October 08, 2008

Indian Feminism 101

Mistaking one work of fiction to represent all women in a country is rather blinkered and when it’s a country of the diversity and complexity of India, it borders on the ridiculous. Compounding this by attempting to pontificate on a subject about which you clearly know nothing and circulating this in an international newspaper should be a libelous act. I refer to Anand Giridharadas’s recent piece ‘A feminist revolution skips the liberation’ in the column ‘Letter from India’ in the International Herald Tribune. The writer begins innocuously enough by reviewing Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy’s book ‘You are Here’. The trouble begins when Madhavan Reddy’s fictional protagonist Arshi, drawn from her blog, begins to represent all Indian women–or at least all Indian urban women and what he calls ‘Indian feminism’.

In saying, “Indian women are trading regular bras for push-up bras, by bypassing the phase of burning bras”, the writer demonstrates his lamentable ignorance not just of the history of feminism in India but also in the US. A quick Internet trawl would have told him that no bras were burnt. A group of protesters outside a Miss America beauty contest in Atlantic City in 1968 threw not just bras but also girdles, mops, pots and pans into a ‘freedom trash can’. A look at some feminist writing would have told him that feminists don’t actually view push-up bras as a great feminist victory though some of us may choose to wear them.

The writer’s understanding of American feminism has him trace its (supposedly decreasingly ‘militant’) path from Betty Friedan to Carrie Bradshaw. Clearly the writer has difficulty in separating fictional characters from real ones. Almost as much difficulty as he has in understanding that most basic of things: historical context.

The granting of universal adult franchise and constitutional equality to women and men simultaneously in India in 1951 was not only a ripple effect of suffragette movements in the West but also reflected the social reform movement in the country and the presence of articulate women in the struggle for independence from colonial rule.

It was in the 1970s that a nationwide women’s movement came together to reform the laws on rape. This followed numerous, disparate feminist battles in various parts of the country. In the 1980s, the women’s movement addressed issues of dowry, sati, female foeticide and domestic violence, targeting not just the law but attacking the patriarchal ideologies that underpinned institutions. In the 1990s and 21st century, the movement grapples with questions of sexual harassment and sexual desire, globalisation and beauty contests, nuclearisation and Hindu right-wing pogroms, as well as the questions of post feminism that the writer assumes are the only relevant ones.

Indian feminism– yes, there is such a thing–is a complex, multifaceted animal that is not a replica of the west but one born of a unique context. It encompasses many women and a reasonably large number of men who often disagree vociferously with each other in person and in print. This Indian feminism defies definition. It struggles not just with concerns of gender but also with those of class, caste and religion.

The writer appears completely in the dark about the various demonstrations that women have been part of on issues of gender. He also seems to have completely missed the times that the women’s movement has marched with environmentalists, workers, and most recently, queer rights activists.

None of this is intended as a critique of Madhavan Reddy’s book. Her quotes in the piece tend to stick to the point–-that this is a book and these are characters, who represent some women in some ways, but certainly not all Indian women in all ways. However, even if it’s only this small minority of women that we are talking about, there is no excuse for the writer’s disapproving misrepresentation. Many of these women who he disdains as making fat pay packets by day and kowtowing to husbands by night, work hard for their money, struggling to play the role of neutral professionals, looking good without appearing to invite trouble. Many of them agonise over how to fend off unwanted passes without making a noise about it because this will affect their careers; note theirs, not the man’s. These women don’t just “sleep around, don bug-eyed sunglasses or down mojitos” (though one fails to see why any of these should “compromise feminism”). Many also run households, support old parents, and bring up children. They read books, watch films, meet friends, travel, and make decisions about how to live their lives, including (but not only) their sexual lives–all of which is their own business. Some may call themselves feminists.

The writer’s perception that ‘real’ feminism is about micro-credit in the villages reveals his unease with women like Arshi, who he then moralistically disdains as urban sybarites seeking pleasure for itself. His facile division of Indian women, into the ‘innocent’ hard-working real ‘feminist’ peasant women whom he romanticizes and the self-centred, hedonistic, urban women wanting to ‘fornicate’ (do people still use such words outside of courtrooms?) while seeing men as meal tickets whom he deplores, is deeply judgemental and borders on the puritanical.

(As a self-indulgent corollary, one might add here that micro-credit’s role in the ‘empowerment’ of women has been contested and it has been critiqued as locating women as good citizen subjects who will work themselves to the bone to pay off a debt.)

“Modernity”, he pontificates, “involves more than sin. … How many urban women chop off their hair, or choose not to procreate, or dine out alone?” Apparently the writer doesn’t seem to leave his desk much to stroll in the irreverent city of Mumbai, or he might have discovered the answer is, actually quite a few.

