The birth of the women’s liberation movement was the result of a unique and sharply polarized political conjuncture, between the years 1968 and 1975, which had a radicalizing effect throughout the world. Many of the women involved in the social and political struggles of that period became the pioneers of an autonomous women’s movement. India was no exception. Even in the West, of course, regional peculiarities such as the role of Roman Catholicism in Italy and Ireland, the lack of a strong politicized labour movement in the USA, working-class conservatism in Britain, or the backwardness of traditional Left parties in France, have compelled women to take up concrete demands which differ from country to country. In the case of India, the socio-economic and cultural differences with the advanced capitalist world are so profound that it would be strange if the women’s or labour movement simply parroted the slogans of its counterparts elsewhere. Over the last decade and a half, women’s organizations there have concentrated on a number of demands, many of which are probably alien to women in the West. We have taken up the cause of maid-servants, fought against temple-prostitution, denounced superstition and witch-hunting, opposed deforestation and the exploitation of Dalit and tribal women. The problems of women living in slums and the socio-economic oppression of working-class and peasant women have always been to the forefront. This is hardly surprising, as the overwhelming majority of women in India live in conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation. At the same time, rape, wife-beating, economically motivated killings and other atrocities against women show no sign of declining. The tasks confronting the women’s movement in India are formidable indeed. This brief essay is an attempt to explain our situation to sisters and the Left in the West.

During the seventies there was a new rise of women’s struggles in India, which marked a break with all previous tradition and provided a tremendous stimulus to the network of women’s groups. Never before had women mobilized around demands related specifically to their gender. In the 19th century the reform movement against female infanticide and Sati (self-immolation of widows), for widow remarriage and the education of women, was initiated and pursued by liberal men. Women thus became the object of a liberal humanitarianism, which reached its apogée during the days of independence struggles. Subsequently, however, women were encouraged to return to their domestic labours, and although the Constitution of independent India guarantees ‘equal status’ to women, the overwhelming majority have not seen any improvement in their conditions of life. A striking illustration of this can be seen in the demography of contemporary India: the mortality rate among women is higher than that of men; and there has been a continuous decline of the gender ratio, from 972 females per thousand males in 1901 to 930 per thousand in 1971.

The development of capitalism in India, as in other parts of the Third World, has had a contradictory impact, incorporating pre-capitalist social and economic relations and introducing new ones that compel women to face up to other challenges. For working-class women, of course, there has always been a strong compulsion to seek work outside the home, although all research indicates that economic development has generally tended to push them out of the labour force. In a country where most of the population is never fully employed, women showed up in the 1981 Census as a mere 14 per cent of those at work. In sectors where women do find stable employment, they receive unequal wages for equal work, particularly in the mines, plantations and agri-business.

The intensification of capitalist production methods in the countryside has crystallized a new layer of rural rich, while many peasants and marginal farmers have lost their landholdings. This has dramatically increased the proportion of women agricultural labourers, who now make up fifty per cent of the female workforce. Only six per cent of women are in the organized sector, where the conditions of work are little better than for the unorganized. For the latter the remuneration is precarious, the work insecure, tedious, tiring and psychologically damaging. Technological changes have adversely affected job opportunities for women in agriculture and manufacturing. Urban women workers are now concentrated in food-processing, garment, construction and other small-scale industries, while low-caste women have to work as sweepers, scavengers and domestic servants. Few working women are provided with facilities such as hostels, creches and legal advice.

The fact that in modern India roughly three-quarters of its female citizens are illiterate speaks volumes. The last three decades have witnessed a rise in the absolute number of highly educated and skilled women, but the total is still pitiful when compared with the millions of illiterate women who operate permanently on the margins of subsistence. For those who do have more than basic training and education, the biggest openings are in teaching and nursing. By 1978, nearly 750,000 women were employed in education, out of a total of three million, although as in most other countries the proportion becomes particularly unfavourable as one moves up into higher education (28,000 out of 133,000). footnote1

Poor women are regularly used as guinea-pigs in the testing of birth control devices and drugs. Multinational companies, assisted by local ruling classes pursuing their own economic interests, have no compunction about the introduction of drugs like Depo-Provera and E.P. Forte, and Asian feminists cannot afford to overlook this direct influence of the Western capitalist powers on our social and cultural life. In the West, the women’s movement campaigns for free and legal abortion and contraception, but in India we have to fight against forced sterilization and abortion campaigns, such as the one conducted during Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency. Even those who opposed this tended to be most shocked by the use of the surgeon’s knife on men. The maltreatment of women was too easily forgotten, as was the fact that the whole operation took place under the auspices of the World Bank. Techniques such as amniocentesis and ante-natal sex determination are also being abused: to put it bluntly, scientific advances have been utilized in India to encourage female infanticide—one reason for the declining gender ratio.

The violence inflicted on Indian women exists on virtually every level of society: within the family, within the workforce, and at the hands of the state. In town and countryside the police treat poor women as sex objects, and the instances of rape of peasant and working-class women are far too numerous to be recounted. Many women prisoners have described the humiliation they have undergone through perverse sexual abuses and particularly brutal forms of torture. To all this must be added the violence associated with religion and allied pre-capitalist customs. Several hundred brides were burned to death by their husbands in 1984 alone, after marriage had served its purpose of extracting a dowry. The killers could then move on to fresh victims. The scale of deaths was so great that even the Delhi police was compelled to set up a special ‘dowry squad’, although with very little consequence. Certain interpretations of Hindu religious customs are also used to force women into prostitution. Muslim laws deprive Indian Muslim women of most of the rights enjoyed by their sisters in a country like Turkey or Egypt. The conditions of tribal women have worsened as capitalism has penetrated their sanctuaries and deforestation has driven them to live on the margins of the cities.