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National Seminar on:

Gender Issues: Problems and Prospects


Department of Sociology, Shivaji University, Kolhapur
3rd and 4th February, 2017

Keynote Address
Gender Issues in India: Contemporary Perspectives

Wandana Sonalkar
I would first like to congratulate the Department of Sociology, Shivaji University, for organising a
National Seminar on this theme. I am honoured to be standing before you here to give an address on the
theme of this Seminar.

I am not a sociologist by training, my first discipline is Economics, but for the last ten to twelve years I
have been largely engaged with the field of Women’s Studies, in which feminist scholarship enters into a
critical dialogue with different academic disciplines. Gender issues, it is now widely recognised, cannot
be understood through the perspective of sociology or economics alone, to look at the position of women
in society as compared to men; we have to take up the scholarly methods of history and historiography,
anthropology, political science, literature and criticism, to name a few. Further, we are in recent years
more and more concerned with questions of culture, of how the different genders are perceived and
actually constructed; with epistemological issues of how knowledge is generated and used, and feminists
have addressed questions of scientific methodology going beyond the social sciences. Feminist
scholarship does not mean “taking the side of women against men”, but rather it is essentially critical
because much research and knowledge creation up to the present has been dominated by men, masculine
power, and masculine perspectives. It is this critical approach of Gender Studies, or Women’s Studies, that
I am going to concentrate on today. I believe it has contributed much to our understanding of
contemporary society.

Women’s studies in India got an initial boost in 1974 when the report Towards Equality was published as
the outcome of a study commissioned by the Government of India. It became apparent that women lagged
far behind men in terms of the usual socio-economic indicators of development. This was followed by the
U.N. declaring the year 1975 as International Women’s Year, and subsequently the whole decade up to
1984, as dedicated to the improvement of women’s status and well-being all over the world. This period
saw several international conferences on women, and women’s issues becoming incorporated into the
development programmes of many international funding agencies. The decade of the 1980's saw a
flourishing of research on women's issues. The first Women's Studies Centres were established at SNDT
University in Mumbai, and the Centre for Women's Development Research in Delhi. Indeed, the question
of 'development' was a central focus for much of this work. We witnessed the move from a 'women in
development' approach to a perspective more critical of contemporary development schemes and
programmes, sometimes from a Marxist theoretical questioning of the capitalist path of development.
Some scholars took up environmentalist critiques of the chosen path of development, emphasising
women's role in traditional sustainable production practices in agriculture, for example. There were
micro-studies of women's work in various locations, as well as macro-level analysis of how employment
patterns were changing for men and women. In all this, one important theme explored was the 'invisibility'
of women's work: work that women do on family-owned land, or work done to preserve food, make
clothes etc. for the family's consumption, does not get counted in and the fact that much of women's work
is unpaid. In a country like India, where a majority of the population still depends on agriculture, this
unaccounted work goes far beyond what we term as housework.
Some of this research work reflected the close association between Women's Studies and what we broadly
term the 'women's movement'. Many feminist researchers were working with parties on the left or in
autonomous women's organisations, and the concern with issues relating to working women stems from
there. This led to some new conceptual formulations: in the 1991 Census of India changes proposed by
feminist scholars were incorporated into the methodology for collecting information on work participation
of men and women. The problem was that both the census enumerators and the women (and men)
respondents continue to be influenced by a social perception of the work of 'housewives' as being
economically non-productive. These gaps in accounting and perception have material consequences:
women tend to get paid less than men in almost all areas of work, even where there is no concrete basis
for saying that women’s contribution is in anyway smaller. Gender-sensitive research was beginning to
record some of these anomalies, but there has been no wide-based impact of national-level official
statistical practice. One important conceptual innovation is that of 'time-use' studies, in which the time
spent by men and women in a household is recorded. Definitional inconsistencies and a complex set of
changes in the economic environment make it difficult to identify the trends in women's work
participation. But some things are now widely known: the majority of women's work is in the lowest-paid
sectors, like agriculture and construction. The low level of female literacy is one factor here, but women
tend to get the lowest-paid jobs everywhere.

The decade of the 1990's brought new economic policies in a wave of what we call globalisation or the
neo-liberal approach. Markets were opened up to global commodities under the agreements signed by
India as a member of the WTO. The new policies brought sharp falls in government expenditure in areas
that affected women directly and immediately, or indirectly and over a period of time. What we now see is
that 'development policies' envisage very little government expenditure on women's labour productivity.
Men too are losing jobs, but women are found working in areas with little training or job security, with
highly exploitative wage rates. The problem of sexual harassment at the workplace was at least recognised
as a result of the 'Vishakha judgment' of the Supreme Court, which took almost thirty years to be enacted
as a new law. But women from the Dalit and other 'lower' castes have faced sexual harassment daily for
generations, while women with high qualifications in well-paid jobs also have to face this prevalent
practice.

