Sunday, November 6, 2016

Annual Workshop Report

Stree Mukti Sangathan has organised its 17th workshop from 8-10 October, in Naugarh, Varansi, Uttar Pradesh. The workshop had four main sessions and each session had a brainstorming discussion. About seventy women raging from students to working women and activists participated in the workshop. The idea behind these sessions was to enhance our understanding on the emerging political and theoretical issues and share experience of the different groups and to learn from their experience.  The short description of each session is given here;

Feminism in Neoliberal Times- Dr. Sudha Vasan, Sociology Department, University of Delhi
If historically the term feminism has meant different things at different junctures by different people, what according to us is the feminist project? Popularly the struggle for various rights of women in several domains is seen as a feminist struggle. Challenging the social norms of gender may be another such struggle or a critique of the division of labour in society; the redistribution of resources as well as reservations can also be acknowledged as part of the feminist agenda. However, none of these can in a summative manner make up the feminist project which is a total transformation of society, i.e. fundamentally uprooting patriarchy by its annihilation - to use Ambedkar’s formulation – which differed from his contemporaries who sought reform or betterment instead of annihilation of caste. 

The struggle for some specific rights of women or the benefits or power that some individual women may enjoy may not conflate and at times contradict with the project of annihilation of patriarchy. Some of the examples that were discussed were: the expectation that women in positions of power would do things for the betterment of all women or make those spaces gender sensitive was a flawed one because of the assumption that by being a woman, one automatically seeks the interest of women instead of their own well-being, seems impractical and illogical. The demand for representation of women may in itself be important but separate from the struggle to end patriarchy. This same principle could apply to the recent discussion around the presidential candidature in America which has never seen a woman president and yet her support for policies detrimental to a majority of American women has us wonder about the impact.
Another example is when women in a position to employ cheap labour who seek their own freedom from household work are more likely to exploit another woman than to fight for men sharing the household work. This should have one reflect on what implications does this have on our ideas of ‘natural’ sisterhood. Or someone seeking the benefits of a child care policy as a working woman may be getting time off of exploitative labour in one way but also at the same time be reinforcing ideas of ‘caring women’ and involving other kinds of unequal work at home. This again shouldn’t imply moral judgement towards a specific person but reiterate the point that benefits for women may not always go along with the larger struggle against patriarchy. 
This also comes back to the relationship between individual and society. And when we have to speak about the end of patriarchy, the idea of an organization is essentially interconnected. Thus one individual’s life struggle is not necessarily a struggle against patriarchy, even if it has its own importance. The basis of organizing needn’t be one’s own experience, even though it may be possible that experience may have a role. And one may gain experience in the course of collectively fighting against something. While sisterhood has been an important aspect of organizing in the feminist movement, the reason why women are more likely to fight against patriarchy is because of the existing conditions in which they face more oppression but there is no natural correlation between the two. Men can also be feminists, and in different conditions in society, more men could become feminists. 
The end of patriarchy as a total transformative project also includes the struggle against capitalism, but doesn’t exhaust itself there. While first wave feminism emphasized the entry of women in the workspace, today capitalism itself needs women as a workforce and women face new forms of patriarchy. The difference between exploitation and oppression allows one to emphasize this point. In a given mode of production, for instance capitalism, the labour-capital relationship (a relationship of exploitation) may use existing forms of oppression such as the threat of rape or violence against women, but may not be necessary to it. Oppression predates capitalism and may persist beyond the end of capitalism.

