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Feminism in India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3824 words Published: 29th Sep 2017

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Gender Equality and Feminism have become growing topics all around the globe during the past half a century, with women organizing and protesting against the stereotypes imposed upon them by the men. Several theories exist about how these stereotypes and inequalities came about, with some people arguing that it is caused by the chauvinistic nature innately present in all human beings, with others rejecting this as a “lazy” argument to make, and attributing it to more specific causes. In the times of hunter-gatherers, the women occupied an equal status to that of men, and everyone had to contribute in order to survive and bring up the young ones. As agriculture started to appear, along with importance to ownership of land, the patriarchal form of society started dominating the scene, as men were bestowed with the duty to acquire and defend property, and hence the passing down of property down the line of male descendants (patrilineal) became relevant, thus side-lining the women in the society. With the growth of capitalism, the importance of the nuclear family had increased, which required the male to be employed, typically in industries, in order to earn income, and the women would have to stay at home and look after the domestic needs such as cooking, and raising of children, etc. The reason for this was that the main means of production was the modern nuclear family, and so this setup was promoted as the norm in order to maximise market gains and increase efficiency[1]. This effect of capitalism along with the patriarchal nature of most societies is what many argue to be the major reason behind the stigmatization and stereotyping of women as weaker, and restricted to household work. Challenging these notions, feminist movements have been seen in several countries of the world, thereby ensuring that the women in their country had rights and were relatively equal to the men, preventing further social downtrodding of women. Several countries have allowed women to join the army even, with some sending them into combat as well[2], in order to promote gender equality and inspire women to believe in themselves and change the way society looks at women. However, the situation in India is quite different. Gender inequality is rampant here, and nearly in every sphere of life, women are marginalized and oppressed, viewed as mere tools or property possessed by men. India witnesses the second highest amount of gender inequality in all of Asia, second only to the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan[3]. However, some feminist movements have been seen even in India, however their task is much more difficult here due to a vast number of reasons which will be discussed in depth in this project with the help of some interviews of Indian feminist social activists.

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The first step I took towards this project was to search for social activists in India who had made contributions to the feminist movement, and identified some feminists out of whom I had picked the interviews of Dr. Vandana Shiva[4], Dr. Sarojini Sahoo[5], Ms. Flavia Agnes[6] and Mrs. Madhu Kishwar[7]. Of these, Dr. Vandana Shiva would be the most prominent activist, who has written several books for the cause of feminism and making the women of India aware of such discrimination, and also won the Fukuoka Prize in 2012[8]. Dr. Sarojini Sahoo is also a well-known activist who has written several books about gender and sexuality, and won the Laadli Media Award in 2011, and her interview offers us the most information regarding the topic, and therefore is the central interview for the purposes of this project. From all the interviews, a few major issues have been identified and then analysed with the help of other sources, and their impact on the society at large is shown. The activists are generally in agreement with each other, and usually only the main focus of their argument is what changes. I have also identified a handful of interviews of feminists from countries other than India in order to compare them with those of the Indian feminists, and this affirm what is it that makes the feminist movement in India more essential and complicated than in other countries.

Core Chapter

After going through the interview[9] of Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist activist from the USA, we can tell that the main focus of the interview is on improving women representation in politics, and mostly to disillusion women from several other schools of feminism which she believes to be false and misleading to the women population at large. This shows that feminism has already successfully granted them basic social equity in the USA.

The interview[10] of Perla Vasquez, a feminist from Mexico, has also been identified and analysed. The major issues in this as well mostly comprise of economic and political difficulties faced by women in Mexico.

This is in contrast with the stage in India as we can deduce from the 4 interviews analysed for the sake of this project, where the focus is on basic discrimination of women in the social field, and to stop the many forms of injustice suffered by them daily, and in almost every sphere of life. The major points of difference I have identified from these interviews is the basis of patriarchal values and oppression of women being strongly embedded with religious tradition, particularly Hinduism, since the later Vedic period; and the second being the rampant cases of sexual violence against women all around the country. It is this basic factor which makes feminism so much more essential in India, especially the rural places, and the reinforcement of patriarchy in the Hindu tradition, and the fact that a large majority of India is still religious, makes it much more difficult to acquire the goals of social equality and basic dignity for women.

