In our evermore interconnected world transnational networks are becoming increasingly important in enabling workers, activists and academics to overcome the limitations imposed by national boundaries. Look at the success of a global research and policy network such as WIEGO (Women in the Informal Economy Globalising and Organising) which has made important strides in enhancing the status and visibility of informal economy workers. But the growing significance of such networks, especially those that focus on issues affecting women, has also thrown into renewed focus the question of difference within the feminist movement and the importance of understanding local context – key criticisms raised by third world feminists in the 1980s. These feminists accused their western colleagues of universalising women as a category, and in so doing universalising their experience of oppression. They challenged western feminists’ authority to speak for women in developing countries emphasising that a dynamic nexus of identities such as race, class, caste and sexual orientation determined the experience of women around the globe.
In light of the growing significance of globalised networks how can gender activists from developing countries negotiate questions of difference and contextuality, and the unequal power relations accompanying them, so that their participation these networks is genuinely empowering? In my research on the first generation of Indian women politicians in independent India I found this generation grappling with this same question in their transnational interactions during the interwar years and early days of independence. These women, who entered politics in the heat of the nationalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s, participated in a range of international and transnational networks as members of international women’s organisations, political movements, diplomats and UN delegates. The more I learnt about these women the more I began to think about the insights they could offer women activists today in the face of the growing need for transnational feminist organising and solidarity.
The experience of these women within these transnational networks was diverse and multifaceted. There were moments when it was creative and stimulating, offering exposure to new concepts and ideas. In her autobiography Renuka Ray, a Gandhian constructive worker and parliamentarian talks about her cosmopolitan time at London School of Economics in the 1920s as a vibrant experience which ‘opened many doors’ for her and exposed her to many new schools of thought. It was during this time that she began to think about how to achieve economic regeneration in India (34, 39). Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a founding member of the Congress Socialist Party describes visiting co-operative farms in Sweden in her autobiography and how this exposure ‘opened up… new vistas for cooperative work in India’ (131, 231). In these interactions difference provided the grounds for learning about new and innovative ideas and for thinking about India in comparative perspective.
Participation in these transnational forums also offered the possibility of liberating these women from the constraints they faced at home. Commenting in her autobiography on the way that she was received at an International Session of the League against Imperialism in Berlin in 1929, Kamaladevi says that she was pleasantly surprised ‘to be received as a mature political personality whereas in India I had been treated as a youth with condescension by elders’ (130). As a young outspoken woman in the Indian National Congress she sometimes found herself in confrontation with the leadership of the organisation. Kamaladevi was a bit of an outsider both at home and abroad but in this particular context the meaning of ‘being different’ changed. Although her age and her gender had been barriers to her political acceptance in India in Berlin they were not such limitations.
Such interactions enabled this generation of women to see India and its problems in a regional and global context offering them an opportunity to think about what it meant to be an Indian woman in the world. The experience of Kamaladevi illustrates how this could be liberating, at other times however, this interaction could become oppressive; reinforcing stereotypes and emphasising the unequal power relations between India and the West. In her autobiography Vijayalakshmi Pundit, Indian High Commissioner to the USSR, USA and UK describes how at international press conferences the media was sometimes more interested in her sari or jewellery than her opinion. In these contexts being an Indian woman diplomat and hence different from her western male counterparts meant being stereotyped as an ‘exotic’ and ‘oriental’, creating a set of expectations about how she should behave within the sphere of international diplomatic relations.
This article continues on Wednesday with Part 2.
Chattopadhyaya, K., Inner Recesses Outer Spaces: Memoirs (New Delhi, 1986).
Pandit, V.L., The Scope of Happiness: a personal memoir (London, 1979).
Ray, R., My Reminiscences: social development during the Gandhian era and after (New Delhi, 1982).
Annie Devenish researches women in Indian politics at the University of Oxford.