Speak Up, Women! Question The ‘Progressives’
By Nisha Biswas
13 April, 2016
Male comrades considered women as slaves and sex objects. Women were never involved in decision-making process. Usually, their opinions were scoffed at and rejected.
-- Ajitha in Kerala’s Naxalbari, p284
Life histories are often used to uncover the silences of dominant academic scholarship. The memoirs of women from different movements are valuable sources from a feminist perspective that seeks to overcome the silences surrounding women The women not only recount the instances when they felt empowered, but also how they felt limited, disappointed, marginalized, discriminated against, and victimized in several ways and demonstrate a non-sovereign agency in self-making through these autobiographical narratives. It is not that women did not raise their voices against this injustice, but these voices, have simply being largely, ignored.
The story of rejection of the concerns of women comrade is not new. “So if a woman, even while taking shelter with a peasant or a worker, was forced to keep awake night after night by his lecherous behaviour, one could not complain. We would be told, "You are losing your capacity to view things from the class perspective, comrade". This is from my personal experience. It will demonstrate very clearly what an extremely mechanical response there was from the comrades in the face of a heartrending experience.” (From, Naxalbari Politics: A Feminist Narrative: Krishna Bandopadhyay, EPW, April 2008, 52-59).
However, the experiences of Ajitha and Krishna Bandopadhyay in late 1960s and early 70s during the Naxal movement are in no measure things of the past patriarchal thinking is deeply embedded even in the apparently most progressive sections of society. Leave aside the secret forums; open democratic human right organizations are terribly patriarchal in form. The way women in these forums are trivalized and rejected is appalling.
Recently, a woman activist friend faced serious problems from a fellow activist. The male activist in question had proposed to her. Unable to accept her refusal, he harassed her to the extent of physically assaulting her and inflicting serious wounds. In no way repentant, he continued abusing her verbally and threatening her, both in person and over the phone. Our women comrade felt threatened and intimidated and her dignity was hurt. She also felt terribly betrayed by the way in which the young male comrade, whom she had often helped, had treated her. She raised the issue in a forum to which both she and the male comrade belonged and asked for justice. However, the way in which other activists in the forum, reacted and trivialized the issue as a personal matter which is should be resolved personally surprised many of us. We felt cheated, let down.
Where, left-wing politics supports social equality and asserts that there are unjustified inequalities in society that need to be abolished, when the question of an assaut on a woman comrade (by a male comrade) was raised within the left gathering, the typical male stereotyped dismissive attitude towards women came to the fore.
Recently, a Telangana activist while speaking in a seminar on ‘Caste and Patriarchy’, organized by WSS (Women against sexual violence and State Repression) had expressed her disenchantment with the Telangana Movement. She recounted that in the course of the Telengana movement, whenever issues of caste and gender were raised, the leaders promised to address them after gaining power, and even after state formation, but these issues were never addressed. Women's roles were reduced to dressing up like dolls for the local festival. The Telangana activist said that she sensed a general discomfort in addressing caste and gender across groups no matter how “radical” they claimed to be.
A Woman has to suffer moral abuse and character assassination, and if she is single or divorced then the game of ‘victim blaming’ becomes one of great entertainment. This, despite the judgment in the Mathura rape case (Tuka Ram and Anr vs State of Maharashtra, 1978), which was inspired by a furious struggle by women’s organizations across the country against the ruthlessly patriarchal justification of rape and sexual assault on the grounds of a woman’s ‘moral character’. And so it happened in the case of our woman comrade who had placed her complaint before a left forum. The accused comrade, instead of showing any sign of repentance or regret, began to shout that the woman in question had several male partners and was in the habit of seducing men! Very few attempted to shut him up. Instead, the talk turned to one of ‘moral character’. After the meeting too, ‘moral character of women’ and especially of the comrade concerned became a juicy talking point of many self-avowedly Left radicals.
