Radical Ideas and Initiatives in Women's Movement And the Communist Party

Across the world, and in our country, since the new millennium, the women's movement has witnessed a veritable explosion of novel ideas, radical slogans and new forms of protest and sensitisation. The same can be said about other movements as well. But in the case of other movements, it has not been so pronounced, nor has it generated so much attention and positive response, so much adverse reaction and heated debate.

In the Wake of the December 2012 Movement

In December 2012, following the brutal gang rape and murder of a young girl student, the national capital and the whole country burst into protests, forcing the Indian Parliament – that citadel of patriarchy – to pass an amended anti-rape law amidst misogynist comments of reluctant male legislators.

But there was a far more important gain of the surge: a revolutionary leap in the consciousness of activists and the emergence of new activists from amongst students and youth, media-persons, lawyers, artists and literary workers, bolstered by a newfound courage and confidence among Indian women to speak out, stand-up and demand justice. The leap manifested itself both in a burst of activities based on new demands/slogans rising directly from the battlegrounds (Delhi's India Gate and Jantar Mantar for example) and as a sustained social churning that continues to generate new ripples to this day.

Positioning itself in contrast to the old slogan of "Hang the rapist", the slogan of "Fearless Freedom" fired the imagination of activists and became the new banner and central slogan of the movement. Different dimensions of freedom came to be stressed: freedom not only from khaaps but also from baaps (fathers, connoting patriarchy as a whole) in matters of dress, lifestyle, love and everything else; freedom not just from rape incidents but more importantly from the systemic rape culture and also from marital rape; freedom not from police torture and insensitivity alone but also from moral policing in homes, institutions, communities and by the state; and so on. From the media-orchestrated shrill monotone demanding capital punishment for the 'beastly' rapists, the emphasis was shifted to a demand for hundred percent convictions in all cases of sexual violence and harassment, and of course, to honest introspection about the widely prevalent culture of sexism, misogyny, violence and victim-blaming in so-called ‘civilised society’ itself. Patriarchal notions of protection of women were critiqued by highlighting the emancipatory urge for autonomy and empowerment. Accordingly, restrictions on women's movement in the name of safety were fought with the demand for free mobility and visibility of women in all public spaces at all hours of the day and night (a demand raised in a most demonstrative manner by the “Why Loiter” campaign).

Such ideas were disseminated through the social media as well as hundreds of other initiatives, the bottom-line being complete gender equality, freedom and autonomy in all conceivable contexts and zero tolerance for sexism, sexual violence and moral policing. The process started well before the December 2012 watershed and gathered further momentum thereafter. Here is a quick glance at some of the events; recent events reported in this magazine – such as Hok Kolorob and Kiss of Love – have been omitted.

A New Wave Of Feminist Awakening And Protests

In January 2009, following the attack by Sri Ram Sene on women in a Mangalore pub, several women launched an online campaign to send Pink Chaddis (pink underwear) as an act of defiance, to the SRS chief Pramod Muthalik.

Soon after, to challenge the Sangh Parivar's Valentine's Day threats, AISA and AIPWA mobilised hundreds of students of Delhi University, as well as several intellectuals and writers, to discuss and think about 'Love in our Times' on the eve of Valentine’s Day 2009. The event was preceded by an intensive two-week-long campaign amongst students.

On Valentine’s Day 2009 itself, AISA and AIPWA, along with cultural teams, held a march with songs and street plays in the DU North Campus and nearby Kamla Nagar market, celebrating the "right to live and love in freedom."

In 2012-13, anti-rape protests became vibrant protests against moral policing and victim-blaming. In rural Siwan, women gathered in hundreds to protest against Asaram’s visit, after he had suggested that the December 16th rape victim was responsible for her own brutal gang rape and murder. These protesters also expressed their anger against recent diktats by local Hindu and Muslim leaders who had banned jeans and mobile phones for women. ‘If our daughters can’t wear jeans, then let us also ban pants, shirts, and shoes for men, let them wear only dhoti and khadaun (wooden clogs)’, said one activist of AIPWA.

In December 2013 hundreds of people (nearly 800 protesters in New Delhi) gathered in the national capital and other cities across the country to protest a decision by the Supreme Court to uphold Section 377, a law that criminalizes homosexuality. They demanded the government must take immediate steps to remove the colonial-era law criminalising same-sex relations.

