Taking back the city

The popular outrage and mobilisation in the wake of the horrific gangrape and murder of a young woman in Delhi has been an almost prototypical case of social movement success. A catalysing incident triggered an instant reaction. Movement actors took to the streets demanding justice. They challenged a cultural and legal status quo that demeans and victimises women. A feminist critique that has long been brewing in India's diverse and multifaceted feminist movement burst into the public sphere, with both the English and Hindi media taking up and amplifying the language of the movement. The day-to-day subjugations of women in a patriarchal society, the inherent violence built into cultural codes of honour and women's "modesty", and the profoundly biased nature of the legal and juridical system all became, almost overnight, objects of broad public condemnation. The Verma commission report gave full official sanction to the movement's critique, even taking up the sacred issue of the armed forces' virtual impunity in matters of sexual violence.

But one has to be cautious. As the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign has only recently showed, projecting an issue into the public sphere is one thing; marching through the institutions is another. Whether or not this movement can sustain the necessary momentum for genuine reform calls for a broader understanding of what movements are, how they operate, and the contextual conditions in which they either fail or ultimately succeed.

The first observation is that this movement is not new. The feminist movement in India has a long history. Through repeated contestations, the women's movement has built a rich normative discourse and has established a broad presence in civil society. But for all its successes, it remains largely absent from political society, a point underscored by the parade of politicians who recycled sexist stereotypes in commenting on the tragedy.

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