The Faults With India’s Mainstream Feminist Movement, And The Way Ahead

“If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.” – James Baldwin

The achievements of the feminist movement in India are immense. The relevance of the movement remains vibrant. Yet, there are fault lines which must be analysed as we enter a new era.

There are several feminist movements in India – diverse and heterogeneous, complex, often contradictory and contentious. Several identities based on class, caste, or gender, sexuality, etc. have competed to be seen and heard, producing several feminist movements simultaneously, some of which are less visible or known than the others. The mainstream feminist movement has often been critiqued because it continues to reflect the privileges and power dynamics that exist in the larger society. It has been accused of being hijacked by urban, English speaking, middle/upper- class, upper-caste women, and their hegemony. Yet, the movements are relevant if they are able to respond to the needs of the vast majority in the context of their situations, instead of being limited in their reach and scope (which is the main risk faced by the mainstream feminist movement in India today).

Much has changed over the years – there have been technological advances; global warming and degradation of the environment has increased. Capitalism is at its late stage and keeps failing on the promises it made to ensure a good life for the people – due to incessant recessions, failing economies of countries, welfare cuts, etc. Therefore, the mainstream feminist movement should consider a reality check. It needs to introspect if we are taking into account the changing landscape – the rise of an extremely violent, divisive and exploitative neo-liberal agenda in India and the world. Is the feminist agenda responding to the current needs of growing inequality, rising violence, increasing right-wing politics of hate (which are essentially anti-poor, anti-minorities and anti-women)? Are we asking ourselves the tough questions and identifying the urgent issues that we should be addressing – and thereby, expanding the understanding of what constitutes ‘feminist issues’?

We need to interrogate the meaning of ‘intersectional feminism’ – whether it is only about the different gender, sexual and bodily identities, or whether it is beyond that, bringing it under the lens of caste, class, marginalization, poverty, location etc.  These questions are important since one of the essential beliefs of the feminist movement is in the idea of equal rights – equal rights cannot be limited to sexual pleasure or bodily autonomy alone, because then, it is accessible to only those with the privileges of caste and class. However, mainstream feminism in India has been criticised when analysed through the lens of caste and class, simply because it refuses to go beyond its myopic vision of ‘mainstream’ feminist issues.

One of my recurring dilemmas and quests is to understand the question – what are ‘feminist issues’, really? They include issues of choice, consent, agency, bodily autonomy and sexual freedom, but they must also be much more. In the wake of growing inequality and rising fascism, feminist issues have to look into the overlapping, intersectional issues or the larger contexts determined by political, economic, social and cultural factors.

Marxist and socialist feminists have already pointed out the systemic and structural inequalities that disadvantage all, but women even more so – and therefore, there’s the need to address these systemic inequalities. In this highly volatile and unstable age, the individualistic agenda of liberal feminism does not work anymore – and the time of reckoning, re-analysing and re-prioritising issues for the feminist movement in India and the world is long due.

On May 22, while reading about the massacre of 45 Muslim men in Hashimpura some three decades ago, news came in of protesters being shot dead in Tuticorin for protesting against the Sterlite factory that is polluting and causing serious environment-related health issues in the area.  Earlier this year, almost 40 Adivasis were killed in Gadchiroli under a highly dubious anti-Maoist operation. The bodies of young children, who had gone to attend a wedding, were recovered afterwards, giving rise to demands for an enquiry.

The news of lynchings of Muslims and Dalits across the country has become so common that watching videos of people being lynched to death doesn’t shock us anymore. In the conflict zone of Jammu, a little child is killed most brutally and the ruling party members came out in support of the accused. The cost of these atrocities and systemic injustice is definitely not limited, and they adversely affect the feminist agenda too. Ignoring these issues because they are not considered to be ‘mainstream’ feminist issues is a great mistake and a mark of the ignorance of well-intentioned feminists in India. Our ignorance stems from mostly belonging to privileged, upper-caste and upper-class backgrounds that keep us in a bubble of ‘false safety’ for the time being.

Systemic injustices affect the most vulnerable, but as they perish, it shouldn’t take much to guess that the vulnerability will only expand. The ones who feel safe in their bubble today will soon find themselves vulnerable and at the receiving end of the neo-liberal agenda. If we don’t stand up for Tuticorin, Gadchiroli, the Kashmir Valley, and countless other places away from our urban, upper caste/class comforts, we are probably losing the ground to demand justice when the system fails us – when people (including children) burn to death in cinema halls, when loved ones are crushed under collapsed bridges or in train derailments, when our health fails due to increasing pollution and environmental degradation, when the government’s medical and educational systems fail us, when our savings are taken away from us, and when our food becomes poison.

