Women of India

Material Information

Women of India their struggle, strength and success a historicalcomparative analysis
Vicars-Benjamin, Donna L
Place of Publication:
Denver, Colo.
University of Colorado Denver
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
75 leaves : ; 28 cm

Thesis/Dissertation Information

Master's ( Master of Social Science)
Degree Grantor:
University of Colorado Denver
Degree Divisions:
Humanities and Social Science Program, CU Denver
Degree Disciplines:
Social Science
Committee Chair:
Everett, Jana
Committee Members:
Bookman, Myra
Page, Brian


Subjects / Keywords:
Women -- Social conditions -- India ( lcsh )
Women in development -- Environmental aspects -- India ( lcsh )
Women's rights -- History -- India ( lcsh )
Women -- History -- India ( lcsh )
Ecofeminism -- India ( lcsh )
Ecofeminism ( fast )
Women ( fast )
Women in development -- Environmental aspects ( fast )
Women -- Social conditions ( fast )
Women's rights ( fast )
India ( fast )
History. ( fast )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )
History ( fast )


Includes bibliographical references (leaves 72-75).
General Note:
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Statement of Responsibility:
by Donna L. Vicars-Benjamin.

Record Information

Source Institution:
|University of Colorado Denver
Holding Location:
|Auraria Library
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
40462369 ( OCLC )
LD1190.L65 1998m .V53 ( lcc )

Full Text
Donna L. Vicars-Benjamin
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1995
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science

This thesis for the Master of Social Science
degree by-
Donna L. Vicars-Benjamin
has been approved

Vicars-Benjamin, Donna Lyn (M.S.S.)
Women of India: Their Struggle, Strength and Success
Thesis directed by Professor Jana Everett
The women of India have struggled to change
traditional views and the status with which Indian
culture has been burdened. This thesis uses
historical/comparative analysis to examine traditional
views of women in India and their modern contemporary
struggles for empowerment. The varied and divergent
mechanisms of the womens movement are explored in this
research and the impact of the womens movement and its
continuing ramifications are discussed, especially in
terms of what women have accomplished in the
environmental realm of the country of India. Although
the women of India, and indeed the world, have made
significant strides there is still a long way to go for
the dream of equality to become a reality.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the
candidate's thesis. I recommend its publication.

I dedicate this thesis to my husband and my parents who
have always supported and encouraged me to accomplish
my goals.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Jana Everett of the University
of Colorado at Denver for her guidance and suggestions
through the process of my thesis.

1. INTRODUCTION ............................ 1
Historical/Comparative Method ... 2
Organi z at ions/Internati onal
Conferences ........................ 3
Ecofeminism ....................... 11
Overview of Chapters .............. 16
2. HISTORY ................................ 18
Indus Valley Civilization ......... 20
Aryan Civilization/Hinduism........ 22
Mughal Empire ..................... 25
British Colonialism ............... 26
Political Movements/
Social Movements .................. 32
CONTEMPORARY INDIA ..................... 37
Marginalization and
Electoral Politics................. 37
Indira Gandhi ................ 40
Emergence of Social Movements ... 42
Women's Movement-
Many Strands ................. 46
Informal Sector of
Women's Organizations.. 46
Grassroots Rural
Movements ............... 49

Case Studies
Movements .................... 53
Movement ..................... 57
Movement ..................... 61
India Rural Development
Project ...................... 64
5. CONCLUSION ............................... 66
BIBLIOGRAPHY...................................... 72
vx 1

Over the course of many years, from the humblest
of grass-root beginnings, the women of India have begun
to become empowered in the political realm and have
begun to shape and change environmental and socio-
economic policies. These sweeping changes also include
lifestyles, values, and collective practices of the
women and their families.
Women have and will continue to contribute a great
deal to sustainability of the environment, for women
have been the backbone of many environmental movements,
and although many of these movements were not
founded by women, they are the ones who maintain them
and have done and continue to do a great deal of the
work. India's policy issues and social problems in this
realm provide useful information and show how
significant women's contributions are and how women
will continue to preserve and protect our planet.
As I approached this research, three questions
guided my analysis. How have the women of India dealt
with and fought the harsh traditional caste system and
the entrenched patriarchy that has existed for
centuries? What avenues have the women of India taken

to implement changes? How has networking at the
grassroots and international levels contributed to
Indian women's empowerment?
Historical/Comparative Method
This thesis uses the historical-comparative method
to explore the aspects of the social life of women in a
historical era and evaluate how major changes took
place for these women throughout the years. As the
women's movement emerged, and organizations were able
to collaborate, hold conferences, and discuss ways of
making major changes, they were also able to implement
specific reforms, which this research explores. Within
this research, social processes and concepts are
compared in different historical contexts using a
critical social science approach.
The use of secondary resources such as books, and
articles written by specialist historians, is utilized
in this research as evidence of past conditions and
what the women of India presently face (Neuman, 1997).
This research details the components that have brought
the women to where they are now and how the women's
movement and other organizations have made a difference
in the degree of empowerment women have gained.
The reason for using this method of research is to

reach an awareness of the social-cultural changes and
the development of the women's empowerment India over a
period of time, as well as, to attempting to identify
factors that influenced change within Indian culture.
The women of India have made use of the resources
gained through the participation in international
womens conferences and by using tactics learned from
ecofeminists and these influences deserve closer
examination in order to frame the discussion of women
in India.
Organizations/International Conferences
Women have been involved in many organizations
that have helped bring their voices to the forefront,
with various organizations helping to ensure that women
can make changes in many arenas of their own lives.
Within the context of international conferences, women
of different cultures have come together, and they have
helped one another understand the individual plights of
their countries. By doing so they are able to educate
one another and help each other understand the
importance of educational programs to help women
everywhere. Gita Sen and Caren Grown (1987) made a

case for the use of organizing at an international
At the global level, a movement of women and the
oppressed can mobilize support for the common
goals of a more just and equitable international
order...A global network of like-minded women's
organizations committed to these goals could
exchange experiences and information, suggest
action and provide support, (p. 87)
It is essential at a global level to create coalitions
and alliances, as it enables women to build what can be
seen as broad-based local and international movements
and connections.
Within the realm of conferences, women of third
world countries, such as India, are given the chance to
have their voices heard on a much larger scale.
International conferences have become a vehicle for
women those in India who are involved as grass-
roots activists to understand other women's lives in
far flung areas of the world. The women in these
conferences came away changed, inspired and comforted
from their shared experiences. Thus inspired they were
able to collectively change things for the better.
The agendas of the conferences described in this
introduction include the issues of violence against
women, women's rights, access to education, money, jobs
and health care as well as of environmental
degradation. What is important to remember is that, as

the women come out of these conferences, they take with
them the tools gained to empower themselves and others
within their communities. Due to the sheer numbers of
women that stand behind the resolutions that come out
of these conferences, governments around the world are
forced to take them and their agendas much more
In Bobbie S. Low's (1996) study of how men and
women have different concepts of sustainability, she
pointed out the importance of the Rio Conference in
1992, with its theme of sustainability, and the
population's impact on the natural resources of the
world. This Conference helped bring about the approach
of understanding the relationships among resource
consumption, fertility, and sustainability. Certainly
women have always taken an important role in
understanding the issue of fertility and its ties to
the environment. Low's research explores these ties
and why women play such an important role in those
issues. Low's study shows that in the Western
industrialized nations, women have had great actual
resource control, and in some of the less developed
nations, such as West Africa, women also control
important resources. As has been apparent for much of
recorded time, women have been the care givers in many

arenas, including that of the environment, and they are
the ones who were at the forefront of the environmental
movement many years ago. Low pointed out that while
women may be neither as numerous nor as powerful as men
in larger political arenas, they have the chance, with
hard work, and support interwoven through the network
of international conferences, of making their voices
heard and of implementing concrete public policy
changes. However, Low sees a downside to women having
more power, feeling that they will become more like
men, seeking wealth, power, and status, and that pleas
for environmental protection will eventually fall to
the wayside. Low (1996) states that:
The roles that women play are diverse, and that
some uniting patterns exist: women seldom engage
in high-stakes, risky resource work, and women
seldom control either significant resources or
resource policy at the national level, (p. 109)
Low indicates that her paper offered few answers to
these problems, but felt that a useful platform was
established for continued analysis.
Gita Sen (1995) gives an overview of what the
Cairo Conference did to amplify the voices of women
across the world. The World Programme of Action (WPOA)
was the main document emanating from the Conference.

