the nature of their protest showed the depth of their desperation. But the rest of India failed to reach out to Manipur’s women” (Chowdhury, 2004). Except for some expression of solidarity from the Mahila Samakhya, Andhra Pradesh, there was dead silence from all the women’s groups, National Commission of Women, women parliamentarians and leaders.

The stark contrast, the National Commission for Women condemned the murder of an Australian woman by a taxi driver in Delhi and directed the Delhi government to develop a strategy and formulate policies for safety and security of women using public transport (TNIE, March 20, 2004). The National Commission for Women asked the state government to immediately formulate a code of conduct for taxi drivers and operators and to submit an action taken report on the incident and steps taken to prevent the recurrence of such crimes in future. The NCW takes little interest in the plight of several rural and poor helpless women who are raped and murdered daily in India. The mass media highlights rape cases concerning starlets, models only for the sensational effect rather than focusing on the crime against women.

In yet another unprecedented incident in Nagpur in August 2004 a huge mob of women lynched a serial rapist and dreaded criminal, Akku Yadav and killed him on his way to a local court. When the court arrested four women for the crime, four hundred women volunteered to surrender before the court to secure the release of the women who were charged with the criminal’s murder. Most media presented the incident as a “bizarre legal case” rather than focusing on the suffering and anger of the women against the legal-judicial system which gives little justice to women affected by violence such as rape and torture.

One of the cases of violence against women that received extensive media coverage in recent times is the rape and murder of a school girl Hetal Parekh in Kolkata by Dhananjoy Chatterjee. After more than a decade of litigation, Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged to death on August 14, 2004. This case was not debated in the media in the context of growing violence against women and girl children but turned into a debate on human rights issue against capital punishment. There was tremendous media sympathy for Chatterjee but hardly any coverage of the turmoil of Hetal’s parents and family. Many human rights groups campaigned against the hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee disregarding the heinous crime committed by him and maintaining a stony silence on the human rights of women. The Amnesty International even ran a campaign on its website calling all its members to organize protests against the award of capital punishment to Dhananjoy Chatterjee. Even more strange was the case of Maninder Singh Kohli who nonchalantly confessed to his crime of having raped and murdered British school girl Hannah Foster over NDTV a popular television news channel. The mass media have a tendency to pay greater attention to criminals rather than the crime itself which results in greater sympathy for the criminal rather than the victim. Whenever the police un-covers a sex racket, it is the women who are focused in the media, again as sensational news, leaving the male clients scot-free and un-smirched. In India, human rights groups campaign for the rights of animals and criminals, but ignore the plight of millions of oppressed, mutilated and battered women. It is indeed a paradox that women’s rights have still not been accepted as human rights.

The national leadership of the women’s movement in India as in several other countries has largely been in the hands of highly educated, high caste Hindu women from an urban background. But at the regional levels several women’s organizations often take highly polarized positions on women’s issues on dimensions of tradition and modernity. One debate that never dies down is the dress patterns of women. Many States require women teachers and women employees of several institutions to strictly adhere to a dress code that makes wearing the saree compulsory. This code is guided by tradition and the belief that the saree alone is dignified attire for women. There are no such dress codes for men who can freely adopt western dress styles. The debate on women’s dress has seen gone to the courts as in the case of school teachers of Kolkata. The mass media rarely bring out the point that women can be dressed dignifiedly in several attires including western ones that are designed for comfort and the convenience of working women. If the women’s movement in India can at least throw out these dress codes and allow women to wear what is comfortable to them it will be a singular achievement of women. But it is not to be so, as many women’s groups themselves criticize the free choice of dress by women who boldly take a stand against such outdated codes that pressurize them to conform to traditional norms guided by patriarchal ideology. In the nineties, a woman Vice-Chancellor of a women’s university wanted the teachers to wear saree (and not churidar) because according to her churidar is a Pakistani dress. How ignorant she was as most of the North-Indian women (especially women in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir) wear churidar? Women’s universities are established to empower women and how ironical it is that a woman VC disallows even the traditional dress of another region of India, leave alone modern dress.

There is the polarization of issues taken up by urban and rural based women’s groups. The rural women have campaigned extensively against deforestation, the right to basic needs of food, safe drinking water and livelihood opportunities. The rural women have been in the forefront of ecological movements and anti-alcohol movements. The ecological movement spearheaded by women’s groups at regional levels has received attention by policy makers as a national issue.

In contrast, women’s groups based in urban areas focus on economic policies, sexual harassment at the workplace, safety of the public transport system, discrimination in educational and employment opportunities and urge greater representation of women in policy-making positions. These are some major issues that affect educated urban women.

There are rare occasions where the activism of urban women and rural women converge in the national women’s movement. One important area that has witnessed this activism is gender-just budget and domestic violence. The adoption of liberalization policies in education, health care and sanitation and withdrawal of the State from several welfare programmes in the name of structural adjustment policies have also been an area of convergent action by urban and rural based women’s groups. The role of the fire-brand leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Brinda Karat is praiseworthy. She is the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and is a strong votary of women’s rights. She is media savvy and writes and speaks extensively on policy matters affecting women – the Women’s Reservation Bill, education policy, gender discrimination and gender budget. She has been successful in articulating the problems of both urban and rural women. The Road Ahead

There remains a whole range of women’s problems from female foeticide, female infanticide, child marriage, female abuse, female labour, forcing girls into the sex trade by selling them, rising son preference and devaluing daughters, marital rape, unfair burden of population policy and AIDS campaign on women, problems of single women, branding rural women as witches in several parts of the north India, to the legal rights of women regarding property, divorce and succession, that have yet to see concerted action by women’s groups on the national level.

There is great need for the spirit of solidarity and rejection of particularism among various women’s organizations. The case of Manipuri women and women in Nagpur, whatever be the legal pros and cons, are the silver living in the women’s movement. There is a strange silence on women’s issues even in the relatively developed states of South India, especially Kerala, where women’s health, education and basic socio-economic indicators match those of the advanced countries in the world. Women’s activism for gender equality is quite weak even where women enjoy situational advantage. Highly educated and financially independent women are seen succumbing to dowry demands, son-preference, domestic violence and sexual harassment at the work place. The women’s movement in India is in need of greater networking, sisterhood and cohesion in goals if activism must be able to logically progress from women’s development to women’s empowerment. The women’s movement is not to be perceived as by women, of women and for women; men as fathers, husbands, brothers and sons must unite to strengthen the lives of girls and women and for achieving the vision of India as a developed country. The mass media must play a critical role in widening the discourse on gender equality and challenging the social and political order that systematically devalues women. There have been several revolutions in history, but a revolution in the condition of women that will enable them to lead a fulfilling and dignified life is the need of the hour.


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