Women’s never really got their share of fine

Women’s Rights
and Feminism in India

‘It is the best for all tame animals
to be ruled by human beings. For this is how they are kept alive. In the same
way, the relationship between the male and the female is by nature such
that the male is higher, the female lower, that the male rules and the female
is ruled.’ 

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This was ages ago, when men thought
they were the bearer of civilization and social life and the sole owners of
reason and logic if there was any. Women were good for bearing children, being
obedient and looking elegant. Of course, times changed, centuries changed the
new millennium arrived and the world flipped. We see women, who were being
relegated to the background in the past, standing out and shining bright like
their male counterparts.

This of course did not come easy. It
took a century long feminist struggle for women to keep pace with their
counterpart, which if we go by the western feminism can be divided into three
broad streams and studied like : first wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on
overturning legal inequalities, particularly women’s suffrage, second wave feminism
that during 1960s–1980s broadened debate to include cultural inequalities,
gender norms and the role of women in society, third wave feminism that
during 1990s–2000s refers to diverse strains of feminist activity seen as both
a continuation of the second wave and a response to its perceived failures. When one thinks of feminism, the names that come to one’s
mind readily are Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and Elaine
Showalter, since the growth of feminism is usually attributed to western
influence. True, these spokeswomen set about the task of theorizing the needs
of women in a society where their inner feelings should be articulated loud and

But we cannot interpret history in monolithic universal terms
ignoring the differences in culture.  Feminism is multicultural and diasporic.
However different the places and people be the rights don’t change and remain
equal for all no matter what one’s biological build is. How could India remain
a mere witness. This is not to say that the western feminism solely inspired
women in Indian subcontinent to stand up for one’s political right but there
was a run for equal treatment of both the sexes during 20th century which got
bigger and better by the end of the century irrespective of if it was in the
‘first world’ or ‘second world’ or ‘third world’.

The women of all skin tones and builds (who had till now
sustained societies but never really got their share of fine appreciation and
rather declared to possess no reason) were out on the world stage deciding on
their future and declaring they were more than a body and reproductive units. However,
in this study we will focus more on the Indian women and the evolution of
feminism and women rights in Indian context.

The earliest form of feminism in Indian society for Indian women
was in the form of taking part in agitations that had nothing to do with only
women rights. What better example can be there if not the freedom struggle of
India which saw active participation by women. Women’s participation in these
freedom movements agitation is feminist in the sense that it was a mouthpiece
to declares that women like men were capable of handling private as well as
public stage. To name a few below are such movements where early active
feminism by the Indian women was visible:

1946-52: Telangana agitation in which women were trained
as guerrillas.

1972: Shahada and anti-price rise agitation in
Maharashtra with women in the forefront

1972: Anti-alcohol agitation in parts of western
India. Self- Employed Women’s Association (SEWA ) set up by Ela Bhatt.

1973: Anti-price rise agitations in Gujarat.

1974: Nav-nirman agitation.

1978: First national conference of socialist
feminists in Bombay.

1979: Stri Sangharsh formed in Delhi.

1980-83: Campaigns against dowry.

1987: Campaigns against domestic violence and rape.

Early ’80s: Establishment of Centre for Women’s Development

1985: Agitations in solidarity with Shah Bano.

1986: Movements against Muslim Women’s Bill.

1987: Agitation against sati

Late ’80s: Struggle for a safe environment, demonstrations

early ’90s: Union Carbide after the Bhopal gas tragedy.


Feminism comprises a number of social, cultural and political
movements, theories and moral philosophies concerned with gender inequalities
and equal rights for women. It is standing for political, social and economic
equality amongst the two sexes and removal of all kind of biases against the so
called ‘weaker sex’ the women.

 Well this bias against
women is very prevalent in India. Boys are preferred any day over girls, in all
aspects. Even today in many rural areas in India, the families only want a boy
child. Female infanticide also takes place. People are so dissatisfied with a
girl child that they go on to kill them. There have been cases where new born
girl babies are thrown in the well or drowned in milk. This sure doesn’t sound
like an equal society.

