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You’re an Indian Feminist? But You Don’t Live in a Ditch!

Hello good readers of Bitch blogs! Starting this week for the next twelve weeks, I'll be blogging at Bitch about Indian feminist books and films and I might quite possibly "ruin" India for many of you (it's a superpower of mine, I'm often told) and I'm hoping in turn you'll "ruin" my impression of north-Atlantic feminisms (which in my experience have not been of the most dedicated listeners). Apart from the sense of accomplishment I get while rupturing romanticized versions of India—because really, who wouldn't be happy to break bubbles like: "What do you mean there are no tigers on the street? So this tattoo really means "my father is over there" in Sanskrit? Why can't I like, go to tribal camp?"—I also hope that this break in lines of thought and action will make us talk and listen to one another.

This talking and listening to each other seems simple, but in theory and practice it's probably the hardest thing I've ever had to learn to do, and am still learning—to listen to myself, to listen how my voice sometimes induces silence in someone else, and still learn to listen, even if it's hard and draining. Even if it makes you hate yourself or the world, sometimes, both. What I hope to do here is to start and sustain a dialogue around these frames we use to listen, talk and view each other.

Before we go any further, let's start with this: Who comes to your mind when I say I'll be talking of "Indian feminists, their work, and feminist media"? Perhaps Deepa Mehta because of her trilogy of films titled Fire, 1947 Earth, and Water? Or maybe Arundhati Roy? Some may talk of Taslima Nasrin's Lajja since the book plays out in India? Maybe you'd be familiar with Gayatri Spivak, if you come from academia (or fandom!)—point is, we've learned to recognize "Indian feminism" in a specific way, and it's not an accident that these names are famous, and not so many others. This isn't to say any of the above are "real" or "not authentic" Indian feminists, or just because certain names don't take up so much space, they must immediately be "more attuned to 'real' issues"—these kinds of binaries serve no one, particularly not us, as people invested in a politics of listening.

We learn to respond to certain frames of "Indianness"—of that oppressed, voiceless, mutilated, and/or violated Indian body (usually female), who is the "subject" of our discussions of "real Indian feminism," and the person talking to you is usually someone who knows your language(s)—while you can do without ever learning hers—and builds a world suited to her and your mediated world of Indianness. Obviously, there is quite a power imbalance between "local" and "global" feminisms, but this divide isn't an accident. Nor is it sustained just by one end—we're all implicated in some form of the other. And, I'm hoping this point of shared complicity—this complicity may vary from different locations, but it exists and is fueled by us together—will become our springboard of discussion and a way forward.

For the next twelve weeks, I will be writing about the works of Meena Kandasamy, Rokheya Sawat Hassan, Arun Kolatkar, Ismat Chughtai, Amruta Patil, Madhu Kishwar—everything from Bollywood films to documentaries made by feminist filmmakers, interspersed with links and references to Indian feminist academia whenever possible. I hope you enjoy this series as much I've enjoyed planning it.

By now, you'll want to know who I am. I am Battameez (which literally translates to "mannerless"); it is a term I get called a lot, and I've learned to revel in it. I'm studying to get my M.A. in women's studies in a tiny city somewhere in India (no tigers, but I see goats and elephants if I squint hard enough)—which means I'll check any comments you've made a full 10-12 hours after you've left them. Patience with the delays in comment moderation and responses will be gratefully appreciated. When I'm not rambling here, I write on my tumblr, a lot of the time in all caps. As I said, I really don't have any manners—living in the proverbial ditch does that to a person, I'm told.

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Comments

38 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Looking forward to reading

Looking forward to reading this series! Or maybe I should say, looking forward to listening.

Me too!

Looking forward to writing these series as well! And of course, the ensuing discussions.

what does it mean to be a

what does it mean to be a part of a population that thinks *they* are responsible for "cleaning" the "messy" images, when they are in positions of actual power and can decide to mow down a slum because a new International villa merida hotel or a Company is going to be constructed around it, and no one wants to encounter such "filth"?

Excellent!

Excellent!

Thanks.

Thanks.

