A Note on Policies, Positions and Direction of Work of the Women’s Organisation — Kavita Krishnan

In this session, we will discuss the broad policy orientation for the women’s organisation. There are many specific issues, struggles and debates with which we are already quite familiar, and on which we will not dwell in detail in this session. Rather, in the light of the systematic understanding and perspective we have already discussed in the previous two sessions, we can draw a broad outline of AIPWA’s policy approach and its emphasis and direction. Some of the questions we can consider are: What differentiates AIPWA from other women’s organisations and trends in the women’s movement, and what is AIPWA’s approach towards the latter? What is AIPWA’s relationship to the party? Naturally, in the course of our discussion, we will also try to review some of our own popular perceptions and ways of articulating positions, keeping in mind what we’ve learnt in the last two sessions.

This note is far from comprehensive and is quite open-ended: it is intended to open up our own ideas, practice and experience for introspection and discussion, rather than to foreclose the discussion.

Class and Gender

As we begin our discussion of the broad role and orientation of the women’s organisation, the first question we can consider is: Should the women’s movement in India restrict itself to ‘women’s issues’ alone? Or must it confront and address the entire range of social and political structures – through which women experience oppression?

Often, in our common parlance, or in a loose way of putting things, we tend to believe that patriarchy and ‘the system’ (by which we mean the economic and political structures of oppression) are separate. On the one hand, we have trends in the women’s movement which argue that the women’s movement should address gender-based oppression and ‘patriarchy’ alone. While our women’s organisation differs with this viewpoint, we also often make the mistake of seeing class and gender as two separate systems of oppression. We think our perspective is ‘Marxist’ as long as we hold class-based oppression to be more ‘primary’ than gender-based oppression. We tend to say we focus on issues of toiling women as opposed to gender issues – sometimes not realising how gender and women’s labour are inextricably linked. Some of us tend to think that we as a women’s organisation need to take up class issues because even if patriarchy and gender-based oppression (which we think is a more secondary form of oppression) were to end, class oppression would continue. But this formulation is actually not consistent with a Marxist standpoint. And this is not just an abstract academic debate – our clear understanding on this is very important as we give shape to our practice.

Women’s subordination does not lie in some abstract ‘patriarchy’ that floats above “the system”. Rather it is the peculiar and specific nature of women’s role in the system that constitutes the basis for her subordinate status in that system. Patriarchy and capitalism are not two separate systems: it’s the same system and its economic and political structures which exploit women – in ways that are distinct and different from the ways in which men are oppressed. Patriarchy is not a separate rung or tier of oppression resting on a more basic class oppression – patriarchy and patriarchal ideology are not like a set of clothes which capitalism can shed. Rather, the ‘system’ can be imagined like a body – with a basic structure of bones with flesh on top. Imagine that the skeleton is the material base and the flesh is the superstructure – the political institutions, ideological structures and so on; no doubt the flesh would not have any shape without the basic structure provided by the skeleton. In this sense, the economic basis primary and, in the ultimate analysis, determines the superstructure. However, the flesh is no superficial covering, and flesh and bones are taken together as a unity. Gender oppression, we will find, is inscribed in the material base of society itself – i.e it shapes the structure of the bones and it is also an integral part of the ideological ‘flesh’ that covers the bones. The women’s organisation must fight the entire body of the ‘system’, no doubt: but it has the tough task of identifying exactly how gender oppression is embedded in the DNA of the whole body – and in showing women, in the course of concrete struggles, how this process operates, so that they too are able to see the entire body of oppression, rather than just the small part – the hand or foot which is actually placed on their necks.

