Feminism in India

Ideally, what should be said to every child, repeatedly, throughout his or her school life is something like this: ‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself — educating your own judgements. Those that stay must remember, always, and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.

Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook

Feminism in India is a set of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and opportunities for women in India. It is the pursuit of women’s rights within the society of India. Like their feminist counterparts all over the world, feminists in India seek gender equality: the right to work for equal wages, the right to equal access to health and education, and equal political rights.Indian feminists also have fought against culture-specific issues within India’s patriarchal society, such as inheritance laws.

The history of feminism in India can be divided into three phases: the first phase, beginning in the mid-19th century, initiated when reformists began to speak in favor of women rights by making reforms in education, customs involving women; the second phase, from 1915 to Indian independence, when Gandhi incorporated women’s movements into the Quit India movement and independent women’s organisations began to emerge; and finally, the third phase, post-independence, which has focused on fair treatment of women at home after marriage, in the work force, and right to political parity.

Despite the progress made by Indian feminist movements, women living in modern India still face many issues of discrimination. India’s patriarchal culture has made the process of gaining land-ownership rights and access to education challenging. In the past two decades, there has also emerged a trend of sex-selective abortion. To Indian feminists, these are seen as injustices worth struggling against and feminism is often misunderstood by Indians as female domination rather than equality.

As in the West, there has been some criticism of feminist movements in India. They have especially been criticized for focusing too much on privileged women, and neglecting the needs and representation of poorer or lower caste women. This has led to the creation of caste-specific feminist organizations and movements

According to Maitrayee Chaudhuri, unlike the Western feminist movement, India’s movement was initiated by men, and later joined by women. But feminism as an initiative by women started independently a little later in Maharashtra by pioneering advocates of women’s rights and education: Savitribai Phule, who started the first school for girls in India (1848); Tarabai Shinde, who wrote India’s first feminist text Stri Purush Tulana (A Comparison Between Women and Men) in 1882; and Pandita Ramabai, who criticized patriarchy and caste-system in Hinduism, married outside her caste and converted to Christianity (1880s). The efforts of Bengali reformers included abolishing sati, which was a widow’s death by burning on her husband’s funeral pyre, abolishing the custom of child marriage, abolishing the disfiguring of widows, introducing the marriage of upper caste Hindu widows, promoting women’s education, obtaining legal rights for women to own property, and requiring the law to acknowledge women’s status by granting them basic rights in matters such as adoption.

The 19th century was the period that saw a majority of women’s issues which came under the spotlight and reforms began to be made. Much of the early reforms for Indian women were conducted by men. However, by the late 19th century they were joined in their efforts by their wives, sisters, daughters, protegees and other individuals directly affected by campaigns such as those carried out for women’s education. By the late 20th century, women gained greater autonomy through the formation of independent women’s own organisations. By the late thirties and forties a new narrative began to be constructed regarding “women’s activism”. This was newly researched and expanded with the vision to create ‘logical’ and organic links between feminism and Marxism, as well as with anti-communalism and anti-casteism, etc. The Constitution of India did guarantee ‘equality between the sexes,’ which created a relative lull in women’s movements until the 1970s.

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