Interesting

The series sounds awesome. I admit that I haven't heard of any of the people you listed, so I'm intrigued to hear about who they are and they work they have done. I'm looking forward to having my mind opened concerning Indian feminism.

Hello

Hello Madeline!

Have to admit, one thing I had in mind while making the blog line up was to introduce readers to a new range of voices -- which comes with its own set of problems, like, I absolutely love Arundhati Roy, but since she's a relatively well known author and activist, I won't be writing about her much, if at all. But on the other hand, it's pretty thrilling to talk about other lesser-know but equally deserving authors -- this seemed like a good place to begin such a discussion. 

Thank you for your kind words. 

Hooray from another Indian feminist!

Supremely excited and looking forward to a rich discussion. I'm studying History, not Gender studies, in a somewhat big city in India, and I really look forward to a dialogue both between Indian feminists and with feminists all over the world. :)

Also, Spivak has a fandom?!

Hello from another Indian feminist too

Hello Shobhna, 

Oh I've always wanted to study history -- but the numbers and the dates always give me the worst headaches, unfortunately -- so I'm a bit envious and in awe of you. Not to sound like a ragged 90-year old grandma, but history as a discipline needs a thorough feminist (and anti-caste ideological) shake. Yes, there's Uma Chakravorty and Tejaswini Niranjana and Badri Narayan, but, they are only a handful few. 

I don't know if Spivak has a fandom (she really should though) -- but a lot of fandom politics from the Global South is invested in postcoloniality and hybridity etc, so enter Spivak! 

Thank you for your kind words. 

Yay!

Wow, I am so glad that Bitch media is covering feminism in the Indian context! I myself am an Indo-Canadian, and I really think more widespread discussion and education on this topic would be great!!

Hello

Hey anon,

Thank you for your encouragement.

Yeah, we definitely need to talk of Indian feminism(s) a lot more, outside of sex-selective abortions and horrified discussions of child marriage and sex trafficking, that is. Le sigh.

I posted to Fb!

Go you! very excited!

Hello

Thank you Shefali for your encouragement. I must admit, I am a little confused by this comment title. You posted what to Facebook? Is it related to what you wrote here?

 

Sooper!

Welcome fellow desi, your moniker made me laugh out loud :D! Looking forward to your column!

Ekdum super only

But what else are rude, outspoken daughters called, then? (Maybe there should be an easy go-to guide about the names rude daughters are called, and how most of them imply a falling from grace) (There's a YA novel in here somewhere).

Thank you -- looking forward your responses and/or comments!

Perhaps Shefali meant that

Perhaps Shefali meant that she posted this announcement on FB - you know, to get others to read.

Oh I see

Uh, that's okay, I guess?

I loathe that place and am pathetic at All Things Facebook -- hence that lapse in comprehension. Again, thank you.

Just a reminder

There were a couple of malicious and nasty comments on this thread that I've removed. I will not tolerate this nonsense. 

Just a few things -- respect people's pseudonyms and the reasons they may have in keeping them. Critique the writing, and not the person etc. Didn't think this needed mentioning, but obviously, it does.  

Looking forward to this!

Looking forward to reading more of your work! I would love to hear your take on the representation of India in The Avengers (if you've seen it). I came across this:

(caution: mild spoilers in the linked article)
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/avengers-indian-slum-scenes-critic...

and immediately thought of your post here and what you say about "certain frames of Indianness". In the link above, Neha Dhupia is quoted as saying “It is disturbing to see the murky underbelly of India in Hollywood films.......But before pointing it out to the West, we need to make efforts to change their perception about us."

I would love to hear what you make of that, if you agree.

Interesting

Hello Mare -- 

ETA: Wow, I wrote an essay instead of a comment. I hope you have enough patience and energy, I tend to ramble. A lot. 

I haven't watched the Avengers yet -- but it's on my list -- and the slum thing is sadly a Thing That Shows Up Too Much, long before Slumdog Millionaire made it into The Thing To Talk About India (outside of sex-selective abortions, sex-trafficking and kamasutra). 

