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Feminisms in the United States Diaspora

Bandana Purkayastha ( is with the University of Connecticut, United States. Margaret Abraham ( is with Hofstra University, United States.

With a focus on “Indian” feminisms in the United States diaspora, based on their experiences as academics committed to social justice issues, two types of activism—efforts to challenge violence against women and to address knowledge hierarchies—are outlined.As the work for gendered justice includes the need to challenge mainstream and community forces, the dynamic fissures and coalitions that construct the cadences of Indian–American feminisms in the us diaspora are delineated.

The Indian diaspora in the United States (US) is composed of people of Indian origin who arrived and settled in this country from the late 19th century to 1917, and then again from 1965 onwards. As migrants came from the Indian subcontinent, their arrival was structured through restrictive opportunities and outright bans on migration from this region. At the same time, the changing political boundaries of India, following the Indian partition, further complicate who is Indian in this diaspora. The total number of Indian-origin people today is not large (3.9 million report Indian ancestry, according to the US census, American Community Survey), but the group features prominently in many political discourses. Two prominent racialised discourses about Indians coexist in the US: sometimes Indian migrants are lauded as model minorities whose culture leads them towards high achievement; these model minorities are used as a foil for other racialised minorities, who appear not to work as hard to achieve similar success. Some mainstream American religio-political groups vilify Indian-origin people for their “alien cultures,” including their religions. Within this mainstream context, different sectors of the Indian diaspora are fractured by the extent to which racism, in its intersections with other structures of marginalisation, is recognised, supported, disputed, and challenged. Diasporic feminisms in the US are reflective of these underlying intersections of race, caste, gender, class, sexuality, and religious dynamics.

Following the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s, many explicitly race-based laws and policies were rescinded. As a result, Indian migration, which had been stopped from the 1920s, became more possible from 1965. In 1960, there were about 12,000 people of Indian origin in the US (Migration Policy Institute), but the number has now risen to close to 3.9 million. The 1965 laws allowed highly skilled professionals and their families to migrate; these migrants also had a chance to apply for citizenship after a requisite waiting period. Since the 1990s, this stream has been increasingly restricted to skilled migrants who are willing to come on temporary work visas. For those deemed highly skilled, typically their immediate families can accompany them (though they are not allowed to work for pay); for others, there are no opportunities for family members to accompanying the primary migrant. “Skills” is a gendered definition, and as we discuss later, this sorting on the basis of skill levels resulted in a mostly male stream of initial migrants, followed later by dependent family members (Purkayastha 2004).

Given these histories of migration, we recognise that the ­descendants of the early 20th-century migrants, the children of the post-1965 migrants, and the migrants who are here on temporary work visas are positioned very differently within the diaspora and the mainstream. Despite these differences, Indian-origin people in this diaspora are affected, albeit to different degrees, by contemporary local to transnational conflicts related to intersecting structures of gender, religio-politics, caste, class, nationality, and sexuality. Like other parts of the world, there are many Indian-origin feminisms contending with different social challenges and justice issues. The definition of feminism we use in this paper broadly indicates these diverse struggles to dismantle hierarchies between people who are located differently in society, but with a particular consciousness of gender and intersecting marginalisation. We invite people to read a range of scholarship on the array of feminisms in this Indian diaspora.1 Here, we offer a partly biographical, intersectional account of two arenas of feminist activism from our specific locations in the diaspora in the US.

Structures of Migration and Positionality

As feminist scholars have pointed out, the positionality of narrators is an important component of their narrative. Both of us moved to the US in the early 1980s, part of the post-1965 migration, when the Asian migration ban was lifted and (only) highly skilled migrants were allowed to come to the US, followed by their families. As we—Abraham (2000), Purkayastha (2005)—have written elsewhere, the term “highly skilled” was gendered/classed: it referred to the graduates of the sciences, medicine, and engineering. In reality, this highly skilled stream consisted of those who could access higher education—socialised higher education—in India, and could access the information required to travel to a different country in the late 1960s and 1970s. While a few women and Dalit men were able to migrate within this regime, most of the Indian migrants were upper-caste Hindu males from educated families (Adur and Narayan 2017).2

Margaret Abraham represents the small number of women who came as graduate students (see also John 1996). Bandana Purkayastha typifies the stream of highly educated female migrants who got permanent residency based on their husbands’ “highly skilled” status. Both of us experienced the full weight of gendered cumulative disadvantage (Ferree and Purkayastha 2000; Purkayastha 2004).3 As we built our lives in the US, we had to pierce many glass ceilings as we reached the higher echelons of academia as full professors in Research 1 universities, as heads of departments, and as leaders of academic and professional organisations. Compared to many other academics we are now in very privileged positions: Margaret Abraham became the president of International Sociological Association (ISA), an organisation with members from 126 countries; Bandana Purkayastha became president of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), the premier sociological feminist organisation in the US. Our journeys and struggles to reach this stage—working to challenge and pierce boundaries within our professions, our communities and mainstreams—are reflected in this account. Our feminist work overlaps in two areas: our work on violence against women, and our work in academia making space for women of colour4 and challenging existing knowledge hierarchies.5 These efforts encapsulate a long process of building meaningful relationships and networks with activists, scholars, and communities at the local, national, and transnational levels, across sociopolitical hierarchies.

