Women’s liberation in India: is a revolution possible?

IHT carried a very insightful article by Anand Giridharadas titled “A feminist revolution in India skips the liberation”. I would have posted excerpts, but the piece is worth reading in its entirety, so I suggest you make a quick detour to the IHT site before taking a deep breath (highly recommended) and plunging into my response.

Modernity involves more than sin. It demands irreverence. How many urban young women chop off their hair, or choose not to procreate, or dine out alone?

I’m glad I can say yes to all three! But I am still not sure that defines ‘liberation’.

1. As our Civics textbooks pointed out year after year, we are social animals. Individuals may be liberated in their minds and to some extent in practice, but that practice will always be limited by social contexts. I may not have any hangups about dining out alone, but that freedom in my mind is curtailed by factors that I have no control over – the biggest among them being safety. If I dine out alone, will I get more lecherous looks than if I had company, will I be groped on my way out of the restaurant? There are other limiting factors too – public infrastructure for instance. If I do dine out despite the lecherous looks, how will I get home, if I don’t have private transport?

Often, these very real limitations are mistaken for some sort of conformism, for an absence of feministic assertion. Liberation in women’s minds is all fine, but very little of that can be put into practise without other support structures. Yes, the west has had a feminist revolution, but that change came alongside another kind of transformation – after the two world wars, many many western nations and societies consciously built accountability into their administration and governance. We in India have simply not had that change. In fact, we have regressed greatly in that area.

For a feminist revolution to take place, there has to be a wider sense of rights and entitlement. No, I don’t mean that society in general will or should support a feminist revolution, but that it should actively believe that people have a right to better lives, that those in power should be accountable. To illustrate: most people in India (this is not restricted to women) will not approach a policeman for protection or help. Because you are likely to get further victimised (think custodial rapes, murders, disappearances). Elsewhere in the world, that is largely not the case – if it were there would be outrage, because the public feel entitled to trustworthy protectors. But we simply don’t have this in India – what you see here is acceptance, resignation and an amazing ingenuity in working with and around the ‘system’. This is not necessarily bad, it is simply a different kind of adaptation from the one that took place in the West. But one that will not aid revolutions.

Without a parallel revolution in the perception and demand for ‘public good’, whether in law and order, education, health, transport or any other area of public interest, no marginalised group – women, Dalits, religious minorities – can bring about a public revolution. This is not to say no revolution is possible. Of course it is. Only, it will be of a very different kind from the that took place in the west, for it will take place in the absence of other support structures that existed (or were built) in those parts of the world.

2. This alternate revolution is something Anand Giridhardas has already recognised – he speaks of stay-at-home fathers in rural India, of women panchayat leaders, etc. This revolution is a quieter one – being brought about not by the urban empowered, but by those who need the change the most. Women in Arshi’s socio-economic strata do not need the change. They are rejecting the freedoms available to them precisely because they have never experienced what it is not to have that freedom. Perhaps if it were taken away from them, they would begin to truly value what is being handed to them on a platter.

Apologies to feed subscribers – the article was edited several times after posting, hence must have showed up a dozen times on your readers. My mistake.

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7 responses to “Women’s liberation in India: is a revolution possible?

  1. damn right! change always comes from those who most need it, not from urban places. Cities always catch up later, to the tunes of pseudo-liberals saying they always practiced it!

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  3. what urban woman doesn’t crop their hair? forget about whether hair cropping is any index of feminism or anything else, as a purely empirical matter, i rarely see urban women with long hair. the flower vendors must be going broke.

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  5. Young feminist and Shilpa Phadke, thank you.

  6. I think the piece by Anand Giridharadas has lots of chunks that have been written just for effect… I cannot but laugh at that metaphor of bras.

    The idea of the ‘urban Indian woman’ that he gives is certainly not representative of the majority.

    And even the quote that he choses to substantiate “the feminism of small victories” is strange… What’s wrong with super-feminists who do the “cooking and stuff like that”?

    Modernity involves more than sin. (It does demand sin? And what is sin?) … How many urban young women chop off their hair … (Never bothered to count)

    Can urban Indian women sue this man for libel?

    Kannal, I agree there are parts of the article which are over the top, as you have pointed out. But I strongly support his central argument that younger women, especially in the urban English-schooled strata, seem to be receiving a rather warped image of what it is to be liberated.

    And he simply uses a fictional character to substantiate this. So what? It has been done before, and it does not take away the validity of the argument. Let us not forget that Meenakshi R Madavan’s blog (purportedly based on real life) reported on exactly the sort of lifestyle she speaks of in her book. I thought the quote from her about women who think ‘I should marry this guy’ rather than ‘I should buy this stuff’ especially revealing.

    Also, I am totally with you when you criticise the suggestion that you cannot be liberated if you have long hair and choose to have children. Which is why I picked that line to begin questioning some of the points he was making.

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