Mumbai has, in many senses, been the birthplace of the Indian women’s movement. The last quarter of the 19th century saw the seeds being sown in what was then the Bombay Presidency. Social reformers like Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule fought female infanticide, widow-burning and the segregation of women from the public life, among other concerns. They also organised public functions for widow remarriage and worked for legal reform.
Interestingly, as the new century dawned, many women from Bombay’s wealthy families turned philanthropists, helping to set up educational institutions, shelter homes and vocational training centres. It was from such institutions that the first generation of women professionals emerged: Teachers, nurses, skilled workers and white collar employees, such as typists, clerks, accountants and secretaries. There is an enormous amount of literature from that time in Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and English that bears witness to these path-breaking efforts.
The first generation of English-educated Mumbai women became founders of the nascent women's movement in pre-independence India. Most of them channelised their energies into building pioneering organisations like the All India Women's Conference (AIWC), the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) and the Anjuman-e-Islam. They fought against child marriage, promoted women’s education, mobilised public opinion in favour of voting rights for women, and established institutions to impart basic professional and domestic skills.
The beginning of the 20th century saw women’s wide-scale participation in the national independence movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. During the Quit India Movement of 1942, for instance, even women from conservative families gave up the ‘purdah’, came out on the streets, courted arrest and faced imprisonment.
But it was the post-independence period that saw Mumbai’s women coming forward in large numbers to help build the new nation. They contributed to various fields, from politics to films, from music to scholarship. It was their pathbreaking contributions that laid the foundation for the Indian women’s movement as we know it today.
There are many women who could figure in the list of greats. For this piece, I will focus on three near contemporaries: Mrinal Gore, who was at the forefront of the first initiative of what came to be known as the “new women’s movement” – the anti-price rise struggle of 1972; visionary academic, Dr Neera Desai, who saw the importance of framing women’s action and experience in academic and policy terms; and outstanding educationist Madhuri Shah, who went on to institutionalise Women’s Studies as a discipline within the university system in India.
Let’s look at the life of the first in this amazing triumvirate. Mrinal Gore was inspired by Gandhi’s Quit India exhortation as a young girl of 14. Drawn to social causes, she soon discarded a promising career in medicine in order to organise the poorest and most powerless. A political reformer by instinct, Mrinal helped to set up in September 1972 the Anti-Price Rise Committee, which mobilised the largest-ever turnout of women on the streets ever seen since the Independence movement. At the same time, Mrinal also worked within the Socialist Party and outside, to get the government to focus on drought in rural Maharashtra.
The year 1975 was an eventful one for Mrinal. It saw Indira Gandhi’s government impose an internal Emergency and suspend the constitutional rights of the people. Mrinal went underground to guide the protests against the Emergency. She was arrested in December that year and placed initially under solitary confinement. Once the Emergency was withdrawn in 1977, she was elected on a Janata Party ticket to Parliament, winning by the highest margin of votes in the entire state of Maharashtra. The 1980s found her working with the emerging feminist groups and participating actively in protests against rape and dowry. A natural organiser, Mrinal employed a large spectrum of protest action to get the issue across – from street marches to sit-in and fasts. Not only did she set up a support centre for women survivors of domestic violence, she founded a workers’ association – the Shramjeevi Mahila Sangh – expressly for women employees.
Mrinal’s aim always was to encourage women to work for themselves. For her, the concerns of Dalits, women, workers, farmers, and indigenous communities were indivisible and demanded a holistic approach. Her politics, consequently, was always inclusive rather than divisive. This was why she could win the affections of diverse sections of people and come to be universally called “Mrinal-tai”, or elder sister.
The Quit India movement was also a turning point of sorts for Neera Desai. A college student then, she faced arrest several times for her involvement in the freedom struggle. In fact, this association had begun when, as a school girl, she actively worked for the Monkey Brigade formed by Gandhi. Despite the frequent interruptions to her education, Neera could complete her post graduation immediately after India gained independence. A socialist, her Ph.D. thesis touched on the economic, anthropological and historical dimensions of women’s status in India. It was published in 1952 as a book, ‘Women in Modern India’, and was received with praise for providing a historical understanding of the status of Indian women from the Vedic period to the early years of independent India. In the foreword to her book, the veteran freedom fighter Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya labelled her analysis as “feminist”. In fact, Neera’s observations made in the early Fifties were validated by the women’s rights movement in the Seventies, showing her as a woman much in advance of her times.
According to Neera, constructing knowledge on women demanded the five arms of teaching, training, documentation, research and action. In that sense she functioned as a bridge between the women’s movement and women’s studies and she went on to found the first Research Unit on Women’s Studies of India, in Mumbai’s SNDT university. Neera was also one of the founding members of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and was closely associated with the India Centre for Human Rights and Law in Mumbai and the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), in Delhi.
But the ivory towers of academia was not for this builder of institutions. Neera always made it a point to be closely associated with feminist groups throughout the country. Four generations of women activists and academics have benefited from her wisdom, intellect, advice and experience. What we liked about Neera was the relationship of mutual respect we had with her: She never preached, she always talked to us as equals.
Another woman who was convinced about the need for Women’s Studies to be mainstreamed as a discipline in Indian universities was Dr Madhuri Shah, the nationally and internationally acclaimed educationist, who had served as an international president of World Education Fellowship International from 1972 to 1989. As vice chancellor of SNDT University, during what was historically the most vibrant period of the women’s movement, she helped Neera achieve her dream of establishing her model unit on Women’s Studies. Madhuri, too, clearly saw the link between this discipline and the women’s movement. For her, it was of utmost importance to inculcate among women students a positive sense of self and an awareness of women's rights.
Many, who knew Madhuri personally, speak of how gregarious and witty she was. She was a natural orator and it was always an intellectual treat to listen to her. In her inaugural speech at the first Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference in Mumbai, she averred, “One has to take inspiration from Michael Angelo, who created works of art unequalled by any other man and yet, when he was ninety, he regretted that he must die just when he was beginning to learn the ABC of being a sculptor and painter. Education never stops.”
Three pioneers with a common vision. Each of them believed that the liberation of human kind would not be possible without the liberation of women.