Feminism In Urban India: Empowering Or Elitist?

Posted by Vishesh Kumar in Women Empowerment
March 8, 2017

March 8, celebrated world over as International Women’s Day (IWD), seeks to celebrate the achievements of women in the political, economic and social arena while serving as a reminder to all of us that the battle for gender parity is yet to be won. What may come as a surprise to the corporate sponsors of IWD is that, women’s day, originally called International Working Women’s Day was born out of a socialist movement in the US in the early 20th century, with the textile women workers rising in protest, demanding better pay and working conditions as well as political enfranchisement.

As a society, we have made great strides in empowering women post-colonialism and the urban millennials recognize that there is a lot more to be done. However, the public discourse, in the past few years, largely influenced by western feminist rhetoric seems to be happening in a bubble dominated by upper-middle-class men and women. Why I say this is because, a poorly scripted feminist ad campaign starring Deepika Padukone that puts extra-marital sex on the agenda for women’s empowerment makes more waves and catches everyone’s attention, while the 22% decline in women’s labour participation falls on deaf ears.

While only 12% of women can afford sanitary napkins and 4 out of 5 women are sexually harassed in public places, Chetan Bhagat attempts to fathom the female experience in India and feel their pain by waxing his legs to give a more authentic experience in his feminist novel. His research also included interviewing 100 women to know their “strengths and pains”. What it translates to is the following— written in first person, Radhika, the protagonist, is a banker at Goldman Sachs; she flies business class and parties and drinks, unlike other girls. Despite having an active sex life, she laments her difficulty in finding men who aren’t threatened by her success. In spite of the Louis Vuitton dresses and the Tumi bags, the warm embrace of consumerism seems to be insufficient to stop her life from going down hill.

Chetan Bhagat’s puerile attempt to understand feminism, “highlight issues in society that affect a lot of people” and appeal to the “Average Indian” exposes the bubble we live in and the mainstream narrative in urban India. It is rather sad that while ‘One Indian Girl’ broke pre-order records on Amazon, barely any people know that 51% of work done by women in India is unpaid and  not counted in national statistics or the fact that 1 out of every 7 women working in the garment industry in Bangalore are forced into a sexual act. As much as it is a woman’s choice to “love temporarily or lust forever” (to quote a line from the Vogue ad), is the malaise of the urban class neglecting the plight of the marginalized? What is trending on Twitter and Facebook and the ideas we endorse reveals where our priorities lie, doesn’t it?

However, this does not go to say these other issues are “less relevant” per se, because the heterogeneity of the female experience reveals multiple hierarchies and power structures; that being said, I don’t believe it is unreasonable to show a sensitivity towards the marginalized and make use of our class privilege to amplify their voice and influence. It’s important to understand these hierarchies because the novel and ad campaign are a part of a larger narrative and the public discourse is an expression and manifestation of female agency which is necessary for any sort of social, political or legal reforms. Any misguided intercession of the urban class denies the agency of the women who truly need it. The subaltern women of the 21st century carry the burden of doing work in inhumane conditions and being underpaid so that our lives run smoothly, only to be rewarded by ignorance and neglect.

Therefore, in the spirit of Women’s Day, I believe it is our moral imperative to reexamine our ideas of empowerment and guide the discourse in the right direction to correct the imbalances in power and influence.