Indian Feminism: Jasbir Jain Summary


     One can easily notice that feminism in India is portrayed  as a movement dependent on western feminist theory. Though adopted in India, certain concepts, so far, has not been indigenized in terms of cultural detrimants, history etc. It becomes more apparent that feminist movements in India had to constantly respond to accusations of being "westernized" , "rootless", "baseless" etc.There is a stubborn erreneous belief amongst the multitude that feminist ideas in Indian context is extraneous to the social realities and they have a ready-made , oft-refrained justification for the rejection of feminism in India - its supposedly inalienable western orientation. They percieve feminist movements in India as a facile copy of western discourse and because of this reason they say that Indian feminists are not true representatives of Indian woman. Indeed several Indian feminists have responded to this in several ways. They say that though much of the feminist thoughts are of western origin, questions of gender have been re-thought and re-conceptualized to address their implications in the specific context.
     Jasbir Jain's Indian Feminisms is an attempt to reshape and rescue  Indian feminism out of certain allegations of mimicry and foreignness. she attempts to locate traces of feminist ideas in literary/religious/cultural texts and thereby to identify the roots of feminist consciousness.Here she makes it ever more apparent that we cannot interpret feminism in India in monolithic universal terms ignoring cultural differences. Women folk living in different countries have different needs and interests as they are conditioned by sevveral factors including familial, social, racial and individual consciousness. In her own words, "feminism is more than a voice of protest or questioning. It is moral self-reflection, a conquering of inner fears and realisation of self-worth... It does not abandon values or relationships, but goes on to create newness"

Indian Feminisms: Summary

Jasbir Jain begins the essay by stating that Feminism being culture-specific and womens lives being culturally constructed, the very process of socialisation is rooted in their social reality ( how they are portrayed in society)  . So whenever one attempts to locate feminism in Indian context, it is mandatory to place it against the wider context (western discourse) and to differentiate it from western discourse.Despite the fact that Indian academia, and society has been impacted by western positions, Indian feminisms have a different history and agenda. 
  The major challenge that Indian women had to confront with was colonialism. British rule in India impacted women in three different ways:
1) women were considered as imperial sites where colonial strategies like polygamy, child marriage, sati etc were worked out.
2) women were idolized.They were potrayed as custodians of culture. the myth of woman as motherland and nationhood worsened their plight.
3)they found legitimate space which promised them identity and selfhood within the freedom struggle.
women entered public life on their own strength but failed to transcend gender roles in the post-independent staragies and five year plans that turned them" marginalised other".( Nehruvian era is being mentioned here. the 5th five year plan failed to cater to women's relevance).
     The partition of the country into India and Pakistan reinforced patriarchal values .The partition was inscribed on their bodies, observef Veena Das in her Critical Events. The state performed a patriarchal role by asserting its rights to reclaim and rehabilitate women and as a result many women commited suicide.At the same time we can see that Indian womanhood was given a new colour. many women entered the job market and became independent. they became the main wage- earners which resulted in the emergence of many woman-headed households . once again there was a replaying of traditional models of heroism and courage.
    The beginnings of modern feminism can be traced back to the mid 19 th century . Though the movement acquired a political dimension, its course never ran smooth due to several factors including caste, religion etc.
        Amongst the challenges faced by this movement were:
1) The ideas of Enlightenment( age of reason)
2) The patriarchy reinforced in the 19 th century with epic literature and vedas which accords women a subordinate dependent status