In brief, (as we have seen in earlier sessions), women’s reproductive role within the home actually subsidises capitalism. The institution of family and marriage comes into being, not so much as an institution based on human love and caring, but as a way of controlling women’s sexuality to ensure inheritance down the male line of ‘legitimate’ heirs. As a result, most societies are marked not just by an obsession about control of women’s sexuality but also by the fear of ‘uncontrolled’ sexuality of women. Linked to this is the sexualisation of women’s identities: that is, women are essentially equated with their sexuality. This may be obvious in ads using women’s bodies to sell any and everything – but, interestingly, it is true even of feudal societies which are obsessed with ‘covering up’ women’s bodies in purdah! Women’s entire bodies and self are taken to be a sexual part, dangerously disruptive and seductive, and therefore needing to be kept out of male sight. Also, women are basically seen as breeding machines – whose role of giving birth and mothering is highlighted as much as their sexual desires are suppressed and covered up. Even their appetites for food are associated with ‘dangerous’ sexual appetites, and so women are expected to fast, sacrifice food, ignore hunger. Motherhood is artificially dissociated from women’s sexuality, and mothers, while expected to endlessly breed, feed and nurture, are not supposed to experience hunger or sexual desire. Issues of women’s sexuality are therefore not merely ‘cultural’ matters which have nothing to do with questions of production – rather, they are closely linked to women’s enforced role in sustaining class society.

In capitalist society, as women enter the workforce, this sexualisation of their identities continues in newer forms. To take just one small recent example – see how our judiciary upheld that air-hostesses can be dismissed from their jobs for being overweight. When asked how come the same was not rigidly implemented for overweight male pilots, a Supreme Court judge lightly remarked, “Pilots don’t have to show their faces.” Sexual harassment at the workplace; rape of women agricultural labourers by landlords – all these are a reminder that women’s gender and sexuality shape their experience of work, and if we are to take up issues of working women, we must address these issues up front rather than dismissing them as ‘non-economic’ and less primary issues.

If patriarchy and class exploitation are organically and inseparably inter-twined in the same system, then it is pointless to ask, “What if patriarchy could be overthrown – would women still suffer other forms of oppression?” Rather, we must remind ourselves that patriarchy/gender oppression was born with class society, and can end only with the end of class society – so the struggle against patriarchy must continue right up till the point that class struggle itself does (in fact, as an integral part of the class struggle). Gender oppression cannot end even in a socialist society – rather, class struggle and the battle against gender oppression must be waged even within a socialist order.

AIPWA’s Ideological Orientation

We know that AIPWA is a mass organisation of the CPI(ML). The party has always recognised that the women’s movement (and therefore the women’s front too) has its own autonomy and specificity. AIPWA is a progressive, democratic women’s organisation, intended to mobilise on its platform every progressive trend in the women’s movement. AIPWA seeks to draw the broadest possible mass of women into the women’s movement, encouraging them to join in the struggle to end women’s subordination; to have a progressive outlook on matters relating to society and women; and equipping them with a revolutionary outlook on the women’s movement and broader social and political issues. AIPWA must also interact with all progressive forces in the women’s movement.

AIPWA’s autonomy also, very importantly, allows women working on the women’ front to experiment boldly to develop a communist praxis for work amongst women. Here, the ‘Explanatory Answers on the Fourth Congress Document’ offers a guideline: “(Women comrades) must undertake experiments in these areas (i.e running the women’s organisation, women’s magazine, etc…) and only in this way a theoretical contingent from among women will develop, not through classes or education alone. Summing up their own experiences gained in practice independently they can develop themselves.” Also, our party has always held that the “communist women organisation should play a role in exercising supervision over the Party and in creating pressure” on issues of gender sensitivity and violations of the rights and dignity of women.

AIPWA’s Approach Towards Other Women’s Groups

Political Organisations: The women’s wings of the communal fascist RSS seeks to mobilise women on a virulently communal and reactionary plank; in fact this reactionary outlook on women is a centrepiece of RSS ideology. The women’s groups of Congress and other bourgeois parties also have an (mostly unspoken) conservative social agenda vis a vis women, and are not willing to challenge anti-woman social ‘traditions’, even if they do not defend such traditions as openly as RSS does. These groups often have control over women’s institutions run by the Government, and their conservative approach is reflected in their handling of women’s issues.

Conservative women’s groups: Among the women’s groups, some have a very conservative agenda taking positions against the sati prohibition laws; defending the practice of dowry; arguing for ‘chastity’ in women, etc…. Except under very special circumstances, it is with these conservative and reactionary women’s groups that AIPWA cannot find any common ground.

