On the 8th of March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. It is a day steeped in socialist history, and deeply connected with the struggle of the working class. Despite the best efforts of bourgeois propagandists, they cannot erase this history. While bourgeois governments may commemorate this day across the world to celebrate its triumphs and project the successes of women in terms of individual achievements of capitalist ‘leaders,’ the vast majority of women toil and suffer under patriarchal oppression. India is no different. India, like much of the developing world, particularly in Asia and Africa suffers doubly, as the weight of capitalist inequality and exploitation combines with the burdens of precapitalist social relations, be it caste, or religious extremism.
Sustained oppression of women
There are two aspects to the oppression of women in India, one which is overt and violent, while the other is structural and systematic. These two are deeply interwoven with one another and integrated. The patriarchal social order in India is rooted in precapitalist social relations but finds its expression under capitalist property relations as well.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2011 there were more than 228,650 reported incidents of crime against women, while in 2021, there were 4,28,278 reported incidents, an 87% increase.
Of the women living in India, 7.5% live in West Bengal where 12.7% of the total reported crime against women occurs. Andhra Pradesh is home to 7.3% of India’s female population and accounts for 11.5% of the total reported crimes against women.
65% of Indian men believe women should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together, and women sometimes deserve to be beaten. In January 2011, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey Questionnaire reported that 24% of Indian men had committed sexual violence at some point during their lives.
Exact statistics on the number of occurrences are very difficult to obtain, as a large number of cases go unreported. This is due in large part to the threat of ridicule or shame on the part of the potential reporter, as well as an immense pressure not to damage the family’s honour. For similar reasons, law enforcement officers are more motivated to accept offers of bribery from the family of the accused, or perhaps in fear of more grave consequences, such as honour killings. The hesitation of law enforcement in incidents of rape is especially critical, as many cases simply go unreported, or do not get acted on. Indian society puts suspicion on the woman rather than the man in cases of sexual crimes, and talk of ‘she should have dressed differently’ can be frequently heard in cases of sexual crimes. India reported nearly 32,000 instances of rape in 2022, and these do not account for instances that go unreported.
In a seminal article in 1991, Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen brought the world’s attention to the problem of India’s “missing women.” At the time Sen was writing, the sex ratio in India (the number of women per 1,000 men) was a low 927. According to Sen, this equated to around 37 million women missing from the Indian population, caused by a deepening crisis of gender inequality that had led to the widespread practice of sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, and neglect of girl-children. Much of this occurs as a direct result of female infanticide, the act of killing a girl child in infancy, due to a preference for male babies.
In addition to these, one must account for the crime of rape, violence by throwing acid, dowry deaths, and honour killings (which in turn are deeply tied to caste hierarchies), which gives a larger picture of the extent of physical violence committed against women. However, systemic discrimination is far more endemic and pervasive. India ranks 135 out of 146 countries in the annual Global Gender Gap Report, behind most of South Asia and only slightly ahead of Pakistan. Women on average are paid less than men and fall behind men in property ownership. For instance, until 2015, Hindu women were denied equal inheritance rights with men. Women also fall behind in education, with Indian women having a literacy rate of about 65% compared to about 82% for males. The ratio becomes even more skewed when one takes into account school enrollment where 62% of women received no schooling at all, compared to 31% for men.
The patriarchal system present in India ensures not only that women are disadvantaged in the fields of education, property ownership, and economic participation. It also ensures that women are made into a sexual minority, with men outnumbering women. India’s skewed sex ratio only makes the situation worse for women. The situation makes things particularly bad for women workers.
Exploitation of women workers
In recent years, the plight of women ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers, or community health workers employed by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) as a part of India’s National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), has come to light. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they served as frontline first responders and served key roles in the dissemination of medical care to the most downtrodden and marginalized groups of people. However, most state governments have treated them with disdain, and benefitted from their hard work, without providing them with adequate payment, and in some cases any payment at all. The struggle of the Delhi ASHA workers who have been illegally terminated for demanding their just pay and compensation for services rendered during the pandemic is just one example. It is also an example of fighting back against this exploitation. (See: https://litci.org/en/stand-insolidarity-with-asha-workers/ ) It is not the only case of its kind.
