Why has “Kali” Abandoned Indian Feminists?
In three generations, India has systematically exterminated more than 50 million women from its population – a number which is the sum total of the populations of Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Portugal put together.
In her article Why Kali Won’t Rage Rita Banerji evokes the symbolism of the Hindu goddess Kali, known for her fierce and powerful fight against repression by men and asks why the female genocide in India has not incited an outright rebellion in India’s feminist movement? Why are India’s Kalis silent today?
Banerji argues that this passivity stems from the de-politicization of the issue of gender oppression in India, which itself stems from India’s feminist movement. She argues that prominent academics and women’s rights activists, who are at the van-guard of India’s feminist movement have insisted to the world that the state of women in India cannot be interpreted in light of a political power struggle, like in the west, but needs to be accepted and dealt with in a cultural context.
[Note: The following is an excerpt from Rita Banerji’s article ‘Why Kali Won’t Rage: A Critique of Indian Feminism’ published in the Gender Forum, Issue 38, 2012. To read the full article CLICK HERE]
by Rita Banerji
Suma Chitnis [who was the Director of the Center of Women’s Studies, at the Tata Institute for Social Sciences,] in Feminism In India, a compilation of “some of the most influential writings on the concept of feminism in India” (Chaudhuri 1), describes how once, while attending an international seminar on gender roles in Canada, she was acutely conscious of the fact that while the western feminists there launched an “angry tirade” against the patriarchies in their countries, she felt no such anger towards the patriarchy in her own country. She goes on to elaborate on Indian women’s general “disapproval of [the western] feminist anger” and their “confused reaction to the [western] feminist emphasis on patriarchy […] particularly on men as the principal oppressors” (Chitnis 8-10).
Chitnis muses that this might be because history and culture render, “the women’s issues different in India from the issues in the west.” She points out that historically India has “always been [a] highly hierarchical [society]” with the hierarchies maintained through customs and social behavioral codes. She also notes that unlike the west where individuality and personal freedom are emphasized, Indians cherish values like submission to superiors, “self-denial” and “sublimating the [individual] ego.” In other words, Indian society is sociologically and psychologically acclimatized to the notion of a stratified social order, and what may appear as gender hierarchy to an outsider, is simply regarded as cultural observances by Indians. Also, what westerners may read as a forfeiting of the individual self is regarded by Indian women as a prioritizing of family and community over the individual. Hence they see it as making a choice in favor of the larger good.
Chitnis further justifies this perspective of Indian feminism by arguing that after Independence the Indian constitution “granted women political status fully equal to that of men. [And] thus Indian women did not have to bear the kind of injustices that women in the West had to suffer because of the […] gap between political ideals and realities.” She contends that since Independence in 1947, the Indian government has through its series of Five Year Plans provided for the “welfare of women” such that if countries are compared in terms of legal provisions for women, India “is likely to emerge as one of the most progressive countries.” Chitnis feels this is one of the main reasons why Indian women are not as agitated as their western counterparts. She concludes that Indian women “see that the legal safeguards and equal opportunity facilities that are being fought for [by western feminists] […] are already available to them in principle” (Chitnis 9, 11, 17).
Banerji also cites Madhu Kishwar, editor and founder of Manushi, a magazine which internationally is recognized as India’s premier ‘feminist’ journal, and which proclaims to address issues “about women and society.”
Madhu Kishwar in the same compilation of essays, Feminism in India, corroborates Chitnis’ viewpoint and further adds that “the idea of women’s rights and dignity […] [has] a much longer history of individual women’s assertiveness in India [than in the west.]” This she believes is evidenced in India’s traditions of goddess worship, where “Shakti” or power is recognized as an embodiment of the feminine. Kishwar insists that this in fact “allows Indian society to be far more receptive to women’s assertions and strengths” then western societies are. This, she argues, is also the reason why, unlike the west, in India, men too have historically participated in the women’s rights movement. She points out that during the British Colonial period men even took a leadership role in the abolishment of practices like sati, and the institution of laws to allow widows to remarry. Kishwar’s contention is that because of the tradition of goddess worship, Indian men are socially adjusted to the idea of women in positions of power and that this is one of main reasons why the women’s movement in India “did not acquire the overtones of gender warfare as it did in the West where women faced fierce hostility from most politically active men in their endeavours to win equality” (35-36).
Banerji points out this viewpoint of the gender power hierarchy among feminist leaders in India is not only apolitical but is also highly unrealistic given the ground realities, which are over and above the ongoing female gendercide in India. She says
However, notwithstanding laws, the constitution, goddess worship and male feminists, the ground reality of women in India today is an outrage. While India has undergone astronomical growth in industry and wealth, and is now geared to become the third largest economy in the world (Sinha, P.), the state of Indian women, when taken as a national stratum that theoretically represents one half of the nation, has been horrendously regressive.
In 2010, the World Economic Forum released its Global Gender Gap report, in which India ranked at 112 out of a total of 134 countries (Murti). The report measured the difference in how men and women in each country had access to resources and opportunities. It took into consideration economics, education, political participation, health and survival. When countries are ranked according to economic participation and job opportunities for women, India ranks at 128, above just six other countries. Even in India’s booming corporate sector, the country’s highly educated and professional stratum, the average annual income of women is U.S. $1,185, less than a third of the average annual income for men at U.S. $3,698 (Nagrajan)….India also has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world and in 2006 the World Bank estimated that more than 50% of India’s females above the age of 15 are illiterate (Business Standard). However, even this figure is misleading, since “measuring effective literacy in India means including anyone who can read and write his or her own name, [so if] […] Sita knows how to read and write the four letters of her name [she is counted] […] in the category of effective literates” (Bhaskar). Almost 50% of girls in India are married off by their families before the age of 18, and India singularly also accounts for one-third of the world’s child brides (Sinha K., UNGA).
Banerji points out in her article that it therefore critical that the Indian feminist movement come to terms with the reality of the misogyny that is responsible both for the inequality and repression of women and girls in India society, and is the primary factor that’s driving the mass and targeted annihilation of women in India. She argues that like all other genocides, the Indian female genocide too is rooted in an irrational, culture based hatred of the targeted group, and this must be recognized.
What is now amply evident is that this existential disparity faced by India’s women is fueled by an unrestrained misogyny. A misogyny that not only does not permit women an equal life-style but one that does not even permit them the most fundamental of all human rights — the right to live. A 2011 global poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation identifies India as the fourth most dangerous country in the world for women (Chowdhury)….This signifies a misogyny that does not even spare infants and girls. A 2007 UNICEF report shows that the mortality rate of girls under 5 years was abnormally high, about 40% higher than boys the same age, and this was due to intentional neglect, a malicious denial of food and medication, that is tantamount to negligent homicide (UNICEF 12). A 2011 study by the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Harvard School of Public Health showed that girls under 5 years were 21% more likely than boys that age, and infant girls one-year or younger were 50% more likely to die than infant boys that age, because of violence inflicted on them at home. They estimated that in the last two decades more than 1800,000 girls under the age of 6 years have been killed by domestic violence. The head researcher Jay Silverman said, “Being born a girl into a family in India in which your mother is abused makes it significantly less likely that you will survive early childhood. Shockingly, this violence does not pose a threat to your life if you are lucky enough to be born a boy” (Sinha K., Violence at Home).
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder of The 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies,‘ is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website is www.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Rebellions in my Space and tweets at @Rita_Banerji