During the same decade, from about 1990 onwards, political changes also brought changes in women's
lives, often in contradictory directions. The rise of religious fundamentalism on the one hand targeted
women of the minority communities, who were subjected to the most brutal violence during communal
riots. But women of majority communities were also targeted by their fundamentalist leaders and called
on to participate in the violence. The Constitutional Amendments of 1993 brought 33 per cent reservations
for women in local government and panchayat bodies. The results of these provisions over the last twenty
years have been mixed. Not everywhere were potential women leaders able to get elected to these bodies.
Some women were elected as 'proxies'; but it has been pointed out by a feminist scholar that even men
elected via nominations by political parties often do not enjoy any power. Some of the elected women
representatives learnt how to make an impact once they were in office. Many of these were Dalit women,
who enjoyed 'reservations within reservations'. But many elected women from the SC and ST categories
also faced opposition and violence. The anti-Mandal agitations also found women from the upper castes
opposing reservations for SC's, ST's and OBC's in education and government employment. Women were
coming into the public sphere, but with very contradictory motivations.

The women's movement in India had been taking up the issue of violence against women from the late
1960's. The rape of a young adivasi girl named Mathura in a police station in eastern Maharashtra in 1972
was taken up as a national issue, and these efforts resulted eventually in a change in the law on rape in
situations where the accused was a man having custody of the complainant and therefore responsible for
her safety. Further efforts by women's organisations and feminist lawyers resulted in changes in the law
on domestic violence, on 'dowry deaths', on inheritance rights for women, to give a few examples. Inputs
given by women's organisations are not always accepted by governments even when they appear to be
accepting their demands for changes in the law. For example, the Justice Verma Committee constituted
after the Delhi rape case of 2012 took up several long-standing demands of the women's organizations and
recommended, among other things, a lifting of the Armed forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in conflict
areas; but this particular recommendation was not incorporated into the new law. Implementation of new
laws on such matters is always problematic on two counts: firstly, since the attitudes prevalent in the
judiciary often reflect the patriarchal mind-set that is prevalent in society; and secondly, because a
patriarchal, and possibly Brahminical logic informs the entire code of civil and criminal law, piecemeal
changes do not have enough impact. After spending much energy in formulating desirable changes in
laws affecting women and pushing for their acceptance, the women's organisations have not always been
happy with the result. Women and their supporters are now striving to change these attitudes by engaging
in debate in various media. The new century has seen the growth of new media such as the internet in
general and social media in particular.

After the 1990's, we see the debate on women's issues in the public sphere becoming a little wider. An
assertion by Dalit women in particular has had some influence here. It has become apparent that the issue
of violence against women is best understood not as an effect of patriarchy alone, but of a patriarchy that
operates in a framework of caste hierarchy. Thus, violence by a man against a woman is viewed
differently, depending on what caste the perpetrator and the 'survivor' belong to. Traditionally, violence
including and especially sexual violence by an upper-caste man against a Dalit woman is seen as an
exercise of his right. The Dalit woman has no rights as she is at the bottom of the caste-patriarchal
pyramid. On the other hand, the slightest transgression by a Dalit man that can be viewed as touching on
an upper-caste woman's sexuality is seen as threatening to the (caste) order of society. Even if these values
are not explicitly upheld by the 'modern', urban, educated middle class, this section of society finds it
easy to turn a blind eye to the violence against Dalit women which is always lurking under the surface in
rural India and sometimes breaks out in cases of brutal violence and gang rape. The “Nirbhaya” case in
Delhi sparked off a nation-wide response because the girl was seen as educated and middle-class, while
her attackers were aimless, uneducated, unemployed young men from the slums of Delhi. These
contradictions are now being discussed by academics and sections of the social media, but the mainstream
commercial media both in English and in the vernacular at best takes a blunt view of issues that require
some reflection and sensitivity. At worst, it helps to sustain values based in patriarchy and caste hierarchy.

We are now entering the last part of the second decade of the twentieth century, and it seems that the
impact of commercially-owned media on people's mind-sets is more powerful than ever. The positive side
is that issues raised by feminist scholarship over the last thirty years are finding a place in public debate
and public awareness to some extent. But the reaction to this is also strident and aggressive. In India, we
see a public sanction for the expression of intolerant views about minority communities and Dalits, as
well as about women. Political leaders come to power riding on a wave of populism, distracting people
from the material issues they have to confront in daily life. The market has become so dominant in our
world that any proposal for a redistribution of social wealth in favour of the unprivileged is condemned as
socialist, and 'socialist' is now a bad word. The poor are made invisible as we debate the issues that seem
to stand before us. While debates on gender are becoming more inclusive and non-conforming sexual
orientations are becoming more acceptable, there are still strict sexual controls on young women in
particular and young people in general. In academics, the focus has moved from interdisciplinarity to
intersectionality, as we now see people impacted by several overlapping structures of exploitation,
misrecognition, dominance and power. It seems more important than ever that women come together to
debate the differences among them, cultivate sensitivity to their sisters facing diverse forms of oppression,
and ultimately learn to build solidarities and associations that can stand up to a virtual flood of new forces
impacting us from various directions. To do this, we need to debate contemporary issues, use language
with awareness, and clarify our understanding constantly. Seminars like this one are opportunities to come
together to begin this immense and yet hopeful journey.

TISS, Mumbai, February 2017