Sunday, April 25, 2004

The end of silent acceptance
Rumina Sethi

Violence Against Women
by Gail Omvedt.
Kali for Women, New Delhi. Pages 42. Rs 35.

WOMEN activists are constantly faced with repressive agendas, one of which is the rampant increase in cases of gender-based violence. Gail Omvedt, in her book, attempts to chart the trajectory of violence against women of India but with an emphasis on new movements and theories. These new theories are centred around Sharad Patil, leader of an adivasi-based communist party; Sharad Joshi, head of a robust farmer’s organisation; and Vandana Shiva, an eco-feminist associated with the Chipko movement in Garhwal, and since then with the rejection of modern science as "masculine." The three of them together stand for the anti-caste movement, the peasant movement and the ecology movement.

Dozens of feminist texts by now have made it amply clear that structures and processes such as citizenship, nationality, democracy or the state are not gender-neutral, and that violence against women is the primary reason for their economic exploitation. Omvedt attempts a materialistic explanation that can "link together economic crises, ecological destruction, goondaising trends in the state itself and the terrifying spasms of religious fundamentalisms and communal violence, and define the ways these are associated with the victimisation of women."

As a part of this scheme, she examines the relationship between violence and the economic exploitation of women: it is through violence that women are deprived of property and resources. The brutal face of violence prevents them from making any claims or representations to the law. Violence and sexuality are also closely related: the violence/sati of Roop Kanwar was a result of Roop’s affair with another man (owing to her husband’s impotence), which had led to her husband’s suicide. Having to bear the cross of his death, added to the burden of "traditional honour," Roop Kanwar succumbed to patriarchal pressures.

The issue of the kinds of violence—domestic and social—experienced by women belonging to different classes and castes also need to be addressed. Upper caste and middle-class women, "protected" as they are by the laws of purdah, feel sheltered from external violence but are, by no means, free of domestic violence. As Omvedt writes, "For, very often for these women, the very family that protects them is also the source of the greatest violence against them." It is in these families that cases of dowry death and female feticide are most often reported. On the other hand, lower caste/class women may have the independence their upper caste counterpart lacks but they are more prone to "social" violence because they are taken to be sexually available and "bad" as against the "good" upper caste women.

Theories of traditional Marxism and Radical feminism have been quite ineffectual in fighting violence: Marx was too general, but Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, more specifically, addresses the "woman question." Radical Feminism, on the other hand, is more woman-specific in investigating the connection of women with nature and of men with culture. While one side of the ideology represented an "androgynous ideal," others favoured a completely opposite view, that of "cultural feminism," which affirmed the affinities between women and nature or men and culture, links which could never be revoked. An emphasis on mass movements among rural poor women lies at the heart of Omvedt’s book. Unlike the nationalist leaders and the social reformers who took the upper caste bhadramahila as their concern, it is the anti-caste leaders, men such as Jotiba Phule, B. R. Ambedkar and E. V. Ramaswami "Periyar," whose infrequently-told narratives must be recounted.

Their legacies are carried forward today by Patil, Joshi and Shiva. Sharad Patil’s brand of feminism is Marxist in orientation, although it replaces class with caste. Instead of rejecting patriarchy, he equates patriarchal power with the presence of matriarchy in the past where male sacrifices and violence against them were not unheard of.

Omvedt first appears to be offering Patil as a modern-day messiah but eventually she finds more reason in rejecting his premises than in retaining them.

The reality of the lives of rural Indian women is perhaps better represented by the leader of the Shetkari Sanghatana, Sharad Joshi. Its women’s wing, the Shetkari Mahila Aghadi, exists primarily for peasant women and their struggle to acquire property rights and to fight against communalism.

But as with other traditional Marxist approaches, the Sangathana ideology subscribes to the theory that "the fight for women’s liberation is not a fight of women against men, but of women against an overall exploitative system."

The most well-known and internationally articulate of India’s feminists is perhaps Vandana Shiva. By linking women and nature like the "cultural" feminists, Shiva has, in a somewhat Gandhian strain, vociferously condemned the forces of global capital generated by the West and its exploitation of natural resources. Shiva speaks of women possessing primordial shakti with which to overcome crimes against them.

She does not believe in the "victimisation of women" ideology.