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Indian Feminism: Coming of Age
Coalescing concerns of high-profile urban feminism and grassroots activism result in a unified, indigenous vision
COMMENTS PRINT
Cover Story
Cover Story
Cover Story
Journalist Tavleen Singh recently sparked off a controversy when she wrote in her weekly column in the Indian Express that Indian feminism is not about the "bottom-slapping" of Rupan Deol Bajaj. Such a relatively trivial incident, she suggested, does not deserve to be taken to the Supreme Court. Her column received much adverse comment, including from members of the Indian Women's Press Corps (whom Singh had targeted in the column). The IWPC says that Singh was motivated by purely personal reasons. It is widely believed that Singh's stance was really a defence of K.P.S. Gill, who she openly admires for bringing peace to Punjab. She explains her objections to the Indian women's movement.
Cover Story
Not aware of the developing feminist consciousness in the West, grassroot-level women's movements have been taking place in India which modern feminists today claim as their precursors.

A slapped bottom and a gang rape. A senior IAS officer and a village woman from Rajasthan. Both have moved the courts, seeking justice for all women. Both have stood up in the public arena to say that they have been robbed of freedoms supposedly guaranteed to them by the Constitution of independent India. Rupan Deol Bajaj of Chandigarh and Bhanvari Devi of Bhateri village have focussed attention on Indian feminism.

Yet, notwithstanding the publicity given to the most famous deriere in India at the moment, women's groups say they have been "heartened" by the media response to Bhanvari Devi.

 
 
We now reach out to all other democratic forums because women’s rights are human rights. BRINDA KARAT
 
 
When the social worker from Rajasthan addressed a press conference, almost every newspaper carried the story the next day. The district judge may have declared the upper caste men do not rape, but nobody doubted Bhanvari's word. The campaign for a law on sexual harassment in the workplace has gathered momentum because of Bhanvari's experience and women's groups are planning several demonstrations in Jaipur in support of her. Rupan Bajaj may be a talking point, but Bhanvari Devi is the rallying cry. In Nineties India, a poor village woman has become a feminist symbol.

While Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem execute doctrinal turnabouts and proclaim the virtues of the traditional family, and writers like Camille Paglia even suggest that women enjoy rape, the legatees of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Aruna Asaf Ai, of Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay and Sarojini Naidu are fashioning their own feminism. However western influenced, our own firebrands today stand as heirs to deeper Indian traditions of political participation, traditions rooted in the freedom struggle and even in the reform movements of the 19th century. In logical progression, therefore, the women's movement today sees itself as an ally of movements "from below".

From anti-dowry campaigns in the '80s, to anti-rape demonstrations in the '90s, Indian feminism has taken a trajectory that has brought it into closer contact with the spontaneous struggles of women throughout the country.

 
 
Women all over the country are concerned with land rights, family wealth and securing their own livelihood. SUMITA GHOSE
 
 
As Malabika Karlekar of the Centre for Women's Development Studies (CWDS) says, "Even if we teach western feminist theory, we still use examples from our own millieu." If the freedom struggle radicalised women, then the post Independence years have consolidated those early efforts. Teesta Setalvad, co-editor of Communalism Combat, says the very fact that the two main political parties are vying for the much talked about 33 per cent representation for women is an indication of the success of the movement.

Today the women's movement has not only grown but also matured. Voices of self-criticism are being increasingly raised. Dr Vrinda Nabar, fromer head of the English Department at the Bombay University, says: "The commitment of many women to the movement has created greater awareness. But there is not enough of an effort to address the middle-class consciousness which is an important catalyst for change. As a result, the suspicion that feminists are subversive women is all too common."

There is also an awareness of the need to find allies outside the movement. Several feminists now speak of the need to reach out to other democratic forums. And there also seems to be a recognition that unity cannot be forged only on the basis of gender.

 
 
We have nothing to do with the West. As far as women’s issues are concerned, there is a united front. LOTIKA SARKAR
 
 

Ashok Khosla, director of the N G O Development Alternatives who has worked for many years in areas of women’s welfare, offers a male perspective. "A number of Indian feminists have a hands-on, problem-solving kind of approach," he  says. "And they are practical about what they want." In fact, Shanta Gokhale, journalist and author, says that more men’s groups like M AWA (Men Against Women Abuse) are needed. "In any case, the success of the feminist movement is essentially because issues have been tackled from within the community rather than imposed from the outside."