Effect of Culture and Traditions

In her interview, Sarojini Sahoo states “At one time in India – in the ancient Vedic period – there were equal rights between men and women and even feminist law makers like Gargi and Maitreyi. But the later Vedic period polarized the sexes. Males oppressed females and treated them as ‘other’ or similar to a lower caste.”[11]

This statement has been proven to be true, and women had indeed enjoyed a position of equal rights to those of males in the Vedic period, with women being venerated, and the prevalence of several Goddesses and female Deities in the Hindu tradition from that time, further reinforcing their position in society[12]. However, during the time following the Vedic period, the situation of women deteriorated much further down. With the arrival of the Dharma Shastras, the Patriarchal form of society was stressed and promoted, causing the oppression of women in the society. However, most people argue that it is during the time of the Mughals when women in India became truly secluded, although there is evidence of such being practiced as early as during the time of Asoka.[13] The Smritis were another reason which led to the side-lining of women in the later Vedic society, which reflected the legislators’ chauvinistic nature in enforcing traditions and practices which led to the further oppression and control of women in the society by males, and laws which lacked all notions of equity and justice. These causes led to a solidification of a society where women were treated worse than Shudras (untouchables)[14], suffering several inequalities from the men every day. This has continued for a long time, with practices such as the Dowry system and the system of Sati being followed widely all over India when the British had arrive, and had not declined until the British Empire issued legislations banning the practice of Sati[15], following which it slowly started declining. The dowry system was originally only prevalent in the middle class who actually owned property which they could give away for dowry, but later was adopted even by the poorer sections of society, often resulting in cases where one would give away a lifetime of savings as dowry. It was banned by the Government of India in 1961, by the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, but the practice of dowry is still very much prevalent almost everywhere in India, especially in the villages where the law has little effect. This gives rise to a social horror known as Dowry death, which will be discussed under the next topic. Another issue arising out of traditions is that women are assumed to be weaker, and are made to stay at home and taught how to perform household work such as cooking and cleaning, and are not allowed to take part in most social events. As a result, most parents do not allow their daughters to go to school, and make them stay at home and learn household skills. As a result, while 76% of men are literate in India, only 54% of women are literate[16]. This indicates how much of an effect such traditions and notions can have on a country as a whole.

Violence against women

One of the major issues discussed by almost every feminist in their interview is dowry death. This is a practice where the bride is killed when her family does not give a large enough dowry. It has in fact been on the increase, seen largely throughout North India[17]. This has caused women to be looked upon as a burden in their family of birth. Sarojini Sahoo has stated the same in her interview, describing how women are usually viewed in society: “An unmarried daughter — seen as a spinster even in her late twenties — brings shame upon her parents, and is a burden. But once married, she is considered the property of her in-laws.”[18] This burden leads to wanting a male child over a female one, along with the fact that the Dharma Shastras and other texts of Hindu religion which make a son more desirable than a daughter due to the fact they can inherit, carry on the name, and only a son can perform the last rites of his father/grandfather. This leads to the social practice of female infanticide, which has been on the increase in India. It is basically the act of killing young female children, as their parents want a male child. This has caused the sex ratio to drop in India over the years. India has a child sex ratio of 914:100, as of 2011.[19] Next is the actual physical violence against women, which is very widespread in India compared to all the other nations. India has of late become famous for rape, following the Delhi rape case. A statement from Madhu Kishwar regarding such violence aptly sums up a variety of such problems prevalent in India: “Another main issue is sexual violence of all kinds, from what goes by the name of “eve-teasing”, which is a very mild, insulting word used to describe what goes from pinching and rubbing to lewd comments to physical violence, hitting you… Then there is rape of all kinds…”[20]

Sexual violence is at its highest in India. Some theorize that this is the backlash of a strong patriarchal society[21] witnessing westernization of women. It is the biggest social issue in all of India, and is the major reason why India needs feminism. The final problem to be discussed is the fact that marital rape is to this day not criminalized in India. The Indian Penal Code has no sanction against this act. The only recourse for the wife is to ask for divorce and leave her husband, but apart from that, there is no punishment meted out to the husband/rapist. Domestic violence also has a separate law which many say is not stringent enough, thus making it prevalent in countless areas of the country. Flavia Agnes addresses the topic in her interview: “In a society where marriage is the norm, the ultimate power rests with the husband.” To sum up the issue of violence, a statement from Vandana Shiva fits perfectly: “This violent economic order can only function as a war against people and against the earth, and in that war, the rape against women is a very, very large instrument of war. We see that everywhere. And therefore, we have to have an end to the violence against women.”[22]


