In her book New Feminisms in South Asian Social Media, Film, and Literature (2017 written with Sonora Jha), Professor Alka Kurian listed recent feminist actions, which she sees as a “radically new kind of feminist politics” inspired by the concept of rights and the tactics of youth-led protests since the Arab Spring of 2011. Mainstream feminism hadn’t focused on sexual harassment (called Eve-teasing), but rather child marriage, abortion of girls, and dowry violence (such as brides burned to death in supposedly accidental kitchen fires). Kurian traces the contemporary willingness to address this issue to the arrival of Western media and increase in the number of independent women professionals during economic liberalization in the 1990s and the resulting backlash from conservatives–including increase in violence against women. Like other recent social movements, there’s emphasis on intersectional issues including caste (rights for Dalits) and religion (equality for Muslims). Kurian sees the concern for the rights of minorities as the Fourth Wave of Indian feminism. She gives examples of recent campaigns that generate increasing support:
2003: Blank Noise Project against Eve-teasing
2009: Pink Chaddi (panties) movement
2011: Why Loiter Project on women’s right to public spaces
2012: The gang rape of Delhi student incited huge protests and new legislation with harsher punishment of rapists.
2015: Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) movement against curfews for women in student dorms
2017: Bekhauf Azadi (Freedom Without Fear) March
2017: #MeToo led by younger actresses about Bollywood abuse.
“Women in India” Review (Chapter in Volume 2 of Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences,
Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur,
The chapter, “Women in India”, by Dr. Gayle Kimball, provides a broad spectrum of social, economic and political situations that affect the women in India. One of the greatest merits of this study is the author’s recognition of geographical (urban and rural) and structural (gender, caste, class, etc.) specificities that affect different groups of women in India differently. Acknowledgement of difference of women helps remove any universalizing tendencies and provides better scope to equip ourselves with solutions vis-à-vis the unique situation that different women face in India.
One very interesting observation that comes out of this study is the general discomfort with the word ‘feminism’ by women in India. Ascribed narrowly to the Western counterpart, ‘feminism’ has unfortunately, and very wrongly so, has come to be equated to ‘man hate’. Owing to the exclusive participation of women in the West’s feminist liberalist movement, the sentiment still prevails that it is a movement ‘for women, and by women’ and to replace ‘men with women’. Feminism’s aim is not to replace one oppressive system, patriarchy, with another, matriarchy. Instead, feminism understands that patriarchy is an oppressive system that functions by prescribing gender roles to everyone. This is why Nivedita Menon, in her seminal work Seeing Like a Feminist, defines patriarchy as a system where few older men in power control women, younger men, and people of non-heteronormative sexualities. To put it crudely, feminism is a movement aimed for establishing equality among sexes. In fact, in India, feminism began with men like Raja Rammohan Roy and Vidyasagar who understood traditions such as sati (widow immolation), child marriage, and imposed widowhood, as detrimental to the entire society and sought to eradicate them.
Dr. Kimball’s work becomes important in understanding these nuances of gender in contemporary India and making us realize that in order to opt for equality we all need to fight together, irrespective of the sexes we belong to.
Ipsos Public Affairs surveyed 17,5512 people aged 16 to 64 in 2017 in Europe, India, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, US, Australia, and Canada. In India, 88% of respondents say they believe in equal opportunities, the same as the global average, and 85% say they actively support women’s rights, second only to China in their activism. More people define themselves as feminists (83%) than in any other country, much more than the global average of 58%. Men are slightly more likely than women to say they speak up for women’s rights, but half of the sample say they are afraid to speak up for equal rights—more than any other country (followed by Turkey and Brazil). However, 80% of Indians say equality is not yet achieved (more than the global average of 72%) and 48% say that men are more capable than women, 46% say women are inferior to men (the same as Russia), and 44% believe women should just stay at home (compared to the international average of 17%). It’s not clear how Indians combine feminism and feeling women are inferior.
Recent Feminist Actions by Gayle Kimball, Ph.D.
Dear reader, please add your observations to recent feminism.
Young women organize SlutWalks, organize for safety for women and against corruption. They march with environmentalists, workers and GLBT activists. Groups like Saheli, Sakshi, Jagori and Action India continue the struggle for safety and equality. Saheli members singa song about, “Feminism, sister, it comes slowly slowly.” Jagori created a Google Group because their resource center believes in “dispersal of feminist ideology throughout society” to create a just society. Feminists India, “an online platform for all those who are committed to gender equality and justice,” was founded in 2012. Women’s Voice posts events, news, jobs, and comments on legal issues. Men’s groups like Men Against Women Abuse are active. Feminist groups on Facebook include “Voices of Indian Women,” “India Feminist Hub, and “Feminist India.” The male founder of the latter states, women’s “need for protection and emotional care by the men does not make them in anyway inferior to men. It is very natural in a male dominated half-civilized society.”
