Passages to India.

Literary and Socio-Political Perspectives on Gender Concepts in India

Why Kali Won't Rage: A Critique of Indian Feminism.

by Rita Banerji, Calcutta, India

1Two unique factors distinguish Indian feminism from the feminism in the west.  One, it rejects the notion of a deep-rooted, tradition-fed gender hierarchy in India, defined, dominated and exploited by men.  Secondly – it does not ascribe the abysmal state of women in India to longstanding patriarchal oppression, and hence sees no reason to rage against it. While to western feminists, these factors might seem oddly perplexing, there is within Indian feminism a rationalization of these outlooks.

2Suma Chitnis in Feminism In India, a compilation of “some of the most influential writings on the concept of feminism in India” (Chaudhuri 1), describes how once, while attending an international seminar on gender roles in Canada, she was acutely conscious of the fact that while the western feminists there launched an “angry tirade” against the patriarchies in their countries, she felt no such anger towards the patriarchy in her own country.  She goes on to elaborate on Indian women’s general “disapproval of [the western] feminist anger” and their “confused reaction to the [western] feminist emphasis on patriarchy […] particularly on men as the principal oppressors” (Chitnis 8-10).

3Chitnis muses that this might be because history and culture render, “the women’s issues different in India from the issues in the west.”  She points out that historically India has “always been [a] highly hierarchical [society]” with the hierarchies maintained through customs and social behavioral codes.  She also notes that unlike the west where individuality and personal freedom are emphasized, Indians cherish values like submission to superiors, “self-denial” and “sublimating the [individual] ego.”  In other words, Indian society is sociologically and psychologically acclimatized to the notion of a stratified social order, and what may appear as gender hierarchy to an outsider, is simply regarded as cultural observances by Indians. Also, what westerners may read  as a forfeiting of the individual self is regarded by Indian women as a prioritizing of family and community over the individual. Hence they see it as making a choice in favor of the larger good.

4Chitnis further justifies this perspective of Indian feminism by arguing that after Independence the Indian constitution “granted women political status fully equal to that of men. [And] thus Indian women did not have to bear the kind of injustices that women in the West had to suffer because of the […] gap between political ideals and realities.” She contends that since Independence in 1947, the Indian government has through its series of Five Year Plans provided for the “welfare of women” such that if countries are compared in terms of legal provisions for women, India “is likely to emerge as one of the most progressive countries.” Chitnis feels this is one of the main reasons why Indian women are not as agitated as their western counterparts. She concludes that Indian women “see that the legal safeguards and equal opportunity facilities that are being fought for [by western feminists] […] are already available to them in principle” (Chitnis 9, 11, 17).

5Madhu Kishwar, in the same compilation of essays, Feminism in India, corroborates Chitnis’ viewpoint and further adds that “the idea of women’s rights and dignity […] [has] a much longer history of individual women’s assertiveness in India [than in the west.]” This she believes is evidenced in India’s traditions of goddess worship, where “Shakti” or power is recognized as an embodiment of the feminine. Kishwar insists that this in fact “allows Indian society to be far more receptive to women’s assertions and strengths” then western societies are. This, she argues, is also the reason why, unlike the west, in India, men too have historically participated in the women’s rights movement. She points out that during the British Colonial period men even took a leadership role in the abolishment of practices like sati, and the institution of laws to allow widows to remarry. Kishwar’s contention is that because of the tradition of goddess worship, Indian men are socially adjusted to the idea of women in positions of power and that this is one of main reasons why the women’s movement in India “did not acquire the overtones of gender warfare as it did in the West where women faced fierce hostility from most politically active men in their endeavours to win equality” (35-36).