Building Feminist Networks across ‘Difference’

A popular stereotype in the US is that feminism is something immigrant women learn after they arrive; this stereotype was particularly strong at the time we arrived. Stereotypical ideas about “modern” and “traditional” societies, about developed and developing worlds, and the position of women qua women constructed through racist/gendered frames were widely prevalent. Neither of us fit these stereotypes since we grew up in families with strong feminists. Purkayastha’s mother and maternal grandmother were fully engaged in the Indian freedom struggle (as were her father and several uncles); her mother was particularly active, since her college days, as a member of the Forward Block party, as an oft-sought political speaker and social activist on women’s causes.6 Growing up in a highly educated but economically modest household (an outcome of the forced migration during partition), amidst women and men who were committed to gender/caste equality, Purkayastha experienced few of the hierarchies that many other Indian-origin women have described. Abraham grew up in a progressive middle-class family where feminism, and economic, political, and social issues were common themes of everyday conversation.

Even though we both had strong foundations in feminisms in India, our training in the US made us confront, consciously, the questions of our fit, as women of colour, within US feminisms. Second-wave white feminisms had begun to break some of the barriers for educated women within academia. Women’s Studies departments had begun to be established and feminist methodologies, theories, and links to activism offered us points of engagement. Black feminisms, Latinx feminisms, as well as Asian American feminisms offered ways of bringing race and class into conversations with gender (for example, Abraham 1995). Within the mainstream, by the 1980s, Indians had lobbied to be moved out of the white race category into the racial group of Asian Americans (Chandrasekhar 1982), but our fit as Asian American feminists was not automatic either. After all, the histories of different Asian-origin groups, such as the migration bans against Chinese migrants from the 1880s, severe restrictions on Japanese-origin people leading to internment during World War II, or the challenges faced by refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, did not easily fit our histories or sources of struggles. The histories of wars between Asian countries further complicated the relations across these groups. We had to work to build networks and did so by recognising the urgency to breech racist/gendered structures we encountered, and the need to create our own repositories of knowledge. The commitment to feminism brought women of different groups to write together about women’s histories, literatures, and women’s experience, in order to build imageries of resilient women and imaginaries of pan-ethnic Asian American-ness. Making Waves: An Anthology by and for Asian Women (1991), Our Feet Walk the Sky: Women of the South Asian Diaspora (1993), and Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire (1997) exemplify these early attempts.

Similar issues arose as we built networks with African American and Latinx feminists. Intersecting multiple axes of marginality are not new issues in the US, but we had to reflect on why these structures persist and on our positions and roles in the process of dismantling these structures. Another critical issue was how we would traverse histories and hierarchies among ourselves. Some of the Indian-origin community members were espousing the racist ideology that there are no structural impediments to equality for anyone in the US; their discourse, and their lack of action in protesting racism, was a baggage from which we had to distance ourselves through our actions of solidarity with communities of colour. We certainly had to battle a relatively widespread belief that “privileged Indians” were always going to act from their “model minority” positions. At the same time, as the Indian diaspora became more diverse in terms of class, caste, region, sexuality, and religion, our own positionality as earlier generation, highly educated females had to be negotiated within different community spaces with people whose experiences were very different from our own. So, doing feminism was, and continues to be, about figuring out ways of understanding, relating to, and acting as supporters and/or collaborators in diverse activism to dismantle (or, at least, consistently challenge) hierarchies emerging from intersectional structures.

Violence against Women

From the 1970s through the 21st century, a key arena of Indian-origin women’s activism has been on addressing domestic violence (as it was called in the 20th century). Decades of activism had established that violence against women (VAW) in homes was as prevalent among the relatively affluent and educated as it was among other groups. In the Indian diaspora, an unspoken reality was that Indian women were experiencing violence within their home spheres. As Abraham has written in her seminal book Speaking the Unspeakable (2000), Indian women had to both create the consciousness about this violence and organise activism against VAW. She discussed how the early South Asian women’s organisations (SAWOs) encountered a wall of resistance about publicising the violence (and the resources victims could access) within the Indian community. Many vocal male leaders were more invested in maintaining their image as high-achieving “model minority” migrants within the mainstream US (Shah 1997). Their descriptions of model families—which they claimed was an outcome of Indian culture—was part of this discourse in which women played home-based roles as mothers raising model children (Purkayastha 2002b).

Abraham discussed how the racist/gendered policies on immigrant women in the US—that placed them in the control of their husbands for acquiring their permanent residency status—intersected with patriarchal structures within families and community. Though women resisted domestic violence, even the highly educated women had few resources to make effective cases against their spouses and, on occasion, against their marital families to state authorities. “Loss of face” and putting up with abuse “for the sake of the children” acted as cultural controls to silence victims. A particular insidious aspect of domestic violence was that often these women had supported their spouses to build careers by managing and providing care work (while sacrificing their careers and economic independence). The pressure of “not breaking up a marriage because it will be a stigma affecting other women in the family in India” added additional pressures to stay silent.

A variety of women’s groups began to be organised by the 1980s to address this issue at the micro, meso, and macro levels. Their tasks included raising awareness of domestic violence, creating resources that abused women could draw upon, building networks of volunteers to set up and manage call lines to report domestic violence and get advice about the next steps, getting advocates to help lodge complaints with the police and accompany the victim to courts, and finding lawyers to litigate custody battles where young children were involved. Some of these tasks are similar to feminist activism in India (see Kumar 1993 for an overview). Indeed, many US-based Indian feminist activist groups maintained active links with urban Indian feminist activists. However, many of the specific challenges relating to legal rights, and the constant need to negotiate racist ideologies and practices, and fractures within and beyond the Indian diaspora posed different challenges for US-based VAW activism. Over the years, VAW activism in the US has expanded. Reaching out to women from South Asian countries, organisations across the country, such as Manavi, Sakhi, Asha, Maitri, Hamdard, Saheli, and Sahara, provide culturally meaningful support and shelter for abused women. They have also expanded their terrain of activism to community engagement to create violence-free communities, advocacy, and policy initiatives. Often, they seek transnational solutions with partner networks in the South Asian countries as some perpetrators simply returned to their countries of origin to evade US rulings. As part of their work, many groups work collaboratively with immigrant rights groups and workers’ rights groups to address the larger terrain of marginalisation within which violence against women festers (Das Gupta 2007).

Successes and continuing challenges: Any analysis of feminist practice to address VAW reveals successes as well as continuing challenges. The prevalence of domestic violence within different South Asian communities, and the need of survivors to reach people who understand their cultural logics necessitated women of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali origins to collaborate on the activist efforts to spread the word about women’s rights against such violence in their communities. Expanding from Indian women’s activism to South Asian women’s domestic violence activism was both a response to the need to breach nationalist divides within the US, as well as a recognition that the groups could not easily get funding unless they joined together to seek resources from the feminist organisations with greater resources. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the anti-VAW organisations were mostly white women’s organisations. Many were receptive to sharing resources, but most of these organisations were perfectly happy to rescue South Asian sisters from the excesses of their patriarchal cultures, without any commitment to addressing the racist laws that increased their vulnerability to VAW (for more on this aspect, see Das Gupta 2007). Powerful feminist groups, still battling a range of gender equity issues, did not reflect on their white privilege. For instance, as the VAW laws were being written in the US, despite lobbying by a variety of immigrant women’s groups, white women felt that adding clauses to address immigrant women’s vulnerability was not politically expedient to get US legislators’ support for a VAW bill.

Over time, the concerted efforts by women of colour—Latinx, Asian American, and African American—groups challenged this agenda. The process was based on finding allies and building bridges across multiple organisations. The success of this networking is evident as the next VAW policies included provisions for protecting women against immigrant status vulnerabilities (Das Gupta 2007). But, despite this success, some immigrant groups remained ambivalent that, in the process of seeking state-based solutions, these activitist groups were contributing to enhanced inequities. For instance, when domestic violence was defined as a felony, that is, a crime that implied deportation for immigrant men, this became an unequal consequence compared to punishment meted to native men, who would only be sentenced for the crime of violence (Abraham and Tastsoglou 2016). Further, changes in immigration laws in the mid-1990s restricted the ability of immigrants to get government-supported welfare. For abused immigrant women, this restriction meant that they could not easily find mainstream shelters to accept them, since the shelters provided temporary support to women who could access welfare provisions.

While feminist groups continued to expand the scope of VAW efforts, several other challenges emerged within the diaspora. As the shift from groups with Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Nepali identities to South Asian American groups was being crafted, many Indians assumed that all the migrants from these different countries have the “same culture.” The reality was that the presence of greater numbers of Indian women in these groups often drowned out the voices of feminists from the other national origins (Ranjeet and Purkayastha 2007). Nor was the “same culture” argument always easy to practise among women who were bringing varied historical–political–cultural legacies from different parts of India to their activism. Equally important, South Asian women’s structural location differed by countries: many Nepali women, for instance, were on visas that were different from the visas for Indian and Pakistani women who arrived in the 1970s or early 1980s. A barely conscious class, caste, and religion bias also prevailed among some groups. When some SAWOS started expanding the scope of the term domestic violence to include physical and sexual violence against domestic workers, new tensions and divisions appeared within feminist communities as some wanted to focus primarily on intimate partner violence. There were also fault lines between activists and scholars about their relative knowledge and contributions.

