Feminism in India

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The history of feminism in India is regarded as mainly a practical effort. Compared to some other countries there has been only sparse theoretical writing in feminism.

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[edit] Defining feminism in the Indian context

Pre-colonial social structures and women’s role in them reveal that feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west. Colonial essentialization of "Indian culture" and reconstruction of Indian womanhood as the epitome of that culture through social reform movements resulted in political theorization in the form of nationalism rather than as feminism alone.[1]

Historical circumstances and values in India make women’s issues different from the western feminist rhetoric. The idea of women as "powerful" is accommodated into patriarchal culture through religion. This has retained visibility in all sections of society; by providing women with traditional "cultural spaces". Another consideration is that whereas in the West the notion of "self" rests in competitive individualism where people are described as "born free yet everywhere in chains", by contrast in India the individual is usually considered to be just one part of the larger social collective, dependent for its survival upon cooperation and self-denial for the greater good.

Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to carve a separate identity for feminism in India. They define feminism in time and space to in order to avoid the uncritically following Western ideas. Indian women negotiate survival through an array of oppressive patriarchal family structures: age, ordinal status, relationship to men through family of origin, marriage and procreation as well as patriarchal attributes - dowry, siring sons etc. - kinship, caste, community, village, market and the state. It should however be noted that several communities in India, such as the Nairs of Kerala, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families exhibit matriarchal tendencies, with the head of the family being the oldest women rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral.

The heterogeneity of Indian experience reveals that there are multiple patriarchies and so also are there multiple feminisms. Hence feminism in India is not a singular theoretical orientation; it has changed over time in relation to historical and cultural realities, levels of consciousness, perceptions and actions of individual women and women as a group. The widely used definition is "An awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and men to change this situation". (Bhasin and Khan 1986) Acknowledging sexism in daily life and attempting to challenge and eliminate it through deconstructing mutually exclusive notions of femininity and masculinity as biologically determined categories opens the way towards an equitable society for both men and women.

The male and female dichotomy of polar opposites with the former oppressing the latter at all times is refuted in the Indian context because it was men who initiated social reform movements against various social evils. Patriarchy is just one of the hierarchies. Relational hierarchies between women within the same family are more adverse. Here women are pitted against one another. Not all women are powerless at all times. Caste-community identities intensify all other hierarchies. The polytheistic Hindu pantheon provides revered images of women as unique and yet complementary to those of male deities.

[edit] History

[edit] First phase: 1850 – 1915

The colonial venture into modernity brought concepts of democracy, equality and individual rights. The rise of the concept of nationalism and introspection of discriminatory practices brought about social reform movements related to caste and gender relations. This first phase of feminism in India was initiated by men to uproot the social evils of sati (widow immolation), to allow widow remarriage, to forbid child marriage, and to reduce illiteracy, as well as to regulate the age of consent and to ensure property rights through legal intervention. Women in this phase were categorized along with lower castes as subjects of social reforms and welfare instead of being recognized as autonomous agents of change. The emphasis was on recreating new space in pre-existing feminine roles of caring. The women involved were those related to male activists, elite, western educated, upper caste Hindus.

[edit] Second Phase: 1915 – 1947

During this period the struggle against colonial rule intensified. Nationalism became the pre-eminent cause. Claiming Indian superiority became the tool of cultural revivalism resulting in an essentializing model of Indian womanhood similar to that of Victorian womanhood, special yet separated from public space. Gandhi legitimized and expanded Indian women’s public activities by initiating them into the non-violent civil disobedience movement against the Raj. He exalted their feminine roles of caring, self-abnegation, sacrifice and tolerance; and carved a niche for those in public space. Women-only organizations like All India Women's Conference (AIWC) and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged. Women were grappling with the issues relating to the scope of women’s political participation, women’s franchise, communal awards, and leadership roles in political parties.

Women’s participation in the freedom struggle developed their critical consciousness about their role and rights in independent India. This resulted in the introduction of the franchise and civic rights of women in the Indian constitution. There was provision for women’s upliftment through affirmative action, maternal health and child care provision (crèches), equal pay for equal work etc. The state adopted a patronizing role towards women. Women in India did not have to struggle for basic rights as did women in the West. The utopia ended soon when the social and cultural ideologies and structures failed to honour the newly acquired concepts of fundamental rights and democracy.

[edit] Third Phase: 1974 onwards

With the rise of a new wave of feminism across the world, a new generation of Indian feminists emerged. One of the first movements which brought modern Indian feminists together was the Chipko movement of 1974 in which women played a large part. In recent times, contemporary Indian feminists are fighting for abortion, breast feeding, co-operation, control of the female body, diversity, divorce, education, equal pay, freedom, gender, independence, individual autonomy, maternity leave, nonviolence, reproduction, rights, sexuality, and tolerance and against discrimination, domestic violence, objectification, patriarchy, prostitution, sexism, sati [2] and stereotypes. Medha Patkar, Madhu Kishwar, and Brinda Karat are some feminist social workers and politicians who continue their fight against fundamental causes of women's oppression in post-independent India in the political field. In the literary field Amrita Pritam (Punjabi), Kusum Ansal (Hindi), and Sarojini Sahoo (Oriya) are some eminent writers of India who make a link between sexuality and feminism and write for the idea "a woman's body, a woman's right" in Indian languages. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, Leela Kasturi, Sharmila Rege, and Vidyut Bhagat are some essayists and critics who write in favour of feminism in English.

[edit] Role models for feminists in India

[edit] References

  1. ^ Partha Chatterjee, "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," in Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History, Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
  2. ^ No. 2: Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 National Council for Women, Proposed amendments to the 1987 Sati Prevention Act
  • Bhasin, Kamala and Khan, Nighat Said. "Some Questions on Feminism and Its Relevance in South Asia", Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1986.
  • Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. (ed.). "Feminism in India: Issues in Contemporary Indian Feminism", Kali for Women, New Delhi, 2004.
  • Kumar, Radha. "The History of Doing", Kali for Women, New Delhi, 1998
  • Jain, Pratibh and Sharma, Sangeeta (ed.). "Women in Freedom Struggle: Invisible Images" in Women Images, Rawat Publication, Jaipur, 1995.
  • Singh, Maina Chawla. "Feminism in India", Asian Journal of Women’s Studies. Seoul, 30 June 2004. Vol. 10, Iss. 2; 48

Mata Amritanandamayee Devi ( AMMA)

[edit] See also

[edit] External links