Sen (1995, p. 34) states that the WPOA called for
structural adjustment programs to be "designed, and
implemented in a way to be responsive to social and
environmental concerns." The document states that the
North needs to lead in the sustainable consumption and
effective use of waste management. As is seen in Sen's
article, women have been an intricate part of the
programs that will be realized in the WPOA. This has
been, and will continue to be, a concern for women
around the world. The document addresses the issue of
women's empowerment and recommends the abandonment of
the old and neutral language of women's status.
Sen (1995, p. 14) refers to the Conference as a
sign that points to the ability of women to force
governments respond to them as powerful political
agents with coordinated strategic thinking, planning,
and action: "The patriarchs were never bothered by
individuals until they began to imagine individuals as
possibly having a female gender!" Women can and do
make significant differences in policy issues, and
that is why they need to find and utilize their voices.
It is immensely important that women's voices be heard,
and it is through avenues such as conferences and
ecofeminist organizations that this will happen.
Many women's organizations have become involved in

some very important conferences that have made strides
in addressing the hardships of women around the world.
At the Fourth World Conference on women, held in
Beijing in 1995, India's Government along with 186
other UN member states, adopted the Beijing Platform of
Action, that specifies the need to take steps to
eliminate violence against women as well as to empower
women in a variety of spheres. The findings of these
organizations and the information utilized at these
types of conferences can be used to hold the national
government accountable for its failure to take
preventive measures, to punish perpetrators, and to
provide effective remedies for victims (Jejeebhoy,
Cook, 1997).
Gertrude Mongella, (1995) Assistant Secretary
General of the Fourth World Conference stated that,
"the aim of the Beijing Conference was to capitalize on
the strength and resourcefulness of women, to share and
to act upon it" ("The United Nations and the Status of
Women," p. 1). The conference was not a business as
usual event, for it dealt with changing the status quo,
which is characterized by blatant inequality.
The Fourth World Conference was considered to be a
success with the adoption of the Beijing Declaration
and the Platform for Action, aimed at accelerating the

implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking
strategies for the Advancement of Women.
In countries around the world, women have a
difficult time having their voices heard, but there are
increasing numbers of growing ways to empower women.
What better way to help empower women than through the
avenues of conferences, for there is power in numbers.
Gro Haarlem Brundtland (1996), who was elected as
Norway's first woman prime minister, examined how the
power of women is a force with which to be reckoned.
Women's contributions to the economy are decisive for
growth and social development. Women are needed at all
levels of government, and there is desperate need for
women to have access to education. In the political
arena, Brundtland (1996) points out that there are
cabinets, and parliaments in the world with few or even
no women, and she notes the changes that have occurred
in her own country of Norway after the culture shock
that shook her nation when she became prime minister 15
years ago. "Today children ask if a man can be prime
minister" (p. 131). Her answer to the problem for
women in such nations as India is that no women will
become empowered merely because we want them to be, but
through changes in legislation, increased information,
redirecting resources, and becoming involved in

important international conferences. Brundtland (1996)
discusses how the Cairo Conference strived to improve
the status of women, and how.that is a way for women's
voices to be heard loud and clear.
In a global sense, there are ways that women can
obtain some power. Chief Bisi Ogunleye (1993) studied
the issue of women's voice in global decision-making in
connection to a healthy environment in Africa.
Ogunleye (1993) pointed out that African women are
fully involved in commerce, agriculture, resource
management as well as other areas, but they are denied
much that women in other regions around the world have
access to. Ogunleye cites statistics on the female
workforce, what they do to contribute to their
communities, and the lack of decision-making power they
enjoy. Ogunleye's research discovered that many
projects had failed because they did not take the roles
and rights of women into account. Ogunleye (1994, p.
14) found that recognizing women's roles, which is
helped by international conferences, would help promote
effective rural development and improvements in the
status of women: "It is a long time in human history
since the wheel was invented. It is time that women
begin to reap its benefits."
In empowering women, education is a key factor. A

United Nations (1991, p. 27) book makes the point that,
"If you educate a man, you educate one person, if you
educate a woman, you educate an entire family." Women
tend to spread their knowledge to family members and
friends. There is a high payoff for the investment in
educating women of the world, and helping them realize
the voice that they can obtain through education. To
further this end there is a concerted effort being held
in some countries around the world to end illiteracy by
the year 2000, and if more women are educated there can
be an increase of women in the political arena, with
more votes and more voices heard with greater clarity.
It is. important to hear what within the women's
movement has been said about the environment. Women
have been, and continue to be, the caretakers and
nurtures of society, and before the industrial age one
of their roles was being concerned about the
environment they lived in. A voice heard clearly
within this realm today is the ecofeminists voice.
Indian women are embedded in nature, literally products
of their environments, firmly rooted in ecological
issues, for they experience and perceive ecological
destruction and its causes. The women of India have

worked together locally and internationally to initiate
processes to arrest the destruction of nature and to
help in its regeneration (Shiva, 1989).
Ynestra King (1995) demonstrated the inroads that
ecofeminists have made in the environmental movement
and the strength that it is contributing to the woman's
voice, although ecofeminism is in its infancy as a
living historical movement. Ecofeminists are striving
for societies that use nature-friendly technologies and
sustainable economies that are respectful of peace and
Ecofeminist theory, ecofeminist political
activism, ecology, and peace have been inexplicably
related since the first ecofeminist political
gathering, ..which happened April 21-23, 1980 at the
Conference on Women and Life on Earth: Ecofeminism in
the 80s. King (1995), in studying the issue of
ecofeminism argues that it continues to inform
feminists, helps initiate direct-action, and to serve
and inform an emerging international political
movement. King highlights the ecofeminists1 argument
that women worldwide are often the source of knowledge
on which the future depends, and are therefore
considered subjects of this revolution, as we are
socially assigned work that we do as care givers,

farmers, foresters, and cultivators of nature. King
(1995, p. 16) states that, "we argue for an
oppositional politics that is not only global but
planetary, and which requires a recognition of the
interrelationship between feminism, social justice,
ecology, democracy, and peace."
India is a prime example of what can happen to a
country that has a rapid population growth coupled with
few, if any regulations on industrial development. In
India one cannot tell the environmental side of the
story without adding the socio-economic side because
the strategies selected for economic development have
compromised the environment and cultural traditions.
Millions of people around the world are now
concerned about the environment, but millions more are
added to the earth's population every year, and India
is the second largest populated country in the world
after China, with a population of 935.7 million people
according to a 1995 census ("Demographic Profile of
India," 1998) This puts ever increasing pressure on
the planet's ecosystem on which life on earth depends.
Many experts believe that because many people living in
the poorer nations of the world face a life of
surviving poverty, they can't be expected to be
concerned about the environment or other issues that

are connected with the women's movement. While they
might want to protect the environment and make changes
in their traditional roles, their plight simply won't
allow them to do so (Graham, 1996). But in India women
are taking action on many fronts which includes the
clean up of environmental messes, protecting natural
resources, and forging ahead for equality, for they
realize that in doing so they will help those who are
poverty stricken by protecting their rights and health.
Environmental sustainability has been an important
component of the women's movement and has made
differences for these women. The role of women in
sustainability is extremely important and Vandana Shiva
(1989) who is one the world's most prominent women in
this field.feels that:
Women in India are an intimate part of nature,
both in imagination and in practice. At one level
nature is symbolized as the embodiment of the
feminine principle, and at another, she is
nurtured by the feminine to produce life and
provide sustenance. (Shiva, 1989, p. 38)
Through the use of ecofeminism women are given a voice
and an opportunity to gather in local communities, as
well as worldwide to be heard in policy-making
Women have been seen as the cornerstone of
sustainability of many aspects of life, and yet only
recently have women had a voice to implement changes in

the political arena. They have not had an easy road to
travel, but they have accomplished a great deal in a
relatively short historical period, although there is
still much to accomplish. The following chapters
explore the important history of Indian women as they
have struggled to have their voices heard. This
research shows how women are politically marginalized
within the political arena, but also the contributions
that individual women and organizations have made
politically. It is also important to explore the
meaning of a movement and the theoretical concepts
behind it, for this contributes to the understanding of
a movement. The case studies in this research examine
areas where women of India have struggled to utilize
these various factors within the women's movement and
find strength to bring about necessary change for
individual communities through collective and grass-
roots efforts. Feminist thought has made an important
difference in the organizations and conferences that
have been formed by women and men.
Many of the forces for change lie at the
grassroots level of communities as women have banded
together to empower themselves. There is not just one
path to empowerment for women, but many and the women
of India have taken many roads to reach the goal of

equality and this research shows the succession of
avenues taken by those women. The women of India have
had and still have their struggles, yet they have found
strength and have reached a degree of success in many
areas of their lives.
Overview of Chapters
In chapter 2 an historical view of India is
detailed to give the reader an insight into the socio-
cultural environment in which Indian women were forced
to adapt, and how their place in society has almost
returned to their once equal status as they had in the
dawn of Indian history. Chapter 3 examines the forms of
women's empowerment in India today, the issues
surrounding the countries electoral processes, and some
key political and grassroots leaders. The social
movements that have emerged have not only grown out of
the urban women's organizations, but also the
grassroots rural movements. This chapter also examines
some key case studies that show the power of women in
India to utilize the central issues of the electoral
process and social movements and the strength that they
are able to lend to important environmental issues.
There is also a case study on how a project implemented
for women in rural communities has been developed by

the international community.
The conclusion of this research reviews how,
throughout the history of India, women have struggled
to gain empowerment and the avenues they have taken to
tackle serious issues that confront them in a strong,
patriarchal society and against tradition.

