The history of feminism in India is regarded as mainly a practical effort and mostly non-existent. Compared to some other countries there has been only sparse theoretical writing in feminism.
Defining Feminism in the Indian context
Pre-colonial social structures and women’s role in them reveal that feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west. Colonialessentialization 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 individualismwhere 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 good.
Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to carve a separate identity for feminism in India. They define feminism in time and space to in order to avoid the uncritically following Western ideas. 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 -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, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families exhibit matriarchal tendencies, with the head of the family being the oldest women rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral.
The heterogeneity of Indian experience reveals that there are multiple patriarchies and so also are there multiple feminisms. Hence feminism in India is not 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". (Bhasin and Khan 1986) Acknowledging sexism in daily life and attempting to challenge and eliminate it through deconstructing mutually exclusive notions offemininity 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. Caste-community identities intensify all other hierarchies. The polytheistic Hindu pantheon provides revered images of women as unique and yet complementary to those of male deities.
First phase: 1850–1915
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. Women in this phase were categorized along with lower castes as subjects of social reforms and welfare instead of being recognized as autonomous agents of change. The emphasis was on recreating new space in pre-existing feminine roles of caring. The women involved were those related to male activists, elite, western educated, upper caste Hindus.
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 essentializing 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 public space. Women-only organizations like All India Women's Conference (AIWC) and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged. Women were grappling with the issues relating to the scope of women’s political participation,women’s franchise, communal awards, and leadership roles in political parties.
Women’s participation in the freedom struggle 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 (crèches), equal pay for equal work etc. The state adopted a patronizing role towards women. Women in India did not 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.
The Concepts of Feminism and Equality
In India, the concept of “equality” was completely alien until liberally exposed Western-educated Indians introduced it in the early nineteenth century. However, the term did not gain meaning or become an operational principle in Indian life until the country gained independence in 1947 and adopted a democratic government.. The Indian Constitution then granted equality and freedom from discrimination based on gender or religion, and guaranteed religious freedom. Also, seven Five-Year Plans were developed to provide health, education, employment, and welfare to women. The sixth Five-Year Plan even declares women “partners in development."
It is crucial to note that there is a western concept of Indian women that Indian women themselves do not agree with at all. The concept of “feminism” is unique within the context of Indian culture; it cannot be directly compared to feminism in Western culture. Instead, this issue should be viewed as one of “human rights” within Indian context.
In addition, the characteristics that Western culture would label as forms of “oppression,” Indian women would instead define as forms of “sorrow.” The difference is significant and should be noted to understand that Indian women and Westerners are going to see some of the same issues in completely different lights. Such terms include:
- Infant deaths
- Use of their bodies in labor by landlords
- Ruthlessness of custom
- Burden of tradition
- Unrelenting demands of ritual
- Beating without reason
Beginnings of the “Feminist” Movement in India
Unlike the Western feminist movement, India’s movement was initiated by men, and later joined by women. Some of the most influential men involved were:
- Dr. Babasaheb Ambedker
- Raja Ram Mohan Roy
- Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar
- Keshav Chandra Sen
- Malabari Phule
- Gopal Ganesh Agarkar
- Mahadev Govind Ranade
- Dhondo Keshav Karve
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.
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.
There are also many traditions and customs that have been a huge part of India and its people 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 legally should 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 highly composed of hierarchical systems within families and communities. These hierarchies can be broken down into age, sex, ordinal position, kinship relationships (within families), 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 household. The descent and inheritance are traced through the male line, known as a patrilineal system, and they 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 this type of lifestyle is what women expect and are accustomed to. Indian women do not take full advantage of their constitutional rights because they are not properly aware or informed of them. Women also have poor utilization of voting rights because they possess low levels of political awareness and sense of political efficacy. Women are not informed about issues, nor are they encouraged to become informed. Political parties do not invest much time in women candidates because they don’t see much potential or promise in them, and see them as 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 that, most especially in rural areas, 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 are not “able” to birth a male child, and can often face much abuse if this is the case.
There is a poor representation of women in the Indian workforce. Females have a ten percent higher dropout rate than males from middle and primary schools, as well as lower levels of literacy than men. Since unemployment is also high in India, it is easy for employers to manipulate the law, especially when it comes to women, because it is part of Indian culture for women not to argue with men. Additionally, labor unions are insensitive to women’s needs. Women also have to settle for jobs that comply with their obligations as wives, mothers, and homemakers.