Eminent musician K.J. Yesudas’s comment in October last year -- “Women should not trouble others by wearing jeans” -- invited protests across the country; one symbolic protest is shown here. [see photo]

In January 2015 a group of young people, including students and activists, took up a project of colouring the JNU campus in vibrant shades and painting ‘Rainbow Trees’ to uphold gay rights. They walked around the campus for over five hours, singing, dancing and raising slogans against homophobia. ‘The Rainbow Walk’, as they called it, was a “response to the intolerant attitude of reactionary, neo-conservative forces that try to undermine and curb diversity”.

The ‘mirror mob’ organised by “Hyderabad for Feminism”, on the occasion of Women’s Day 2015, addressed the very common, very serious issue of street harassment through a very effective street play that presented a mirror image – a role reversal -- of what happens on a daily basis. A group of female performers stared down their male counterparts, a man was physically assaulted by women and placards held up by group members provided an explanation about what was going on.

Protesting against a 6:30 PM curfew for girl students by the authorities of College of Engineering, Trivandrum, a “Break the Curfew” campaign was organized in March 2015. When petitions and other forms of protest like a Cycle Rally, a street play and an Open Forum against the restriction which violated all notions of gender equality on campus failed, the students decided to stage a peaceful protest on the campus on March 18, refusing to get in till their voices were heard and the authorities responded. Around 230 girls and some of the boys of the college took part in the programme. Finally, at about 11:45 PM, the Principal conceded to a discussion the next day to decide upon the course of action. The struggle is continuing.

“Why Loiter?” is an initiative started by a group of young women in Mumbai and Jaipur to reclaim their right to use all public spaces to spend time alone, or in groups, with as much dignity as accorded to any other human being. Interestingly, the campaign is inspired by a book, Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade. The book looks closely at the way in which women from different classes and communities are denied equal access to public space even in the relatively more egalitarian city of Mumbai. It argues that the this denial of access is linked not so much to lack of ‘safety’, as to the social pressure on women to prove their respectability in public spaces. Instead of framing the agenda against gendered violence as one in which women need ‘protection’ from potential aggressors (profiled as working class, jobless youth, Muslim, migrant, etc), Why Loiter asserted the right of women as well those profiled sections of people to access public space freely:

“It is only when the city belongs to everyone that it can ever belong to all women. The unconditional claim to public space will only be possible when all women and all men can walk the streets without being compelled to demonstrate purpose or respectability, for women’s access to public space is fundamentally linked to the access of all citizens. Equally crucially, we feel the litmus test of this right to public space is the right to loiter, especially for women across classes. Loiter without purpose or meaning. Loiter without being asked what time of the day it was, why we were there, what we were wearing and whom we were with.” The authors of the book were pleasantly surprised to find that some women who had read their book, had taken its ideas and translated it into a campaign to loiter in public spaces! Inspired by this, several feminists called for a two week ‘Why Loiter’ campaign between December 16, 2014 and January 1, 2015, in which women in different cities loitered and shared their pictures, write-ups, videos etc of loitering with intent to occupy public space, but with no 'work' as such.

More recently, the Why Loiter campaign held a ‘Walk Like A Woman’ night march in Mumbai, in which men dressed in women’s clothes, as an act of solidarity, and simply to experience the pleasure of cross-dressing. This protest was inspired by one by Turkish men who dressed in skirts in solidarity with women whose skirts are blamed for sexual violence.

The Pads against Sexism Campaign

In late September 2014, a tweet by one Charlie – "imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods!" – fired the imagination of German artist Elonë Kastratia. She came up with a novel way of getting the message across to the people. She got this message printed on as many as 40 sanitary napkins and waited for the next International Women's Day to paste these on traffic signals in her town Karlsruhe. She used the same medium also for her own slogans. She posted the event on her Facebook page. The positive response she got from women and men around the world was much stronger than the adverse reactions.