In a country such as India, the struggle for women
has been enormous and their struggle continues, but
what of their history and how far have they truly come?
Patricia Lyons Johnson (1992) pointed out the
importance of looking at the history of a people in .
order to: for more attention to individual cases,
more attention to historical data so that a
particular cultural configuration can be analyzed
as changing and not static, and more effort to
construct complicated models that see men and
women, not as opposed, unitary categories but as
occupying a number of different roles in each
society, which in turn have a complex set of
interrelationships, (p. 2)
Jawaharial Nehru, who served as India's first
prime minister from 1947 to 1964, stated that in 1957,
"In spite of many brilliant examples in the past, I .
think it would be true to say that the position and
status of women in India for many hundreds of years has
not been a good one in law or in public life" (cited in
Baig, 1976, p. 1).
Women have the burden of so much in society, and
this poem by Ghana Atta expresses how women have to
carry that burden.

You are always in the field
Loads on the head
A baby asleep on the back
My mother, you are always working
So much that I can't even tell the
You and the fields
What a strange beauty (cited in Anand,
1992, p. xi)
The Indian woman has been looked at as a puzzle
and a paradox, "she is still Shakti, the embodiment of
power with nothing weak or negative about her" (Baig,
1976, p. ix). Underlying the history of Indian women
is an ancient matriarchal base, which the later
patriarchal Aryan system could never wholly destroy
(Baig, 1976) According to the later Aryan system,
women were told that they, "Should do nothing
independently even in her own house. In childhood
subject to her father, in youth to her husband is dead
to her sons, she should never enjoy independence...."
(Baig, 1976, p. 3). Indian women certainly have had a
fight on their hands from the beginning, but they have
accomplished feats that many other women throughout the
world have been unable to achieve such as becoming
ambassadors, administrators, and even prime ministers.

Indus Valley Civilization
Around 3500 B.C., the Indus Valley thrived,
bearing out the peaceful nature of a settled people.
With the tilling of the soil came the beginning of the
Earth Goddess cult, connected with the earth,
fertility, the cycle of procreation, decay and renewal.
The Mother Goddess was the eternal symbol of life. The
importance of the environment and what the land meant
was very apparent to women in the earliest of times:
The magical rites to preserve the fertility of the
soil belonged to the special competence of women
whose child-bearing capacity was comparable to the
protective nature of earth. The clan life, in
which the mother headed every family, created the
mother goddess and raised her to the supreme
position. In primitive conception such goddesses
needed human sacrifice, among other things. (Baig,
1976, p. 5).
Specific knowledge of the Indus Valley people at
the earliest of India's history, is, at present, very
meager. Very little information can be gleaned from
the evidence now available in reference to marriage
laws and customs of the Indus Valley people, and of the
position of their women in society. The many figures
of goddesses discovered seem to suggest that the
popular deities of the ancient pantheon were female,
and this would indicate matriarchal social conceptions
(Thomas, 1964). Women reached a high standard of

learning and culture and made all-around progress. A
wife was her husband's helpmate, friend, and comrade
and a man could not undertake any social or religious
duty without his wife. Women had control over their
parinaya (gifts and property etc. received at the time
of the marriage) and it was considered a sin if
relatives took away stridhana (property exclusively
belonging to the wife) (Sharan, 1992).
It is ironic that the very early history of India
there was no such thing as the dominant male, but
rather the reasonable biological acceptance of the
difference which gives man and woman clear-cut but
different earthly functions. A man in fact was
dependent upon a woman because she was the sole
provider of his creature comforts: "Women like the
earth, gave life sustenance, strength" (Baig, 1976, p.
5). It is important to bring to the forefront that the
women of India were closely tied to the issues of the
earth, for "the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece
and ancient India were symbols of the elemental forces
of nature and of life and death" (Ali, 1991, p. 3) .
Indian women did not fare too badly during this
early period of history, "feeling it was because there
were springs to replenish the well so that it did not
dry up" (Ali, 1991, p. 21).

Aryan Civilization/Hinduism
In the Vedic age, beginning approximately 2500 BC,
women enjoyed a high position in Indian society, as .
they had the ability of full freedom for spiritual and
intellectual endeavors. In the early stages of the
Aryan Age the patriarchy desired cooperation of their
women in every walk of life (Asthana, 1974). However,
with the development of Aryan civilization and
Hinduism, the position of Indian women declined and
further reduced to degrading depths during the age of
the Puranas. Puranic Hinduism exalted feminine
deities, but continually reduced women in real life to
the position of a domestic slave or plaything. Women
of India were relegated to the parts which their
society gave them, and even within the home women of
the higher castes were equated to those of the "low
caste' Sudras and Mlechahas.
The Aryan social order was based on four classes
or castes: priests and scholars {Brahmins); rulers and
warriors (Kshatriyas); landowners and traders
(Vaisyas); and agricultural Laborers and artisans
(Sudras). Below the Sudras were untouchables or

Mlechhas who were assigned tasks considered degrading.
There was also the aboriginals known as Adivasis
(original dwellers) who lived as hunter gatherers (Ali,
1991). Women were equated with those of the Sudras
caste as unfit for learning and were assigned the care
taking roles of the family. A thin line separated the
Melechhas from some of the Sudra sub-castes. All the
great social reformers in India down the centuries from
Buddha to Gandhi have affirmed that human equality is
diametrically opposed to the inequity of the caste
hierarchy and the subordination of women to men, but
still these remained important components of the
society. Within this context there is evidence of links
between gender and caste. Women's position
deteriorated with the rise in the economic importance
of caste. This deterioration had a material basis in
the maintenance of property within the caste (Liddle &
Joshi, 1986) It is interesting to note that during
this time in India's history, within the strictures of
caste, class, and gender traditions, the women of the
upper castes were more restricted than women of lower
castes and classes where they enjoyed more mobility
because they were considered to have a more important
economic role in society, but they were still

economically and sexually exploited by the upper castes
and classes (Charlton, Everett & Staudt, 1989).
Approximately in the time period of 300BC and on
the status of women had been on the decline, and a
daughter was not as welcome as a son, for he was a
greater asset to the family. The son could fight wars
which the daughter could not. Then after marriage, in
contrast to a daughter, a son did not leave his
parents, but stayed with and cared for them in their
old age (Desai, 1992).
It was during this period of history that the
dowry system was established, this is a system that is
still utilized to a great extent in today's India. The
dowry system has relegated girls to the relatively low
status that they hold. During the Aryan age the
marriage of a girl was conceived as dana, or a
religious gift. In the presence of such a gift, the
bride's family would contribute cash as an in-kind
payment. As time went on the amount of dowry paid
became an increasing curse, for the amount paid out .
grew tremendously and became extremely hard to pay
(Desai, 1992).
Indian society became somewhat rigid in its
attitude toward women with the advent of Islam after
1000 A.D. Islam brought to India both a series of

positive and negative values. Negative aspects
included the sanctioning of polygamy, as well as the
introduction of purdah (female seclusion). On the
positive side, Islam believed in brotherhood and
equality, and gave the right of inheritance to
daughters, although the share they received was less
than that of sons (Ali, 1991).
Islam enjoined every Hindu girl to be first
converted to Islam before her marriage could be
solemnized with a Muslim. Hindus were thus compelled
to curtail the freedom of their women and also to deny
them education, this brought along with it many other
consequences (Asthana, 1974) It had become evident by
now that as other influences came into the Indian
culture, the status of women declined and would
continue to do so in the coming years.
Mughal Empire
During the Mughal period from the fifteenth
through seventeenth century's A.D., seclusion of women
was seen as a symbol of respectability among the higher
classes, and. the birth of a female child was unwelcome
both in Hindu and Muslim families. There was a
prevalence of infanticide in some sections of society.
Rarely were women exposed to education, except for

those who belonged to the elite classes (Asthana,
1974). It was within this period of history that a
strong Islamic culture began to grow, mostly in the
north and east parts of India. This was a culture that
greatly influenced India, but it also added one more
separate group to the existing 3000 sub-castes into
which society by now had already been divided into
(Baig, 1976).
With the downfall of the Mughal empire in the
eighteenth century, the country went through a long
period of drift with no central point (Baig, 1976) ,
There did not seem to exist any central direction to
social thinking in the country, and there was a
tendency to further stagnate the social customs
regarding women (Asthana, 1974). With the crumbling of
the Mughal Empire and independent princely states the
eighteenth century was a period of flux for India,
leaving spaces for the new movements to develop (Kumar,
British Colonialism
At the advent of the British rule in the
eighteenth century, women occupied a subjugated and
inferior position in society and during British rule
there were not many significant changes were made. The

