Intersectional Feminism in India
This piece was originally published in the inaugural issue of The Brown Orient and has been re-published by follow the halo as part of our 7th issue.
by Srishti Uppal
Feminism initially laid ground in India in the mid-eighteenth century, when women began to speak out against evils of the previously existing and legal practice of Sati. Sati or suttee is an obsolete funeral custom where a widow immolates herself on her husband's pyre or takes her own life in another fashion shortly after her husband's death. Widows were often forcefully burnt alive.
However, this activism was displayed not by Indian women, but by European women settled in India as a consequence of colonialism. This initiated a trend, which has continually overshadowed present-day feminism in India.
For starters, feminism in India was a concept brought in by the British, and modern-day feminism is largely a duplication of foreign feminism, which makes it impossible for the Indian population to completely assimilate it into their culture for one complex and exhaustive reason: British feminism was developed when the British empire was on its peak, whereas the Indian population was then, and still is, characterized by poverty, social stigma and inequality, and political instability. India needs a brand of feminism that takes these factors into account, and is authentic to the Indian context.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, India has greater diversity than most nations. There is a growing gap between the upper and lower classes, eliminating the middle class, there are around 1700 languages, and various regional faiths. In such circumstances, we need a genre of feminism which acknowledges differing qualities among people.
This is where the role of intersectionality of feminism comes into play.
Kimberley Crenshaw, an esteemed African-American civil rights advocate and law professor, introduced the concept of “intersectionality” to feminist theory nearly 30 years ago, describing the “intersectional experience” as something greater than the sum of racism and sexism. Briefly explained, the way a person living in a privileged part of society may experience discrimination is less severe than someone facing multiple forms of exclusion. Intersectional feminism takes into account, the fact that women who come from economically or socially weak backgrounds, require different treatment than those who do not. When put into the Indian context, it suggests that Muslim women, faced with issues of bigamy, or economically underprivileged girls, deprived of access to sanitary pads, suffer a great deal more than women of majority classes, living in posh areas of metropolitan cities. This is not to say that all women do not need feminism. This simply means that feminism, quite like reservations in government run institutions in India, requires various needs and dissimilarities to be taken into account. Intersectional feminism acknowledges that identities do not exist in a vacuum and our definition of freedom is influenced by our personal socio-cultural contexts.
So, what then is India’s stance on this concept? Is feminism in India dominated by certain groups, or unlike most resources, is it divided equally among the population? The answer is not good news. Himal magazine observes that Indian feminism has tended to represent the interests and concerns of upper-caste women rather than reflect the experiences of Indian women en masse. By recognising this fact, Indian feminism can more effectively challenge historically-entrenched and varied patriarchies. Feminism in India is limited to those who have limitless access to resources such as the internet, a free and fair legal system, and social support. For other women such as those domestically abused, prevented from availing an education, or married off at the age other women learn multiplication, feminism is an unknown, unfathomable concept. The constitution grants them great rights, but the parliament does not speak of the implementation of these rights and practices such as child marriage and female foeticide continue to be fostered in society.
There are documented studies and instances of how women of colour are more vulnerable to violence, and that women of certain religious groups are more likely to face oppression. It is also true, that lesbian and bisexual women are more vulnerable to hate-based violence.
Four out of every ten transgender individuals in India face sexual abuse before turning 18. Swasti, a health resource centre, surveyed 2,169 transgender citizens across three states to find that in 44 percent of the cases, the violence carries on well past childhood. Trans women in India face a grave threat, which can only be dealt with if women from privileged sections of society stand in solidarity with them. Moreover, as many as 32.5% of girls in school drop out at secondary level, raising a generation of backward women uneducated and unaware of their rights.
As a woman immersed in this very circumstance, I acknowledge that I am part of a privileged section of the Indian society. What role can this section play, except for that of the oppressor or that of a silent spectator to injustice? What can be done to make feminism and equality more inclusive?
First off, citizens must be educated in schools regarding their human, economic, religious, and political rights. Women in backward sections need to be empowered by more vigilant and active use of civil rights already granted to them by the constitution, rather than creating new bills.
Secondly-and this is where it gets crucially important-women need to fight for reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha, the House of The People. Is it truly a house of the people, or one of the chosen few; a house of the rich and beautiful? As in the local governments (Panchayats and Municipalities), there must be representation of women at the centre, and a percentage of those seats must be set aside for Dalit and tribal women.
The history of underprivileged or backward communities speaks volumes about the inequalities they face and what must be done to overcome them. Therefore, besides educating them about greater exercise of their rights, we must educate ourselves about their different traditions, difficulties, as well as the people coming out of their communities who are taking over the world by storm. To illustrate, we must educate ourselves regarding the history of Triple Talaq and the Uniform Civil Code. Muslim feminists like Ismat Chughtai should be applauded and publicly regarded, rather than merely worshiping feminists outside the Indian context, like we tend to do with Emma Watson.
Lastly, feminism needs to be intersectional for men as well. Men of colour, men from the LGBT+ community, disabled men, are constantly having their identities be erased. The stance that there is a huge gap to be bridged between feminism and India’s male population is sadly plausible and the hurdles between them are painfully obvious. That is, not to say it can’t be done.
The key to overcoming limited intersectionality is representation. Representation of different communities in media such as TV shows, movies, books, social media platforms, can revolutionize how these communities are seen and normalize their existence. Once the significance of intersectionality is realized, its procurement is destined to follow.
Srishti Uppal is a sixteen-year- old writer, reader, blogger, artist, and nerd from India. She sees herself as an optimistic who likes to bring out the best in herself, and in others. She is an ambassador for PostcardsForPeace, and is the founder and health of a mental health programme called Life is Life. She is an editor for Culaccino Magazine. She believes strongly in the strength of the written word, in the power of nerds, and in the ardent need for world peace and harmony, and will go to great lengths to promote the same. She aims to obtain her Ph.D in psychology and make therapy more accessible and affordable. She can often be found fangirling, petting dogs, and sniffing new books, and working on her own Y/A novel in between.
Illustration is by Indian artist Mohammad Yunis Nomani was our resident artist for follow the halo issue #3. You can find more of his work on Instagram @aint_got_no_mani