Agency, Structure, and Change: The case of Feminist project and Women’s Movement- Dr. Ravi Sinha, Political Activist and Marxist Scholar, New Socialist Initiative
This session started with the unpacking of political terminology. Feminism as we understand is a theory and practice of women’s emancipation. Emancipation is freedom from restrictions and oppressions faced on account of being women. Oppression, subordination and deprivation are three important concepts in feminist theory. There are various types of feminist theories which vary with each other in the analysis of society and gender and their politics of change.  Feminism also have had various debates in order to understand the reality such as how the reality is being constructed socially, the essentialism debate and what makes woman (or man)? Gender is a deepest layer of the social individual. However gender as a category can be compare with race, caste and class. Social reality is constituted along a multiplicity of social axes: gender, caste, class, race/ethnicity, sexuality, postcoloniality and so on. Domination by white women and exclusion of women of color in the feminist movement in the west started the debate; exclusion within the feminist movement along racial and other social axes was posed as a central problem of feminism. The arguments given were that women of color have social experience different from both white women and men of color; they cannot be represented by someone who does not experience life the way they do and race and gender (and, for that matter, other major social axes) are not independent variables and cannot be added or subtracted from each other. The essentialism debate also pitches in this debate arguing that women do not share an essence (“womanhood”); black women are constructed differently from white women. In the process recognition of difference and exclusion has led to fragmentation. There is a need to pay fresh attention to social ontology of Gender.
Agency is roughly defined by three properties; intentionality, instrumentality and standpoint. Agency can be understood as surplus to structure. Agent is an external to the structure, in that sense agency must come from the “outside”. Structures have their own internal dynamics; this dynamics is animated through role-players located at the nodes of the social relations constituting the given structure; it does not require agency. Structural dynamics expresses itself also through conflict of interests; subsumed social individuals located at different nodes have different interests (workers-capitalists, women-men, Dalits-Brahmins and so on). Interests, in this sense, are internal to structures; not sufficient to define agency; class-interest, for example, is not enough to define class-agency. Women’s interest (in the context of the patriarchal structure) is not enough to define women’s agency with respect to that structure. The principal domain of patriarchy is ‘life-world’ (social, cultural and private life); but it intrudes into the ‘system’-domain in a major way. The dynamics of the ‘system’ and the struggles in this domain can play crucially important role in protection or abolition of the patriarchal structure. 
Women’s revolutionary agency (feminist agency) arises out of the socially created woman, but it exceeds itself; it is surplus to the woman. Woman’s social and life experience and her interests are key ingredients in her making, but not enough to constitute her agency vis a vis the patriarchal structure. The surplus comes from a variety of sources – from other layers of the human individual as well as from life and experience along other axes of social reality. Advent of modernity offered the biggest opening to the ‘external world’ – a kind of Archimedean Point from where to change the “woman’s world”; the system-society differentiation is one such example where processes in the systemic domain can intervene into the patriarchal structure from “outside”. Changes in women’s lives and in the patriarchal structures have been greatly accelerated after the advent of modernity; three thousand years of experiencing oppression and subjugation did not result in as robust an agency and as significant a change as have happened during the three centuries of modernity.  In the process of change, patriarchy will be abolished, but as some feminists think that gender as social relation of subordination will be abolished, but as an identity will continue. It is an almost universal aspect of social process that difference gives rise to identity; key objective should be that identities should not result in inequalities, exclusions and subordination; “different must be equal”. In the domain of change women of-course wants, Emancipation – Abolition of Patriarchy; full self-determination; enhanced autonomy – but what does this translate into? What are the steps? The steps could be; the system, the public sphere, the community and the family. There are three tasks for strategic reorientation;
• Task 1: Open out, do not close in!
– Feminist project is not the only project of women – Feminist project is not the project of women only
– Remember, agency comes from the “outside”; remain “inside” but be the “outside”; march out
– know everything, fight everywhere, conquer everything
 – Woman’s revolutionary agency (Feminist Agency) = Women’s Interest + Woman’s Will + Woman’s Knowledge of Everything
– Overemphasis on experience and an overdose of phenomenological approach is harmful; do not demand ‘reservation’ within the movement and do not ask for women’s monopoly over the feminist project; be confident of your leadership over the feminist project and over the women’s movement  

• Task 2: Take sides, link with others!
 – Women may be divided according to castes, but feminists must take sides with the oppressed castes
 – Women may be workers and women may also be capitalists, but feminists must side with the workers
– Women may be divided according to race, ethnicity, nationality, and so on; but feminists always side with the oppressed everywhere
– Majority of women may be hetero-sexual, but feminists defend individual’s right to sexuality and sexual choice