At the aforementioned meeting, male comrades came up with a singular excuse for not discussing her case – that it was not in the agenda and there were many other important issues to discuss. Thus the way, the matter of an assault on a woman comrade was trivialized by so-called conscious men reflects the extent and deep-rootedness of patriarchal values among the Left. The realization that whenever a serious question of autonomy and respect towards fellow colleagues is raised but not addressed, it would not be possible to create a democratic space and confidence especially amongst women colleagues for working together, was conspicuously absent. In a struggle for a democratic society, the castiest patriarchal and other feudal values like ‘victim blaming’, prevalent within even a small community is the biggest hurdle in achieving or moving towards these goals. Arrogance and lack of sensitivity on the part of activists while dealing with other women and refusal to understand the every day pressures on these women and their coping mechanisms add to the colossal problem.
It was one of the many incidents of crushing the woman’s autonomy and establishes that when it falls upon us, the deep entrenched patriarchal values raise their ugly head. The question is why this happens and what is to be done? It was not that all the male activists were against raising such a vital question or those who were opposing were in their personal life and belief against autonomy or freedom of women. Then why in collective were so many of them against raising such a question in a public platform. Was it the queasiness about ‘washing dirty linen in public’ syndrome or was it that they felt they were bound to defend the behavior of ‘male’ comrade rather than come to the defense of a ‘female’ comrade? Did they feel that male honor and respectability were being questioned? And above all, were they making a distinction between comrades – good and not so good, capable of giving more service and not capable of giving as much service, etc. – on grounds of gender? Many of them in private do agree that all that happened was unwarranted and is a serious issue that should be addressed but one thing they are sure of – it should not be discussed in a forum created to discuss and act on serious issues affecting larger society!
Left radical groups speak of revolution, but most leave caste and gender out of their frameworks and processes. For instance, Dalit women had been the real leaders in all the land struggles and anti-SEZ movements in most of the places but have not been acknowledged as leaders. There is so much here that remains willfully neglected. Movements generally see SEZs only as a class/economic issue and not in terms of the caste-patriarchy-capitalism nexus. Men in organizations are seen to control women under the guise of guidance. In an 8th March function, where the writer too was a speaker, there were 3 women and at least 15 men on the dais. Raising these issues is to face conspicuous and contemptuous silence. For many Left men, presence of women in numbers is proof that the question of equality has been addressed. And in any case, class struggle must take priority. As if it isn’t grossly fallacious to claim that class struggle can proceed even an inch without addressing and dealing with the gender concern. Our ‘Left’ friends seem to have forgotten that the historical enslavement of women began with the origin of private property, and if the aim of class struggle is to overthrow the rule of private property, it cannot be achieved without the emancipation of women.
What is to be done?
Women’s question is a political issue and not only a women’s issue. It becomes vital to forge alliances with other organizations and people’s movements while at the same time keeping women’s perspective on issues. It is important to combine `reactive politics’ with multi-faceted and long-term perspective and approaches. The task before us is a challenging one however, the urgency of dealing with immediate issues should not obscure the fact that challenges of development, growth and equity, the narrative of state and the new forces emerging within the present socio political context, will need to be continuously assessed and confronted and the action strategies and organizational initiatives will need to be redefined.
Women’s demands have to be fought for on a day-to-day basis. This is not something to be achieved after the revolution, as the traditional left believes. The revolution is the process through which new ideology; new morality can be worked out in the process of struggle against hostile social forces. The role of the women’s groups is to fight against all forms of oppression and inequality in class society, class exploitation, caste and sexual oppression. So it is inevitable that women join their demands with the urban and rural working class as a whole and support the struggle of all oppressed nationalities, Adivasis and Dalits for human liberation.
The tasks for democratic forces, for the progressive women’s movement are clearly laid out: To fight in all fronts, not only against the State but also against patriarchy in all its manifestations, anywhere and everywhere. It is this conspiracy of silence that is to be shattered in all spheres of life – private, public and political. Therefore women speak up! Anywhere, everywhere, anytime and every time!
Nisha Biswas is an activist based in Kolkata