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A Primer on Indian Feminism: 5 To Read

Essential readings on Indian feminism

A twitter acolyte, an economist, a fabulist, a beloved teacher and an academic- 5 Indian Feminists you should read

Feminism Primer

So why do we need to understand Indian feminism in the first place? Is it perhaps to have a trump card in drawing room conversations?  Maybe because a Taylor Swiftian/Sonam Kapoorian kind of feminism is suddenly so on trend?  Or is to assuage the guilt we feel from our disconnected ivory towers?

Perhaps, a bit of all of those – but most of all, I think we need to understand Indian feminism because we owe it to ourselves as women of (comparative) privilege. It is essential to see our struggles for equal pay, for respect, for the right to speak our opinions or to wear that short dress in the context of the struggle women have been making towards agency and independence all these years. And the best way to gain this context is to learn from the experts.

In Part I of our primer on Indian feminism we introduced you to some of the early players and texts that you need to know of. We also tried to draw a timeline of some of the key moments in the emancipation of women over the last 150 years. Part 2 will delve deeper into 5 current Indian feminists – the experts that you should read (and read about) to understand different facets of Indian feminism. Later, in Part III, we will take a look at some key statistics and facts that cast a light on some of the struggles of feminism currently

Nivedita Menon

First of all, you need to get yourself a copy of  Seeing Like A Feminist now.  Nivedita Menon demystifies feminist concepts with an ease and lightness of touch that belies how well researched and thought out her opinions are.  She cleverly deconstructs the difference between “sex” and “gender” in this book, contending how only one is biological, and takes a layperson through both theoretical constructs of feminism and the every day battles and legislations that remain contentious issues for us.

In fact, the best part of Nivedita Menon’s work is how accessible she is.  She is also a lot more sympathetic towards mainstream or pop cultural feminism than a lot of other academicians, contending that feminism is more a gradual process of changes rather than a big bang victory of some sorts, and with a healthy respect for the small everyday steps that being a feminist entails.

You can also read a lot of Menon’s opinions on KafilaA dynamic teacher, legions of young feminists from DU and JNU count her an as an important influence, and she continues to teach at the Center for Comparative Politics and Political Theory.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak

Early in our first month of college, a professor wrote down Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s name on the board and asked us if we knew who she was. We didn’t, although more than one of us prided ourselves on our feminist credentials in that room (in the way college girls in liberal arts colleges do, equating unwashed hair with a feminist statement).

But over the years we can’t help feel that this is a gap that needs to be addressed, because no one else writes about the issues related to subaltern feminism with the erudition and context that Spivak does.

We recommend you begin with her seminal work- Can the Subaltern Speak that questions the very definition of feminism in a post-colonial framework, where the prevailing European or bourgeoise narrative takes precedence over the voice of the subaltern. As an example, she questions the colonial influences on the narrative of Sati, contending that almost all the accounts we hear of the practise are from the British or Hindu reformers who abolished that practise, and none from the women who (presumably) were impacted.  With the accounts all coming from those interested in the abolition of the practise, the custom’s provenance, and original meaning is lost to future generations who unequivocally buy into the narrative of the practise being ‘evil’.  We have to confess- that many years from college- a lot of her ideas are not easy to comprehend or particularly accessible, but they remain essential for their intellectual rigour and clarity.

Spivak has also translated some of Mahadevi Varma’s works from Bengali, which will hopefully make the author more accessible to a new generation.

Meena Kandasamy

In some ways Meena Kandasamy represents the face of modern Indian feminism. With more than 25,000 Twitter followers she relentlessly espouses her fierce opinions about women, about the Dalit, about Tamil as a language, and -with her incendiary comments and candour- continues to invite equal parts hate and devotion. A profile in the Independent earlier this year refers to her as  a“one-woman, agit-prop literary-political movement”,  but Meena is more than just that. She is a writer of rare sensitivity (we’ve recommended The Gypsy Goddess once, and will- again and again), and her earlier poetry is startling in its brutal imagery. Sample these lines for measure:

Flaming green of a morning that awaits rain
And my lover speaks of rape through silences,
Swallowed words and the shadowed tones
Of voice. Quivering, I fill in his blanks.
Green turns to unsightly teal of hospital beds
And he is softer than feathers, but I fly away
To shield myself from the retch of the burns
Ward, the shrill sounds of dying declarations,
The floral pink-white sad skins of dowry deaths*

Her voice is important because she seems to have arrived upon her version of feminism through filtered through her own experiences, and that gives her a primal urgency that some academics lack. To find out more about her and her philosophy you will do well to follow her on Twitter, or to read her semi-fictional account of domestic abuse that both provokes and questions with scathing acerbity.

*You can read the full poem here

Suniti Namjoshi

We came to Suniti Namjoshi by way of Angela Carter and her feminist retelling of fairy tales. Suniti’s short feminist fables pack such a visceral punch- often in less than a page! Later, we ended up buying our nieces and nephews her fabulous Aditi series of adventures for a female heroine worth emulating! And over the last two years we have frantically been trying to find as many of her works as we can.

Suniti was born and bought up in Mumbai, became a civil servant for a short while, before moving to the United States to do a PhD in Ezra Pound’s works and eventually settled in the UK. Her work is often semi-autobiographical in nature (see also, Goja and Suki), and she writes with enormous wit from her perspective as an openly lesbian Indian woman settled in the UK, questioning both Indian and Western mainstream hypocrisies.

Her varied work in fables, children’s literature , fiction and non fiction acts an an excellent (and fun!) introduction to feminism.

Devaki Jain
Devaki Jain in some ways started the feminist movement the way we know it with her seminal work on Indian Women in 1971. An economist, she used statistics and the traditional definitions of labour and resources to highlight the position of women in Indian society. She has time and again contended that a lot of a “woman’s work” doesn’t fall into the traditional economic and policy definitions of labour, and hence is undervalued. She advocates a macro-economic policy making approach that takes this work into account,  and has tirelessly worked towards ensuring this happens. Her legacy includes stints in many task forces to build empowerment and economic independence programs for Indian women, and continuous research in her area of specialisation.

Luckily, most of this research is nicely categorized and available through her website, and you can dip right in whenever you get a chance!

Also Read:

Our Features on Women in Politics

32 Countries, 32 Women: A series on Essential Icons from every single one of the World Cup Countries


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