By the 21st century, the rise of concerted conservative religious politics among a section of Indians began to further fracture the bases of solidarity. On the one hand, South Asian women’s groups, after years of consciousness raising, had began to successfully reach out to sections of their community for money; a spirit of social service and philanthropy prompted some to donate resources to anti-VAW efforts. On the other, the rising religious assertiveness, for instance by Hindutva groups, made it more difficult to create equitable spaces for women of different religions, castes, classes, and sexualities to address VAW together as South Asian Americans. The problem is the tendency of religio-political groups to demonise other religions so that, much like many dominant white women’s groups in the 1980s and 1990s, they set themselves up as rescuers of women from communities “with bad cultures.” While some activist groups have successfully managed these contradictory trends, the point here is that some South Asian American feminists did not always examine or address their own privileges.

As immigration laws and racist practice began to target Muslims explicitly, the ability of South Asian American anti-VAW groups to rally support against this form of racism came up against new emerging Indian community tropes demonising Muslims; nor were many prominent Indian organisations on board with anti-caste activism by Dalit groups. As recorded elsewhere, these groups, particularly the Dalits, found greater support from African American and other groups for their cause (Majumdar 2009; Falcon 2016). A struggle is also underway over acknowledging lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) South Asian Americans and sexual violence (Adur and Purkayastha 2013). We continue to witness how transnational politics leads to splits and fractures as different sections of Indian–Americans support or oppose contemporary political agendas in India.

Overall, the trajectory of VAW activism is that it continues to struggle to provide specific types of help to women victimised by partner and/or family violence in the US; they work with a variety of other justice-oriented organisations, rather than their communities exclusively in order to achieve their objectives. At the same time, the US-based anti-VAW activists continue to forge more extensive, transnational platforms on gendered, raced, caste, religious, and sexual violence.

Addressing Knowledge Hierarchies

A key path of success for feminists globally has rested on their ability to change the ways in which people think about women and gendered ideologies, interactions, and institutional arrangements that make people unequal. Creating these changes requires challenging the frameworks that make such gender (intersectional) inequalities invisible. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few minority faculty, predominantly women of colour (including immigrant women) found ourselves frequently discussing the power structures and relations in our discipline, our associations, institutions, and the actors involved primarily in the context of the US, though also sometimes in transnational and global contexts. We discussed many ways in which the scholarship and work of faculty of colour seemed to remain on the margins in terms of theoretical and policy contributions. The low numbers of faculty of colour in the social sciences and humanities—where inequality and justice were frequently discussed—made it harder to sustain our contributions. We had to craft collaborations that would facilitate the changes we needed.

Knowledge hierarchies do not exist in a vacuum. In order to access the right to challenge conventional wisdoms on a subject, we needed to be positioned at “decision-making tables” and then act with our collective interests in mind. Our battles to create these spaces within our institutions included conflicts over hiring more tenure-track faculty of colour, ensuring equitable assessments once they were in academia, including tenure or promotion reviews that require national and international reviewer networks. Along with our allies, we have also worked consistently against discrimination, and sexual and racist harassment in our universities and disciplines to ensure better work–life balances for newer faculty. As we moved up the academic ranks, even as our other service responsibilities grew, we had to maintain our commitment to review many external promotion files, grant applications, and manuscript submissions to journals and presses in our subject areas to ensure that people with relevant expertise were conducting these reviews and assessments. These less visible feminist practices are important for changing some of the academic institutional arrangements through which knowledge is produced.

We both acknowledge a close network of people who constitute our lifelines and provide unstinting support for one another. We were forced to develop these networks initially because there were so few of us. The numbers have not improved radically, but there are now more of us to serve on committees, in leadership positions, and to create constellations of support. Our networks traverse ties with women of colour and white ally networks; we had to build explicitly South Asian American networks by creating and sustaining synergies across multi-country and diverse diasporic scholarships.7 Much like the hierarchies in anti-VAW organisations, South Asian hierarchies exist in academia: India and Indians remain dominant numerically and politically, and, with a few exceptions, many faculty in the other sciences, where there are larger numbers of India- origin faculty, have not been involved in social justice causes. Thus, producing South Asian scholarships—reading, quoting, citing, and collaborating—are outcomes of conscious engagement that acknowledge hierarchies within and among South Asian Americans and attempt to go beyond them (see, for instance, the South Asian American collective writings on religion edited by Narayan and Purkayastha 2009). Overall, early engagement in the terrain of struggle against racism, sexism, narrow nationalisms, and violence, with local and transnational scholarly networks, also led to the creation of the scholarship–activist platforms that helped us expand the scope of our scholarship.

Knowledge hierarchy conflicts: Three types of conflicts and negotiations shape the terrain of struggle in which we have attempted to dismantle or weaken knowledge hierarchies. First, as we have described in the previous paragraphs, making space for the scholarship of women of colour—in ways that ensure newer generations of scholars continue to enter and flourish in academia—necessitated negotiations and conflicts with dominant feminisms and non-feminist scholars. At the same time, we needed to work strategically with the larger feminist networks to shape many academic and policy directions to make our work lives more equitable. Second, challenging knowledge hierarchies mean that we have to contend with local critics. We are part of the academic generation that has been criticised by sections of the Indian diaspora, in whose opinion, we have failed to uphold India’s glory sufficiently, and debunked the Indian model minority myth (for example, see Prashad 2001 for a history). White scholars who write about South Asia were mostly immune from such disparagement, though, more recently, white scholars who write about religion have been targets of opprobrium by right-wing religio-politicians. At the same time, there has also been a steady rise of cases where mainstream out­siders have targeted faculty who teach racism, gender, sexuality and similar subjects, and complained about their teaching and writing with varying degrees of success. Most often, these are subjects that we teach.

