With both of them enriching and inspiring the other, Feminism and the Women’s Movement have been running quite parallel around the world in different timeframes. While out of the two, the Women’s Movement is a much earlier phenomenon, Feminism is a modern term. The Women’s Movement began as a social reform movement in the 19th century in India when through contact with the west, the elite members of Indian society tried to adopt the English culture. Western liberalism put forward a big question about women and subsequently pivoted to a social reform movement. 

First used in 1871, the term Feminism was used to describe a cessation in the development of the reproductive organs of the males. Then picked up by a French writer, the term was used to describe women who behaved in a supposedly masculine way. But it only became widely popular when the Women’s Right Movement in the US emerged, which was followed by the questions put up by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Wollstonecraft in their writings. 

Looking back, one can clearly identify three waves of the movement, with their crests and troughs apparent enough. Though one can talk about the different phases of feminism, one cannot deny the fact that there has been and there is, a continuum of thoughts and activities throughout that have been evolving. 

In the first phase from 1850-1915, the culture was being imbibed by the people. The movements were not completely homogeneous and varied immensely in terms of the ideas and the mission with a common epicentre of rooting out all the social evils against women. In this pre-independence period, while the bourgeois in the society was emerging, the intervention also penetrated into the society, the intellect and the values. Some people sought resistance by resorting to Cultural Defence, as referred by K.N. Panikkar, but mostly all of the social reformers at large shared the common belief that if its women are backward, no society can progress. The position of women in India was abysmally low, which is why their endeavours aimed at the overall improvement of women not just through legislation, but also political action and right education. 

The reformers did not radically challenge the patriarchal norms and structure of the society immediately, but they picked up issues which were being pointed out in Britain as well. Initially, women would speak within the parameters defined by men, but when the movement gained momentum they discovered their own voice and stance, independent of others. The reform has its own paradox back then. While on one hand, the ideas were British, there was a constant need for revivalism of the cultural identity of the masses in general. Since it was difficult to strike a balance between the two, women joined in the struggle encouraged by Gandhi, but as an extension of their domestic work.

The revival of traditions was also falsely based on keeping the women restricted to more traditional roles. The first wave was helpful in eliminating prejudices and provide a safe and secured space for women in the contemporary realm. While Raja Ram Mohan Roy argued against Sati, Rabindranath Tagore made an appeal for the removal of legal disabilities of remarried Hindu widows besides supporting the establishment of girls’ school in Kolkata. Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar fought for the literacy for women, Keshav Chandra Sen was instrumental in the adoption of the Native Marriage Act, 1872. Regional organizations like Pandita Rama Bai’s Sharda Sadan (1892) in Poona, and Maternity and Child Welfare League in Baroda (1914) among others were followed by national organizations like Women’s Indian Association (1917), the National Council of Women in India (1920), Federation of University Women in India (1920) and All India Women’s Conference (1926) with the aim of stimulating the interests of women in public and personal life on the legal, economic and social front. 

The second phase from 1915-1947, witnessed the birth of three organizations as mentioned above. All three of them were formed after the World War I. During this time when nationalism became the blood of the people in India, Gandhi not just legitimized, but also expanded the Women’s Movement by initiating the non-violent Civil Disobedience Movement. With his broad meaning of Swaraj, women also sought confidence and consciousness that they too can fight against oppression. Besides leaders like Sarojini Naidu and Kamala Devi, a thousand others were readily participating. In the following decades, women showed active participation in the freedom movement paving the way for some women-only organisations. Organizations like the Bharat Stree Mahamandal set up by Sarala Devi had opened many branches in a short timespan and addressed problems like Purdah (a veil), which to them was a stumbling block in the path to the acceptance of female education. 

A good thing to notice here is the fact that gradually, women were abandoning support roles and were coming to the front and taking the lead. With the inauguration of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Lahore by a procession of 5000 women, the birth of Andhra Mahila Sabha by Durga Bai Deshmukh and the crucial Dandi March, which was a private issue linked to the daily lives of the people in the kitchen at large, women were taking charge and people were at least beginning to give them the importance and liberty that they deserved. There was an upsurge of them, which surprised not only the British but also their own menfolk. Not just their display of courage, but their organizational power was awe-inspiring. It was something unprecedented, something that the men thought was “born”, and not “discovered”. Their struggle was two-pronged. They were fighting not only the British Raj but the Pitr Raj, or Patriarchy and they were successful, at least to an extent. 

The third phase of the Women’s Movement started with the women getting equal rights as that of men, including the right to vote as per the constitution of India. There were policies, both new and amended, but there was also a huge gap between the theoretical status of women and their rights as defined by the constitution and what existed in reality. But the freedom struggle ended with another struggle altogether. Industrialization, illiteracy, changing technologies, lack of mobility, all led to the inability of women to cope up with the new order. Since their labour was regarded as unimportant in the productive market, their role and contribution to their families also came to be seen as marginal. 

Gradually, again, things started to change. With constitutional measures like the Marriage Act of 1954 and The Hindu Code Bill of 1955-56, issues of marriage, succession, divorce, guardianship and adoption were being taken up. The Hindu Succession Act, 1956, The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, The Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961, The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961 were also introduced. In the early stages of economic crisis and stagnation, the CPI(M), in 1971, set up the Shramik Mahila Sangathana (Working Women’s Organization), to mobilise women of the lower middle class affected by the economic hardship. With the first major celebration of International Women’s Day in 1975, anti-dowry campaigns, protests against harassment among others were initiated and issues like rape, dowry deaths, division of housework, violence became the centrepiece of the movement. The movement reinscribed the concerns of modernity, national integrity and progress, all of them running parallel to each other. 

In the year 1974, the official Status of Women Commission published their report, ‘Towards Equality’, which emphasised the harsh reality of women’s decreasing status in the society in India. The report brought to light the negligible role of women in political, social and economic areas. With alarming facts about employment, health status and political participation, it highlighted that society has failed in adopting the norms and institutions. It pointed out that the concern for women that received an impetus during the fight against British Raj had already faded away. After the Towards Equality Report of 1974, “A Blue Print of Action Points and National Plan of Action for Women 1976” was published, separate chapters in the sixth and seven five-year plans were added. 

Since then, growing fundamentalism, marginalised women’s rights and women representation have also been included under the spectrum of the Women’s Movement. Aiming to provide full employment and self-reliance to women, the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was founded by the Civil Rights leader Ela Bhatt. A perspective plan for women was released in 1988. A National Commission for Women was also set up on 31 January 1992. The Women’s Reservation Bill was passed. The Eighth five-year plan shifted from ‘development’ to ‘empowerment’ of women with the launch of Mahila Samridhi Yojana. The Ninth five-year plan focused on the women class among minorities. The SAARC Decade of the plan of action focused on the girl child (2000). The tenth five-year plan was a step ahead in ensuring gender equality goals by proposing gender budgeting whereas the eleventh and twelfth five-year plan focused on key aspects including health, education, governance and urbanisation. The developments in technology have also proved to be helpful for recent campaigns like #MeToo while posing an eternal threat to the privacy and security of the people. 

Gender Studies is also an offshoot of the Women’s Movement in India. Though a lot has been achieved, a lot more is yet to be achieved, and the differences between ‘Women on Paper’ and ‘Women in Reality’ have to be eradicated. The current wave is high, but is the water still silent?

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