Social movement and women’s question

Arup Kumar Baisya

Revolutionary transformation of movements
The human habitats in a particular geographical space remain confined to a particular social and production relation. The relation of human being with nature is also determined by this social relation. This relation is the basic premise of the system of expropriation of labour. Labour is, first of all, a process between the human being and nature, a process by which human being through their own actions mediate, regulate and control the metabolism between themselves and nature. The needs and capacities of humans as species being are mediated through conscious activities. These conscious activities come in confrontation with the constraints of the given social relation. The relentless social and class struggle against the system of expropriation continues at various dimensions and levels. The vicissitudes of internal dynamics of social relations under the overall influence and modulation of global capitalism give rise to social movements of subaltern classes who are susceptible to the pressure of falling wage rates, rising unemployment and inequality, environmental degradation and ecological disaster, social insecurity, lack of civic amenity etc. The institution of family as the fundamental unit of the social relation and its structure and character depend on women’s labour. So the revolutionary transformation of the social movements and the social relations cannot be achieved without a deep understanding of the nature of expropriation of women’s labour and incorporating the women’s question in the programme of social movement.

The participation of women in the movement
Within the ongoing social movements, there exists ambiguity, lack of clarity and consciousness on the question of women’s struggle. However, the participation of women and their militant role in the social movements are increasing day by day. In many occasions the women workers in India are the main participants in the movements, because women are the main working force in the sectors like ICDS, health, certain jobs in IT sectors, big retail outlets, NREG or in the plantation etc. The issues of social and workers’ rights are raised in those movements through large-scale participation of women, but the question of women’s liberty as a class or community remain by and large neglected. The role of women leaderships in women organizations is mostly confined to the opposition of the physical oppressions of women. The increasing spate of physical violence on women is certainly the manifestation of overall degradation of socio-cultural values under neo-liberal hedonistic milieu. But the confinement of this battle within the reformation of rule of law amounts to give legitimacy to the hegemonic class rule and social relation.

During freedom struggle and within its garb, the principal aspect of women’s struggle was reformism of patriarchal social practices. The phase of fifties and sixties passed in social calm and stalemate with the satisfaction of social need generated during freedom struggle through post independence constitutional guarantee of equality between men and women and certain legal provisions for protections against women’s repressions. The women’s question fell into a brown study of reformist programme even during the upswing of social movements in seventies and its rejuvenation in the current phase. The confinement within a narrow boundary is largely due to lack of clarity on both theoretical and practical premise.

Theoretical impasse
On the question of women’s liberty, two positions are primarily held. According to mainstream left opinion, the question of women’s liberty need not be dealt with separately, because the working class movement by itself will resolve this issue, formation of women’s organization is needed only to ensure participation of women in the overarching workers’ movement. The contrary view held by a section of feminists emphasizes that women should get separately organized without being mingled with working class movement. The extravagant claim of the advocates of these two streams of thoughts can be interpreted as the theoretical impasse in the overall social and workers movements because these two thoughts do not take family as basic unit of social relation into consideration. However, feminist consciousness shows how women came together to articulate previously unspoken but increasingly powerful discontent, and in so doing created at one and the same time a movement and a theory which radically disrupted the gender relationship of previous generations. But if the family labour and social labour are not considered intertwined within the ambit of law of value and expropriation of surplus value, the importance of formulation of programme on women’s labour and women’s liberty within the essence of social and workers’ movement is undermined. In the backdrop of rising social and working class movement, the Gramsci’s ‘good sense’ rooted in our actual experience must articulate the question of women’s liberty within the ambit of mass movement as against the hegemonic ‘common sense’ which tells us how things are supposed to be and what we supposed to think, feel and do.  

Family labour and Social labour
It is often argued that family labour is valueless or unpaid because it is not productive labour. It is not productive labour because it does not pass through commodity value chain or exchanged in the market. In this logical-structure, the use value and exchange value and in this sense the family labour and social labour are segregated in two mutually unrelated space-time continuums. The value of goods produced through family labour even when not exchanged in the market, is determined by notional familial reckoning. The notional price of the family products for consumption is less than the price of the same product for exchange between buyer and seller in the market, because the prices in market transaction are influenced by transportation costs, commissions of many intermediaries in the supply chain, the balance between supply and demand etc. Let us consider an example. The family members produced a quantity of vegetables in their own field. They used these vegetables for their own consumptions. The family labour got expended in cultivation and cooking. Had they not cultivated the vegetables, they would have purchased these items from the market. They would have opted for market had the competitive prices of the products in the market are less than the expenditure incurred for production by the family for own consumption. It means that the value payment is ingrained in both use and exchange.  But the women’s labour like cooking, child rearing etc within the family are not paid directly. This family labour is also integrated with the overall social and production relation. Let’s consider a case of the woman family member who works in a social productive space. This woman may not have the time to spend for certain aspects of family labour e.g. cooking or child-rearing. In this situation, she will engage outside labour (especially of women) as maid-servant for cooking and avail service of child care centre in exchange of money for child rearing. But the women who are engaged as domestic maid servants or in child care centres for exchange value of their labour power will also perform the similar unpaid labour within their own family for creating use value. Thus depending on market demand of exchange, the character of family structure as well as the family labour will change. Under this changed situation, the male members who are engaged in social productive labour will get further relieved from family labour. This domestic family labour of cooking, rearing, providing family support system for mental health etc reproduces the social labour power which is sold to earn exchange value in the market by both men and women. Two broad divisions are visible in this changed production relation. In exchange of same value following the rule of economics, the men have to do only outside labour while women have to do both outside and domestic labour, on the other hand a small of section women are getting a part of domestic labour done by other women labour in exchange of money. Moreover, if the demand created by the need of family to earn means of livelihood is more than the market demand of women labour, then wages of women’s labour will be below the value of their labour power and less than the men’s wage. The regulator and controller of such need within the family is the male member, because women’s incomes are treated as supporting income, women are not considered as main bread earner. The participation of women in the labour market is high in the case of low income group. When men start treating women as their competitor in the social labour market and as the cause of shrinking job opportunities, the patriarchal values of considering women as family centrepieces that should remain within the confine of four boundaries of home, are strengthened. The undeclared rules of family management or the rules of contract of marriages determine the forms of women’s labour, and the changes in the family rules in turn are influenced by the dynamics of production relation. That’s why the division between women and men’s labour and division within women’s labour need to be considered while formulating the programme of social and working class movement.