The third type of conflict and negotiation is among feminist scholars. For both of us, the early engagements with VAW activism and writing—that is, research to fulfil the need for records and accounts that activist groups could use initially—soon expanded in scope to encompass a body of knowledge about violence and justice on a larger scale. Within the US, cycles of racist violence against communities of colour—African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans—have been an ongoing reality of the women with whom we had forged alliances. We came to bear witness about the relational nature of violence, with different individual and institutional perpetrators at local and transnational levels (Erturk and Purkayastha 2012; Abraham and Maney 2012; Abraham and Tastsoglou 2016; Purkayastha 2018). Activism by immigrant groups for human rights (including freedom from state-sponsored violence and incarceration), challenges to continued violence against racial minority groups, LGBTQ activism against sexual violence, and denials about non-gender binary persons’ rights have expanded our understanding of violence. Newer structures have emerged within and across nation states that are relevant to understanding violence today; for instance, analyses of global security regimes enable us to see newer institutionalisation of violence (Armaline et al 2015). Our challenge as feminists is to translate these understandings into scholarship so that continued focus within the global North on limited types of violence, the reliance on cultural explanations of violence against immigrant women, and limited acknowledgement of the complicity of the global North in promoting violence are challenged.

Decolonising knowledge hierarchies: In order to address knowledge hierarchies, many South Asian American feminists have been trying to decolonise and contextualise scholarship. One area is to reconceptualise violence. Here, the work of feminists of colour in the US who have written about state-sponsored violence as well as violence by powerful white groups, for instance, the work of Michelle Alexander, Carole Andersen, Gloria Ansaldua, Angela Davis, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, and bell hooks, as well as scholars and activists in India—including the work of Flavia Agnes, Uma Chakravarti, Maitrayee Chowdhury, Deepa Dhanraj, Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, V Geetha, Meena Gopal, Zoya Hassan, Mary John, Kalpana Kannabiran, K Lalitha, Nandini Manjrekar, Nivedita Menon, Gail Omvedt, and Ilina Sen—have helped expand definitions of violence at micro, meso, and macro levels.8 Indian collections such as Politics of Violence (Abraham 2002), Violence Studies (Kannabiran 2016), Rupture, Loss and Living (Lalitha and Dhanraj 2016), or monographs such as Undoing Impunity (Geetha 2016) continue to expand the conversations on violence, its precursors and aftermath, and offer opportunities and potential spaces for critical conversations with the violence literature being produced in the US by racial minority scholars (including immigrant women). At the same time, the expansion of racialised/gendered global security regimes (where nationality and religion act as the main markers of racism), and corporations supported by neo-liberal economic–political forces that control, brand and sell parts of what we considered to be our personhood, are reinscribing new layers of control and surveillance that have to be considered within contemporary discussions of intersectionality and violence (Abraham and Tastsoglou 2016; Erturk 2016; Purkayastha 2018; Sutton 2018).

In our case, these engagements with American and Indian scholarship (as well as scholarship from other nations), work in tandem to shape other arenas of scholarship. For instance, Purkayastha has been constructing a body of scholarship with her colleagues Davita Silfen Glasberg and William Armaline on the human rights enterprise in the US. Since much of the US scholarship on human rights violations is focused on other countries, these scholarly productions reinsert the role of the US in violence at home and abroad (for example, Armaline, Glasberg and Purkayastha 2015). Similarly, a series of work on migrants and human security bridge the global South and global North scholarship on migration (Purkayastha 2018). Abraham’s term as ISA’s president has included, among other efforts, the creation of a vast database—Global Mapping of Sociologists for Social Inclusion—that allows sociologists to connect their scholarships across the world. Her scholarship on violence and peace similarly expands far beyond the original focus on domestic violence in the US, bridging the global North and global South scholarships.

Intersectional framework: A critical piece of our attempts to address knowledge hierarchies is through our work on intersectionality. Abraham wrote about eth/gender/class/race structures in 1995, using the South Asian American experience to challenge scholars to go beyond narrow definitions of gender. Over the years, she has written on violence, drawing upon an intersectional framework. Using her body of work on Indians in the US diaspora, Purkayastha (2012) has explicitly pointed out the shortcomings of using the American model across the world, indicating that other forms of stratification and histories need to be considered if we are developing globally relevant theories (Patil and Purkayastha 2018). For instance, Uma Chakravarti’s work on intersectionality, or Gail Omvedt’s Dalit Visions are better able to explain the local hierarchy and conflicts among groups in Kenya than the theories using US racism models with their embedded reliance on the marking of phenotypes. Despite encapsulating more powerful theoretical ideas, the work of some of the Indian scholars does not always reach places such as Kenya, reflecting the unfinished struggle to dismantle or dilute these knowledge hierarchies.

