Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fairy Tales and Feminism: Refashioning Mother India

This article is written by Smriti Patel.

Men have sight, women insight.
-Victor Hugo

INTRODUCTION: Diversity, Difference and Feminism.
In the early 1960’s, the Suffrage movement was formed to help women become equal to men by campaigning against a series of issues such as abortion, glass ceilings, equal pay, and sexual harassment[1].

femisim and virginaia woolf, A Room of One’s Own,  women victims of men upholders of society mirrors to men
Virginia Woolf
““Does your mother work?” “No, she’s a housewife.”” This statement is just an example of what was heard in and before the feminist movement and in the 1960’s. Since then, women’s roles have changed dramatically, instead of being “just a wife”, or “just a mother”, now women can be both and have jobs outside the house[2]. However, women are still considered a subordinate group because not only do women have different physical characteristics than men, but they experience all of the other signs of a subordinate group as well such as receiving unequal treatment, and having to struggle for equality.

Feminism presented itself in three waves, the first starting in the late 19th century. Writers promoted the idea of feminism; Virginia Woolf wrote a book entitled “A Room of One’s Own”. The argument of the book is that “women are simultaneously victims of themselves as well as victims of men and are upholders of society by acting as mirrors to men”[3].

The second wave was the 1960’s through the 1980’s and primarily dealt with the inequality of laws and cultural status, such as women’s roles[4]. At this time, women were simply housewives – it was rare to see a woman working outside the house at all. This spiked Betty Friedan’s attention and she went on to write a book called “The Feminine Mystique”, in which Friedan described middle class wives and mothers who were wondering if there was something more[5]. She described how the feeling of dissatisfaction was a common occurrence in households. But Friedan, instead of blaming individual women for failing to adapt to women’s proper role, blamed the role itself and the society that created it, thus creating the power of The Feminine Mystique.

 The Feminist Movement grew during the Third Wave of feminism to incorporate a greater number of women who may not have previously identified with the dynamic goals that were established at the start of the movement[6].

FEMINISM: A Concept Analysis
Feminism is a relatively recent term for the politics of equal rights for women. It came into use in English only in the 1890s, and many languages do not have this noun at all[7]. It is also a system of critique and has as its central focus the concept of patriarchy, which can be described as a system of male authority, which oppresses women through its social, political, and economic institutions[8]. Feminism is therefore a critique of patriarchy, on the one hand, and an ideology committed to women's emancipation on the other. At the heart of feminism, social and political analysis is the challenge of the public-private divide in politics, which has historically denied women access to the political space and therefore representation of their interests. Starting from a point of unity—‘sisterhood is global’—feminism today is an ideology with many practitioners that have situated themselves on various theoretical intersections—Marxist feminists, anarchist feminists, radical feminists, liberal feminists[9]. Feminism, however, is not only a critique or an extension of, traditional ideologies but has also made a significant contribution of its own in the field of theory and practice[10]. Feminist methodology, which arose from a tradition of ‘consciousness raising’ in the women's movement and by drawing upon women's subject experience to extend the boundaries of theory has, for example, found an important place in the field of methodological analysis[11]. Issues such as race, sexuality, class, and ethnicity have served to disperse the idea of an essential ‘woman’ in which all women would recognize as themselves. Feminism today is not simply an ideology but a growing academic discipline. While this is making issues of gender accessible to women in education in a systematic way, its incorporation into academic curricula is also causing concern among many women who see the cutting edge of feminism—its political activism—being blunted in this process.

Feminism in search of an identity: The Indian Context
Pre-colonial social structures and women’s role in them reveal that feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west[12]. Colonial essentialization of "Indian culture" and reconstruction of Indian womanhood as the epitome of that culture through social reform movements resulted in political theorization in the form of nationalism rather than as feminism alone[13].
Historical circumstances and values in India make women’s issues different from the western feminist rhetoric[14]. The idea of women as "powerful" is accommodated into patriarchal culture through religion. This has retained visibility in all sections of society; by providing women with traditional "cultural spaces"[15]. Another consideration is that whereas in the West the notion of "self" rests in competitive individualism where people are described as "born free yet everywhere in chains", by contrast in India the individual is usually considered to be just one part of the larger social collective, dependent for its survival upon cooperation and self-denial for the greater good[16].

Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to carve a separate identity for feminism in India. They define feminism in time and space in order to avoid following Western ideas[17]. Indian women negotiate survival through an array of oppressive patriarchal family structures: age, ordinal status, relationship to men through family of origin, marriage and procreation as well as patriarchal attributes, dowry and siring sons. It should however be noted that several communities in India, such as the Nairs of Kerala, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families exhibit matriarchal tendencies, with the head of the family being the oldest women rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral[18].

The heterogeneity of Indian experience reveals that there are multiple patriarchies and so also are multiple feminisms. Hence feminism in India is not a singular theoretical orientation; it has changed over time in relation to historical and cultural realities, levels of consciousness, perceptions and actions of individual women and women as a group. The widely used definition is "an awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work and within the family, and conscious action by women and men to change this situation"[19]. Acknowledging sexism in daily life and attempting to challenge and eliminate it through deconstructing mutually exclusive notions of femininity and masculinity as biologically determined categories opens the way towards an equitable society for both men and women[20].

The Women’s Movement in India: Action and Reflection

The history of feminism in India is regarded as mainly a practical effort. Compared to some other countries there has been only sparse theoretical writing in feminism[21]. However, it is generally classified in three phases.

  •  First phase: 1850 – 1915

The colonial venture into modernity brought concepts of democracy, equality and individual rights[22]. The rise of the concept of nationalism and introspection of discriminatory practices brought about social reform movements related to caste and gender relations. This first phase of feminism in India was initiated by men to uproot the social evils of sati, forbidding of widow remarriage, child marriage and illiteracy, as well as regulation of the age of consent and property rights through legal interventions[23]. Women in this phase were categorized along with lower castes as subjects of social reforms and welfare instead of being recognized as autonomous agents of change. The emphasis was on recreating new space in pre-existing feminine roles of caring[24]. The women involved were those related to male activists, elite, western educated, upper caste Hindus.

  •  Second Phase: 1915 – 1947

During this period struggle against colonial rule intensified. Nationalism became the pre-eminent cause. Tracing the legitimacy of Indian superiority became the tool of cultural revivalism resulting in essentializing model of Indian womanhood similar to that of Victorian womanhood, special yet separated from public space. Gandhi legitimized and expanded Indian women’s public activities by initiating them into the non-violent civil disobedience movement against the Raj. He exalted their feminine roles of caring, self-abnegation, sacrifice and tolerance; and carved a niche for those in public space. Women-only organizations like All India Women's Conference (AIWC), National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged[25]. Women were grappling with the issues of scope of women’s political participation, women’s franchise, communal award and leadership roles in political parties.
Women’s participation in the freedom struggle developed their critical consciousness about their role and rights in independent India. This resulted in the introduction of the franchise and civic rights of women in the Indian constitution. There was provision for women’s upliftment through affirmative action, maternal health and child care provision (crèches), equal pay for equal work etc. The state adopted a patronizing role towards women. Women in India did not have to struggle for basic rights as did women in the West. The utopia ended soon when the social and cultural ideologies and structures failed to honour the newly acquired concepts of fundamental rights and democracy.

  • Third Phase: 1974 onward

Amrita Pritam, Feminism, a woman's body, a woman's right, punjabi literature
Amrita Pritam:
voice for women in Punjabi literat
With the rise of a new wave of feminism across the world, a new generation of Indian feminists emerged. Women have developed themselves according to the situations and have become advanced in various fields. They have become independent in respect of their reproductive right. In recent time, contemporary Indian feminists are fighting for individual autonomy, domestic violence, discrimination, objectification, equal pay, prostitution and education. Medha Patkar and Brinda Karat are some feminist social workers and politicians who continue their fight for fundamental causes of women's oppression in post-independent India in political field. In literary field Amrita Pritam is an eminent writer of India who makes a link of sexuality with feminism and writes for the idea "a woman's body, a woman's right" in Indian languages.

Role of women in social transformation: Education, Ethnicity, Gender and Social Transformation.
WOMEN in India have a great part to play in the progress of our country, as the mental and physical contact of women with life is much more lasting and comprehensive than that of men.

With the dawn of freedom, particularly during India’s national struggle, the position of women took a turn for the better. Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and Dr Rajendra Prasad began to think deeply about the urgent need of women’s emancipation. They realized that so long as women of the country were not uplifted and granted equal status with men in all walks of life – political, social, economic, domestic, educational, India could neither progress nor make any significant advance in any field.