Hindu Women in India
In the Hindu religion, there has been partial success in terms of gender equality reform laws and family law. While this is a major advancement relative to other religions in India, it is still not a complete triumph in terms of feminism and relieving oppression. Gandhicame up with the term stree shakti for the concept of womanhood. In the Hindu religion, Gods are not exclusively male. Hinduism sheds a positive light on feminine principles; females are considered to compliment and complete their male counterparts. It is important to note that the deities of both knowledge and wealth are female.
Muslim Women in India
Despite Indian law that considers all men and women equal subjects, and though the Muslim religion was the first religion to recognize the rights of the women but the muslim societies in some places does not treat them as such hence violating both the constitution and their religion. Muslim women are the most notable Indian citizens for having their constitutional rights neglected, and are denied equal protection of the law as citizens because of inefficient implementation of law and lack of knowledge about the position of women in muslim religion among the people. They are considered the most disadvantaged, impoverished, and politically marginalized group within Indian society, as well as the most economically and socially vulnerable. The majority of Muslim women are never employed outside the home. The Muslims subject themselves to Sharia/Muslim Personal Laws or MLPs, which for them overrides even the Indian Constitution. However the incomplete knowledge about the Muslim Sharia has turned administration in many areas as gender biased in favor of men. However, the issue of relativism and cultural context comes into play yet again when discussing Muslim women and their situation. Before feminist activists can try to “help” them fight for equality and the rights enumerated to them in their country’s constitution, Muslim women must first identify their situation and recognize the injustices they suffer before action can be taken. It must be noted that such a decision cannot be made for them.
Women at Work
In general in the uneducated and rural section of the Indian society , which forms a major percentage of the total population, women are seen as economic burdens. Their contributions to productivity are mostly invisible as their familial and domestic contributions are unfairly overlooked. Indian women were contributing nearly 36 percent of total employment in agriculture and related activities, nearly 19 percent in the service sector, and nearly 12.5 in the industry sector as of the year 2000. The unfortunate reality is that the high illiteracy rate among women confines them to lower paying, unskilled jobs with less job security than men. Even in agricultural jobs where the work of men and women are highly similar, women are still more likely to be paid less for the same amount and type of work as men. However in the urban section of the Indian society, women are a empowered with laws such as IPC 498a which are heavily biased against the men in the society. Educated women are often accused of using such laws, to unleash legal terrorism on husbands by disgruntled wives.
Women and Education
Some of the main reasons that girls are less likely to reach optimal levels of education include the fact that girls are needed to assist their mothers at home, have been raised to believe that a life of domestic work is their destined occupation, have illiterate mothers who cannot educate their children, have an economic dependency on men, and are sometimes subject to child-marriage.
In 1986, the National Policy on Education (NPE) was created in India, and the government launched the program called Mahila Samakhya, whose focus was on the empowerment of women. The program’s goal is to create a learning environment for women to realize their potential, learn to demand information and find the knowledge to take charge of their own lives. In certain areas of India, progress is being made and an increase in the enrollment of girls in schools and as teachers has begun to increase. Efforts are still being made to improve the level of education that females receive to match that of male students.
Something important to note is that educated women are becoming associated with lower fertility rates in India, and making efforts to spread the use of contraception to uneducated Indian women.
Modern influences are affecting the younger generations in parts of India, where girls are beginning to forgo the more traditional ways of Indian life and break gender stereotypes. In more flourishing parts of the country, the idea of “dating,” or more specifically openly dating, has come into play, and the terms “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” are being used. Some women have landed highly respectable careers, and can be seen across Bollywood billboards and advertisements. However, this is not the norm throughout the country; such modernizations and the women behind them face serious resistance from anti-liberalists. The country is still severely male-dominant and unwelcoming to such movements that go against sex and gender traditions in India.
Role Models for Feminists in India
- Sultana Razia
- Rani Laxmibai
- Chandramukhi Basu
- Kadambini Ganguly
- Anandi Gopal Joshi
- Savitribai Phule
- Bhikaiji Cama
- Sucheta Kriplani
- Pritilata Waddedar
- Tarabai Shinde
- Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit
- Rajkumari Amrit Kaur
- Sarojini Naidu
- Amrita Pritam
- Indira Gandhi
- Sarojini Sahoo
- Kusum Ansal
- Kiran Bedi
- Medha Patkar
- Madhu Kishwar
- Sindhu Joy