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. 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

any case, the term “feminism” may be a Western import, but the “concept”, the
“debate” on women is an old one and has its origin rooted in the soil of Asia
since the 6th century B.C. when the issue of whether women could join the order
and become nuns was debated by the Buddha and his followers. This debate on
women’s right to education has been a continuing theme in many Asian countries,
and India is one of them. In the 18th century a Chinese scholar, Chen Hung-Mou
wrote on women’s education:

“There is no one in the world who is
not educable; and there is no-one whom we can afford not to educate; why be
neglectful only in regard to girls?” (Chaudhuri: 7)

For most Indians, the term
“feminism” means nothing, except a microscopic number of highly westernized,
elite people. Neither does that particular term have any equivalents in any of
the Indian language. If anything, the term has acquired many negative
connotations in recent years. Most urban English-speaking Indians are familiar
with the term “feminism”, but their understanding of it remains vague and
veiled too. There is a general skepticism about its usefulness. Among the urban
literate, the awareness of feminism is largely confined to what is perceived of
as the moral corruption of women abroad, a result of their outlandish freedom
to think and say, and choose what they want out of life. The conservative
structures and Indian panorama of seeing things have not so far allowed it to
become a widely apprehended phenomenon. For most Indian men (and women)
feminism has contained to be an “obnoxious” word, which they feel have
tremendous negative effects on the minds of Indian females. Since the Indian
female has always been a considerably more conditioned product; totally
custom-made and usually coerced into a mindless acceptance of male diktat, the
possibility of a reasoned, open-minded approach to the concept of feminism has
been at best sporadic.

No doubt,
Indian society has always been highly hierarchical. The concept of equality as
a correlate of the concept of individual freedom is alien to Indian society. In
reality, Indian history reveals an almost opposite experience. Western educated
Indians were inspired to reflect upon their own value system and to examine the
inequalities, injustices and oppressions of their own culture.

“In India, feminism and nationalism
were closely interlinked. The women’s movement in India had none of the
man-woman antagonism characteristic of women’s movement in the West”.
(Chaudhuri: xxi)

The most distinctive feature of
Women’s movement is that it was initiated by men. Hence, the struggle did not
acquire the overtones of gender warfare as it did in the West. None of this
means that the situation of women in India is satisfactory or acceptable.
Practices such as the denial of re-marriage to upper caste Hindu widows,
polygamy, and dowry, similarly made illegal, still continue. Worse yet, some of
these practices have gained strength in new forms. The widespread incidence of
bride-burning and dowry deaths reflect the traditional practice of dowry in a
new and ghastly form. Thus, despite constitutional and legal provisions aimed
at facilitating their status as equals, women continue to suffer. Moreover,
most Indian women are unlikely to be able to make the fine distinction between
sorrow and oppression. Their lives are ruled by the single word “compromise”
and not “confrontation”, as is the situation in the West. They are too confused
to decide the priorities in their lives. For example, in the recent times,
women are too confused to choose between “career” and “homemaking”, and their
incessant efforts to make both ends meet only degrade their capabilities and

With the
arrival of “westernized” feminism in India soon afterwards in the
mid-seventies, several Indian women turned away from the cause. Most Indian
women have reacted in three distinct ways – first, their disapproval of
feminist anger; second, their somewhat mixed and confused reaction to the
feminist emphasis on patriarchy and particularly on men as the principal
oppressors; and third, their relative inability to tune into the demands for
equality and personal freedom.

the roots of such reactions is important from the point of view of gearing both
activist feminism, and women’s studies in India to the Indian ethos and Indian
convictions. A conscious probing into the Indian hierarchies along with the
cultural heritage and traditional religiosity will perhaps lead us to some
sound conclusion regarding such distrustful reactions from the majority of
Indian women.

Vrinda Nabar
in her seminal treatise, Cast/e as Woman (1995), has very meticulously
observed and focused on the role of tradition in our social existence and how
it has affected the collective unconscious of the Indians. It has already been
asserted that “gender” is a social construct, and discrimination in India
begins at birth, or even before it. It starts before the child is born. The
fact remains that the desire for a male child and gender infanticide has been a
common practice in several cultures across the globe; that daughters have been
the primary victims of infanticide everywhere. Regarding this Adrienne Rich
refers to Lloyd de Mause who has argued in a documented essay that killing
female children was “routine practice” in medieval Europe. A husband of the 1st
century B.C. instructs his wife thus: “If, as well may happen, you give birth
to a child, if it is a boy let it live; if it is a girl, expose it”. (Rich:

