What is “Feminism in India” ?
Feminism in India
Feminism in India is a set of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for Indian women. It is the pursuit of women’s rights within the society of India. Like their feminist counterparts all over the world, feminists in India seek gender equality: the right to work for equal wages, the right to equal access to health and education, and equal political rights. Indian feminists also have fought against culture-specific issues within India’s patriarchal society, such as inheritance laws and the practice of widow immolation known as Sati.
The history of feminism in India can be divided into three phases: the 1st phase, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, initiated when male European colonists began to speak out against the social evils of Sati; the 2nd phase, from 1915 to Indian independence, when Gandhi incorporated women’s movements into the Quit India movement and independent women’s organisations began to emerge; and finally, the 3rd phase, post-independence, which has focused on fair treatment of women in the work force and right to political parity.
Despite the progress made by Indian feminist movements, women living in modern India still face many issues of discrimination. India’s patriarchal culture has made the process of gaining land-ownership rights and access to education challenging. In the past two decades, there has also emerged a disturbing trend of sex-selective abortion. To Indian feminists, these are seen as injustices worth struggling against.
As in the West, there has been some criticism of feminist movements in India. They have especially been criticised for focusing too much on women already privileged, and neglecting the needs and representation of poorer or lower caste women. This has led to the creation of caste-specific feminist organisations and movements.
Women’s role in Pre-colonial social structures reveals that feminism was theorised differently in India than in the West. In India, women’s issues 1st began to be addressed when the state commissioned a report on the status of women to a group of feminist researchers and activists. The report recognised the fact that in India, women were oppressed under a system of structural hierarchies and injustices. During this period, Indian feminists were influenced by the Western debates being conducted about violence against women. However, due to the difference in the historical and social culture of India, the debate in favor of Indian women had to be conducted creatively and certain Western ideas had to be rejected. Women’s issues began to gain an international prominence when the decade of 1975–1985 was declared the United Nations Decade for Women.
Historical circumstances and values in India have caused feminists to develop a feminism that differs from Western feminism. For example, the idea of women as “powerful” is accommodated into patriarchal culture through religion, which has retained visibility in all sections of society. This has provided women with traditional “cultural spaces.” Furthermore, in the West the notion of “self” rests in competitive individualism where people are described as “born free yet everywhere in chains.” In India the individual is usually considered to be just one part of the larger social collective. Survival of the individual is dependent upon cooperation, and self-denial for the greater good is valued.
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. Examples of patriarchal attributes include: 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, Shettys of Mangalore, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families exhibit matriarchal tendencies. In these communities, the head of the family is the oldest woman rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral.
The heterogeneity of the Indian experience reveals that there are multiple patriarchies, contributing to the existence of multiple feminisms. Hence, feminism in India isn’t 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.” 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.
There have been intense debates within the Indian women’s movements about the relationship between Western and Indian feminisms. Many Indian feminists simultaneously claim a specific “Indian” sensitivity as well as an international feminist solidarity with groups and individuals worldwide. The rise of liberal feminism in the West in the 1970s focused deeply on demands for equal opportunities in education and employment, as well as ending violence against women. To a large extent, the emerging feminist movement in India was influenced by Western ideals. These called for education and equal rights, but also adapted their appeals to local issues and concerns, such as dowry-related violence against women, Sati, sex selective abortion and custodial rape. Some Indian feminists have suggested that these issues aren’t specifically “Indian” in nature but rather a reflexion of a wider trend of patriarchal oppression of women.
Unlike the Western feminist movement, India’s movement was initiated by men, and later joined by women. The efforts of these men included abolishing sati, which was a widow’s death by burning on her husband’s funeral pyre, the custom of child marriage, abolishing the disfiguring of widows, banning the marriage of upper caste Hindu widows, promoting women’s education, obtaining legal rights for women to own property, and requiring the law to acknowledge women’s status by granting them basic rights in matters such as adoption.
The 19th century was the period that saw a majority of women’s issues come under the spotlight and reforms began to be made. Much of the early reforms for Indian women were conducted by men. However, by the late 19th century they were joined in their efforts by their wives, sisters, daughters, protegees and other individuals directly affected by campaigns such as those carried out for women’s education. By the late 20th century, women gained greater autonomy through the formation of independent women’s own organisations. By the late thirties and forties a new narrative began to be constructed regarding “women’s activism”. This was newly researched and expanded with the vision to create ‘logical’ and organic links between feminism and Marxism, as well as with anti-communalism and anti-casteism, etc. The Constitution of India did guarantee ‘equality between the sexes,’ which created a relative lull in women’s movements until the 1970s.
During the formative years of women’s rights movements, the difference between the sexes was more or less taken for granted in that their roles, functions, aims and desires were different. As a result, they were not only to be reared differently but treated differently also. Over the course of time, this difference itself became a major reason for initiating women’s movements. Early 19th century reformers argued that the difference between men and women was no reason for the subjection of women in society. However, later reformers were of the opinion that indeed it was this particular difference that subjugated women to their roles in society, for example, as mothers. Therefore, there was a need for the proper care of women’s rights. With the formation of women’s organisations and their own participation in campaigns, their roles as mothers was again stressed but in a different light: this time the argument was for women’s rights to speech, education and emancipation. However, the image of women with the mother as a symbol underwent changes over time – from an emphasis on family to the creation of an archetypal mother figure, evoking deep, often atavistic images.