In December of 2021, two thousand women workers struck to protest against the conditions and food at a Foxconn factory near Chennai after 250 workers suffered from food poisoning. According to reports and investigations following the protests, the workers stayed in crowded, windowless hostels with 20-40 workers in rooms fit for 10, and which lacked proper ventilation as well as access to water and proper sanitation including toilets with running water. Workers were also provided with low-quality, unhygienic food including vegetables and weevil-infested rice prepared in rat-infested outdoor kitchens. One worker reported that despite women showing photos of worms in their food to the supervisor, no action was taken. She also explained that workers had access to water for only one-and-a-half hours before their shift. The protests resulted in the company conceding to the workers, and improvements were made to the condition of food in the canteen. This was a small but important victory for women workers in India.
Another example of women workers fighting against exploitative conditions comes from the garment sector, an industry notorious for its exploitative practices and use of women workers simply with the expectation that they can be exploited and controlled more easily. In November 2020, eight hundred garment workers in the state of Andhra Pradesh went on strike to protest over low wages, harassment, and exploitative conditions. The workers who were employed in Indian Designs Exports Private Ltd in Parigi mandal near Hindupur town in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district boycotted their work and launched an indefinite strike demanding an increase in minimum wages as they were being paid as low as Rs 6,000 ($73 USD) per month as their wages, as well as against the harassment and exploitation by the bosses.
These struggles aren’t disconnected or ad hoc, but are reflective of the systematic discrimination women face in India. Inequality is intrinsic to the capitalist system, and part of this is the greater exploitation of a set group of people, whether it be a minority (either religious, or ethnic or any other), or women. Throughout history, women’s labour has been used in the most exploitative industries, from mining to textiles, and they have always had to bear worse conditions with worse pay than their male counterparts. Outside the factory and mines, women are expected to work for free to maintain the worker, either in the role of the wife, or as a domestic worker, which is widespread throughout Asia and especially so in India. The work pays little, and exposes women domestic workers to all manner of exploitation. A report by the National Statistics Office stated that 92% of women engage in unpaid domestic work. It is telling that only 22% of women participate in employment compared to 71% for men.
The struggle against the patriarchy
As much as the situation may seem bleak, there is hope for the future. The condition of women in India and indeed South Asia has been improving. Struggles to extend women’s education, universal suffrage, and equal pay, have resulted in voting rights for women, access to education, and property rights, which ensure a more level playing field.
Female literacy has only increased since independence, and the increasing participation of women in the workplace has led to class consciousness emerging among them. The struggle is far from over, and though the capitalist media may tout the achievements of past struggles, we must look to the present and beyond.
There is no denying the scale and intensity of violence against women, there is no denying the very stark reality of discrimination against women. All of these exist, with much of their precapitalist social baggage intact. Be it female infanticide resulting on the full-blown gendercide of women, or the practice of honour killings which link the oppression of women to caste, the oppression of women in India is impossible to understand without taking these into account. The nature of the oppression of women in India lays bare the limits of Indian capitalism.
The fact that the capitalist system tolerates this must be understood in context. The craving for greater women’s participation in the workforce, though representative of progress beyond unpaid domestic work and feudal oppression, serves the interests of capital by providing a large source of exploitable labour. The maintenance of old forms of oppression help in the marginalization of women, and thereby make it easier for the capitalists to exploit, as well as ensuring a crucial function is served in the form of maintaining the worker himself (through paid and unpaid domestic work).
When we understand the link between capitalism and the oppression of women, our road ahead becomes clear. The fight against patriarchy can go ahead to a limited extent by the bourgeoisie, but to truly emancipate the Indian woman, we require the overthrow of the capitalist system itself.