Patrick Hesse, Humboldt University, Berlin
Liberating women, defending tradition: Communist perspectives on gender emancipation in mid-20th century
The Communist Party of India (CPI) had existed for three decades ere it first began formulating a policy on the issue of the condition of women in the 1950s. With the establishment of the NFIW (National Federation of Indian Women) in 1954, the demands and aspirations of the female part of the population were to have found an outlet apart from the Congress, one which would advance their cause as part of the great revolutionary struggles ahead of the Indian masses.
However being regarded as a subordinate aspect of a greater struggle from the very outset heavily influenced the stances communists would take vis-à-vis the discrimination of women. Not only did demands for women’s rights seldom figure prominently on the party’s agenda. Moreover, as was also the case with other social issues, the Communists’ approach to the unsatisfying status quo as a result of centuries of class rule and mostly unspecified “supporting ideologies” tended to obscure concrete exploitation and similar omissions on the part the ‘revolutionary masses’ except for the worst excesses.
The call of the CPI to help with organizing Muslim women in the Muslim League in the 1940s still might pass as an outgrowth of contemporary party policy, but the statements of Hajrah Begum, the party’s foremost organizer on the women front in the 1950s, testify as much to the development of a genuine party line on the subject as to that line being equally detached from the specific day-to-day problems of women as from revolutionary notions of the place women should occupy in society.
The presentation will trace this development and attempt to identify the mechanisms and imperatives that guided the communists in formulating a women’s policy between the sometimes divergent stances of anti-imperialism, emancipation, and mass revolution.