Feminist perspective can vary according to the context and the most urgent fights of a specific place. Such as in India, where caste system occupies a relevant spot within feminist discourse.
The Caste system is a 3000-year-old social hierarchy, according to which society is split into four groups. Each group is further divided into sub-castes. On the top, there are brahmins (intellectuals, teachers, priests); followed by kshatriya (warriors and noblemen) and vaisya (traders, farmers, craftsmen). At the bottom, we find the shudra, or servants. Lastly, there is one more class below servants: those are the so called dalit, translated as “untouchable”.
Being born in a certain caste determines how the life of a person will turn out: if – and how much – education they will get; who they will marry; their dress code; their job; the size of their house; the class of their friends. Even which train class they’re allowed to board. Being a woman and belonging to an inferior class, means that many opportunities are denied – in terms of education, job, and social life.
While in the so-called “Western” culture, an intersectional approach requires us to include discourse concerning racism, in India, the same approach must include a critique of the caste system. On this, discriminations on religious grounds, ableism, or gender are to be added.
Intersectional feminism reminds us that so many discriminations exist, according to the place we are in the world (Manasi Pant)
We asked Manasi Pant, editor in chief of Feminism in India (FII), about feminist struggles in the country and what the most urgent issues are.
What does Feminism in India do? Is your online presence important?
FII was created seven years ago, the scope of our organization is to make feminism accessible and “mainstream” all over India, in particular to young people. Such topics are still restricted to academia. FII means to make these topics readable for everyone, through articles, podcasts, online interviews and campaigns. We want to include people that are usually excluded from traditional media stories, like non-binary people or people with disabilities.
Having an online presence means we can reach a wider audience. Sometimes online impacts offline, too. For example, our section FII Unlearns explains how some speeches, words, or attitudes can be offensive for someone. We try to send messages to our readers so they can act in a more conscious way.
How is activism perceived in Indian society?
Many people think feminists hate men and that they want to establish their own supremacy. It’s not like that, but it is clear that if you want to criticize the patriarchal system, you have to criticize the way men profit from it – caste system included. Feminism is not welcomed by those who have privileges.
The topic plays a role too: for example, when we talk about women issues people are very open, while we talk about policies or laws that take into account also people from marginalized backgrounds, we are labeled as “too political”. We are asked to stick to women issues, they tell us that some specific things are not “the ambit of feminism”.
Feminism is still perceived as an only women movement. Actually, it fights for every minority, including trans people, non-binary ones, and people with disabilities. And also regarding women, we do not refer only to privileged ones. Last but not least, according to us it is important to include men. It is not to downplay our claims, rather to invite them to listen. They need to understand that feminism is not a fight against them.
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Can you make some examples of discrimination related to your cultural traditions?
Gender roles and norms are still grounded in our society. For example in some areas of the country, a woman that has a job is perceived as shameful. Women usually manage the household, while men take care of the public sphere and income. When a woman works, it’s like the man is not complying with his role in society. Her economic independence or emancipation are not taken into consideration.
For other women, however, the double burden is a must. They work in the fields but also in the house. However, their role in agriculture is not recognized. Even if they represent the majority of agricultural workers, agriculture is still usually associated with men.
With respect to education, there’s a general lack of sex education, workshops on relationships, or gender issues. It is complicated to “unlearn” things they have been teaching you your whole life.
The gender gap is a serious problem, too. Especially in education and access to the job market. Girls usually sign up to school earlier, but as soon as puberty comes in, lots of them leave school. Gender norms do play a role in this: when it comes to household tasks (chores), girls are the first who are asked to drop out of school in order to help the family. In other cases, the lack of education about menstrual hygiene, lack of access to toilets, and lack of privacy, forces girls to abandon schools.
Other kinds of discrimination are related to safety: it’s better if women do not go out in the evening. And they should not go out with men unless they want to “provoke” them. Here the focus is clearly wrong: in order to prevent violence, there is a focus on the victim instead of the perpetrator.
There are laws about violence against women. However, their implementation depends on the social role of both the victim and abuser. Intersectionality is key here: if a woman belonging to a lower class reports violence, she will rarely be heard. If the abuser is important or belongs to an upper class, he could easily be acquitted. These are power relations.
Some time ago there was an article about women’s role in Indian history, especially in the independence process. The piece pointed out how many women were excluded from official narrative, despite their contribution. What’s your opinion about that?
Definitely, I would not be surprised if I found out that history books do not consider or include women. Generally speaking, marginalized people are totally ignored. I can provide two examples of that: one is Savitribai Phule, an education pioneer in India. She is barely mentioned in history books and at her time she was heavily criticized for pushing access to education to everyone (girls and lower class people, too). A second example is lawyer Benegal Narsing Rau, who wrote the Indian Constitution but is never mentioned since he belonged to a lower caste.
What’s women’s role in politics today?
They have always been very active in politics. One year ago this became clear during demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act. It’s a law that questions Muslim people living in India about their citizenship. During the Shaheen Bagh protest, lots of women took to the streets and became emblem of resistance. Speeches on stages were done mostly by women, with men on the sideline. Even then, a paternalistic approach prevails. Many still think that “women shall be protected during demonstrations”.