Forging Identities: Gender, Communities, and the State

By Zoya Hasan | Go to book overview

Defining Women through Legislation

Shahida Lateef


Introduction

The Indian women's movement has sought to develop a broad political, social and economic agenda in which legislative changes have been the cutting edge of induced social change. Such changes, however, are by definition the preserve of the political process and are not always accurate predictors of progress or of the protection of the rights of women. By examining legislative changes which, over time, have in a way defined Indian women, it is possible to evaluate the political power and control that the women's movement has been able to exercise in the pursuit of rights and justice.

Legislative changes introduced by government, beginning in the nineteenth century and including the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill, 1986 have sought to alter the social, political and economic rights of women. Over this period, from fairly modest social policy objectives articulated by reformers in the nineteenth century, leaders of the women's movement widened their demands to include political and economic rights and finally to equal rights. Almost from the beginning of the process there was a struggle between reformers/conservatives, community leaders, the government and women leaders, as to who should set the agenda for women.

The role of the pre-Independence government in setting a social agenda for women was ambiguous and generally driven by the reform movement and women's groups. Even in this limited framework the reaction of conservative community leaders outside the reform movement, to proposed legislative changes, was political; the role and status of women were, thus, always part of a political and economic equation. The formation of the Congress party at the end of the nineteenth century absorbed both the

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Forging Identities: Gender, Communities, and the State
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