Rooting Feminism to India

Every version of feminism is a personal version. To call for an Indian version of feminism is an ambitious task. Taking this topic, analyzing it and writing on it brings Indian feminism centre stage. It carries the dialogue forward and brings our focus to it. The underlying conviction behind the effort is naturally that feminism is relevant to today's India. Discussion on its Indianness brings it closer to us. Feminism is close to life. It is contentious. Therefore the dialogue must go on. The idea is to familiarize the concept to the soil of India so that it is accepted and imbibed; so that it stays. No one should claim ownership on ideas. Once an idea comes, it must undergo osmosis with native, local ideas. Modification of feminism is a must keeping our country in mind. When feminism is spoken through the local idiom and colour, it gets into the life of the people. That is the aim.

Feminism in India has come of age. It has become part of consciousness. "Feminism in Indian English writing is commonly conceived as a very sublime and over the top concept, which is most subtly handled under restricted circumstances. However, with development of time, feminism has been established in India, setting aside the patriarchal predomination to some extent. Leaving aside the crusaders and activists of the social and political scenario, perhaps enormous body of work on feminism is also accomplished through Indian English literature. Feminist writers in India today proudly uphold heir cause of "womanhood", through their write-up. In the contemporary scenario there are many men/women writers who, though their writings, have been successful in projecting the existing social (gender) inequality. With regards to the new-fangled styles, technique and trends in women's novels and poetry there is a noteworthy movement linking the domestic with the public spheres of work." (Bhavesh Kumar B. Rana : IJSR, I, I)

Everyone knows and feels the importance of feminism and equal rights for women, yet opposition to feminism is also deeply inherent in the psyche; as a politician once said, "these dented and painted women". The aversion is to "feminist" women, rather than feminism. The question is not whether women should have freedom or not; the question is, ''what constitutes freedom?'' What does freedom mean? In this context, it is necessary to question feminism and modify it. The questioning is also a method to keep it alive. Do Indian women want to be free from family, traditions, religion and memory? What kind of freedom Indian women want? Is there one standard version of a feminist?

The native Indian female experience is wide and varied. There is a need to view the native Indian female experience beyond the paradigm of ''victimhood''. There are many layers to it. Many Indian women are leading happy, contented lives. These native Indian female experiences do not find space in mainstream feminist discourse. It is essential to question and challenge popularly accepted stereotypes and images of women. We have got so much used to ''rape'' news in the morning newspapers that unconsciously we fail to perceive happy, successful, joyous women of India. When Indian women voice their identities in their own words, we get a better understanding of what life means to them. Women in Indian families find pivotal roles – spiritual fountain, nurturer, carrier of customs, care – giver... They are the backbone of Indian family system. Do women want to destroy the Indian family system in order to be called ''feminists''. Or is there an Indian brand of feminism already kicking and thriving? Is there a final image of an Indian woman? Or are there multiple images? How do we summarize the Indian woman? Can we, for once, ''decolonize'' our perception? We do not have to make the Indian woman palatable to the Western tastes. Nor do we have to judge her condition by ''their'' standards. Films, TV serials, tourist shops, magazines, toy stores and even grocery shelves do not depict the uncountable versions of the Indian woman. Native Indian women should be asked as to how they want to be portrayed. Negative stereotypes regarding typical Indian women have harmed the cause equality for women. Within India, there is tremendous multiplicity. Background, belief system, place, ethnicity, value system, age, and cultural background decide the view of a woman and her concept of freedom and feminism. For example, for an urban, young, rich woman, travelling alone may define freedom. Yet for a woman from a comparatively small town, accompanying while travelling may mark respect and care. Respecting and accepting the natural surroundings of a woman have to be essential parts of feminism.

In no other country, feminism has been an integral part of nationalism. "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 feminism alone. Despite these "on-paper" advancements, many problems still remain which inhibit these new rights and opportunities from being fully taken advantage of. For example, India's constitution also states that women are a "weaker section" of the population and therefore need assistance to function as said equals." (Dwijendra Nath Thakur : Vol. 3, Issue 4)

Problematizing feminism in India is essential as the imported model often proves to be inadequate. There has been marked growth in feminist discourse as well as creative writing in India in the past four decades. This body of literature and criticism is layered, appealing and rich. A unique feature of Indian feminism has been that often it is government sponsored. Much of this writing has come out of academia. Centres for Women's Studies have played a positive role. International agencies have also substantially sponsored feminist discourse. Theories of multiculturalism and post modernism celebrate India's diversity and plurality, especially regarding the female experience. For scholars today, feminism coupled with post-colonialism becomes a boon. Indian feminist writing is globally visible.

