I’ve been rather lax with this post: I practically promised Thinking Girl I’d answer her questions in a separate post, and that was two weeks ago! Never mind, better late than never. I hope.

So, here are the questions:

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?

I am going to start with the last bit: about the connection between feminist activism and westernisation and development. It’s not something I’ve read a lot about, so be warned, this post is going to be a bit long and rambly. Well. When I first saw Thinking Girl’s question, I thought I didn’t know too much about what she was asking about. But as I thought about it, I kept seeing patterns that needed to be put down in words. It’s true that a lot of feminist activism in India has been about economic rights for women, economic development, economic opportunity. But these movements have, I think, been part of a larger movement which has been about the right of women to participate in public life.

A ‘modern’ woman in India today is one who asks for, and fights for, the right to work outside the home. One who asks for, fights for, the right to be represented in Parliament. Who asks and fights for the right to walk unmolested in the street. A ‘feminist’ movement is one that asks for the recognition of rights, and sometimes, special privileges, for women.

I don’t know if this is really a product of westernisation and liberal capitalist development, but the two seem to have gone hand in hand. The reason I am wary of drawing causal links, though, is that to my mind, the ‘modern woman’ of urban and semi-urban India has her roots in emancipation movements that began during the freedom struggle.

Her development has been influenced by society’s ‘westernisation’ and by liberal capitalism, of course. She works in the IT sector because the IT sector is booming. She works in a BPO because BPOs allow work in shifts, and provide transport after the night shift. She continues to work only in the lowest rungs of the industry, because the glass ceiling operates in the IT sector as strongly as in any other.

But the reason why in urban and semi-urban India, girls are sent to school, is that the stalwarts of the  freedom movement (who set a lot of standards for modern India to follow) were also social reformers, who normalised (as in created the norm of) the educated girl child. The reason why girls are encouraged to graduate from college is that graduation from college is seen as a requirement for, and not an impediment to, being a good wife to the well-educated and suitably-employed man.

So, the movement for economic empowerment is motivated partly by a desire to empower women, and not so much by the need to encourage economic development itself, though it is influenced by the latter. It is part of a larger push to increase women’s participation in public life. It is limited by the fact that economic empowerment is not expected to translate into anything more than a job and financial security for the family: to empower women to step out of the home, but not to change the nature of her role within it.

I don’t know how far this is actually an answer to the question at all, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the question is more complicated than it seems.


2 Responses

  1. Interesting but you need to flesh these out. It’s currently at apple pie and motherhood levels of discourse..

  2. Just out of curiosity, what is “apple pie and motherhood levels of discourse”?

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