What is Feminism?

What is feminism? There seems to be a great deal of confusion surrounding this term in India. This post about what feminism is not and what it means to me.

Most Indians equate feminism with all the trappings of the modern, urban woman – wearing jeans, using cellphones, having a career, not having to follow traditions – but that is not feminism at all. Many urban women are less feminist than their rural sisters. Take the Gulabi Gang for example; they’re probably a good deal more feminist than some of my urban neighbours.

A second chunk of the population, a significant number in itself, thinks feminism is about man-hating. That is not true either. Feminism rarely looks for “revenge”. Neither does feminism propose that women are in some way superior to men. It’s about equal rights.

A third group believes that feminism means women should certainly be given more freedom than they currently have but this should be within limits and not impact Bharatiya Sabhyata (Indian Culture). This group usually believes that freedom and all is ok but there should be limits on everything. Their point of view is best summarized below. Here I quote from one of the most sarcastic comments I’ve ever posted online.

Women are given freedom so that they can be eternally grateful and not use it. Women are given an education so that their parents can say, “We are progressive minded. We educated our daughters”. Women are given the right to lift their heads and see the world so that they can realize what a paradise maika (parents’ home) and sasural (marital/in-laws’ home) are. Women are given the right to work because housewives are lazy (always watching daily serials) and no one should get muft-ki-roti (free lunch) in life.

In my opinion, it’s the last group that’s most dangerous. It’s easy to correct the misconceptions of the first two groups because it’s simple to provide counter-examples. But how do you convince someone that feminism is not a modern idea that’s out to ruin Indian Society?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s my take on what feminism is:

Feminism means that men and women should have equal rights. Our constitution provides some of these: equal pay for equal work, the right to vote, right to education, and so on. But our constitution does not provide for equal rights in many areas. The lack of a uniform civil code (one of the greatest legacies of the Rajiv Gandhi government – the Shah Bano case) and in the case of Hindu women at least (not sure about other communities) the lack of rights on paternal property in the absence of a will. Feminists ask that women and men be treated equally well (or equally badly) by society. Given that giving or accepting dowry is a criminal offence under Indian law, I fail to see why daughters should not have property rights. I use the qualifier about dowry because many argue that what parents wish to give to their daughter is given at the time of the daughter’s wedding.

A corollary to the above statement would be that women should not be discriminated against. This includes, but is not limited to, the girl child being marginalized, daughters being less desired than sons, dowry still being prevalant, female victims of crimes (especially sexual assault) denied justice and the crimes not taken seriously enough, a woman’s choices not being respected, women not treated fairly at work because they have children, and all other forms of sexism. I think you get the idea. There’s no way anyone can provide an exhaustive list.

There are other ways of looking at the issue of equal rights, of course. Feminism is not the only way. However, given how all cultures in the world seem to automatically agree that women are inferior to men, the feminist movement is certainly relevant. It would be great if we could look at issues pertaining to larger groups of human beings as a whole – rights of people of colour, rights of ethnic minorities, rights of the LGBT(Q), and so on. However, intersectionality is not for me. I appreciate the point of view but I’d rather be a feminist.

If you’ve made it this far, here’s my take on feminism and Indian Values:

So how does feminism fit in with Indian culture? It doesn’t really. Women have been treated as inferior beings for centuries if not millennia. Some of the earliest proof of this lies at least in works such as the Arthashastra and the Manusmriti if not the vedas themselves. Detractors can say, “Oh! They knew better and we probably don’t understand what the ancients really tried to say” But the fact remains that Hindu culture is quite misogynist. And Indian society as a whole believes that women must be controlled. Or treated at par with cattle at any rate (check the Arthashastra). This is the reason most people feel freedom for women should come with limits. And the reason why teachers in Convent schools get away with saying things like, “Naari jaati aur uspar aisa dur-vyavhaar? (a female having the audacity to misbehave?)”

How do we control women? By comparing them all with Sita, of course. Here’s a good read on that topic. Recently, the protagonists of TV serials have begun edging Sita out but for most part Sita is the woman. What’s interesting is that while men are judged in many ways, they’re never judged as husbands. We have no male role model equivalent of Sita. We do have the occasional Sravana Kumara kind but for most part, pati is parmeshwar (husband is the supreme God).

And now, there’s this feminism thingie that threatens to upset this carefully achieved balance. No wonder people hate it. And no wonder people are confused. Women are asking to be equal. They want men to do their share of housework. They are no longer satisfied with taking pride in their husband and children’s achievements. Women want their own identity. They don’t want to marry the first boy papa brings home. They want the right to choose their own partners. But most importantly, women want men to get off the pedestal they’ve been on since the beginning of time-as-we-know-it.