A key structural arrangement that maintains knowledge hierarchies is that the publication worlds of the global North have greater reach than publication platforms from other parts of the world. While Indian scholars have written prolifically on many subjects, including violence, justice, and rights, these are not consistently accessible in the US. Often dominant scholars in the US will cite Indian diaspora scholars on subjects that have been discussed for decades by Indian scholars. Several Indian feminist scholars have pointed out that US-based Indian-origin scholars start to theorise, according to the frames and publication needs relevant to the US, on issues which Indian feminists are best positioned to address. In other words, who creates the knowledge, where it is published, and according to which frames, are questions that are raised within transnational Indian and Indian-origin feminist networks.9

Neither of our research agendas are primarily focused on India, but the Indian feminist questions about diaspora feminists’ positionality in sustaining knowledge hierarchies is an important point for reflection. On the one hand, it is true that their greater accessibility to the powerful global North publication outlets means that US-based Indian diasporic scholars’ publications potentially reach larger audiences. On the other, their minority position within US academia—or that their research is not considered to be of wide interest—can act as impediments to accessing some of the outlets that reach a wider audience.

However, three types of overlapping feminist practices somewhat mitigate these hierarchies. One type of practice is when diasporic scholars negotiate opportunities to showcase Indian scholarship. Purkayastha et al’s 2003 article presenting Indian gender scholarship to the audience of Gender & Society, a globally top-ranked feminist journal, is an example of presenting the work of Indian scholars and their theoretical and methodological frameworks. Another type of practice is to consistently invite feminist scholars to speak at conferences and write on subjects of their expertise (Abraham and Purkayastha 2012; Abraham and Tastsoglou 2016). The third type of practice involves centrally using Indian scholarship to challenge methodological nationalisms. For instance, Patil and Purkayastha’s (2018) article on transnational racist cultural assemblages that hypervisibilise violence in India (but not violence in the global North) draws upon historical and contemporary Indian scholarship to critique contemporary assemblages that silence Indian voices.

While these consistent practices can mitigate some of the hierarchies, other problems persist. Much like the situation of scholars of colour in the US, Dalit and other marginalised scholars have not been featured consistently over the last few decades. Consequently, our attempts to feature Indian scholarship might have the effect of shoring up the hierarchies that exist in India. A similar challenge is to prominently focus scholarship on religious minority communities or about rural women. While feminism is a project in the making, and the objective is to be inclusive, at any point in time, ­“Indian” and “diasporic Indian” are both broad categories of scholarship that reflect fractures and hierarchies of each context. Transnational links and networks only partly alleviate these hierarchies.

Teaching provides additional opportunities to disseminate Indian scholarship. Over the years, it has become easier for more privileged academics like ourselves—at universities which subscribe to expensive and extensive databases of scholarship—to more easily direct our students to read Indian scholarship like Geetha’s translation of Revathi’s (2010) narrative, or Sirkar and Jain’s publication on sexuality (2017). Our teaching now regularly, and centrally, includes pieces by feminist scholars from different parts of the globe. We can discuss Brahminical patriarchy along with white gendered/sexualised racisms in our classes. Controversies over #MeToo in India and the US can be brought into the same conversation. Graduate and undergraduate courses on human rights, gender, or immigration can draw upon the corpus of writings by Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi feminists and/or human rights scholars from the region. Writings by marginalised Dalit and indigenous scholars transform our teaching (and scholarship). Undergraduate courses on India—which used to be the preserve of white scholars—can be taught in ways that, over the longer term, facilitate the transnational attempt to address knowledge hierarchies. However, the critical issue that keeps these efforts in a self-reflective mode is our mestiza consciousness to assess the limits and possibilities of feminisms in the diaspora.

Feminism in the Indian–American Diaspora

Like other places, Indian feminism in the US reflects particular histories. Here, we have outlined two types of feminist activism, one focused on the community, the other in academia where we are positioned. As in other diasporas, feminisms in both arenas require supportive networks beyond Indian communities to challenge existing inequities and injustices. Being Indian and American, brings its challenges arising from the mix of transnational, global, and local factors that shape how our feminisms can be crafted. Racism in the mainstream and assertions of religio-politics within the community remain major challenges with which we have to contend. Marginalisation of many religious groups, caste groups, and people who assert different gender identities remain strong processes. This period in history, when there is a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiments, further complicates the spaces through which we can challenge violence. Consequently, Indian diasporic feminisms (in the US) are about working to dilute current centres of power and mitigate borders, sometimes directly, and sometimes as allies, through our actions on mitigating violence and expanding the terrain of knowledge production, hoping to shape local and transnational social justice.


