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Reinventing feminism

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Essays critically engaging with contemporary debates on gender and state

Padmini Swaminathan

AT THE CUTTING EDGE — Essays in Honour of Kumari Jayawardena: Edited by Neloufer de Mel and Selvy Thiruchandran; Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, K-36, Haus Khas Enclave, Ground Floor, New Delhi-110016. Rs.450.

Kumari Jayawardena could not have asked for a better tribute. This book is a brilliant collection of essays that engage in one way or other with a range of interests and activities that directly connect to Kumari Jayawardena’s scholarly pursuits and activist interventions. Jayawardena’s seminal work, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, has spawned a number of, and different kinds of, critical engagements, that have deepened our understandings of Third world feminisms, consequent to the emergence of post-colonial nation-states and to modernising impulses. Importantly, Jayawardena was among the pioneering few, who, very early on cautioned against homogenising the theme of women’s emancipation across the Third World’s diverse terrain, fractured as much by class, race, caste and ethnicity, as by sex and gender.

Uma Chakravarti provides an overview of the nature of feminist scholarship on nation-state in South Asia. Chakravarti finds that, while feminists in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were quick to confront their nation-states’ underpinnings of fundamentalism, militarisation and gendered violence, Indian feminism stands out not only for its “failure to grapple with fundamental issues around the nation-state from a decidedly feminist perspective”, but also for its inadequate responses to the violence of the Indian state. Kumkum Sangari’s breathtaking account of the milestones in the Indian women’s movement makes for very interesting reading and particularly in the way it attempts, at every stage, to complicate the narrative by introducing the pressures that have to be contended at the present juncture in order to move forward into the future.

Equality

Nancy Fraser’s very compelling piece on “Mapping the Feminist Imagination” historicises the “shifts in the geography of feminist energies” with an aim to “gain some insight on how we might reinvigorate the theory and practice of gender equality under current conditions.” Dwelling at length on the American scene, which, according to Fraser, is emblematic of the larger situation of our historical epoch, Fraser points in particular to the trap into which second wave feminists had walked into — a trap set by the Republicans who successfully “used an anti-feminist politics of recognition to conceal an anti-working class politics of redistribution.” However, across Europe and the Third World, Fraser finds signs of an ongoing third phase of feminist struggle combining a three-dimensional politics aimed at balancing and integrating redistribution, recognition and representation.

Exploring the trajectory of “Feminism and Nationalism” in the Middle East, Valentine Moghadam reveals how, in the latter part of the 20th century, feminism and nationalism became separate socio-political and cultural projects, where women’s issues and feminist demands got marginalised. In such a scenario, the demands of the feminists in most of the Middle East and North Africa can be viewed “as an alternative to the master frames of nationalism and Islam[ism], offering a very different vocabulary, critique, and set of objectives.” But Moghadam raises two pertinent questions: can feminists destabilise the hegemony of nationalism and Islamism? And what are the prospects for a feminist nationalism?

Failed experiment

Aloysius Pieris’ piece “Gender and Class in the Nascent Church and in Early Christianity” based on a critical comparative study of two experiments provides an interesting insight into the elaborate processes that the nascent church put in place “to strike at the very roots of Rome’s imperial culture, namely, male supremacy, slave-labour and racial superiority.” Pieris also provides an elaborate account of why this experiment of bringing in equality failed before long turning a religion “that promised liberation to the slaves into a religion that tolerated slavery.” In an equally engaging section, Pieris discusses the theme of virginity in Christianity. Malathi De Alwis traces the route and phases of the mission of “domesticating” the Sri Lankan woman. “When missionary and nationalist discourses placed Sri Lankan women within ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’… they were also placing women within the ‘home’… The ‘home’ became the ultimate space which the missionaries sought to encroach upon and re-fashion while the nationalists, in turn, sought to close it off and protect from such Christianizing and colonizing influences.”

Gender and history

In her paper reviewing “what we had inherited as interpretations of the Indian past” Romila Thapar points out, among other things that, what has been called in the past as “the history of women” is no longer limited to the further collection of data on women’s history. On the contrary, women’s history writing has turned towards examining gender as a structuring principle which includes the intersection of caste and class.

Maithree Wicramasinghe, in her paper, attempts to understand, “What drives feminist research, writing and activism in Sri Lanka?” In the course of this interesting ontological exercise, Wickramasinghe confronts head-on but methodologically the charge of feminism being foreign, an ideology imposed by the West.

A theme that runs through these diverse essays is the willingness to recognise the imperative need to be self-critical, learn across time and space so as to be able to take on the Fraserian project of “reinventing feminism for a globalised world.”


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