Feminism in India

Women in India: Power in Unity, Power Alone

By Andrea Guerrero

Introduction

I’ve designed this exhibit to shine a light on women in India and the gendered discrimination they face and the issues they’ve confronted from the past and in recent years. It’s important for me to cover this group of women because I’ve learned little to no information or history relating to feminist work in India from any past classes or from mainstream, Western media. Through taking a GWSS class at UWB that covered various histories and movements of gender and sexuality, I found myself curious about taking a look in a different part of the Global South we didn’t get a chance to delve into. Therefore, through this exhibit, I would like to give a voice to Indian women’s stories, experiences, and issues to share with the general public that may not know much about their history and what they deal with today, and what they’ve actively done to deal with their issues as women in hopes whoever is reading this learns something new about them.

Armstrong describes the activism done by women in India throughout the 19th and 20th century. Three different forms of feminism emerged such as social reform feminism that concetrated on women’s issues relating to gendered cultural norms; nationalist feminism in the late 1800s that went against the British’s imperial rule to strive for women’s rights in civic and legal aspects; leftist feminism focused on issues due to the caste system in India. Other notable events through the year include during and after Indian independence movement, the All-India Women’s Conference being founded in 1927 promoting women’s health and education, the creation of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), and the overall shift in activism goals, strategies, and issues going into the later half of the 20th century (Armstrong, 2017). I chose this artifact to highlight all the different work that Indian women did in a collective effort to confront various issues they faced for decades to progress to where women in India are now.

First Feminist Magazine in India.pdf

Manushi by Motherroot Journal, 1980. From Herstory Archive: Feminist Newspapers Collection in LGBTQ History and Culture Since 1940, Part I

Manushi, A Journal About Women and Society, was India’s first feminist magazine written by an all-women group that was first published in start in 1979. A year later, The Motherroot Journal published a review of Manushi in the fall of 1980, a year after. They described the Indian magazine as a form of media that contain many women voicing their concerns about issues like gendered violence and economic discrimination that was happeing to them in India. Manushi informed readers about other women around the world and how they were handling their own particular issues and ways to support one another (Manushi, 1980). I chose this artifact since it was crucial that a magazine created by Indian women gave a platform to all the women in India to let their problems be known that usually aren’t included in mainstream media, and helped inspire others to join the women’s movement. In turn, by publishing in an English newspaper about a feminist magazine made in India, it further helped it become widely recognized outside of its borders.

Another English newspaper published in 1980 a piece about an editor for Manushi, Madhu Kishwar who had attended a meeting sponsored by the Indian People’s Association of North America (IPANA) and spoke about how women in India were oppressed, mentioning how while the Indian constitution appears to support women, it wasn’t truly doing so, as women getting negative impacted the most if they lived below the poverty line, there was a decline in the employment of women, women and girls facing neglect and inadequate care resulting in earlier deaths than men due to a  recent drought that occurred in India (McGuigan, 1980). This artifact is important to preserve a moment in time of acknowledging what was going on in India at the time, as the feminist movement was on the rise.

A feminist movement of their own began to emerge in India, as another American news article had published the occurrence in 1984. Coll, the writer of the piece, described how women in India dealt with lack of educational opportunities, how their work would go undervalued when they were involved in construction and factory work and some women would need to bring their infants to work shifts since it was still their responsibility to take care of their young. Coll later describes how they’ve met Indian women who were committed to feminist work and empowering others in various ways to show how they can change the conditions of their lives, and listening to all women’s needs to make sure they are heard and to figure out what should be done for them. The women in India also voiced to Coll how they knew about the feminist movement occurring United States, and were encouraged by them in their own work (Coll, 1984). Overall, this article is another example of acknowledging the feminist movement in India, the particular issues the women at that point in history were dealing with and how they went about it in their own ways as a collective effort to better improve the lives of women there. 

Bonded not Bound.png

Bonded not Bound Art Mural by Fearless Collective, 2015. From Fearless Collective. Located in Dharavi, India.

Fast forwarding to more recent times, I’d like to focus on an issue that Indian women deal with everyday that’s more internal, individual and personal: creating boundaries. Boundary setting for women is something that has gone ignored, in the expectation they shouldn’t have any, or be taught that they can have them. To highlight this issue, Fearless Collective created a mural called Bonded not Bound, that utilized a shade of blue that is the same color of the tarpaulins used to cover an object from being visibly exposed. Used as a metaphor for boundary setting, the blue tarp-colored paint was placed as a protective shield around the images of women featured in the mural as a physical representation of their personal boundaries that they should be allowed to create for themselves, in helping recognize they can choose their limits on their own terms in different aspects of their lives (Fearless Collective, 2015). Moreover, I included this artifact to emphasize how this is a universal struggle that not only people or specifically women in India face, but throughout the world, others within and outside of the Global South can relate to.

