Marxism and the Women’s Movement in India
Comrade VM passed away on December 18, 1998. As we observed his death anniversary, we found that many of his writings speak to us of questions that have enduring relevance. We reproduce excerpts from some of his writings on the women’s question, marked, as usual, by his refreshing clarity of Marxist perspective and direct and communicative style. Written way back in 1998, Comrade VM’s observations on the 33% Women’s Reservation Bill appear startlingly contemporary – as in the last winter session, the tabling of the Women’s Bill in Parliament has been scuttled yet again. We hope these excerpts will spur readers to debate afresh various issues of theory and praxis of Communism and the women’s movement in India. – Ed.
The Question of Women Liberation in the Perspective of Marxism
[From a paper presented at the Bihar State Women’s Education Camp, 28-30 June, 1987, appeared in translation in Liberation, August 1993.]
Woman’s struggle for equality is in fact a struggle to usher in a society wherein economic, social and political conditions to achieve that equality obtain. Such a society can only be a socialist society which eradicates private property and class divisions; where woman’s primary identity is derived out of her contribution to the society and not from her role inside the house; where woman exercises full control over procreation choice. Therefore, only under the guidance of communist thought can women liberation struggle accomplish its ultimate stage. …
…Communist women organisation should, first of all, launch through magazines and verbal propaganda channels a crusade against all such traditions that enslave women. It is all the more necessary in today’s Indian conditions because under the facade of religion the most reactionary forces are attempting to confine woman inside the four walls, to re-establish time-old social and family values. Their backward march includes even eulogising the custom of sati. You must remember that all the gods were created by man; before the gigantic idols of these gods women are rendered fainthearted and portentous. Even the goddesses were created by man. Woman must assume the role of a goddess in order to acquire the dignity of a woman, whereas the most incompetent husband is supposed to be ‘parameshwar’ (god almighty) for a woman. All the moral codes have been framed by men and by attributing them divinity women are compelled to accept them.
…The Communist women’s movement will also adopt the slogan of revolutionary transformation of the husband-wife relationship and the family code. …Today Muslim women are stepping out of purdah to raise their voice against the traditional way of talaq and you must support them. I have learnt about democratic marriages in Bihar where marriage is performed in a simple manner sans purohits and all ostentations. Of course, it is good. But democratic marriage means for woman freedom of choosing her partner herself and sharing family responsibilities after the marriage. However, not to speak of these democratic marriages, even among the so-called revolutionary marriages performed within the Party, probably in most of the cases these policies are rarely observed.
…Save the natural division between man and woman, all other divisions are artificial. A specific phase of historical development had institutionalised these divisions, and another phase of historical development, which has already been ushered in, will put an end to them, and only when the relationship between man and woman, the two forms of human species will grow frank, spontaneous and fraternal can humankind regain its lost wholeness. The path towards this destiny will be through a revolution bearing the banner of “socialism and women liberation”.
Break the Ideals Created and Imposed by Patriarchy
(From an interview in 1995, published in Nari Mukti ka Sawal Marxvad ke Pariprekshya Mein in 1999)
Q: What will be the place of women in a new (revolutionary) economic and social order? Today, women are struggling for an economy that will give them equality with men. How will this be possible? How far has this been achieved in the model of socialism that we have seen till date?
A: After revolution and during the period of socialist construction, there has been epoch-making change in the position of women in socialist countries. We can gauge the value of this change by recalling that this task of building socialism has usually been undertaken in those backward countries where feudalism was dominant and peasants constituted the majority of the population.
Due to the problems inherent in the prevalent models of socialism, it is true that there were certain hurdles. But we must not forget that, in the first place, the question of women’s liberation in these countries was quite different from that in the advanced capitalist countries. Secondly, to expect a fundamental resolution of the question of women’s emancipation in the primary stages of socialism can only be a utopia.
In fact, the final victory of women’s liberation presupposes a social system in which private property, commodity production, market economy and the class division and class exploitation based on these would be completely abolished. We must not forget that if on the one hand the advent of private property has created class division in society, on the other, it has ensured the historic defeat of womankind by patriarchy.
Also, it presupposes such development in the field of technology that the difference in the capacity for physical labour between man and woman would be rendered irrelevant or redundant. And thirdly, where housework would become social labour and collective functioning would become an inseparable part of the lifestyle of people. Such a social system can only be communism. Socialism, being born out of the womb of capitalism, can only be the first step in this direction.
Q: Women have to bear the lion’s share of the responsibility of household work and childcare; which has no value in the economy. Whereas women activists have been demanding economic valuation of domestic labour, Gorbachev at one point had appealed to women to return to their homes. Will housework eventually remain women’s responsibility?
A: Gorbachev’s advice was no doubt a reactionary way of seeking a way out of the pressure on employment faced by the crisis-ridden Soviet economy.
In capitalism the value of labour is determined by the minimum requirements of the workers and their families – just enough to ensure the regeneration of the worker’s capacity for labour and the reproduction of the next generation of workers.
According to the laws of capitalism which divides the family into the ‘bourgeois’ husband and the ‘proletarian’ wife, the value of household work can only be the bare minimum cost of ensuring women’s capacity to continue to perform domestic labour and reproduce/care for the next generation.
…In the last instance, the struggle is to liberate women from the narrow confines of the stultifying monotony and drudgery of household work and draw them into social production – not to glorify household labour or to make it everlasting.
Q: Traditional communists have for long raised the issues of women’s economic exploitation. Today, the domestic and social exploitation of women had grown sharply. In the new world order, how do you visualise the relation between these two aspects of oppression?
A: I think the Communist tradition has been to raise a voice against both these types of oppression: economic and social. I also do not think that the incidence of oppression was less earlier and now increased. It may be that the forms and character if the oppression may have changed. On the other hand, vices of resistance have grown, the assertion of women’s groups has increased.
In the new world order, in a single year, two Indian women have been selected Miss Universe and Miss World respectively; this has helped the propaganda of Western consumerist culture to get a tremendous boost all over the country.
Today’s woman is facing a crisis of identity – trapped between the feudal standard/ideal of ‘Goddess of the Home’ and the Western consumerist one of ‘Goddess of Beauty’. To achieve equality with men, women have to forge their own identity first. With her own strengths and weaknesses, women have to establish this identity – breaking the ideals created and imposed by patriarchy. And none other than women themselves can do this….
Women’s Reservation Bill: The Controversy Goes On
(ML Update, Vol. 1, No.9, 15.07.1998)
The Women’s Reservation Bill is finally expected to be tabled in Parliament, and if things go well, the Bill may get passed in this very session of Parliament. Supporters of the Bill, the BJP, Congress and the Left, theoretically speaking, comprise the overwhelming majority, and therefore, as far as the number game is concerned, there should be no problems. But in realpolitik, there are still many things yet to be resolved. Cutting across party lines, concerted moves are going on to scuttle the passage of the Bill or at least to dilute it sufficiently to take off its cutting edge. An all-party meeting held earlier to arrive at a consensus failed to resolve the impasse. In particular the Mandalite opposition to the Bill is quite vociferous, claiming that the Bill will only benefit vocal and assertive sections of women, generally from the upper castes. The objection is ridiculous to say the least. In the constituencies reserved for women the same social alignment will decide the fate of candidates that operates even otherwise. It is this alignment that enables an illiterate Bhagwati Devi to defeat formidable male candidates. Even if there is some advantage to upper caste women in the beginning, it will be levelled out in due course. More importantly, the Bill itself may prove to be a catalytic to the larger entry of women from backward and dalit castes in the political arena. Proponents of social justice expose themselves as arch reactionaries when it comes to empowerment of women.