Protests have been carried out by women in India against oppressive systems for ages and have been implemented in many forms. Today the Indian women’s movement exists mostly in a decentralized construct all round the country. Female resistance to oppression can be noticed throughout history. Each organization and every protest, no matter how trivial they may seem, play an important part and show that the Indian women are far from ignorant or docile as they are often portrayed. 

In order to assess the position of women in India today, it is essential to look at some of the paradigm changes which took place during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, especially the  nationalist and independence movements. These movements and the transformation they brought about, completely altered women’s standing in society. It can be stated that the progression of the Indian women’s movement in the nineteenth century was a response to the British colonialists criticizing the religious practices and treatment of women in India. Not being able to withstand the criticism, the nationalists took up the women’s cause and used it in a wider context of an attack on the Indian traditions in general. This was done by drawing the distinction between the ‘home’ or the ‘world’. This dichotomy assists us in understanding how women’s gender roles were reformulated within the nationalist’s political scheme. Womxn became the “protectors” of the spiritual domain, meaning the house. This new type of oppression could only be seen as imprisonment of women in a non-transformative manner, restricting them to this newly defined gender role.

This repression instigated a fight back from the women’s organisations. Different sections of India seem to have generated different forms of protest from women. Raka Ray, for instance, points out the alternative forms of protests that took place in Bombay and Calcutta, in her book ‘Fields Of Protest’. She asserts that organisations are rooted to their ‘fields’ as organs that are attached to the field where they originate.

The book is about the political and cultural contexts under which women organize to form motions to stand for their rights and dignity. Ray compares women activists and the movements in two urban cities in India, Bombay and Calcutta. Her examination is embedded in the concept of political fields which she makes use of, as opposed to the political process theory approach. This is to recognize the pivotal role of cultural factors and the comparative essence of action.

Our therapists, Lalitheswari, Aishwarya and Srivalli, at Pause for Perspective, reviewed ‘Fields Of Protests’ by Raka Ray and prepared a thorough evaluation from a therapist’s perspective, asking the following questions:

“As a women’s organization situated within the (very political) field of mental health, what do we define as women’s interests at Pause for Perspective? And how do our intersecting identity locations and socio-political context influence our stance? In what strategic ways are we deploying our understanding of women’s interests to protest against the status quo in the political culture of mental health care?”  

They start by saying that Raka Ray’s book begins on a powerful note, challenging the “mythic polarization of the Indian woman in popular imagination”. Indian women in the media are portrayed either as a victim or a vamp, a goddess or a witch, a housewife who is a “good mother” or a working woman who is a “bad mother”. This leaves no space in the popular imagination for the Indian woman whose nuanced existence reflects the many intersecting identity locations she occupies. This book seeks to tell stories about these women, who are neither privileged and powerful like Indira Gandhi, nor victim-turned-avenger like Phoolan Devi both of whom seem to represent this dichotomy in the popular image of “The Indian Feminist”. 

They spoke about the two aims presented in the book.

The first aim is to tell stories of women who make life better for themselves and for other women through their everyday existence, in (extra)ordinary ways; who come together to protest the hegemonic political fields they are situated in. The second aim of the book is to locate women’s movements in India within their socio-political context in order to understand how “women’s interests” in India are not homogenous and differ from one context to the next. It does so by exploring women’s movements in India in two major cities – Calcutta and Bombay”. 

The author affirms that in Calcutta there seems to have been hardly any organisations set up by women concerning their issues than in Bombay. However, that was only a superficial appearance as the organisations in Calcutta operated around the issues that were not specifically considered as ‘feminist’ or gender oriented. Hence, they did not receive much attention. While the other states focused on direct gender based issues such as sexual harassment, contraceptives and amniocentesis, Calcutta focused on not so specific issues like electoral reform, literacy, water, employment and electricity. 

According to our therapists, “Ray suggests that the difference between the two women’s movements is caused by differing political cultures. While Calcutta’s women’s movement embedded itself in a homogenous (and hegemonic) political culture where power is concentrated; Bombay’s women’s movement took shape within a heterogenous (and fragmented) political culture where power is dispersed.” 

These differences in issues helps outline the fact that women in India are involved in matters which are more than traditional, feminist and gender related. This broadening of the range in which women operate shows us how women in India today are empowering themselves in every aspect. 

A field, according to Ray, “can be thought of as a structured, unequal and socially constructed environment within which organisations are embedded and to which organisations and activists constantly respond”. 

She writes that fields may differ in the matter of two systematically distinct elements. One is distribution of power and the other is  political culture. Political field, as per Ray, includes the state, political parties, and social movement organisations, which are attached to each other both in amiable and hostile fashion. 

Ray indicates that there are two different fields in which women operate: ‘the political field’ which is occupied by the state and mainstream parties working in an predetermined order, and ‘the protest field’ which operate within the political field but are frequently in direct resistance with those in power inside the political field. Each of these fields have historical and cultural heritage depending on the locale they are situated in and so do the movements that arise from them. Hence, the issues that were seen as important in Calcutta were of particular interest to women there.  

Our therapists concluded their evaluation by stating, “The processes by which the author locates the women’s movements in two very similar cities in India to show how their needs were different can inform us as therapists who might be working with many individuals who have experienced oppression in similar ways but enact their agency and express their goals for therapy in starkly different ways. We can learn from the author’s non-judgmental stance as she seeks to understand and empathize with the different ways in which these women expressed themselves by situating them in their socio-political contexts and intersecting identity locations rather than deeming one or the other as more valid or better. Operating without “essentialist notions” of women’s interests and understanding how the movements were both “constrained” and “enabled” by the political fields in which they were embedded can inform how we can situate our clients in their political fields that constrain and enable them in different ways. I constantly noticed how the author’s stance reflected our stance of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and loving-kindness as mindfulness-based mental health practitioners”

Inspite of the similarities in the socio-economic and demographic elements, women in both the metropolitan cities participated in women’s movement with different techniques due to the difference in the political landscapes of these cities. Therefore, it’s visible that in India the women’s movement can contradict depending on the field in which they are situated and the issues must not be constrained to the gender defined affairs. The women’s movement was energetic, diverse and modern, influencing social movements nationally as well as internationally, and has enabled women in India today with the ability to redefine their own gender roles. It is important to note that the book does not include women movements of dalit and bahujan communities nor religious minorities. It does not include transfolx and their experiences and how that adds to the womxn’s movement in India. Our therapists are working towards integrating this awareness in feminists movements and see how these intersectionalities impact mental health.  

This article was edited by our writer Insha Fatima.