Not Just a Day for Women, like Chocolate Day or Father’s Day

Soma Marik

We observed International Women’s Day in Kolkata, along with the rest of the world, on 8th March. In India, we have had a massive popular protest after the Delhi rape case last December, and we in Maitree were seriously concerned that the violence on women be combated in a sustained manner. My original aim had been to upload the pictures of our programme, and to add a short note on the programme itself. However, I was compelled to change the way I did the write-up, because on one hand, there were all the stupid, or at times crafty ways of hijacking the day and what it stood for, through offering discounts for women, and the like. And on the other hand there were well-meaning questions from friends who did not have the background, as to why we bother with “celebrating” one day as Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day was initiated as International Working Women’s Day, at the call of the International Socialist Women’s Conference. At the initiative of German Social Democratic women (which in those days meant chiefly Marxists), the first International Socialist Women’s Conference was held in Stuttgart. The Conference decided to set up a permanent secretariat, and designated Gleichheit, edited by Klara Zetkin, as the voice of socialist women.

In 1910, the Second Conference at Copenhagen had over a hundred delegates. At that time, there were major battles going on for women’s suffrage, with a clear difference in orientation and demands between the Marxist women and the bourgeois feminists. The Marxists wanted full rights for all women, not truncated rights focused on propertied women, and they wanted class struggle methods of combat.

This conference decided to observe one day, in the model of May Day, as International Working Women’s Day. From 1911, therefore, International Working Women’s Day was observed on 8 March, with masses of working class women coming out, holding meeting, demanding suffrage, equal wages, end to sexual harassment by management, etc. This created a space, specifically for working class women, where the male voice would not subsume them. Bureaucrats in the German Social Democratic Party attempted, within two years, to stop or curtail the observance of this day, ostensibly in the name of funds crunch etc, but in reality because they were unhappy with this degree of autonomy for the working class women. As it used to be well known in my youth, it was the spark provided by women workers on International Working Women’s Day that led to the February Revolution in Russia.

It was more or less the rise of second wave feminism that resulted in the day being observed as Women’s Day, without the specific class tag. This had to do on one hand with the awareness that patriarchy oppresses women. And it also had a lot to do with the reality that in many countries, a considerable part of the feminists were women who had leftist political connections.

When it had been simply a day observed by communist women, or women associated with communists, tackling it was deemed a part of the general anti-communist campaign. The transformation and the broadening out created a new situation.  Within a few years, there was a systematic backlash. Feminism was attacked. It was also ridiculed.      

Attacks came openly from right wing positions. Religious right wing of every persuasion – Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Shia, Sunni, targeted women’s rights. The universal cry was, this is not our culture. Feminism was stereotyped as “man-hating”. In fact, many women outside the West who believe in broadly feminist ideals and engage in activities that promote women's rights refuse to be called "feminists." A plausible explanation for the discomfort many women feel at being called feminists may be that in its inspiration, origins, and relevance, the "ideology" of feminism is still widely perceived to be Western and bourgeois, however erroneously. The backlash has been strengthened by media in subtle ways as well. Thus, instead of recognising the evolving nature of feminism, it has often been treated as a past movement, only of historical interest.

And the discourse of class was dragged in by people who had absolutely no interest in really supporting the exploited classes, to claim that gender was an upper class feminine invention to sidetrack class issues. I remember well an academic whom I had always known as a bitter misogynist, in a seminar suddenly attacking Bimala Maji’s interview with Peter Custers (without having properly read it), saying she was ignoring deep class issues to talk about petty things like wife beating. This was in fact a crucial moment in the history of toiling women in India. The Tebhaga Movement, launched in undivided Bengal, drew in immense numbers of women of sharecropper and agricultural labourer background, and they raised issues of sexual violence as well as economic demands. Bimala, a peasant woman, a widow when she was in her early teens, had become a central leader of the struggle in Medinipur district. Her interviews (with Custers, or with myself) are vital in understanding the class and gender dynamics and what role sexual violence plays in holding down working women.

And of course there were (sadly, still are) self proclaimed Marxists and Leninists who did the same thing. Women’s specific issues were always, for such people, petty issues. Sudhi Pradhan in his book on the IPTA quoted at length the memoirs of the well-known CPI leader Hiren Mukherjee on Anil D’Silva, first General Secretary of IPTA, who had been eased out. A major issue was the accusation of uninhibited sexual behaviour by D’Silva. Pradhan, quoting Mukherjee, spent quite a few lines on how she had been involved with a CPI leader. The leader, in all likelihood S.A. Dange, was not named, but D’Silva was. This set of values and attitudes also resurface, as when rape charges in the British SWP are handled in a manner that is highly dubious. A former central leader was accused, and a disputes committee operated in a way that was exactly what we accuse the police of doing. Questions are asked, such as, whether the woman liked to drink. And in the end the man is exonerated. In another case, in the same organisation, a woman accused a man of rape. All that happened was he was charged with sexual misconduct and dropped from membership for two years and told to study Marxist texts on the issue. Those who protested too much about this gross behaviour have been first accused of “creeping feminism”, then of violating democratic centralism, and finally, according to internet revelations, threatened with attracting the righteous anger of members – a threat of a lynch mob in Stalinist fashion.

Anti-feminists have used various strategies to attack feminism. Thus, the liberal position has sometimes been that women have already achieved equality and what they are demanding are actually privileges. Thus, Section 498(A) of the Indian Penal Code has been charged with giving women the right to bring false cases against husband and in-laws. None of these crocodiles shedding copious tears for husbands record how many wives have died or have been tortured after marriage with no recourse till Sec. 498 (A) was brought in.

