Translated by J Devika
[From the style it seems that this was probably written by K Saraswathi Amma, and ‘Kumari Saraswathi’ was probably one of her pseudonyms. In this amazing essay, the authors offers a feminist analysis of women’s mass organizations of political parties. It is impossible to disagree with the opening parts of the argument, just as it probably impossible to agree with the last, concluding argument. The latter marks the difference between the first generation of feminists and the present one.]
[Kunari Saraswathi, ‘Vanitha Sanghatana’, Women’s Column, Kaumudi Weekly vol. 6 (10), 9 May 1955.]
“Workers of the World, Unite … Enslaved Peoples of the World, Unite … Organize!” This clarion call is now issuing from a corner of the world. Heard as the herald of a new dawn, it echoes around the world. The typhoon formed from this roar is now sweeping the world. Thus every country that faced this typhoon and every people that hearkened to this clarion-call were roused. When the farmer who tires working incessantly under the hot sun each day and the worker who turns his blood to sweat incessantly began to organize and become class-conscious and proved that organizing could break the chains of servitude, all sorts of people — teachers, students, the coconut-tree-climber and the toddy-tapper, the GO [gazetted officer] and the NGO [non-gazetted officer], the landlord and the capitalist, have formed their own organizations. Perhaps the only set left to form an organization is the ex-Ministers; all others have organized. Let me say this lastly: the last group to organize thus is women. The abalas, women.
When he heard that women are organizing, that sister and daughter are organizing, Man must have been shaken and shocked. The ground beneath his feet upon which he trod with the severe majesty of dominance, must have trembled. Upon hearing this, for a moment, he probably felt that the universe was spinning rapidly. And a racket must have arisen from his very bowels, rising up his gullet.
Man, standing rooted on the spot, stunned and silent, must have asked himself, “Hmm! Women are organizing? Alright, who do you resist? The present social order, or the men who live in it?” We shouted back in one voice: “We are opposed to the present system and the Man of today. Strong opposition!” But men are lucky today. And today may mean tomorrow too…? Because we do not have an organization today. That is, an organization of our own. When I say this, a thousand presidents and secretaries who represent women’s organizations will fall upon me angrily. But precisely because I know this, I repeat: we do not have an organization of our own. We do not have an organization with the strength and ability to remove our disabilities. Hearing this, the officials of women’s organizations bearing files in their hands will say, “this is a cocksure trouble-maker of a woman!” They will be able to muster evidence that women’s organizations are active in the land, pointing to those files. I will agree. Yes, there are indeed many active women’s organizations in this land. Anyone who flips through the newspapers would know it. They are active under many names — Vanitha Sangham, Vanitha Munnani, Mahila Samajam, Mahila Seva Sangham. Women’s Association, and so on. I intend to lay out the styles of functioning of these organizations and their limitations in this article. The aforementioned organizations in women’s name actually betray their cause; they are actually exploitative. To think that these organizations have the ability to solve women’s issues or break their shackles is pure idiocy. Their absence and presence is the same for women. That is exactly why I argue that women have no organization of their own. That must be created in the future.
There are women’s organizations in my area too. Not one, three. I am making this claim after observing and studying the way these work. I am writing this as I see a poster stuck on a shop-wall through my window. The poster of the Vanitha Munnani’s anniversary …
Many anniversaries like this have passed by. I have carefully observed and studied their rituals, even though from an ivory tower.
Under a red flag raised in the middle of a maidan — under the red flag that is the symbol of the Communist Party — when the setting sun spreads red rays on the earth, when the labour ceases in the field and factory, these Munnai-people will come together for the public meeting. In the silent, still air when the songs from the microphone splatter everywhere, the young girl and the senior woman whose hearts are gladdened by these songs, will fell roused, and they will gather on the maidan in large numbers.
These meetings are usually presided over by an active woman worker of the Party. The speakers will all be staunch Communists, or fresh converts. The speeches will mostly about the oppressive measures of the government or the exploitation of the capitalist. I won’t say that no word is uttered about women. A few words will be said, rarely. A few words of advice: “Women should not stay inside their homes like in the old. [They should] boldly enter, alongside Man, in their husband’s and brother’s struggles… [You] must oppose the capitalist’s wicked acts…” But in generally, you can see that it is a political meeting, of the general sort. More than burning questions that affect women, it is the issues in politics that get addressed.