Whether it is training the police to deal with crimes against women, advising government on policies, "sensitising" district court judges or providing legal aid, groups such as Saheli, Sakshi, Jagori and Action India see themselves as very involved with the day-to-day labours of women. They take up issues either by agitation, as Saheli does, or through counselling and aid, as Sakshi and Action India aim toward. "There is a maturity in our concepts now," says a member of Sakshi. "Whereas earlier there may have been a preoccupation with certain issues like dowry, today we aim at empowering the entirety of a woman’s experience."

In her book, History Of Doing, Radha Kumar traces the growth of the modern feminist movement in India.

 
 
The notion that women are an inherently non-violent force is being questioned. INDU AGNIHOTRI
 
 
Its genesis, according to Kumar, lay in the freedom struggle and later in the agitations in Shahada, Maharashtra, in the early ’70s, as well as in the anti-price rise and anti-alcohol agitations of the time. Kumar points out that the ’70s feminists were mostly drawn from the far Left and part of the urban, educated middle class. They called themselves "autonomous" and "feminist" and built links exclusively between each other to further their cause. Now the days of autonomy are over. Says a Madras-based Marxist feminist: "The contradiction now is between the vast mass of men and women on the one hand and the ruling class on the other."

"The distinctive feature of the women’s movement in the ’90s," says C P I(M) MP Malini Bhattacharya, "is the strong links between women of the Third World, as distinct from the West, as well as alliances with other democratic citizens." Describing herself as not a "feminist" but as an "activist", Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (A I D WA) says the days of putting up "women’s only" signs are over. "We now reach out to all other democratic forums because women’s rights are human rights," she adds. There seems to be an impatience now with simply confining debates to a cosy circle of believers.

 
 
Even if we teach western feminist theory, we still use examples from our own milieu. MALABIKA KARLEKAR
 
 

There is another difference. In the ’70s, says Kumar, the emotional and individual concerns of middle class women were dismisses as "irrelevant" because feminists were convinced that their own experience could never be as "true" or as "real" as those of the toiling masses. But today those concerns are perhaps not as marginal as they once were because the feminist movement is broad enough to include the perceptions of Rupan Deol Bajaj as clearly as it does the crimes against Bhanvari.

Yet, the elitism of the feminist concept continues to be transformed by its legions. The women who protested against the Mathura rape case of 1979-80, the campaigns of the mothers of " dowry death" victims in 1982, those who marched against the sati incident of 1987 and in the agitations around Bhanvari, it is not necessarily upper class women who are in the fore f ront. In securing forest rights for women, in securing rural credit in Rajasthan, in anti-arrack and literacy agitations, women have called for rights in a manner that makes the doctrine that emerged in the 1960s in North America largely irrelevant. "It is in the remote areas," says  author Nisha Da Cunha, "that the real triumphs of feminism lie."

"The Indian women’s movement has a history of its own," asserts Urvashi Butalia of the Kali For Women publishing house. "No doubt some urban activists may have been educated in the West, but our agenda comes from a reality rooted here." While the West may have fallen prey to "introversion" and "de-politicisation", Indian feminism is in the summertime of its campaign years. While the rather narrow sphere of sexual politics may occupy trans-Atlantic thought, here it is the nuts and bolts of the female predicament that are central. How to secure one’s livelihood, to stop menfolk from consuming too much alcohol, to ensure that women get good post-natal care and to guarantee literacy for children. In the turmoil of modernising India, campaigners must be made of sterner stuff than theories.

When Action India, a women’s organisation, travelled to Saharanpur to raise awareness about equal rights, they realised the     limits of their own awareness. Rajbala, an elderly resident of the area, posed a question to which Action India had no answer. "Equality? Equality with whom? Equality for what? Will my stomach be filled with equality? I don’t want equality with my man. I want equality with you, you who have cars and send your children to English-speaking schools."

In a situation of extreme poverty, trying to secure equal rights for women is meaningless. Where men and women are both demeaned by poverty, why ask for equal status with a man? "Our attempt," says Gauri Choudhury of Action India, "is to create a non-oppressive, non-patriarchal place for women to at least voice their grievances." The effort of women’s groups now is to try and ensure economic well-being of a community and thereby create conditions that are conducive to equal rights.