NGOs: There are also various NGOs which largely speak a liberal, progressive language, which are funded by various agencies and even by governments. While there may be occasions for unity with some such groups on some issues, our ranks must be educated to recognise that the agenda of such NGOs actually opposes mobilising women as a political force against the state. While they speak out against the BJP and RSS, they largely work to provide legitimacy to other sections of the ruling class – like the Congress. And most such NGOs act as a wing of the state – implementing various welfare or development projects – and thus blocking the political development of the women.
With a range of feminist groups and individuals, AIPWA may disagree on many counts, but our basic orientation is to seek grounds of unity.

Some related questions:

a) Are we against ‘feminism’?

In patriarchal society, feminism is a progressive tendency. The notion that feminism is ‘anti-man’; or that feminism necessarily prioritises gender over class; that feminism is upper class, etc… are rather inaccurate and impressionistic. Let us take a brief look at some of the major trends in feminism.

Radical feminists hold that all women share some basic unity of experiences: in that sense they posit a primary contradiction between men and women. We point out, however, that women are divided by class: while women of all classes do experience gender discrimination, it is true that working class women would, often, have more in common with working class men than with women of the dominant classes. Liberal feminism, deriving from liberal political theory which was born with the rise of the bourgeoisie as a class, shares the liberal philosophical idea of society being based on rational and selfish individuals; of the State’s role being to regulate conflict between individuals by defending private property and intervening to provide welfare while upholding the free market; of the idea that the conflicting interests of rational individuals can be reconciled in a ‘just’ manner within capitalist society. While traditional liberal theory had excluded women (and workers and non-white people) from the category of rational citizens, and sought to protect the family (‘private sphere’, said to be women’s domain and the ‘haven from the heartless world’ of capitalism) from interference by the state (‘public sphere’, traditionally said to be the male domain), liberal feminism demanded legal and political recognition for women as equal citizens, asserted women’s right to participate in the public sphere, and demanded state regulation (new laws etc…) to ensure equality in the ‘private’ sphere too. The demand for legal and political equality for women remains the main plank of liberal feminism even today. While championing all the struggles for legal and political equality, our approach towards these struggles differs significantly from that of liberal feminism. A little ahead, we will consider these differences. Here it is enough to note that we recognise that capitalism as a system rests on exploitation of the labour of the working class and the domestic labour of women: and therefore class and gender are not ‘conflicts’ that can be ‘resolved’ within capitalism through any legal measures.

Socialist or Marxist feminists apply Marxist methods of analysis to understand women’s oppression. While not all socialist and Marxist feminists may be communists, the communist movement can certainly take many positive lessons from the work of these feminists. The broadest and most commonly agreed-upon definition of the word ‘feminist’ is anyone who considers that women’s subordination has a systematic basis and seeks to end such subordination. Communists above all hold that women’s subordination has a systematic basis and seek to end such subordination – the communist agenda therefore has ample scope to accommodate a feminist agenda. The approach suggested by our Fourth Congress Document is relevant: “Our comrades must be able to unite with these (feminist) organisations both in order to advance the programmes of these organisations as well as to politicise the more advanced elements of these organisations without resorting to unnecessary confrontationist practices.”

b) Attitude Towards Politics:

There are strands in the women’s movement who believe that that the movement, in order to be ‘autonomous’, must refrain from overtly political battles. Instead, they feel women must fight issue by issue, lobbying with political power groups and ruling parties to secure as many ‘facilities and amenities’ for women as possible. AIPWA argues against such an economistic understanding, pointing out that women’s social and economic issues cannot be divorced from politics. Without naming and confronting the economic and political formations that have an entrenched interest in perpetuating oppressive social practices and denying economic rights, it is not possible to win even the most basic of women’s rights.

c) Attitudes to Ruling Class Interventions and Demands for Legal/Political Equality:

The ruling class, in order to secure its hegemony, initiates various measures as concessions to deprived groups: reservations for backward castes is an example, as are various legal and political measures relating to women. While these measures may be reluctant concessions on part of the ruling class, often due to pressure from the women’s movement, the fact remains that the ruling class initiates such measures in its own long or short-term self-interest. AIPWA often raises demands that relate to such ruling class initiatives: for instance, demands of 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies; for enactment and progressive amendments in laws against rape, sati, dowry, sexual harassment, domestic violence, demands for higher honorarium for ASHA workers, employment and facilities like creches for women as promised under NREGA etc… How can we define our approach to these struggles, so that we remain vigilant against falling into any sort of liberal illusions about these measures, and at the same time guard against facile dismissal of such ‘reforms’ as ‘useless’?

