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Women's Movement looks to future after 40 years Opposing Patriarchy


The Women's Liberation Movement (Muvman Liberasyon Fam) met on Sunday 30 November to review the state of the struggle against patriarchy in Mauritius since Independence in 1968. The main conclusion was that all the sub-themes that had been central over the 40 year period had led to significant gains, but that patriarchy itself was still reigning and the themes were still vitally important ones.

Because two MLF members had been attacked by Jack Bizlall, women members present were also informed of this attack. Everyone present was outraged. They were also shocked that another MLF supporting member present had also been similarly attacked, although in her case anonymously, a few years ago. She had taken her courage to being the letter containing similar misogyny and abuse, in order to show it to one or two members individually. She then got the further courage to read the letter she had received aloud. The MLF pinned Jack Bizlall's tract and letter up for women present to read in toto (see LALIT web site documents section, too). Some women said he should be reported to the Police, others suggested suing him, while one put forward that women would need to take "a savate" to men who are so abusive they seem not to understand any other language. Most women, however, thought that it was important to make the tract and letter known to more and more people, thus exposing him, and then to judge people (individuals and organizations) by the degree to which they dissociate themselves from such vile violence and misogyny.

Lindsey Collen, presiding, pointed to the means of struggle over the past 40 years being the mixture of hundreds of local women's associations set up for the right to vote, the national-level feminist organizations of the 1970s and the women's wings in all political parties. The themes of struggle that have predominated, she said, are what we will look at today, before taking a resolution for future struggles:

- reproductive rights and being at ease with our sexuality ("epanwisman")
- education for girls and women
- work conditions, specially security of employment
- against military bases, Diego Garcia included, and against occupation and imperialist wars
- against patriarchal violence, against women in general and in the home, and against men in custody
- for control of land and of the economy by the working people
- for freedom of association, itself, and for freedom of movement for women

Lindsey Collen said how recognizing that we are struggling against patriarchy and not against men, or for individual women to rise to positions of power, affects both the demands we make and the allies we seek. Because we oppose patriarchy, when faced with the problem of rape victims having to go through yet another horrible experience in police stations when we report the case, there are two alternatives. We can, as many women's organizations have mistakenly demanded, that women police officers are present 24 hours a day in all police stations. But this would strengthen patriarchy. We can, alternatively, demand Rape Crisis Units in hospitals. There the woman concerned is first treated, and then, if she decides to give a statement, a woman officer comes into the caring environment of the hospital to take it. MLF has made this demand, rallied support for it, and won it.

Similarly, if we demand that women rise in the patriarchal hierarchies that are embedded in existing social structures, we will find that our allies are the ethno-religious groups who are always making these demands, demands that ultimately accept social inequality, so long as it is "legitimately parceled out". MLF, because it opposes patriarchal hierarchies, finds itself allied to the working class, that opposes hierarchies in its more advanced struggles. She mentioned the irony, though, that the attacks against two MLF members come from a self-appointed trade union leader, Jack Bizlall.

Ragini Kistnasamy then outlined the struggles that women, and in particular the MLF had had over 40 years to challenge the ownership and control of the economy and of land. She referred to the Symposium WHO OWNS WHAT AND WHY?

Marlene Joseph outlined the increasing freedom of association and of movement that women have won through 40 years of hard struggle. Free zone women began doing night shifts, women's associations met, girl students went on demonstrations in 1975.

Lindsey Collen said that the main unifying factor in the 1970s was the simultaneous struggle against religious marriages and against atrocious civil marriage laws, so that religious marriages could have civil effect under new civil laws at the same time. She said that the patriarchal foundation of marriage had, however, remained the same, with the concept of the "head of household", as opposed to the "centre of the earth" being recognized by society, and for the moment, by the State. The real revolution is still ahead.

Anne-Marie Sophie, who had prepared her paper together with Sadna Jumnoodoo, said that contraception had been something of a revolution in Mauritius, threatened as the country was by over-population in the Titmuss and Meade reports around Independence. Women had won their right to free contraception. However, abortion remains illegal. So, the struggle continues.

Cindy Clelie then spoke on the visionary nature of the women's movement that over 30 years ago we were already engaged in the struggle, together with Chagossian women, for the closure of the US-UK military base on Diego Garcia, for the reunification of the country and its people, and for the right of return and compensation for everyone displaced. She spoke of Ragini Kistnasamy's recent visits to Palestine, living amongst Palestinian women, facing up to the military occupation by Israeli armed forces and colonists that are their battering ram. She said this was also visionary because we, as a women's group, had taken a public stand against the Camp David agreement, 30 years ago.

Pushpa Lallah spoke of revolutionary changes from girls not going to school almost at all long ago, to now when since Independence, first primary school became hegemonic then secondary school. She said that the mother tongue, however, is still banned from education, and that this is an additional handicap to girls, because girls are supposed at the same time not to be "vulgar", while the mother-tongue is mistakenly considered "vulgar".

Veronique Topize spoke about how at the time of Independence wife-beating was not only rife, but considered more-or-less "normal". Now, although it continues, it is no longer acceptable and there is a law against it. The big difference is that the victim is no longer blamed, nor does she bear shame. Veronique Topize said, speaking from personal experience, that losing a husband who was killed in police cells, has shown her that that form of patriarchal violence is also one for which the victim is both blamed and made to carry shame. This too, she said has changed, with the women's struggle and JUSTICE having exposed and opposed it. She saluted the presence of another woman who had lost her husband as a result of violence by police officers, Bindoo Ramlogun.

Rajni Lallah then outlined the change from winning relative job security for cane labourers, including women, around Independence and then losing this very same job security in the recent so-called "Voluntary Retirement Schemes" through which employment in this sector is becoming seasonal once again. She also outlined some of the more pernicious effects, like longer working days, as a result of the new Employment Relations and Employment Rights Acts.

Cindy Clelie then spoke on the tract and letter by Jack Bizlall, mostly against Lindsey Collen, but also against Rajni Lallah.

Miriam Narainsamy spoke in the name of the Association des Femmes Mauriciennes, outlining how there was no Women's Rights Ministry, until we struggled for it. She spoke of the importance of International Women's Year in 1975 as a catalyst for us all, and of the Beijing Conference in 2000.

Women from three other associations were present, and one spoke from the floor. On the question of misogyny, one member said that there had been a significant development when earlier this year, after a misogynist attack on MP Neeta Deerpalsing, Paul Berenger had publicly apologized. This was a "grande premiere" for him, and for any man. In fact, he had said, when she was addressing the National Assembly, as if to her male colleagues "Go find her a husband!" Another member said that had he delayed his apology, his career would have been in jeopardy, which is something new. A member said that what he had said, while totally unacceptable misogyny, was not abusive and threatening physical violence and rape, like the other two documents.

It was voted that the themes we addressed today represent the kind of themes addressed today, and the strategy to oppose patriarchy and not to struggle for individual advancement for some women within patriarchal hierarchies, continue.