British basically wanted to maintain a hands-off policy
regarding the socio-religious customs of the country,
but some laws were enacted as time went on to improve
the living conditions of women, although in many areas
of the country the traditions of culture prevailed
despite the laws that were enacted (Dhruvarajan, 1989) .
Infanticide prevailed in many parts of the
country, although laws were enacted to prohibit it.
Early marriage was found to be common, and it was
observed that, "the girl-child from the moment of her
birth to her death undergoes one continuous life-long
suffering as a child-wife, as a child-mother and very
often as a child-widow" (Asthana, 1974, p. 6).
The position of Indian women seemed to have
reached its lowest point at the advent of British rule,
"from the point of view of literacy, individuality,
health, social status, freedom of movement and economic
independence" (Asthana, 1974, p. 12).
As the nineteenth century approached, the role of
women of India was largely confined to the home but was
considered quite important inside it:
Besides the management of the household, and the
care of the family which are under their control,
the wives and daughters of the men attend, and
assist their husbands and fathers in the labours
of agriculture.... In short, there is no kind of
work, no kind of trade, in a civilized society,in
which the Hindu females are not seen actively
engaged, and occupying a conspicuous place (Ali,

1991, p. 19).
In reflection of past history woman was considered
as man's private property and was also symbolized as
the adjunct of low legal status. A.S. Altekar (1956)
For nearly 2000 years from 20 BC to 1800 AD the
position of women steadily deteriorated though she
was saddled by the parents, loved by the husband
and revered by her children. The revival of Sati,
the prohibition of remarriage, the spread of purda
and the greater prevalence of polygamy made her
position very bad. (cited in Manohar, 1983, p. 4)
In the nineteenth century the anti-caste movement
developed and grew partly out of the crumbling of
Brahmanic hegemony with the disintegration of Peshwa
rule (Kumar, 1993). What arose out of that were other
issues of great importance, as well as campaigns
concerning.women which now flourish in this century.
Two of the earliest campaigns were initiated by the
same people, but had different trajectories of
development. In 1815 Ram Mahan Roy wrote the first
text attacking sati (the practice of burning or burying
alive the widows of Hindus) (Kumar, 1993). The British
prohibited Sati in 1829. The Sati Abolition Act was
formulated with some concern as to how the citizens
would react to such a move, but the prohibition was
accepted by many in society, as it turned out that sati

was not as common as had it been thought to be in many
parts of the country. Also in 1815 Ram Mahon Roy
publicly discussed the education of women at a Bengal
meeting of the Atmiya Sabha, a political action
movement that Roy had founded. The need for education
is generally described as having been formed by the
desire of a rising middle class to adapt to a Western
milieu. Women's education was a double-edged sword,
for this was a way of detaching upper-caste women from
any contact with what was considered the ^vulgar
masses' (Kumar, 1993). One of the effects of the
women's education movement, therefore, was to
marginalize popular forms of women's entertainment. The
traditional spaces for the expression of "a woman's
voice' were then further curtailed.
As India progressed into the nineteenth century
reform movements began to emerge and experienced
increased growth. Reform-based organizations spread and
founded such institutions as schools and homes (Kumar,
1993) .
The numbers of women in the public sphere
increased considerably, and women novelists such as
Nirupama Devi and Anurupa Deva were being referred to
in Bengali literary circles and were members of the
literary clubs. Kashibai Kanitkar was India's first

woman novelist and started her writing career in the
1890's, and Anandibai Joshi, India's first female woman
doctor, qualified at the same time. In spite of these
signs of progress, the atmosphere in which such women
lived was often a harsh and very hostile one, for when
these two women ventured out the first time wearing
shoes and carrying umbrellas, they were stoned in the
streets for daring to usurp such symbols of male
authority (Kumar, 1993). These were women who during
this period of history in India, were considered
controversial, for they were engaging in activities
that were not considered acceptable by India's
Since the late eighteenth century, British rule
exempted the domain of personal laws from state
intervention, unless customary or scriptural sanction
could be cited as a necessary reason for change, and
there were three historical developments that followed
from this. First was that the domestic sphere,
governed by the personal laws, and a site of relative
autonomy, became the last bastion of a vanished
freedom, as well as the possible site of an emergent
nation. Second was widespread involvement with the
processes of legal change. Third, legality now clashed
with religious prescription in unprecented ways, for

example sati -hitherto a universally accepted sign of
womanly virtue- was now legally classified as a crime.
As a result of the debates, gender norms were detached
from the realm of the sacred prescription to the
realities of commonsense and their ideological basis
were made transparent (Sarkar, 1997).
During this era women were also involved with
nationalist campaigns and organizations where they
again had to overcome a certain degree of resistance
from the men surrounding them. In examining the history
of India one has to review the issues of colonization
and imperialism that formed the context in which male
discourse about women in India developed. This
discourse was developed in the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries in connection with the power,
and domination shared between the British male colonial
elite and upper-class Indian males. A part of that
discourse concerned the prospect of reform as related
to the situation of Indian women. There were two
similar camps involved in this issue. One side
included colonial administrators, missionaries,
Orientalists-, Indologists, and other Western observers
in India, all of whom shared a belief in the
superiority of the Western, Christian "civilized"
nations over all others. The other side consisted of

Indian social reformers, educationalists, politicians,
and academics. Some of these were scholars of Indian
philosophy and literary texts, and others had Western
educations and were influenced by liberalism (Agnew,
There was constant interaction amongst Western and
Indian ideals, principles, and philosophies. Those who
were advocates of social reform for women in the
nineteenth century were strongly influenced by Western
liberalism and English education.
Political Movements/Social Movements
In 1889 the Indian National Congress held a
session in Bombay and noted:
That no less than ten lady delegates graced the
assembly one elevated by men at public meeting,
the others by various ladies associations, the
Women's Christian Temperance Union the legal
Ladies' Association, and the Mahila Arya Smaj.
(Kumar, 1993, p. 34)
Although these women were allowed to sit on the
platform, they were not allowed to speak or to vote on
any resolutions. There is confusion as to exactly when
women were allowed to speak at Congress sessions, and
it is speculated to be in the 1890 session, when a
woman was allowed to speak, or rather, to present a
vote of thanks to the President. Some historians
disagree saying it was perhaps some ten years later,

when "the fist lady speaker of the Congress was Mrs
Kadambini Ganguli, who moved the customary vote of
thanks to the President of the Sixteenth Congress in
1900" (Kumar, 1993, p. 34). This plainly demonstrates
the difficulties women of India had in having their
voices heard, in what could only be considered the most
perfunctory of acts, that of giving a vote of thanks.
Gender relations and patriarchal traditions in India
began being examined and challenged in the nineteenth
century, for even until the nineteenth century, there
was a powerful customary belief that educated women
were destined to be spinsters. Reformist endeavors
strained against this, and starting in areas such as
Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras they were able to make a
limited amount of education available for middle-class
girls (Sarkar, 1997). While some educational and legal
reforms resulted, the educated woman posed a threat to
the very basis of masculinity.
Much of the nineteenth century's legal and
educational reforms were proscribed within the Hindu
community and the formal education for Muslim girls
came late in the nineteenth century and legal reforms
had to wait until the first few decades of the
twentieth century.
The nineteenth century involved extensive and

