Resisting marginalizations, Challenging hegemonies: Re-visioning Gender Politics
Department of Women’s Studies
Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha
21-24 January, 2011
The Indian Association for Women’s Studies (IAWS) was established in 1982 to further the field of women’s studies and women’s studies perspectives in different disciplines and to help strengthen the movement for women’s equality through networking, conferences and campaigns, and collaboration with institutions/ agencies working for similar objectives. IAWS is governed by its Constitution and registered under the Registrar of Societies, New Delhi. It is voluntarily managed by an elected Executive Committee. Members include academics, researchers, students, activists, social workers, media persons and others, women and men. IAWS marked its Silver Jubilee after completing 25 years in 2007.
From its inception, IAWS has continuously sought to further the engagement between women’s studies academics and the women’s movement. Major platforms for this are the regional workshops and the National Conference, which is held every two or three years on themes of contemporary significance. The XIIIth National Conference was organized in collaboration with the Department of Women’s Studies, Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (MGAHV) in January 2011 at Wardha. The MGAHV is an Indian central university established in 1997 for the promotion and development of Hindi language and literature, through teaching and research. The district of Wardha lies in a region of multiple social and geographical locations. While it is part of Vidharbha in Maharashtra, it is also situated in central India, and is culturally and linguistically diverse with Hindi and Marathi elements.
Concept Note of the Conference
The first decade of the twenty-first century is witness to continuing marginalisation of large groups of people, rendered invisible and inconsequential by the powers of the state, capital, and other social forces. There is an entrenchment of older inequalities even as newer voices assert their claims from the margins.
There are at present sustained and resurgent efforts to resist and challenge hegemonies in the spheres of the state, natural resources, labour, body, markets, culture and ideology, conflict, language, sites of law, boundaries of relationships and the interfaces of these arenas. While numerous struggles envision a polity and society with a meaningful citizenship, feminists are having a fresh look at experiences from the field, rethinking several of the old questions and seeking new alliances in the face of emerging challenges.
In the market-dominated trajectory of development adopted, the state and capital are seeking greater control over natural resources; and they are also facing spiralling resistance, giving rise to varied sites of conflict, especially in the least developed regions of the country. Women are major participants in the new struggles of the day; they are challenging new forms of patriarchies and seeking to forge broader alliances and building alternatives.
It is not just against the state women face conflict and confrontation even within family, caste, religious and ethnic groups, within professional institutions, in regional struggles, and other spaces. They experience conflict as part of collectives from forces outside, but also within them. They are targets of sexual violence within the family, in caste and communal conflicts and in situations of state repression. Social change and radical political movements sometimes provide the locus for challenging traditional gender roles and norms; simultaneously, however, newer forms of marginalisations are being engendered. The state is increasingly complicit with these processes of marginalisations present today more in its repressive, extractive and appropriative roles than the ameliorative one of providing constitutional guarantees. The state functions in the interests of a few and, therefore, fails to provide entitlements and citizenship rights to vast sections of the country. It is based on such an understanding of the state that the women’s movements approach law recognising its repressive role, but going beyond this, as a site of possible reform as well. We cannot but recognise that, for the marginalized, the law opens up new vistas through the language of rights, compensatory jurisprudence, legal certification, while also exhorting vigilance to issues such as patronage of vested interests, dominance of customary justice, and other reactionary processes.
The state, market, and family mediate the arrangements of women’s labour within the larger domain of work. Recent restructuring of markets and developments in technology have contributed towards the marginalisation of labour, with disproportionate impact on women. One result has been the increasing presence of women in streams of migration. Another has been the interlocking of markets in land, water, labour, marriage, education, health, which serve to perpetuate, even deepen, inequalities of gender. On the obverse, women workers have contributed greatly to innovations in strategies of collectivisation and negotiation, providing new meanings to ideologies of contract and legitimacy of consent. Markets have become the sites of marginalisation as well as of resistance stretching from the local to the international.
Feminist discourses have just begun to understand the significance of the body as a cultural construct and as a site of disciplining. A complex interplay of power configures the body; those that are hungry, impaired, not healthy, considered fat, or altered by technology are an ever-present challenge to the dominant tropes of naturalisation. The body is also central to questions of gender. Women’s relationships to their bodies are extended as they continually form, negotiate, re-build, and survive relationships they have with people, locations and ideologies. The most potent challenge is posed by women at the margins of the hetero-normative family, conventional conjugality and patrilineal inheritance; new relationships are forged through migration for livelihood and in confronting notions of stigma.
