Feminism in the Last Decade: An Interactive

A March For Women

Feminism in the Last Decade: An Interactive

What has been the focus of the feminist movement in the last decade?

Feminist thought has been around for over a century now, bringing to light the lives and struggles of women and gender minorities. From the suffragettes of the early 1900s to the #MeToo movement in 2018, feminists have had a very hard time convincing the world that it is in fact, equal rights that they want, and not disproportionate “special treatment.” However, feminism has become a “bad word,” especially in the digital age, where there is an abundance of opinions on social media conflating it with “man-hating" or "/misandry.” Most people readily profess their commitment to “equality,” but shy away from identifying themselves as feminist. Feminists, both online and offline, continue to be dismissed, discredited and threatened with violence for demanding rights and speaking truth to power.

Today, women’s empowerment is on the development agenda of governments and civil society organisations around the world, and this is owed in large part to the relentless struggles undertaken by feminists over several decades. Both governments and corporations seem to now understand the importance of women’s empowerment, even as they continue to keep their distance from “radical feminists.” Nothing demonstrates this better than the case of the #MeToo movement, where, particularly the corporate-sector, which had co-opted gender equality as a cause, showed that it would only care about women’s rights as long they were not asking for “too much.” Closer home, schemes such as Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that have been introduced to benefit women in India, still look like stop-gap measures because they only target the most visible, material parts of gender disparity. They do not attempt to address the patriarchal structures that cause this disparity.

Historically, educators, researchers and students in women’s studies programmes in universities across the country have played a vital role in investigating how exclusionary structures operate and have suggested ways in which these structures can be dismantled. They have underscored that feminist methodology should not be restricted to a small niche of knowledge production. And, as a result of efforts by women and gender minorities within the academy, a larger number of researchers and activists have applied feminist methodology on disciplines ranging from labour economics to public health in the last decade. This lens is effective because it provides a more comprehensive, critical, and thorough understanding of social, political, economic, and cultural processes. Feminists have not restricted themselves to critiquing one structure of oppression (patriarchy), but have sought to understand how it functions in tandem with capitalism, caste structures, religion, and heteronormativity. For example, feminist researchers investigated reasons behind the steep reduction of women in the waged labour force and the impact of informalisation of labour on women’s access to consistent and fair remuneration.

However, while there is an increasing acknowledgement that multiple systems of oppression operate in tandem and affect women and gender minorities from different social locations differently, those who conduct and gain from research continue to be predominately cis-heterosexual, upper-caste, middle-class, able-bodied women. This limitation of dominant feminist circles has persisted since the start of the women’s movement. However, it is being challenged in more public and creative ways by young Dalit, transgender and Adivasi feminist scholars and activists. On the other hand, there has been a resurgence of Savarna cis male backlash against the progress made by feminists. This has taken the form of protests by men’s rights groups and intensified routine violence by cis men to sustain their dominance.

In this interactive, we have mapped the issues that feminists in India have tackled in the last decade. This debate kit is not exhaustive but provides a panoramic view of the landscape through articles published in the Economic and Political Weekly from 2010 onwards.

Click on each theme in the protest march below to explore the debates.

Violence and Power

From the Supreme Court to households, savarna, cis-men continue to hold a disproportionate number of decision-making positions in institutions and social structures. The violence perpetrated by cis men is not accidental to such an arrangement. Rather, it is a result of unequal structures of power and ensures that challenges to the established order are effectively curtailed.

A staggering 71.47 lakh complaints of rape were filed in 2012 in 13 states and four union territories. Yet, only 33.66% of the complaints were converted into First Information Reports (FIRs) and the conviction rate in the early 2010s hovered at about 24%. Reports of acid attacks by cis men have also been on the rise, with a total of 596 cases in both 2017 and 2018. Marital rape is still not recognised as rape, and government officials often argue that doing so would “weaken traditional family values in India” and that marriage effectively means consent. Such a justification relies on the widely held belief that the family is a sanctimonious space free from violence and force against women and gender minorities. The prevalence of marital rape and domestic violence belies this belief, given given that almost one in three women between the ages of 15–49 in India has experienced physical or sexual violence by their husbands and family members.

The legal process compels women and gender minorities to relive traumatic experiences and jump through bureaucratic hurdles in their search for accountability and redress. Rather than addressing the unequal structures of power that enable patterns of violence to go unabated, elected lawmakers, judges, and the media frame gendered violence as an “inevitable” consequence of being a woman or a gender minority. Authorities go so far as to operate on assumptions that women and gender minorities are lying or have malicious intentions to “take advantage” of rights-based legislations.

Incidents of violence against women that do attract public concern usually follow a pattern: they require require “a heinous crime to take place” before a woman, girl, or gender minority is believed. India’s patriarchal public sphere also usually reserves its outrage for cases where survivors/victims belong to relatively upper-caste and middle-class backgrounds and the perpetrators belong to relatively marginalised backgrounds.

Feminist groups have, nevertheless, persisted and made claims to the state and other institutions to deliver on their avowed promises of justice and equality. They have not only documented and resisted routine forms of violence that are normalised in the private and public spheres, but have also led the charge against heinous crimes that have jolted the "public conscience."

