Rajni Lallah, who has been an active member of the Muvman Liberasyon Fam (MLF) since its beginnings in 1977, situates the women’s movement in the context of 21st century Mauritius. She sees the local political parties as betrayers of women’s rights and some women’s movements as “deformers” of their legitimate demands through their adhesion to capitalist and patriarchal institutions.
¦ We start with last Tuesday’s Women’s Day celebrations. You presented a programme. What is new about it?
We are in a new political, economic, and social context. Our approach over 14 months, together with women of different currents of the women’s movement, was to think in terms of if we had to invent a women’s programme that addresses women’s needs today, what would be in it. We did have our manifesto of 1977, but in a way, in the beginning of this process, we decided very consciously to forget the past and start anew so to speak, and only later, to re-visit our old Manifesto to be sure that our new manifesto addresses the challenges of the women’s liberation struggle of today.
¦ When you say, “forget about the past and start anew”. Why today?
Because we are in the middle of a new period, very different from the 70s when the MLF was created.
We were born in the middle of students’ and workers’ strikes. There was full-scale mobilization then. But in the 80s, there was demobilization in the women’s movement.
¦ Why was that?
For several reasons. One is that there’s always been a strong link between women’s movements and political movements representing the working class and women’s associations were created during the time when the political struggle was about the right to vote, about independence, about workers’ struggles.
So local women’s associations (and there are still hundreds of them all over the country) started off partly as a political initiative to teach women to read and write so they could vote. This link between women’s struggles and political struggles reinforced the women’s movement. So this is to say that in the 80s, women’s movements had very strong demands and some of these were won because it was the period where there was a link with the workers’ movement, which was particularly vibrant.
¦ What happened in the 80s in women’s struggle?
Well, there are a number of things. Firstly, there was a political betrayal.
¦ Who betrayed whom?
(Laughs) Who betrayed whom? That’s a good question. There was political betrayal firstly by the Labour Party that was the political leadership of the workers movement.
Then after that, in the 1980s, there was political betrayal by the political leadership of the MMM that represented workers’ interests in the 1970s. The MMM was no longer what we thought it was.
¦ What did you think it was and what did it turn out to be?
People, particularly after the August 1979 strike, thought the MMM was a political leadership that would bring more class equality, more women’s equality, and women’s liberation.
¦ One is dependent on the other.
Yes, one is dependent of the other. And people thought that the MMM would bring “Socialism”.
¦ But Socialism didn’t work anywhere in the world.
(Hesitates) Well… you know here, there’s never really been a tradition of Communist or Stalinist parties in Mauritius. So if you are talking of the bureaucratic regimes, Stalinist regimes, this has nothing to do with what people here saw as Socialism. What people here thought Socialism consisted in was down-to-earth, reasonable and necessary politics that the workers’ movement and the women’s movement thought could have been achieved, if there had been a political leadership with enough will in that direction.. But the political leadership did not want to go in that direction.
¦ It chose pragmatism.
It chose another road and finally, like the Labour Party, became a capitalist party. Today, all the parties n parliament are Capitalist parties.
¦ Which is the only road to power.
To what they saw as “power”, yes. But the question of power is very different for the women’s movement and the workers’ movement.
It isn’t a question of sitting in the National Assembly and servicing the Capitalist system. It is a question of how to transform how we organize life itself, socially, economically and politically so that it responds to the needs of women, of workers, of the oppressed how you change the structures so that they become really democratic permanently. That was the agenda and that is what people generally assumed the MMM was about, and this is why the MMM’s betrayal was partly responsible for the demobilization of the 80s.
¦ Wasn’t the demobilization due rather to the big changes in the economy?
I agree that there were very big changes. The whole wave of Stalinist regimes fell and was replaced by a very greedy, mafia-type kind of Capitalism. There was the Thatcher- Reagan offensive worldwide that attacked the Welfare State which gave some economic security, albeit limited, to women in terms of pension, social housing, free health and education. We have witnessed the domination of finance-capital and are now in a period of economic crisis that takes many forms: structural crisis which has brought job destruction for thousands of women in the sugar industry and textile factories, food crisis with a dramatic increase in the price of food, energy crisis, ecological crisis, financial crisis.