What I don't like about the "underbelly" business is: 

*Every* city in the world has an underbelly, but somehow, when talking of India, or Mumbai, that is the *only* image and frame you want to use. I am not so miffed that, "This is an insult to my country" or any such nationalist idea -- rather, nothing is that simple, then why are certain places viewed in those particular frames only? No place can consist of *only* scores of poor people -- there is a "First world" in the "Third world" (and vice versa) and any city is a complex organism -- with its own set of problems and ways of resisting and tackling those problems, whathaveyou. 

As filmmakers, media creators, you may want to show poverty and squalor -- fine, that induces tears, pity, guilt. It seems like it is a perfectly acceptable motivation to many, to only see certain people and places as povertyporn -- but the flipside of it is you are *actively* erasing the histories and networks of labour these "slum people" whose work is what keeps cities like Mumbai running 24/7. 

The frame here is the always already oppressed, and you cannot envision them engaged in any kind of productive labour, they cannot laugh at the same jokes as you do, they cannot do anything but become the poor subjects that need your pity and guilt, and of course prayers and saving (funny how they usually go hand in hand, no?).

Coming to Neha Dhupia's statement, it seems fine to aspire to "change" people's assumptions about us, and we are responsible to an extent. But, then I have a few more questions: 

What kind of "progress" are you envisioning? At whose cost? And what does it mean to be a part of a population that thinks *they* are responsible for "cleaning" the "messy" images, when they are in positions of actual power and can decide to mow down a slum because a new International Hotel or a Company is going to be constructed around it, and no one wants to encounter such "filth"? And again, such a statement internalises that *we* are a Problem That Needs To Be Fixed, and not the frame and gaze which is invested in envisioning India only as a hub of slums with cheap, expoitable labour. 

ETA: Hello again Mare! Looking forward to writing this column and many such discussions! 

Hello Battameez! And THANK

Hello Battameez! And THANK YOU for such a substantive response. I tend to ramble myself and I'm honored by your essay-length comment! I felt similarly in reading Dhupia's statement -- if the western cinema's stereotyping of India starts in the west, isn't it the west's job to change and make an effort, not India's? Then again, I'm always questioning if that sort of leads to the savior mentality -- like you say, falling into the paternalistic thinking that India is a problem to be fixed by the west. Hmm. Looking forward to future posts and continuing the discussion!

And yet,

It's also us, the people in positions of power who think India has a "population problem" and a "slum problem" and It Has To Be Fixed -- the answer is almost always to "educate" them; which really is code for, Make Them Talk/Act Like Us, and only then "they" will be 'worthy' enough to join the rest of us, marching towards IndiaShining or whatever. 

So yes, the West has to definitely shift its gaze (about time, I'd say), and also, in a weird way Dhupia did make sense -- we need to shift our frame too, and really think about what do we envision as progress, who is allowed to be a part of this new shining globalised democracy and so on. 

India in the movies!

I think you bring up a lot of good questions and points about India in the movies. On the Avengers: apparently it was filmed in New Mexico, and to my annoyance, they didn't even get the language right! They were supposedly in Kolkata, but they were speaking Hindi! Not that that's impossible, it just annoyed me they didn't bother to look up enough information...

I was wondering what you thought of the latest Mission Impossible's take on Mumbai. It does focus on the opulence of the Taj and high falutin' rich party -goers (maybe going back to your "cleaning up the 'messy' images" comment) but it seemed that the choice to film in India was just to film in India. There's a great scene concerning the traffic which I thought was true and cute. (And not implying anything offensive or judgmental... which is a good change!) I'd also be curious to know your thoughts on the latest movie "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"... I'm still undecided!

Thanks for your awesome posts and comments. I think it's really important to explore these issues -- I traveled to India last Fall for a study abroad program (well, it was more of a continuous excuse to spend time with my friends living in Delhi) and it was disappointing to see what sorts of expectations students brought along with them. All of these students still maintained this idea of India as an exotic, magical place, where enlightenment is dished out once you get off the plane. It was disappointing because it does both sides a disservice -- the students were constantly frustrated that everything wasn't working EXACTLY as they fantasized, and the problems they packed with them were exacerbated -- this led to an anger that was taken out on India itself. They all turned into angry, condescending, rude Americans, because India wasn't what they imagined it would be.