Land and Labour

Indian women spend almost six hours every day doing unpaid domestic work, which is six times more than men do. Women are compelled to shoulder this disproportionate burden of work, which includes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children and the elderly. Their labour, however, is devalued and unaccounted for because it takes place within the confines of the home and there is no “product” to show for it. This also holds true for domestic workers, primarily women, who perform such labour in the homes of others; and are poorly paid, mistreated, and discriminated against.

In the past decade, there have been large-scale mobilisations by women and workers from gender-minority communities for fair remuneration, equal division of labour within and outside the household, social security provisions, and sexual harassment- and discrimination-free workplaces. In 2016, women workers in Kerala’s textile industry unionised for the right to go to the toilet and take breaks, and won. Community health workers and child-care centre workers have led massive strikes in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, demanding remuneration rights as workers.

Despite these struggles, there was a steep dip in the percentage of women in the waged labour force, from 31.2% in 2011–12 to 23.3% in 2017–18, and an increasing informalisation of women’s labour. Among emerging economies, India has one of the poorest ratios of women in the waged labour force. In rural India, despite women sharing an equal burden as men in farming activities, if not more, women’s ownership of land is abysmally low. The Agriculture Census 2015–16 indicates that while 73.2% of rural women workers are engaged in agriculture, they own only 12.8% of landholdings. Land ownership, which symbolises power and material wealth, has been grossly skewed in favour of men. While prevalent patriarchal norms prevent women from inheriting ancestral property, the lack of a concrete legal framework also adds to the problem. The mediation of women’s land rights in India is carried out through personal laws and customary practices. Succession, inheritance, and ownership rights for women are made contingent upon religion and marital status, among other factors, and consequently, they escape constitutional scrutiny.

Law and Justice

The Indian government recently petitioned the Supreme Court to repeal a judgment that made women eligible for the same benefits as men in the army. The petition stated that men in the army were not “mentally prepared” to accept a woman as a commanding officer. While the Supreme Court in the recent past has delivered landmark judgments such as Navtej Singh Johar v Union of India (2018), that decriminalised homosexuality, and Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v State of Kerala (2018) that permitted women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, the government’s reluctance to uphold these judgments contradicts the very ideas of equality, liberty, and justice enshrined in the Constitution. Instead, the government expects the electorate to celebrate the outlawing of the practice of triple talaq, even as the lived experiences of both Muslim and Hindu women have seen little improvement.

The terms “equal” and “secular” in the government’s discourse on women’s empowerment are used as buzzwords more for political optics than to bring about transformative change. Dialogue on progressive policies, as seen in the government’s reluctance to grant women in the army permanent commission, remains chained to patriarchal ideas that often consider women as caretakers who are unable to compete in a male-dominated world due to social, economic, or physical limitations. The moot question, then, is whether judgments passed by Indian courts and legislations deliberated upon in Parliament—by men for women’s empowerment—can be considered reflective of a feminist society?

Health and Wellbeing

In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that 810 women died every day from preventable complications that arose during childbirth. While a large number of these deaths are due to the absence of adequate healthcare infrastructure and a lack of medical knowledge, the patriarchal structures that deny women timely medical interventions cannot be ignored.

Policy discussions in India today, if they indeed consider women’s healthcare, fail to go beyond logistical deficiencies. The gendered division of labour at home means that women have no respite from their “duties,” which, apart from household chores, include reproductive labour to provide a desirable offspring. Pregnancy, and the onus of bearing a male child, leaves little room for “choice” for the woman. The Indian family unit is rooted in a patriarchal setting, where matters of women’s health, and their bodily agency, are decided upon by men. Studies reveal that even in an urban setting, less than 40% of patients in hospitals are women. In rural India, issues of access are even starker. Here, adequate medical infrastructure is a luxury. Women are still forced to walk miles to reach a healthcare institute, where the resources are questionable and the prevalence of quacks remains a worry.

Moreover, patriarchy makes reporting instances of sexual violence difficult. When the perpetrator is a family member, methods of redressal are few. The women are instead branded as “impure,” and the family’s social standing becomes a bigger concern. Sexual health and sexual choices of women in general, and unmarried women in particular, are stigmatised. Access to safe abortions remains elusive. Only 22% of abortions in the country take place in public or private healthcare facilities, and 13 women every day due to abortions.

Thus, the very structure of women’s access to health is crippled. Without removing the patriarchal domination of women’s agency, it is unclear how much can be achieved.

Kinship and Marriage

For Indian parents, both within the country and abroad, a daughter’s marriage is seen as a culmination of parental responsibility. The “selection” of a suitable companion by parents and kin perpetuates the notion that women’s bodies are property that needs to be controlled to maintain caste purity. Those who dare to defy societal norms and marry outside their caste or religion are socially ostracised and, in some cases, persecuted. Khap Panchayats are notorious for authorising “punishment” and, in some cases, sanctioning honour killings for those who violate social norms.

When married, women are expected to bear children and perform labour within the household, along with caring for the sick and the elderly. Regardless of economic status, they are also harrassed to provide a dowry; the ordeal claiming the lives of about 20 women every day.