Sarojini Naidu, Indian female Freedom Fighter, Nightingale of India, feminism,
Sarojini Naidu:
Freedom Fighter
'Nightingale of India'
Gandhiji gave a clarion call for women’s participation in the freedom movement. Sarojini Naidu, Meera Ben, Sucheta Kripalani, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Aruna Asaf Ali was some of the leading women freedom fighters.

Indira Gandhi, our late prime minister, was held in high esteem the world over. Vijayalakshmi Pandit created a record by becoming the first woman president of the United Nations General Assembly. In the modern age, we find the role of women in every field. The myth that certain fields were only meant for men has been demolished by women. Women have proved to be more vibrant, dynamic, sincere and perfect in every field.

Modern women in the present age occupy top rank and attain immense success in all the fields such as sports, politics, performing arts, police, administration, medicine and etc. Mother Teresa, P T Usha, M S Subbulakshmi, Kiran Bedi, Dr Padmavathi, Sushma Swaraj, and Medha Patkar have become great names in different fields of their work.

Now with the encouragement of co-education, women have cast off the age old inferiority complex and in sync with men in every walk of life. Women are actually proving to be academically better and socially more active. They are also aware of the fast changing social milieu and they are making sustained efforts to scale the leaders of social progress by dint of their zeal and dynamism. They are contributing extensively towards the social transformation and building of the nation.
In the field of healthcare also women as doctors and nurses can give a healing touch to patients. It has been found that women on account of their tender hearts are better nurses and due to their naturally delicate and soft hands they are better doctors.

Florence Nightingale, the lady with a lamp, made history and showed the way to womankind and how efficiently and nobly women can mitigate the sufferings of humanity in war and epidemic. Even in the area of family planning women can render admirable service of explaining to the village women the importance of family planning by taking into them confidence and can guide them by creating awareness about different methods of birth control. If all educated women accept the challenge of time and make up their mind to serve the nation in checking the population growth, it will greatly contribute to the socio-economic evolution of the nation.

kiran bedi, ips officer, female police india, feminism
Kiran Bedi:
Indian Female IPS Officer
Women are no longer physically unfit for military and police departments. In the whole length and breadth of India, everyone has read and heard of Kiran Bedi, an IPS officer with an iron hand and a soft heart craving for reformation in the state of prisons in India.

In order to make optimum use of our vast womanpower, we must liberate Indian woman of social taboos. However, mere legislation cannot emancipate women. This needs a radical change in our mental makeup and our social structure. For this, we shall have to foster a social emancipating spirit in our everyday life. The conservative male chauvinistic attitude shall have to give way to liberalism. It can be said with a sense of pride and confidence that the future of women in India is quite bright and prosperity will be safe in their hands.

In order to give them more scope of participation in the economic growth of the country, the government has implemented major programs like Mahila Samridhi Yojana, Women’s Development Corporation, etc. The female literacy on the whole is on the rise.

Sushmita Sen, former Miss universe, feminism, indian actress
Sushmita Sen:
Former Miss Universe
To quote former Ms Universe Sushmita Sen, Women in India have now become more aware of their rights as individuals and they are now opting for higher positions at work at the same time being a perfect housewife at home”[26]. This is the stage at which women have reached today.

Emotional, affectionate, caring and yet firm, a woman is the perennial source of inspiration for man in the odyssey of life. Women like Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Margaret Thatcher, Chandrika Kumaratunga have left an indelible mark not only on their nations but also at international level.

Modern women have risen far above the domestic drudgery. They are educated and aware enough to deal with any situation competently. In the present times, they are no longer the inanimate objects. They have struggled hard to establish the identity of their own. They possess enough strength and self-confidence in a brave new world.
young Mother Teresa, child Mother Teresa, feminism
Mother Teresa
Women run to extremes, take advanced measures for the progress of the country with their power of mental strength and extraordinary talent. Women have occupied a pivotal position today and have achieved eminence in different fields. In the present times, several women’s organizations are working for the enlightenment of women of India.
 Now, the women in India are heading towards advancement and by dint of their devotion, dedication and determination, women like Mother Teresa, Ramadevi, Bhagini Nivedita, Indira Gandhi and many more others played a vital role in the transformation of the nation socially.

