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FEMINISM IN INDIA A CHANGING PERSPECTIVE

INTRODUCTION
The term feminism is derived from the Latin word, femina meaning women, it originally
meant having the qualities of females. It began to be used with reference to the movement for sexual
equality and womens rights, replacing womanism in the 1890s. Dictionaries define it as the advocacy of
womens rights based on the belief in the equality of the sexes, and in its broadest use the word refers to
everyone who is aware of, and seeking to end, womens subordination to man.Charles Fourier,

a Utopian Socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "feminism"
in 18371. Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing,
and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to
establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. Depending on historical
moment, culture and country, feminists around the world have had different causes and goals.
Most western feminist historians assert that all movements that work to obtain women's rights
should be considered feminist movements, even when they did not apply the term to themselves.
While other historians assert that the term should be limited to the modern feminist movement
and its descendants. But, basically a feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of
women. Feminist theory, which emerged from these feminist movements, aims to understand the
nature of gender inequality by examining women's social roles and lived experience; it has
developed theories in a variety of disciplines in order to respond to issues such as the social
construction of sex and gender. Some of the earlier forms of feminism have been criticized for
taking into account only white, middle-class, educated perspectives. This led to the creation of
ethnically specific or multi-cultural forms of feminism. Feminist theory is the extension of
feminism into theoretical or philosophical fields. It encompasses work in a variety of disciplines,
including anthropology, sociology, economics, women's studies, literary criticism, art history,
psychoanalysis and philosophy. Feminist theory aims to understand gender inequality and
focuses on gender politics, power relations, and sexuality. While providing a critique of these
social and political relations, much of feminist theory also focuses on the promotion of women's
rights and interests.

Goldstein, L., Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier, (1982),
Journal of the History of Ideas, vol.43, p. 92

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In the present discussion I would like to discuss feminism in the Indian context which
over a period of time has carved a distinct and separate niche for itself due to its several
distinctive features based mainly on the on the diversified socio-cultural facets of India.
Feminism in India has been a long, unsettled debate which is still persistently prevalent in
various forms. Indian feminist researchers or Women Studies researchers have not yet been able
to define Indian Feminism. Unlike western feminism, Indians dont have any clear cut corpus
of writing which can categorically be referred to as feminism or feminist writing/theory.
Until the 1990s, Indian feminist scholars were not engaged in academic conversation within the
corpus of what is a western-dominated international academic feminism. Indian feminism has
always been looked down upon due to the sparseness of theoretical writings which could grasp
the crux of the problems of the Indian women, its inevitable and unavoidable association with
western feminism and the existence of a recurrent sense of evasion, ambivalence and
ambiguity towards the term feminism itself. Feminism in India can be defined as 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 2 . 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. 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. 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 sexselective abortion. To Indian feminists, these are seen as injustices worth struggling against.
The above mentioned topic has been discussed in a detailed and analytical manner in
various upcoming sections.

Ray, Raka Fields of Protest: Women's Movements in India, (1999) University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,
page 13.

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Chapter 1
To discuss about the various phases of the feminist movement in India.
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, protges 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 organizations. 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
1970s3. The history of the Indian feminist movements can be categorized into three different
phases with each phases dealing with the various aspects of the same issues.
First phase: 18501915
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. In
addition to this, some upper caste Hindu women rejected constraints they faced under
3

Kumar, Radha, The History of Doing- Kali for Women, New Delhi, (1998).

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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 'modernize' the Hindu family. This included the Age
of Consent controversy that erupted after the government tried to raise the age of marriage for
women4.
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 essential 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 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 organizations like All India Women's Conference
(AIWC) 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.5The 1920s was a new era for Indian
women and is defined as 'feminism' that was responsible for the creation of localized women's
associations. These associations emphasized women's education issues, developed livelihood
strategies for working class women, and also organized 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 anticolonialist freedom movements. This made the mass mobilization of women an integral part of
Indian nationalism. Women therefore were a very important part of various nationalist and anticolonial efforts, including the civil disobedience movements in the 1930s6. This phase of the
nationalist played a significant role in bringing out the women as feminists. The mass

Gangoli, (2007), pages 8889.


