Debate: ‘Educated Upper Class, Caste Women’ and Indian Feminism

A recent article on LiveWire lampooned the ‘wokeness’ of ‘upper class, caste women’ – a shorthand for their feminist politics – by juxtaposing it with a tradition of Anglo-American feminism.

The author said: “One of the biggest reasons for the failure of making feminism the inclusive and widespread movement it has been in Europe and other parts of the world has been the class politics of educated women in India.”

While this observation is partially true, it merits consideration with respect to the homogenised character it ascribes to feminism in the West. It would do us good to remember that the feminism as a political project in the West gained currency only as a result of bitter wars waged by different women in different points of time in the history of women’s movements.

The history of Indian feminism, like its Anglo-American counterpart, has been no different. Just like each successive ‘wave’ in the case of Anglo-American feminism expanded and democratised the feminism of the previous ‘wave’, similarly, the larger political developments in the post-independence India witnessed a mobilisation of certain category of women, with each succeeding decade contributing towards the expansion of this earlier monolithic category.

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The case in point is the peasant women’s movements in the early 60s, the movements of the upper caste/class women in the 70s, the emergence of Muslim women’s movements in the 80s, and the Dalit women’s movements in the late 80s and early 90s.

Second, the author noted that the most educated urban women refrain from talking about feminism, and that had it not been for the global pressure of the #MeToo movement, these urban women would never have spoken about the abuse and harassment in their lives.

However, contrary to the author’s suggestion, Radha Kumar’s History of Doing, a landmark book on the women’s movements in post-Independence and pre-MeToo era, documents how it was precisely the educated upper caste, class women’s movements against issues of dowry harassment and domestic violence in the comparatively urban spaces like Delhi and Mumbai that had led to the recognition and articulation of ‘women’s issues’ in the public sphere.

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Moreover, the research on women’s issues and annual conferences on women by influential political actors in places like Delhi and Mumbai during this period had not only led to the institutionalisation of women’s studies’ departments across the Indian universities, but also centralised the need to take into account the various markers – of caste, class, and religion – of a woman’s identity, thereby leading to a reconceptualisation of the very subject of the Indian feminist politics.

As a critically engaged Indian citizenry, it is imperative and incumbent upon us to realise, therefore, that vilifying a whole community of “educated upper caste, class women” serves no purpose to the larger feminist goals of attaining equality and parity. Deriding a particular section of the Indian community is not only parochial in its outlook and in its engagement with the history of Indian feminism, but also dismissive of the contributions, however limited, made by it at a certain point of time in history.

The need, instead, is to focus on the systemic inequities and inequalities that cause the feminism in the India, and in South Asia, to assume a unpopular character in contrast to its Anglo-American counterpart.

Kirti Goyal is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty