Gender and Neoliberalism by Elisabeth Armstrong, as the subtitle indicates, is a history of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (affiliated to the CPI (M) — a study that aims to analyse the dialectic of AIDWA’s work and the politics of globalisation. The first thing that is likely to hit the reader is the author’s open adoption of the political stance that sees globalisation and economic liberalisation as being synonymous with social inequity, including gender imbalances. In other words, the author writes this study of the AIDWA from the perspective not of a disinterested researcher but of a politically engaged writer who sympathises with the (Indian) Left.
After the rather big allowance of not expecting scholarly neutrality is made, we find in the book a comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the origins, organization, reach and effectiveness of the AIDWA, the largest women’s group in India. The “Introduction” gives an exposition of what has been called the “inter-sectoral organising” policy of the AIDWA and dwells on the group’s differences with the “autonomous women’s movement” and on the implications for its work of its links with the CPI (M).
Chapter one is an account of the origins of the AIDWA, with a biographical focus on its founding member, Pappa Umanath that is one of the finer things in the book. Chapter two places the group in the context of the regeneration of women’s organising in India in the 1970s and 1980s. The third chapter details the AIDWA’s inter-sectoral organising methods, showing how the group came to see ‘women’s issues’ as being embedded in the complex gendered matrix of caste, class and religious determinants. Chapter four is an account of the AIDWA’s work in Haryana, where issues of women’s waged work got entangled with khap panchayati control of their sexuality. Similarly, chapter five illustrates the AIDWA’s composite fight against gender and caste hegemonies in Tamil Nadu. Chapter six compares two cases of domestic violence in Chennai and New Delhi to show how local activism is crucial to the national organisation of the AIDWA. The last chapter gauges the impact of the UN Conference on Women (1995) on the AIDWA. The book ends with a short ‘Conclusion’ that underlines the author’s political antagonism to what she calls the ‘pro-business, pro-military’ stance of neoliberal politics, places the AIDWA in the context of the global shift from organising women to networking them, and adumbrates its current work on issues like land rights, rape laws, divorce and domestic violence.
Although, largely sharing in the political ethos of the CPI (M)’s brand of leftism, the author acknowledges that “sometimes” the AIDWA’s link with the CPI (M) “did not help” and that “the cross-class character of the group was a site of intense debate” in the party. But how and how far the AIDWA resolved the tensions between a focus on trans-class gender politics and the CPI (M)’s rigid class orientation have not been detailed. Does this oversight reflect a tacit acceptance of this blind spot in the trajectory of a women’s organization that is too fully immersed in the politics of the Left?
Chapter seven (‘AIDWA in the World’) dwells on global anti-imperialistic feminism and proposes that “transnational feminist networks” have largely displaced “internationalist women’s solidarity” as the goal of feminist groups.It is not clear — and the author does not probe this — how far the cause of women’s solidarity and emancipation has gained, if at all, from being freighted with the ideological baggage of anti-imperialism. And, one wishes the author dealt more objectively with the AIDWA’s differences with other kinds of organisations working for gender equity. Her approach towards NGOs and even the UN’s women’s wing is somewhat biased and dismissive.
Where the book scores is in its accounts of the AIDWA’s methods and structure, its innovative inter-sectoral orgainising and its local and national campaigns from 1991 to 2006. There is much solid research into the group’s actual praxes and some of the problems that it faced and overcame. Inall, the book is an authentic record of how a left-wing women’s organisation in India has worked in mobilising women across sectoral divides. While one hesitates to view economic liberalisation as entirely negative, some ofthe short term effects of neoliberal state policies have indeed been detrimental to the weaker sections of the people and hence inimical to women, especially of the working classes. Armstrong brings out how the AIDWA has put up a steadfast battle against these pernicious aspects of neoliberalism.
Although embodying ethnographic research and professional field studies, the book is largely jargon-free. This, combined with the lucidity of the prose, makes for an easy reading. The anecdotes with which the author often complements her data enliven the book. Despite its political bias, Gender and Neoliberalism is a valuable contribution to the repertoire of literature on women’s activism in India in the past few decades.