Well-known historian Ramachandra Guha commented that India is undergoing five simultaneous revolutions where the national, industrial, democratic, urban and social revolutions are occurring since 1947.
In contrast, Western countries started these revolutions in the late 18th century. In addition to rapid change, the three catastrophic issues facing India are the population explosion, the AIDS epidemic (over 2.5 million people are HIV+) and female genocide. All of these issues are sex-related and yet, sexuality is a taboo subject.
Girls in all classes still face traditional sexism and a separation of the sexes. On the other hand, they are influenced by the media in wanting to become more independent. For example, Mallika Sherawat, a famous Bollywood actor, went public, proclaiming that Indian society is regressive for women. When questioned by a reporter about her loyalty to her country, she pointed out that infanticide occurs almost daily, honour killings of young women are frequent, and 30% of girls were married before they were 18.
The documentary “It’s a Girl” (2011) revolving around 200 million missing girls, interviews a mother who reports matter-of-factly that she strangled eight of her baby girls. A common saying is “a daughter is like watering someone else’s garden.” India is the only country where more girls die before the age of five than boys. It is also one of the most dangerous places to be born as a girl. A feature film “Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women” (2003) explores the impact of feticide on the gender balance by portraying a dystopian village without women in 2050.
University student, blogger, and novelist Aishwarya, 22, observed that current feminism focuses on “curbing of rapes, and stopping female fetus abortion and girl education.” She explains, “Curbing of crimes against women is a challenge for a democratic government here. Only a communist government like that of China’s could do wonders.” However, like many young women who value equality, she doesn’t like the word feminist, “because that very word gives the feeling that women are weak and need empowerment to come up to some level. I do feel males are often at disadvantage many times. Both should have equal rights, its a matter of common sense and basic rationality.” I call that feminism although she doesn’t.
Srila Roy defined the impact of young feminists in “New South Asian Feminists”: “New forms of engagement and ways of organizing are being deployed by younger feminists, whose vibrancy and radicalism are often a theme. The older vanguard’s denial of space to younger voices and insistence on measuring younger women’s activism against the normative ideal of autonomous or voluntary ways of organizing…needs to be rethought.” Another change Roy observed is a larger number of young women are engaging with religious thinking as a framework for women’s rights.
Blogger Supraja, age 22, does embrace the feminist label, as she defines it on her blog. She described what motivated her on the “Our Shared Shelf” book club on Goodreads:
“My first brush with some of the truly horrifying mindsets present in India was when my co-workers, in an office gossip session, deemed that an 11-year-old girl deserved to be raped because she was a ‘white’ girl who probably went out wearing shorts. It was the first time when I realized how women themselves were being a hurdle for achieving equality between the genders. One big concern for the fate of feminism is that it will be brushed off as something that we people adopted from the West like McDonalds’ burgers. In the name of being true to our religion or ‘culture,’ feminists would be branded as sellouts.”
In a restaurant on the way to Amritsar, I talked with four middle-class girls in class 10 and class 11, aged 15 to 16, dressed in jeans and T-shirts. They said that today’s youth are more fashionable, influenced by the media, more educated, and girls have more equality, but they text with their friends and waste time, which they said isn’t good for their health. The girls said if they were in control of the government, they would bring back the black money sent abroad by corrupt officials and want to help the poor. They want equality between men and women, but boys rather than girls get sent to other states for better education and early marriage for girls persists.
They said that their parents force them to study, especially for board exams. The class 10 board exam takes three hours and is held five times, covering 10 subjects. Some teachers are concerned about students’ exam success but others aren’t, according to the girls. They experience more restrictions from their parents who are more protective of girls than boys and insist on arranged marriages. Similar to other young women I talked with in India, they said a feminist movement isn’t visible in India.
Jayesh, a graduate student in my town, also critiqued this idea. He said his family has gender equity:
“I come from a Hindu family and my family takes pride in the fact that we are descendants of the Queen of Jhansi (a renowned figure and woman from Indian Rebellion of 1857). We have four members in family, mother, father, a younger sister and me. So we have had gender equality for so many years before me travelling to the USA. My mother has Masters degree whereas my father has finished college-level education. Our parents never discriminated gender-wise and both of us kids were provided ample support in everything we needed, be it in terms of education or career options. We were never questioned when we played sports or studied with a group of lower caste people even though we come from the Brahmin caste. I have been watching television sitcoms like Seinfeld and FRIENDS since the late 90s at home, where there were kissing scenes but nobody at my place seemed to raise an eyebrow.”
Ardash, another egalitarian young Indian man, emailed me this:
“You have done a great job gathering all the information about feminism and women’s life in India. Some of the things that I read made me sad and filled with hatred for those who hurt them. I can relate to some of those incidents that some people shared, things like girls not allowed to wear what they find comfortable, giving up a job after marriage, no freedom of choice, rapes, molestation and double standards like if a guy sleeps with girls he is a stud, he is the Man, but if a girl just has a boyfriend she is used.
I was happy to find that there’s still hope knowing that there are so many feminists in India including men. My mom and dad both are feminists but my friends think feminism is only for girls but these fools don’t know that they are one! I would like to mention I don’t think countries like USA, UK, and Japan are all completely safe for women and offer them equal opportunities. I am proud to be an Indian because the new generation believes in gender equality and our government too is uplifting women in India.”
Is feminism alive and well in India? Please add your observations.
For more, see the chapter on feminism in India in Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution, Volume 2 (2017), available as an eBook and paper.