Gender Sensitive Legislative Legislation and Policies in India: Women and Housing Rights
After the independence in 1947 the Government has attempted to formulate several programs and policies including legislation to correct the historical error of male-female gap in India. In spite of that there still exists a glaring imbalance in women representation in various walks of life. The Constitution of India ensures gender equality in its preamble as fundamental right but also empowers the state to adopt measures of positive discrimination in favor of women by way of legislation and policies. India has also ratified various international conventions and human rights instruments committing to secure equal rights of women such as ratification of Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993[27].

However there still exist a wide gap between the goals enunciated in the constitution, legislation, policies, plans, programmes and the reality of the status of women in India. India has recently announced the National Policy for Empowerment of Women in 2001 with the goal of creating an environment through positive economic and social policies for full development of women to enable them to realize their full potential.

India has enacted several gender sensitive legislation, followings are some of the work-related legislation for women[28].

1.      The Beedi & Cigar Workers (Condition of Employment Act, 1966)
2.      The Factories Act, 1948.
3.      The Mines Act, 1952.
4.      Maternity Benefit Act, 1961.  
5.      Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.

CONCLUSION: Progress and Problems of Women in India
Madhuri Dixit, indian actress, feminism
Madhuri Dixit:
The noted feminist Germaine Greer once said that cows and women in India were given the same treatment. However difficult one finds to accept this statement one has to agree it is to a certain extent true. In India cows are worshipped and traditionally Hindus abstain from eating beef, but cows are also left to wander freely and openly on the streets[29]. Similarly women too are worshipped as 'Shakti', 'Durga' but speaking in more practical terms men find it difficult to respect women.

 Eldest daughters in Indian families who are named after the goddess Shakti and have names like 'Amba', 'Gauri', and 'Sreedevi'  but when a second girl is born, she has somewhat a plain sounding name like 'Usha', 'Rupa',and  'Shushila'. Is the second girl any less of a goddess or is it because by the time a second girl is born, the parents lose much of their idealism?

Earlier many people did not have a good attitude towards modeling but in recent years with Indian beauty queens winning the Miss Universe and Miss World crowns, many middle class Indian girls are taking to modeling. Modeling, which earlier was not considered a good career option is now being considered a career option along with other careers. The film industry too has a seen an increase in number of actresses. Madhuri Dixit who until recently was the reigning Bollywood actress came from a middle class Maharastrian family. Girls who had a film industry background, and who had an advantage, were also dissuaded from joining films, but are now joining films. Both girls from the Kapoor family Karishma and Kareena have joined films.

Karishma kapoor, Kareena Kapoor, taking award, feminism, indian actresses, sisters
Karishma & Kareena Kapoor
A number of schemes have been implemented by the government to provide self-employment to rural women. Cottage industries like 'Khadi Gram Udyog Bhandar' help rural and lower middle class women in using their skills in making pickles and papads and selling them for a profit[30]. 'Kali' for women press was started in India with the help of the Gloria Steinem foundation to promote and encourage women writers in India. The government of India has made 18 years the legal age for marrying for girls in India thus encouraging them to educate themselves. Illiterate rural women are encouraged to learn to read and write and are also given education in family planning measures.
Advances in medical technology have made Indians find ingenuous ways in using it to their advantage. People aspiring for a male child are using ultrasound scanning to determine the sex of the unborn child. If the child is a female then the mother is forced to abort the female child. All this is now made illegal.
There is also the problem of bride burning. Many married women commit suicide by burning themselves because they cannot bear the tension and the strain that they and their parents are put through by their husband and in-laws demanding. Sometimes the in-laws themselves proceed to burn the woman. During the 80s dowry and its inevitable consequence like bride burning reached very high proportions but the trend has quietened down in the 90s. The government had made the acts of receiving and giving dowry criminal acts but still dowry as a social evil exists. The incidence of rape also remains high. One hears frequent newspaper accounts of rape of a lower caste woman by upper caste men in some rural area. In 1992, the rape of Bhanwari Devi a social worker from Rajasthan hit national headlines[31].
To conclude one can say that women in India have made much progress in the past century but there still a need for a proper solution to the many problems. After all who can deny that one our prime ministers Indira Gandhi was a women. At least we are ahead of America in that respect where to date there has been no women president.   