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 1st phase of feminism in India was initiated by men to uproot the social evils of sati, 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. In addition to this, some upper caste Hindu women rejected constraints they faced under Brahminical traditions. However, efforts for improving the status of women in Indian society were somewhat thwarted by the late nineteenth century, as nationalist movements emerged in India. These movements resisted ‘colonial interventions in gender relations’ particularly in the areas of family relations. In the mid to late nineteenth century, there was a national form of resistance to any colonial efforts made to ‘modernise’ the Hindu family. This included the Age of Consent controversy that erupted after the government tried to raise the age of marriage for women.
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 essentialising model of Indian womanhood similar to that of Victorian womanhood: special yet separated from public space. Gandhi legitimised and expanded Indian women’s public activities by initiating them into the non-violent civil disobedience movement against the British Raj. He exalted their feminine roles of caring, self-abnegation, sacrifice and tolerance; and carved a niche for those in the public arena. Women-only organisations like All India Women’s Conference and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged. Women were grappling with issues relating to the scope of women’s political participation, women’s franchise, communal awards, and leadership roles in political parties.
The 1920s was a new era for Indian women and is defined as ‘feminism’ that was responsible for the creation of localised women’s associations. These associations emphasised women’s education issues, developed livelihood strategies for working class women, and also organised national level women’s associations such as the All India Women’s Conference. AIWC was closely affiliated with the Indian National Congress. Under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, it worked within the nationalist and anti-colonialist freedom movements. This made the mass mobilisation of women an integral part of Indian nationalism. Women therefore were a very important part of various nationalist and anti-colonial efforts, including the civil disobedience movements in the 1930s.
After independence, the All India Women’s Conference continued to operate and in 1954 the Indian Communist Party formed its own women’s wing known as the National Federation of Indian Women. However, feminist agendas and movements became less active right after India’s 1947 independence, as the nationalist agendas on nation building took precedence over feminist issues.
Women’s participation in the struggle for freedom 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, equal pay for equal work etc. The state adopted a patronising role towards women. For example, India’s constitution states that women are a “weaker section” of the population, and therefore need assistance to function as equals. Thus women in India didn’t 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.
Post independence feminists began to redefine the extent to which women were allowed to engage in the workforce. Prior to independence, most feminists accepted the sexual divide within the labour force. However, feminists in the 1970s challenged the inequalities that had been established and fought to reverse them. These inequalities included unequal wages for women, relegation of women to ‘unskilled’ spheres of work, and restricting women as a reserve army for labour. In other words, the feminists’ aim was to abolish the free service of women who were essentially being used as cheap capital. Feminist class-consciousness also came into focus in the 1970s, with feminists recognising the inequalities not just between men and women but also within power structures such as caste, tribe, language, religion, region, class etc. This also posed as a challenge for feminists while shaping their overreaching campaigns as there had to be a focus within efforts to ensure that fulfilling the demands of one group would not create further inequalities for another. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the focus of the Indian feminist movement has gone beyond treating women as useful members of society and a right to parity, but also having the power to decide the course of their personal lives and the right of self-determination.
Despite “on-paper” advancements, many problems still remain which inhibit women from fully taking advantage of new rights and opportunities in India.
There are many traditions and customs that have been an important part of Indian culture for hundreds of years. Religious laws and expectations, or “personal laws” enumerated by each specific religion, often conflict with the Indian Constitution, eliminating rights and powers women should legally have. Despite these crossovers in legality, the Indian government does not interfere with religion and the personal laws they hold. Religions, like Hinduism, call for women to be faithful servants to God and their husbands. They have a term called pativrata that describes a wife who has accepted service and devotion to her husband and her family as her ultimate religion and duty. Indian society is largely composed of hierarchical systems within families and communities. These hierarchies can be broken down into age, sex, ordinal position, kinship relationships, and caste, lineage, wealth, occupations, and relationship to ruling power (within the community). When hierarchies emerge within the family based on social convention and economic need, girls in poorer families suffer twice the impact of vulnerability and stability. From birth, girls are automatically entitled to less; from playtime, to food, to education, girls can expect to always be entitled to less than their brothers. Girls also have less access to their family’s income and assets, which is exacerbated among poor, rural Indian families. From the start, it is understood that females will be burdened with strenuous work and exhausting responsibilities for the rest of their lives, always with little to no compensation or recognition.
India is also a patriarchal society, which, by definition, describes cultures in which males as fathers or husbands are assumed to be in charge and the official heads of households. A patrilineal system governs the society, where descent and inheritance are traced through the male line and men are generally in control of the distribution of family resources.
These traditions and ways of Indian life have been in effect for so long that the type of lifestyle is what women have become accustomed to and expect. Indian women often don’t take full advantage of their constitutional rights because they aren’t properly aware or informed of them. Women also tend to have poor utilisation of voting rights because they possess low levels of political awareness and sense of political efficacy. Women aren’t often encouraged to become informed about issues. Due to this, political parties don’t invest much time in female candidates because there is a perception that they are a “wasted investment.”
The female-to-male ratio in India is 933 to 1000, showing that there are numerically fewer women in the country than men. This is due to several factors, including infanticides, most commonly among female infants, and the poor care of female infants and childbearing women. Although outlawed, infanticides are still highly popular in rural India, and are continuing to become even more prominent. This is due to the fact, most especially in rural areas, that families cannot afford female children because of the dowry they must pay when their daughter gets married. Like infanticide, the payment of dowry is also illegal, but is still a frequent and prevalent occurrence in rural India. Women are considered to be “worthless” by their husbands if they aren’t “able” to produce a male child, and can often face much abuse if this is the case.
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