Whose story is Indian feminism telling?

Another International Women’s Day is upon us. So, here we have Soni Sori recuperating in Delhi ICU after an acid like substance was thrown at her  in Bastar, a couple of firebrand lawyers stay holed up in Chhattisgarh fearing for their lives; we have a  Smriti Zubeen Irani, our ‘honourable’ HRD Minister, baying for the blood of JNU- for bringing down “Goddess” Durga to the level of a sex worker; then again we have Radhika Vemula out on the streets fighting a gut wrenching war of justice for her son; we have an auto driver Chitralekha fighting off patriarchichal Leftists in Kerala, we also have Richa Singh a student union leader from Allahabad, who risks losing her enrolment in the University for throwing BJP’s “fringe element” Yogi Adityanath out of the fraternity, we have Mayawati- the face of Bahujan politics sparring with Minister Irani calling for her beheading; Irom Sharmila is out of her house arrest. And last but not the least, we have Shilpa Shetty selling latest designs of Mangalsutra on an online site as a “special offer only for limited time.”

Some would say, women have arrived at the centre stage of Indian romance with dissent and anti –nationalism, or have they? Can Indian Feminist Movement be granted a pat on the back yet? Despite the hundreds of women marching on the streets more than a couple of times in the past few months, have they really found the space their voice demands in the social stratosphere yet? Or have we critically failed to uphold the voices of subalterns?

Lets see, despite all the protests, death sentences and some critical amendments in the IPC, after 2012, crime against women are at an all time high nationally. Be it public stripping, gang-raping, cat calling, body shaming, bride burning, threats of rape, each of these have seen us hitting a new low this past year. With social media becoming the order of the day, a few of these, especially those involving minorities and upper castes- have succeeded in grabbing the headlines, and managed to build up public outburst for few days. So, in the twenty first century India, in a land of Sati, Durga, Savitri, Draupadi on one hand, and  Savitri Bai Phule, Mayawati, Soni Sori, Chirtralekha, Ishrat Jahan, on the other- where is an average Indian Woman’s fight for herself?

While going through Chitralekha’s story, a dalith woman auto-driver from Kerala, who has been trying hard to survive in a deeply patriarchal society governed by twisted leftist ideology, I couldn’t help but ponder on the failure of education, economic freedom, feminism and communism- at a single go. In a state like Kerala, where literacy has touched the highest accord not now, but more than two decades ago, a woman’s simple struggle to fend for herself and her family, meets with such dastardly dissent by men-backed by a Communist Party- is a huge comment on our positions in the society by itself. Equally shocking is the gang rape of women in Haryana by Jat men.

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Leaving out the subaltern voices has resulted in failure of feminism in India since the last several decades[/pullquote]

Adivasi women in Chhattisgarh or Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha, women workers of a private company in Kerala where they had to sit in Dharna to demand their “menstrual rights,” those in Gujarat, Manipur, Kashmir, Assam, Muzzaffarnagar or Sunderbans in West Bengal- have a common enemy. An entity bound by a single ideology strewn with blatant casteism, corporatocrasy, misogynist hegemony. But, against our popular belief, and much against what we have been taught in our curriculums-there is a long history of women resisting against this entity- a glorious one. The struggles are twenty- thirty years old. Their revolution, to achieve dignity and freedom, from this cruel entity has passed on through generations of brave women refusing to forget and forgive the state players, the Brahminical patriarchy, the army, the zillionaire corporate giants and the chroniclers of history of feminist struggle in India, for side-lining them cruelly into the throes of indifference. Is it safe to say that the Indian feminism has critically failed to uphold the expressions and dialogues of the “subaltern voices?”

Leaving out the subaltern voices has resulted in failure of feminism in India since the last several decades. The villains of crimes against humanity, have thus managed to squeeze past legal crevices, on technicality and by purchasing the lawmakers and lawkeepers with impunity. This leaving of the “subaltern voices”  has resulted in all of us looking at this entire struggle for “azadi” from a tunnel vision. SO, when we speak about farmer suicides, we are speaking of farmers failed through government, killing themselves. Are we however, talking about their wives, daughters and sisters, who have lost their sole breadwinner, thus exposing themselves to a volley of exploitation and crimes? Similarly, any dialogue around rapes, is more or less centred around the urban middle class, and in very limited of windows do we find, the issue being handled in a broader sense of the term involving, Upper Castes, Army, Crony Capitalists, Police, Politicians and the rest of the Corporate machinations. In most of these cases the subalterns arrive in the form of bodies to do their storytelling- which in stself is a huge folly.

So, when one thousand Dalith Women marched through various states of this nation, chronicling rapes of Dalith women by upper castes- it did not promulgate its cause with the massive march of Adivasi women against land diversion that again happened across several states in a gap of few months. In both cases, the mainstream feminist movement remained largely weary of the cause. So, as Arundhati Roy would ask, “What is it about the women’s movement in India and in the rest of the world that has in some ways depoliticized it?”

So, we now have feminist organisations, who would happily discuss women’s right to sexuality, live in relationships, domestic violence, entry in temples- important issues no doubt- but about gender roles as such. But, as soon as one mentions, the Adivasi women fighting state militia, who are trying to protect their hills, forests and dignity from the Police and para military, or those women, who are fighting against the caste repression in millions of villages across India, on the streets, in the dingy machine rooms of various private organisation,  and in the din of red light areas- they somehow do not find takers with the popular narrative of feminism. So when Bollywood star Twinkle Khanna writes a blog on JNu, she’s a feminist, and when women of Mumbai’s Red Light area write an open letter demanding “azadi” from Godess Durga, they are a bunch of women at the wrong end of the city- certainly not “feminists’.  The root of this “clubbing” of feminism lies deeply entrenched in the failure of our education system, and the Corporatisation of education and the radicalisation of our thought process that refused to let the sub altern voices enter the mainstream. An evil design of neo liberalised society, gnawing off to deep economic, casteist and communal divide- succeeded in fending-off the grass root struggle against imperialism and Corporate autocracy thus preventing the neo liberalized feminists to understand their machinations, altogether.

Thus, Savitri Bai Phule could never become a champion of women’s cause in our society, or Bhanwari Devi from Rajasthan, a catalyst in altering Court verdicts on rape cases of Dalith women. This is the same reason that displacement and subsequent exploitation of millions of women from their lands, or the rapes of women by army, para military, or the daliths and minority communities, could never become a “feminist cause” in our country. “Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political, and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes,”says Arundhati Roy.  

So, as we prepare our speeches and blogs around the next International women’s Day, we have to ask ourselves- whose story are we telling, and who needs to be the new age story teller? Maybe, its time to question the politics around feminism in India and whether, we want the term “feminism” broadened to include the subaltern voices. Give the Lioness her turn to write her story.. so the Hunter is not glorified anymore..


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Surabhi Singh Written by:

Surabhi Sing is an independent writer based in Raipur Chhattisgarh.

One Comment

  1. Rubee Das
    March 11, 2016

    Very well written. Enlightened too read.

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