The best known recent feminist action witnessed huge month-long protests by thousands of women and men occurred in response to the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student, in December 2012. “Her father said the family lived on potatoes for months so she could get a medical education: “Relatives told us why bother, just get her married. But she wanted to study,” he said. The family used money set aside for her marriage for her education. “Braveheart” was coming home on a bus from watching the film Life of Pi with a male friend when she was violently assaulted by the bus driver and five of his friends with metal rods, thrown off the bus naked and bleeding. She died two weeks later of her internal injuries. Large demonstrations occurred in cities all over India and spread to neighboring countries to highlight widespread harassment of women and lack of police protection for women and girls or punishment of rapists. Police cracked down on protesters with tear gas, water cannon and batons. The movement’s slogan is Bekhauf Azaadi, fearless freedom as discussed during demonstrations in informal consciousness-raising. Photos of the protests are online.
A leader in the campaign Stand for Safe Delhi, a young man named Amitabh Kumar said the demonstrations attracted so many because “young India is sick of the hypocritical approach of flaming the victim. This time we were not going to let this happen.” Because there was no leader, “common girls and boys felt empowered to speak out lout, to stand against this injustice” to a girl their age. He viewed the demonstrations as a turning point for the Indian woman’s movement. The anti-violence group Blank Noise was founded by Jasmeen Patheja in 2003 as a student project. She started a Facebook and Twitter campaign #Safe City Pledge. People shared stories of street harassment online. To counter the idea that victims ask for harassment by wearing Western clothes, Blank Noise exhibited women wearing what they had on when assaulted—mostly saris and salwar kameezes rather than Western clothes. It expanded to other cities with thousands of young members and includes men in Blank Noise Guys. In Delhi the Womanifesto listed goals to limit violence. (One in ten men said they forced sex on a woman who wasn’t their partner in a survey of men in six Asian countries, not including India.)
A film maker named Ram Devineni, who lives in New York was horrified when a New Delhi policeman told him no good girl walks home at night, although he was impressed by the diversity of people who protested her rape. Aiming to influence teenagers, he created a cartoon series and graphic novel about Priya who is shunned by her village after being raped. When she escapes to the jungle, the goddess Parvarti grants her magic powers that enable her to fight against sexual violence as she travels around India on the back of a tiger. Some of the illustrations are online.
Rapes continued albeit with occasional more severe punishments as for the four adult rapists sentenced to hanging. Feminist Ruchira Gupta said she was “excited about the new wave of feminism that hit the streets after the December gang rape.” Laws passed the next year established six new courts to hear rape cases and imposed stricter punishments, as well as making stalking, voyeurism, trafficking and acid attacks criminal acts. A victim of an acid attack, Laxmi succeeded in taking her case to the Supreme Court. Prison terms for rapists were increased to 20 years but official statistics say about 25,000 rapes occur each year. Activists say the actual number is much higher as women fear reporting rape to police. In New Delhi, reported rapes increased by 32% in 2014, along with an 18% increase in crimes against women such as dowry deaths, as well as over 15,000 girls trained in self-defense, according to the Delhi police. In almost half the rape cases, the perpetrator was a friend or family member.
A young woman protester reported at a memorial a year later, “A welcome change is that the taboo on discussion of rape and sexual violence has been broken, but absolutely no change in the rape culture and related brutality.” She said the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment Act is “impotent in the face of existing patriarchy” and the streets are not safe, nor are some homes. The recommendations of the Justice Verma Commission were gutted by not recognizing marital rape, not recognizing gradations of assault raging from touching to penetration. The law doesn’t recognize that men can be raped; it protects security forces from prosecution, and introduced the death penalty that was rejected by the Commission. Furthermore, Section 377 criminalizes consenting homosexual sex. Rape continues, as in 2014 when tribal elders in West Bengal ordered 13 men to rape a 20-year-old woman as punishment for friendship with a non-tribal man, a seven-year-old girl was raped by her teacher, and some state legislators were charged with rape. Vaishnavi, age 16, reported in 2016, “The silence is being shattered: The current generation gives us hope as Indian women are fighting against these comments every day and it even led to the formation of new laws and amendments.” The 2013 law didn’t include punishment for marital rape or rape of men.
Not trusting authorities to take action, Indian women formed small support groups, such as a New Delhi group called “Local Support 101” leads weekly marches to educate people about how to stop violence. Two young men assaulted one of their members, age 29, while she was in a supermarket. They groped her breasts and pelvic area and asked her for sex. Although she screamed, no one in the market came to help her. Luckily, the guys ran away. Some girls make the news by fighting back against eve teasers. They picked on the wrong woman when they harassed a college student named Amrita who has a black belt in karate. She was on her way home from a “One Billion Rising” demonstration against gender violence in 2013. One of the two men filed a complaint stating that she beat him up. Vaishnavi reported from Chennai in 2016, “In packed buses, it is so common to get pinched, squeezed, slapped and basically groped. In most cases, women are afraid to turn around and face the culprit because they don’t want to make a scene in the public. When they do, the other passengers turn away and pretend to ignore what is going on.”