1 While this is not an exhaustive list, the work by Margaret Abraham or Shamita Das Gupta on domestic violence activism, Prema Kurien or Anjana Narayan and Bandana Purkayastha on living religions, Thenmozhi Soundararajan on Dalit activism, Radhika Gajjala or Anjana Narayan on cyber lives in diasporas, Monisha Das Gupta, Sunaina Maira or Bandana Purkayastha on the post-1965 second generation, and Urvashi Vaid, Gayatri Gopinath or Jasbir Puar on sexualities can provide more details on the various types of struggles.

2 We do not use the term middle or upper class here though many migrants came from middle-class to relatively affluent families. The partition of India impoverished many families as they were forced to move to the newly defined Indian territory, including families who were already highly educated. In independent India, the availability of socialised higher education made it possible for many of these families, who now had limited economic resources, to send their children to more elite educational institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or top liberal arts and science degree-granting public institutions.

3 Devaluation of Indian degrees in the US affected both of us negatively. But, our job paths differed. Since Abraham came as a graduate student, she was hired as soon as she acquired her PhD. Purkayastha was unable to find a permanent job as a geographer (based on her degrees in India) and struggled in temporary positions till she switched to sociology. But, this switch meant losing many career-years, as she retrained and re-established herself. These gendered impediments are described elsewhere (Purkayastha 2004).

4 The term, women of colour, is widely used in the US to indicate all non-white women. It has been criticised for many reasons. First, the phrase implies that white women “don’t have colour” which is a racialised construction of reality. Second, if the term originally referred to African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, the mainstream’s tendency to lump all non-white migrants into this category, often has severe material and symbolic consequences for the native racial minorities as the immigrant “model minorities” may be selected to meet diversity hiring goals. Equally important, if women of colour also encapsulates a history of struggle against severe marginalisation, as well as struggles to build solidarity, it is not always clear whether all those who are lumped into this category understand and are willing to stand together. Nonetheless, we use this term here because it continues to be the most widely used term for organising across African American, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American groups.

5 We wish to reiterate that there are many other areas of activism in the US, including labour rights and LGBTQ activism. We chose the two areas where our work overlaps, though each of us actively supports other activist work.

6 See Purkayastha (2003) for a longer account. Purkayastha was very ambivalent about moving to the US, as were her family members who felt her education should be contributing to India and not another country. For Abraham, getting the support to study at Syracuse exemplified very high achievement. Also, religion is not our dominant identity, we are from different religious backgrounds, but from families that have people who practise different religions.

7 We do not claim to have built South Asian American networks perfectly across all differences. Instead, we trace our partial success in opening up the spaces to continue this work.

8 The scholars named here do not reflect all the important scholars in each country. Our work is informed by the work of many other scholars, including the indigenous and marginalised scholars, whose importance is better recognised in the 21st century.

9 These hierarchies are relevant across the world and have been the subject of much discussion in our international professional organisations. Here, we limit ourselves to the discussion about Indian and Indian-origin feminist scholarship.


Abraham, M (1995): “Ethnicity, Gender, and Marital Violence: South Asian Women’s Organizations in the United States,” Gender & Society, Vol 9, No 4, pp 450–68.

— (2000 and 2002): Speaking the Unspeakable: Marital Violence among South Asians in the US, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

— (2002): “Immigrant Status and Marital Violence,” Women and the Politics of Violence, T Abraham (ed), New Delhi: Shakti Books.

— (2006): Serving Limited English Proficient (LEP) Battered Women: A National Survey of the Courts’ Capacity to Provide Protection Orders Conducted by National Center for State Courts, Williamsburg, VA (Co-authored Report on NIJ-sponsored Project),

— (2010): “Globalization, Work and Citizenship: The Call Centre Industry in India,” Contours of Citizenship: Women, Diversity and Practices of Citizenship, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Abraham, M and G Maney (2012): “Transforming Place and Belonging through Action Research, Community Practice, and Public Policy: Comparing Responses to NIMBYism,” Current Sociology, Sage.

Abraham, M and B Purkayastha (2012): “Making a Difference: Linking Research and Action in Practice, Pedagogy and Policy for Social Justice,” Current Sociology, Special Issue:
Monograph Series, Sage.

Abraham, M and E Tastsoglou (eds) (2016): “Interrogating Gender, Violence, and the State in National and Transnational Contexts,” Current Sociology, Special Issue: Monograph Series, Sage.

Abraham, T (ed) (2002): Women and the Politics of Violence, New Delhi: Shakti Books.

Adur, Shweta and Anjana Narayan (2017): Stories of Dalit Diaspora: Migration, Life Narratives, and Caste in the US, Biography, Vol 40, No 1, pp 244–64.

Adur, Shweta and Bandana Purkayastha (2013): “On the Edges of Belonging: Indian American Dalits, Queers, Guest Workers and Questions of Ethnic Belonging,” Journal of Intercultural Studies, Vol 34, pp 418–30.

Armaline, William, Davita Glasberg and Bandana Purkayastha (2015): The Human Rights Enterprise: Political Sociology, State Power, and Social Movements, London: Polity Press.

Chandrasekhar, Subramaniam (1982): From India to America: Brief History of Immigration, La Jolla, CA: A Population Review Book.

