Women’s Rightsand Feminism in India’It is the best for all tame animalsto be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the sameway, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature suchthat the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the femaleis ruled.
‘ -AristotleThis was ages ago, when men thoughtthey were the bearer of civilization and social life and the sole owners ofreason and logic if there was any. Women were good for bearing children, beingobedient and looking elegant. Of course, times changed, centuries changed thenew millennium arrived and the world flipped. We see women, who were beingrelegated to the background in the past, standing out and shining bright liketheir male counterparts.This of course did not come easy. Ittook a century long feminist struggle for women to keep pace with theircounterpart, which if we go by the western feminism can be divided into threebroad streams and studied like : first wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th centuries that focused onoverturning legal inequalities, particularly women’s suffrage, second wave feminismthat during 1960s–1980s broadened debate to include cultural inequalities,gender norms and the role of women in society, third wave feminism thatduring 1990s–2000s refers to diverse strains of feminist activity seen as botha continuation of the second wave and a response to its perceived failures.
When one thinks of feminism, the names that come to one’smind readily are Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and ElaineShowalter, since the growth of feminism is usually attributed to westerninfluence. True, these spokeswomen set about the task of theorizing the needsof women in a society where their inner feelings should be articulated loud andbold.But we cannot interpret history in monolithic universal termsignoring the differences in culture. Feminism is multicultural and diasporic.However different the places and people be the rights don’t change and remainequal for all no matter what one’s biological build is. How could India remaina mere witness. This is not to say that the western feminism solely inspiredwomen in Indian subcontinent to stand up for one’s political right but therewas a run for equal treatment of both the sexes during 20th century which gotbigger and better by the end of the century irrespective of if it was in the’first world’ or ‘second world’ or ‘third world’.
The women of all skin tones and builds (who had till nowsustained societies but never really got their share of fine appreciation andrather declared to possess no reason) were out on the world stage deciding ontheir future and declaring they were more than a body and reproductive units. However,in this study we will focus more on the Indian women and the evolution offeminism and women rights in Indian context.The earliest form of feminism in Indian society for Indian womenwas in the form of taking part in agitations that had nothing to do with onlywomen rights. What better example can be there if not the freedom struggle ofIndia which saw active participation by women. Women’s participation in thesefreedom movements agitation is feminist in the sense that it was a mouthpieceto declares that women like men were capable of handling private as well aspublic stage. To name a few below are such movements where early activefeminism by the Indian women was visible:1946-52: Telangana agitation in which women were trainedas guerrillas.1972: Shahada and anti-price rise agitation inMaharashtra with women in the forefront1972: Anti-alcohol agitation in parts of westernIndia. Self- Employed Women’s Association (SEWA ) set up by Ela Bhatt.
1973: Anti-price rise agitations in Gujarat.1974: Nav-nirman agitation.1978: First national conference of socialistfeminists in Bombay.1979: Stri Sangharsh formed in Delhi.1980-83: Campaigns against dowry.1987: Campaigns against domestic violence and rape.
Early ’80s: Establishment of Centre for Women’s DevelopmentStudies.1985: Agitations in solidarity with Shah Bano.1986: Movements against Muslim Women’s Bill.1987: Agitation against satiLate ’80s: Struggle for a safe environment, demonstrationsagainstearly ’90s: Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas tragedy. Feminism comprises a number of social, cultural and politicalmovements, theories and moral philosophies concerned with gender inequalitiesand equal rights for women. It is standing for political, social and economicequality amongst the two sexes and removal of all kind of biases against the socalled ‘weaker sex’ the women. Well this bias againstwomen is very prevalent in India. Boys are preferred any day over girls, in allaspects.
Even today in many rural areas in India, the families only want a boychild. Female infanticide also takes place. People are so dissatisfied with agirl child that they go on to kill them. There have been cases where new borngirl babies are thrown in the well or drowned in milk. This sure doesn’t soundlike an equal society.Pre-colonial social structures and women’s role in them revealthat feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west. Colonialessentialization of “Indian culture” and reconstruction of Indian womanhood asthe epitome of that culture through social reform movements resulted inpolitical theorization in the form of nationalism rather than as feminismalone.
Historical circumstances and values in India make women’s issuesdifferent from the western feminist rhetoric. The idea of women as “powerful”is accommodated into patriarchal culture through religion. This has retainedvisibility in all sections of society; by providing women with traditional”cultural spaces”. Another consideration is that whereas in the West the notionof “self” rests in competitive individualism where people are described as”born free yet everywhere in chains”, by contrast in India the individual isusually considered to be just one part of the larger social collective,dependent for its survival upon cooperation and self-denial for the greatergood.Inany case, the term “feminism” may be a Western import, but the “concept”, the”debate” on women is an old one and has its origin rooted in the soil of Asiasince the 6th century B.C. when the issue of whether women could join the orderand become nuns was debated by the Buddha and his followers.