In this context, Marx’s advice to the working class on the question of its approach towards its everyday struggles (for wage increase, better working conditions, shorter working day etc…), is helpful and relevant:

Marx advised that the working class, in its everyday struggles, “ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, not with the causes of those effects; …applying palliatives, not curing the malady.” Rather than “limiting themselves to a guerrilla war against the effects of the existing system” they must “simultaneously (try) to change it”, use “their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class…the ultimate abolition of the wages system.” (Wages, Price and Profit, Selected Works, p 225-226) The necessary phases of revolutionary movement required to do so cannot be evaded by legal or parliamentary means, but struggles for such means and measures can “shorten and lessen the birth pangs” of this revolutionary transformation. (Capital Vol I, p 20)

It is not enough for us to declare that laws and policies introduced by the ruling class cannot improve the condition of women because they are ruling class interventions, or because discrimination and violence are ‘inevitable’ within the capitalist system. For instance, take the Domestic Violence Act, which has quite a few progressive provisions towards protecting the rights of women facing domestic violence. Would it be right for us to declare that the law, however progressive and welcome, is basically quite useless, because after all, domestic violence is ‘inevitable’ in capitalist society? Would it be correct for us to declare that we’re not interested in various reforms, facilities, and amenities because such measures can at best secure temporary relief? That for us, reform and welfare measures for women are just a means to a larger end: i.e an excuse to organise women for wider social change? Surely not.

After all, we know that exploitation of workers is ‘inevitable’ as long as wage slavery lasts; yet communists have waged — and continue to wage — long, fierce struggles to expand workers’ rights and improve their wages and working conditions – to force the capitalist class to concede more and more ground. In the same way, the communist women’s movement must wage serious struggles to force the ruling class to concede more and more rights and welfare measures – not as a final end in themselves or as a guarantee of women’s liberation, it is true; but not as mere camouflage for some other goal either; rather as an integral part of the struggle for revolutionary change, shortening the birth pangs of a new revolutionary social order.

Women’s winning the vote; or legal equality with men; or forcing capitalist governments to run crèches; or winning proportional political representation in panchayats; or (as in the case of the Domestic Violence Act), winning the right not to be evicted from the husband’s/partner’s or father’s home etc… – are very real victories; it is another matter that the struggle cannot end once these victories are won. Rather, a more arduous struggle begins: to mobilise women to demand that the pro-women laws do not remain on paper, restricted to a select few; to demand that the poorest women have access to each and every right; to demand that the capitalist class provide the education, healthcare and wages that can put women in a position to actually avail of the benefits provided.

If we merely tell women, “the pro-women laws and measures are eye-wash; the government has passed it to win some respite and legitimacy for itself”, why should women believe us? But militant mobilisations of women to get the laws and measures implemented will open the eyes of the women more effectively than any declaration of ours – it will demonstrate to them how reluctant the ruling class is to allow the mass of people to have any real access even to the benefits of laws introduced by it.

In a very important sense the struggle to win bourgeois reforms and wage struggles for their implementation is a central part of the communist struggle for democratic revolution. In the course of such struggles, the mass of people – including women – get a hands-on experience of the truth that Lenin had pointed out about bourgeois freedoms: “Its (the bourgeoisie’s) supporters everywhere used the liberty they acquired like masters, reducing it to moderate and meticulous bourgeois doses, combining it with the most subtle methods of suppressing the revolutionary proletariat in peaceful times and with brutally cruel methods in stormy times.” (p. 121, Two Tactics). Communists, in the phase of democratic revolution, strive to establish leadership of workers and peasants, so that the bourgeois democratic freedoms do not remain doled out in tiny doses and restricted by repression. Instead, if the proletariat leads the democratic revolution, the broadest possible section of the working people – men and women both – can have a real access to these freedoms and use these freedoms as a weapon in the battle for socialism.