3) The tradition of India, which previleges family that gives priority to Biradari ( male member) and enforces a code of morality over the further subordinated woman.
       Women have questioned these constructs through a variety of ways including religious conversations, polemical writing( controversial writing), Utopian projections and autobiographical writings.
Indian Feminism
       Feminism in India is a movement fragmented by region, caste, language and levels of education. The Anti- Sati movement in the eighties and thr Anti- rape movement in the nineties led by the middle class academics resulted in the enactment of several important laws. Thus woman activism got involved in ecological and developmental issues, which affected their lives and somehow allowed them to think beyond gender and class, which posited an alternative to western mode of development. Great movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan, led by Medha Patkar and Arundhathi Roy,  Vandana Shiva's Staying Alive and Chipko movement are apt examples of the same.
        Women's writing in India, in whichever language it is, needs to be placed against backgrounds of political history, tradition and social activism. There are three different types of women's writings done by Indian women:
1)  Writing done in English Language
2)  Writing done in other Indian Languages
3)  Writings by diasporic women writers.
         Jasbir Jain now calls our attention to four great Indian woman writers - Nayantara Sahgal, Anita Desai, Sashi Deshpande and Githa Hariharan. In diverse ways, they seek to women's right to their body as well as selfhood. Here selfhood is no more an abstract concept , but the age -old  struggle for space begins with the concept of ' existence'. As body is always controlled by patriarchal morality and roles of wifehood and motherhood, female sexuality has traditionally been viewed as a threat to social institutions like marriage, which is believed to be a sacrament in which procreation confers a noble status upon women, a status specially if it is the birth of a male child. So any attempt to attain selfhood and freedom should work through the body and should deconstruct those recieved notions regarding a good woman.
     Sahgal , being a child of Gandhi's India, inter-weaves political issues with feminist ones and applies the imperial-colonial polarities to human relationships. All relationships are power relationships and human beings are further divided into  the ruthless and the sensitive,  the aggressive and  the compassionate. Sahgal was successful in acheiving two things- to recognize the value of feminine virtues for society and human survival and, in this process, free them from the category of gender. Qualities that are regarded as feminine are placed within androgynous perspective. Here the female body is problematised.
      Most of sahgal's protagonists enjoys sex to the fullest and values it , which they could separate from procreativity. Saroj, in Storm in Chandigarh experiences spontaneous joy in pre- marital relationship and when she reveals this to her husband, he regards it as a violation of his right, which Saroj conceives as his attempt to claim her right from the moment of birth, as if she was nothing more than a body to him.
      Even as this conflict creates tension within her married life, she can enjoy sexual relationship with her husband and can take pleasure in pregnancy. But the claustrophobic( not having enough freedom) atmosphere complels her to walk out of her marriage. Divorce forms a central problem in much of her novels and it is often criticized , for it attacks the very idea of pativrata, the ever devoted wife cast in the image of Sita of Ramayana and Savitri, who , with her devotion, won back her husband from death.
       In a recent volume, entitled Relationship: Extracts from a Correspondence( 1994), in which she has published the correspondence between her and E N Mangatrai, her companion since her divorce consists of several letters of three years which represent non-conformist emotions which can offend one's sense of propriety. They reveal how a woman reacted under stress in a man's world and as a result the heroines of her next two novels walked lamely their way ( life) full of confusion to a new definition of virtue and broke apart from traditional norms.
      But they cannot reject  tradition completely, for tradition has several other aspects too. Tradition has definitely its own strengths too. Shagal has worked out wonders with the strengths of tradition in her novels, Rich Like Us( 1985) and Mistaken Identity( 1988). We can see that women in Rich Like Us no longer commit Sati for a dead husband, but for the rights of humanity. In Mistaken Identity, Rani, Bhushan's mother who had been struggling hard to build a separation between herself and her polygamous husband, later crosses all boundaries to marry a Muslim lover. The transgression is symbolic of the right to self.
       Though Sahgal's heroines struggle with a sense of guilt, that is being thrust upon them for the reason of being a woman, her works can be singled out for her boldness in relating the issue of sex to individual freedom and the desire to be freed from the concept of being treated merely as a body, when compared to her early contemporaries like Kamala Markandeya, Santha Rama Rao and Attia Hosain.
         Some of these issues are also taken up by Shashi Deshpande. For instance, Madhu in Small Remedies has a pre- marital relationship and this knowledge upsets her husband and leads to a strained relationship. Indu of Roots and Shadows knowingly and willingly indulges in an adulterous relation with Narendra which does not instils a feeling of guilt in her, instead it becomes an act of empathy, defiance and self- definition.
     Motherhood is yet another concept critiqued in Sahgal's works. It is one of the cultural impositions which deny women personhood. Though life is born out of sexual act, motherhood itself erases both sexuality and selfhood. Sahgal's portrayal of motherhood are different. The child often becomes a pawn in the power-game between the parents and this destroys the mother-child relationships. Motherhood is not respected. Instead father-daughter relationships are foregrounded both in Rich Like Us and This Time of Morning. But in Mistaken Identity, the mother-son relationship works because they have the gift of imagination which helps them to relate as individuals, as independent beings, a relationship which does not require the subordination of anyone's ego.