In our country the use of sanitary pads as a vehicle of protest was initiated, not in university campuses, but in relation to working women's struggles for dignity and necessary sanitary facilities in workplaces. In December last year, a shocking incident took place in the ASMA Rubber Products factory situated in the Kochi SEZ, Kerala. 45 women workers were strip-searched –because a used sanitary pad was found left in the ladies' toilet. Rather than making arrangements for proper disposal of these essential items, the management went out of its way to find and punish the 'culprit'.

While the workers lodged their complaints, others, responding to a call on the Facebook, protested this act of gross violation of women workers' dignity and the tabooing of everything related to menstruation by mailing sanitary pads to the misogynist management. “While mailing the MD of ASMA a napkin (sometimes used), we intend to question larger notions of purity-impurity practices discriminating female bodies that is prevalent in our society”, said Aswathy Senan, one of the organizers of the campaign “Red Alert: You have got a napkin”. The same women also initiated protests when women of menstruating age were taken off Kerala State Transport buses during Sabarimala season, on grounds that the Sabarimala pilgrims are not supposed to come into contact with such women.

Some months later, students in a number of educational institutions in India joined the #padsagainstsexism campaign started by Kastratia. In Jadavpur University (JU) the campaign was a direct continuation of vigorous protest movements against sexual harassment and misogyny and therefore attracted special attention. In Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) as well as JU, the university authorities took hasty steps to identify the campaigners in the campuses and threaten them with punishment.

In mid-March JMI students pasted sanitary pads with messages like 'period blood is not impure, your thoughts are', 'menstruation is natural, rape is not', 'streets of Delhi belong to women too', 'rapists rape people, not outfits'. The university security promptly pulled them down and a show-cause notice was served on some of them. The activists, however, retained their conviction. “The message is strong and direct—to remove the stigma attached to periods. The messages on the pads are about sexism in everyday life and how rape culture affects people in our country. It is an enlightening project for us,” said a student activist. (Jamia Feminists Say it with Sanitary Pads, Times of India, 15 March 2015).

Taking lessons from the Jamia Millia experience, around 70 students, a majority from DU colleges but some also from JNU, brought out a march on April 10 from Vishwavidyalaya Metro station to Kamla Nagar Market via DU North Campus. Some random commuters joined them. Students were allowed entry at some of the colleges en route but denied entry at others. Under the banner which read "Come and see the blood on my skirt—break the taboo around menstruation and women's bodies", they gathered at the Metro station with placards and messages written on sanitary pads. (TOI, Apr 11, 2015).

In Jadavpur, a section of activists of the Hok Kolorob agitation formed a group to launch the campaign at the end of March this year. At that point of time, the authorities were dillydallying on the latest complaint of molestation of a girl student and victim blaming was on. "Basically what we are fighting against", said one activist, "is continuous blaming and shaming." The name of the group – Periods – symbolised a struggle against the taboo regarding menstrual cycles or periods and also signified full stop or zero tolerance to sexual violence/harassment. An authentic account of what the campaigners have in mind can be gleaned from an NDTV programme titled ‘Stop Sexism. Period.’, in which the anchor talked to campaigners Joyee and Arumita and the pro-VC of JU.

Asked why they considered the particular form or medium they used to be so important, Joyee replied that the amount of response and reaction they were getting was much, much more than what they are used to get from other forms of gender sensitisation campaigns. Arumita explained, "By taking part in the campaign, we ourselves are sensitised. Now I can talk to male members of my family about menstruation and they accept that, they talk about that easily. This is sensitisation, this is what we need…. Every anti-campaign is a campaign in itself. Even when people are reacting, they are thinking, criticising, talking about it – this is a step towards sensitisation."

The pro-VC's repeated assertion was that "this form" (he said he cannot use "those words" – alluding to sanitary napkins and menstruation – on national television) of protest was "not socially acceptable". Joyee’s retort was soft but sharp: "Is the sanitary napkin not acceptable? Is menstruation not acceptable? Or are women as a whole not acceptable to society?"

Doesn't this rip apart the bankruptcy and brazen hypocrisy of the anti-feminist position? Patriarchy sees woman as an object to be possessed and enjoyed at will, seeks to control her sexuality and suppress it as something sinful, mysterious and prohibited, while obfuscating the whole thing by pretending to attribute godliness to women. Anything having to do with that sexuality – even a sanitary pad, which is actually as simple and as necessary for hygiene and cleanliness as a tooth brush – thus appears, in patriarchal common sense, as something dirty and shameful. The #padsagainstsexism is a creative exposure campaign hitting out at this hypocrisy, at misogynist values and that is why there is so much brouhaha against it.

Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Critical theorist and writer, professor at IIT Delhi and Consulting Editor, Biblio) elaborated on this theme with great élan:

“Taboo, the English noun, derives from the Togan-Polynesian word, tabu, which, paradoxically, means both 'holy' and 'unclean'. The word refers to a "system of prohibition connected with... [a] restraint, ban, exclusion, ostracism." Used as a verb, it means to "forbid approach to or use of" (Chamber's). …

“Some temples, iconic 'holy' places, seek to prevent menstruating women, deemed 'goddesses' in the abstract, from entering their premises when 'unclean'. It is this age-old world-view that the administrations of the present universities - often called 'temples of learning' - seem to be displaying. They are asking, in code: Have these women no shame?” (“Dear Universities, Is Menstruation Unacceptable?”NDTV, April 06, 2015)

As expected, a large number of individuals and organisations came forward in support of the student fighters (see boxes). Many others opposed them. Some did that from an archaic reactionary position – for example by invoking the 'scientific basis' of scriptural cannons on women and their sexuality. But a good section of progressive, democratic and leftist people also expressed doubts and reservations about the campaign. As a typical example, take a look at the following Facebook post by Associate Professor of English at Presidency University, Sumit Chakraborty:

"I do not understand my milieu anymore. Perhaps I grow old. I would not make public my private thoughts or habits, deepest pain or dear-most pleasure. I would not upload a video of my daily ablutions, or of picking my ears, or if I am bleeding from a bout of piles. All of these are natural. All of these are private. If I menstruated, I would not advertise it: Not because it is shameful; but because some of what happens to my body, as some of what happens in my mind, is private."

What is missed here, however, is a recognition of the difference between the way society looks at and talks about other gender-neutral bodily functions and the exclusively feminine, especially 'shameful and secretive' function of menstruation. If I got a bruise during travel and blood stains on my shirt, I would like to change it at the first available opportunity. But in the meantime, I would not feel ashamed of it and would freely tell people, when asked, what happened. But a bloodstain on a woman’s dress would be a huge embarrassment, and she would be shamed for it. A man is not prohibited from entering kitchens or places of worship if he is bleeding from piles, as is a menstruating woman. Women find it more or less difficult (depending on their occupation and the conditions of their workplace) to go about on normal routine of work or leisure during "those five days" every month – not for any medical reasons but for social causes like the hush-hush associated with periods and perhaps lack of proper facilities for changing the pads.

The campaigners used the napkin as a shockingly visible symbol of this silent, invisible gender discrimination.

The pioneers have plans to carry it beyond campus walls, but the task cannot be theirs alone. Others should also join in – in ways and forms they think best, perhaps adding their own slogans and demands like making the sanitary pad easily available at subsidised prices to all women in the country. One might like to add in response to Professor Chakraborty: so far as we of the older generations are concerned, that might be one of the ways we can get to know our milieu better and stay young-at-heart.

The Communist Viewpoint

We should be watchful that the conservative-patriarchal resistance in society towards daring forms of protest/sensitisation on unconventional issues (beyond rape, violence, or crude misogyny) is not replicated in the communist party in the shape of (pseudo-) Marxist fundamentalism/dogmatism. Some on the Left also reject the issues and protests outright, branding them 'feminist' and 'petit bourgeois'. One cannot help recall the fitting retort to such branding once made by Central Control Commission member and AIPWA President Gita Das: "Some say I'm a feminist. Well, I am, indeed, a feminist! Shouldn't we all be, as long as injustices against women remain a reality?"

Way back in January 1988, our Fourth Party Congress welcomed feminism as a positive trend and asked our comrades to unite with it. It saw the women's question as a problem not of just one section or class but that of "womenfolk as a whole" and as a part of the international women's movement. This approach and understanding has been consistently developed over the years, stimulated from the very beginning by the mighty waves of autonomous women's movement in India from the 1980s.