The official activists of the Women’s Front are usually young women who are in close contact with the Party. The men are usually in charge of its propaganda work. This Women’s Front actively participates in the Party’s strikes and organises demonstrations. They also hold public functions on occasions like the May Day which have political significance and pass resolutions. And so if you examine their areas of work and link them together, you can see that they stay clearly within the boundaries of the political interests [of the party]. In short, this Women’s Front is merely the women’s wing of a political party. It cannot resolve any of women’s problems because its growth is dependent on male support and protection. Because it thrives with the support of and in the care of men. This organization has fallen to become merely an interest to further the interests of men and strengthen them.
And not only that, this organization cannot represent all women. A good share of women in this land stay well away from it. Those who work in it are the lower strata of society, that is, the working class. And even among this class, only a certain part can be represented by this Munnani. Only those who have blind or half-faith in the Communist Party. There are also many who are active in it for the sole reason that they believe that it is beneficial to work for a party that is adhered to and loved by the husband, brothers, or lover. And so this Munnani which was formed in the name of women but work as the instrument of a political party cannot represent women as a whole and resolve all their problems — is that not as clear as the day?
The next is the Vanitha Sangham. I was a humble worker in this for some time. I write my experiences of that time.
There is a big difference between the Vanitha Munnani and the Vanitha Sangham. Munnani holds their meetings in the middle of the maidan as young people mill all around. But the Vanitha Sangham holds its meetings in some hall or theatre, disallowing men from entering, with only women participating. The difference is evident in all aspects. The Vanitha Sangham has no flag. But the badge they wear bears a resemblance to the national flag. Most of the activists in this as retired officials and middle-aged women with higher education. Many hanger-ons of the powerful also cling parasitically. Their area of work and rituals pertain the celebrating the birth and death anniversary of the heroes of our freedom struggle. They invite only members of the elite to speak : that is, lady doctors, college lecturers, women authors and so on. They do not deliver fiery speeches. They are likely to be to the point: they will say, “In order that the wife does not become a burden on the husband, she should engage in some handicraft when he leaves the home for work. She should farm the okra, brinjal, green chillies and other vegetables for home needs. She should stitch her children’s clothes by herself. She should keep the children clean so that they do not fall ill. She should breast-feed the child ignoring new-fangled ideas …” These are what we will hear through the entire length of their speeches.Are these the burning issues that trouble Woman? Does she not have no other problems? Yes indeed …But they have no eyes to see those. They are not brave enough to challenge Man who rules the land. And so this Vanitha Sangham that leans towards the rulers of the day is unable to include all women. Only around roughly a third of society, who are the elite, are in this organization. And so it is incapable of doing anything substantial for women.
And on top of all this, when it became evident that the government was supporting these organizations with grants of money etc. seeing that they are necessary to ensure the success of the government’s social development programme, such organizations are mushrooming rapidly. One such is the Mahila Seva Sangham. Their aim too is not the progress of women. It is merely about shouting zindabad to their own interests. They intend to utilize the resources and concessions from the government to their own ends. To be convinced of this, merely observe the manner in which some “husbands” struggle to set up women’s organizations. It is impossible not to laugh at the desperation they display trying to build a centre for the organization and obtain government grants. These short-lived organizations too can do nothing about women’s issues.
Besides all of these, there are many women who are outside all of them, who think of these women’s organizations as a bunch of banshees wailing and screaming at them — the good women who are just having a good time in the bedroom with their husbands. These are women who believe men blindly and love them slavishly. Drugged by men’s flattery and whispering, these women do not remember their servitude. They do not see their shackles. They believe that the life they see is heaven itself.
In short, women today are like flowerettes shattered and scattered when the bunch hit a rock — they have no sense of unity at all. If things continue thus women will never be able to break their shackles and push aside male dominance. So in this context, what should we do? That is something all of us ought to think about.
Let me ask. Do the women of the Vanitha Munnani and of the Vanitha Sangham have different, specific kinds of servitude to bear…? Do women in the same country suffer different sorts of slavery? Don’t we suffer from a common sort of subjugation? In that case, what do we need many narrowly-conceived organizations …more than one? Is it not better, will we not be more powerful, if we come together with a sense of unity instead of remaining scattered all over the place?… Do think…
If you agree with this view of mine, I have only this to say: in a specific area, say within a specified boundary, like a pakuthi or a taluk, we need just a single organization and its committee. This unit should be bound to higher tiers, and scaled up throughout the state, with a central committee to direct the lower-tiers and units. Enthusiastic young women must be elected to be workers; that way the organization will be built strong. Through such an organization, we will gain the power to fight male dominance and find solutions to all our problems. And so I draw the attention of all who long to break the shackles of slavery and live as human beings.
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[…] essay is similar to the essay by Kumari Saraswathi on women’s organisations in post-independence Malayali society (in the section Critique) in […]