The first task is to accept that even before the arrival of Western feminism in India, awareness about the importance of women in family and society has always been part of Indian consciousness. India has always been sensitive about the rights and status of women. Within the traditional, agrarian, patriarchal model, women have always held their place. The whole historical process has to be viewed in continuity. "...we cannot interpret history in monolithic universal terms ignoring the differences in culture. Feminism is multicultural and diasporic. The needs of women who live in different countries are dissimilar and they are conditioned by several factors : familial, societal / racial, marital, economic and cultural and individual consciousness (subjectivity).

"In such a diverse context, it would be far wrong to associate Indian feminism with the western, which is marked by radical norms and invoke western feminist critics on the problems that women in India confront." (M.S. Nagarajan : The Hindu)

Indian feminism has been deeply entwined with Indian nationalism. Indian state has done a lot to advance the discourse. Globalization and India's economic success have contributed to Indian feminism. Democratization of India has awakened marginalized groups and castes to feminism. Nationalism, democracy, free market and globalization have accelerated the feminist voice in India. Today, everyone is for women empowerment. Nobody, just nobody can afford to say that he/she is against women empowerment. Now within this consensus, we have to discern differences. In the world of feminism, there is no point in separating ideas and deeds. Both ideas and deeds at the individual level and at the collective level have to go hand in hand.

Postcolonial scholars of Indian origin are leading intellectual voices around the world. What earlier seemed specifically Indian a few decades back, new seems to be universal given the cultural diversity of west itself. In the Indian context, women do not always focus on their personal desires. This is reflected in literature as well as discourse. Here, a woman's right to drink or wear less clothes or have multiple relationships in less important than her right to decline an offer to drink or sex or short clothes. In a country like India, a woman's right to wear traditional clothes, her right not to smoke or drink and her right not to have multiple relationships become more important. The trouble usually arises with a woman's "No". Indian feminism must protect a woman's ''No''. Megha Marik explains,'' We all have gone through a phase we have wanted to be desired by someone or the other. We have been warned that this is a part of growing up. However, ''desire'' is contextualized differently for different genders. Women's desire does not matter while men's desire is paramount. Women are not taught to say ''No'' and men are not taught to take ''No'' for an answer.

"Women have been told that being the subject of a man's desire is a worthy goal and must increase their ''value'' to the opposite sex by working on their appearance to reach society's impossible beauty standards. Men have been programmed to fulfill their emotional, psychological, and physical desire by approaching women. However, the problem arises when the woman refuses the man. In such cases, in accordance to the social conditioning, men are supposed to resort to all means which will help them ''conquer'' the woman. (Megha Marik)

In India, we have to give up the imported image of a feminist. A woman may be educated, working and independent and yet she may be deeply religious and family oriented. Being religious is not anti-feminist. Feminism is the world-view of an aware human being. An aware Indian woman has every right to worship, to raise a family and to be traditional. A broken family is not the trademark of a feminist. Feminism is not anti-happiness. Women empowerment is the goal. Religion, family and traditions are the support systems that empower and strengthen a woman. Wrong traditions and unjust religious paractices must go. There is no doubt about that. But all that is Indian is not bad. All that is traditional and religious is not antifeminist. Indian feminism demands improvement of religion; not its abolishment. Property rights, family name, priesthood for women and cremation rights-religion must grant and ensure these to women. A religion which does not change decays and dies. Our shastras say that time, place, circumstance and individual - these four factors should decide our actions. Religion has flexibility.

"Ultra'' feminism does not work in India. Radicalism in the name of feminism is a farce. In India, community, identity, democratic rights, educational rights, citizenship rights, religious beliefs, employment and working conditions, cultural differences and urban and rural poverty become the main concerns of feminism. In India, feminism is and has to be welfare-oriented. A woman's right to drink wine is less important than her right to drink clean water. Her right to be in multiple relationships is less important than her right to say ''No'' to a relationship. Here, domestic violence, dowry, forced marriages, dropping out of schools and colleges are the issues.