Das Gupta, S (2007): Body Evidence: Intimate Violence against South Asian Women in America, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Erturk, Yakin (2016): Violence without Borders, Women’s Learning Partnership.

Erturk, Yakin and Bandana Purkayastha (2012): “Linking Research, Policy and Action: A Look at the Work of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women,” Current Sociology, Margaret Abraham and Bandana Purkayastha (eds), Vol 60, pp 20–39.

Falcon, Sylvanna (2016): Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism Inside the United Nations, Washington: University of Washington Press.

Ferree, Myra Marx and Bandana Purkayastha (2000): “Equality and Cumulative Disadvantage: Response to Baxter and Wright,” Gender & Society, Vol 6, pp 809–13.

Geetha, V (2016): Undoing Impunity: Speech after Sexual Violence, New Delhi: Zubaan Books.

John, Mary (1996): Discrepant Dislocations: Feminism, Theories and Postcolonial Histories, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kannibiran, Kalpana (eds) (2016): Violence Studies, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Kumar, Radha (1993): A History of Doing, London: Verso.

Lalitha, K and Deepa Dhanraj (2016): Rupture, Loss and Living: Minority Women Speak Post-conflict Life, New Delhi: Orient Black Swan.

Majumdar, Shweta (2009): “Challenging the Master Frame through Dalit Organizing in the US,” Living Our Religions: South Asian Hindu and Muslim Women Narrate Their Experiences, Bandana Purkayastha and Anjana Narayan (eds), Bloomfield: Kumarian Press, pp 265–80.

Narayan, A and S Adur (2018): “Virtual Activism and the Making of the Dalit Human Rights Movement,” Connexions: International Professional Communication Journal, Vol 8, pp 1–30.

Narayan, Anjana and Bandana Purkayastha (and authors in collective) (2009): Living Our Religions: South Asian Hindu and Muslim Women Narrate Their Experiences, Stirling, VA: Kumarian Press.

Sircar, Oishik and Dipika Jain (eds) (2017): New Intimacies, Old Desires: Law, Culture and Queer Politics in Neoliberal Times, New Delhi: Zubaan Books.

Omvedt, Gail (1995): Dalit Visions: The Anti-caste Movement and the Construction of Indian Identity, New Delhi: Orient Longman.

Patil, Vrushali and Bandana Purkayastha (2018): “The Transnational Assemblage of Indian Rape Culture,” Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol 41, pp 1952–70.

Prashad, Vijay (2001): The Karma of Brown Folk, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Purkayastha, Bandana (2002a): “Contesting Multiple Margins: Asian Indian Community Activism in the Early and Late 20th Century,” Women’s Activism and Globalization: Linking Local Struggles and Transnational Politics, Nancy Naples and Manisha Desai (eds), New York: Routledge, pp 99–120.

— (2002b): “Rule, Roles and Realities: Asian Indian Families in the US,” Minority Families in the US: A Multicultural Perspective, Ronald Taylor (ed), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp 212–24.

— (2004): “Skilled Migration and Cumulative Disadvantage: The Case of Highly Qualified Asian Indian Immigrant Women in the US,” Geoforum, Vol 36, pp 181–96.

— (2005): Negotiating Ethnicity: Second-generation South Asian Americans Traverse a Transnational World, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

— (2012): “Intersectionality in a Transnational World,” Symposium on Patricia Hill Collins, Gender & Society, Vol 26, pp 55–66.

— (2018): “Migration, Migrants and Human Security,” Current Sociology Monograph, pp 1–25.

Purkayastha, Bandana, Mangala Subramaniam, Manisha Desai and Sunita Bose (2003): “Gender Scholarship in India: A Partial Review,” Gender & Society, Vol 17, pp 503–24.

Ranjeet, Bidya and Bandana Purkayastha (2007): “A Minority within a Minority: Nepalese American Women and Domestic Violence,” Body Evidence: Intimate Violence Against South Asian Women in America, Shamita Das Gupta (ed), New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp 38–42.

Revathi, A (2010): The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story (translated from the Tamil by V Geetha), New Delhi: Penguin.

Shah, Purvi (1997): “Redefining Home: How Community Elites Silence Feminist Activism,” Dragon Ladies: Asian American Women Breathe Fire, Sonia Shah (ed), Boston: South End Press.

Shah, Sonia (ed) (1997): Dragon Ladies: Asian American Women Breathe Fire, Boston: South End Press.

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi (2012): “The Black Indians: Growing up Dalit in the US, Finding Your Roots, Fighting for Your Identity,” Outlook India, 20 August,

— (2014): “What It Means to be an ‘Untouchable’ in 2017: How a Dalit Woman Came to Accept Her Identity, and Then Embrace It, Elle India, 29 July, viewed on 29 January 2017,

Sutton, Barbara (2010): Culture, Violence and Women’s Resistance in Neoliberal Argentina, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

— (2018): Surviving State Terror: Women’s Testimonies of Repression and Resistance in Argentina, New York: NYU Press.

Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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