8 March – International Women’s Day – was born in the struggles that women factory workers in thousands waged against bondage a century ago.
Women workers in early 20th century USA and Europe organised with the red flag and the revolutionary communist movement to demand an 8-hour working day, secure jobs, workplace safety, and the right to vote. It is these women, along with the communist party, which first united across countries to hold the first International Women’s Day in 1911. Continue reading
8 March – International Women’s Day – was born in the struggles that women factory workers in their thousands waged against bondage a century ago. Those women workers – in Chicago, in European countries, in Russia – protested against the exploitative conditions in which they worked. They were also the frontrunners of the movement for women’s suffrage: battling against the denial of political equality and citizenship for women.
In 2014, the legacy of those century-old struggles is as relevant as ever. Women workers continue to labour in exploitative and unsafe conditions – but the theatres of such exploitation have shifted from the US and Europe to Asian and African countries. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 that consumed the lives of women workers in New York City, is being re-enacted as fires and collapses in garment factories in Bangladesh a century later. In India too women are employed, overwhelmingly, in the 3D (Dirty, Dangerous, Demeaning) jobs. And just as they are expected to do unpaid housework as a ‘selfless service’ in the home, the Government too asks them to work without a salary (for instance as ASHA workers) as a ‘selfless service’.
Moreover, women in India are still denied political equality and citizenship. They are grossly under-represented in Assemblies and Parliament, and it has become clear that India’s ruling parties are committed to delaying and denying 33% reservation for women. But the denial of rights as equal citizens goes beyond this.
What is most shameful is that our representative bodies, our Governments, our ruling political parties, and even our Courts are unwilling to uphold our freedom to love or marry a partner of our choice. A Kerala Court has recently decreed that a woman’s right to marry a person of her choice is not absolute, and that parents have a say in their daughter’s marriage. Justifying a father’s action of detaining his daughter when she, a woman doctor, wished to marry a fellow doctor, the judge said, “the liberties guaranteed to citizens could not be stretched beyond limits and should not be used as a weapon to destroy social establishments.” The Supreme Court itself recently recriminalized homosexuality by rehabilitating Section 377. The conclusion is inescapable: judges tend to see themselves as custodians of the ‘social establishments’ – of family, caste, community, homophobic and patriarchal morality – rather than of the Constitutional liberties.
Governments and ruling political parties are much the same. They are happy to talk of ‘women’s empowerment’ and ‘protection’ for women. But they are as a rule supremely unwilling to defend women’s freedom from patriarchal diktats. Last year, women protesters demanded azaadi – freedom – from ‘khaps, fathers, brothers.’ The recent statements by a range of political leaders defending khaps, shows that they have shut their ears – and their minds – to such demands. That slogan showed that for young protesters, ‘khaps’ did not just stand for ‘honour killings’. They were a metaphor for patriarchal and oppressive structures of caste, class, and community. They identified the ‘khaps’ in the daily restrictions imposed by parents and hostel administrations, in the pressure to obey caste/community restrictions in marriage, in the violence inflicted on dalit or Muslim men who love women of dominant communities, in Section 377, in moral policing by cops and outfits like Ram Sene and Bajrang Dal.
Yet, we have seen leaders of Congress, BJP, and AAP, tell us that khaps are valuable social institutions, though these parties hasten to assure us that they will not defend acts of coercion or violence ‘if any’. When political parties act as advocates and apologists of khaps, they are telling us that the freedom and dignity of women and dalits really do not have much place in their vision of politics. On the contrary, patriarchal restrictions on women’s freedom have many political uses, especially to justify violence against vulnerable communities. We have seen the BJP use khaps to fan up anti-Muslim violence in Muzaffarnagar, in the name of ‘saving our women’ from ‘love jehad.’ Khaps have always branded women’s consensual love with dalit men as ‘rape’ and unleashed violence on dalit communities in the name of avenging hurt ‘honour’: this time Muslims were the target. The Congress too has long enjoyed the political support of the khaps, turning a blind eye to the violence they mete out to women and dalits. AAP justified violence against African women in the name of ‘protecting’ Indian women.
The Kerala judge isn’t alone in legitimising the patriarchal idea that daughter’s Constitutional rights are not absolute, and that these can be violated by her father in order to ‘protect’ her from undesirable relationships. The BJP invoked the same idea when they faced with evidence that their Prime Ministerial candidate had deployed state machinery to stalk a woman.
Every year on 8 March, we hear some lip service paid by Governments towards women. But women continue to be denied the simplest needs and services. This year, with Lok Sabha elections soon to take place, we need to bring women’s rights and needs onto the political agenda.
We want no rhetoric about women’s greatness nor promises of ‘protection.’ We instead demand that Governments recognise their duty to ensure free toilets, medical care, education, and safe, regular public transport for women. We expect Governments to provide one-stop crisis centres and compensation and rehabilitation for survivors of gender violence. Children routinely face sexual abuse: is it not the Government’s job to provide safe child-care, especially in poor working class settlements? Why do Governments promote liquor addiction, with disastrous consequences for women? Liquor licences in residential areas should require the consent of the majority of local women.
We want Governments to stop behaving like patriarchal families, and stop asking women workers to work for an ‘honorarium’ instead of a salary. We want to know if Governments will commit to guaranteeing that women workers get equal pay for equal work, that minimum wages are raised, that ASHA and anganwadi workers get their full recognition and rights as government employees, that every work place has toilets, safe and healthy work conditions, and mechanisms against sexual harassment?
We have had enough of Governments encouraging police to do moral policing and crackdowns on consensual couples in the name of women’s protection. Instead, we expect Governments to ensure the accountability of the police, and to ensure strict action against police personnel who fail to do their duty. We also want Governments to stop protecting politicians, police and Army personnel who are accused of rape, and perpetrators of caste and communal rapes. From Chhattisgarh to Manipur to Kashmir, the impunity enjoyed by rapists in uniform, and the continued systematic rapes of dalit women all over rural India, the denial of justice to women raped in caste and communal massacres, exposes the reality of the politicians’ anti-rape rhetoric.
We want to know if Governments will scrap Section 377; enact laws against honour crimes and moral policing, and ensure state-run support centres for inter-caste and same-sex couples?
From International Women’s Day, let’s foreground the above questions as a charter of gender justice, and issue a resounding call that in this year’s Lok Sabha elections, we’ll strive to elect those forces who are champions of this charter of struggle, and reject those political forces who continue to be custodians of patriarchal values.
Originally published in : ML Update, Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 10/2014