‘There Is No Room For Cynicism or Pessimism in the Women’s Movement’- Brinda Karat
‘March 8 Zindabad!’
Brinda Karat, CPI(M Politburo, is a consistent and strong voice for women’s rights. And has been for decades walking the roads, visiting the field, and holding the hands of women in need even when others have given up. She brings her experience and depth of understanding into this interview with The Citizen answering a range of questions from the significance of March 8, to women in movements, and the struggle against patriarchy and for social change and justice.
Q. Another Women’s Day! You have been leading the struggle for gender rights for years and years now, it’s just another day that doesn’t really deliver isn’t it?
A. For movements, days of historical significance are important symbols. March 8 is in that sense an assertion of many of the values that form the foundation of women’s struggles for social change. It is indeed a twist of history that 120 years after the declaration of an International Women’s Day, the issues which moved socialist women under the leadership of the revolutionary Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) to give the call to observe a day as International Women’s Day should once again take centre stage.
In 1910, at the Second Socialist International Congress of Working Women, 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, endorsed Zetkin’s proposal.
There were three main issues on which the day was to be observed. The first was the demand of working women, the second the demand for women’s right to vote and the third was that of peace. What started as a call by socialist women echoed across the world with country after country accepting the day as Women’s Day and finally the United Nations in 1975 gave the call for International Women’s Day on March 8.
Women across classes, regions, and communities raise the demands of women’s emancipation on March 8. Today in India we see the emergence of a social alliance of patriarchy with majoritarian communalism— manuvad and Hindutva— which makes the assertion of women’s autonomy and independence al the more important.
So my answer is— no, it is not just another day, it symbolizes women’s struggles for social change and justice.
Q. There must have been a time when you started out that you felt you would be able to change the course .. I know we did when we started as journalists.. of women’s status in India. Looking back do you feel optimistic about the future or are more cynical now?
A. My work among and with women, especially of the labouring classes has taught me that however tough the going is, women have the resilience to take it on the chin and fight back. Women of the working poor, Adivasi and dalit women do not have the luxury of helplessness or feeling cynical. They get up every morning knowing the distress, the pain, the difficulties, the hard work, the sweat and blood that the day may extract, that is the daily fight. Activists in the movement learn from that.
There is no room for cynicism in the movement. One can feel despondent or frustrated and angry at developments which bring clouds of darkness over achievements of decades of struggles— but these are momentary individual responses. The strength for someone like me has always been in the collective efforts, the shared experiences, the determination of struggles and most of all the ideological foundation of our work and that is why I am never cynical or pessimistic.
Q. A landmark achievement of the women’s struggle over the last decades. Or achievements.
A. In the sphere of legal reform since 2010, there have been significant achievement such as the changes on laws concerning rape, sexual harassment, sexual violence against minors following the national struggle after the Nirbhaya case. 2010 also saw the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha, it was a landmark achievement though it was sabotaged in the Lok Sabha.
I think the striking down of the practice of Triple Talaq by the Supreme Court was a significant achievement, though once again this was hijacked by the BJP to pass a law which demonized Muslim men. However the process of reforms in personal laws because of the efforts of Muslim women and democratic women’s organisations was positive.
But more importantly I think the last decade has seen a widening and broadening of women’s struggles and platforms to fight against the most important issue of our times— the challenges posed by a fascistic Government, which is committed to implement their vision of a theocratic India. The consequent assault on democracy and secular values and the policies of neo- liberal policies affecting women’s livelihood, has a profound impact on women.
I think it is an achievement that women’s organisations and movements understand and fight this challenge. Additionally issues and struggles for food security, of equal wages and safe and secure working conditions against sexual harassment at the workplace have made changes in the lives of women.
The struggles of working women and particularly the sustained struggles of lakhs of women working in anganwadis or in other Government schemes are also an important factor and an achievement . All these different aspects of women’s struggles over the last decade have added strength to united movements which seek to challenge the present majoritarian status quo.
This is a long way from the early post- emergency years when there was an attempt by some within the movement to limit analysis and struggles only within the framework of male- female equations.
Q. The women’s movement in india has struggled for reforms within the minorities. Is the Anti CAA movement that brought Muslim women into the leading role a step forward?
A. The role of Muslim women in the anti- CAA movement has been a historic contribution and inspiration to all women struggling for change. I would not though put this assertion within the framework of struggles for social reform within the ambit of personal laws. The major difference is that in the anti- CAA movement Muslim women had the support of the community as a whole although they certainly challenged many stereotypes. But in the struggle for change in personal law reform Muslim women have had to often face the wrath of patriarchs within their own community including institutional hostility such as from the Muslim Personal Law Board which is dead against any type of reform.
Women of all communities fighting for change within their own communities face the same hostility just as we saw in the violent reactions of Hindu fundamentalists in the struggle for Hindu law reform.