Marxist Conception
If the basic law of unity of opposites of dialectical materialism is applied for developing struggling unity among the working class, the practical formulation of struggle should be ascertained basing on such internal non-antagonistic divisions. Here the production is also unity of opposites of social and family labour. In capitalist production, the value of the product is calculated by adding values of three factors. These factors are value of labour power, surplus value and value of past or dead labour. The value of dead labour is the value of that part of means of production which has been utilised to produce the new product. On the other hand, the value of these three factors is determined by the average social labour time expended. The immense women’s labour which is ingrained in the production and reproduction of labour power of living labour and the production of past or dead labour remain unaccounted. Women themselves perform the necessary labour required for reproduction of their own living social labour. Thus the domestic labour of women not only produces use value for consumption, but it also produces the exchange value for sale of labour power of both men and women. So the issues of special rights of women’s labour need to be incorporated in the revolutionary working class movement.

Indian reality and movement programme
Let us examine the status of the women’s labour in India with the help of most reliable NSSO survey report. According to this report, the participation of women in social labour is more in rural sector than in urban sector. But this gap is being narrowed down from mid-2000 due to declining trend of women’s participation in Indian villages. The agricultural disaster, declining job opportunities etc are the cause of shrinking social-space for labour primarily of women, and this trend reveals the acute crisis of rural unemployment despite the ongoing schemes like PMNREGA, ICDS etc. The decline of women’s participation is also caused due to the huge penetration of modern implements in the agricultural production. The large-scale eviction from land for construction of SEZ areas is causing loss of jobs. According to one reliable economic calculation, out of five people who loses employment from traditional earning source due to such eviction and displacement to facilitate economic activities of big capitalists, only one gets reemployed. The participation of women in social production and empowerment thereof do not take place automatically by the capitalist transformation of agriculture under competitive pressure of market oriented demand, rather in certain circumstances women may be pushed back within the confine of family boundaries. The gap between the number participation of male and female labour is more in the urban areas than in the rural areas. The number of women who are losing traditional jobs is proportionately more than the rate of increase of new labour and as such women are compelled to work with abysmally low wages. The presence of a huge reserve army of women’s labour is pulling the wages down to a value below that of labour power in the sectors like health service, child rearing, NREGA, plantation etc where women are primarily employed. The women are primarily engaged in informal sectors and as such they are also deprived of legal social and labour security. As per NSSO survey report 2011-12, the average daily wages for female workers in organized and unorganized sectors are Rs. 481.90/- and 120.30/- respectively and that of male workers are Rs.632.20/- and Rs. 194.20/- respectively. The state-wise data shows that the participation of women in social labour is highest in NE India and least in North India. The state-wise data reveal that the patriarchal value does have an influence over the participation of women in social labour, and the capitalist transformation of relations of production by itself does not weaken the patriarchal value system. Both in pre-capitalist and capitalist relation of production women are workers within the bounds of family and are twice expropriated both within and outside family bounds when they participate in social production. The domestic labour not only creates use value, but also reproduces the labour power of male and female members by making it worthy for exchange in the labour market for exchange value. The owners of the means of production expropriates surplus value of both forms of women’s labour by means of a stratified wage structure, and thus create a labour aristocracy who stand in favour of giving legitimacy to the system of expropriation of labour. Consciously or unconsciously, a small section of woman in the elite and middle class falls in this trap, and it does not make much difference whether they are for or against any reform.

Women’s liberty from two forms of oppression is intertwined with women’s freedom of right over their own body. This freedom can be obtained by leading struggle against patriarchy and male hegemony in the realm of the institution of family. But this struggle is not autonomous struggle as envisaged by a section of feminists. Without the militant struggle for just wages in social labour, equal wages for both male and female, creation of job opportunities and social security for women, the feminist movement against the patriarchy and even the working class movement cannot be victorious. The struggle against patriarchy must be primarily launched within the women who are participating in the social labour, within their own space and organizations because they are simultaneously oppressed both in social space and family space. And the participation of male workers in this struggle must be ensured to build greater working class unity.

Mar 14, 2017

Arup Kumar Baisya may be contacted at

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