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A Short History of Indian Feminism: Early Years

Women you should know, and some events to remember them by

Part I of our short primer on the Indian feminist movement

It is not easy being a feminist in any part of the world, but perhaps more so in India. For one, only  about 11% of the policymakers are women (as opposed to more than 20% in neighbouring Pakistan, Nepal and China). Then, a lot of our religious and social constructs remain patriarchal, putting a prize on a woman’s virginity, emphasizing motherhood over any other female function, and insisting on underage marriages that are meant to last  for a lifetime. And to add to it all, there is the alarming fact that in a few years we may not have enough of us left to fight the good fight, given that there are now only 908 women being born for every 1000 men!

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the issue of intersectionality-  with the experiences of a farmer from North Eastern India being entirely different from those of an urban working woman in Mumbai. To both of them, equality means different things, and their immediate feminist concerns are different. It is difficult to create a cohesive definition of feminism and women’s rights in India, as they differ so much by religion, state and social status.

An interesting debate in the academic circles rages on about whether the word ‘feminism’ – with its supposedly Western connotations -describes the Asian or African women’s movement in the first place. At MBRB, from our vantage point of urban Indian women born into all the privileges associated with those words, we prefer to focus less on the semantics and more on the stories that we wish more young (and old) girls knew of.

It is this background that makes it all the more vital that we are conscious of  India’s feminist history, some of our current struggles, and some of the resources that every good feminist should access. So here is a two part primer on feminism in India

In Part 1, we look at some of the feminists from Indian history that are worth knowing, as well as a few watershed moments from the Indian Feminist Movement.

In Part 2, we will see some of the current statistics around Indian womanhood, and also share some resources and organizations that you can access to learn more about feminism.

Some Early Stalwarts

The beginning of feminism in India as we know it today took place during the colonial period. Academics refer to the abolition of Sati as the first watershed moment in India’s Feminist movement.  A lot of the early struggle saw educated middle class men such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, but women continued to challenge the status quo  in the background, struggling for their place in the sun. Some of the earliest women who have gone on to become feminist ideals include Anandibai Joshi – the first Indian woman to study abroad, Kamini Roy - who spearheaded India’s suffragist movement and fought for a Women’s right to education, Kadambini Ganguly - the first woman to study Western medicine and one of the first two women graduates, Pandita Ramabai – who started a center to support widows and studied the Kindergarten method of education, and Cornelia Sorabjee - the first Indian woman lawyer.

It is easy now to dismiss some of these achievements by pointing out that most of these women came from upper caste, educated and urban households. But even within their spheres,  they all fought uphill battles to establish themselves as different from the norm. Another woman that young feminists should know about is Sarala Devi Chaudharani, who started one of the first women’s organization in India in 1910 in the form of Bharat Stree Mahamandal and was instrumental in making more women a part of the nationalist movement.

In their own ways, all of these women add to our understanding of Indian feminism and the universal struggle to be accepted for what we are.

Feminist Literature

While Rabindranath Tagore’s sensitive portrayal of women remains a hallmark in India’s feminist struggle, of equal importance are some of the late 19th century & early 20th century women writers, whose work shed a light on the inner lives of women from that time. All of us who have devoured Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir in our graduate years will do well to seek out these writers.

You would do well to begin with:

Toru Dutt:

Dutt wrote lyrical poetry  and serious novels in both French and English;  and is often referred to as “India’s first poet in English”.  Some of her work may sound a bit derivative (especially of Emily Dickinson), and her unfortunate early demise perhaps prevented  her voice from maturing. But she remains essential reading for her unique viewpoint as a British-born Indian woman during the early 20th century. Most of her work was published posthumously and can be accessed in one handsome volume.

Should this song of my prison hereafter inspire

Some student with leisure her name to inquire,

This answer at least may be given, -

That grace marked her figure, her action, her speech,

And such as lived near her, blameless might teach

That life is the best gift of heaven

Lalithambika Antharajanam

There is no Shakespeare, Homer or Kalidaasa among women because the best years of our life are spent in bringing up children and looking after our men.

Born in 1909, Lalithambika Antharajanam wrote stories about disenfranchised women in Malayalam, especially those from the Namboodari community. Unfortunately, the only accessible English translation of her works is an import from the New York Feminist Press. More easily available is a DVD based upon her seminal work Agnisakshi - the story of the spiritual life of a woman married into a Namboodari household who longs to escape into independence.

Ismat Chugtai

We’ve mentioned in the past how fond we are of Ismat Chughtai. But it is not just for her frank portrayal of female sexuality- as subversive when they first came out as they are now – but also for her overall feminist leanings and outspokenness. She represents a sort of enlightened early century womanhood who some of us modern women today can stand to learn from. If you’ve read some of her best stories already, you may enjoy her memoirs which reflect her playful rebellious spirit and many passions.

Mahasweta Devi

Mahasweta Devi writes with compassion about the subaltern- whether they be tribal and Dalit women, Naxals or housewives. You have probably been exposed to her work through the nuanced adaptations of Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa and Rudaali. The good news is that a lot of her work is easily available in English translations. We recommend starting with Breast Stories translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, another important Indian Feminist we will cover in Part II.

Key Moments

We share these dates here not with a historian’s love for figures (though the quizzer in us is not complaining), but to show how the efforts of a dedicated group of women in the last 150 years  has helped guarantee some of the rights and pleasures that we now take for granted.

1856Hindu Widow’s Remarriage Act legalises the remarriage of widows

1891Age of Consent Act increases age of consent for sexual intercourse for all girls from 10 to 12 years. Interestingly this Act became some a point of contention among Indian nationalists who contended that the Colonists were trying to impose their wills under the guise of modernity, and Indian feminists who welcomed its content if not its intent.

1917: Set Up of the Indian Women’s Association to fight for suffrage

1927: Formation of the All India Women’s Conference- as an organisation for the upliftment and betterment of Indian women and children. The organisation remains an important left-of-venter mouthpiece of the Indian feminist movement with more than 100,000 women.

1929: The Child Marriage Restraints Act is passed, which tried to curb the practise of underage marriages (raising the minimum age to 14), and represents the first major victory for Indian feminists from across different religions and states. Further amendments in 1940 and 1978 eventually raised this age to 18.

1931:The Indian National Congress promises universal adult franchise for both sexes

1966: India gets its first Woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, still the longest serving woman Prime Minister in the World

1974: Committee on Status of Women presents its findings over the last three years in the form of a watershed report “Towards Equality” which -for the first time- assesses the impact of the Constitution on the social and economic status of women in India.

1997: The Vishaka Guidelines come into being, outlining the process for dealing with sexual harassment at the workplace (later superseded by a 2013 Act).

2014: India elects its highest ever number of Women Parliamentarians – 66  (although still just 11% of the Lok Sabha)

In Part II of this feature we will introduce readers to some more recent feminists whose works they should know, and look at some key statistics that shine a light on the road ahead for Indian women.

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

Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs via  cc

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