But yes, it is true that women within the community in the anti- CAA movement sensed the strength of collective action, developed inspiring leadership qualities, challenged many who would have them stay within “ boundaries” . At a time when women’s organisations and movements were on the defensive against the assault on the constitution by the Modi Government, it was Muslim women, young and old who gave the entire movement courage and confidence.
But the backlash has been huge. I wonder whether we realize the trauma and suffering of these thousands and lakhs of women who were out on the streets led by the Shaheen Bagh example, by the aggressive, toxic and unprecedented offensive of the Hindutva forces against them. We know what happened in Delhi’s north east, with the all out communal assault and violence by the sangh Parivar— the aim was to silence Muslim women, to end the struggle against the CAA and to teach them a lesson.
From our own work in the area we know that the targets of the sanghis were the eight women’s protest sites of sit-ins. On this March 8, the women of the anti- CAA protests are symbols of struggle and also of the huge attack on minorities.
Q. Patriarchy has always been part of the farmers movement in the past under Charan Singh and that ilk. This time the farmers movement is drawing women from all across.. would you see in this a challenge to patriarchal control? Or is that being too optimistic?
A. The role of women farmers has been extraordinary in the struggle. It is significant that the United platform of farmers the Sanyukt Kisan Manch ( SKM) has recognized the role of women and included the issues of women farmers in their struggle. Feudal and retrogressive practices and ideologies driven by caste and patriarchy have been dominant in many of the regions now up in struggle. For example the role of Khap panchayats which did not even allow the presence of women have been strongly opposed by women’s struggles and organisations.
An interesting exchange between a leading popular activist of the All India Democratic Women’s Association in Haryana and a Khap panchayat leader at one of the Kisan mobilizations illustrates the change. He said to her “ Oh you are the one who criticized us for Honour crimes ..today you are on our stage.” And pat came the answer “ I did and I will because I do not agree on what you did. But today I agree with and am part of the struggle for farmers rights so I am here.” The old man looked at her, smiled and said “ barabar ki shakti .” ..” (with equal strength).
I think it is a step forward. But we are still a way before we can say that this is a challenge to patriarchal control. Right now the patriarchs are not opposing women’s role since it is seen as strengthening a joint struggle. But yes, processes have their own incremental impact, so in the long run one can hope it will lead to some positive change.
Q. In the students movement and as activists women are playing a big role. And so many young girls have been jailed. Will this have a major impact on the women’s movement and if so how?
A. Women students have played a heroic role in many of the ongoing struggles and the brave President of JNU Students Union Oishe Ghosh brutally beaten on the head by the sanghi goons, symbolized that struggle.
I think the links between student movements and women’s organisations and movements need to be strengthened. There was a time when the mood in colleges and campuses was determined more by the cultural impact of neo- liberal policies, the distancing in general from student organizations and also social issues which were considered passé .
The last decade has seen the changes wrought on campuses with the onslaught of communal mobilizations, the attacks on dalit student rights such as in the Rohit Vemula institutional murder case and the subsequent push back by students in general, bringing strength to democratic politics on campuses.
Left student organisations have played a very significant role in this resistance. The young people jailed under the draconian UAPA are precisely because the ruling regime understands the significance of the challenges posed to their authoritarian policies by the campuses.Girl students have been very active in the struggle. Many more young women after they leave campuses also remain active in women’s movements bringing energy and fresh thinking into the struggle.
Q. The demand for reservation in legislatures seems to have been dropped. Not important any longer?
A. I think it is extremely important but I think the extremely negative role of women MPs of the ruling party have a demoralizing impact since they are aggressive in their support for the most anti- women policies of the ruling regime and are complicit by their silence in cases of atrocities committed by BJP leaders on women.
So the question arises what is the use of reservations if women who are so anti- women in their approach come into Parliament. While one can understand this feeling I do not share it. The struggle for Women’s Reservation is to challenge the established male dominance in decision making bodies just as we challenge it in other fields.
Our demand is not based on biological essentialism— which holds that women by their nature have qualities which will lead to pro- women stances. Our demand is based on the inequalities between men and women in the political sphere driven by male chauvinism and male power. Reservation is an instrument to break or weaken this. Having more women in public life also challenges cultural stereotypes of women’s role within the four walls of domestic responsibility.
It is striking that the right wing, like the ruling regime and its support base are against reservations for women. The RSS is on record that this will disrupt family life. The Modi Government has been conspicuous in its refusal to include the Women’s Bill on the business agenda of Parliament, in spite of a demand from many opposition parties. This is a demand and a struggle which requires more emphasis.
In sum, March 8, 2021 is an occasion to challenge the communal and authoritarian forces from a broad based platform in defence and advancement of women’s rights in the economic, political, social and cultural sphere.
March 8 Zindabad!
Cover Photograph Twitter -Women farmers leave the villages to join the protests at Delhi’s borders and in their states on March 8 Women’s Day. The stage has been taken over by them at all venues with songs and speeches being part of this huge assertion.