Resistance to a noble concept like feminism comes from over westernization and fear of losing identity. Feminism cannot be a tool of re-colonization. Therefore, our feminism must spring from our soil. Sita exercised her right to say ''No'' Gargi exercised her right to study. ''Gargi was one of the composers of Upnishads. Her philosophy-poetry addresses metaphysical questions about the construction and origin of the universe. She is best known for a public debate in which she silenced (and irritated) a renowned sage by posing an unanswerable question, which can be simplified into : ''Where is the realm of the Gods located?".... Gargi was also said to be an advisor in the court of King Janaka. ..." (Saumya Arya) Countless Indian women assert their place and identity. Our theory as well as role models must spring from our soil. Indianhood in pro women. It is deeply Indian to be a feminist. Our choices and selfhood need not be expressed in the language of the western individual woman. Selfhood in west is individual Our selfhood is collective. Family, religion, community, relations, region-so many factors from the self of an India. There is no need to destroy all this in the name of an imported idea. Our major issues happen to be agrarian crisis, reproductive health issues, controlling resources like land, forest and water, women rights in war zones, place of women in religion and poverty. (National Conference of the Indian Association of Women's Studies IAWS 2011).

Feminism has to negotiate the inequalities, pluralities and diversities of India. It cannot be imported as such, nor can it be imposed. We accept that western influence, English education and the colonial rule have accelerated the pitch of feminism in India. The social reform movements in the 19th century paved the way for women's writing. In the continuing process, the political participation of women increased substantially in the 20th century. After Independence the Indian state officially accepted the cause of women and has ever since tried to spread awareness in its own way. In the late 20th century, the patronizing, condescending approach gave way to a more assertive attitude. The scope of discussion was widened. Property rights, religious rights, political representation, domestic violence, harassment at work place, alcoholism of men, dowry and rape came into focus. A pioneer of women's studies and activism, Vina Mazumdar says, '' 1970s capture issues of violence, sexual exploitation, identification of complex structures of domination and their reassertion in new forms in the ideology of revivalist, fundamentalist, communal and ethnic movements. Similarly, investigations of peasant women in the rural economy and of their undiscovered history have prompted new questions and drawn women's studies closer to issues also being raised by ecological and environmental movements. Investigations into women's marginalization and exploitation in the economy, both formal and informal, in the educational process, in communication and media and also in the political process, have turned women's studies into one of the major critics of the pattern of development and the choice of strategies '' (Mazumdar : 44)

Taking forward Mazumdar's argument, we can say that indigenous Indian model is pro-women and it is also pro-ecology, pro-environment. What kind of economy have we developed which does not recognize the labour of women in homes and informal sector? Logical thinking will lead us to believe in Indian feminism; a brand of feminism rooted in our soil. This dialogue also takes us to the need of a uniform civil code in India.

A typical Indian approach towards feminism deals with deep issues of equality, human rights and dignity. Religion, family, society and traditions are part and parcel of Indian feminism. An Indian woman's commitment to family, friends and social norms does not undermine her commitment to her own dignity, equality and freedom. It is when we synthesize the concept of feminism with Indianhood that it finds acceptance. The typical Indian womanhood is strong. When a woman empowers herself with all her existing support systems, she becomes strong and confident. Roots always strengthen. Rejection of roots does not lead us anywhere. DNA of centuries has to be respected. As the popular sentence goes, revolution does not work; evolution does. The Indian woman has to awaken herself to her original status. She should embrace modernity with all the components of her identity. Her family, her extended families, friends, community, religion - all comprise her SELF. As a tree takes water through its roots and flourishes, so does the Indian woman.


  • Bhaveshkumar B. Rana. Internationa Journal of Scientific Research Volume: I, Issue : I, June-2012.
  • Dwijendra Nath Thakur. Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur, Chhatisgarh. ''Feminism and Women Movement in India. '' Volume No. 3, Issue No. 4, 2012.
  • M.S. Nagarajan. The Hindu, October, 31st, 2011.
  • Megha Marik, www.feminisminindia.com April 27th, 2017
  • Saumya Arya, Huffpost April 4th 2012.
  • Vina Mazumdar and Leela Kasturi. Women and Indian Nationalism, 1994, New Delhi : Vikas Publishing House.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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