indepth debates about the state of gender relations in
the context of Indian traditions. The literature
being published at the time covered issues that had not
before been openly discussed in the history of India:
sati or widow immolation, age and forms of marriage,
the possibility of divorce, of widow remarriage,
education, male polygamy, and a myriad of other
issues. Social and religious reform associations spent
a great deal of time arguing and debating matters that
had remained taboo to discuss in an open forum before
(Sarkar, 1997).
As India entered into a new century the possible
scope of women's participation widened to further
fields of discussion due in part to the deepening of
popular anti-colonial protest. This was something new
in India's history, for the issues of debate were
unprecedented, as well as the amount of talk expended
on them. It had been thought that, to those in the
nineteenth century, gender relations were frozen in a
static web of sacred laws and customs. When those
laws and customs were challenged by everyday acts of
defiance by women in their silent transgressions, their
protests were unmasked with sorrowful dirges and tales
indicative of the unfairness in the world. What was
now being witnessed upon entrance into the twentieth

century was how a, "qualitative leap was made away from
these oblique expressions to a more open interrogation,
not only by women, but also by men of liberal reform
persuasion" (Sarkar, 1997, p. 54).
The year of 1919 marked the beginning of the
revolutionary movement under Gandhi up to Independence
in 1947, the women's movement, as such, had gained
momentum first by attacking old customs, working
towards women's education, and later on all aspects of
legal reform (Baig, 1976). Women of India were now
moving into a period of history with the realization
that they could have a voice, that it could be heard,
and there could be a possibility of it being acted
Western culture seemed to have had its impact on
such areas as the Social Reform Movement and the
Nationalist Movement, along with a number of other
movements which emerged during the century (Liddle &
Joshi, 1986). Women's participation in the nationalist
movement was low in the early years, but in helping
with social reform the depth of their sympathy was
expressed in the form of deeds rather than direct
action (Jain, 1975).
As available evidence has pointed out, women of
India did not enjoy a much better status in primitive

society where women were looked upon as chattels. As
capitalism was superimposed over the patriarchal
structures of India particularly during imperialist
rule, new forms of exploitation and social oppression
of women had come into being (Manohar, 1983).
The change in India's history in part has been
explained in terms of exposure to a liberal Western
education that has taught middle-class Indians to
question the subjection of women. Although this could
be a partial explanation, it is also easy to believe
that this was a path that India was predetermined to
take. It was not necessarily just a Western influence
which caused them to question their situation, but a
result of the natural progression of a society. It is
during this period that the Indian woman began to find
that her voice could be heard, although as a whisper
rather than shout, and she began to make inroads in
many different forums, whether through politics,
organizations, or various other methods.

This chapter explores the many strategies of
empowerment that the women of India have utilized. It
is in the arena of politics where women have had the
hardest fight to have their voices heard and their vote
counted. Along with that battle came the emergence of
social movements which began in the 1970's and has lead
to the many different strands of the women's movement
from the urban to the rural.
Marginalization in Electoral Politics
Indian politics fails to reflect the advances that
have been attained by women's groups. The country's
policy and decision-making levels have continued to be
dominated by a patriarchal system, despite the
existence of laws that have attempted to eliminate
traditional inequalities with respect to politics,
family law and economics.
It is evident that in India there is a great gap
within constitutional guarantees and the actual
implementation of such laws that guarantee equal
representation of women. However, in spite of these

constitutional and legal provisions, women have not
been able to obtain adequate and proportionate
representation in the Lok Sabha (the directly elected
house of the national legislature). In fact, the
highest representation that women have enjoyed is 8
percent in Parliament, 9.11 percent in the State
Assemblies, and about 12.96 percent in the Council of
Ministers ("Women in politics: forms and processes,"
1994) .
The relatively few women in the parliament and
state assemblies have been unable to effectively
improve the status of women. Their numbers are small
and the majority of the female politicians are from
upper-middle and upper-class families who have been
involved in politics over time, as in the case of
Indira Gandhi. They are born into privilege and have
achieved their personal goals with the support of
family members. They work within the mainstream
systems and advocate voluntary social service for the
improvement of women (Dhruvarajan, 1989). The majority
of women in India do not come from such privileged
backgrounds and are marginalized in the political
The women's movement believes that it is critical
to increase their participation in politics and to

include within it women of all backgrounds, so they can
bring gender issues to the forefront of the political
agenda. A strong factor in what holds many areas of
equality back is religion, for in India, religion is
law. In most matters pertaining to family life -
marriage, divorce, inheritance guardianship of children
- religious law is recognized by the state. While
implementing these reforms the state has continued the
practice of letting Hindu law govern the Hindu
community and the same for Muslim law and the Muslim
community. Despite the constitutional guarantee in
Article 14 of the equality of the sexes, it is found
that some aspect of every religious communities's law -
laws that are still recognized by the courts -
discriminate against women (Caiman, 1992). It is
widely recognized that a pre-condition for any type of
developmental effort which is going to be
environmentally harmonious and that safeguards human
rights is the participation and involvement of women in
the political process. There is an extremely
inadequate number of women at policy-making levels. As

stated in an article titled "Women in politics: forms
and processes"(1994):
In India there is still great hiatus between
constitutional guarantees and the actual
representation of women. The right to
constitutional equality was supplemented by legal
equality by the passage of a number Acts through
which traditional inequalities in respect of
marriage divorce and property rights were
eliminated. However, in spite of these
constitutional and legal provisions, it is known
that women have not obtained adequate and
proportionate representation, (p. 55)
Indira Gandhi
No discussion of the political strides of the
women of India would be complete without a profile of
Indira Gandhi, who overcame a strong patriarchal system
to become the first woman prime minister of India.
Although she had the prestige acquired from her father,
the first prime minister of India, it was still quite a
feat in such a strong patriarchal system as India for a
woman to become prime minister.
Indira held office from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980
until her death in 1984, when she was assassinated by
two of her security guards, who were members of India's
Sikh religious group.
Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi was the only child of
Jawaharial Nehru who served as India's first prime

minister from 1947 to 1964, and she served as an
adviser to her father during his term. It is apparent
that Indira Gandhi cannot be looked upon as a typical
woman of India, for she was born into a situation which
lent her clout and a certain degree of predetermined
power. Indira's term was not without controversy, for
she was found guilty of using illegal practices during
India's 1971 parliamentary election campaign. Gandhi's
opponents demanded that she resign from office because
of the conviction, but she refused. The criticism of
Gandhi grew and she declared a state of emergency two
weeks afer the court ruling. She had her major
opponents arrested and imposed press censorship. In
1977, Gandhi's Congress (Ruling) Party was defeated in
India's parliamentary elections. In 1980 her party
regained control of Parliament, and she again became
prime minister ("Indira Gandhi: Women's history The
quest for equality," 1998). Despite any past
controversy there can be no doubt that Indira Gandhi
was a woman who helped the woman's voice be heard.

Emergence of Social Movements
Go to the Women
To the women of this country,
mothers and sisters
We must go, and say,
Unite together, take up the battle,
We will smash this prison! by Madhav Chavan
(cited in Omvedt, 1980, p. 108)
In the 1970's, the women's movement emerged in
response to a series of crises in the Indian state.
The government appeared to be corrupt and increasingly
inept, and there were an increasing number of human
rights violations inflicted on its citizens. The anger
of the people of India led to the blossoming of
movements and the women's movement was a part of the
surge. The women wanted not only to have an impact on
the state, but on society as well, while seeking their
own political, social, and economic empowerment
(Caiman, 1992) .
For women to be able to contribute to the
political agenda, they must first be empowered
privately; they must enjoy some type of control over
their own lives. The participation of women in
organization's educates them and opens up broader social
and political horizons; they are linked, often for the
first time, to people outside their families (Caiman,
1992). This is an extremely important factor, for the

family, oftentimes, is the strong controlling factor in
these women's lives. This personal empowerment is of
utmost importance in its own right, and it is also very
much a prerequisite for the obtaining of greater rights
and the exercise of heightened political power for
In examining the women's movement, one observes
what seems to be limited success in securing the rights
and expanding empowerment for women. There have been
minimal changes in laws, and enforcement of those new
laws has been extremely limited. There are hundreds of
thousands of women that still remain mired in terrible
poverty and suffer from malnutrition, illiteracy, and
violence. What is of greater importance here is that
the movement has begun a struggle to change
consciousness, so that substantive change can become
possible. What it comes down to, is that the
impressive organizations in the movement constitute
important models for the future development of women's
status and power and although women have not found all
the answers within the women's movement, they have
begun to find a voice.
New social movement theory, which was developed in
Europe in the 1970's, identified the feminist, human
rights, environmental, and peace movements, as a

product of postindustrial society. Middle class people
with adequate time and resources to expend in political
activity sought to create a political environment
within a civil society that is "characterized by
participatory democracy and unencumbered by the
bureaucratization characteristic of the advanced
capitalistic state" (Caiman, 1992, p. 196). The
organization itself becomes a model of how society
might better be organized and how political decision-
making and action is pursued. As one reviews what the
new social movement theorists acknowledge as the values
embraced by the new movements such as autonomy,
identity, human rights peace and ecology they are not
new and these values have been embraced by Indian post-
industrial movements The women's movement in the late
1970's brought about a new dynamism and direction to
the arena of women's studies in India. Issues of
domestic and social violence, sexual exploitation in
old and new forms, identification of complex structures
of domination and their reassertion in new forms in the
ideology of revivalist, fundamentalist communal and
ethic movements, are just some of the most significant
of these new dimensions that the movement has brought
into women's studies (Mazumdar, 1994). Women's studies
is an integral part of the women's movement. As