This article is written by Smriti Patel

Smriti Patel is pursuing her B.A.LLB from Gujarat National Law University. Her area of interest lies in Media Law and Sports Law. Her works have been published in Volume 2 of Nalsar Media Law Review, titled “Gender Stereotypes: Women in the Media”; she has also got a publication in the inaugural edition of The Precept: Journal of Sports, Media and Entertainment, titled “Media: Handmaid or Hindrance to Peace”.  Further, she has also got an online publication on A38 Journal of International Law titled “The Genocide Case”. She has also interned at 'Bar & Bench', which is a leading online legal news website. 

[1] Bagilhole, Barbara, "Sexual violence in India: "Eve-teasing" as backlash," in Sexual Harassment. Contemporary Feminist Perspective, edited by Alison M. Thomas and Celia Kitzinger, Open University Press, 1997.
[2] Bhasin, Kamla. “Are We on the Right Track?” Report of an FFHC/AD Workshop on participatory evaluation. FFHC/AD, FAO, 1986.
[3] Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1989.

[4] Gerhard, Jane F. Desiring revolution: second-wave feminism and the rewriting of American sexual thought, 1920 to 1982. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 
[5] Horowitz, Daniel. "Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America," American Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 1(Mar. 1996): 22
[6]Henry, Astrid. Not My Mother's Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-Wave Feminism, Indiana University Press, 2004 
[7] Oyewumi, Oyeronke, ‘Introduction: Feminism, Sisterhood and Other Foreign Relations’ in African Women and Feminism: Reflecting on the Politics of Sisterhood edited by Oyeronke Oyewumi. Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2003.
[8]  Schlegel, Alice. Male dominance and female autonomy: domestic authority in matrilineal societies. HRAF Press, 1972.

[9]  Bell, Diane and Klein, Renate. Radically Speaking. Spinifex Press, 2006
[10] Roy, Arundhati. An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2004.
[11] Tharu, Susie, ‘Women Writing in India’ in 600 B.C to the Early Twentieth Century edited by Lalita, K, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
[12] Ibid
[13] Jain, Pratibh, "Women in Freedom Struggle: Invisible Images" in Women Images, edited by Sharma, Sangeeta, Jaipur, Rawat Publication, 1995.
[14] Antrobus, P. Global Women’s Movement. London: Zed Books, 2004.

[15] Cosminsky, Shiela. Daughters of Time: The Shifting Identities of Contemporary Midwives, in a special issue of Medical Anthropology (Volume 20), edited by Davis-Floyd, Robbie, Cosminsky, Shiela and Leigh, Stacy, 2-4, 2001.
[16] Barton, C. Integrating Feminist Agendas: gender justice and economic justice. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005
[17] Basu, A. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.
[18] Eller, Cynthia, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won't Give Women a Future, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
[19] Hooks, Bell. Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics. New York: Pluto Press, 2000.

[20] Belausteguigoitia, M. Naming the Cinderellas of Development: Violence and autonomy in Mexico. 2004.
[21] Spender, Dale. There's always been a women's movement, London Pandora Press, 1983.
[22] Jha, Uma Shankar and Pujari Premlata. Indian Women Today: Tradition, Modernity and Challenge. Jaipur: Rawat Press, 1996.

[23] Pruthi, Raj Kumar, and others. Status and Position of Women: In Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. New Delhi, Vedam Press, 2001.
[24] Chaudhuri, Maitrayee. "Feminism in India: Issues in Contemporary Indian Feminism", in Kali for Women, edited by Chaudhuri, Maitrayee, New Delhi, Vedam Press, 2004.
[25]Basu, Aparna and Roy, Bharati. “Women's Struggle: History of AIWC 1972-2002,”, 2002

[26] Punn, Goher. "Sushmita Sen roped in to play Benazir Bhutto". Bombay Times, January 28, 2009.
[28] Ibid
[29]Visweswaran, Kamala. Fictions of Feminist Ethnography. University. of Minnesota Press, 1994.

[30]Ghose, Indira. Women Travellers in Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze. Oxford: Oxford University Publication, 1998.

[31] See Visaka v State of Rajasthan AIR 1997  SC 3011

Labels: amrita pritam, dowry, female literacy, feminist workers, indian feminism law, infanticide, sex discrimintaion, smriti patel, successful indian women, virginia woolf, women freedom fighters, 


  1. Replies
    1. Yes she is good at what she does. Too bad all these incidents about her brother have arisen

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