Our party and the communist movement as a whole, does not reduce ‘class’ to a bunch of economic issues and demands. True, we do not see gender or caste issues in isolation from class, as examples of backward ‘mindsets’ alone; we seek to identify and resist the material basis of gender and caste oppression. But equally important, we seek to identify how gender and caste help to constitute and maintain exploitative class relations. Instead of seeing the women’s movement as just as a part or appendage of class struggle/communist movement (with a few gender-specific demands thrown into the general agenda), we see the women’s movement and women’s liberation as integral to the success of democratic and socialist revolutions.

We should be careful not to slip back into the old rut in the face of unforeseen developments that throw up new questions and shake our accustomed framework of judging things. For instance, the Kiss of Love campaign should not be seen in isolation from its specific context and content of protest against moral policing and physical assaults by saffron vigilante groups, and condemned in abstract moralistic terms like decency, privacy and so on. The same holds for the sanitary pad campaign, which cannot be seen in isolation from the the cultural-psychological oppression and exclusion women are routinely subjected to by male-determined social and religious norms.

Instead of dogma, prejudice and knee-jerk responses, communists must rely on proper investigation and dynamic appraisal of a new situation. If, instead of critically assimilating the contributions of feminism, we quarantine it, it would further segregate rather than unify the women's movement.

Fight against spontaneity and economism, against trade unionism, and pointed emphasis on the conscious element are our revolutionary inheritance from Lenin and Charu Mazumdar. We must pay attention to it while organising women workers too. We must explore suitable ways to foster revolutionary consciousness in women workers from outside the struggle for economic demands, and a natural first step towards that could be to arouse their latent urge for freedom, equal status and dignity as human beings, as producers and as citizens.

Currently, it is the protests of urban women and urban youth for their autonomy that are more visible. But the fact is that restrictions on autonomy, imposed by the caste hierarchy as well as patriarchy, are extremely severe in rural areas as well. Already, the increasing instances of inter-caste relationships and marriages, as well as same-sex relationships, in rural areas is proof of the growing will to resist these restrictions. Aware of this, the Sangh Parivar forces together with khaps and other reactionary forces, are intervening to fan the flames of patriarchy and casteism, against the freedom and autonomy of women and of oppressed people. The tremendous violence with which transgressions of the caste and gender order are being met across the country (instances abound from Haryana and Delhi to Bihar and UP to Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Kerala) is a huge issue for India’s democracy. The ability of the Left to intervene effectively and boldly to resist the Sangh Parivar in rural India will rest in a big way on our readiness and alertness to organise, strengthen, and champion the latent resistance to and build a popular movement against the patriarchal-casteist structures in households and in rural society as a whole.

Let not a fossilised distortion of Marxism, or abstract ideas of the leading role of communist party (which is often misunderstood as 'Party control') cloud our vision. Let us learn from and march at the head of the brave new awakening of Indian women across classes and strata, let us help build a comprehensive movement by integrating its different strands or dimensions.

Box 1

Let a Blood-drenched Piece of Cloth Fly in the Wind

"… The protest must be spread throughout the subcontinent. This particular language of protest is disliked by the bhadraloks – and that means it works.… So long women have talked in the language taught by men and walked along the path decided for them by men – now let them walk as they wish…

To those who complain that the protest on sanitary pads goes against aesthetics, I would like to say: if sexual harassment is not aesthetic, if rape is not aesthetic, if domestic violence is not aesthetic, then why the protest against all these need to be aesthetic at all?"

– Taslima Nasreen, Ei Samay 5 April 2015 (Translated from Bengali)

Box 2

    • “Such a campaign sends out an extremely important social message. We cannot claim to ‘respect women’ while believing that menstruation – that is natural to women – is ‘dirty’.

“The students in various campuses are asking a simple question: how come sanitary pads seem to invoke more disgust and outrage in society than rape, domestic violence, sex-selective abortion? These students have also been raising the demand for sanitary pad dispensers on their campuses.

The Pads/Periods campaign is asserting the identity of women; it is declaring that there is nothing at all shameful in being a woman. As some of these campaigners declared, ‘We bleed, therefore you are born.’

AIPWA expresses solidarity with the student campaigners, and warns that any move to punish the student campaigners in various universities, will be met with protests.”

(From AIPWA Statement)

Liberation Archive