This debate onwomen’s right to education has been a continuing theme in many Asian countries,and India is one of them. In the 18th century a Chinese scholar, Chen Hung-Mouwrote on women’s education:”There is no one in the world who isnot educable; and there is no-one whom we can afford not to educate; why beneglectful only in regard to girls?” (Chaudhuri: 7)For most Indians, the term”feminism” means nothing, except a microscopic number of highly westernized,elite people. Neither does that particular term have any equivalents in any ofthe Indian language. If anything, the term has acquired many negativeconnotations in recent years. Most urban English-speaking Indians are familiarwith the term “feminism”, but their understanding of it remains vague andveiled too. There is a general skepticism about its usefulness. Among the urbanliterate, the awareness of feminism is largely confined to what is perceived ofas the moral corruption of women abroad, a result of their outlandish freedomto think and say, and choose what they want out of life. The conservativestructures and Indian panorama of seeing things have not so far allowed it tobecome a widely apprehended phenomenon.
For most Indian men (and women)feminism has contained to be an “obnoxious” word, which they feel havetremendous negative effects on the minds of Indian females. Since the Indianfemale has always been a considerably more conditioned product; totallycustom-made and usually coerced into a mindless acceptance of male diktat, thepossibility of a reasoned, open-minded approach to the concept of feminism hasbeen at best sporadic.No doubt,Indian society has always been highly hierarchical. The concept of equality asa correlate of the concept of individual freedom is alien to Indian society. Inreality, Indian history reveals an almost opposite experience. Western educatedIndians were inspired to reflect upon their own value system and to examine theinequalities, injustices and oppressions of their own culture. “In India, feminism and nationalismwere closely interlinked.
The women’s movement in India had none of theman-woman antagonism characteristic of women’s movement in the West”.(Chaudhuri: xxi)The most distinctive feature ofWomen’s movement is that it was initiated by men. Hence, the struggle did notacquire the overtones of gender warfare as it did in the West.
None of thismeans that the situation of women in India is satisfactory or acceptable.Practices such as the denial of re-marriage to upper caste Hindu widows,polygamy, and dowry, similarly made illegal, still continue. Worse yet, some ofthese practices have gained strength in new forms. The widespread incidence ofbride-burning and dowry deaths reflect the traditional practice of dowry in anew and ghastly form. Thus, despite constitutional and legal provisions aimedat facilitating their status as equals, women continue to suffer. Moreover,most Indian women are unlikely to be able to make the fine distinction betweensorrow and oppression. Their lives are ruled by the single word “compromise”and not “confrontation”, as is the situation in the West. They are too confusedto decide the priorities in their lives.
For example, in the recent times,women are too confused to choose between “career” and “homemaking”, and theirincessant efforts to make both ends meet only degrade their capabilities andpotentialities.With thearrival of “westernized” feminism in India soon afterwards in themid-seventies, several Indian women turned away from the cause. Most Indianwomen have reacted in three distinct ways – first, their disapproval offeminist anger; second, their somewhat mixed and confused reaction to thefeminist emphasis on patriarchy and particularly on men as the principaloppressors; and third, their relative inability to tune into the demands forequality and personal freedom.Understandingthe roots of such reactions is important from the point of view of gearing bothactivist feminism, and women’s studies in India to the Indian ethos and Indianconvictions. A conscious probing into the Indian hierarchies along with thecultural heritage and traditional religiosity will perhaps lead us to somesound conclusion regarding such distrustful reactions from the majority ofIndian women.Vrinda Nabarin her seminal treatise, Cast/e as Woman (1995), has very meticulouslyobserved and focused on the role of tradition in our social existence and howit has affected the collective unconscious of the Indians. It has already beenasserted that “gender” is a social construct, and discrimination in Indiabegins at birth, or even before it. It starts before the child is born.
Thefact remains that the desire for a male child and gender infanticide has been acommon practice in several cultures across the globe; that daughters have beenthe primary victims of infanticide everywhere. Regarding this Adrienne Richrefers to Lloyd de Mause who has argued in a documented essay that killingfemale children was “routine practice” in medieval Europe. A husband of the 1stcentury B.C. instructs his wife thus: “If, as well may happen, you give birthto a child, if it is a boy let it live; if it is a girl, expose it”. (Rich:185-6)In India weare fond of speaking and boasting of our glorious past. For many Indians, thepast has a living presence which serves contemporary needs, and has neverceased to structure the Indian consciousness through the ages. This may havesomething to do with the outlook which is sentimental, even emotional andmelodramatic, rather than pragmatic and utilitarian.
