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Journey from purdah to power
By Rina Mukherji

The difficult journey traversed by the women's movement in India can be best understood through the gamut of posters and visual media used to create awareness on the women's struggle. 'Our pictures, our words - A visual journey through the women's movement' examines the processes which contributed to Indian feminism becoming a broad-based movement for human rights.

A poster on the Shakti, the feminine power

The Indian renaissance in the 19th century saw Indian women emerge out of their cloistered existence after a long period of purdah. It was during this period that we saw multi-faceted, talented women make a mark on the social and literary firmament. Toru Dutt, Pandita Ramabai, Swarnakumari Debi, Rukhmabai were some of the earliest pioneers. However, they were all from privileged, upper class, upwardly mobile backgrounds. Their achievements could hardly be aspired to by the vast majority of women from the middle or lower middle classes.

When India won its independence more than six decades ago, the founding fathers of our Constitution tried their level best to usher in a new era for women with some of the most enlightened laws in the world. Yet, notwithstanding their efforts, social and economic factors forced the voices of our women to remain muzzled.

Government-sponsored posters, public interest advertising, radio and television were extensively used to direct change. But age-old prejudices and gender bias proved difficult to erase. The police, judiciary and the media continued to reflect prevalent social mores. The yardstick of moral turpitude continued to be used against women as and when they did not fall in line with what was considered acceptable for them.

Some women, as activists, did try giving voice to the widespread discrimination faced by women everywhere in the country. But the majority remained unlettered, or at best, semi-literate, and totally ignorant of their legal rights. Lack of property rights, entrenched patriarchy, and family apathy saw them continue being deprived of the confidence needed to question social authority, and demand their rightful place in society guaranteed by an enlightened Constitution.

A poster depicting religious oppression of women

Hence, the voices of activism failed to be seen as the collective voice of the millions of women who made India.

The Mathura rape case in the early ‘80s was destined to change all that. The judgement, which tacitly justified the heinous rape of a poor teenaged domestic help in police custody on the ground that she was accustomed to sex raised the hackles of women activists, and have them question the attitude of an insensitive judiciary.

Spearheaded by women lawyers, the hurriedly assembled “Forum Against Rape” soon evolved into “Forum Against Oppression of Women” and took to questioning all kinds of injustice and wrongful depiction of women.

The Rameeza Bee case where a Muslim woman was raped and her husband killed when he protested became another cause for activism when a judgement condoned the crime on the ground of Rameeza Bee being a prostitute.

As activists questioned the class and gender bias of the judiciary, the feminist movement moved off its erstwhile elitist mode, and gradually took to espousing the cause of women who were outside the pale of drawing rooms and academic institutions. Western feminist rhetoric was left behind, and a home-grown Indian feminism took its place.

Indian political parties had always had a women’s wing, but the ‘80s saw the rise of several autonomous women’s organizations independent of political affiliations. They took up the cause of disenfranchised, homeless tribals, riot-struck victims, and a host of others. Women’s health, maternal and infant mortality, vocational training to earn a livelihood, legal rights and education became the rallying point for activism. The feminist movement in India became more representative of the deprivations felt by the poorest. Women were not seen to constitute a separate class, but the most deprived of the families and downtrodden groups that they were part of.

A poster demanding rights for domestic helps

Women who were rendered voiceless courtesy a social patriarchy which ensured that they were seen and not heard, saw the veneer of respectability ripped apart in middle-class homes, as deeply-entrenched practices were exposed in public. The practice of dowry, domestic violence and harassment of daughters-in-law in marital homes became subject to scrutiny. The social revolution that the Indian state had hoped to engineer through the Constitution was at long last being achieved, thanks to an increasingly vocal women’s movement.

The entire journey traversed by the women’s movement in India can be best understood when we go through the gamut of posters and visual media that have been used to create awareness on the women’s situation through the years. Starting from the earliest posters generated by the government, down to the ones produced by independent women’s groups in the ‘80s, to the pointed messages questioning the injustices inflicted on women of all classes in the name of religion, it is the story of an uphill struggle at its best. The gradual universalism that has overtaken the movement from the earlier slogans which generally viewed women’s problems from what was experienced by women in the majority community is clearly evident. The gagging of women in the name of religion, is, understandably an important issue depicted by many posters all over India.