The women’s movement must take it as a central task to mobilise the mass of women to lay claim to the freedoms meted out in tiny doses by the bourgeoisie; to defend and widen the scope of each of these freedoms; to use each of these freedoms as a weapon in the battle for women’s liberation.

Which section of women do we seek to organise?

The exploitation of women’s labour is at the root of their oppression and subordination – and this exploitation takes place in a variety of ways depending on class, stage of development of society, etc… We need a women’s organisation to reach out to women in every possible area of society, and to address the specific ways in which women are exploited and oppressed in each of these various areas: from the field to the factory, from the family to the red-light area, from fashion ramp to film industry, etc…, and to organise and mobilise women in struggle in all these areas.

By drawing a large mass of women into the workforce, capitalism lays the ground for women’s liberation. Why? Women’s work even within homes was crucial to sustaining the system. But when masses of women come out of their homes, earn incomes independently of their husbands or fathers, work together with other women as well as men in the workplace (thus finding an entirely new avenue of solidarity and unity), it opens up enormous possibilities for marching ahead towards women’s liberation. This is why we particularly emphasise on organising these new forces of women who are being drawn into the workforce. That’s why we’ve chosen the slogan of ‘equal rights, equal opportunities’ for the AIPWA 5th National Conference – because our central focus is on the discriminations and inequalities faced by these women in the workplace and the market. However, the way we conceptualise ‘equal rights and equal opportunities’ is different from the way in which liberal feminists define it. For the latter, ‘equality’ is usually ‘equal opportunity in the eyes of the market’. Even this formal equality is all too often denied – lesser wages for equal work and other discriminatory practices (such as different codes for looks, clothes and weight for women) abound even in the more well-paid jobs. But even if the formal equality is achieved, the fact remains that the marketplace cannot be a level playing field for the vast majority of women. This is because the mass of working women have to bear the double burden of the care of children, old and sick people – and this burden automatically limits their ability to avail of ‘equal opportunities,’ and also allows the employers to pay them less wages – in some cases on the ground that they work fewer hours, but in other cases, where this is not true, just by convention – e.g., women bidi workers getting less for the same thousand pieces of bidi]. For the communist women’s movement, ‘equal opportunity’ can be a reality only if domestic work is socialised. In India, too, as more and more women enter the workforce, the demand that the state provide crèches, free healthcare and care for the elderly etc… is bound to gather momentum – though it is yet to take shape. As a preliminary step towards this, we should intensify our struggles to ensure that there as crèches for women employed under NREGA, to protest against the cut-backs in healthcare, and to demand free and universal healthcare.

Why is it that these forces of women workers can deliver the sharpest blow to patriarchy? Because for them, unlike for the better-off, better-paid women, no individual solutions are possible: they cannot buy or hire the labour of other women to take on the tasks of domestic labour. So they are impelled to make demands on a share of the state’s resources – and therefore they hit capitalism harder.

However, in spite of their relative privileges, women from the upper classes too continue to remain socially and economically subordinated. In the home, all the labour-saving devices and the hired labour of others do not change the fact that it is they who remain responsible for the lion’s share of domestic labour. This is particularly true of middle class working women, who have little wealth beyond their salaries. The family is still the institution to ensure the transfer of private property along the male line – and this maintains the basis for the control of women’s sexual freedom, all the more so in the affluent classes. They also continue to face violence both inside the family and inequality and violence at work.

So we do not pit women workers against educated women, relatively privileged women, or better-paid women. Rather, it is an important part of our work to take up the struggles of women students, women academics, working women in the relatively better-paid jobs etc…, and to make these sections of women realise how their own struggles are linked with those of the broader mass of women workers. We leave it to the anti-woman political forces (such as the opponents of the Women’s Reservation Bill) to caricature ‘urbanised educated women’ with epithets like ‘parkati /balkati’ and so on. Far from pitting women workers against the urban educated women, we make every effort to get the latter sections of women to realise that their own freedom is dependent on a revolutionary change in society’s dependence on exploitative relations of production and reproduction, and thereby to get this section of the women’s movement to link their own struggles with those of working class women.

