India’s Organic Feminism

06 Apr

One of the best classes I ever attended in college was the Philosophy lecture by Father Kurian (Father Curious as one irreverent friend dubbed him). There are times in one’s life when you can literally feel new doors of thought opening in your mind – Father’s class was a corridor full of them.

One of the ideas he put in front of us was that of practice vs. theory. He was talking about Atheism – Theoretical Atheists being those who’ve logically reasoned that there is no God, for example Friedrich Nietzsche; and Practical Atheists are those who may profess a belief in God but live their lives divorced from all thoughts of Him.

I thought the idea had merit far beyond Atheism. Feminism in India, in my opinion, is full of practical and theoretical practitioners.

Let me give a personal example. My grandmother was a woman born in the early part of the last century in a small town in South India. She had a limited education, was married early and gave birth to seven children, six of them girls. She had strict ideas about what was proper and what wasn’t – and a great many of her ideas were bifurcated along gender lines. She died in 2001 but till her dying day she would have laughed all thoughts of gender equality to scorn.

But what was her life like? She was married, as I mentioned earlier, at a young age (although 18 by the standards of those days was positively spinster-ish) to a workaholic. He was roughly ten years her elder and lived in another state for business reasons. After the wedding, she made her home with him on the first floor of a house owned by people from another caste (this was India in the 1920s-30s, these things mattered a great deal), in a city many times the size of her own, populated with people whose language she didn’t speak.

Although she went home to her mother to deliver her babies, she would return each time to that very same city to live for the next ten or more years and then intermittently so for the rest of her life. When she finally persuaded her husband that she and the children just couldn’t adjust to the climate of the city he considered his home, she moved back to her hometown with her babies – alone. For the remainder of their married lives, they would commute between two states and she would bring up their seven kids next to single-handedly.

You would imagine that a woman with seven children to raise had enough on her hands. Not my grandmother. Once she had her house and the servants to look after it, she persuaded her husband to open a hotel just around the corner from it. She then made him hire her favorite cousin to run it in his absence. Next, she built a barn at the back of the house and bought a few cows and chickens. A townie, she had no clue how to take care of any of those so she hired some help and then worked out a deal with the hotel’s restaurant that she would supply a significant portion of the milk and eggs they needed.

Her husband took care of the household expenses and was lavish with his gifts so she never had to buy a single thing for herself. She therefore squirreled away the money she earned from her cows and chickens. By the late 1950s, when my grandfather was short of a badly needed Rs. 100, 000 (a huge sum in those days) in order to buy a piece of land, my grandmother (a woman who brought nothing in her name but beauty to the marriage) calmly walked into the bedroom, opened her closet and counted the money out. He was so impressed and grateful; he put the land in her name. That property appreciated so much in value over the next several years, that by the time she died she was a multi-millionaire in dollar terms.

But she still had very conservative ideas about men and women, with women always being held to a higher standard. When her sister fled her abusive husband and came to live with them, she advised her to return; her eldest daughter’s divorce from her philandering first husband was an event from which she never quite recovered; she would fly into a rage when confronted with the hoydenish antics of her tomboy little girls – I thanked my mom and aunts every day for mellowing her down by the time I was born because I’m pretty sure I’d have had a super miserable time of it every summer otherwise.

I’ve always thought that my grandmother was fairly indicative of what went on in India. She, of course, had certain resources not every woman in India is privy to but it’s her mental make-up that I find so interesting.

There’s no intellectualism involved, there is no sense of a “movement” amongst those women who’re actually living a feminist life in India. They’re simply doing whatever they can to survive or just dealing with the cards that they were dealt. The woman who worked as my maid in college had two tiny children to support and educate; a drunk, abusive and unemployed husband; and just enough education at the parish charity school to talk to me in pidgin English mixed with Tamil and Kannada. She didn’t have the luxury to sit around and ponder upon her rights as a woman – she was too busy fighting for them.

But this is not to say that nobody should actually devote some thought to it as a bonafide intellectual exercise. Thinking is always a good thing to do, people! There is a certain section of the populace that thinks feminism in India is elitist. What they mean, I usually find, is that they think the women who formulate ideas of feminism are elitist. I would like to put forward the opinion that ideas are never elitist. People are.

In any case, in the context of Indian feminism, I don’t think “elitist” is the right term. It is simply one more, amongst a couple dozen mis/overused terms we like to fling around nowadays without ever stopping to think about its real meaning.