We have seen how the dawn of private ownership of land and property gave rise to the Patriarchal society, pushing women to a side role, and how this was further solidified by the rise of capitalism and its need for the nuclear family and the “ideal setup” for division of labour. We then discussed how it originated in India, and how the Vedic period originally had great equality for the women in their society, and how that status deteriorated over time due to the Dharma Shastras and the Smritis, giving rise to traditions like dowry and sati. We have seen how these practices came about, the efforts of the government to curb them, and the effectiveness of these laws. We also see how the traditions affected the rate of literacy among girls drastically, and then how dowry leads to murder in several cases, and how this burden then leads to female infanticide, and the culmination of all these oppressive traditions leading to the sexual violence against women due to them being viewed as weaker, or as property, and finally how the law even now is quite unfair with regard to women, denying them any just recourse marital rape, despite several protests for the sake of the same. To conclude, we have seen how gender inequality has its own unique points in India, and how it is all the more essential for India to learn feminism, and the higher difficulty of actually bringing about changes in this society.


  1. JSTOR
  2. The Hindu
  3. The National Geographic
  4. The Times of India
  5. Foundation for Sustainable Development
  6. The Guardian

[1] Systems of Stratification : Gender in Capitalist Society, The Red Phoenix, available at http://theredphoenixapl.org/2010/11/29/systems-of-stratification‭-‬gender-in-capitalist-society/

[2] 8 Other Nations That Send Women to Combat, The National Geographic, available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130125-women-combat-world-australia-israel-canada-norway/

[3] Gender equality in India among worst in world, The Times of India, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gender-equality-in-India-among-worst-in-world-UN/articleshow/18982029.cms

[4] Vandana Shiva on Int’l Women’s Day: “Capitalist Patriarchy Has Aggravated Violence Against Women”, Democracy Now, available at http://www.democracynow.org/2013/3/8/vandana_shiva_on_intl_womens_day

[5] Feminism in India – Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo, Linda Lowen, available at http://womensissues.about.com/od/feminismequalrights/a/FeminisminIndia.htm

[6] Feminism in India: violence, trades, Carol Ann Douglas and Alice Henry, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25796296

[7] Feminism in India, Carol Ann Douglas, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25793362

[8] Fukuoka Prize for Vandana Shiva, The Hindu, available at http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-newdelhi/fukuoka-prize-for-vandana-shiva/article3676826.ece

[9] The Future of Feminism: An Interview with Christina Hoff Sommers, Scott London, available at http://www.scottlondon.com/interviews/sommers.html

[10] An interview with feminist activist Perla Vasquez, available at http://www.mamacash.org/news/an-interview-with-feminist-activist-perla-vasquez/

[11] Feminism in India – Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo, Linda Lowen, available at http://womensissues.about.com/od/feminismequalrights/a/FeminisminIndia.htm

[12] Women in Vedic Culture, Stephen Knapp, available at http://www.stephen-knapp.com/women_in_vedic_culture.htm

[13] Indian Woman Down the Ages, LR Nair, available at http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/226/6/06_chapter2.pdf

[14] Role of ‘Vedas’ in Degradation of Status of Women in India, available at http://www.speakingtree.in/spiritual-blogs/seekers/faith-and-rituals/role-of-vedas-in-degradation-of-status-of-women-in-india

[15] Bengal Sati Regulation Act, 1829

[16] Gender Equity Issues in India, Foundation for Sustainable Development, available at http://www.fsdinternational.org/country/india/weissues

[17] Rising number of dowry deaths in India: NCRB, Ignatius Pereira, The Hindu, August 6, 2013, available at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/rising-number-of-dowry-deaths-in-india-ncrb/article4995677.ece

[18] Feminism in India – Conversation with Indian Feminist Sarojini Sahoo, Linda Lowen, available at http://womensissues.about.com/od/feminismequalrights/a/FeminisminIndia.htm

[19] India loses 3 million girls in infanticide, The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-loses-3-million-girls-in-infanticide/article3981575.ece

[20] Feminism in India, Carol Ann Douglas, available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/25793362

[21] Sexual violence in India is a patriarchal backlash that must be stopped, Priya Virmani, The Guardian, available at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/17/sexual-violence-india-patriarchal-narendra-modi-women-reform-rape

[22] Vandana Shiva on Int’l Women’s Day: “Capitalist Patriarchy Has Aggravated Violence Against Women”, Democracy Now, available at http://www.democracynow.org/2013/3/8/vandana_shiva_on_intl_womens_day


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