Relentless Struggle against Feudal Ideology and Practices

In India, the caste system provided most of the bonds for ‘binding’ the workers. Maintenance of this system required the rigid control of women’s sexuality, especially in the case of the propertied upper castes. Women were the ‘borders’ between the castes; and these borders were heavily policed; if they married outside the caste, the caste’s ‘purity’ would be breached. Though women of ‘lower’ labouring castes were relatively more free, in the absence of land or property requiring lineage to be established, that freedom is now being eroded for a variety of reasons. In India, feudal remnants are very strong even today – its symptoms include explicit hierarchies and subordination of women: the purdah; the husband as lord and master; father and brothers have full control over who she will marry; honour killings in case of inter-community marriage; women are so devalued as to be killed off at birth or in the womb and where the father pays to get rid of his daughter etc… The caste system and the openly unequal position of women are the major elements of feudal shackles that bind the productive forces in India. Women in particular have a stake in the democratic revolution, which, if completed in under the leadership of workers and peasants, can usher in massive freedoms in women’s lives.

Patriarchal Common Sense

Patriarchal ideology, petit bourgeois morality, liberal ideas and even feudal values often tends to appear as ‘common sense’ in society, and therefore some elements of these persist stubbornly even within the communist movement and its women’s organisation. We need to educate our ranks to recognise and resist it. Let us discuss some such attitudes.

As we have seen, liberal political theory traditionally associated the ‘private’ with women and ‘public’ with men. In India, this private-public dichotomy became a very powerful part of bourgeois nationalist ideology. Nationalists on the one hand asserted that men of the non-white races too were ‘rational’ enough to be citizens. But they also felt threatened by colonial intervention, and therefore sought comfort in the idea that while the ‘public’ sphere and men’s lifestyle had been colonised, the ‘private’ sphere – women’s lives inside the home and women’s bodies – continued to preserve ‘Indian/Hindu culture’ in its pure form, uncorrupted by colonialism. This was why there was so much resistance to any attempt to change the Hindu marriage laws, age of consent etc… This ideological legacy affects us even today. Popular films even today love to show how ‘western culture’ is corrupting Indians – and contrast it with the character of the ‘pure’ Indian woman who preserves tradition within her own body and eventually reforms and redeems the corrupted culture.

We on the Left do not officially subscribe to such an ideology – nevertheless liberal ideology has been so dominant that we often tend to accept some aspects of it as ‘common sense’. For instance, we tend to internalise the idea of the separation of ‘private’ and ‘public’ spheres. We sometimes tend to think that issues of the ‘private’ sphere, family, etc… are less ‘political’ than those of the ‘public’ sphere.

For instance, sometimes we are told that domestic violence has nothing to do with class or with economic exploitation; that taking up such issues within the family will ‘divide’ the people and weaken class unity. Such an approach is a distortion and caricature of Marxism. Marxism recognises that domestic violence is a direct form of controlling and exploiting women’s labour within the home. Since the exploitation of women’s labour is a crucial requirement of capitalist production, all our attempts to resist this exploitation and violence within the home is bound to strengthen the class struggle.

Another distorted representation of Marxism is to suggest that the issue of domestic work is an issue only for middle class women – and therefore of secondary importance. Is it really true that only middle class women wish to be freed from the drudgery of domestic work? Far from it; domestic work is a key aspect of the exploitation of women’s labour, that calls for changing the way in which society organises production and reproduction.

