Feminism in India

Feminism, by its very definition, is about gender equality. It’s about emancipating women to acknowledge their equal status to their male counterparts. Like their counterparts in other nations, feminists in India seek emancipation of women by defining and establishing equal social, economic and political rights for women in India.

Feminists have also sought to fight against gender violence- rape, molestation and sexual harassment, and gender-discriminatory practices like child marriage, dowry, Sati, female feticide and infanticide and domestic violence. Flavia Agnes, one of India’s foremost feminists, runs an NGO called Majlis. Majlis helps women and girls who are survivors of sexual offences and domestic violence with legal help and psycho-social counseling. They also work with state governments to bring into force laws and statures which can help women achieve equality in access to health and education, wages and standard of living and help in alleviating their problems.

Feminists in India, especially post-Independence, have been instrumental in engendering social change and empowering women in the country.

After the Delhi gang-rape case, there was a huge outcry over gender violence, wherein large hordes of both young women and men came out on the streets to protest gender violence. The iconic and novel Justice Verma Report, constituted by Justice Verma and advocate Leila Seth, among others on the Verma Report committee, was a white paper drafted to review the process, legal and otherwise, in how the law enforcement machinery deals with rape survivors. This paper, which, apart from legalese, also suggested that the WHO guidelines for handling rape survivors be implemented in India too, according to Indian conditions, was drafted after extensive brainstorming session with Indian feminists.

In the modern scenario, as Indian women realize their true worth, break the glass ceiling both personally and professionally, shun patriarchy and sexist attitudes, and empower themselves with education and economic independence, more issues regarding gender violence have come up and are being debated vigorously in the public space.

One of them is the archaic and draconian two-finger test. Women’s rights activists have consistently protested against this test, which doctors perform on rape survivors by inserting two fingers inside their vagina to see if the women or girl is ‘used’ to sexual intercourse. This test is often used to paint the survivors as habituated to sexual intercourse in courts, during rape trials. This practice, also referred to as a ‘second rape’ was condemned and sought to be banned in the Verma report. Also, doctors are being encouraged to deal more sensitively with rape survivors, and medical colleges are being told to include educating wannabe medics on the proper procedure for collecting evidence from and providing comfort and counseling to rape survivors.

Marital rape has also, lately, become a bone of contention. Feminists across professions and backgrounds are petitioning the Supreme Court to criminalize marital rape, and highlighting the issue of women’s consent to sexual intercourse.

Another regressive practice that feminists are seeking to be legally banned is that of female genital mutilation. Some communities, in remote pockets of the country, follow the practice of cutting off the clitoris of young girls to control their sexual urges. This will hopefully be outlawed soon.

Sex determination tests are now made illegal across India, so the hope is that there will be fewer abortions and less female feticide.

Couple of years back, the property law was altered to enable Indian women to inherit property from their father.

Feminism is also becoming an important voice in literature. Writers like Shashi Deshpande, winner of the Sahitya Akademi award, portray how the woman is treated in a conservative patriarchal household; while feminist publishers like Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan Books seek to assimilate the modern form of feminism in India within modern feminist novels. Issues like women’s sexuality, how empowered women don’t see marriage as the goal of their lives anymore, how educated and independent women are living alone and choosing their life partners, freedom of female sexual choice- all these are being incorporated in contemporary Indian literature. Novelists like Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, a former journalist who also is a columnist on gender issues, have introduced feminist erotic literature in India. This deals with what women want and how they think when it comes to making sexual choices. Other feminist authors like JNU professor Nivedita Menon and novelist Madhuri Banerjee are openly and boldly talking about how women feel about love, marriage and relationships.

In fact, the idea of women’s sexual freedom, body image issues and ownership of their bodies is something both Indian literature and independent Bollywood filmmakers are choosing to portray boldly and without mincing words. Films like Kahani, Piku, Dam Laga Ke Haisha and Margarita with a Straw are being hailed for talking about the choices modern women are making, outside the chokehold of patriarchy and misogyny. Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta was one of the first to make films on lesbianism and portray how widows are treated in Vrindavan, a ghetto for Hindu widows in UP, and how young widows are sold into prostitution, through her Fire-Earth-Water trilogy.

Feminism in India is up and running, and moving in a positive direction. Hopefully, in a few years, Indian women will see the level of emancipation they have always coveted and be able to live with dignity and respect for their choices and personalities.