Sen, Amartya, The Many Faces of Gender Inequality -The New Republic, 17 September 2001; p. 39
6
Ibid.
5

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participation of the women on the freedom movement developed their critical consciousness
regarding their rights and status in the independent Indian society. This period can be termed as
the transitional period whereby the women replaced the men as the flag-bearers of the feminist
movement in India.
Third Phase - Feminism: Post-1947
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 labor 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
labor. In other words, the feminists' aim was to abolish the free service of women who were
essentially being used as cheap capital.7 Feminist class-consciousness also came into focus in the
1970s, with feminists recognizing 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 selfdetermination8.
Chapter 2
To discuss about the change in the perspective of feminism (after 1990s) and its impact on the
Indian society.
The feminism in the Indian society has come a long way since the independence. In the
due course it has underwent a series of changes making it more bold and dynamic. The feminist
movement that started in India during late 1990s can be termed more as a radical feminism but
still there certain feminist who deny to this fact.
7
8

Supra 3.
Ibid.

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Radical Feminism was the result of the disillusionment resulted from the failure of
Marxist Feminism. According to radical feminists, in order to liberate women, it is not capitalism
that is to be overthrown but patriarchy. Above all, they opposed the growing sexual crimes
against women. The analyses of radical feminism points out the need for women to escape from
cages of forced motherhood and sexual slavery. Hence, the immediate goal of radical feminist
politics is for women to regain control over their own bodies. In the long run, the radical
feminists seek to overthrow patriarchy and to create a new society informed by the radical
feminist values of wholeness, trust and nurturance of sexuality, joy and mildness. Radical
Feminists see mens domination of women as the result of the system of patriarchy which is
independent of all other social structures that is, it is not a product of capitalism9.
On the other the feminists who deny the fact that the feminist movement taking place in
the Indian society is a radical form of feminism argue that the particular movement going on in
the Indian society cannot be termed as a radical form of feminism rather than it is sort of feminist
movement with the post-modern philosophy forming its basis. Postmodern feminism emerges
from two main sources. First, out of criticisms of modernist feminist theorizing and second,
perhaps obviously, from postmodern and post-structural thought. Following this, postmodern
feminists are equally keen to expose the flaws and weaknesses of traditional feminisms,
particularly with regard to their modernist commitments. One of the significant aspects is the
destabilization of the category of woman. It is certainly the case that postmodernists are keen to
develop ideas about the social world that do not rely on the traditional understanding 10 .
Contemporary postmodern feminism thus emerges out of the conflicts within feminist theorizing
and the influence of postmodernist thought. Postmodern feminism thus is aligned with the
deconstructive strategies of postmodernism in general but has a specific interest in gender and
the feminine/female11.
The contemporary Indian womens movement is a complex, variously placed, and fertile
undertaking. It is perhaps the only movement today that encompasses and links such issues as
work, wages, environment, ecology, civil rights, sex, violence, representation, caste, class,
allocation of basic resources, consumer rights, health, religion, community, and individual and

Freedman, Feminism, p. 5.
Zalewski, Feminism after Postmodernism, p. 17.
11
Zalewski, Feminism after Postmodernism, p. 26.
10

