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Women's Movements

Religious Communities And Women's Movements In India

Religiously diverse, multilingual, and caste-divided India also has one of the most vibrant and many-stranded women's movements in the world. One of their priorities is challenging patriarchal religious practices, while at the same time respecting religious differences. Another is alleviating the poverty and insecurity of women and their families.

The women's upliftment phase began in the late nineteenth century, first among elite Hindu men and women and, later, Muslims. Besides emphasizing education, they called for reform of the practices of widow remarriage, polygamy, purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women), property rights, and sati (the ritual suicide of widows). Women formed their own autonomous organizations, the most important of which was the All India Women's Conference (AIWC) in 1927.

In 1934, when AIWC introduced a bill for equality in marriage, divorce, and property rights, they drew upon the nationalist rights discourse; and after independence in 1947, women were granted constitutional equality. However, the Hindu, Islamic, and other religious communities retained jurisdiction over family law (Desai 2001).

The second wave began as grass-roots organizations focused not only upon gender but also upon caste, class, and culture as roots of women's oppression. The groups in this movement were affiliated with grass-roots labor, peasant, and tribal movements as well as leftist opposition parties. Among their activities were protests by tribal women in the Toilers' Union in Maharastra against alcohol-related domestic violence and by the Chipko movement of poor women in the Himalayas to protect their forest resources and highlight women's unrecognized economic contributions. The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a union of women working as street vendors and rag-pickers and in home-based industries, established the first women's bank for poor women (Desai 2001).

Sustainable, grassroots development as a priority of Indian women's movement organizations is exemplified by the organization Stree Mukti Sangharsh (Women's Liberation Struggle). They envision development that promotes equality between men and women and overcomes the economic and environmental ravages of the rural areas precipitated by large multinational corporations whose focus on short-term gains have created unsustainable forms of development (Desai 2001).

In the late 1970s, autonomous, avowedly feminist women's movements arose. Outraged by the dismissals of cases of girls raped by police and by religiously sanctioned violations of women's human rights, their campaigns refocused on violence against women, dowry deaths (the murder of brides for their dowries), sex-selective abortions, and sati (Kumar 1995).

The success of women's movement organizations has met with an antifeminist backlash, which calls upon familial, communal, and religious identities to try to push back women's gains (Kumar 1995). Since poverty and insecurity fan the flame of reactionary fears, the feminist strategy of promoting grassroots-based sustainable development is a double-edged one—it addresses both the economic independence of women and the long-term security and well-being of the whole community.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesWomen's Movements - Feminist And Feminine Movements In Brazil, Civil Rights And Women's Movements In The United States