     While Sahgal focuses on women and value structures, Anita Desai's focus is more on individual consciousness. Most of her early novels have female protagonists, who either donot have mothers or reject the. Maya in Cry the peacock and Sita in Where shall we go this Summer?   are motherless. Some mother characters in her novel are either non-existent or opt out motherly and grandmotherly roles as in Clear light of the Day and Fire on the Mountain respectively.
  Some of her strong female characters like Maya in Cry the peacock, Monisha in Voices and Sita , explodes the myth of woman as the eternal mother ( ever enduring) by either pushing their husband to death for survival or opting out by giving birth during consecutive pregnancy . Monisha of voices commits suicide when she sees the image of Eternal Mother reflected in the dancer on the street. The male character Nirode, brother to Monisha after her death describes their mother to his younger sister as kali , the union of goddess and demon.
    The depiction of motherhood is different in Journey to Ithaca. The mother is an Egyptian girl named Laila, finally elevated to the rank of the Mother in Ashram. Here her role as Mother is a non-biological status arrived at through rising above the ordinary bodily needs. In her girlhood phase, Laila had defied her parents, crossed boundaries and literally danced her way to India. Here Laila as the Mother withdraws from worldly pleasures but her withdrawal is not complete . She is very much interested in wordly life and relationships, but she is unwilling to adopt a biological or functional role.
       Sashi Deshpande portrays both mothers and daughters as her main focus is on relationships, rather than on individuals. She has wisely interwoven both positive and negative portrayals of mothers. Saru's mother turns away from Saru, for she has lost a male child and she relate to the surviving female child( saru) in a different manner. Saru's mother forces on her a sense of guilt for being alive and later when she is dying she doesn't even communicate this to her daughter who learns of it from an outsider. Whereas in A Matter of Time,  the loss affects the mother in a different way. Sumi's mother kalyani, here experiences a loss of a male child, which Sumi senses to be an  act of deliberation. The child who was mentally retarded would have sapped mothers whole energy. So here she destroys the myth of an all- absorbing , all- sacrificing motherhood, for self preservation should be considered.
     Deshpande takes up the issue of rape both within and outside marriage in her 1993 novel, The Binding Vine. Mira's relationship with her husband and Kalpana's rape by her own uncle are instances where a woman's right to her body being violated , even within the framework of marriage as well as outside it. Mira, later embraces a premature death during childbirth, while the second ie. Kalpana , lies in coma.
             The institution of marriage, as it entraps women within the traditional behavioral patterns and bestows men with complete freedom to own another human being , is another question. In A Matter of  Time, Sumi's husband Gopal, abandons her. His departure compels Sumi to emerge as a bold character and gradually accelerate life towards a new sense of freedom.
    Githa Hariharan's The Thousand Faces of Night, presents marriage as the one act that contains within it, the power to destroy . The novel works through several parallel discourses and relationships. Devi, the daughter of a widowed mother, who is a strong adherent to social norms, is expected by her husband, Mahesh to behave merely as a wife who looks after him, waits for him and obeys him- the bare minimum which reduces her to a puppet. The other male authority in her family is her father -in -law, who often narrates to her, stories from the puranas and vedas and often renders from Manu, the arch enemy of women. On the other hand, her grabdmother narrates to her a lot of stories that deconstructs the ideals and deromanticize wifehood and motherhood. Devi finds herself caught between the two traditions and the two discourses. As a result, Devi finally decides to opt out motherhood and even decides to get out of the framework of marriage , as inspired by the story of Ganga of Mahabharatha. As Devi moves out of her marriage,  she literally walks into her mother's garden.
      Hariharan's third novel, When Dream Travels is framed by fantasy and magic realism, but the story once again problematizes man-woman relationships ie. the unfair power exercised by the male and the power of woman to survive through storytelling and imagination.
      The questioning of Indian women writers problematises the struggle between male ego and the female desire for freedom, which cannot be worked out through education or economic independence alone, but the one to be acheived through the body, for it is on the basis of beauty, docility and productivity of this body, that traditional role models have been moulded. The two classic epics, Ramayana and Mahabharatha presents the ambivalances as well as multiplicities of tradition . If Ramayana elucidates "norms", Mahabharatha previlages rebellion, defiance and non-conformation. Women are increasingly turning towards the Mahabharatha and Deshpande has just published a collection of short stories entitled, The Stone Woman, which reinterpret the women characters of Mahabharatha.
      Thus, Indian feminisms can be differentiated from the Western discources in at least three ways- the claim of equality at no stage has been based on acquisition of masculine virtues and strengths. It has not valorised motherhood as we find in the works of Walker and Rich. Finally, they have had no  Freud to contend with, instead their battle has been with Manu and the religious constructs.


  1. this really helped me out a lot you really are a life saver ��

  2. Thanks a ton for simplifying this long tedious essay. You helped us a lot.


Post a Comment