Mazumdar pointed out, women's studies in India has
actively contributed in policy-oriented research to
provide for womens's equal status in education, as well
as to mitigate bias against women as pertaining to
their role in society and has given the opportunity for
people to fight for their rights.
In exploring this issue it is important that
society recognizes that:
Growing numbers of women's organizations,
increasing seminars and workshops of women's
studies, and women's networks in the 1980's may
not be complementing each other but are active in
striving for women's empowerment. Their sustained
role in this endeavor will depend on the effective
marshaling of women from all sections of society.
(Mazumdar, 1994, p. 42)
The concept of empowerment, is the essential for
most deprived groups of women to enjoy their
constitutional rights. Without a women's movement, or
women's studies, it becomes more difficult for women to
have the voice they need. This is but one component of
many that help women to find their source of
Within India, the women's movement has had as its
goal to move the state to action; it is primarily the
government, they believe, "that should make the
provision for women to have equal rights and economic
opportunity, to have a voice in how to protect the
environment" (Caiman, 1992, p. 5).

Women's Movement Many Strands
To look closely at the Women's Movement, one sees
that there are many different strands that are
associated with it. There are the individual women
within the movements, and the different organizations
that help the women's movement further its particular
causes. It is important to examine the strategies
within women's organizations, especially within the
grassroots movements. Gita Sen and Caren Grown (1987)
pointed out that:
Such discussions can help to genuinely incorporate
the experiences and concerns of poor women to
discern and identify regional and local
variations, and to articulate a consolidated body
of analysis and programees to ourselves, as well
as to national governments and international
agencies. Any effective strategy must integrate
economic, political, legal, and cultural aspects,
(p. 82)
It is important that these factors are considered when
following women's organizations and the various
factions within the movement. It also points to the
importance of pulling together in an international
aspect through the use of conferences, and the
integration and camaraderie from within and without.
Informal Sector of Women's Organizations. Self
Employed Women's Association (SEWA) is one of the
world's most well known women's organizations and had

its beginnings in the labor union movement. SEWA's
dedication to expanding cooperative ventures for women
in both the urban and rural sectors can be seen as an
effort to build empowerment. SEWA not only organizes
economic cooperatives, but also address social issues
of importance to women, including dowry and rape,
empathizes the critical importance of unity,
organization, and self-reliance for solving many
problems (Caiman, 1992).
SEWA strives to empower Indian home workers in
lobbying for wages, social benefits, and financial
credit; it has grown to become an effective advocate
for government policy and industrial rules to assist
informal-sector workers in India. In an article called
"India: the success of SEWA" (1995), it pointed out
The founder of the first union for women in
India's giant unorganized economic sectors, Ms.
Ella Bhatt has become a global champion for the
world's largest labour force: women who work at
home...SEWA has brought together 143,000 Indian
homeworkers to lobby for fair wages, social
benefits market access and financial credit.'Our
women have come out of the clutches of money
lenders and middlemen'. ( p. 62)
Ms. Ella Bhatt, a labour lawyer, founded SEWA in
1972 and it has become a powerful voice on government
policy and work practices both abroad and in India.
SEWA has drawn on the philosophies of labour

cooperatives and the women's movement and she has
created an organization that regards the family rather
than the individual as the core economic unit. Bhatt
(1995) stated that, "Full employment does not mean a
secure job, it means employment whereby workers are
assured income security, food security and social
security" (India the success of SEWA, p. 62) It does
seem that while female political protesters seem to
enjoy international support, the struggling female
workers have received scant recognition. Ms. Bhatt has
become very critical of national labour movements, and
the International Labour Organization, for largely
ignoring the female-dominated informal-sector, nor does
she ignore the plight of workers in industrial
countries for she has proven herself to be a formidable
advocate for womens rights.
Organizations such as SEWA and Working Women's
Forum (WWF), another organization of informal-sector
women workers have helped to better understand the many
issues, including the benefits of increased income and
women started to realize the incompatibility of large
families and small incomes. As poor women's critical
needs are more or less satisfied when they are able to
assert their rights to better services to which they
are entitled, from the state or other organizations.

Poor women have committed to equitable growth and it is
reflected in their new protest movements. The issues
of human rights, environmental concerns, demand for
accessible, affordable services from the bureaucracies,
fighting for social change from stereotyped systems of
caste, dowry, and widow remarriage are all being
rethought ( Azad, 1996) The changes that have been
brought about are tremendous, through the policies and
efforts of such organizations such as WWF, but there is
still a long way go.
Grassroots Rural Movements. There are some
strong grassroots efforts that are being put forth by
women's groups that have made a difference and these
grassroots movements can truly make concrete changes
for the women and their communities. An article by
Geeta Balachandran (1989), discusses how the enhanced
representation of women in panchayats, is likely to
remove the isolation of women and give them power and
strength to be more assertive and take a their place in
decision making. The need for building up women's
power as visualized by Mahatma Gandhi is seen more
evidently today more than ever before.
Nandini Azad (1996) researched the issue of what
grassroots activism by women can do to make concrete
changes. She points out that women at the grassroots

level are neither weak nor defenseless, but are
constantly confronted by structures that
compartmentalize/fragment their lives and issue
multiple roles. What is needed is a self-initiated,
integrative, and gender-equitable planning. Azad (1996)
makes it clear that volunteerism and social movements
are of extreme importance, but in India where
traditional values are strong, the patriarchal cultures
often negate the little progress that has been achieved
in this direction.
Azad (1996) showed that women form over 89% of
India's, and 90% of the world's, working population,-
yet they are excluded from the labor market. The areas
of policy options, protective measures, and many other
arenas are,all denied to them, and in the end their
voice is seldom, if ever, heard.
Among the many of what can be considered the "new
social movements' that have developed in rural India
during the last two decades two have been highlighted:
an environmental movement of peasants and tribal
peoples resisting the destruction of drought,
ecological destruction, and displacement due to dams
and other development projects; and the "farmer1
movement, which has rallied peasants to fight their
exploitation by the market and the state on important

issues such as prices, indebtedness, corruption (Shiva,
1994). Movements such as these began on some purely
economic or survival issues, but by the late 1980's
there was a realization of how destruction to the
environment would affect life in the future and
proposals were coming to the forefront for alternative
types of development. Resistance movements have been a
major factor in social development of this century and
both the environmental movement and the farmers'
movement have become a significant force in India
today, and the women are the ones at the forefront of
such movements.
Environmental movements in India have been locally
organized, at true grassroots level, in areas that
usually cover a group of villages where people are
affected by harmful "development'. These particular
movements are not Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
or funded agencies, they are mass based, self-financed,
people's movements. They do not have formal
structures, but rather varying structures where
spontaneity plays a major role in how they operate.
This is particularly important in regards to the women
who are involved with the movements, for they are more
often involved at the informal level and unrepresented
or under-represented in the formal decision-making

structures. As is seen in many of the movements, their
agitation tends to be directed against the state, or
large corporations, the forces that are often involved
in displacement, land take-overs, destruction of
environment etc., rather than against the local
landlords or money lenders (Shiva, 1994).
Empowerment of organizations, individuals and
movements discussed herein cover a multitude of issues
and purposes, but they share a definite concern and
identification with women's causes. It is apparent
that their overall power is derived from their
flexibility and unity of purpose. "Between the
organizations and the movements stand networks and
coalitions, some of which are permanent and others more
temporary.. Their goals range from direct political
action to exchanges of research and information" (Sen &
Grown, 1987, p. 93).
Case Studies
Four important cases of rural movements and
projects are the Maharashtra Movements, the Narmada
Movement, Chipko and India's rural development project.
They all have their impact on Indian society and the
women's movement and are worthy case studies to

Maharashtra Movements
An example of women taking direct action and
becoming involved in the political process has been
witnessed to a great degree in Maharshtra state, where
an overwhelming number of women have become involved in
direct action to make changes. This can be seen in
Bramanghar village in the Pune district of Maharshtra
state, where their panchayat, or local government
council, is comprised by women.
In Maharashtra there were demonstrations
throughout the rural areas marches, sit-downs-
because of the situation of the area resulting from the
recent extreme famine. Women were prominent among
agricultural labourers in the area and made up nearly
half the workers on the relief projects (Omvedt, 1980).
As women became more militant, the realization that
they were a force to be reckoned with became very
Amidst this militancy in the village of
Bramanghar, a seven member council of all women were
elected unanimously by the villagers, where their main
concerns encompassed improvement of the town's sewage
system and construction of a bigger water supply tank.