What the upholders of Indian Values don’t realize is that even Sita was a feminist. Yes, she was. I’ll give you a moment to lift your jaw back up. One of the most tortured heroines in Hindu mythology a feminist? But she was. She followed Rama to the forest of her own free will. She suffered one Agni pariksha not as a wife but as a queen. And she walked out of her marriage when the abuse crossed her own personal threshold. Sita was no doormat. She might have had a pretty miserable life, but that doesn’t take away her power to choose. The fact that Sita was feminist doesn’t take anything away from the fact that the society she lived in was not. A second thing the Moral Police don’t realize is that dharma changes from one age to the other even in Indian myth. What worked in Rama’s time did not work in Krishna’s. Yet the very same people who cry foul at the changes Kaliyuga has brought have forgotten to change the rules to suit it.

The essential debate, of course, is not about the evils of the times we live in. Neither is it about religion. The question is whether a society that labels itself secular and democratic should allow the traditions of so long ago kill the rights of a little less than half its citizens.

Yes, a little less than half. Think about that.

ps: Whether or not I believe in Hindu mythology is a completely different question to be addressed in another post.

pps: I talk mostly about Hindu culture in this post because the Moral Police and TV serials seem to equate Indian culture with Hindu culture.

14 Replies to “What is Feminism?”

  1. Hi Simply Bored,

    I’m a regular reader of your blog and love your comments on IHM’s blogs as well, specially the one you have quoted in this post.

    Wonderfully written post specially when there is so much of discussions about feminism already going around, it important to undertand the basics of it.
    You have spoken about Sita here, and I want to point to Krishna, who I consider as the Casanova God of our Hindu Mythology with 108 wives and many Girlfriends, do you think a female God with many husbands and boyfriends would have been acceptable to Indian Culture? And thats teh reason I cant think of any such God in our scriptures…Do you know of any?


    1. A female with 5 husbands – Draupadi – is actually counted among the mahapativratas. At some level it’s not Hindu mythology alone to blame. Yes, there is an inherent bias towards men in all the tales. And yes, the rules of dharma prescribe different things for men and women – in that sense, the rules are not equal. However, I like to believe that in addition to the mythology effect, we’re also struggling to shake off the puritanical Victorian influence.

      The British have moved on but their legacy remains…

  2. “What the upholders of Indian Values don’t realize is that even Sita was a feminist. Yes, she was.”
    You forgot to add that she chose to go back home (to Godess earth) instead of going back to Rama finally.

    Also on Neha’s comment – Godesses could anyways do what they liked. Lets talk about human beings in that era (like Krisha was too). Kunti could sleep with other men while in a marriage and produce sons who then had a stake in the kingdom of the man she was married to! Even Pandu and Dhritarashtra were actually Ved Vaya’s sons (and not the sons of the man whose kingdom they inherited) and the MIL in this case had ordered her DILs to have sex with Ved Vayas to produce a successor to the throne.
    Ved Vyas himself was the eldest son of this particular MIL who was born out of a brahmin BEFORE she married the king.

    Need any more proof that women were more liberated in that era? And that they had the control over their sexuality?

    1. True. However, just want to add that the underlying theme was that the husband “owned” the woman’s womb so to speak. This is the reason the Pandavas were considered to be sons of Pandu rather than those of the respective gods. There are dozens more examples. Vali captured Sugreeva’s wife but Sugreeva still “took her back” and didn’t claim that her honour was lost. Lord Venkateshwara’s still paying off his loan to Kubera (all for the sake of marrying goddess Lakshmi). I can imagine how the concept of Sati and Jauhar may have taken hold in the Rajput kindgoms. If the option was death or captivity, torture, rape, and death, I can see how women might have willingly chosen the former.

      But what happens is that we refuse to let go of the irrelevant. And continue these practices to the point where they become tools for oppression.

  3. Oh Yes how can I forget about Draupadi and Kunti! But in general you are considered great only when you have sacrificed your happiness and suffered in your life…..this is what our Bhartiya Sabhyata preaches……….
    Feminism on the other hand is talking about equal rights and also about rights of women to be happy..and how can this go well with the guardians of Bhartiya sabhyata

    1. Oh yes I agree. But in all due fairness, Bharatiya Sabhyata doesn’t particularly emphasize happiness for men either. Don’t you think? The moral guardians want everyone to keep sacrificing all the time.

  4. Yes I agree, but the Moral Guardians don’t judge Men if they choose not to sacrifice, but on the other hand a women is considered a women by these guardians only when she is “Tyag ki Devi” else she does not even deserve to be called a women.
    A women cant be happy and yet called a dutiful wife/daughter/mother only when she has enough proof of sacrificein her kitty then she passes the litmus test of being a woman.

    1. Lol! Yes. The litmus test is so true. The phrase “Tyag ki devi/murti” irks me to no end. I tried the sacrifice thing on a small scale and it was a massive failure. Never, ever again.

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