‘Women At Shaheen Bagh Gave Me Hope’

16 Oct 2020 6 min read  Share

The just published memoir of Devaki Jain, one of the country’s pre-eminent feminist economists looks at major influences in her life and her involvement with the women’s movement. Here she talks about ongoing violence against women and India’s MeToo movement

Devaki Jain.

New Delhi: Amartya Sen commends her “unusual insights on the place of women in society particularly on the reach of inequalities based on gender”. Indeed, feminist economist Devaki Jain’s memoir, The Brass Notebook, published by Speaking Tiger looks back at 87 years of breaking rules, forging new relationships and, through it all, remaining an unwavering champion of women’s rights.

Jain’s first book Indian Women, a collection of essays by scholars including Andre Beteille, Romila Thapar and Veena Das was published in 1975 to commemorate International Women’s Year and sparked in her a lifelong quest to articulate women’s rights. Her latest book, out this month, traverses an eventful journey from her birth in what was then Mysore state in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family to rejecting an arranged marriage and getting a degree at Oxford University.

On her return to India, after teaching economics at Delhi University, she went on to found the Institute of Social Studies, which began the crucial job of data collection on social and economic inequalities and led to a body of research that revealed both the capabilities of women and their role in the economy. It led to speaking engagements all over the world where she focused, amongst other things, on the need for feminists from emerging economies in the South to forge their own coalition.

The Brass Notebook gives its readers a ringside view of India’s formative years told through the eyes of a charismatic intellectual. The birth of a nation. Competing ideologies including that of the Swatantra Party. The growth of the cooperative movement. Vinoba Bhave’s bhoodan movement. Encounters and friendships with such people who influenced and shaped the nation: Jai Prakash Narayan, Achyut Patwardhan, Rukmini Devi Arundale, Dharma Kumar and, further across shores, Gloria Steinem.

It tells us of a life lived with passion. Above all, it tells us of a life well lived. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Events at Hathras have dominated the news over the past few days. What is your response to the ongoing violence against women, particularly Dalit women in rural India?

It is outrageous that there is still so much social and economic inequality in the nation. The fact that this crime in Hathras took place is evidence of that. The Delhi rape of 2012 got a lot of public support. But that was only the fringe. We haven't entered the rural space. There is raging violence in rural Tamil Nadu, for instance. So many crimes just go unreported.

The solution requires enormous mobilization of political and social forces.

When you look at women’s participation on so many parameters we are still dealing with enormous gaps–our numbers in Parliament (14%) or in the higher judiciary (just two of the current 31 sitting Supreme Court judges). How do we even begin to bridge this systemic gap?

We have a generation of women that are now active and come to protest in India Gate or at Vidhana Soudha (in Bengaluru) or in Trivandrum, Kerala for temple entry. We have had fantastic experiences in the last five years of large women’s groups protesting on a wide range of issues. I’ll never forget the absolutely magnificent way young women mostly but also men came out, against the CAA-NRC in India Gate and the famous Shaheen Bagh. But that protest does not get translated into votes in the elections.

I do not think we have done enough to nudge and shame parties to put more women in Parliament. That problem can be once again put at the feet of the government. They should give more. But we also have to work on getting it done and need to elect people who speak for us. And this is not happening.

This change in the proportion of people in nation-building cannot be changed by mass protest but has to be done systematically through all India women’s groups. But the system of elections has got so thwarted and corrupt with money playing a very big role. We have a fractured, damaged electoral system where it is difficult to put up a woman and get her elected.

At the moment we are stuck with family dominance in politics. Earlier we thought it was just the Gandhi family. But now you go to the states in India and you will find family everywhere. So, with families that are patriarchal, how do we engage with bringing in women?

Certainly your upbringing in an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family was unusual. You write how your father, Mandayam Ananthampillai Sreenivasan was furious when you rejected an arranged marriage, yet he gave you the freedom to study in the UK. That was unusual wasn’t it?

Yes, it was unusual. It had something to do with a bond that developed between my father and me from childhood. People say that because the colour of my skin was lighter than others, I had an extra space in my father’s affections. It’s not a nice thing to hear. But I have to accept he was very partial to me.

He had a sense of confidence that whatever decision I took, it would be something I would benefit from and I would not be lost. I was so clear that I did not want to get married to the man they chose for me, that I wanted to study, and I wanted to work. I wonder if articulating this very strongly was what might have made my parents budge. But my sisters would not agree to that. They felt there was a clear preference for me due to the colour of my skin. I also think the colour of my skin and what was called ‘my charming ways’ was my gateway to freedom.

Devaki Jain: The Brass Notebook, Speaking Tiger Books, Rs 599

There’s a refreshing candour in describing your life’s more passionate moments, whether romantic and amorous encounters or the deeply physical relationship you shared with your husband. In a country, where we still shy away from revealing this degree of intimacy, why did you choose to do it? Is there a message here?

Yes, there is a message in my describing those personal encounters and intimacies. It is written only for that. As I see in Delhi, Mumbai and in Bangalore, young people are living in a different way. A niece boarded at a co-ed residential accommodation. Young people are engaging with each other and have, what you call, ‘amorous encounters’, which is a strange, old-fashioned way to put it.

When I write about my sexual adventures, it is to enable these young people to enjoy a night out, to tell them that it is okay, it’s alright to do that. People like myself have done it. These encounters help us select and be more clear about who we want. That’s why in my biography, I chose to write about it to show that you can do it. Your respectability does not get damaged. You can create a life for itself. You don’t have to feel that there is something evil in enjoying your body and experiences.

You write about your #MeToo movement when you were working as a research assistant to a prominent Swedish economist at Oxford in 1958. How do you regard India’s #MeToo movement that erupted in 2018? Are there enough safeguards and protections to women today to enable them to speak up? Or is due process still failing women?

There is a big difference between what I experienced in Oxford in 1958 and the #MeToo movement that enabled women to speak up. But even today there are not enough safeguards and protections.

This is very much a class and caste point. If you’re working in Infosys as a computer technician or in a university you can go to the department or system that has been worked out to complain about any sexual attacks or troubles you might face. Everywhere there is now a committee or council where you can go and report on violence against yourself.

But does that protect enough? Only women who are in those spaces can answer that question. I am too far away from institutions as well as that area. But I do have colleagues in universities who have had to complain. We also had the case in the Supreme Court [involving former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi] very recently.

Is the due process failing women? What I read in the papers is that some of it is failing women. The male power structures are so rigid that complaints may not get through. We have seen it happen in the film industry apart from in universities and business houses.

What or who in the women’s movement gives you the most hope?

I think young women, women in universities. Remember it was women in Jamia Milia Islamia University and Shaheen Bagh who became the face for protest for justice, for articulation of injustice, for defending the injured. They are the only visible, collective, decent power in India today. Well, they are not in power literally, but they are not shying away from taking risks. They are the future for justice in India.

(Namita Bhandare writes on gender and is on the editorial board of Article14)