The women who see themselves as the leaders of the movement in India tend to be politicians, bureaucrats, talking heads on TV, etc. These people may have a higher visibility and their attitudes might often be condescending but they are not elitist. They are simply annoying because they are the feminist equivalent of the charitable do-gooder. It’s very hard to like that type but it’s not fair to discount their intentions entirely.

The second set of women seen as “elitist” includes those such as myself. Educated, urban, unapologetic. The charge commonly leveled is that you’re not starving, illiterate and put upon, what do you have in common with women such as Selvi (my maid whom I mentioned above)? I would like to argue that if we all only ever raised a voice about things we’ve personally experienced then we should all pretty much stop reading newspapers and formulating opinions. Human being have such a thing as empathy and we should all use it as often as possible. Plus, educated, urban women have issues too (that’s another post, I think).

I’ve always thought the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) was a remarkable organization begun by women who had nothing in common with its ultimate beneficiaries. They don’t proselytize and they don’t operate on a spirit of charity. They do what a vast number of women in India do – get to work. That’s feminism, India-style.

There is a great deal of talk about postcolonial feminism, etc but I think the fundamental difference between Indian and Western feminism is that in the West, feminism has a long and varied intellectual past, supported by its international eminence over the past two centuries. In India, on the other hand, we had one big movement that absorbed all our energy – the struggle for Independence.

I’m not saying women weren’t thinking about their roles and rights before 1947 but I do think that the intellectualism that drives feminism in other parts of the world is only slowly emerging now. Feminism in India is a lot more organic, I feel, than planned.

[Random thoughts inspired by Apu’s post; we’re trying to build a multi-blogger take on Indian feminism – what does it mean, what are its challenges, what are its problems, where is it headed – and if you decide to join us, pls drop me a link.]


Posted by on April 6, 2007 in Life, Personal


12 responses to “India’s Organic Feminism

  1. apu

    April 6, 2007 at 4:34 am

    Excellent Amrita !

    I would say that the earlier generation of women tried to be feminist as far as their conditions/ boundaries allowed – our task is to break/stretch these boundaries.

    And regarding the charge of elitism – yes, we have the fortune of being born into good families, receiving education etc – that doesn’t mean we don’t anything about the world outside, where our sisters are killed as infants for the crime of being born female. Does it mean we should close our eyes to it?

    And issues like street sexual harassment – many of us face it irrespective of class.

    So while as upper-class affluent women, we may face some immunity, I don’t think we should kid ourselves that everything’s great !

    I do hope more people take this up…

  2. Amrita

    April 7, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Too true, Apu. I can’t say my views are reciprocated by all the women in my family but when I look at what I do and what they do, I see very little difference. Its the act of saying it out loud that seems to be so threatening for so many people.

  3. Desigirl

    April 7, 2007 at 2:56 am

    Good one, Ams. I kind of get what you meant by saying you come from a family of strong women.

  4. Amrita

    April 7, 2007 at 3:09 am

    I actually meant my dad’s family when I said that but my grandma’s a class apart. 🙂 Seriously, I have no idea how she managed to do half the things she did.

  5. Dee

    April 7, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Amrita, women like your grandmom and mine are dying breed.

  6. Desigirl

    April 8, 2007 at 3:27 am

    My paternal grandma walked out of her arranged Iyengar marriage and strict brahmin family and married my padaiyachi (MBC) paternal grandpa. She was quite a trailblazer!

  7. Amrita

    April 8, 2007 at 10:22 am

    Man, we should write about our awesome grandmas 😀

  8. Kokonad

    April 10, 2007 at 7:46 pm

    I had written this in my own blog (currently dormant for about a year)

    This is something I had found a year back during my college days in Chennai. I have realized that the Google News link I have provided no longer returns results. However, the archives do –

    After reading this piece, I remembered something I had once told an elder in my family and was reprimanded severely for it – “Indians have an intelligence beyond many other countries – but the country never develops. Reason? An attitude of “someone else will take care of it”, a blind faith of social customs claimed to approved and preached by God himself, and an extremely well-endowed disrespect of a fellow human being on the basis of work/riches etc.”

  9. Desigirl

    April 11, 2007 at 7:28 am

  10. Aishwarya

    April 14, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    *nod* This is something I’ve often noted, actually – the struggle for women’s right to vote in the west necessitated a larger public debate on what constituted gender, biological differences vs social ones, etc. In India, women were a part of the independence movement and got the right to vote along with the men, which was wonderful, but it did mean that those debates never actually happened. And so Feminism wasn’t so much a *movement* as something that just…happened in various ways in different parts of the country.

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