Some Experiences and Lessons from the Women’s Wall
ON January 29, the AIDWA Kerala state committee had a review meeting of the organisation’s work in the broader campaign for the historic Women’s Wall on January 1 this year. Some of the experiences and the lessons have a wider significance for progressive movements that seek to challenge and change the unequal status quo.
As is known the decision for such a Womens’ Wall programme was taken at the initial meeting called by the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Various organisations and groups who had their roots in the social reform movements and who upheld the values of the Kerala renaissance attended the meeting. It later expanded into a broad based platform called the Navodhana Moolya Samrakshana Samity comprising over 172 organisations and groups. Among them were several women’s organisations. These included the Left democratic women’s organisations (the LDWF), women’s organisations of the SNDP, the dalit women’s organisation under the KPMS and others. Unions of different sections of the working class and employees joined the campaign and women members played an important role. Some NGOs working among Muslim women like Nisa, women’s groups like Anveshi, Sakhi, a large number of women intellectuals, cultural artists, and professionals from different walks of life – all became part of the efforts for the Women’s wall. It was a gigantic collective effort which was supported by the LDF government but which was essentially a result of the united efforts of a large number of organisations and individuals and most significantly of the women themselves.
The Women’s Wall itself had a big impact and was reported both within India and outside. The numbers were impressive enough – around 5.5 million women, of all castes and communities, of different classes, all standing together as a strong wall to resist the assault on the progressive traditions of the renaissance against caste and gender discrimination and to uphold the fundamental concept of women’s equality.
Politics determines Organisational Preparations.
The situation in Kerala, in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement on the Sabarimala issue, with the offensive of the BJP-RSS trying to rouse religious sentiments in an aggressive and offensive manner, formed the context of the preparations for the Wall and the campaign.
The entire effort of the RSS-BJP was to use “faith” to trump the basis of the Supreme Court judgement, namely, the principle of equality between men and women. The old truism “faith is blind” is well understood by reactionary forces who use it as an instrument to maintain the status quo. For AIDWA, the first issue in the preparations was to understand the issues concerned and to work out the multi level approach of the organisation. In the first instance scores of workshops were held at the area and district level with activists, unit committee members and office bearers to discuss the issues in a question and answer format. AIDWA state leaders divided up the work and attended the workshops. The Supreme Court judgement, the government’s affidavit and position, the history of the temple, women’s entry, the issue of women’s menstruation in the purity/impurity debate, the caste question, the question of equality within all aspects of social life, from the family to the place of worship, and of course the history of Kerala’s social reform movements – all these issues were discussed.
In this process many issues got clarified and campaign material was produced. The informed and confident activists, armed with the facts and an approach that they identified with – the approach of equality – went to the village units to start the campaign. More than 24,000 village units were actively involved in the campaign.
HOUSE TO HOUSE CAMPAIGNS
The most important reach-out programme was started from the village level. Groups of women at different levels, starting from the village to the area and district level, fanned out to the entire village and the town and city wards. In the assessment of the AIDWA state committee, the number of houses reached by our women’s squads was an astonishing 29.61 lakhs. This is a record by any standards. But even more significant, are the kind of discussions that were held in the campaigns. For the first time, women spoke out publicly on menstruation, on the manuvadi Hindutva approach of impurity, on the issues of the caste system and caste based inequalities. The campaign at the grassroots level had an electrifying effect on women. They started discussing it within the house, often getting negative reactions from male members. Some women expressed the fear that participating in the women’s wall may anger Ayyappa, some said women’s entry would upset the deity and their families would be punished; some said that traditions were important to preserve, a large number were strongly supportive – there were debates, discussions at the local level on a scale not seen in independent India, led by women activists and approaching the lakhs of women from different walks of life.
At the same time, different novel methods and actions took place. Across the state there were village level jathas and scores of articulate women led the speeches. There were over 12,000 two wheeler rallies where women rode the scooters with banners, flags and slogans. Young women organised flash mobs in the towns and cities to the theme song of the Women’s wall. Women organised themselves into wall writing squads, drawing big crowds who were surprised to see scores of women with buckets of paint and brushes writing slogans of equality on the walls of the villages and towns. On December 10, International Human Rights Day was observed on the theme ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ and around nine lakh women participated in different programmes on that day. As January 1 neared, women started getting up early to sound the “alert” in early morning processions. There were women bands and cultural programmes organised across the state by AIDWA units. It was a unique effort by women.
Communal and Casteist Counter Campaign
During the discussions in India’s first parliament on the Hindu Code Reform Bills, progressive women who supported the reform, including communist women from different states were the targets of attack from the fundamentalists. Women like Ahilya Rangnekar, Kanak Mukherjee, Gita Mukherjee, Renu Chakravarti, Parvathi Krishnan and others were attacked, spat upon and abused by the reactionary force led by the then Hindu Mahasabha men, because they were mobilising women in support of the Hindu Reform Bill. During the course of the debate, it was seen that the Hindu Mahasabha was supported by Muslim fundamentalists like Naziruddin Ahmed.