We easily recognise and firmly resist feudal practices like dowry, sati and various obscurantist practices. But it is less easy to recognise and fight feudal attitudes when they appear to be a critique of capitalism. It is common in our society to valorise the family as a bastion of ‘traditional’ values; to disapprove of the breakdown of the family, and blame capitalist modernity for the breakdown of family traditions. A good example of this is the recent Supreme Court verdict which lamented that the Hindu Marriage Act (one of the first legal reforms of the Hindu civil laws that extended some basic legal rights to women) was causing more divorces, and declared that ‘divorce is not part of Hindu tradition’. We need to guard against such attitudes, which blame the breakdown of the traditional family rather than the capitalist State for the failure to provide care for children, elderly, and the sick. In a situation where state-provided services for such tasks are either non-existent or very poor, the family appears to be the ‘haven from the heartless world’. In India, this explains the nostalgia, often expressed in cinema for the joint family, where the elderly are cared for and in turn care for the young; an idyllic image that effaces the fact that the very same family is also the site of horrific violence, dowry burnings, oppressive surveillance of women and brutal and forceful control of women’s sexual choices in the name of ‘honour’. Instead of sharing this misplaced nostalgia for feudal familial values, we must acknowledge the family’s role as prison house, as training ground for women’s role as domestic slave. Gorakh Pandey’s scathing indictment reminds us of how ‘every home has prison walls/every house is a burning ghat/every home has a gallows’ (‘Ghar ghar mein deewarein hain/ghar ghar mein shmashan ghat hai/ghar ghar mein phansi ghar hai’).

When conservative women’s groups deal with divorce or domestic violence cases (for instance, in the crime against women cells or family courts), they usually seek to save the marriage, to persuade and pressurise women to remain in abusive, violent and unhappy marriages. Our approach is in sharp contrast to such an attitude. In dealing with such cases of conflict within marriages, it is not our concern or purpose to save the marriage or to break the marriage: our purpose is primarily to raise the consciousness and confidence of the woman and strive to create the material basis for her confidence, in terms of economic independence as well as involvement in political activism. We encourage the woman to stand on her own feet – be it within the marriage on a fresh footing or outside the marriage.

It is true that capitalist society creates bourgeois individualism – including somewhat greater economic and sexual freedom for women (though this has happened to a very limited extent in India’s semi-feudal variety of capitalist development). But it is very important for us to remember that “with all its defects, bourgeois individualism represents an advance over feudalism” (Johanna Brenner, Women and the Politics of Class, Aakaar Books, 2006). At every step, we must beware of glorifying feudal ‘traditional’ values in the name of resisting capitalism. Even as we hold capitalism responsible for its commodification of women, and for the neglect of children and the elderly, we must defend each and every freedom that women enjoy [in a relative sense] in capitalism – the freedom to dress as they wish, love and marry according to their choice, freedom to divorce, freedom to break any relationship where love no longer exists etc… Our critique of these bourgeois freedoms is not from a feudal, traditionalistic standpoint: rather it is from the vantage point of socialism. In other words, we critique these freedoms because each of them comes with continuing chains of economic inequality and new forms of exploitation; because women are not free enough, not because women are too free!

We do not ask women to exchange the relative freedoms offered by capitalism for the dubious ‘protection’ offered by feudal traditionalism. In conservative feudal ideology, men are considered ‘pro-women’ as long as they treat women as their ‘mothers or sisters’. “Don’t you have mothers or sisters at home?” is the question that is often asked to sexual harassers. But in actuality the ‘rakhi’ ideology – the ideology of men ‘protecting’ mothers and sisters is an extremely oppressive one. The Rizwan-Priyanka case, the Nitish Katara murder, and innumerable such cases all remind us of how oppressive feudal ‘protection’ really is. We want men to treat women as their equals, not as ‘mothers and sisters’.

One of the foremost areas where petit-bourgeois morality tends to infect even the Left ranks is that of women’s sexuality. Take an instance in 1990, responding to the rape of 3 women in Birati near Kolkata, CPI(M)’s party organ PD had carried a statement by the West Bengal General Secretary, Ganatantrik Mahila Samity. The statement had commented that the three rape victims had “stayed in the unauthorised hutments”; that “so many women of that area… were involved in foul professions and such honeymoons of these women with the anti-socials were an open secret” and that one of the victims was “the mistress of a notorious anti-social”. This statement echoed the widespread idea that prostitution is a ‘foul profession’ that corrupts society; prostitutes are women without ‘honour’; without izzat; and rapes of women who in any case have no honour/izzat are somehow justified. Within our own ranks, only if we consciously and relentlessly challenge all elements of gender ideology can we give our women’s movement a truly revolutionary orientation.