This council made up solely of women is a ground
breaker of sorts, as these women were voted in
unanimously by the village. They are able to make
decisions regarding village administration. After the
village council meets and discusses the issues, its
powers are like those of a court of law and the
villagers are then duty bound to follow and obey its
decisions (Darshni, 1994). Sushila Dumal, a woman on
the council stated:
We women will make our own decisions, although we
see no harm in consulting our husbands for
guidance...People are ready to work if they are
given work. Everyone must be allowed the
opportunity to do something. Only then will their
standard of living improve, (cited in Darshini,
1994, p. 16)
Another amazing fact about this council is that is
does have a member from the lowest caste, which is just
as amazing as having an all woman council. The state
of Maharashtra, does have a relatively high rate of
women's work participation and a strong tradition of
social-cultural revolt, both factors contribute to a
vigorous expression of women's militancy (Omvedt,
Two important organizations based in Maharashtra
highlight the role of rural women and the formation of
an alternative developmental perspective. Those two
organizations are Mukti Sangharsh, a movement of

peasants and agricultural laborers fighting on issues
of drought and water rights, and Shetkari Sanghatana,
an organization formed around the demand for fair
prices agricultural produce (Shiva, 1994). These
movements represent peasant resistance, which has
stubbornly refused to vanish, resisting their
exploitation, the appropriation of their resources, and
any kind of destruction of their environment.
The Sangli district of southern Maharashtra is
considered one of the developed regions of the state,
but it is only the valley of the Krishna river that is
irrigated, most of the district is dry and drought-
prone. An organization called Mukti Sangharsh (meaning
Liberation Struggle) was formed in a drought-prone area
and took an aim at eradicating the drought. Its major
slogan was, "we wont' break rocks, we won't lay roads,
we won't stop without eradicating drought', and this
became particularly popular with the women involved in
the struggle, who carried it with them into
participation in united women's activities (Shiva,
1994). The most famous struggle of this organization
began in 1986 and centered on the efforts of peasants
to build a small dam, which would help irrigate 900
acres in two villages. The major conflict was with the
state bureaucracy and it revolved around the question

of sand. As with all natural resources in India, sand
is considered the property of the state and not the
immediate community. The peasants simply wanted the
right to use the sand in their area, so they could
finance the dam, which would serve the interest of
eradicating drought and not to have it monopolized by
both contractors and the bureaucracy, The organization
also pointed out that they could do it in a non-
damaging way while the contractors' "mining' of sand
had a destructive effect on the percolation of the
water. Issues such as this one with such underlying
economic interest surplus extracted in the form of
sand that resulted in even a very small dam being an
issue of contention for five years, which involved
marches, demonstrations, road blocks by humans and
bullocks, the rallying of a united front comprising
representatives of all opposition parties, and a
movement going up to the state government itself,
before the organization won the right to build their
own dam (Shiva, 1994). The Mukti Sangharsh has
continued to fight such battles, and campaigns are
underway linking the issue of dams and irrigation with
alternative forms of equitable and sustainable
agricultural production.
Women have been enthusiastic participants in these

struggles, though they have had little role in
decision-making. By 1985 women splintered away from
Mukti and formed their own organization, Stri Mukti
Sangharsh Claval (Women's Liberation Struggle
Movement). As with all rural women's organizations the
cooperation of male activists was indispensable.
Since 1975 there has been tremendous development
of a plethora of feminist activities in Maharashtra.
This has been partially believed to have been caused by
the U.N.'s declaration of 1975 as International Women's
Year, and it seemed to have provided a kind of focus
for activities centering on women. It is also assumed
that these activities would have taken place even
without that, for an interest in women's problems had
started developing in Maharashtra from the early
seventies (Kumar, 1993).
Narmada Movement
In 1985 Medha Parkar worked with 245 Maharashtra
tribal communities, whose habitat was slated to be
submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam of the Narmada
River. Medha organized and led thousands of agitators
to stop the Sardar Sarovar Dam from being built. Medha
is but one of a group of outstanding Indian women
activists who have been able to transcend their

traditional urban, educated, middle class roles to
champion the causes of the environment and the poor
(Shrivastava, 1996).
The pro-dam lobby is a powerful coalition of rich
farmers, industrialists, and contractors against whom
Medha and other members involved in her crusade have
been able to courageously confront. They have endured
state-sponsored violence and patiently borne the
hostility of vested interests without adopting violent
methods of counter-attack. The project that they
fought against would transform the giant River Narmada
into a series of large pools and reservoirs'. The
destructive impact of the project included inundating
rich croplands, destroying the livelihood of more than
a million people, submerging extensive areas of
pristine forest, destroying wildlife, and permanently
destabilizing the river basins ecology. The decision
to allow the project to proceed dismayed
environmentalists from India and all over the world
(Shrivastava, 1996).
The project has been put on hold for a number of
years due to. all the questions that have been raised by
Medha and the villagers, which caused the World Bank to
pull out of the project. Medha has a middle class,
radical urban background and she was viewed as an

outsider and alien, but she would not give up her fight
as she lived with the tribals, learned their language
and in the end won their trust. Mandeka Ganhhi states,
"She has single-handedly kept the movement going even
when there was no hope of success" (Shrivastava, 1996,
p. 9). Like many environmentalists Medha does not
believe in going to the courts for justice on
ecological issues. Medha stated that, "The courts are
for dumping problems and locking them up" (cited in
Shrivastava, 1996, p.9). Medha is someone who believes
in grassroots mass movements, which is of utmost
importance for the improvement of the status of women
in India. Medha is a dedicated activist who has proven
time and again that she has a strong commitment to the
environment and the people of the villages.
Medha is a prominent woman in India who has been
able to get debate focused on the morality of progress
without commensurate democracy and on the urgency of
forging policies which support sociologically sound,
equitable and sustainable development. Medha's efforts
have been recognized world wide with many awards
including the Goldman Environment Prize. Her
supporters are so totally dedicated to her that they

are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her and
they know that:
Medha has the remarkable ability to stir up people
to march and agitate. She's no ordinary woman.
She believes in the righteousness of her
cause.... She has been sent by the God to do this
work, her great contribution to the Indian green
movement is that she educated the farmers and
tribals to know their rights. (Shrivastava, 1996,
p. ID
What is important is that there are women such as Medha
who help forge movements to make a difference.
Although collective action is crucial to the success of
a cause, it is often the leader, the most indispensable
person, that can make or break an agenda. It is
because of women like her that communities in India
have come to realize the importance of development or
disaster. Women and nature are closely associated, and
that is not to say anything new, but as Vandana Shiva
(1989) points out, "The new insight provided by rural
women in the Third World is that women and nature are
associated not in passivity but in creativity and in
the maintenance of life" (p. 47). What is witnessed
with someone like Medha is exactly that creativity, in
which she has brought necessary awareness to villagers
and has been' able to save untold parts of the
environment and save flora and fauna that could
disappear forever leading to ecological disaster.

Chipko Movement
In the 1970's, the Chipko (means to hug) Movement,
the organized protest of the DGSS (Village
Association), of the Uttarkhand region, located at the
feet of the Himalaya mountains. This movement involved
women, whose help the movement's leader solicited to
act non-violently against the government's policy and
the greedy contractors, who were involved in clearing
forests in banned regions. The actual incident that
started the Chipko Movement was when a group of the
women in the region, who knew when the contractors were
arriving, went into the forest joined hands and
encircled the trees preventing them from being cut
down. The women informed the cutters that in order to
cut the trees they would first have to cut off their
heads, the contractors, taken aback, withdrew and the
forest was saved (Rodda, 1991).
Forests have always been central to Indian
civilization, considered the primary source of life and
fertility, "the culture of the forest has fueled the
culture of Indian society" (Shiva, 1989, p. 55). That
is why such movements as Chipko took up the
preservation of India's forests.
The Chipko Movement took on even wider dimensions

as they began to emphasize the planting of trees
necessary for soil conservation, prevention of floods,
and curbing of the soil-erosion which causes droughts
(Desai, 1992).
Chipko became a women's movement representing
environmental causes and addressing economic issues as
they also fought for jobs for their area. It also
represents a way of overcoming the difficulties that
are involved in organizing women. Women were nowhere
to be seen in leadership or decision-making positions.
In 1977 which was the peak of the Chipko Movement,
women activists insisted that women be consulted in the
future in regard to forestation, deforestation or any
developmental issues, (Desai, 1992).
Women often initiate movements that have been
nationally and internationally recognized, and Chipko
has proven to be one of the most famous and has been
successful in preventing the destruction of large areas
of forest while re-planting trees in areas where the
forest has been destroyed (Rodda, 1991). Ghanshyam
"Sheland, a woman member of the Chipko Movement
expressed her thoughts in a very telling poem.

