Intersectional Feminism and its Dire Need in Modern India

Shruti Dutta Blog July 23, 2020

Being Indians, one of the most common things which we have always heard of and experienced is the diversity of India. Although, this diversity has mostly been shown as a very positive, empowering characteristic, it also leads to quite a few unaddressed issues which constitute natural byproducts of diversity. One such problem occurs while creating policy measures or while propagating ideas of upliftment. Although there is generally some common ground from which such ideas stem, they often become ineffective at the ground level due to their non-inclusive nature. Traditional feminism can largely be categorized as such an idea.

Early feminism was visualized in the wake of women’s suffrage movement in the USA, demanding voting rights for women at a time when slavery was still legal in the States. This naturally excluded black women from the visualized idea of feminism, and although it tried to include women into the system, it failed to include ALL women into their idea the first place. As a result, the movement emerging as a product of it was highly elitist in character. Main notion of elitism here comprises those social identities which associate us with some privilege over the others. Here, the white women enjoyed some privileges over the black women on the sheer basis of their race, and hence the intensity of their issues were largely different.

Now panning it down to the Indian context, there are so many different identities which people bear, thanks to the diversity. Among the ones which can be named are caste, economic class, religion, ethno-linguistic groups, etc. Thus, the idea of feminism, which originated as a movement in the context of a developed country, and which has largely been adopted by the privileged section of women in our country, has unknowingly assumed an elitist character. The problems generally included by mainstream feminist discourses often revolve around issues concerning these privileged entities, and thus they fail to gain a positive reputation amidst the masses, as many women, especially from the oppressed sections, fail to connect with such discourses. Their problems are often something completely different.

To provide a more holistic view on this, let’s consider some practical scenarios. For the sake of it, we take three fictional women who grossly represent women from different backgrounds: Meena (who is a manual scavenger, and naturally a Dalit), Rekha (who is a professor of economics at an XYZ reputed college and belongs to a Brahmin family) and Ariba (who is a Muslim woman from a poor economic background and is a housewife).

Meena’s life is everything short of what we offer in the name of human rights. She has to struggle hard: picking up human waste with her bare hands and dumping it every day just to earn a day’s expenses. Her husband, who is also a manual scavenger, is an alcohol addict, and spends most of his wages on drinking, and often returns home to abuse her, verbally and sometimes even physically. On some days when he is unable to go to work due to his alcohol ridden body, he even forcefully extracts Meena’s share of earnings for the day to buy more alcohol, thus leaving them starving. Meena has three children, two of them go to government school and the eldest, who is now 15, has joined his father in the same profession to earn some more money for the family. They do not have money for his further education. To add to all this, Meena is often molested by her contractor. She has no choice but to bear that silently, as if she complains, she will be fired and a lot of chances are that nobody will believe her, as the contractor is from an upper caste background- why would he defile himself with the touch of a Dalit woman? She just goes about her daily life, thinking about her children, and prays to God that if she ever dies, let her children come along with her too, as nobody in this world will take care of them.

Rekha is apparently the definition of a modern strong woman to many around her. She had done extensive study in the field of Economics and now has been teaching that subject for more than five years in the country’s one of the most esteemed institutions of Economics. She has many publications and some awards to her name, and of course, the degree of a doctorate in Economics. However, one never sees this educated lady eating non-vegetarian food, whereas she loved feasting on it back as a bachelorette. “I have gone vegetarian. Eating meat is futile,” she says when asked by her old friends. What revolves in her mind are the strict instructions her husband’s family and he himself have imposed on her regarding the consumption of meat as a Brahmin. “Don’t try to sneak it and eat it. We will know. Moreover, it is for your own good.” She silently obliged. Whenever she attends her husband’s official parties, she is addressed as Mrs. Chaturvedi and not Dr. Rekha. Apparently, her achievements were still not enough to win her an identity independent of that of her husband. All her salary gets credited to a joint account of her and her husband, as a result of which he keeps track of her finances and only allows her to spend a certain amount each month, without her explicit consent regarding this. Basically, he owns his salary and her salary as well. Rekha often wonders the purpose of her being highly educated in her upliftment and how so many young women look up to her as a role model. However, she secretly feels that had she been less educated but married a better man, her life would have been much better than what it is.

Ariba is a devout religious woman and the doting mother of two. However, her family has to often live hand to mouth as her husband, who lived in Saudi, only sent them a meagre amount every month. When Ariba suggested to her husband that she should work as a tailor, in order to supplement the family’s income, he flatly refused, saying that it is haram for women of their community to expose themselves to the scrutiny of strangers. She should only step out if it’s an emergency. This to him did not really count as one. One day, she found out by some means that her husband had another wife and some children there in Saudi. This was the major reason of the less money which she received from her husband. The next time her husband called her, she took her outrage on him and told her that he should either leave the other woman, or allow her to work as she needed to sustain herself. He cut the call. A few minutes later, when he again called her, he yelled on the phone, “Talaq, Talaq, Talaq”. Before she could say anything, he hung up, and would not pick up the phone. To whatever Islamic laws she knew, she was devastated, considering her marriage to be over now. As she looked at her children, she did not know what she could do now.

All these three cases have a lot of problems arising from one common identity, which is Gender. However, the differences in the nature of their problems are due to the influences of so many other identities, known and unknown, such as Caste, Religion, Economic Class, etc. Feminism, as we have seen in mainstream media, often brings to us issues of wage gap, sexuality, political representation of women, etc. These issues are undoubtedly very important and of grave concern. However, are these sufficient to describe the problems of ALL women in India? Much of these concerns arise as a product of women raising their voices against injustice. However, we also need to remember that much of the women population in the oppressed communities do not have a voice – in fact patriarchy is so ingrained in them that they fail to see the systematic nature of these injustices and consider them to be their personal misfortune – and hence their concerns are seldom included while putting forward traditionally feminist discourses. When majority population of an entity does not connect with an ideology made to uplift that entity, what then remains the relevance of that ideology?

As they say “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. This is what we need to tell all the ideologies and to the people who adopt these ideologies, especially if their origins lie in some foreign land. In order to really live up to the foundation level aim of Feminism, which is equality of all the genders, it needs a serious revamp suited to the context it is being implemented in. Till the time we keep alienating gender as an identity from the other equally important identities with which it constantly mingles to create new probabilities, it will be impossible to bring about gender equality at the ground level in a substantial manner. It is high time we make use of our privilege to study those who are not so privileged, and turn our boat of help in the right direction, so that the help reaches all those who are in need, and is not only restricted to those who are able to reach the harbour.

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