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.