Today, we see a similarity. A striking feature of the counter campaign by the BJP-RSS and the UDF against the Women’s Wall was the unity in action of the orthodoxy and reactionaries. If the BJP-RSS was aggressive in the name of Hindu religion being destroyed, no less offensive was the campaign of the Muslim League among Muslim women, threatening them to stay away from the Wall. They said “keep your purdah at home otherwise people will snatch it, by even men, and they will wear it to participate in the Wall and claim that Muslim women are there. They also said “Don’t go near the wall because there will be a lot of violence”. They campaigned that it was a communal wall and that no Muslim women should participate. In actual fact the unstated message was that “we don’t want any interference in our religious affairs by the SC. So we support the RSS stand that courts should not interfere even if such practices are anti-women.”
On the other hand some leaders of the NSS in a few places echoed the communal slogans of the RSS, showing their organisational affiliation. They said “why are Muslim women wearing purdah and joining the campaign. If they are believers of the renaissance they should remove the purdah. These Muslim women are coming only because the campaign for the Wall is anti-Hindu.” Sangh Parivar campaigned in a totally communal manner saying that the LDF was involving Muslims but Muslims tortured their children through circumcision. If a teacher hits a student they are punished, but why Muslim parents are not punished.’
Abusive language against women supporting the wall was common. In social media, nude morphed pictures of women who were supporting the Wall were displayed with filthy slogans and circulated also on whatsapp groups. Leaders of AIDWA like PK Srimati, Sathi Devi, MC Josephine, were among those who were especially targeted and abused. In TV discussions, BJP leaders made open threats against women who supported the Supreme Court judgement. In the name of Sabarimala Karma Samity, a newly formed organisation after the SC judgement, Sangh Parivar members openly threatened that women trying to go to the temple would be “dealt with” and so on.
The speeches of Congress leaders desperate for NSS support for electoral purposes were equally anti-women. The Congress in Kerala excelled in political opportunism of the worst kind, acting as a wing of the Sangh Parivar in its vicious campaign against the LDF government and its stand in support of the Supreme Court judgement. Although the central Congress leadership had earlier supported the Wall, later under pressure from its Kerala unit, the Congress president Rahul Gandhi did a U-turn. The Congress went so far as to demand an ordinance from the central government for a reimposition of a ban against women’s entry into the temple. In Kerala it is a get together between the reactionary forces in which the Congress is a willing partner.
However, during the AIDWA campaign, it was found that in several places, women who belonged to these parties also expressed support for the Wall and disapproved of the attitude of their leaders opposing the Wall. In particular, the response of dalit, advasi, Muslim and Christian women was very significant.
All through the campaign, activists were told that the RSS and its cohorts had spread the word that women were going at their own risk as there would be violence. In fact these were not empty threats. In Chettukundu, near Kasargod, petrol bombs were thrown at the Wall and several women were injured. Cowardly criminals of the Sangh Parivar threw stones at buses taking women back after their participation. One participant was so badly injured that she is in hospital even now. In spite of these threats the Wall was a historic success.
CLASS STRUGGLE AND SOCIAL REFORM
Historically, Communists added a critical dimension to the social reform movement in Kerala by expanding social reform as part of the class struggle. The issues of economic justice, the issues of workers and poor peasants, of land reform and workers rights became intertwined with social justice movements under communist leadership. This gave a sustainability to progressive values and interventions in Kerala society.
However the challenges thrown up by the current right wing mobilisations backed by central State power, shows up the need to strengthen the close bonds between class struggle and social reform.
One of the insights expressed by many of the AIDWA committee members who had been in the thick of the campaign and struggle was about the questions and confusion among sections who take progressive positions in support of workers and kisan struggles.
In a class struggle between employers and workers, the issues are usually clear and the organisational focus in support of a strike action for example is also quite straightforward. Opposition to a strike action from sections of workers are addressed through explanation of the material issues concerned and addressing workers fears of job loss, wage loss, reaction of employers, police action and so on.
In a social reform based struggle, the issues are more related to cultural practice, tradition and religious sanction. A large section of the population is often influenced by such practices and beliefs cutting across castes and classes. A social reform movement hits at the heart of orthodoxy which takes recourse to the shield of religion. There is not necessarily any common bond, such as there is among workers supporting a strike action, the common bond of class exploitation. Social reform has to unite people on the basis of the concepts of equality and social progress, on the platform of a scientific approach which has to necessarily hit out at superstitions and obscurantism which often masquerade as religious rituals. In particular it hits at caste and patriarchal values. It would be quite wrong to assume that those participating in class struggle would automatically be rid of casteist and patriarchal values which dominate in the prevailing society.
The experience of Sabarimala has given a warning that reactionary social forces can and always do utilise tradition and superstition in the name of religion to push back the gains of class struggle. Class struggle must always and at every opportunity articulate socially progressive positions even while mobilising the exploited classes on their economic issues.
Members of the AIDWA committee relating their experiences spoke of the strong appreciation expressed by women in the course of the campaign on the Women’s Wall of the stand taken by the government and particularly the chief minister. His principled speeches in favour of social reform, his challenge to outdated customs and social practices that demean women inspired women’s participation, particularly the younger generation.
POST-WALL STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY
The situation as far as women are concerned can only be taken forward. The role of women and in particular women organised by AIDWA has been unprecedented. The nature of the campaign that was run, the kind of issues discussed and debated heralds the start of another phase of social reform. Undoubtedly the role of the Left parties and other mass organisations and particularly the CPI(M) in this campaign made this huge effort by women activists possible and feasible. The issues of women are centre stage in this debate, they should not be, they cannot be, pushed to the margins.