Not only does the writer appear to be prejudiced, he is also badly informed; certainly a ‘sin’ when information is for the asking at the click of a mouse. If bald heads, non-procreation and dining alone are his meter of female modernity then perhaps he needs not just Indian Feminism 101, but also Modernity 101.

17 comments to Indian Feminism 101

  • […] I understand, has already been published as a letter to the editor in the IHT) . Headlined “Indian Feminism 101,” it has been reproduced on Ultra Violet, a collaborative blog featuring the views of a community […]

  • […] Shilpa Phadke questions Anand Giridharadas’ understanding of Indian feminism: Mistaking one work of fiction to represent all women in a country is rather blinkered and when it’s a country of the diversity and complexity of India, it borders on the ridiculous. Compounding this by attempting to pontificate on a subject about which you clearly know nothing and circulating this in an international newspaper should be a libelous act. I refer to Anand Giridharadas’s recent piece ‘A feminist revolution skips the liberation’ in the column ‘Letter from India’ in the International Herald Tribune. The writer begins innocuously enough by reviewing Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy’s book ‘You are Here’. The trouble begins when Madhavan Reddy’s fictional protagonist Arshi, drawn from her blog, begins to represent all Indian women–or at least all Indian urban women and what he calls ‘Indian feminism’. Linked by kuffir. Join Blogbharti facebook group. […]

  • sana reddy

    Brilliant rebuttal! Kudos Ms. Phadke. What do the Editors at international newspapers do? They should check whether columnists like A Giridharadas are qualified at all to write on Indian Feminism. Go back to school, Giridharadas!

  • I protested to the IHT. I wrote this

    “This is with reference to Mr Ananad Giridhardas’s article “A feminist revolution in India skips the liberation”. I cannot understand a newspaper like yours printing bilge like this. An Indian and a feminist, I find this article offensive to say the least. Its tone is arrogant, condescending and patronizing. The author appears unable to distinguish between fact, fiction and some deranged anti-feminist fantasy. He generalizes to hyperbole and suggests a solution of long suffering and exaggerated social service as an example of what a feminist should be like. Clearly he does not know of the little idea that “Feminism is the radical belief that men and women are equal”. Something which his examples do not seem to pick on. Confusing promiscuity with feminism, modernity with liberalism, the writer would have all women, feminists and non-feminists alike tread a path as defined by himself in order to live up to their name. If this is not antithetical to the notion of feminism, indeed to individual freedom itself, he would probably serve himself and his readers and you his employers better by reading up about Feminism- most specially the Feminist movement in India, before engaging in a public display of his arrogant ignorance. The internet- wikipedia specially is a good place to start. “

  • Thanks Sana.
    And thanks @lankr1ta. We do need many more people to protest. I sent a much cut down version as a letter (as they requested). Though I’m not sure if they eventually published it.

  • Brilliant @lankrita & Shilpa Phadke. Glad somebody protested, and protested so well.

  • […] a similar note, you might want to have a look at this Indian Feminism 101 post by Shilpa Phadke at Ultra […]

  • Alter Violet?

    Why does this site, purpotedly for, of and by young feminists ponder over such “deep social insights” as found in Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy’s book ‘You are Here’ and a clueless review of the book by a hairbrained columnist here? What is Indian Feminism 101, is it the knowledge of a faithfully accurate history of the Indian Feminist movement? Is it a criticism of a review of the latest trendy books that splash a sex scene here, a dash of expletive ridden prose there? Does it want everyone to read the book or read the review or both? How does this site contribute the cause of Feminism by either analysing Trashy Arshi or its author or attempting to educate the columnist?

    Why would the simple Letter to Editor not have sufficed to relieve your angst at both wasting your time reading the review and wasting your money buying the book?

  • My own sense of feminism is that among other things it is about a culture of dissent and debate. And it was in many ways in quest of this engagement with others who share my politics as well as those who don’t that the piece was written. And this I don’t think could have been achieved by a letter to the editor, which I don’t think they published in any case. But that is not the point.

    ‘You Are Here’ may not be a work of literary value but that does not discount its interest as an anthropological text which is very relevant our understanding of the contemporary politics of sexuality. The protagonist may represent only a minority or women or even merely the fantasies of a minority of women, and nobody, not even the author is claiming Arshi is a feminist.

    A large part of the problem with the IHT piece is not just its ignorance and dislike of feminism but also its premise which is anti-pleasure. This fits in which a larger context where women’s sexual desires are seen as illegitimate and certainly not to be expressed publicly. In a world where pleasure is much harder to demand (precisely because of the kind of prejudice the writer of the IHT displays) than say freedom from domestic violence it is imperative that we contest these puritanical positions.