I suppose this is a problem everywhere however. People have a difficult time seeing places as just places -- different in a lot of ways, but still real. It's annoying that things like Slumdog Millionaire and Eat Pray Love are robbing both visitors and locals the chance to represent and experience India just as India. It's a pretty neat place by itself!

:D

I am really interested in checking this out.
I am Punjabi-Guyanese and often talk to my other South Asian feminist friends about feminism and south Asian women
When doing my yoga teacher's training my brain nearly melted about things that really ... bothered me. As someone who is a part of the south asian, west indian diaspora its interesting to see my Nani ma's view of India versus my mom that grew up in the Greater Toronto Area.
Your nom de plume btw made me chuckle :D

Ma bahut Besharam hai. C'est fantastique, oui ;)

Merci pour cette reponse, elle m'amuse beaucoup

Heylo JassieBeta! 

First off, I am really loving your (and every other person in this thread) response to my name. I didn't get this though -- Ma bahut Besharam hai, were you talking about your mother? Or yourself? 

My nani is an absolutely wonderful lady who actually embodies the word "battameezi" -- she's reached that age where she pretty much gets away with anything and she knows it. It's a lot of fun talking about anything with her and my mum, because sometimes it feels like they're designed to disagree with each other; much like two generations of the women's movement here. 

And, sorry about the fail-y yoga teacher, maybe some of the posts here will helpful to air those uncomfortable thoughts, if and when you want to, I hope. 

wadday beauty!

Fantastically happy reading this, the title alone.. Might have even let out a small sound because my mum looked up and said "Does that say Bitch?" But I digress.. Fairly new on the online feminism front and have just started reading all these (awesome) blogs but they hardly mention anything about India besides our sex ratio. So, in short, looking forward to this. Okay then..

I toh say thank you jee

Heylo! 

I may have squealed a little in turn when I saw this -- does this mean we are even? 

Re: India and the child sex-ratio thing, I know, no? It's a sad only, I tell you. Jokes aside, it's quite a problem on its own, to be viewed as a people who need to "fix" the population overdose -- hence you have the Govt making slogans like, "One child is enough" and "Hum do, humara ek" -- so when you're told that *you* are responsible to "fix" the population crisis, and that you are allowed to have only one kid, chances are more people abort their girl fetuses, for a number of reasons, in a number of contexts and so on. 

Basically, the skewed child sex-ratio IS a problem that we have to address, but so is access to safe public spaces for women, queer people, so is fair treatment of Muslim women at the hands of the law and so on. The question is, which question is framed as an "inherently Indian feminist" quandary, as if we don't have similar concerns with feminists of the world over of safe access to reproductive justice, public spaces etc etc. 

Can you tell I love these interactions? And this thread on the whole?

Yes it is quite obvious :)

Re: India and sex ratio- its of course brilliant that for years this has been happening and its only now because its a "demographic" issue people are all horrified no? And very few people are talking about what repercussions this might have women's right to their own bodies.
Re: "inherently Indian Feminist" quandry- A lot can be gained from discussing issues relating to women, caste, community on a wider platform even if cultures drastically differ because the end of the day we're basically taking about the same issues. Besides India itself has so many bloody feminisms I don't think its even possible to sit and find a single "this is it" type question. (its late and I'm not making sense anymore) I really hope this opens up crazy ass dialogue and super breaking of..uh..stuff happens.
Super excited about this, as would be you I'm guessing.. (I love that you replied so ethu-ly) <3

"Too many bloody feminisms"

You know, the more I think about it, the more I think it's good there are so many; most are constantly at war with each other, and that's fine. Dissent is what keeps democracy and feminism alive, she mused. 

This sounds great!

This sounds great!

Thank you Suka!

Thank you Suka!