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social relationships. Perhaps the most significant development for women in the last few decades
has been the introduction of 33% reservation for women in local, village-level elections. In the
early days, when this move was introduced, there was considerable skepticism. Another
development to watch with interest is the diasporic links among Indian womens groups. This
diasporic network is unusual and could become an important source of mobilization against
communal identity politics.
Impact of feminist movement in Indian Society
The feminist thought and feminist movement in the west have some influence on the
womans movement in the developing country like India. Yet, feminism as it exists today in India
has gone beyond its western counter parts. Uma Narayan rightly puts it third world feminism is not
mindless mimicking of western agenda in one clear and simple sense. Until the 1990s, Indian
feminist scholars were not engaged in academic conversation within the corpus of what is a westerndominated international academic feminism. Indian feminism has always been looked down upon
due to the sparseness of theoretical writings which could grasp the crux of the problems of the Indian
women, its inevitable and unavoidable association with western feminism and the existence of a
recurrent sense of evasion, ambivalence and ambiguity towards the term feminism itself. The
impact of the feminism in the Indian society can be best in the areas of the literature, academics and
in the politics. Here, I would like to cite certain feminist who are in the same line regarded as the best
known feminists of India. Indian writing in English is now gaining ground rapidly. In the realm of
fiction, it has heralded a new era has earned many laurels both at home and abroad. Indian woman
writers have started questioning the prominent old patriarchal domination. Today, the works of
Kamla Markandaya, Narayan Sahgal, Anita Desai, Geetha Hariharan, Shashi Deshpande, Kiran
Desai and Manju Kapur and many more have left an indelible imprint on the readers of Indian fiction
in English. A major development in modern Indian fiction is the growth of a feminist or women
centered approach, that seeks to project and interpret experience, from the point of a feminine
consciousness and sensibility. As Patricia Meyer Specks remarks:
There seems to be something that we call a womens point of view on outlook sufficiently
distinct to be recognizable through the countries.12
Shobha De, a supermodel, celebrity journalist and the well-known author stands as a pioneer
in the field of popular fiction and ranks among the first to explore the world of the urban woman in
12

Patricia Meyer Specks, Feminist Sensuality, Antwerp, 2002, p. .37.

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India. She has given importance to womens issues and they are dealt with psychology in her style of
intimate understanding. Her novels indicate the arrival of a new Indian woman, eager to defy
rebelliously against the well-entrenched moral orthodoxy of the patriarchal social system, eager to
find their identity in their own way. Her female characters break all shackles of customs and
traditions that tie them in the predicaments and rein in their freedoms and rights. They are not against
the entire social system and values but are not ready to accept them as they are. Her female
characters are modern, strong and take bold decisions to survive in society. This secures her position
in literature as a feminist novelist.

Similar, is the situation in the area of politics. Discussing the importance of the women in
the scene of Indian politics would be a futile job because for the fact that the active participation
of women in the politics in India is second to none. But, there is a high level of discrepancy in
the ratio of men and women when the question is about the top positions. Although the
provisions for a women reservation bill has been made whereby 33% reservation is given to the
women in the local and the state govt. have been all but futile. Although the situation do seem to
be grim in the arena of the politics but the situation is developing gradually with the women
being given certain positions of authority. But, still it is far from satisfactory.

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Chapter 3
To critically analyze the Indian feminism in relation to the western feminism.
Feminism has attracted attention due to its impact in social change in the Indian society.
While feminism in some forms is generally accepted, dissenting voices do exist. Many people
object to the feminist movement as trying to destroy traditional gender roles. They say that men
and women have many natural differences and that everyone benefits from recognizing those
differences. Although the Indian women movement can legitimately claim a rich, unique history,
but the recent upheavals are forcing us to reconceptualise (or, it could be argued, to
conceptualise for the first time) the basic concepts of patriarchy, gender and empowerment. It is
not for nothing that some of the current debates affecting women, such as those around a uniform
civil code, or reservations for women in Parliament none of them new issues --- are nonetheless
raising far reaching questions for which existing answers are inadequate. More to the point, the
current mood in feminist circles is anything but complacent. The Indian feminism has been
criticised on certain points chalked out in relation to the western feminist movement.
Most criticisms of Feminist perspectives have stemmed from Feminists themselves (this
is sometimes referred to as an "internal critique" (that is, one that comes from various writers
working within the same broad perspective). The following points refer to this kind of
internal critique...

1. Liberal Feminism

a. Liberal Feminists have focused their attention upon "equality of opportunity" between males
and females. They have largely ignored the study of social structural factors that other Feminists
see as a basic cause of inequality in Capitalist societies (for example, patriarchy and the
inequalities created by Capitalist forms of economic production).

b. Liberal Feminists have been criticised for their failure to understand that in any society that is
fundamentally unequal in its economic and social structure "equality of opportunity" is a fairly

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meaningless concept. In a society divided along class lines and driven by economic exploitation,
women - like working class men - are at a fundamental economic disadvantage.