Ultimately, we will be heard by the ‘powers-be’ only if we come together and our voices are amplified. Therefore, we have to speak up for others if we want them to speak up for ourselves, just as Martin Niemoller’s famous poem (in response to Hitler’s Nazi rule) warns us:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Essentially, feminism cannot only be about the body and sexuality alone, when every other factor – social, political, environmental and economic – affects the well-being of that body and sexuality. The feminist movement too is located in the context of the world we occupy. It mustn’t exist in a vacuum. While Indian feminists should continue to disagree, debate and dissent among each other, they must also agree upon a few basic and fundamental points. The basic agenda should include equality in a much broader sense and reiterate that power and resources must not be concentrated in a few hands. The feminist agenda must take it upon itself to ensure that they are redistributed in equitable shares and that there is social, political, environmental and economic justice.

It should claim life and liberty for all – the ability to enjoy life free of violence, and pursue interests, pleasure and desires, should be unconditional and universal. The feminist agenda is, after all, the human rights agenda – and human issues are feminist issues. The feminist idea of a just and equal world is based on the pre-conditions of overall justice and equity – of an environmentally-sustainable world where one can live a life free of environmental pollution; an economically-equitable world where labour is not exploitative and minimum wage is not literally the bare minimum needed to scrape through; where work is not an alienating factor in the workers’ lives but an enriching one where they can fulfill one or some of their many potentials. After all, being able to eat food that is not toxic or having access to potable water that is freely available, being able to breathe oxygen and not toxic gasses, earning enough to live with dignity and reducing the wealth inequality, and living in a world free of wars, are all essential human rights and hence fundamental to the feminist project. Without the fulfillment of these basic rights, the feminist idea of a just and equal world cannot be achieved.

Therefore, taking a leaf from history and going by the current situation in India and the world, the mainstream feminist movement must reckon with itself and re-asses its goals. A lot depends on this moment of reckoning as neo-liberal policies and capitalistic agendas have taken over the world. Market-driven rules are deciding government polices and state forces are being used against people to push these exploitative neo-liberal agendas.

For example, in 2016, when the Finance Minister tried to interfere with Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), women workers from the garment factories in Karnataka took to the streets in Bangalore and demanded for a roll-back of the government’s crony policy. They won and their victory benefited a whole range of people, but the mainstream feminist movement remained silent – considering this to be a labour issue. This is astonishing given that the feminist movement has historically been engaged with issues related to women and labour, the work-space and working conditions – with the goal to improve them and make them humane, just and equitable.

For instance, take a look at the International Women’s Day which is celebrated on March 8 every year. It was started by the Socialist Party of America to observe the demand for better working conditions for women workers in garment factories. Today, however, much of the movement and its discourses have been co-opted by the neo-liberal agenda – and oscillates between liberal feminism slogans of ‘leaning in’ or ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ to the much worse market-driven programmes of selling products aimed at the ‘modern’ woman with wealth, showing purchasing power as a symbol of empowerment.

In this myopic vision of gender and feminist empowerment, we miss out on the fact that the most-marginalised and disenfranchised people are being further targeted by the state’s crony capitalistic policies – those living in the peripheries and in the hinterlands, in tribal areas and conflict zones, and those affected by AFSPA, rapid environmental degradation, and by rabid right-wing hate politics. Their choice, consent, bodily autonomy and sexual freedom are equally important. Yet, for these people, these basics are more imperilled than for those of us living in our bubble of safety, cushioned in the upper caste/class, urban backgrounds.

Based on the tenet that the personal is the political, these questions will require immense emotional labour and will be difficult for us. For example, when we interrogate labour issues, we will have to introspect how they play out in our own homes and offices. It will require tectonic shifts at all levels – from the way our societies are organised to the way our caste-ridden hierarchical minds work. Yet, change is possible and even inevitable.

Finally, human issues cannot exist in isolation – and feminist issues are human issues too. They coexist with each other, overlapping and intersecting the diverse issues of body and sexuality as they play out in specific contexts of culture, economy, environment, politics, etc. They cannot be discussed in isolation.

We live in a country where people are being lynched to death for the simple ‘crime’ of being a Dalit or Muslim or for rumors of eating beef. Here, a child is kidnapped, confined, and gang-raped to scare off her nomadic tribal disenfranchised community; people are being killed for protesting against pollution, and the state is attacking basic human rights. With each incident, we convince ourselves that we cannot fall any lower, but with the next one, we shock ourselves at how depraved we can be. We are a part of the system and benefit from it – we are complicit in it.

How can the unjust and exploitative systemic and structural issues, including that of our own roles and complicity in them not be a part of the feminist discussions we need to have, now?  What will the feminist movement look like, once this country and the world is reduced to fragments and rubble, because of the current neo-liberal, right-wing politics running havoc? What will choice, consent, autonomy and agency look like when there is no ‘body’ left to enjoy them?


Featured image used for representative purposes only.

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