Marriage is also a key element that determines the migration and mobility of women and consequently determines women’s economic relationships. Women, especially those with educational attainment, move out of their natal homes to seek gainful employment, but are often compelled to relinquish this after marriage.

Legal reforms to improve marriage and kinship structures in India have been slow. Worse still, interventions of the current government, such as declaring triple talaq illegal and the planned implementation of a uniform civil code, have involved tinkering with personal laws to “reform” them and claim victory for gender equality. However, the actual focus is on othering Muslim women, men, and gender minorities.

Politics and Representation

There has been a steady rise in the number of women occupying political offices the world over. According to the United Nations, women’s representation in national parliaments grew from 11.3% in 1995 to 24.3% in February 2019. Rwanda, at 61.3%, has the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world. Indian politics, on the other hand, is marked by a gross underrepresentation of women in leadership positions; India is ranked 149 among 193 countries.

The number of women in the Lok Sabha grew from 52 in 2009, to 64 in 2014, and 78 in 2019. However, the women’s reservation bill, which aims to reserve 33% seats for women in state assemblies and Parliament, has been pending in the Lok Sabha since 2010, when it was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made women’s reservation in the legislature a part of its manifesto in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, nothing has been done to realise this promise so far. Despite the fact that the BJP enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, the government has put the bill on the backburner. Interestingly, there is a greater number of women in elected positions in the local bodies, owing to the 33% reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions.

Our democracies cannot not live up to their ideals of equality and equity if women, who roughly constitute half the population, are kept out of power structures and decision-making processes. The political empowerment of women has a far-reaching transformative potential beyond the realm of gender parity. Research suggests that societies that provide the same opportunities to men and women are more peaceful, prosperous, and develop faster than those that do not believe in gender equality. The perception that politics is dirty, where unethical practices are employed to grab power and corruption is rampant, is one of the main reasons that discourage women from joining politics.

Talking about and working towards women’s representation in politics are matters of immediate concern. But, the term “women,” is not a homogeneous category. Caste, class, religion, geospatial divides, literacy, and economic factors, among others, play a significant role in determining which set of women make the cut for leadership positions in politics. Given this, whether or not these rising numbers of women in Parliament indicate meaningful political representation remains debatable.

Body and Sexuality

Feminists have viewed the body as a site of violence, regulation, surveillance, as well as a site of resistance, sustenance, and knowledge. Routine forms of regulation of women’s bodies include attempts to “normalise” and control weight, body size and shape, skin colour, clothes, and manners of speaking and sitting. A singular form of feminity is idealised in society and functions to reduce women’s abilities, labour, and skills to their physical appearance. The fashion and film industries are two of the most visible promoters and benefactors of this “idealised” conception of femininity imposed on women. Both industries rely on objectifying women to conform to expectations of beauty and mannerism based on cis men’s desires. Capitalism, in tandem with patriarchy, encourages insecurities and distorts women’s and gender minorities’ relationship with their bodies and sexuality. These conceptions of femininity and beauty have come to be challenged in the last decade. An influx of feminist artists and writers have represented women's and gender minorities' bodies as dark-skinned, plus-sized, disabled, and “unruly” in stark contrast to “acceptable” norms.

On the matter of sexual and bodily autonomy, there have been landmark judicial rulings that have had an impact on the lives of gender and sexual minorities. In 2018, the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual non-heterosexual sex, in a move that was praised for enabling rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) persons. However, critics have said that by ascribing homophobia to “Judeo-Christian values” imported from British colonial rule, the prevalence of violence by the state and citizens against queer persons, particularly transgender persons, in pre- and post-colonial times has remained unaddressed. Judicial rulings in the last decade have also oscillated between affirming the fundamental rights of transgender persons and their right to self-identification, and reimposing state-led scrutiny on and policing them through the recent Transgender Rights Act, 2019.

Education and Social Transformation

Education is the key to social transformation. It inspires curiosity, imparts knowledge about social and scientific phenomena, as well as the history of students' diverse embedded contexts, and provides them with tools to solve complex challenges towards achieving equity. Early Bahujan feminists such as Savtribai Phule recognised this transformative power and struggled against discriminatory structures to create educational opportunities for women and Bahujans.

In the decades since her activism, access to education for women and gender minorities remains curtailed. The United Nations Children’s Fund reported that globally, one in three “adolescent girls from the poorest households has never been to school.” Persistent pressure and advocacy by feminist activists and groups has led to the creation of governmental and non-governmental programmes designed specifically to address gender inequity in education.

As a result of such work, the number of women enrolling in higher education programmes in India has increased. According to data from 2016, 12% of women were enrolled in Bachelor of Science programmes as compared to 10% of men. However, 84% of women drop out after graduation. Patriarchal beliefs require women to marry early and this obstructs their ability to complete the prerequisite degrees to consequently access formal employment.

Curated by: Titash Sen, Abhishek Shah, Kieran Lobo, and Vikram Mukka, with editorial inputs from Sohnee Harshey, Vishnupriya Bhandaram, and Akshita Mathur.

Illustration: Titash Sen, with design inputs from Gulal Salil

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