Ultraviolet

I am a huge fan of the blog Ultraviolet: Indian Feminists Unplugged,
and now I have your words to look forward to as well. Thank you. I hope
you will tackle people's desire to avoid being pigeonholed as feminists
(solely because it is perceived as limiting them somehow). Some of the
most powerful on-the-ground change agents I have met in India dislike
the term even though they are engaged in indisputably strong and wonderful
feminist work. Of course, the same is often true in the US, especially with the younger
generation.

Hello Shoshana

Thank you for your kind words. I will be tackling in some form this mis-identification (sometimes justified) with the label of 'feminist', but only through the frame of a text or a film i.e. specific instances, considering generalising claims of any kind are not really my thing. 

Also, this is in no way a snark back at you or anything, just a general thought -- why should [x] people identify as feminist, when they clearly don't want to; and how does what they ID as matter if they are "engaged in indisputably strong and wonderful feminist work"?

the word feminist is a generalising claim in itself perhaps

Good to receive your reply and question. I am not one to want to persuade
someone to identify as anything they don't want to, so pardon me if I might have
given that impression. I was responding to the following general statement in your blog:

Who comes to your mind when I say I’ll be talking of “Indian feminists, their work, and feminist media”? Perhaps Deepa Mehta because of her trilogy of films titled Fire, 1947 Earth, and Water? Or maybe Arundhati Roy? Some may talk of Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja since the book plays out in India? Maybe you’d be familiar with Gayatri Spivak, if you come from academia (or fandom!)—point is, we’ve learned to recognize “Indian feminism” in a specific way...

I am not sure who "we" is in your statement, but the feminists who come to my mind are activists (PV Sandhya
in Kadapa, Shukla Bose in Bangalore) and artists (Gogi Saroj Pal in Delhi) who don't always call themselves feminists and, for understandable reasons, dislike the term. Writers and scholars use the word feminist as a shortcut for a certain set of goals, and I guess I was hoping you would acknowledge that as the series unfolds. So I think perhaps I wrote to jump start that topic a bit. In any case, I hope I didn't offend!

While there are some generalisations I can get behind

Like, "third world feminist" or "WOC" -- which spell out a particular politics or an ideological position, these labels are umbrella terms, at best. They'll describe parts of our lives (and sometimes, not even close), but if we chose to identify as [x] term despite these cracks in our lives and the term, then it's usually for a purpose that goes beyond just the label. 

The "we" in my post is all of us -- all of us who are invested in making feminist networks and knowledge. Why do we assume a "feminist story" should have a certain type of person? Often, it's the "abused/violated body that conquers all, structurally and individually" or it's "living in resistence". Why is Arundhati Roy considered feminist, but none of Ekta Kapoor's serials qualify (hypothetical example) -- though both talk of women's lives, in their various capacities. Point is, we use a certain scale that makes a text "feminist"; I am just calling on to examine that standard, that's all. 

No, definitely didn't offend, I apologise that it was unclear: I just wanted to open up the question. I honestly think it's a little dangerous to completely disawow the label feminist; specifically if the claim is that "feminist is too western a term", because we don't engage with present times, where we are a people who are western and yet not (link goes to a fantastic pdf essay by Mary E John who talks of this same claim, but oh so much more eloquently). 

Yes, I will be talking about this "shortcut feminism" -- and possibly, that it may not be as restricting as we imagine it to be, in some places. 

Looking forward to many such discussions. 

 

Here is my comment to show my

Here is my comment to show my appreciation to this post. It is just that one I was looking for and I can say I have found it. I have always tried to understand this post about but here it is my only solution. Here is my comment to show my appreciation to this post. It is just that one I was looking for and I can say I have found it. I have always tried to understand this post about but here it is my only solution. focus groups can now be mentioned so I inviting all to accept this. Thanks for sharing.
can now be mentioned so I inviting all to accept this. Thanks for sharing.

violence against women in india

you might be interested to read a novel by
Barry Wenlock
An Indian Alchemy: Gods, Girls and Men
available in Amazon Kindle stores link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BBKEFCW
it is about violence against women in India

violence against women in india

you might be interested to read a novel by
Barry Wenlock
An Indian Alchemy: Gods, Girls and Men
available in Amazon Kindle stores link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BBKEFCW
it is about violence against women in India