With the announcement of the structural adjustment programme, women’s organisations have united on the pattern of development they feel will jeopardise the position of women further. "The economic reforms will benefit the First World and impoverish the Third World," says Premila Dandavate of the Mahila Dakshata Samiti. The term "feminisation of poverty" focusses on the unseen masses of women employed in the informal sector of the economy who will be forced into even greater deprivation because of the reforms. The opposition to the free market has forced an antagonism with the operation of western big business in India.

"The introduction of the contraceptive, Norplant, in India," says a spokesperson for Sakshi, "is big business for the West. Yet the contraceptive is extremely hazardous for Indian women. Reproductive health is necessarily of much greater importance for us than it is for women of the developed North."

The issue of abortion, a vital demand for western feminists— that it should be treated as a choice to be made only by the pregnant woman— in India is fraught with complications. The practice of amniocentesis and sex determination ultra-sound tests means that abortion is often not a choice but is imposed by social pressures. Thus a pro-abortion crusade can often play into the hands of forces inimical to the feminist agenda.

Indu Agnihotri at C W D S says that several precepts of western feminism are being examined in the light of Indian conditions. "As far as contraceptives are concerned, we want them, but they have to be safe. We re g a rd abortions after sex determination as wrong. Also, unlike in the West, Indian feminism has never really been anti-family although we oppose patriarchy within the family structure."

In the land of Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharati and Jayalalitha, the slogan "my sister, right or wrong" must be re-examined. Agnihotri points out that not only was it a woman prime minister who promulgated the Emergency, but women have often incited crowds to violence during communal riots. "So the notion that women are an inherently non-violent force is being questioned. We now aim for issue-based rather than gender-based solidarity."

In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Vina Mazumdar and Agnihotri state that several activists have established a dialogue with reform movements and religious groups within the religious framework. In the opposition to fundamentalism, there is even a debate among feminists to retrieve religion from fundamentalists and high-light the positive aspects of socio-religious reform.

Indian feminism in the 90s is trying to reach a stage where it draws on indigenous traditions of emancipation for its growth. As such it works within the confines of Indian society instead of trying to overthrow the system from the outside. So religion is no longer denied, but communalism is combated; the family is not sought to be destroyed, only reformed from patriarchy; equality with men is no longer seen as the ultimate prescription for freedom; and abortion and contraception are no longer absolute imperatives for the health of Indian women. "Irresponsible conscience-raising," says Karlekar, "is, I think, a thing of the past. The point is, after exhorting women to revolt, where will they go? Can we offer jobs? Or shelter? It is important to look at the entire picture."

"The Indian movement," says Sumita Ghose, a member of the URMUL trust of Rajasthan, "has to operate within communities, not among individuals. In the past, urban-educated women were seen leading demonstrations on the streets, now women all over the country are concerned with land rights, equal accession to family wealth and securing their own livelihood. Struggles that are perhaps more pragmatic than ideological."

Ideology still divides, but not as crucially as in the West where perhaps it would be unthinkable for left-wing and conservative women to work together. In India the Seven Sisters— a group of seven women’s organisations with differing political affiliations— have worked together to secure law reform, press for petitions and function as a pressure group on the government. Says feminist lawyer Lotika Sarkar: "We have nothing to do with the West. We are very down to earth. And as far as women’s issues are concerned, there is a united front."

So, there is a new identity-in- the-making for Indian feminism in the decade when the movement has come into its own as a pressure lobby on the government. It is hybrid, yet rooted; western in theory but indigenous in practice; rationalist in inspiration but at the same time forced to come to terms with some aspects of Indian custom and tradition. Contradictory? No, uniquely Indian.

COMMENTS PRINT
Cover Story
Cover Story
Cover Story
Journalist Tavleen Singh recently sparked off a controversy when she wrote in her weekly column in the Indian Express that Indian feminism is not about the "bottom-slapping" of Rupan Deol Bajaj. Such a relatively trivial incident, she suggested, does not deserve to be taken to the Supreme Court. Her column received much adverse comment, including from members of the Indian Women's Press Corps (whom Singh had targeted in the column). The IWPC says that Singh was motivated by purely personal reasons. It is widely believed that Singh's stance was really a defence of K.P.S. Gill, who she openly admires for bringing peace to Punjab. She explains her objections to the Indian women's movement.
Cover Story
Not aware of the developing feminist consciousness in the West, grassroot-level women's movements have been taking place in India which modern feminists today claim as their precursors.
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