Here are the 7 reasons why we need feminism in India:

Women’s emancipation

Feminism is about a lot of things. But first and foremost, it seeks to emancipate women, that is, bring them on a level playing field with men. It means, essentially, to safeguard their individual and democratic rights by legal and social means. Emancipated women are enfranchised- they can vote and have a say in the political affairs of the nation, they can make personal and professional choices at will and exercise their constitutional rights to education, healthcare and equal wages at work. They can also fight gender violence and seek legal redress if subjected to any form of mental or bodily harm, and rally against gender-specific evils like female feticide, marital rape, dowry etc.

Empowerment

Let’s see how women can be helped at a personal level. The tools with which a woman can empower herself are: education and a job. The more highly educated a woman is, the more likely she is to be mentally liberated and socially progressive. She will shun the regressive tenets of patriarchy and learn to be strong, independent and exercise her freedoms as a human being- in clothing, lifestyle, food, relationships and career. Getting a job goes a long way in empowering women, through financial independence. A woman who is financially stable will not depend on a man for her subsistence but can fend for herself. A recent study shows that women with jobs are more liberated and make better life choices. A woman with career goals will marry smart and be more careful when planning a family. Educated women with careers are more likely to use contraception and be careful when deciding number of kids to have. This will help in fighting overpopulation and high maternal mortality rate, which are major problems in India. Not just urban women, but rural women will also benefit highly from the tools of empowerment that feminism provides.

Fighting gender violence

For decades, feminists in India have been fighting gender violence. Gender violence is perpetrated in many ways- sex selection tests, where the fetus is aborted if it’s a girl. In many villages, girls are killed right after birth in various ways. States like Haryana and Gujarat are said to have the lowest sex ratio in India, but since sex selection tests were outlawed, this will hopefully change. There is a law against dowry and it is implemented with success. There are laws against domestic violence and the hope is that they will be instrumental in protecting women from being victimized within marriages. Rape, molestation, groping- all these crimes are being highlighted by feminists, who are also emphasizing how a still largely misogynist society blames the survivor for the crimes instead of perpetrators. Since the Delhi 2012 gang-rape case, the issue of how to fight gender violence is being debated by feminists. There is a discussion on how to counsel and rehabilitate survivors of sex crimes- within the home or outside it. Feminists like Flavia Agnes and Sunitha Krishnan have been working on it for years. Feminists are also lobbying the Supreme Court to criminalize marital rape.

Gender sensitivity

Feminism can go a long away in making society in general more gender-sensitive. It can also help make, in cases of sexual offences, the law machinery and medical professionals more sensitive to women and their issues. It’s well known that when a woman goes to register an FIR at the police station, she’s asked uncomfortable and outrageous questions about her virginity and sexuality- this can be tackled head-on, and cops can be encouraged to be more attentive and register FIRs and investigate cases properly. Doctors can be taught not to use the two-finger test and to treat rape survivors properly, with rape kits and kindness.

Equality

Feminism can inspire women to lead a fight for equality with their male counterparts- i.e have the same rights as men have. The right to vote, equal pay at work, safety when commuting from home to work and back, equal rights to healthcare and education. There are instances of families not spending enough on getting women treated for medical conditions; and women are often forced to discharge early from the hospital, against medical advice, to look after the house. Many girls drop out of schools before they can finish higher education or earn a college degree, due to regressive practices like child marriage or early marriage without their consent. Many women drop out of the labor workforce in India after marriage, or pregnancy, due to patriarchal version to working women and discriminatory workplace practices respectively. Feminism can make sure that laws and attitudes change to lessen these occurrences and help women get the equality they deserve.

Ending discriminatory practices

Feminism can help put an end to evils like dowry, child marriage, Sati, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Feminists have been working with the state for decades to eliminate such practices and ensure the safety and well-being of women.

Self-determination for women

Feminism can help women break free of the chokehold of patriarchy and become independent, free-thinking beings who act of their own volition. It will help them realize they are human beings and not baby-producing machines and maid-servants in the house or sexual objects for male consumption. It can encourage them to have a high-flying career and choose their own life-partners. It can help them come into their own, have high self-esteem and a better self-perception. It can help them develop strong personalities, a liberated psyche, progressive thoughts and have less body image issues. Women can be happy with how they look, and protest against misogynist tendencies to victimize dark women, or women who are plump or short in height. It can also help them fight stereotyping and objectification in movies, TV and popular literature.

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