Who Will Change the World? the Women's Movement in India May Have Ducked Issues of Class, but the Political Parties of the Left Ignored Gender before That, and Both Still Prefer to Avoid Any Reference to Caste

By Butalia, Urvashi | New Internationalist, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Who Will Change the World? the Women's Movement in India May Have Ducked Issues of Class, but the Political Parties of the Left Ignored Gender before That, and Both Still Prefer to Avoid Any Reference to Caste


Butalia, Urvashi, New Internationalist


SISTERHOOD, cutting across classes, religions, ethnic divides, castes, has been a cherished article of faith for feminists in India. It's what unites: we might well have coined a new slogan to match the old one about workers of the world uniting. We would call upon sisters of the world to unite and somehow, magically, they would.

A series of developments over the last several years has resulted in some rethinking. The increasing appeal of fundamentalism, both Hindu and Muslim, and the rise of right - wing fascism have relied in large measure on the participation of women - who've not hesitated to turn against and be violent towards other women just because they belong to a different religious group. Where, activists have asked, has sisterhood gone?

More or less contemporaneously, the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign capital - what is known as 'globalization' - and its creation of a new class made up largely of women workers, have led feminists to think that perhaps they need to think of class too, in addition to gender.

If feminists have been guilty of ignoring class, the Left movement in India - for whom the class struggle has been no less of a cherished article of faith - has been equally guilty of ignoring gender. Founded in the 1930s, the Indian Communist Party's leadership today remains heavily upper - class, upper - caste and male. Not only are there no women leaders of any stature, but most of the Party's trade unions remain male - dominated - and most have been reluctant to address what they see as 'troublesome' issues such as domestic violence and sexual harassment.

With one movement privileging class above all else, and the other gender, both the organized Left and the women's movement seemed to have missed out on other aspects, such as religion, ethnic identity and - that most - difficult - of - all issues - caste. Increasingly these categories were being used to mobilize groups, creating a kind of internal unity but at the same time resulting in a 'difference', as they measured themselves up against what they were not.

Achin Vinaik, a political activist and scientist, believes that 'many of us make the mistake of thinking class is located only at the bottom. …

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