The Chipko Movement
A fight for truth has begun
At Sinsyari Khala
A fight for rights has begun
At Malkot Thano
Sister, it is a fight to protect
Our mountains and forests,
They give us life
Embrace the life of the living trees and
Clasp them to your hearts
Resist the digging of mountains
That brings death to our forests and
A fight for life has begun
At Sinsyaru Khala. (cited in Rodda, 1991, p.
The Chipko Movement is another case that shows the
power that women can attain.
The Chipko Movement is the result of hundreds of
decentralized and locally autonomous initiatives.
Its leaders and activists are primarily village
women acting to save their means of subsistence
and their communities. (Rodda, 1991, p. 110).
Vandana Shiva (1989) expressed her concerns for the
importance of women's work within the arena of
sustainability, especially with concern to forests.
The partnership between women and nature1s work
ensures the sustainability of sustenance, and it
is this critical partnership that is torn asunder
when the project of vdevelopment' becomes a
patriarchal project, threatening both nature and
women, (p. 45)
Movements, such as Chipko, have become historical
landmarks because they have been fueled by the logical
insights and political and moral strengths of the women
who support and care about the movements (Shiva, 1989).

The women have contributed in making a difference for
the environment as well as in the status of women, and
have helped to have their voices heard.
India Rural Development Project
This particular case points out the importance of
how the international community has helped the rural
women of India in a very significant way, and indicates
how international conferences have helped influence the
outcome of such a project due to the international
The World Bank on March 27, 1997 approved a
US$19.5 million credit to the credit of India for a
Rural Women's Development and Empowerment Project. The
Credit was provided by the International Development
Association (IDA), the World Bank's concessionary
lending affiliate (Robboy, 1997). The purpose of the
project is to empower the poorest rural women with
self-help programs giving them the opportunity to gain
control over resources, developing income generating
schemes, improving management and technical skills, and
gaining access to credit and social services.
The project is providing resources for wider
application of successful models and innovative
approaches developed in India and overseas. The

overall objective of the project is to strengthen
processes that can promote economic development of
women and then create an environment for social change.
The project is concretely giving rural women access to
loans for investments for various business enterprises,
provides skills training, technology transfer,
technical support, and promotion of market linkages.
The project helps to assist communities to create
needed assets such as drinking water facilities,
sanitation etc., thus improving women's access to
social services (Robboy, 1997).
This is a multilevel project that is helping women
in a variety of avenues. It is very much in its early
stages and the reviews of how it is doing is not out
yet, but if is a program that was spawned through many
avenues including the realm of women networking in
their organizations and conferences, giving the
international community the opportunity to realize the
needs of the women of a third world country such as

Chapter 4
The women of India have made tremendous strides in
seeking equality, but are still impaired by many forms
of patriarchal control and fundamentalist religious
practices which compel women to submit to the
discipline of community custodians. In analyzing the
women of India it is clear that there is no easy way
for women to obtain empowerment, for many times it
seems that for every step forward they take they seem
to slide back three, as indicated by the horror stories
in 1997 of women dying due to dowry disputes (Sarkar,
1997) .
Indian women still live with murders related to
dowry demands, sati, rape, and those of low-caste and
laboring women must deal with female infanticide and
foeticide. Female mortality and illiteracy rates are
considerably higher than men's, but the numbers are.
declining compared to ten years ago, so despite all the
obstacles, women of India are finding ways to empower
The questions I addressed in my research were how
have the women of India dealt with and fought the

traditional culture and hierarchical modernization
processes and what were the specific avenues women took
to assert themselves? When comparing what the people
of India were like in the beginning of their history as
to where they are now, it is evident that there has
been a long road of twists and turns. Women of India
started out as strong figures in their society but
because of many influences a patriarchy took a strong
hold on how the country developed and began stripping
away any power that women held.
Women of India began to realize that there were
ways to gain back power and began to utilize the
avenues in the women's movement to help them find a
voice amidst a harsh patriarchal system. The Indian
feminist movement has and continues to fight against
strong traditions, and is today one of the most
sophisticated of such movements in the world, and they
are continuing to build on the empowerment that they
have thus gained (Kumar, 1993). The women used the
network that existed in the women's movement and
international conferences and applied those ideals
learned at the global level to the grassroots level. In
turn the women's movement and international conferences
have been able to point to the success that India has
had by adopting planks of their platforms to their

specific problems. Through the international support
the women of India have been able to make tremendous
strides not only in relationship to their own personal
freedoms, but also on important issues such as the
increasing environmental problems.
The women of India also discovered that organizing
at the grassroots level to solve entrenched problems
within their country was an extremely powerful tool in
fighting the patriarchy. There is strength in numbers,
and although there were exceptional women making great
individual contributions, without the support of many
other women certain strides could never have been made.
One major advance contributed by Indian Feminism
is the recognition that there is no generic woman, that
gender is not the only attribute of women that there
are other characteristics interacting with genders that
can be equally important elements in defining women's
lives (Johnson, 1992).. The recognition of the
multifaceted and contextual nature of women's statuses
challenges the image of a "universal sisterhood" that
has proved attractive to some feminists. We cannot
permit ourselves to assume that our own problems are
the problems of all women everywhere, and thus ignoring
differences of scope and context and disregarding the
variation that exists between and within societies.

The many women of India who are involved in feminist
activism seem to realize that even within their own
culture and society each woman deals with a different
set of circumstances and difficulties. There is a need
to deal simultaneously with contradictions of their
positions within their social systems, and with the
complexity of change in those positions and those
social systems (Johnson, 1992).
As cited in the case studies that are explored in
this research, the women of India are involved in many
different aspects of activism and have faced numerous
difficulties and obstacles to find solutions to their
situations. But above all they have found avenues of
empowerment, from getting women involved in the village
councils, to tackling important environmental issues,
such as opposing dams and saving needed forest lands.
They were able to, again as cited in the case studies,
implement concrete changes, and to establish ways of
life that had not been seen before these women's
groups emerged on the scene.
An important measure of change lies within the
domain of political activism: the capacity for protest,
the understanding, and the world view that sustain the
protests and the collectvities that enable and embody
them (Sarkar, 1997). There are many similarities among

successful organizations such as SEWA, National
Organization of Women, Chipko, WWF and the NGOs. The
four case studies that were covered are only a small
number of the success's that the women's movement has
had. Humankind is now much more aware of the plights
of women in India, and they have been given a degree of
empowerment because there is a larger audience that is
hearing them, especially in the realm of equality and
issues on the environment.
The women of India have faced many obstacles in
the past, and their future growth in the face of such a
strong patriarchal system is a daunting task. They not
only have to balance conflicts between traditional and
modern values, but also to negotiate contradictions
within the.value system associated with the
enlightenment; the ideals of equality, freedom,
property, progress, and human rights.
Women of India have made tremendous strides
through the years, despite the struggles they have
endured, and with the strength of the women's movement
and with individual women activists, they have been
able to find a multitude of ways to become empowered to
protect themselves and the environment and find
This subject makes for fascinating research

because the women of India have struggled to have their
voices heard and have beat some incredible odds to do
so. Although there are women all over the world who
have experienced similar struggles, the women of India,
the organizations, and conferences they have been
involved with are some models for what empowerment can
This research has explored the historical road
that the women of India have traveled and how through
the use of many avenues, including education,
conferences, and the womens movement, campaigns in
India have found some measure of success in the quest
for empowerment. The struggle continues for true
equality and all methods must be explored, such as
improving the education of women, the election of women
to local and national political offices, labor reforms
which will improve the economic outlook for the women
of India, and the protection of the environment which
plays an integral part of the economy of India. These
are but a few of the many recommendations that can be
utilized to attain the true goal, the day the women of
India will overcome the remaining obstacles in their
way and take their place as true partners in their

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