From your strength I weave beauty.png

From your Strength, I Weave Beauty by Fearless Collective. From Fearless Collective. Painted mural located in Lodhi, India.

From Your Strength, I Weave Beauty is a mural that portrays the underlying issue of numerous women and young girls that get involved with prostitution, as many Indian girls in adolescence get married off and forced into sex work by their in-law. This contributes to a cycle that goes from mother to daughter, later resulting in intergenerational trauma. The sense of being stuck in this way of life is represented by the fog in the mural, with the young woman and elderly woman in the mural representing different generations of the family they are a part of. Fearless Collective also held gatherings for Indian women and girls in local communities to discuss and bring awareness to this issue (Fearless Collective, n.d.). In doing so, this gave women the chance to recognize that although they may feel like they lack control in their lives and are expected to stay quiet if they are internally suffering, they have the opportunity to decide better life outcomes for themselves, and that there is a way out of things they don’t believe they can escape from if they wish to. I deemed this to be an important message to other women and girls in any life situation they didn’t choose for themselves or want to get out of, which was the reasoning behind including this artifact here. 

fearless shaheen bagh mural.png

Ishq Inquilab Mohabbat Zindabaad by Fearless Collective, 2020. From Fearless Collective. Located in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, India.

On December 11, 2019, the Parliament of India approved the Citizenship Amendment Bill  for religious minorities but excluded Muslims. In response to this, Muslim Indian women started protesting, thus creating a movement they were at the forefront of with the support of men alongside them. During the movement, Fearless Collective worked with people involved to create a mural of a young Muslim girl holding the Constitution of India with a Shaheen falcon (a non-migratory bird commonly found in South India) perched on her shoulder, standing alongside an older Muslim woman (Fearless Collective, 2020). Together, they represent everyone who’s Muslim living in India affected by the goverment’s unjust decision. Moreover, this was a situation of power and control when the women ultimately had none over the law but used their power through unity and fought to get back the right to live there that should never have been taken away based on their religion. 

In conclusion, the women in India delved into actively and continuously working to make strides in feminism throuhout the years and progression has been made, and it wouldn’t have been done without the collective help of the women that were able to stand up against the gendered discrimation and the oppression that endured in hopes later generations have less to struggle with. Although there is still certain problems that persist with strong historical roots and influence, upon other problems that go unacknowledged, I hope this still inspires not only women in India to see the feminist work that was done before them, but for all women to realize the strength in women coming together for a common purpose and cause for change for a better life for all.

Citations

Armstrong, E. (2017). A Brief Introduction: Indian Women's Activism in the 19th and 20th Century. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street. Retrieved from Women and Social Movements, Modern Empires Since 1820 database.

Fearless Collective, (2015). Bonded not Bound. Fearless Collective. Retrieved from https://fearlesscollective.org/project/bonded-not-bound/ 

Fearless Collective, (n.d.). From your Strength, I Weave Beauty. Fearless Collective. Retrieved from https://fearlesscollective.org/project/from-your-strength-i-weave-beauty/

Fearless Collective, (2020). Ishq Inquilab Mohabbat Zindabaad. Fearless Collective. Retrieved from https://fearlesscollective.org/project/ishq-inquilab-mohabbat-zindabaad/

Coll, R. (1984). Feminist Movement Stirs in India. New Women, New Church, 7(5), 8. https://link-gale-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/apps/doc/MYLYZT031918509/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=bookmark-AHSI&xid=ceade8ff

Manushi. (Fall, 1980). Motheroot Journal, 2(3), 6. https://link-gale-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/apps/doc/EWSPVP955946429/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=bookmark-AHSI&xid=b8efe709

McGuigan, M. (1980). Madhu Kishwar Describes Oppression of Women in India. Kinesis, 19. https://link-gale-com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/apps/doc/DCGNMW104594015/AHSI?u=wash_main&sid=bookmark-AHSI&xid=7f7b85bc

Archive Links

Fearless Collective

LGBTQ History and Culture since 1940, Part I

Women and Social Movements in Modern Empires Since 1820

About the Curator

Andrea Guerrero (she/her): I'm a first-generation Filipino American student currently attending University of Washington Bothell (UWB). I'm majoring in Community Psychology, and highly considering to minor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.