In the domain of culture and ideology, hegemonic nationalism prevails even as its newer versions are nurtured through the media and other cultural modes. Cultural and territorial hegemony reflected in the idea of the nation-state has been interrogated and articulated in nationality movements, specifically in the North East and Jammu & Kashmir. The misrepresentation and marginalization of women and their interests coincides with this hegemonic representation of ‘Indian culture’. Understanding the significance of language as a tool of dominance has been central to the feminist project originating from international but also national spaces. The diverse voices emerging from the margins those of the queer, sign-language enabled, dalit, adivasi, muslim, are unable to enter into conversation with the mainstream or with each other due to the absence of translation. There are, however, also sites of resistance to sustain and revive cultures at the margin as well as inspire new egalitarian cultures. The new social movements such as the dalit movement asserts its cultural rights through resistance, offering a counter discourse to dominant narratives of power and contributing greatly to an understanding of culture as a site of difference, multiplicity, contest, and negotiation. Women’s movements too have contributed to such processes through an articulation of resistance in the form of paintings, songs, films, documentaries, poetry, autobiographies and so on.
We have today a conjuncture of opposites persistent exclusion of large sections of people, increasing privilege of a few and the very real possibility of new connections and conversations. What kind of politics of gender is appropriate for this moment? This conference hopes to survey the existing field, capturing the resistances and challenges coming from the margins as well as prospecting for the future of our movements.
Wardha is rather an unusual location for the conference. There are multiple reasons for which IAWS chose Wardha as its venue. For one, the location is provincial and appeals to a new constituency, which will help in focussing on regional diversities and their specific complexities regarding women’s issues. This helps the IAWS in its outreach to marginalised regions and groups – a major objective of the Association. The relevance for organising a National Conference at Wardha is also because of its accessibility from all parts of India and because of the important social and political issues which have been an integral part of the district in the present juncture. Agricultural distress in the Vidarbha region has an important dimension related to the issue of land rights for women. The agrarian crisis has precipitated a spate of suicides in the state of Maharashtra as elsewhere. High levels of suicides among men and women farmers continue to be reported with an implication for the surviving women and their families. The adivasis/tribals, dalits and other disadvantaged groups struggle against the loss of work, culture, space and dignity. These are symptomatic of the crisis of livelihoods and the accompanying social and cultural spaces confronting women especially in villages and forests.
The IAWS President in her inaugural address also described the historical city of Wardha as a fitting location for the conference. She recalled the close association of the city with Mahatma Gandhi and reminded all present that the Sewagram Ashram was the centre of his political and social work, and many important events like the first temple entry of harijans. Wardha was also the centre of the cotton plantation area and fed the cotton mills in Vidarbha and Marathwada before the mills went into decline. In recent times, however, Vidarbha has been in the news with the suicides of farmers which was a reflection of the crisis in agriculture. Thus, she looked at the conference in Wardha as providing a space to reflect on these historical and contemporary challenges.
The IAWS conference provided us with an important opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogues where we can articulate, analyse, understand and seek answers to the struggles and movements of Dalits, tribals and women for some kind of equitable society. The engagements will help us put together alternatives that encompass policy, track change, build upon and rely on the insights of the women’s movement. The importance of the theme of the conference, as Dr.Anita Ghai, mentioned in the inaugural address of the Conference, was in the realisation of a critical need to evolve an analytical stance through which the women’s movement and women’s studies organizations can understand marginalisation. The objective of the conference was to interrelate, collaborate, create coalitions, and seek to challenge hierarchies and divisions in our theoretical understanding as well as in dealing with practical matters. The plenary and subtheme sessions at this Conference, were attuned to understanding marginalization and hegemony and the ways in which women and other marginalized groups are offering powerful resistance to the social, economic and political processes underway. Thus the need was to explore how intersecting systems of oppression may create new conversations and further perhaps new political configurations. These issues have been foregrounded through the special panels on South Asia and on the local situation, in this case, Wardha, apart from sessions on marginalised knowledges of Dalit, adivasi/ tribal and minority women.
Through its plenary panels and sub-themes, the organisers of this Conference invited participants to focus on a contemporary gender politics that captures the resistances and challenges that come from the margins. The subthemes of the conference have highlighted the trajectories such as state, natural resources, labour, body, markets, culture and ideology, conflict, language, sites of law, boundaries of relationships and the interfaces of these arenas. The ten sub-theme sessions saw around 270 papers being presented in parallel sessions conducted on three days of the conference. The conference housed 750 participants from different parts of the country. The final total including volunteers and participants from the host University was 1200 on the first three days.
The relevance for organising a National Conference in Wardha is both because of its accessibility from all parts of India and because of the important social and political issues which have been an integral part of the district in the present juncture.
One of the indicators of success of the conference has been the widespread participation in the conference with a total registration around 750, with 500 outstation and 250 local participants. This included around 400 student participants. The participants came from different parts of the country including the states of Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur and Goa. We had international participants as well with three speakers invited from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka for the South-Asia Plenary. Around 6 students who were foreign nationals and were studying in Indian universities also attended the conference. In addition to registered participants, we had around 400 local participants from colleges, universities and NGOs at Wardha and its neighbouring locations, who attended the various sessions and cultural programmes in the conference.
The participants can be broadly divided into the following groups:
1. Individuals affiliated to Women’s Studies in colleges, universities and research centres
2. Faculty in colleges and universities who work on gender issues but are affiliated to other departments
3. Activists associated with NGOs and other social and political activists
5. Independent researchers