2. Radical Feminism.

a. There is no real evidence that women constitute a "sex class", since it is clear that apart from a
common biological structure, women may have no real shared interests "as a class apart from
men". It is difficult to see, for example, what "common interests" are shared by upper class and
working class women - aside from the fact that they are women. The experiences and life
chances of upper class females are significantly different to those of working class females
where the position of the former may be closer to that of men than to their working class
counterparts.

b. The primary importance attached to patriarchy downgrades the importance of concepts like
social class and ethnicity. For Marxist Feminists, patriarchy itself stems from the way in which
women are generally exploited economically.

c. To view women as a "sex class" whose basic interest involves emancipation from men would
leave unresolved the problem of economic exploitation.

d. Radical Feminism tends to overlook the fact that the general position of women in society has
changed over time and this can only be explained in terms of wider economic and political
changes in society.

e. Socialist Feminists do not see women as a "sex class", nor do they see all men as "the class
enemy". Not all male / female relationships are characterised by oppression and exploitation, for
example. Technological "solutions" to female exploitation are also viewed with suspicion (since
control over development and exploitation of technology has traditional been a male preserve),
as is the idea that a matriarchal society is somehow superior and preferable to a patriarchal
society.

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f. Radical Feminists over-emphasise factors that separate women from men their biological
anatomy in particular - over-stating the significance of biological differences - and also
unsubstantiated / uncritical assumptions about male and female psychology.

4. Socialist Feminism.
a. This form of Feminism underplays the significance of Capitalist forms of exploitation.
b. Socialist Feminism is criticised for being neither revolutionary nor radical enough to create
lasting solutions to the problem of female economic and social exploitation.

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CONCLUSION
It is important to recognize that for a country of Indias magnitude, change in male
female relations and the kinds of issues the womens movement is focusing on, will not come
easy. For every step the movement takes forward, there will be a possible backlash, a possible
regression. But this backlash could lead to positive results. The women, who are denied
opportunities to come forward and hence oppressed, are more motivated to take up the cause
more seriously. This makes possible for women who can aspire to, and attain, the highest
political office in the country, and for women to continue to have to confront patriarchy within
the home, in the workplace, throughout their lives. The womens movement in India today is a
rich and vibrant movement, which has spread to various parts of the country. It is often said that
there is no one single cohesive movement in the country, but a number of fragmented campaigns.
Activists see this as one of the strengths of the movement which takes different forms in different
parts. While the movement may be scattered all over India, they feel it is nonetheless a strong
and plural force.
In India, womens movement is beginning to show results. The society accepts the
equality of both sexes. The Indian society is still patriarchal and hence the space for women to
actualize and to assert themselves is limited. Yet we hope that womens movement will lead to a
more radical feminist movement. This does not mean that we are going to ape the Western
feminism. An authentic Indian way of being feminine has to be sought and put into practice by
the Indian feminists. Third wave feminism suggests that women are different and distinct. The
well-being of the society depends on each man and woman; neither can develop without the
other. The feminist movement in India invites Indians to affirm the uniqueness of the feminine,
to cherish their uniqueness and thus giving them a right place in human society, because it is a
woman who ultimately is responsible for the uplift of the society. Therefore, the future is
predicted to be bright and clear with dreams unlimited.
Feminism of today marches into this heaven of freedom where the world has not been
broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls of division, exploitation, domination, over
the other. That is the dream of feminism, the desire of a true human society, of a true human
world. As Margaret Mead has rightly pointed out, feminism is fundamental to the change. It is
fully integrated into evolution and it implies a real transformation of humanity, of the totality,
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not only for women, but also for men. On this depends in a big way the revival of the world; it is
a consciousness which has already begun to emerge slowly and insistently, but the repercussions
are yet to be foreseen and identified.

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