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  • Passion:Driving the Feminist Movement Forward
  • Devaki Jain (bio)

One of the volumes on the intellectual history of the United Nations, produced by the team of Richard Jolly, Louis Emmerij, and Thomas Weiss, suggests that the UN is a "market place for ideas."1 This description really sums up what it was, I suggest, for the women's movements too. The UN provided a forum for learning from women from other places, which generated the excitement of finding extraordinary similarities of our gendered living and our shared ideas. We wrestled with power, all the time arguing, negotiating, loving, and sometimes merging identities. At the UN itself, a new constituency called "women" was created. However for many of us, I think, the UN conferences on women have only been a very small part of our work and participation in the larger transnational spaces. In fact, while the UN-sponsored conferences gave feminists a base and a space for making ourselves into "transnationals," that space was fed and sustained by national and sub-national issues and angst-derived engagements.

The decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were heady times. In India, the political climate was one of self-reliance and renaissance. In the New Delhi arena, there were extraordinary people connecting with each other, partly through the Delhi University. There were struggles for freedom everywhere. While Gandhi had left behind a radical moral model for helping the poor and exploited in India, our leaders were attracted to socialism, and we were open to many different ideas about liberation. Gandhi's movement had attracted many women; he urged women to challenge their men, writing that "Marriage is an institution designed by men to tyrannise women" in the 1930s, long before feminism became a vivid ideology for Indian women. The independence movement had made some women into prominent leaders of social and economic struggles and helped to establish national women's organizations. These women led unconventional lives.

So when the 1975 UN Women's Conference in Mexico City was announced, many of us were already engaged in movements for liberation. I had returned to India in 1956, from Oxford University in the United Kingdom, having received a diploma in economics and political science. I plunged into a revolutionary movement of the 1950s, the Bhoodan movement, which was a land donation movement led by a Gandhian named Vinoba Bhave, who appealed to rich and middle-class peasants to donate land voluntarily to the landless and poor. This unbelievable way of redistributing wealth actually seemed to be succeeding. I also wrote a book [End Page 201] entitled Democratic Alternative, for the socialist Praja Party, arguing for a non-Marxist equality driven alternative for economic change. I went on to work for the Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal on his book The Asian Drama in 1958. I then went back to Oxford for a better degree in economics and in 1963 returned to India to teach economics.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the University of Delhi was a vibrant place. Some of India's most brilliant economists were teaching there: Amartya Sen, Sukhumoy Chakravarty, Jagdish Bhagwati (now at Columbia), and K.N. Raj. In the evenings we converged to debate policies, social movements, and social issues. We were die-hard patriots, wanting to live in, and develop with, India.

I was the Gandhian in the midst of these mostly Marxist economists. Many of the lecturers were active in the political parties and strong supporters of the struggles. My walking the villages with Vinoba Bhave had given me clear ideas on what was wrong with the economics that we were teaching and subscribing to. Gandhi, I believed, had figured out the most relevant economic engine for our country.

In some sense I was always a part of the women's movement even from my childhood. There was a clear demarcation of roles and attitudes between boys and girls, men and women, in the large and very heterogeneous joint family into which I was born. Girls learned dancing and vocal music and did not go out, while boys played outdoor games and were "free." In addition, women in groups or sanghas, were always present in my life. My mother...


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pp. 201-207
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