Women and workers are bearing the brunt of all these crises. So we needed a Manifesto that responds to this present situation.
¦ What are the demands expressed in this manifesto?
First of all, we want democratic control over the economy.
¦ How do you do that in concrete terms?
In concrete terms, it means we want to know who owns what and why? Who owns the land and why?
Who owns the means of our survival and why?
¦ Don’t we know that?
Well, we know a bit about public land and how it is used. We know vaguely about private land – it is after all “private”. We mostly see cane growing on it, even when the price of food is very high, but we are not encouraged by the status quo to find out why.
¦ But is it women’s business to go and find out who owns what?
Yes, it is women’s business. Resources like land and water are our means of survival. We need to be able to collectively control such resources and the means of production.
¦ But that is Communism, isn’t it?
You can call it what you like. People here called it Socialism until all traditional Capitalist parties started calling themselves “Socialist”.
¦ Why is this the business of women? Isn’t it the business of citizens all over the country?
Yes, it is the business of citizens, of people all over the country, irrespective of gender, but we must remember that traditionally, women are in charge of food in the home.
¦ Of cooking it, not bringing it to the home.
Since it is our responsibility to cook it, so it’s women’s business where this food is going to come from. As an extension of that responsibility, we also have to take responsibility for finding the means to ensure the survival of our families.
And it is just basic common sense to get rid of a system that obviously does not work and to replace it with a system that does.
¦ But these demands are miles away from those of other women’s movements.
Well, such demands have always been on the agenda of the women’s movement. However, we have noticed, in the last 20 years or so, that the central demands of the women’s movement, for some reason, have been deformed, disfigured until they have become absolutely unrecognisable.
¦ When you say “some reason”, you really don’t know the reason or don’t you want to mention it.
(Laughs) I have mentioned some of the reasons why the status quo would want to pervert our demands as these demands challenge their very existence. What I mean is that it’s something quite strange for us women who are in the women’s movement because we understand our demands and we don’t understand how other people don’t understand them. For us, these demands make absolute sense. I’ll just give you an example: for many years now, we’ve been asking that housework be socialised and become a responsibility of society. You’ve got to find ways to make it lighter. This means State-subsidised canteens, crèches and all kinds of modern appliances that make housework work diminish.
¦ But you are not saying that housework should be shared 50/50 between men and women…
We are saying that we want housework to be diminished for both men and women. This demand has been transformed into “men have to do an equal share of the housework”. This is something we, in the women’s movement, never demanded. Instead of women and men being free to go out of the home, we end up asking that both men and women be tied to the home to do household chores. That was never our demand.
¦ So you don’t agree with the feminist movements which ask that men help their wives?
This is not really a demand that goes towards women’s emancipation and liberation. All it does is to make women individually battle men in the household to “stay home” more, instead of demanding that the State provide childcare, old-people’s care, laundry, canteen services that will help decrease housework.
¦ Any other demands which you think have been ‘deformed’?
Yes, a very important one is about how demand, generally for women’s emancipation, has been equated with promoting women into “positions of power”: more women heading companies, more women in the top rungs of the civil service, the judiciary, the National
Assembly. We believe that there is a conscious offensive on the part of Capitalist and patriarchal institutions and ideologues to try and tame the women’s movement into integrating patriarchal and Capitalist structures.
¦ So ‘one woman in three’ is not something you would fight for?
No, because it has no real significance in terms of women’s liberation.
Taken on its own, it will not really help. It will only help if it is linked to a programme for women’s emancipation because the kind of “power structures” which exist are patriarchal hierarchies. So, if you have a demand that makes women go up the rungs of patriarchal hierarchies, you end up being a patriarch, even if you are a woman.
¦ As in the case of Margaret Thatcher…
Yes, Margaret Thatcher and quite a few women who have supposedly “made it” in patriarchal societies.