  • anindianabroad

    Hear hear. Feminism is about the freedom to choose, something which pontificating commentators seem to miss. I particularly enjoy your rebuttal because of its measured force, rather than an obvious and shrill denouncement of “evil men”.

  • Indianwoman

    Its funny…just today we were discussing this same very column over lunch 🙂

    I agree that the article is OTT..but at the same time i dont think that some of the issues (not how it has been written) that he has raised are that off the mark ,,

    Is our feminism one of compromise: This statement rang true for me and from my observation, for a lot of the women in my social circle..while we may have argued, tried to reason, fight against quite a few prejudices/issues at the same time I always knew what were my limits (and unfortunately never tested those!).
    To my mind this is true of quite a few of todays urban women trying to manage the house and jobs and other social commitments (I am not saying all and i am not saying majority-i am saying atleast the ones i know). What makes these smart & educated women not stand up and ask that the husband make an equally meaningful contribution to the house, or put up with abuse dished out by in-laws. For every woman that has spoken up, there are 10 who will silently take all that is heaped onto them.
    Is it not our social conditioning that asks for the girl to adjust?? And everytime you or I make a compromise like this is it not eroding some of the sheen off the very feminism that we hold oh so dear!

  • Feminist Fatale

    Limits are what women are taught perhaps as soon as we begin to crawl. Knowing one’s limits. Staying within ones limits. Recognising ones limits.
    All of us negotiate these limits and decide which battles we want to fight. Perhaps you don’t give yourself and your friends enough credit.

  • somegal

    hi harshad joshi

    are acid attacks a FAD?

    you would think so, no?

  • s

    Mr. ramesh raju, if only u could be broad minded enough to think that a father is equally responsible in taking care of his offspring and not dump the responsibilty on the mother’s shoulders alone… and if u r smart enough to open your eyes and see, u’ll probably notice that most women multitask and manage most jobs quite well…both at home and in the workplace… i pity you mr. ramesh raju, u are patriarchy, chauvinism and insensitivity personified

  • IN SUPPORT OF THE WOMEN IN INDIA AND EVERYWHERE ELSE ___________ WOMEN POWER WOMEN LIBERATION ——————– CREATING A BETTER FUTURE ….. NOW ! NAMASTE , biologically , i’m a ” male foreigner ” , if this matters at all ….. i’m fully supporting feminism , Female SUPERIORITY and Matriarchal / matrifocal types of societies . i’m a devotee of Mother Goddess — MAHA DEVI —– ADI PARASHAKTI —- THE SUPREME FEMALE POWER , i don’t understand how males who abuse , mistreat , ignore , discriminate women can ever dream to stay sometime before the Divine Mother ——– DIVINE MOTHER WILL PAY THEM BACK FOR ALL ABUSES ……. THEY —– the violent , bruttish , stupid bunch of brainwashed cretins , degenerated males , without shame , how can they go to Devi temples …… when they treat women in India like garbage and possesios , like in the feudal time …….. i fully want to help the feminist women of India . unite , stand up , be strong …. ALL THE POWER ——- MAHA SHAKTI —- IS WITHIN YOU …… REMEMBER THAT ….. IN SUPPORT OF FEMINIST INDIA ……….. i seriously believe we need again some type of modern matriarchy , as in some parts of the world , some tribes still have it , otherwise there won’t be any positive future for anyone …….. all the best . a ”male ”

  • rameshraju

    Culture apparently appears to to have loop holes. But picking up such holes is certainly harmful to the human family system and society. Ancient females used to do wars, write books, did researches, but they never stepped out of traditions. By nature, women are easily influenced by the evils of the society, and so ancient men have forced few customs to protect the society from getting spoiled. Science has proved that Men have more IQ than their Memory power, Women have more memory power than their IQ. So women should be guarded well to protect her from the evils.

    Feminism has meaning if it fights for equal opportunities, but not against culture, which include traditions and cultoms. Most feminists believe that our own traditions are shackles of woman’s freedom. Section IPC 498a has been enforced to protect women from domestic violence and dowry harrasment. But most Indian women are misusing this section by putting their husbands and parents-in-law behind the bars and demanding large amount of money. I think it is better to speak about duties rather than rights. Hindus called Earth by name Bhoo Devi, India by name Bharat mata which are female names. Most of the rivers in India have female names. Where is the patriachy?. Men and Women have not same, but unique duties. God’s plan is ‘If male is bread winner and, female is the nurturer’. This law is followed by all of the living beings in the nature. When this order is disturbed, the family system and society gets ruined.

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