The Women’s Movements in India & The State (Final Project)

The women’s movement in India took off in the 1920s, building on the 19th century social reform movement. The women’s movement progressed during the period of high nationalism and the freedom struggle, both of which shaped its contours.

Women within state bodies and programmes, concerned academics and activists would like to take advantage of the State’s structural ambiguity and amorphousness, of the conflicting interests of the dominant groups within it and the rising conscousness regarding women’s oppression.

These often give women the possibility of the creation of some space fore their own issues and strategies. It also carries thestruggle against patriarchy into the State, where it is so insidiously installed and powerfully supported by its entire machinery. Many activists choose to selectively strategise, confront and cooperate acording to the issue.

-India Association of Women’s Studies,

The state and the Women’s movement in India

This quotation demonstrate the ambivalent and complex strategies of women with and against the state articulated by the contemporary women’s movement in India. I will explain this strategie in three different phases of the contemporary and show how the strategy has maintend in keeping the changing of postcolonial Indian state.

The first one, affiliated phase of the movement, primarily urban and rural students and some Left Gandhian parties, by reducing poverty in independent India. Women demanded land reform, minimum wages for agricultural work, and microcredit for self-employment from local bureaucracies.

In the second, autonomous phase, when issues of violence against women dominated the movement and the Indian state

Finally, sustainable development phase of the movement, as state policies focused on integrating India into the global economy, the resolut of increasing of povrety and marginalization of workers and poor peasants turned the movement to criticizing structural adjustment policies.

Facing the development of the state

The postcolonial Indian state defined itself as the major catalyst of changes, creating state institution to address issues of inequality. In addiction of initiating public sector projects to enable the economy to grow up, a package of land reform, integrated rural development, community development, and antipoverty programs formed the basis of a development state with accompanying bureaucratic at the state, district, block, and village levels, it has been supported by politicians, industrialists, technologists, and lavor leaders.

The women’s movement was a big challenge to the development plans to the state, which had abandoned the garanty self-sufficiency vision of Gandhi and worked to achieve Nehru’s vision of rapid industrialization and modernization.

Most of the affiliated women movement criticized how the development plan had forget about women and mobilized them to access state resources, firstly in the form of employment guarantee schemes (ENS), credits for cooperatives, and land reform efforts.

The Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini CYSV (Student and Youth Struggle Vehicle) that emerged in Bihar, one the poorest states in India, in 1975. It aimed to organize the antimjan (the lowest of the lowest), lok shaki (people’s power) against raj shakti (state power) (Kelkar and Gala 1990), composted of the new class of urban and rural students and political leaders disaffected by the ruling parties.

CYSV includes a number of full-time women activists who launched women’s issues in the movement, such as women’s rights to land and other productive resources, the exploitation of women by the largest landowner in the area if Bodh Gaya by a Hindu math (religious institution) as well as interpersonal relationships between men and women and the institution of marriage.

In response to protests all over the country, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975 annouced several policies to address the worsening poverty of the rural “masses”. Three important policies were establish:

– The Land Ceiling Act put a limit on how much land an individual could own and mandated the redistribution of excess land to the rural poor.

– The newly nationalized banks provide interest-free loans to the urban poor to start small businesses.

– The EGS mandated that when fifty people approched the local state bureaucracy for work, the state was responsible for providing them employment at minimum wages.

In 1978, following this new policies, CYSV organized protest against the concentration of land by the math. A popular slogan in the demonstration was jo zamin ko boye jote, who zameen ka malik hoi (those who sow and plow the land are owners of land). Activist organized meeting in every village to discuss the state commitment to the poor and how they are sell the lands, and who they should be organize, act as a collectivity and work together. Many urban activists walk kilometers to reach all the villagers and ensure their participation in the movement. The movement faced resistance from the local bureaucrats, and well as the police brutality.They agree to give lands only in the name of the male head of the hose, widowed.Image

Some women peasants demanded that land be given to them as well as man. They argued that, because men often migrate to the urban areas to work, and the women work the land. They also argued, that the earnings or loan money would not be spent on drink or otherwise frittered away. They want to fight for the land on the name of man and women.

In 1981, the movement has continued to ask land for women to the state. Women have succeded in wining the joint titles, but land in the name of women alone is still not a norm.

Self-Employed Women’s Association SEWA, an association of unemployed and underemployed urban poor woman in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, have registered the informal workers as union members and sought government funding to set up the first bank for poor women in the country. The bank gives microcredit to poor women to start cooperatives and other jobs. The organisation is one of the few that includes both Hindu and Muslim members.


Social time-bomb violence against women

Militant women, form the middle-class activists discovred that, even if the movement’s explicit commitments to women, woment’s issues took a backseat to class issues in the large social justice movement. They discover a deterioration of the women status in all sectors since the independence. The most choking indicator was the sex ratio of the population; India was one of the only three countries in the world that count more men than women.


