IT WAS DURING the anti-Mandal protests that many young, urban women from universities held up placards saying that an increase in reservation for the Dalit and OBC population would harm their chances of getting qualified men as husbands. During the riots in Mumbai after the Babri Masjid demolition and in the Gujarat pogrom, many Hindu women from right wing organisations actively aided the men in their attacks against Muslim women. These and other examples such as the burning of churches or the Kambalpalli incident speak volumes on how religious and caste identities are ‘markers of discrimination’ in our society. It makes me think about how gender intersects with these other identities, and how such interplay manifests in reality.
Identity politics has emerged as a core issue in many ongoing debates. For hitherto silenced communities like Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) groups, the question of identity has become a crucial axis for political questions and social justice.
In the 70s and 80s, the women’s movement in India focused on mobilising women across caste, class and ethnic background against violence and discrimination. Women were seen as a single political category. So there was a universalising approach which held that all women were in powerless positions regardless of their background. But in fact, women are placed in different locations in our social hierarchy. Social context and institutional structures around them play a large role in determining their rights. Their location determines their control and power over public and private resources, political participation, concepts of womanhood and notions about body, sexuality, work and family. So we need to understand gender in conjunction with other identities that are important in the daily lives of women.
For instance, people are seeking discussions on categories within the 33% reserved seats for women in parliament. This has brought issues of caste and gender to the forefront. Those arguing for categorisation feel that if there is no reservation for Dalit and OBC women, the upper castes will dominate the political scene. Then, when BJP proposed a uniform civil code, many women’s groups protested because they feared that this would only exacerbate the marginalisation of women from minority communities. State-sponsored development projects often come under fire from Adivasi and environmental groups because they cause multiple displacements and loss of livelihood for women from the most powerless sections of society.
In a society like ours where there is such plurality of caste, community, languages, and economic backgrounds, gender does not function in isolation. It is always intersecting with the other identities that define power and powerlessness. The question of who speaks assumes crucial importance. It is necessary to recognize and address the differences between various groups of women and to understand the specificity of experience. Exploring the categories of women, gender and feminism through this lens will perhaps extend the potential of what we can achieve in the future.