• Task 3: Bring the women back in!
 – Undo the ill-effects of emphasizing Intersectionality; stop fragmentation of the feminist project and of the women’s movement
– Once again, do not overemphasize experience and difference; race, caste, community and so on do not trump women and the feminist project; fight for equality and justice but do not ask for reservation within the movement for your own caste or color
– Sexuality is an issue for everyone – men, women, third gender; feminists fight for sexual choice like everyone else
– it is not their monopoly nor is it their special task
– Do away with all the fashionable postmodern nonsense; do not be afraid of universals because there are universals albeit approximate and qualified; do not shun every form of essentialism because there are useful essentialisms
 – Feminists fight everywhere and march out to conquer everything but women remain at the heart of their project
– Women have a world to win, but they must keep their own emancipation as their first objective and their central aim 

Autonomous Women’s Movement- Vasudha Katju, Ph.D Research Scholar, JNU
The session on the autonomous women’s movement began with a brief presentation on the emergence of this movement in the 1970s. The need for autonomous women’s organizing arose from the need to break free from the hegemony of men and male-dominated organizations and political parties, and create a space where women activists could priorities women’s issues. The nature of the autonomous collective, as non-hierarchical, informal groups, was also discussed. Changes, over time, to the definition of autonomy and to autonomous politics (in the form of the growing significance of NGOs and funding, and formal, closed organizations respectively) were highlighted. 
One important issue is the relative weight given to the autonomous movement in the history of women’s activism in India, especially compared to party-affiliated women’s organisations. While there is a variety of published material on all types of women’s activism, the autonomous movement has a certain prominence. NGOisation and the relationship between autonomous collectives and funded organisations were also discussed. The understandings of feminism and women’s issues, and the activities and ways of working of collectives, were also highlighted.

The discussion which followed the presentation focused on various issues. One was the presence of informal and hidden hierarchies in all types of organizations and collectives, regardless of size. Many members discussed the difficulty in sustaining large organizations without any structure, and the need to balance hierarchy with a robust internal democracy, transparency and accountability. The issue of the development of an autonomous politics was also discussed with a lot of interest. Here, the need to sustain activists without prescribing a single, dominant, ‘superior’ form of activism was empahasised; of not having a hierarchy of activism. The question of why the women’s movement was not able to sustain fulltime activists was also raised, and how women who lack personal resources could be able to take leadership roles within the women’s movement.

Pinjratod: Break the cages. A presentation on the movement- Pinjra Tod Team
Pinjratod defines itself as an autonomous collective effort and a movement to ensure secure, affordable and not gender-discriminatory accommodation for women students across Delhi broadly.
The movement was triggered off by an angry anonymous letter that was written to the VC of Jamia University by a woman hosteler in August last year, when the hostel administration arbitrarily canceled the two meager 'late-nights' 'granted' to her in a month. This powerful letter had passionately captured the humiliation, frustration, discrimination and rage that women students across universities in the country faced. The open letter eventually led to a petition addressed to the Delhi Commission for Women (DCW), marking the inception of Pinjra Tod's journey as a movement of women students across campuses in the country. A Jan Sunwai was conducted in the month of October last year where women from various colleges and universities spoke of their experiences of discrimination and harassment,  a charter of demand was then submitted to DCW along with a detailed report of experiences of women students in university spaces. We came together with a common understanding that there exists a diverse range of discriminatory rules and regulations that seek to restrict the access and mobility of young women who come to study, work and live in this city. And our demands center on this understanding. 
Night marches have been an important form to make visible to other women the coming together of women on campus. We have repeatedly seen that this has opened up a space for women of different colleges to walk together and contribute and derive strength from a collective in these marches. We see a new connection being built in this one year of women students across the country who are taking up the issues like humiliation by warden or provost, dress code in colleges and universities, curfew timings and many other similar issues with Pinjratod and opens up a possibility of having some common basis for all women students to connect with each.
During the course of the movement that is talking and connecting women students fighting for changing the structures which cage women, we are also constantly engaging with and emphasizing on creating a different social reality through a collective struggle. 


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