Indian Women And The ‘F’ Word: Has The Debate Been Derailed?
When an enraged Kannagi--in the Tamil epic Silapathikaram--went on a rampage setting the city of Madurai ablaze with her anger for wrongly accusing and killing her husband, the Gods had to come down to pacify her. She probably donned the militant feminist mantle of one being wronged.
When in the Ramayana, King Ram ordered the agnipariksha (trial by fire) for Sita to prove her chastity, she refused to be humiliated and was sent away from Ayodhya. Sita in all probability asserted her self-respect and drew the line when it came to doubts cast on her integrity. In the Indian mythological context, there are several instances of women who were strong enough to shake off the code of conduct expected of them when faced with dire situations.
Were they all feminists? How were they different from the women whom we term as feminists today?
To answer all these questions, we need to first understand what ‘feminism’ is. The danger of the suffix ‘-ism’ is that it straightjackets ideas within a spelt out framework. It is a movement that started out in the West seeking equality in the social, political, professional and legal realms.
In the Indian context, these rights were handed over to women constitutionally post Independence, while the West has had to fight for them. Although how much of it was permissible in the real world in a heavily patriarchal society is anybody’s guess.
Sukanya Rajan, an engineer by profession and a homemaker by circumstances, believes in equality of women in all spheres of life and yet is reluctant to come forward as a feminist. She is wary of the derision and the sneers that come with the term.
Richa Singh, who works for an NGO that deals with education of the underprivileged, says, ”Yes, maybe I am a feminist to some extent, in the sense that I believe in education for all, right to choose my life partner or the number of children I plan or social justice and legal protection for all… But ‘feminism’ is still a strong word to be identified with.” She hesitates before saying, “I don’t hate men, really…”
For women like Sukanya and Richa, ‘feminism’ is a bad word that is equivalent to misandry. So how did a movement for equal rights associate itself with ‘male hating’ ideas? It could be a notion popularized to trivialize the movement and the support it was gaining all over by a patriarchal society that is so entrenched in our lives.
Sadly, it was only the extreme aggressive avatar, as in bra burning, that was focused on rather than the values it stood for--that it was a movement that encouraged considering women as individuals with a control over their lives and their decisions.
The silver lining is that there are women who are willing to question these inequalities and refuse to lead lives as expected of them. Apart from the urban working women, there are women in the hinterlands who have stepped out of the lines drawn for them, such as Sampat Pal Devi’s Gulabi Gang fight against domestic abuse and inequalities, or Birubala Rabha’s mission against witch hunting.
In the Sage publication Indigenous Roots Of Feminism by Jasbir Jain, there is an apt observation: “feminism is more than a voice of protest or questioning. It is moral self-reflection, a conquering of inner fears and a realisation of self-worth ... It does not abandon values or relationships, but goes on to create new ones.”