No.9 Toward a Feminist Politics?  The Indian Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective
By Samita Sen

The women’s movement in India took off in the 1920s, building on the 19th century social reform movement. The women’s movement progressed during the period of high nationalism and the freedom struggle, both of which shaped its contours. Among the many achievements of the movement, the most significant were the constitutional guarantees of equal rights for women and universal adult suffrage in independent India. However, these guarantees did little to bring about social and material change in the lives of most Indian women. A New Women’s movement, articulated to mass and popular politics, emerged in the 1970s.
Despite the longstanding and vigorous women’s movement, patriarchy remains deeply entrenched in India, influencing the structure of its political and social institutions and determining the opportunities open to women and men. The negotiation and conflict between patriarchy and the women’s movement are central to the constitution of the nation-state.
This paper explores these issues by examining two debates that have rocked the women’s movement and Indian society: over the Uniform Civil Code and the proposed reservation for women of seats in legislative bodies. These controversies have contributed to and bear the mark of deep cleavages within the women’s movement—cleavages that reflect divisions of caste, class, and community among women. To understand the full implications of these controversies and their divisive consequences, it is essential to understand their long-term historical roots. The discussion here draws out various positions within the women’s movement and arguments advanced by the government, the media, and others. The significance of a secular political constituency of women, as represented by the women’s movement, is also considered.

This paper is part of a series of papers on selected topics commissioned for the forthcoming Policy Research Report(PRR) on Gender and Development. The PRR is being carried out by Elizabeth King and Andrew Mason and co-sponsored by the World Bank’s Development Economics Research Group and the Gender and Development Group of the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network. Printed copies of this paper are available free from the World Bank, 1818 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20433. Please contact Owen Haaga, in room MC8-434 or at Comments are welcome and should be sent directly to the author(s) at .

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