Here and now*

Well, I thought about what my first FF post should be about, and I really couldn’t decide, so I’d use a question from my classes: why do we read so much western literature when we study feminism; aren’t there any Indian feminists?

Of course there are: many of them. But feminism in India has been a lot about activism and very little about theorisation.There has indeed been feminist writing in India; a lot of it has been activist writing on specific issues rather than abstract writing on theoretical concepts. (Not to say that we don’t have our Spivaks, Mohantys and Baxis, famous for abstraction in thought and expression!)

In spite of this, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in India, feminism is not as much a school of thought as a series of movements, not so much a branch of jurisprudence as a struggle to enable women in various ways. The word ‘feminist’ is not a ‘bad word’ in India, because it is not a word at all. I can’t think of a vernacular term for ‘feminist’ – is there one? Most people have no idea what feminism is, and assume that a feminist is necessarily a ‘social worker’ who is crusading to make women’s lives better, by campaigning on her pet peeve.**

Since feminism in India is so minimally theoretical, it is difficult to explain the common threads that run through the Blank Noise Project (for instance) and, say, SEWA. Or, to be more lawyerly, a discussion on Section 377 of the IPC and one on Equal Remuneration.  The link between economic and sexual empowerment, and how they are equally important to feminism, is something that has been written about by Western authors, but not, to my knowledge, by Indian ones.

So, while it may seem like we read a lot of a-contextual Western literature in FemJur, it is usually a pleasant surprise to see how well we can identify with Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Faludi; and how Andrea Dworkin’s rage at pornography is eerily similar to our rage at Bhanwari Devi’s rape. The ‘Western’ literature is definitely seems like an alien voice, but one that echoes concerns we face too: concerns about how we treat women as less than human, women’s bodies as objects, women’s work as ‘natural’ and therefore not work at all.

It is when we read the seemingly a-contextual theory, and then try to apply it to our own context, that we realise that the one thing we have in common with the ‘West’ is the one that matters the most to us all: the patriarchy.

*A little early, because I’m away for a couple of days and can’t post tomorrow.

**Of course feminism is about making women’s lives better, but not all feminists are social workers. Most of them have a pet cause, but a lot of them just believe women deserve to be treated as human beings too.

8 Responses

  1. Hi Erimentha,

    First of all, thank you so much for participating in Feminism Friday – I couldn’t be more pleased that folks are picking up on this concept.

    Second, very interesting post! I’ve read quite a lot of post-colonial feminism, a lot of which has been generated by Indian feminists living and educated in the US. Mohanty and Narayan are among my favourites. But when I think of feminism in India, you’re right, I do think about grassroots activism more so than scholarly work.

    BUT, I also think of India as having a very rich and powerful feminist movement. It seems sometimes that to me, living in the West, feminists don’t DO enough – we theorize like mad, but we don’t actually get out there and DO anything (which of course, isn’t true, but being an academic, it certainly feels that way sometimes, as I sit and look at the hundreds of books on feminism in the library but am hard-pressed to find a march or demonstration to go to).

    A couple questions for you, when you have the time: how much does the caste system play a part in a lack of Indian feminist scholarship? what do you think of western feminists who study Indian women and then theorize about what they observe? how much do you think westernization and development has played a part in the close tie between feminist activism and economic development? what I’m wondering is how much feminist activism, which does often seem so tied to economic concerns for women, is motivated by a more general interest in improving the Indian economy – and how much by actually improving women’s lives? does this distinction matter if the end result is that women’s lives are improved by improving their economic situation?

  2. ah. nice post. taking up the beauvoir point you raised, yes, i read her and i have this sensation of having something very familiar and close to me being defined clearly. (maybe i can’t see it very well myself because it’s right under my nose?!) and then there’s this whole lot of head-nodding and agreeing that you do… and then you think back on a chapter and think bu-t, wait a minute, not quite. that doesn’t really happen here. it’s weird: a lot of the manifested trouble is similar, but the underlying structures are so different!
    that’s when i feel bugged that there isn’t something dedicated to US, our way of life, our history and (damn… can’t think of another word) *culture*!
    because i tend to be pretty concept-driven and theoretical in my approach to things, i really miss having a structured body of knowledge to work from. i think we’re backward in that we still haven’t created one. we so badly need to!
    (until then you have incoherent stuff like this comment to lump, lol!)

  3. thinking girl: Thanks for the comment (and the link!) The questions you’ve raised deserve a post of their own, but just a few random thoughts – that theorising-doing thing you’re talking about, in particular. It reminded me of a discussion we had at a conference in September, about critical theory in the West and in India and how western critical theorists are academics/theorists, and Indian ones are activists. In that discussion, someone said something really interesting about this distinction: that academia is really only a field of activism; that for a teacher, the classroom is the grassroots.

    It was something that stuck with me because I face the same thing that you do: looking at all these books and wondering what I’m doing talking/reading/writing, when there’s so much to be DONE! That discussion made me wonder why all that talking/reading/ writing wasn’t DOING!

    m.: I can *so* sympathise with your point about a structured body of knowledge; but till we have one, I have to make do with the sources we have and sort of theorise backwards – you know?!

  4. E:
    good point, about academia being a form of activism. I completely agree!

  5. [...] Canace especially Here and Now [...]

  6. [...] here are the questions: how much does the caste system play a part in a lack of Indian feminist scholarship? what do you [...]

  7. [...] Canace especially Here and Now [...]

  8. Approach any Woman Anywhere

    Approach any Woman Anywhere

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