The market has been used, as well as government, to co-opt and defang the potentials in the day and the movements it has repeatedly generated. Thus, this year, Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s first woman chief minister, has been the cover of the 8 March issue of a popular “women’s magazine”. Yet Mamata Banerjee is hardly an inspiration for women, having declared at least two rape cases as cooked up stories (“shajano ghotona”). Mamata Banerjee herself sent gifts to a number of women achievers. In other words, the whole concept of Women’s Day has been sought to be transformed and tamed.

This was the context in which International Women’s Day was observed this year. There were at least six different programmes that I know of. The women’s organisations supporting the Left Front organised a rally. The SUCI’s women’s wing did likewise. The AIPWA, in association with the AISA, held a march, beginning from College Square. The Facebook site created by this march and its supporters indicates a quite lively programme. In Jadavpur University, the Arts Faculty Students Union and the School of Women’s Studies organised another lively event.

I myself was present in two other events, and it is these two that I can properly report about. And the first report is, apart from Kalantar, the CPI daily, on 9 March morning there was no report of either of those two programmes. Which is not surprising, as I will explain. One was a rally called by the Karmajibi Mahila Parishad, a coordination of eleven trade unions with a preponderance of women workers. The other was a programme by unrepentant feminists, not ashamed to raise the most “obnoxious” issues. So these had to be ignored. How could their transgression of all codes be countenanced? Really militant class-gender activism cannot be countenanced. Had the march from Sealdah to Esplanade East been fifty thousand strong, had it choked the artery of the city for three hours, the Telegraph would have had a report on how it had inconvenienced citizens, how many people had been delayed in going to their doctor, and that sort of glycerine in the eye tears for the “ordinary citizen”. Women workers are of course not citizens who read the t2 pages with titillating pictures of scantily clad women, nor are they people who buy the discounted goods one is offered if one takes a year-long subscription of The Telegraph. After all, this was a march, not by the smart set, but by toiling women. They had come from many parts of West Bengal. There were members of the rural poor for whom attending this rally actually meant a serious sacrifice – giving up the possibility of a day’s income. There were women hawkers, who were demanding the right of all to jobs. There were members of the New Trade Union Initiative, active in various industries, including the construction industry. As one woman pointed out succinctly, they have to work for twelve hours or more (forget labour laws, we are told that antiquated labour laws alone are hindering the upsurge in Indian economy) and found no provision for toilets. They have children who have to be kept alone at home while the mother goes away to earn, risking the death of the child by fire, by car accident, by any of a hundred imaginable and not easily imaginable ways.  So women workers need planned action. If “class” is allowed to be presented without gender analysis, then in most cases, real class unity is hardly likely, with women workers feeling alienated from the union.

One notable part of the programme was the fact that a contingent of some seventy sex workers marched in it, and openly identified themselves as sex workers, and demanded legalisation, control over pimps, and their right to form their union. A highly articulate member of this contingent, Swapna Gayen, explained all the problems women workers face – from being forced into sexual relations with overseers and bosses in order to get or retain jobs, to getting below minimum wages.

The March ended at the Y-channel in Espalande, where Maitree was to hold a meeting. After a song by members of Swayam from Maitree, Astabala Maity of the Karmajibi Mahila Parishad read out their charter of demands and explained what these demands mean. She also announced that their rally would move on another point, while a delegation would meet the labour Minster.

Maitree’s focus was on sexual violence. We dealt with various aspects of this. Girls who are connected with the Association for Women With disabilities performed two small skits, showing how in 2012 events of such violence had occurred and how they had been dealt with. Thus, in one case, a blind girl had been raped by a local bully, and then her evidence had been discounted by asking how, if she was blind, she could be confident in identifying the man.

Sutanutir Sakhya presented a dance programme, reminding us of the need for constant struggles. Back in 1998, as a result of Maitree’s intervention, Calcutta Police, after a full day and more of inaction, had been  forced to arrest a few upper class youth who had assaulted national Basketball player Rekha Chowdhury who had been running along the Red Road (for lack of sports places). But they were subsequently out on bail, and nothing else is known about what happened.  This was the theme of their dance-drama.

While we highlighted all aspects of sexual violence, I did stress that it is particularly difficult for women to go and work if such violence is not curbed. Working women face sexual violence in course of going to work, at work, and returning from work. And all too often they are blamed. Just as Delhi police recently blamed a woman journalist for being out so late at night. In the now (in)famous Delhi rape and murder case of 16 December, TV channels were constantly uttering the comment that it was not late at night, and she was not alone. In other words, had those conditions not obtained, then there would have been arguments that the woman was partly to be blamed. The reality is, women workers are constantly threatened with sexual violence. I also wanted to talk about other kinds of violence faced by women workers. Women hawkers have extra problems, something those of us who have travelled in local trains know well.

Taking up a play produced by members of Jeevika, Joyanti Sen talked about the continuing prevalence of forcing girls into marriage at below the legal age, often to people far older than them, and the dowry related violence on them.

Let me therefore reiterate what I said in my speech. We observe 8th March not as a one off occasion, but as a reminder that we must unite to resist oppression and exploitation, that we must declare that our bodies are ours, our minds are ours, and we can stop sexual violence only by united resistance. Rights will not come as gifts, but as the consequence of struggles.


10 March 2013