A village woman has to work, round the clock

Posters and rhymes used the best in creativity to create awareness about how women faced the worst in every eventuality. This quiet revolution in the realm of securing women’s rights made wide use of street plays, folk art forms, and the plastic arts to compel society to look inwards and re-visit its attitudes towards domestics, sex workers, women working in the informal sector, and working women. From the didactic, staid, “Garbhavati mahila mein khoon ki kami naa ho, swasthya Kendra se iron ki goli lo, aam dino se adhik bhojan karaao, aur hari sabziyaan khoob khilao”, to the sarcastic “gaai bachhdon ki tarah mujhe ghar ke khoontein se kyon bandhte ho,” to the straightforward protesting “How many hands do I have?”, and the hopeful “hamari panchayat hamare haath”, the posters capture the gamut of emotions which have characterized the women’s movement.

Rajashri Dasgupta and Laxmi Murty have traced the roots of the Indian feminist movement from its earliest, unsure steps to the broad-based war cry against all gender-based injustice that characterizes the recent past of Indian gender activism. Our pictures, our words –A visual journey through the women’s movement takes off from (publisher) Zubaan’s earlier exhibition on “Poster Women”, and moves on to examine the processes which contributed to Indian feminism becoming a broad-based movement for human rights.

The book looks into how every region of the country used the local idiom, to reach out to the public on issues that were universal. Activists were careful to use the right attire to ensure identification with the women depicted in the posters put up. For instance, in a primarily Muslim area, the protagonists were shown clad in salwar kameez, while in Hindu areas, sari-clad women were preferred.

The neglect of the girl child, female infanticide, foeticide, gender bias etc were depicted as issues of common concern in a country marked by a skewed sex-ratio. The posters shook people off their complacence regarding dowry and domestic violence; one such poster of a picture of a helpless, blindfolded, muzzled bride, asked “kahi yeh aapki beti to nahi?” while another depicting a woman being beaten up by her husband, wondered aloud, “kya ye inka gharelu mamla hain?” while educating people on what is legally wrong.

Multi-tasking by a housewife, creatively presented in a
Bengali poster

The Bengali poster, showing a woman with multiple hands, holding an infant, a broom, and household implements, says “Das haathe begaar khaati, paii khota, apamaan, laathi.” (“I toil with ten hands without a complaint, but get in return insults, abuse and kicks”) is hardly different from those displayed in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu depicting a woman as a 10 handed goddess toiling round the clock.

With the women’s movement having acquired a momentum of its own, the fight for a level playing field is not just a fight for women’s rights, but human rights. The amorphous feminine identity, and the cause of women has been expanded to take up the cause of disabled women, sex workers, lesbians, transgender persons, and many groups that are nearly invisible. With women entering the professional sphere in the formal and informal sectors in huge numbers, sexual harassment at the workplace, and the right to work with dignity is the focus of attention.

Legislation is no longer the key to a more equitable scheme of things; it is a cry akin to what Marx had called for…as a poster screams, “Women of the world - unite.” Perhaps, in a world growing increasingly violent, the hand that rocks the cradle shall ultimately bring peace to the world. For the religion of peace transcends all else!

Rina Mukherji  |  rina.mukherji@gmail.com

Rina Mukherji is a writer, poet and journalist. She is a keen commentator on issues concerning marginalized communities, environment and development. She is based in Kolkata.

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Rina Mukherji in
Socio-Economic Development  > Indian Society > Women Empowerment

Women lead the resurgent India
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Unlike their counterparts in the west, Indian women had to face lot many hurdles in their efforts to attain economic independence but they have achieved the impossible without giving up their family responsibilities..

Women suffer for family honour
Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Family as an institution has served us well, but one needs to confront practices that oppress and infringe on the basic rights of individuals.
 Other Articles in Socio-Economic Development
Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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