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To Be A Feminist

To Be A Feminist Feminism as Experience, Thoughts and Narratives by Neera Desai; Sparrow, Mumbai, 2006; pp 456, contribution price Rs 250, hardbound.

To Be A Feminist

Feminism as Experience, Thoughts and Narratives

by Neera Desai; Sparrow, Mumbai, 2006; pp 456, contribution price Rs 250, hardbound.


ow is feminist consciousness constructed? What makes women participate in a feminist movement? How is theory in women’s studies linked with praxis? These are some important questions which have prompted the project on which this book is based. Women activists from Gujarat and Maharashtra present their answers to these questions on the basis of their own life and work. The editorial introduction and concluding remarks by the author serve to contextualise the personal narratives. The result is an important, interesting albeit long-winded book which was 20 years in the making.

It began with a University Grants Commission (UGC) research project undertaken in 1986. Though the project report was submitted in 1994, the author carried out additional research to put the present volume together. More than a hundred women were contacted for their narratives; the stories of 90 were written after interviewing them and then they were pared down to the 24 presented here. Even then they run into more than 300 pages.

The narrators are women activists (many do not accept the label “feminist”) from different fields of academics and research, creative writing, professions of law and journalism, autonomous groups and left political parties. The oldest among them is Hansa Mehta (born in 1897) and the youngest is 36 years old. Most of them are fairly well known and the author is personally acquainted with them. There are no rural or dalit women here nor are there any representatives of non-left parties. Of course, the book does not claim to represent all shades of opinion and activism in the women’s movement. It starts with four introductory chapters dealing with different definitions and meanings of feminism, the idea of feminist consciousness, a brief review of the women’s movement in the country. Notes and references and a list of all 90 interviewees with their birth dates, place and area of work are given at the end.

The women’s movement in the country goes back to the 1930s while the feminist movement is only three decades old. Feminism maintains that the causes of women’s oppression in society are many but the basic cause is only one, viz, patriarchy. This is unacceptable to the older activists and many senior researchers. Indian women’s movement has been a part of larger struggles and women activists want to subsume their struggle in some grand design such as socialism, class struggle, ecological sustenance. The women’s movement has grown through stages of participation in the freedom movement, students’ agitations in Gujarat and Bihar, anti-price rise agitation in Maharashtra in the 1970s. However, a careful delineation of personal and public domains has been tacitly made in the movement. The feminist movement, on the other hand, has stressed the interconnection between the two and has raised issues of rape, domestic violence, sati, widows and deserted women, informal work of women including that of sex workers and bar dancers. Autonomous groups, women’s studies centres and parallel media units have been instrumental in raising these concerns. The strain between the women’s movement and feminism has always been present.

The feminist movement in the country has been attacked on all sides. The right fears that it would destabilise family and social life while the left fears that the working class and its political parties would be destabilised. Centrist parties have hollowed the movement by co-opting its programmes and slogans and subverting them. The movement has not quite recovered from the bombshell of reservation for women in panchayati raj institutions. Dominance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or “NGOisation”, communal backlash, celebration of feminine attributes and sexuality, the careerism of youth, erosion of the welfare state – these are other attacks which have caused severe setbacks and splintering of the movement while its beginning was marked by a lot of enthusiasm and activity. Therefore most of the narrators look back on the past with fondness but are disillusioned with the present and hesitant and weary of the future. Still, all are certain that the movement, however fragile and fragmented, is important and has given meaning to their lives.

First hand adverse experience of patriarchy and exposure to wider movements, particularly the international feminist movement turn out to be the major factors leading to feminist consciousness in these narratives. Then come education and family background. By and large, families have been supportive of these brave women who have charted their own paths. Only a few have had to stage a struggle with in the family. The importance of exposure to western feminist ideas is going to strengthen the oft-repeated (but insignificant) charge of the movement’s detractors that the roots and concerns of the movement are western, not indigenous.

Personal vs Political

We need to ask at this juncture: is there anything at all like women’s consciousness?

Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

Events since the 1990s have proved that notions of such a consciousness or of sisterhood/the feminine principle are a myth and women do not go beyond the barriers of family, religion, caste and class. Feminist consciousness remains confined to a few, educated women or those who have personally faced abuse. The book makes this point but in passing; it does not dwell on it.

The role of personal experience has been played down in many of the narratives. The older activists have shunned personal articulation. Almost all the narratives are very cautious and understandably so. The personal is political but revealing personal details is always fraught with a lot of problems. One has to only imagine what the response of male activists would have been to such a project. And yet, the narratives of Vidya Bal and Flavia Agnes stand out for their sincerity as well as restraint.

Autobiographies of women have been a solid strength of Marathi literature because of the honesty and transparent writing. However, autobiographies are subject-driven while the present narratives are researcher-driven and consequently their rating goes down. The women’s movement has given a lot of importance to oral history. With low level of literacy, education and little access to means of written expression of the subordinate/ marginalised groups, oral history is an important research tool in subaltern studies. Though women and under privileged, these narrators hardly belong to this bracket. Therefore the author should have given more details about the interviews she conducted and how much probing, digging, and editing were necessary to bring out this material. Her close associates Rohini Gawankar and Usha Thakkar have recently edited a collection of women activists’ writings in Marathi. It will be interesting to compare these two volumes for their similarities and dissimilarities.

The collection of narratives in the present volume leans too much on the side of the older generation of activists. Auto nomous groups have been under represented though they are the ones who raise important issues. The narrations would definitely have been enriched by the inclusion of say, Sonal Shukla, Chhaya Datar, Neelam Gorhe, Sumitra Bhave and at least a representative of the Shetkari Sanghatana (Saroj Kashikar perhaps) which raised, for the first time, the issue of inclusion of women’s names in landed property deals. (Significantly, all four activists above were interviewed for this project. Their omission from the list of 24 makes me curious.)

The past, particularly the 1980s and 1990s, has been given a lot of importance here. The current situation, in comparison, has received scant attention. With globalisation, ascendancy of market forces and general disarray of all movements seeking to go beyond the status quo, it is very important to understand the current situation. On the whole however, the book is a welcome addition to the literature on the women’s movement in the country.



Economic and Political Weekly October 13, 2007

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