When one thinks of feminism, the names that come to one's mind readily are Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, and Elaine Showalter, since the growth of feminism is usually attributed to western influence. True, these spokeswomen set about the task of theorising the needs of women in a society where their inner feelings should be articulated loud and bold.
But we cannot interpret history in monolithic universal terms ignoring the differences in culture. Feminism is multicultural and diasporic. The needs of women who live in different countries are dissimilar, and they are conditioned by several factors: familial, societal/racial, marital, economic, and cultural and individual consciousness (subjectivity).
In such a diverse context, it would be far wrong to associate Indian feminism with the western, which is marked by radical norms, and invoke western feminist critics on the problems that women in India confront.
Jasbir Jain's Indigenous Roots of Feminism seeks to analyse the feminist movement in India in a historical perspective, free from the hangover of western concerns. In six chapters, she undertakes this study of feminist discourse, textualising history and historicising texts. She holds up for close examination select principal texts, ranging from the Upanishads and the Itihasas (epics) down to the contemporary regional novels and films. She says: “Draupati deconstructed the notions of chastity and sati; Sita, of power and motherhood; Kali, of violence; Puru's young wife, of sexuality; the bhakta women, of marriage and prayer.”
Jasbir's conviction is that “feminism is more than a voice of protest or questioning. It is moral self-reflection, a conquering of inner fears and a realisation of self-worth ... It does not abandon values or relationships, but goes on to create new ones.”
Our epics and puranas, with their plurality of narrative strategies and multiplicity of interpretations, touch upon all possible aspects of human life helping us to raise — and comprehend — some of the basic questions that govern family and public life. Kalidasa's Shakuntala and Ilango Adigal's Kannagi are supreme instances of women who, though brought up and nurtured in a domestic set up of patriarchal exclusion and total surrender and subservience to authority, fight for their moral rights, putting the kings to shame.
There has been no major political or social uprising against male domination. Remarkably, women in the bhakti movement defied all restrictions and achieved gender equality. They even challenged patriarchy and revolted against the caste divide. Meera, Avvaiyar and Karaikal Ammaiyar, for instance, protested against patriarchy and subverted the hegemonic structures by staying outside the domain of marriage. In the chapter “The Nineteenth century and After”, Jasbir examines five texts — Phaniyamma, Fragments of a Life, Suvarnalatha, Cast me Out, and Kagzi Hai Pairahan — where the protagonists struggle for “some breathing space.” Against all odds, they broke themselves free of oppressive social norms and, in the process, enriched the woman's world.
Ignored in history
Jasbir is unhappy that women have not been ‘visible' in our history and that they have been treated as no more than ‘objects' of men's desire. For example, she says, women's role has been ignored in Dalit history and in the Ambedkar movement. “Dalit aesthetics, despite a fair amount of theorisation by the dalits themselves, is falling into a rut even though their writing is ripe of more theorisation ... The nature of their protest has dominated their theorisation.”
In sum, she is of the opinion that feminist discourse in India over the past 200 years has been shaped by our colonial past, on the one hand, and our opposition to foreign domination, on the other. Also, it has always struggled to create space for women to fight against cultural impositions and religious restrictions, which underline and reinforce the economic, social, political and psychological suppression.
Colour photos, a filmography on the representation of women in films — especially in stereotyping, discrimination and patriarchy — and a comprehensive bibliography make the book complete and all-inclusive in its exploration of the native ancestry of Indian feminism.