Doubt, Challenge, Redefine…

So what is a women’s movement really?

Samprati Pani Delhi

Book: Making a Difference: Memoirs from the Women’s Movement in India

Edited by: Ritu Menon

Publisher: Women Unlimited       

Pages: 386

Price: 350

Year: 2011 

“The history of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

–  Milan Kundera 

memoir • a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge; an account written by a public figure of their life and experiences 

–  Concise Oxford Dictionary 

The writing of memoirs not just involves the act of remembering (‘what’ you remember), but also a retelling of the past from a unique position in the present (‘how’ you remember). The selection of certain events and incidents (over others) and weaving it into a coherent narrative is necessarily a partial, subjective and political act. It is nonetheless a powerful medium of telling a story, not just of an individual, but also of the society and politics of that particular period in history. 

Making a Difference brings together the memoirs of 19 women and a women’s group who have played an active role in shaping the autonomous women’s movement and women’s studies in India over the last 25 years, which, in turn, has had a deep impact on them personally and politically. While the book does not claim that “everyone or everything is comprehensively present in this collection”, the women included are from across India, from diverse forms of politics. What is common is their pioneering role in the collective action that challenged patriarchal norms and practices, and broke the culture of silence on various issues related to women’s insubordination. They have been at the forefront of the many tireless (successful and unsuccessful) battles to bring change in perceptions, practices, legislations and policies. Brought together on the occasion of feminist publishing legend Kali for Women’s 25th anniversary, this collection is a fitting tribute to the dynamic women’s
movement as well as countless other democratic struggles. 

Each memoir provides unique glimpses into the lives and struggles of these extraordinary women. Stories of childhood and adolescent memories, hopes and fears, the influence of books and people, relationships and alliances forged, landmark events in a particular time of history, and so on, tell us what drove these women to feminist politics and what sustains them. While the book is not “a history of the women’s movement, nor a reckoning of its achievements”, it does leave you with a rich legacy: the feminist reconsideration of Partition hagiography; the writing of ‘herstory’; the recognition of women’s unpaid contribution to the economy; the delinking of family planning from population control; the challenges to sexual division of labour not just in the household and society, but also in academics and progressive politics; bringing to the public domain ‘private’ matters such as domestic violence, sexual violence, sexuality and pleasure; and, the incorporation of women’s studies in universities. 

Many of the writings allude to the tensions, conflicts and differences within the movement and the fractures in ‘global sisterhood’. Ruth Vanita writes: “This phase generated a great deal of emotional intensity and several volatile love-hate relationships, which exploded into conflict.” Kamla Bhasin writes: “…power tussles, conflicts and splits have been rampant in women’s organizations.” Yet, there is an intended or unintended shying away from giving any details on these concerns. Except for the piece by SAHELI, there is no explicit discussion on what makes a movement autonomous (as if there is a consensus on this). Or, on the politics of funding. 

The book leaves you with many questions. Can the diverse and sometimes conflicting movements, with their unique politics, in different parts, constitute something called ‘the women’s movement in India’? Who decides who is part of this movement and who is not? What does autonomy mean in contemporary times? Making a Difference, through its tellings and silences, provides a rich, fractured political inheritance to a new generation of women and men, to draw inspiration from, doubt, challenge, and shape.