Women for each other

J Devika | Updated on March 10, 2018
Point blank: Members of Penkootu—which means ‘women for each other’—at a street play performance in Kozhikode Photo: S Ramesh Kurup



A trade union for workers in the unorganised sector is redefining the kind of feminism that governments are wont to impose

Living under a regime that takes pride in its grand but empty gestures against the rich than real measures for the poor, we tend to look for the big in the resistance to capitalist exploitation. The prevailing culture, on one hand, sanctions vile forms of repression of women who cross gender stereotypes and, on the other, encourages women to divert their frustrations by submerging themselves in community and consumerism. The prospect of bringing them together on issues that cut across the pernicious divides fostered by the religious right-wing seems dim indeed.

Things are always more complicated than they seem. I was in Kozhikode recently, talking with members of a women’s collective called Penkootu, which anchors a fledgling women-led trade union called Asanghadita Mekhala Tozhilali Union (AMTU).

It fights for the rights of workers in the unorganised sector. Yes — you read it right — it is a women-led, not a women’s trade union, and its short history is bright with many instances of successful struggle. Viji, its formidable leader, insists that its success relates to it staying women-led. “We fought to ensure that three-fourths of all committees and leaderships will be women. The authorities didn’t agree at first,” she says. Over the past few years, the AMTU had fought successfully for both genders, but has consistently resisted male attempts at control.

Viji was exposed to feminism in her teens by the legendary ex-Naxalite Ajitha. Hailing from one of the city’s poorest areas, she commands widespread respect in the busy commercial areas of Kozhikode where the unorganised poor work. “I remember many idealistic comrades in my childhood — my father, a worker, adhered to the CPM,” Viji says. “Father was quite violent to my mother. When we complained to the good comrades, they’d say, ‘We have to first solve your father’s problem, and only then your mother’s.’ Father’s problem? I was puzzled: all I could see was that mother had too many problems — she was a worker and had to struggle to raise us!”

What makes Penkootu and AMTU so vibrant is their near-total independence and non-compliance with global governance feminism. Truly, it is something that has sprung from the local. For example, Gargi, a Penkootu activist, observes that while the city’s women workers often encounter sexual violence, they do not see it as the core of the oppression they face. But it is also that Penkootu does not quail at the prospect of sexual violence. Viji recounts an incident from 2011. At the famous Mittayitheruvu market area, “women workers would leave shops after dark; the predators would be hanging around, waiting. We were deluged with complaints,” says Viji. “Then one day, we decided to act.” Squads of Penkootu activists stood in wait at crowded places and beat up the men who tried to harass them. Viji laughs as she recalls: “A fellow who was loitering around came up and whispered: ₹500, maximum, eh? I turned around, grabbed him, and shouted, ‘When you bargain for a woman’s body, she sets the price, not you!’”

Viji believes that it is the experience of taking part in a struggle that empowers women, not crumbs that fall from the table of the State. “Meek women who fight for miserable jobs that pay just a thousand rupees … the fact that they fight changes them. Suddenly you see them fight for dignity everywhere — on the shop floor, in the bus, on the streets.”

Penkootu, when we understand it as a value in politics, sounds to me like the most wonderful thing. Literally, it means ‘women for each other’. It is hard to contain my jubilation at being introduced to this as a value to animate the feminism in our times, in which we are foiled by not just determined foes but our own inability to come together.

Kootu means being for each other as we follow our distinct paths; it is close to what Ambedkar calls maitri in The Buddha and His Dhamma. It means reaching out from a position of strength to/for the other without compromising one’s ideals, or one’s right to criticise and disagree. It means deep awareness of the vulnerability and impermanence of all beings, all sides of the debate, and the rooting of one’s responsibility towards the other in such compassionate awareness.

I am dazzled, still, by the prospects of rebuilding feminism as a politics animated by the value of Penkootu, which, by its very nature, allows us to be ‘for’ everyone — those who struggle against the violence of naturalised gender, ‘invisibilised’ class, and secularised caste.

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on April 14, 2017

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