Towards Equality  activists, began to meet in small groups to discuss the report that report on the status of women in India that was prepared for the International Women’s Year Word Conference In Mexico City sponsored by the UN in 1974, by reading feminist literature, and to discuss about the relevance of western feminist literature to Indian realities.

In 1978 about fourty small groups all over the country met in Bombay to organize an autonomous movement for women and by women, and an active angagement was made with the state on issues of violence against women. This relationship with the state combine demonstrating and protesting the patriarchal nature in different levels to influence state legislation and policy. They were working with the state and against it at the sometime.

The first national compaing was ognazed in 1980, after the case of a girl who was raped in the police custody.

Four law professors from the University of Delhi came across the 1977 Supreme Court judgement in a rape case that had been juge in 1972. Two policemen had raped a fourteen tribal girl, while she was in custody. The Supreme Court acquitted the policemen because the there was no physical marks, as evidenced, and by the fact that she had a history of sexual activity.

Many groups around the nation were formed to respond to this case, includinng Saheli in New Delhi, Vimochana in Bangalore, Chingari in Ahmedabad. And the Forum Against Rape in Bombay. Many of those groups were informally structured, based on participatory decision-making and collectives. Women coming for the earlier affiliated movement phase, middle-class professional women, academics, as well as women from left parties. They come together to discuss the letter that the professors wrote to the Supreme Court calling for reopening the case as soon as possible.

On March 8, 1980, women’s groups marched in protest against the jugement in fifteen major cities in the country. The press the print and television media gave extensive coverage to the protests.

On March 17, the Supreme Court rejected the petitions; the women’s activites turn it to ask for legal reform.

To discuss those strategies, thirty) two groups over the country participated to the Forum Against Oppression Autonomous Women’s Movement in India. For three days, women’s discussed topics such as the rape campaign, the role of the state in women’s oppression, the autonomu of the women’s movement…

The majority of the discussion report in how a patriarchal state oppress women through its definition of women as wives and mothers, by excluding her from development programs. These women’s groups agreed that he patriarchal state reproduces women’s oppression, they also agreed that they have to work with the police, the courts, and other state bureaucracies to enable women in their struggle against violence and injustice in the Indian society.

Indian feminists worked from outside the system, using their access to the state commission and women working in bureaucraty, but had only limited influence, because they depend on the state to enforce their interests in the face of religious traditions, political leaders, and they have to maintain the support of organized religious groups.

Autonomus groups continue to grow and provide real services to women. Many groups still meeting every three years in national conference to talk about issues and plan action for the Idian women.  Since 1990, autonomous groups have become active in the international women’s movement, in the world conferences organized by the UN. As a result, activists can now use international agreements to hold the state accountable at home for women’s social and economic rights.

The Globalization

The liberalization of India economy began in the late 1980 to merge into global economy. Structural adjustment policies, mandated by the IMF, and Word Bank, resulted by an increasment of poverty and marginalization of the rural and urban poor, as well as the emergence of many new women’s movements to address survival issues.

Livelihood issues that combine economic and ecological isuses. The difference between this fase and the first one is that women’s activism is seen by the state as partners in its efforts, those groups are involved in implementing some of the policies not just accessing state resources. They have organized to make the political parties more responsive. Most groups believe in “enabling poor communities to gain access to state resources and in the process of bringing together communities and policy-makers, education and transforming both the state and women” (quoted in Purushothaman 1998: 334).

In 1991 elections, national women organizations them selfs and made a door to door campaign to sensitize women voters on the need to choose candidates based on what they would do for women. The activists are highlighting about factors as criminalization, corruption, and nepotism that keep the women out of the political system.


To pursuit the transformation of electoral politics, and the woman situation in India, the women’s movements are persevering in outlining an alternative politics. The National Alliance of Women’s Manifesto and Charter of Demands in 2009, for example, did several meetings and consultations at the grassroots level across the country involving women from various sectors, classes, occupations and backgrounds.

Having been denied social, economic and political rights over centuries they stand with other marginalized and excluded groups denied these rights especially women of Oppressed and Deprived Castes and Communities who represent half the population yet live below the poverty line, illiterate and exploited.

The women’s movements in India are working with state policies and at the same time challenging the state’s economic and politic, as India is turning away from domestic concerns to compete more effectively within the global economy.

The contemporary women’s movement in India has always been related to the state in different ways at different periods, refering to what the Indian state is acting. The Indian experience offers several insights for state and social movement relationships in general and feminisit state theories.


1999. “Women’s Movements in India” Raka Ray, U of Minnesota Press.
2002. “Social Movements, Identity, Culture, and the state” Oxford University Press.
2000. “Fields of Protest: Women’s Movements in India” Raka Ray, Zubaan


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