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Why Feminism is just a word for the Rural Women in India? Find out!

“Indian feminism is for the maid who is working for those bob-cut walis for 30 rupees a day. That woman needs feminism"

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Indian villagers carry their belongings as they flee from the village of Tenganala in Sonitpur District, some 250kms east of Guwahati on December 24, 2014, AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Sex and sexuality have always been central to the works of Hoshang Merchant
  • Women issues in India are different from western countries
  • Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to shape a separate identity for feminism in India

The fallacy of male-dominance and women’s role in society tell that feminism was theorized differently in India than in the west. Our history books are filled with references of women being forced to partake in Sati or self-immolation, cases of wicked oppression by the male gender, countless crude examples of coercion into child marriage, among myriad other social evils that persisted during the middle age. There are several issues which damper women empowerment in India- dowry, sexual abuse, gender inequality and many more.

Although, there are several communities in India, such as the Nairs of Kerala, certain Maratha clans, and Bengali families with the head of the family being the oldest women rather than the oldest man. Sikh culture is also regarded as relatively gender-neutral.

According to Firstpost.com report, the retired professor emeritus of the University of Hyderabad was one of the first men to come out as openly gay in independent India. Yaarana (Penguin, 1999), a collection of gay writings from India edited by Merchant, remains a significant intervention in queer studies.

Sex and sexuality have always been central to the works of Hoshang Merchant. His Forbidden Sex, Forbidden Texts (2009) discards the understanding of homosexuality as a monolithic identity emphasising on its heterogeneity in the Indian context. Merchant has authored several collections of poetry and his latest commentary is titled Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant (OUP India).

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In an interview with Rajorshi Das, published on firstpost.com, Hoshang Merchant said, “Indian feminism is for the maid who is working for those bob-cut walis for 30 rupees a day. That woman needs feminism. When that woman is empowered by that bob-cut wali, that will be Indian feminism”.

Hoshang Merchant. image source: The Hindu
Hoshang Merchant. image source: The Hindu

No doubt women issues in India are different from western countries. Indian feminist scholars and activists have to struggle to shape a separate identity for feminism in India. And sadly, the truth is that we still exactly do not know what feminism exactly stands for. The definition of “being feminine” has been moulded by people for either a purpose or they simply abide by the so-called rules set by the society.

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When asked about the future of the [Queer] movement, Merchant said, “Firstly let’s recognise class in urban spaces. What does gay liberation mean for that chakka who has to show his organs for 50 rupees? What movement are you talking about? Thirty years I have fought and taught for them. Did I deserve this? They came yesterday. Where were they when I was screaming in the wilderness?”

Rural women in India Image source: www.saddahaq.com
Rural women in India Image source: www.saddahaq.com

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalises ‘unnatural sex’, which include gay liaisons. It says, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal inter­course against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.”

He confronted the tag of the “anti-national” as homosexuality is criminalised by the IPC by saying, “What is anti-national? Homosexuality is doing the greatest service to an overpopulated nation. Else I would be labelled as the mother of this nation. I would have been given a gold medal! We are imitating the West. Our society is different. That’s why Ashley Tellis does not go to these Pride Marches because he feels our society is poor. We are not a consumerist society [like the West].”

When asked about the purpose of writing and poetry in general, he replied, “Poetry sweetens human beings. It gives hope to the defeated. The first sentence of my new book Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant is from (Martin) Heidegger –“What are poets for? Poets are there to sing the night of the world”. Coming to the second part of your question, writing is to change the mind and heart of these stupid people. They reject me because I don’t use jargons, read (Jacques) Derrida or conform to labels like Queer.”

-This article is compiled by a staff-writer at NewsGram. 

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‘Daughter’s Pride Festival’: Celebrating India’s Daughters

It will need a lot of perseverance to achieve women's empowerment, says Jaglan, but the hope is that the names of girls being displayed outside doors will herald a brighter future for girls.

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India, Names
There is excitement in Patuka village in Haryana state as a man heads out to put nameplates with daughters' names on several homes. VOA

There is a sense of excitement in India’s Patuka village — adults and children look curiously as signs with the names of daughters are hammered outside several homes. It is a novelty in a village where patriarchal mindsets have long held sway.

As Mubin Sumssu poses proudly with his family after the name of his 14-year-old daughter is posted outside his gate, he envisions a new future for her. “I hope she studies well, progresses in life, does a good job and makes a name for herself.”

