Feminism is all about the advocacy of women’s rights against unlawful gender based exploitation of women. As Jane Radcliffe Richards said, “Women suffer from systemic social injustice and therefore a movement is needed for elimination of sex based injustice.”
Long before the word ‘Feminism’ was coined, it began in India as a set of movements against social evils. The early movements were initiated by men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy against inhuman practices like Sati. Between 1915- 1947 women asserted their political rights by joining the Quit India movement. They were spurred on by men like Gandhiji, who said,
“There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men.”
In Maharashtra, Feminism was pioneered by women who fought for the right to education. Savitri Phule started the first school for women and Tarabai Shinde wrote the first feminist text in her work “Stree Purusha Tulana.” In Bengal. Panditha Ramabai criticized patriarchy and the caste system. All India Women’s Conference in 1937 fought for reforming personal laws and raising the marriageable age of girls to 14 and boys to 18. The Hindu Code Bill was passed in 1959 prohibiting bigamy, permitting divorce and giving women the right to property.
However, since 1970, Feminism has become a mass movement, influenced to a certain extent by western ideas, which also brought with it a subtle animosity to men.
Feminism in India is against specific issues. There are movements against domestic violence, dowry, sexual abuse, rape, sex selection, polygamy, Triple Talaq and honour killings.
Women have become more aware of their sexuality expressed through dress, speech, mannerisms and behaviour. They challenge the archaic notions of modesty and honour. They fight for their rights to live with dignity. They demand a change of attitude regarding the atrocities of the day from an apathetic government, an indifferent bureaucracy, narrow minded politicians and insensitive policemen steeped in primitive cultural norms. Women’s sexuality is certainly not an invitation to violence or rape.
The recent #NotInMyName movement is against right wing excesses against women, Dalits and minorities. The Pink Chaddi campaign started by activist Namita Malhotra was also against Right wing activists who attacked women in the Mangalore pub. It is frustrating to learn that all these goons have been acquitted.
In 2006 the Gulabi Gang in U.P. was started by Sampat Lal Devi who styled herself as Commander in Chief against domestic violence. At present there are about two lakh members who don pink saris and carry a stick when responding to calls of domestic violence. These feminists are disgusted with police insensitivity and the toothless justice system. They take matters into their own hands by treating violence with violence. Their fame has spread beyond the borders of Bundelkhand.
The Slut Walk in Delhi and other major cities in 2011, was copied from USA, where it began as a reaction against a police officer’s statement at the Osgoode Law School, who said that women could avoid victimization if they did not dress like sluts. Students protested in the streets insisting that women had a right to dress however they wanted. It was to affirm that sexual expression through dress or speech was not to invite violence. It quickly spread to India where women in pink walked the streets, challenging cultural beliefs that women’s attire was the cause of violence against women. It was a way of insisting on their rights. Many men joined in the walk, some of them even sporting pink chaddis.
However, the word ‘slut’ is certainly a ‘vulgarity of expression’ and in bad taste. It is even worse than the word ‘female eunuch’ coined by Germaine Greer. Will such vocabulary be counterproductive?
The colour coding of women in pink is perpetuating gender stereotypes. Maria Jones a University student in London called ‘pink’ a “symbol of gender apartheid.” One needs to promote self-esteem and positive body image which does not come with colour coding.
Different forms of feminism have surfaced over the years. In 2003 it was the Blank Noise movement against eve teasing. In 2011 the ‘Why Loiter’ movement emphasized women’s right to public spaces. In 2015 it was ‘Pinjra Tod’ (Break the cage) against sexist curfew rules in student hostels. In 2017 Bekhauf Azadi stood for Freedom from Fear. The #MeToo movement has brought to the fore sexual harassment at all levels.
Indian Feminism envisages the growth of both men and women. Women want to claim their space as equals in the cultural context. They want a voice in decision making whether in the family or at work or in society. “Democracy and development can never be equitable if women are excluded from policy making and implementation,” said former Lok Sabha speaker Meera Kumar. Though the women’s reservation bill was passed in Raja Sabha it is still hanging fire in Lok Sabha.
Feminism stresses on education for all. Education makes women rational creatures. It helps redefine feminity and emboldens women to challenge predetermined roles sculpted under patriarchy. Education brings economic benefits to women. Women have broken glass ceilings in several professions and made their mark in the Corporate World. Self-employed women’s organizations have contributed to the uplift of the unorganized sector. Economic power has caused a cultural shift giving women freedom to exercise their individuality; to build careers without rushing into marriage as expected by society. Studies have shown that where women’s employment is high the GDP rises exponentially.
Feminism calls for purposeful action to ensure safety for women in public places, homes, and schools. Feminism calls for swift action against male offenders with emphasis on speedy justice.
Indian Feminism has come a long way but still has miles to go. It is a multilayered struggle against caste, religion and sexual oppression. It calls for social and political justice. Along with equality women want respect for their feminine identity, both physiological and psychological. But Feminism must stay away from demonizing men or embarrassing them with false accusations.
We need to periodically ask ourselves if the Indian Feminist Movements are elitist. Do they bring about changes at grass root level or are they only for the middle classes? The focus should not be only on the educated and privileged. It must espouse the cause of the poor and marginalized. Their voices must be amplified. Occasionally we hear of rural women who have fought for liquor-free villages and triumphed. There is the Chamar Mangla community in U.P. who celebrates the birth of female children. Being aware of one’s rights makes every woman stronger. As one feminist said, “I am not free until every woman is free, even if the shackles are different from my own.”