Why is ‘feminist’ a label that some liberal, emancipated women recoil from? What is its relevance in modern day India? Why is feminism often associated with aggressive women, who disrupt social norms and harmonious families? What is the connection between religion and feminism? So many questions when it comes to a single word.

Feminism is a word used either with disgust or elation, two emotions at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Why so? Disgust, usually for the people who believe that it’s a futile pursuit and elation for the ones who believe that we’ve come this far, we’re not giving up just yet.

Its past is pock-marked with many, many struggles. To begin with, the feminist are looked upon as bra-burning, men-hating lesbians, which really is utter rubbish. I am pro-feminism, perfectly straight and have my lingerie securely intact thank you. Their movement is looked upon as a joke. ‘Let them try, they’ll get nowhere’ is a standard statement by both men and women in our country .Well, the only retort I can think to that is I’m sure a peaceful resistance against the British Empire during our colonial rule must’ve looked like a joke to them, but it was for the for the freedom of the Indian people and we won. Why not fight for the freedom of the Indian woman and win?

To understand the feminist movement in India, we need to understand its background. The movement is basically divided into two parts, the independence stage and the post-independence stage. During the pre-independence and independence stage of the feminist struggle, activists drew upon the symbolic use of the mother, from the protective mother goddess to the spirit of endurance and suffering lauded by Gandhi, as a rallying point.

The shift began in 1970’s and the feminist’s movement started concentrating largely on gender equality issues and problems based on subordination and the general degraded situation of the Indian woman.

Let’s flash forward to September 2008. What would be the basis of the contemporary feminist movement? The situation of Indian women has improved for about roughly 15 percent of the population, mostly for those who have access to education and live in urban Indian towns. What about the rest 75% of the Indian female population?

The census of our country does not paint a pretty picture. We could start with the skewed sex ratio figures in our country, 833:1000 (approximate figures), that means, on an average there are 167 women missing, most of them killed in their mother’s womb. The literacy figures say that only 50% of the women are literate. One out of five women, die during childbirth and 50% of pregnant women are anaemic. Looking at these figures, the situation still seems dire.

I was recently watching a documentary called ‘Father, Son and the Holy War’, made around the 1990’s and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to look at the patriarchal hierarchy in our culture. Women are still sacrificed to Sati, might I add, proudly by their immediate family members, especially the male members of the family. In Muslims, they are easily divorced by their husbands and are left to fend for themselves and their children. There is a particular clip that asks a man about rape scenes in movies and if it were real life how would he react. His shocking reply was that he would join in the ‘fun’.

Modern day society hasn’t changed much in our country. Our outlook is still in favour of the ‘man’. One of the forces that changed the situation for women for the worse, during the ancient period, was a scripture known as ‘Manusmriti’. Its interpretations made by priests of that era suggested dark themes of child marriage, ‘purdah’, no formal education, and further degradation of women who were not of higher castes.

In Hindu religion, women were allowed to read Vedic scriptures, become priests and take part in philosophical debates, but somewhere down the line it changed and as a result, becoming a priest became a male dominated profession. Feminist theology usually applies to a movement built around Christianity and Judaism and involves the right of women to become priests. In our country, however, there is no such thing, it is still a male dominated line, but as I was doing research for this article, I was surprised to find that Indians living abroad did allow women to practice and pass on our ‘sanskaras’. The only religion in the world that preaches gender equality for the progress of mankind and practices it as well is the Baha’i faith, in which a woman, Bahiyyih Khanum, has been the actual head of the entire faith.

In the modern sense, the movement has grown to the ‘control of our bodies’, besides the other social issues. With the invention and usage of the birth control pill, women have gained the freedom of controlling their own bodily functions, though there is an opposing view that states that these pills have further subjugated women and the testing of these pills were done in third world countries to see their side-effects. For all the people who live in Delhi, I would suggest you visit the Devi Art Foundation art installation to view various feminist artists, who are reinterpreting the female form. An example of this is the work done by the artist, Pushpamala. She has taken various staged pictures of herself in different get-ups that mock the traditional sense of how women are perceived. As every movement gains momentum, there is always a flip side to it and in this case, especially in the case of India, it has been the reservation policy and bills regarding women. In the typical bureaucratic sense, the babu’s saw the solution to the problem of under-representation of women and inequality by creating laws that are either mocked or not followed. One of the articles of our constitution promotes equal pay and representation of women in the working field. Though followed, women are still under-represented and given fewer projects and responsibilities than men. In the working environment, comes another dreaded factor known as the maternity leave. Most of the women come back to the office to find that they are at least 5 years behind their male counterparts in the prospect of growing in the field or just don’t return because they cannot cope with the added responsibility of children. The concept of ‘Flexitime’ is gaining popularity and is very useful for working mothers, but unfortunately is in its nascent stages. The representation of women in parliament was also highly contested. For this I can only say, if you welcome the move to integrate other backward classes in the reservation policy to improve their condition, then why not women?

As such, women in the largest democracy also need a platform for people to hear their voice. It is really up to the people to change their attitude, no matter what the government policy is or what the current scenario is. If one community could change their outlook, it could have a domino effect on the rest of the cultures. We must come to the realisation that women need to be uplifted in this country and it needs to be done fast.

After all, if 50 percent of the entire population sat at home, then where would we ever reach besides the achievement of reaching the bottom rank on every life and development index in the world?

Tara Verma

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