This is not the life that girls can traditionally aspire to in this Muslim-dominated village, which lies in one of the country’s most backward districts in the northern Haryana state. Many girls do not complete school and their lives revolve around household chores and looking after siblings from an early age. Most are married off young.

The nameplate campaign, called “Daughter’s Pride Festival,” hopes to make a difference by persuading village families to treat girls on par with boys. The aim: Names of girls plastered outside doors will carry the winds of change inside homes that continue to be ruled firmly by men.

The head of the village council is a 23-year-old woman, Anjum Aara — laws mandating female participation in local bodies have brought women like her to prominence. More educated than most girls in the village, Aara has been emphasizing the importance of educating girls since she came to Patuka after her marriage.

She is optimistic that the latest campaign will raise consciousness about the need to empower women. “It will make people understand that the daughter is the identity of the family,” Aara said. “They will be inspired to educate girls. Those with negative thinking about this will become more positive.”

Patriarchal mindsets

It is not an easy goal in places where women traditionally never had a voice. One village woman approached by a reporter for her reaction to the campaign refused to speak without her husband’s permission. The girls whose names have appeared outside homes are shy and appear to have limited understanding about its significance.

India, Names
Some families in Patuka village in Haryana state are posting nameplates of their daughters as part of a campaign that aims to change patriarchal attitudes and empower women. VOA

Nonetheless, the man spearheading the campaign, Sunil Jaglan, is optimistic that such steps will slowly usher in social transformation. The nameplate campaign is part of a model he followed in his village, Bibipur, when he was its head. It has now been adopted by the government in scores of villages.

Jaglan says it is not easy to persuade men to put their daughters’ names outside homes in villages with deeply entrenched customs.

He points out that virtually no women get a share of parental property despite laws granting them equal rights. Terming the campaign a “mind-strike,” Jaglan says that “this is a symbol to make people understand that putting the man’s name is not enough. The woman also lives there. She also has an equal stake in the home, in the property, in the village.”

The initiative cuts across religious communities in a country where patriarchal mindsets prevail among both the majority Hindu community and minority Muslims.

India, Names
Many families in Alipur village in Haryana state are now educating young girls, and say they will treat them on par with boys. VOA

About 20 kilometers down a road that cuts through fields blooming with the golden mustard crop, 25 out of 700 homes in another village boast of nameplates with their daughters’ names. Alipur is more prosperous, but traditional mindsets rule here as well — women automatically cover their heads when they see men.

Skewed gender ratio

In this Hindu-dominated village, the campaign is addressing another challenge: a skewed gender ratio. In Alipur, as in thousands of other villages, the number of girls dwindled in recent decades due to illegal sex-selective abortions. The practice, known as female foeticide, has flourished in a society that traditionally prefers boys.

Nobody knows that better than Mahesh Jangra, whose home flashes the name of his 10-year-old daughter, Dipti. Growing up in Alipur, he saw many more boys than girls in his village. But he says the imbalance has brought an awakening.

“Now people realize that who will the boys marry if there are no girls?” Jangra said. “First everyone gave priority to sons, now we want to treat sons and daughters equally and put the daughter’s name ahead.”

That is why he willingly put his daughter’s name outside his door, instead of that of his 15-year-old son.

India, Names
Many women in Alipur village in Haryana state keep their head covered, as tradition demands. VOA

So far it is the more affluent families like that of Jangra that have opted to post their daughters’ names. But as they are usually the trendsetters in the village, the hope is that others will follow suit.

Komal Kalonia, a 19-year-old college student, is one of the few girls who has received a good education. She says her family did not need any persuasion to put her name outside. Kalonia feels the nameplate will send a message.

“When a passerby sees this, it will encourage them to do the same and take their thinking a step ahead,” she said.

As such campaigns make a mark, the state’s gender ratio has improved from 834 girls for 1,000 boys, according to the 2011 census, to 914 last year.

Also Read: The Risk of FGM Hangs Above British Schoolgirls During Holiday Break

It will need a lot of perseverance to achieve women’s empowerment, says Jaglan, but the hope is that the names of girls being displayed outside doors will herald a brighter future for girls.

“I cannot say everybody’s mindset has changed. But if families agree happily, then the message we are giving through these nameplates will ultimately percolate down.” (VOA)