Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India, and: The Power of Women's Organizing: Gender, Caste and Class in India, and: Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women's Struggles (review)
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Reviewed by
Sangtin Writers and Richa Nagar, Playing with Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India,(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2006).
Mangala Subramaniam, The Power of Women's Organizing: Gender, Caste and Class in India,(New York: Lexington Books, 2006).
Brinda Karat, Survival and Emancipation: Notes from Indian Women's Struggles,(Gurgaon, Haryana: Three Essays Collective, 2005).

In August of 1995, widely diverse facets of the Indian women's movement joined the UN Conference on Women forum for non-governmental organizations in Hairou, China, with an agenda. They distributed copies of a coalition-supported report called “Towards Equality” that brought poor women's lives into focus. Over one hundred Indian women's groups, including national groups like the YWCA and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), joined small advocacy groups, service providers, and consciousness raising groups to weigh in on India's national report for the UN Conference for member nations held in Beijing during the same days as the forum in Hairou. The groups joined their programs, aims, strategies, and constituencies towards a united goal: forcing the Indian government to recognize the devastation wrought by neoliberalism on poor working and underemployed women across the country. Their campaign brought some limited success, as women's intensified fight for survival gained mention in the official Indian government report. Their campaign's most memorable and eye-opening success may have been on the world stage of the conference itself. Alongside activists from Latin America and Africa, they invigorated the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) conference in Hairou with talk of structural adjustments and loan conditionalities. They educated hundreds of participants about the onslaught on public social services and safety nets. They talked about public health and education systems dismantled; of government programs for food production, distribution, and affordability gutted. “Women's issues” in Hairou suddenly included the culpability of Western nations that funded and directed multilateral loan organizations like the International Monetary Fund. These women's issues of poverty, disenfranchisement, hunger, and exploitation could not be sidelined as simply issues of (and for) women in the Third World. These three new books amply illustrate that, over ten years after that historic conference, the vitality of the contemporary women's movement in India continues to generate difficult questions and demand creative answers. And that we should all be paying attention. [End Page 229]

Playing with Fire challenges academic protocol and activist verities alike. In 1998, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, nine women formed a support collective they called Sangtin. Eight of these women were activists, seven of whom who worked at the village level and one at the district level for a World Bank-funded and Indian government-run initiative called Nari Samata Yogana to build empowerment among rural women across the state. Six years later, in 2004, they published a book about their discussions in Hindi called Sangtin Yatra. Their “Journey of Sangtins,” a word they loosely translate from the regional language Awadhi to mean solidarity, reciprocity, and enduring friendship among women, was developed collectively through “a fractured unity in voices” (xxxv) and penned by their ninth member, a U.S.-based academic Richa Nagar. Eight rural activists recount their own stories of oppression, loneliness, courage, and fraught relationships in the context of their jobs. Immediately they felt the risks and consequences of communicating so openly about their work as women who fought for other women's rights. After the book was published in Hindi, some were transferred, others almost lost their jobs, and most faced increased surveillance and suspicion.

In their own words and through their own lives, they confront their own prejudices of caste and class with startling honesty. Seven of the activists are Hindu, and while they describe their own neglect at the hands of their parents and their families-in-law, they also register discomfort with Muslim women in the company of the one Muslim activist in the Sangtin collective. They flout limitations of what can be said publicly about the abuse of girl children and cross borders in terms of where and to whom they speak their prejudice, whether across religious lines or across caste boundaries. For example...


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