‘Women Have Just as Many Expectations from Socialist Liberation as Men Do’: Remembering Ilina Sen

Sen exemplified how grounded struggles for feminist change and rich academic scholarship that centred on working-class and Adivasi women’s experiences could be combined.

In a lifetime dedicated to working with Adivasi organisations and trade unions for mine workers in Chhattisgarh, Ilina Sen was also a much-loved teacher and feminist scholar. She exemplified how activism for feminist change, and producing rigorous academic scholarship that centred on working-class and Adivasi women’s experiences and struggles could be combined.

Sen was a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the period following the Emergency and gained a feminist consciousness during this time, particularly through protests at JNU against dowry-related deaths and discussions around the Mathura rape case. When conducting her doctoral fieldwork in Madhya Pradesh on science education, she heard about the mineworkers’ struggles in Chhattisgarh and decided to move there to work with them.

Within popular discourse, Sen is remembered as a determined and courageous campaigner for her husband, Binayak Sen’s release after he was imprisoned on charges of sedition by the state.

In the last two decades of her life, Sen prioritised her academic interests and taught at the Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya in Wardha, Maharashtra and later at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

In this reading list, we revisit some of Sen’s academic contributions, including reviews of books authored and edited by her.

Class, Gender and Labour
Based on a field study in Madhya Pradesh in 1979–80, Sen compared how men and women from varied classes allocate their time for different kinds of work. Her research methodology required categorising “class characteristics of individual households, and the development of a methodology of recording 'work' sufficiently sensitive to gender and seasonal dimensions.”

Women's heavy involvement with household work should not give the impression that women do not contribute significantly to productive agricultural and non-agricultural tasks … All classes of women contribute to own light agricultural work. [Poor peasant entrepreneur] and [wage/agricultural labour] women actually contribute more hours to this category than their male counterparts.

Patriarchy within Leftist Groups
All India Democratic Women's Association published a document titled “Feminists and Women's Movement” by Vimal Ranadive in 1988. Sen argued that the author failed to understand several aspects of the relationship between the working class and women’s movements. She wrote that leftist parties and trade unions had not done enough to address women’s concerns and assigned “peripheral role[s] to women activists.” Sen underscores that criticism of leftist spaces by women’s groups should be viewed as a result of “disappointment and frustration” rather than as “disruptions.”

The relationship between feminism and socialism is an old one, but the modalities are not defined on either side. The issues of family, sexual relations and organisational structures for women are important and must enter public debate. At the same time it is not possible to confine women's politics to 'the personal,' The tasks are incomplete, and both have a long way to go. Being living ideologies, both contain within themselves much variety, diversity and room for growth. The dialogue between them has as much potential for mutual enrichment, provided we are able to enter into it with honesty and openness. If this paper goes even a small way in setting such a process in motion, it would have been more than justified.

Women’s Spaces within Mass Movements
In 1990, Sen edited a book titled A Space within the Struggle: Women's Participation in People's Movement. The first two articles in the book examined women’s role in far-left struggles. In a review of the book, Sujata Patel wrote,

In Chattisgarh, Ilina Sen narrates how the women who were mobilised while struggling to obtain for all workers' benefits also set up a separate wing which simultaneously struggled against alcoholism and sexual harassment at work place. According to Sen, the mobilisation of women led to the enforcement of rights which were legally enshrined but not enjoyed by women workers, such as maternity rights.

Documenting these histories has been vital for left and feminist futures. As Patel notes, Sen’s book

leads the reader to consider the spaces carved out by women in struggles led by the non-established left trends and evaluate the new avenues they have constructed for themselves in defining the women's question for the country.

Sen reviewed Kavita Panjabi’s book Unclaimed Harvest: An Oral History of the Tebhaga Women’s Movement, and detailed a key shift brought out by the participation of women in the movement.

The proposition made in the book is that the central question in women’s involvement in famine relief was the politics of care work, and the recognition of the process through which the ethical content of famine relief transformed itself into political content, where a new world would be built based on equality, caring, sharing, and nurture … [M]any of the women leaders recognised this as a revolutionary change in itself.

Work in Chhattisgarh
Sen wrote Inside Chhattisgarh: A Political Memoir in 2014 to document her life’s journey and work in the state. In a review of the book, Felix Padel wrote that the book

… records many interconnected, half-forgotten yet vital histories, which came together from Bhilai to Tilda, where the Sens stayed immediately after the Niyogi years. Here they got involved with Satnamis and their struggle, who commemorate Guru Ghasidas; a contemporary of Veer Narayan Singh, the Chhattisgarhi leader who rebelled against the British in 1857.

Feminist Camaraderie
On the first death anniversary of writer and activist Mahasweta Devi, Sen wrote an intimate and personal article tracing Devi’s literary, personal and political journey. Ilina remarked that Devi had sought to present Adivasis and denotified tribes’ struggles from their point of view.

Her extensive travel among and involvement with the denotified tribes and Adivasis of Bengal, Jharkhand, Gujarat, and other places began shortly after she returned to Kolkata. From this point on, Mahasweta’s life as a writer and as a social activist are intertwined. She took her energy from tribal struggles, was a fierce supporter of their battle for dignity, chronicled their lives and legends in stories and books like Operation Bashai Tudu, Aranyer Odhikar, and Chotti Mundar Tir ...

Mahasweta Devi’s writings on tribal life are intimate, and clearly identify the state and its agents as violent oppressors of the people. Her stories also uphold the strength and dignity of their resistance. Her feminist concerns spring from real life encounters with the patriarchy of religion and the state.

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