Rape and violence are often seen, even by our judiciary, as an assault on women’s izzat (honour), and by extension on the ‘honour’ of their community. In fact, it is because women are seen as repositories of ‘community/family honour’ that they become the targets of communal and caste violence. We must recognise that this notion of rape as an assault on women’s (and community/family) honour has another side of the coin: violence against women within the community and the family is often defended in the name of protecting ‘honour’; and women who are considered to have ‘no honour’ (because they are said to be ‘immoral’ or because they wear ‘provocative’ clothes etc…)!

Even on the Left, there tends to be deep discomfort with any actions by women that disturb society’s notions of sexual morality. We must consciously educate our ranks about the double standards of feudal and bourgeois morality. When women’s sexual behaviour, dress etc…challenges society’s mores, we, as communists, must resist all attempts to stand in moralistic judgement. We also oppose all moves to brand same-sex relations as immoral, unnatural etc… Same-sex relationships have existed in every society, and as communists, we understand how society which enforced monogamous marriage for women to ensure ‘legitimate’ paternity and transfer of property along the male line, also punished same-sex relations for much the same reason: to uphold monogamous marriage as the only moral norm. We are opposed to criminalising any consensual adult sexual choices and orientation, and therefore support the demand to scrap Article 377 IPC.

Our Tasks

  • This paper is not the place for a comprehensive discussion of the issues we raise and take up. But we can indicate that some of the major tasks for AIPWA to take up in the present phase are as follows:

    Mobilising working women against neo-liberal policies that are increasingly giving poverty a feminine face; costing women their jobs; casualising and contractualising women’s work; resulting in corporate land grab that costs women their means of survival; and creating highly exploitative conditions of work for women (such as in SEZs);

    Exposing and challenging the anti-woman character of the communal fascist agenda of the Sangh Parivar – an agenda which promotes the subordination of women in the name of ‘community honour’ and ‘tradition’, and also makes women of the minority community the target of organised sexual violence during communal pogroms;

    Taking up the issue of political representation for women, in particular, the demand that the Bill for 33% Reservation for Women in Assemblies and Parliament be put to vote in Parliament; (in its original form, rejecting all moves to dilute the Bill, passing the buck either to political parties or to state assemblies, rejecting all misogynistic arguments against the Bill in the name of ‘social justice’)

    Demanding that employment for women and legally mandated facilities like creches and equal wages be guaranteed under the NREGA;

    Demanding remuneration and job benefits on par with other Government employees for ASHA, anganwadi and other workers in sectors like health; campaign against the Governments’ habit of basing all social welfare schemes on the unpaid labour of women;

    Demanding implementation of pro-women laws relating to prevention of dowry, domestic violence, sexual harassment at the workplace, prevention of sati etc…; resisting moves to dilute these laws and demanding adequate budgetary allocation to ensure proper implementation of these laws (such as for setting up of state-run shelters for women seeking refuge from domestic violence);

    Campaign against all kinds of obscurantist practices such as the branding of women as ‘witches’; sati; child marriage; etc; against ‘honour’ killings of women who marry against wishes of the family/community; against all kinds of anti-woman personal laws of all religions; against all obscurantist anti-woman diktats by religious leaders;

    Resistance to state repression of women activists, custodial rapes and sexual abuse;

    Campaign to end discrimination against women in all spheres: intimidation and violence targeting women political activists and elected panchayat representatives; discriminatory rules relating to weight/appearance for air hostesses; discriminatory behaviour and treatment meted out to women in the Army, etc…

    Protest against price rise; demanding universal PDS coverage; cheap essential commodities for the poor; against anomalies in the system of BPL cards and rations; highlighting the fact that hunger hits women first and worst;

    Finally, the task of mobilising women to play an even more assertive, organised and effective role in all sorts of economic, political and social struggles and movements.

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