A poster on the Shakti, the feminine power
The Indian renaissance in the 19th century saw Indian women emerge out of
their cloistered existence after a long period of purdah. It was during this
period that we saw multi-faceted, talented women make a mark on the social
and literary firmament. Toru Dutt, Pandita Ramabai, Swarnakumari Debi,
Rukhmabai were some of the earliest pioneers. However, they were all from
privileged, upper class, upwardly mobile backgrounds. Their achievements
could hardly be aspired to by the vast majority of women from the middle or
lower middle classes.
When India won its independence more than six decades ago, the founding
fathers of our Constitution tried their level best to usher in a new era for
women with some of the most enlightened laws in the world. Yet, notwithstanding
their efforts, social and economic factors forced the voices of our women to
Government-sponsored posters, public interest advertising, radio and
television were extensively used to direct change. But age-old prejudices and
gender bias proved difficult to erase. The police, judiciary and the media
continued to reflect prevalent social mores. The yardstick of moral turpitude
continued to be used against women as and when they did not fall in line with
what was considered acceptable for them.
Some women, as activists, did try giving voice to the widespread
discrimination faced by women everywhere in the country. But the majority
remained unlettered, or at best, semi-literate, and totally ignorant of their
legal rights. Lack of property rights, entrenched patriarchy, and family apathy
saw them continue being deprived of the confidence needed to question social
authority, and demand their rightful place in society guaranteed by an
A poster depicting religious oppression of women
Hence, the voices of activism failed to be seen as the collective voice of
the millions of women who made India.
The Mathura rape case in the early ‘80s was destined to change all that. The
judgement, which tacitly justified the heinous rape of a poor teenaged domestic
help in police custody on the ground that she was accustomed to sex raised the
hackles of women activists, and have them question the attitude of an
Spearheaded by women lawyers, the hurriedly assembled “Forum Against Rape”
soon evolved into “Forum Against Oppression of Women” and took to questioning
all kinds of injustice and wrongful depiction of women.
The Rameeza Bee case where a Muslim woman was raped and her husband killed
when he protested became another cause for activism when a judgement condoned
the crime on the ground of Rameeza Bee being a prostitute.
As activists questioned the class and gender bias of the judiciary, the
feminist movement moved off its erstwhile elitist mode, and gradually took to
espousing the cause of women who were outside the pale of drawing rooms and
academic institutions. Western feminist rhetoric was left behind, and a
home-grown Indian feminism took its place.
Indian political parties had always had a women’s wing, but the ‘80s saw the
rise of several autonomous women’s organizations independent of political
affiliations. They took up the cause of disenfranchised, homeless tribals,
riot-struck victims, and a host of others. Women’s health, maternal and infant
mortality, vocational training to earn a livelihood, legal rights and education
became the rallying point for activism. The feminist movement in India became
more representative of the deprivations felt by the poorest. Women were not seen
to constitute a separate class, but the most deprived of the families and
downtrodden groups that they were part of.
A poster demanding rights for domestic helps
Women who were rendered voiceless courtesy a social patriarchy which ensured
that they were seen and not heard, saw the veneer of respectability ripped apart
in middle-class homes, as deeply-entrenched practices were exposed in public.
The practice of dowry, domestic violence and harassment of daughters-in-law in
marital homes became subject to scrutiny. The social revolution that the Indian
state had hoped to engineer through the Constitution was at long last being
achieved, thanks to an increasingly vocal women’s movement.
The entire journey traversed by the women’s movement in India can be best
understood when we go through the gamut of posters and visual media that have
been used to create awareness on the women’s situation through the years.
Starting from the earliest posters generated by the government, down to the ones
produced by independent women’s groups in the ‘80s, to the pointed messages
questioning the injustices inflicted on women of all classes in the name of
religion, it is the story of an uphill struggle at its best. The gradual
universalism that has overtaken the movement from the earlier slogans which
generally viewed women’s problems from what was experienced by women in the
majority community is clearly evident. The gagging of women in the name of
religion, is, understandably an important issue depicted by many posters all
A village woman has to work, round the clock
Posters and rhymes used the best in creativity to create awareness about how
women faced the worst in every eventuality. This quiet revolution in the realm
of securing women’s rights made wide use of street plays, folk art forms, and
the plastic arts to compel society to look inwards and re-visit its attitudes
towards domestics, sex workers, women working in the informal sector, and
working women. From the didactic, staid, “Garbhavati mahila mein khoon ki
kami naa ho, swasthya Kendra se iron ki goli lo, aam dino se adhik bhojan karaao,
aur hari sabziyaan khoob khilao”, to the sarcastic “gaai bachhdon ki tarah mujhe
ghar ke khoontein se kyon bandhte ho,” to the straightforward protesting
“How many hands do I have?”, and the hopeful “hamari panchayat hamare haath”,
the posters capture the gamut of emotions which have characterized the women’s
Rajashri Dasgupta and Laxmi Murty have traced the roots of the Indian
feminist movement from its earliest, unsure steps to the broad-based war cry
against all gender-based injustice that characterizes the recent past of Indian
gender activism. Our pictures, our words –A visual journey through the
women’s movement takes off from (publisher) Zubaan’s earlier exhibition
on “Poster Women”, and moves on to examine the processes which contributed to
Indian feminism becoming a broad-based movement for human rights.
The book looks into how every region of the country used the local idiom, to
reach out to the public on issues that were universal. Activists were careful to
use the right attire to ensure identification with the women depicted in the
posters put up. For instance, in a primarily Muslim area, the protagonists were
shown clad in salwar kameez, while in Hindu areas, sari-clad women were
The neglect of the girl child, female infanticide, foeticide, gender bias etc
were depicted as issues of common concern in a country marked by a skewed
sex-ratio. The posters shook people off their complacence regarding dowry and
domestic violence; one such poster of a picture of a helpless, blindfolded,
muzzled bride, asked “kahi yeh aapki beti to nahi?” while another
depicting a woman being beaten up by her husband, wondered aloud, “kya ye inka gharelu
mamla hain?” while educating people on what is legally wrong.
Multi-tasking by a housewife, creatively presented in a
The Bengali poster, showing a woman with multiple hands, holding an infant, a
broom, and household implements, says “Das haathe begaar khaati, paii khota,
apamaan, laathi.” (“I toil with ten hands without a complaint, but get in
return insults, abuse and kicks”) is hardly different from those displayed in
Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu depicting a woman as a 10 handed
goddess toiling round the clock.
With the women’s movement having acquired a momentum of its own, the fight
for a level playing field is not just a fight for women’s rights, but human
rights. The amorphous feminine identity, and the cause of women has been
expanded to take up the cause of disabled women, sex workers, lesbians,
transgender persons, and many groups that are nearly invisible. With women
entering the professional sphere in the formal and informal sectors in huge
numbers, sexual harassment at the workplace, and the right to work with dignity
is the focus of attention.
Legislation is no longer the key to a more equitable scheme of things; it is
a cry akin to what Marx had called for…as a poster screams, “Women of the world
- unite.” Perhaps, in a world growing increasingly violent, the hand that rocks
the cradle shall ultimately bring peace to the world. For the religion of peace
transcends all else!