At any rate, the averageIndian simply accepts the validity of the past without questioning too deeply,or threateningly, its socio-cultural rationale or the desirability of viewingit as a universal absolute. Thus, Indians reminiscence about the remote pastwhen women were equal with men and no discrimination was visible. We have comeacross references of Gargi, Maitrayee, Apala of the Vedic ages, who wereequally educated and took part in all religious rituals with the men;references to freedom fighters like Rani of Jhansi and Matangini Hazra are alsonever held before us. However, we come across these names only in the books ofhistory as a piece of information; they are never held before us as images ofideal Indian women, nor do we find references to the living legends likeShakuntala Devi, the great Mathematician, leave apart the great Indianscholars. Instead we are allegedly fed with images of Sitas, Savitris andDraupadis from the idyllic ages of our national epics, undoubtedly written by”men”. These Sitas and Draupadis with the constant support of Indian MediaHerald an ongoing tradition of long-suffering women whose real heroism isoverlaid with the message of devotion and service to their husbands, aglorification of these qualities so that martyrdom is seen in some cases, aspreferable, desirable, virtuous, and even imperative. Their qualities ofexhibiting sharp wit, intelligence, resourcefulness, tenacity, and affection –have never been held up for emulation. Tradition has only emphasized women’sself-immolation.
This (perverted) concept of “pativrata” – the idealized one,is romanticized through legends, myths, folklore, folksong and reaffirmedthrough ceremonies of different kinds. Even educated, elite, urban women followthe practice devotedly; leave apart the illiterate rural ones.Indians are so biased and prejudicedagainst the concept of “feminism” that they mark out each and every personworking for or supporting the women’s cause, are inevitably tabooed as if sheor he is a terrorist, exploding anti-social elements and ideas, and corruptingIndian traditions and cultures. In fact, anyone working for women’s rightsirrespective of the nature of their work, is automatically assumed to be aconscious or unconscious feminist, and allowed no choice on this issue. This isbecause the definitions, the terminology, the assumptions, the form of struggleand institutions and even the issues are exported from the West and applied tothe Indian context rather mindlessly. Madhu Kishwar, the editor of Manushi – ‘ajournal about women and society’, literally abhors the term “feminists” andvehemently claims – “I do not call myself a feminist” (Chaudhuri: 33).
Shepersonally resists this uncritical absorption of the Western concept offeminism. The mindless importation of issues, no doubt, does not fit into theIndian context. This seriously inhibits and stunts the process of understandingthe reality of women’s lives in India where women’s struggles have followedquite a different course.
As a result, most often than not, feminists tend tointervene in people’s lives in the guise of “attacking outsiders” rather thanas “caring insiders”. That is why they have failed to forge strong links withthe civil society they wish to reform.Vrinda Nabaralso has paradoxically claimed that feminism hasn’t even begun in any realsense in India. The Indian Women’s Movement has been far too amorphous andrambling as to threaten the status quo in any significant way.
The absence ofany committed feminists and the scarcity of feminist theory texts too may beregarded as another prime cause behind the marginal impact. Unless such a textis written more than half of India’s population remains faceless and definedrigidly in traditional androcentric terms. Several invaluable studies ofwomen-related issues have remained inaccessible or of little interest except toscholars, researchers, and those with a motivated interest in women’s studies.
Moreover, in a society still largely suspicious of changes in the lifestyle ofits women, the implications are clear that Indian women do not need acorrupting militancy which is the product of an alien culture.I would like to conclude with that feminism and women’s rightsare yet to take a footing in the Indian society with the winds of patriarchyand ignorance about feminism blowing almost invincibly in the forefront. I amno exception to this ignorance. I being a woman always have and to some extentstill do refrain from saying that am a feminist. I feared if it was that I had unwittingly indoctrinatedthe patriarchy that I now was willing to be complacent about it, about women’s rights?!But that thankfully is just a wild thought because am very much vocal when itcomes to unequal treatment between genders. But with the course of this study Irealized that perhaps like Madhu Kishwar says many minds might not be feelingat ease with the whole western concept of feminism.
I however feel that mediaand mainstream judgements are to be blamed as they with such distortedconceptions of feminism and feminists are creating a rift between women’srights and feminism. As more and more people are opting to be women’s rightsactivist and claim no connection to being a feminist. And without attempting toknow about the concept of feminism.Well here we are trying to understand about feminism and in the meantime,there are people in Indian politics still trying to find ways to shame womenfor being welcome to change. And if not anything else still trying to judgeWomen by the way they look.
Opposingthe Women’s Bill in the Lok Sabha, Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav saidthat the Bill would only benefit the well-off in the cities, describingwell-off women as, “par kati auratein”Let us hope for a better tomorrow !”Onlywomen from the affluent classes can get ahead in life, but remember you ruralwomen will never get a chance because you are not that attractive.” -MulayamSingh Yadav “Dented-painted women protesters in Delhi wentto discotheques and then turned up at India Gate to express outrage.”