In India we
are fond of speaking and boasting of our glorious past. For many Indians, the
past has a living presence which serves contemporary needs, and has never
ceased to structure the Indian consciousness through the ages. This may have
something to do with the outlook which is sentimental, even emotional and
melodramatic, rather than pragmatic and utilitarian. At any rate, the average
Indian simply accepts the validity of the past without questioning too deeply,
or threateningly, its socio-cultural rationale or the desirability of viewing
it as a universal absolute. Thus, Indians reminiscence about the remote past
when women were equal with men and no discrimination was visible. We have come
across references of Gargi, Maitrayee, Apala of the Vedic ages, who were
equally educated and took part in all religious rituals with the men;
references to freedom fighters like Rani of Jhansi and Matangini Hazra are also
never held before us. However, we come across these names only in the books of
history as a piece of information; they are never held before us as images of
ideal Indian women, nor do we find references to the living legends like
Shakuntala Devi, the great Mathematician, leave apart the great Indian
scholars. Instead we are allegedly fed with images of Sitas, Savitris and
Draupadis from the idyllic ages of our national epics, undoubtedly written by
“men”. These Sitas and Draupadis with the constant support of Indian Media
Herald an ongoing tradition of long-suffering women whose real heroism is
overlaid with the message of devotion and service to their husbands, a
glorification of these qualities so that martyrdom is seen in some cases, as
preferable, desirable, virtuous, and even imperative. Their qualities of
exhibiting sharp wit, intelligence, resourcefulness, tenacity, and affection –
have never been held up for emulation. Tradition has only emphasized women’s
self-immolation. This (perverted) concept of “pativrata” – the idealized one,
is romanticized through legends, myths, folklore, folksong and reaffirmed
through ceremonies of different kinds. Even educated, elite, urban women follow
the practice devotedly; leave apart the illiterate rural ones.

Indians are so biased and prejudiced
against the concept of “feminism” that they mark out each and every person
working for or supporting the women’s cause, are inevitably tabooed as if she
or he is a terrorist, exploding anti-social elements and ideas, and corrupting
Indian traditions and cultures. In fact, anyone working for women’s rights
irrespective of the nature of their work, is automatically assumed to be a
conscious or unconscious feminist, and allowed no choice on this issue. This is
because the definitions, the terminology, the assumptions, the form of struggle
and institutions and even the issues are exported from the West and applied to
the Indian context rather mindlessly. Madhu Kishwar, the editor of Manushi – ‘a
journal about women and society’, literally abhors the term “feminists” and
vehemently claims – “I do not call myself a feminist” (Chaudhuri: 33). She
personally resists this uncritical absorption of the Western concept of
feminism. The mindless importation of issues, no doubt, does not fit into the
Indian context. This seriously inhibits and stunts the process of understanding
the reality of women’s lives in India where women’s struggles have followed
quite a different course. As a result, most often than not, feminists tend to
intervene in people’s lives in the guise of “attacking outsiders” rather than
as “caring insiders”. That is why they have failed to forge strong links with
the civil society they wish to reform.

Vrinda Nabar
also has paradoxically claimed that feminism hasn’t even begun in any real
sense in India. The Indian Women’s Movement has been far too amorphous and
rambling as to threaten the status quo in any significant way. The absence of
any committed feminists and the scarcity of feminist theory texts too may be
regarded as another prime cause behind the marginal impact. Unless such a text
is written more than half of India’s population remains faceless and defined
rigidly in traditional androcentric terms. Several invaluable studies of
women-related issues have remained inaccessible or of little interest except to
scholars, researchers, and those with a motivated interest in women’s studies.
Moreover, in a society still largely suspicious of changes in the lifestyle of
its women, the implications are clear that Indian women do not need a
corrupting militancy which is the product of an alien culture.

I would like to conclude with that feminism and women’s rights
are yet to take a footing in the Indian society with the winds of patriarchy
and ignorance about feminism blowing almost invincibly in the forefront. I am
no exception to this ignorance. I being a woman always have and to some extent
still do refrain from saying that am a feminist.  I feared if it was that I had unwittingly indoctrinated
the patriarchy that I now was willing to be complacent about it, about women’s rights?!
But that thankfully is just a wild thought because am very much vocal when it
comes to unequal treatment between genders. But with the course of this study I
realized that perhaps like Madhu Kishwar says many minds might not be feeling
at ease with the whole western concept of feminism. I however feel that media
and mainstream judgements are to be blamed as they with such distorted
conceptions of feminism and feminists are creating a rift between women’s
rights and feminism. As more and more people are opting to be women’s rights
activist and claim no connection to being a feminist. And without attempting to
know about the concept of feminism.

Well here we are trying to understand about feminism and in the meantime,
there are people in Indian politics still trying to find ways to shame women
for being welcome to change. And if not anything else still trying to judge
Women by the way they look.

the Women’s Bill in the Lok Sabha, Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav said
that the Bill would only benefit the well-off in the cities, describing
well-off women as, “par kati auratein”

Let us hope for a better tomorrow !

women from the affluent classes can get ahead in life, but remember you rural
women will never get a chance because you are not that attractive.”

Singh Yadav

 “Dented-painted women protesters in Delhi went
to discotheques and then turned up at India Gate to express outrage.”