¦ The perception of many people now is that some women’s movements like Women in Networking (WIN) and Women in Politics (WIP) are bourgeois movements, cut off from the grassroots, would you agree with that?
WIN and WIP are both networks. A network is very different from an organization. Given its nature, that it is open to individuals and very different kinds of organizations, it is impossible to have common agreement on a manifesto, a programme that everyone agrees on. I think quite a few women in WIN, for example, would want to see another kind of system that was not patriarchal.
But it is not possible within a loose network to agree on a detailed manifesto. So they can only work on the basis of points on which there is broad agreement. Some WIN members have in fact, not as WIN, but as individuals, participated in the meetings out of which our new manifesto has been produced.
¦ Some say they are also self serving.
Well they do become a structure that individual women who want to climb up patriarchal hierarchies lean on. I don’t think networks such as WIN are representative of the whole of the women’s movement.
Neither do they claim to be. What we think the real problem is, is that patriarchal institutions, Capitalist institutions, State institutions want to pervert our demands into something they can tame and contain.
¦ How would they “tame and contain”?
(Laughing) By channeling you into a strategy of promoting women into “positions of power”, giving you the illusion that one day, it will be possible to have a system where women will have 50% control over the patriarchal hierarchies that control society.
You’ll have two or three more MPs or even 30% seats in parliament, you’ll have a woman commissioner of police, and you might even get a woman Prime minister. But will that rid us of patriarchy? Even if this were possible, patriarchy would be there oppressing all women, and most men too. The only difference would be that there would be more women oppressing us all.
In the MLF, we are membership- based association of women with common aims, with links to other women’s associations. We have debates and meetings with other women’s associations to reach a common understanding of what it is we are fighting for, and that is what forms the basis for our mobilization.
¦ So what was the response to your manifesto?
The response to this new manifesto was quite remarkable. There is a rare interest in the women’s movement for thinking out together a manifesto that can guide us forwards. And now, the time has come for mobilisation on the basis of this manifesto. The manifesto has given us renewed vigour. The big movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and other countries in the region show the power of mobilization but also show us the importance of a programme, a manifesto, and this is something we have now, a tool we are developing.
¦ So, in concrete terms how does your manifesto aim to fight patriarchy?
Our manifesto is based on ten points that guide us so we don’t end up being tamed. It is a manifesto that poses the question of democratic control over the economy and contains demands for an economy that we have control over: we need an economy where land is used to grow food, an economy that provides employment on a large scale, and where labour laws and industrial relations laws that repress and oppress workers such as the Employment Rights Act and the Employment Relations Act are revoked. We are against patriarchy and patriarchal hierarchies. We want social housing for all women with no housing and we want a total rehauling of matrimonial laws. We want abortion decriminalised and accessible contraception. We say no to State Repression. We say no to military occupation and military bases.
¦ You seem to be thrilled about the mobilisation of women that began last Sunday ...but the last time there was a real mobilization of women was with the front against the abortion laws but it didn’t lead anywhere, did it?
Well, it did. We made progress in the sense that there is now agreement on all sides that the present law is no good. The Prime minister, leader of the Opposition, minister for Women’s Rights, minister of Justice, women members of parliament all agreed on the need to change the law or to suspend it. Charges against Shabeela Kalla, who was being sued for having had an abortion, were ped.
¦ Yes, but the law has not changed.
The law hasn’t changed yet, that is true…we must make sure that it does.
¦ Neither has the mentality…
(Hesitates) I think that, in that area, to be precise, there has been a change in the balance of forces.
Even those who opposed the legalisation of abortion recognise the suffering of women.
¦ Where will the MLF go from here?
On Sunday 6th March, the MLF, on the occasion of International Women’s Day held a meeting of our members, delegates of other women’s associations, women in trade unions to debate the new manifesto and begin the process of mobilisation on the basis of the manifesto. Local women’s associations have already fixed neighbourhood meetings to discuss this manifesto and the demands that it contains. We believe that the actions and campaigns that are born of this manifesto will be all the more powerful when we, in the women’s movement, share a common understanding of what exactly we are fighting for.