A mobile phone video of two sisters fighting back against an assault by three men on a crowded bus in Rohtak, near New Delhi, went viral in 2014 under the hashtag #RohtakBravehearts. As other passengers and bus driver did nothing to help them but did video the incident, Aatri and Pooja used a belt and fists to try to stop the men, who nevertheless succeeded in getting them off the bus. The girls found bricks to throw at the men and they ran away. A spokesperson for the National Commission for Women said, “Few girls have the guts to take on the molesters. The government should take action.” A phone app called Fightback is available for women who are being attacked.
In cities, in addition to demanding that eve teasing be treated as a crime, feminists work with the police and planning groups in Safe City campaigns. No Country for Women was founded by two young women to educate people about the sexism of “harmless” incidents as with a Break the Silence campaign featuring visuals of actual incidents. Akshara, a women’s resource center in Mumbai, reached out to educate young people in 18 low-income colleges about gender issues. They created a Blow the Whistle Campaign to set up a police helpline to protect women, children and the elderly. Boys are involved as well as girls. Dalit filmmaker and singer Thenmozhi Soundararajan co-founded the international women’s media technology collective called Third World Majority, based in Oakland, California. She noted that rape and other violence against women target Dalit women, as a way for higher castes to intimidate lower castes.
Nasreen Janhan fights for tougher laws against acid attacks on women; her ex-husband threw acid on her face six months after their divorce, but isn’t hopeful about change. She’s included in a video that shows women’s rights activists in 2014 complaining that the “government hasn’t done anything” and the cultural norms haven’t changed. As one politician said, “Boys will be boys.”
Young Indian women in the news include Rashni Anand, 25, who founded an NGO called Lakshyam for some of the 100,000 street children in Delhi. It expanded to six states. In 2013, she was honored as the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year.” She is one of many young women who started NGOs to help urban slum children. Although few took her efforts seriously, her role model was her mother, who founded an NGO called Lakshya for tribal women. As a child Anand went with her mother to rural and tribal villages and at age 18 she became a board member for her mother’s NGO. Anand collected toys in Delhi schools to give away over 60,000 toys and books to poor children and founded an orphanage and a school in a slum area, with the support of her family and friends.
An Indian youth group organized a mass kissing called “Kiss of Love” to protest “moral policing” harassment by a Hindu nationalist BJP party youth group in Kerala who said kissing in public violates Indian culture and morality. A female protester said, “We need to claim our space.” The Facebook page with a photo of two of the organizers kissing in a police van hauling them away from the demonstration attracted over 75,000 likes. They were a young man and woman but women also kissed women in the protests. Some young BJP people held counter-demonstrations with their mouths covered with black cloth. The November 2014 “kiss of love” spread to other parts of India in a conflict of values. In Bangalore young women marched wearing fake mustaches to critique stereotypes of femininity.
Thousands of young women members of the Haryana chapter of the All-India Women’s Democratic Association vow to not use their father’s or husband’s last name. One of members, Dimple, age 28, reported, “We’ve had nearly 10,000 young girls join the women’s movement in the last two years. There is now an aggression among them, where they express anger at increasing restrictions and assaults,” in women’s forums if not in public. In 2015, popular campaigns were #HappyToBleed to protest religious views that menstruating women are unclean and Pinjra Tod protesting double standard in university housing with curfews for women only. A student asked me to start a Facebook page to protest this practice at her university fearful of punishment by the administration. Please add other forward steps to the Sexism in Indian Universities page.
 Delhi, India: 99 Photos of Anti-Gang Rape Protest
 Holly Kearl, “India Tragedy Seen as Transitional Moment,” Women’s Media Center, January 10, 2013.
 Ellen Barry and Mansi Choksi, “Gang Rape in India, Routine and Invisible,” New York Times, October 26, 2013.
 Ruchira Gupta and Gloria Steinem, “Notes on a Tour of the Indian Women’s Movement,” New York Times, January 30, 2014.
 “Crimes Against Women Increase in Indian Caital of New Delhi,” TeleSur TV, January 2, 2015.
 “December 16: A Year Later,” Hindustantimes.com, Hinhttp://www.hindustantimes.com/news/specials/december16special/index.html
 Soutik Biswas, “India: Woman Gang-Raped on Orders of ‘Kangeroo Court,’” BBC News, January 23, 2014.
 “India’s ‘Braveheart’ Sisters Fight Back Against Sexual Predators,” Global Voices, December 3, 2014.
 Sonali Kolhatkar, Why It is Crucial to Examine India’s Rape Epidemic Through the Lens of Caste, TruthDig, June 19, 2014.
 “A Young Social Activist,” Times of India, no date.
 Neha Bhatt, “Hear that Shebang?”, Outlook India, December 16, 2013.