The history of the relationships between women and power, women and equality, and women and justice in India has been more complicated than the countries in the Global North. Though the feminist movement in India shared certain basic similarities in its goals with the movements in the rest of the world; given the heterogenous nature of the Indian population, it would be erroneous to equate Indian feminism with Western feminism. Indeed, though scholars do divide the developments in the movement into three distinct phases, those phases do not coincide totally with the three waves of feminism prevalent in the West. The relationship between Indian and Western feminism is complicated because the disparateness and divergency of the Indian experience necessitate that there be the existence of multiple patriarchies, leading to the manifestation of multiple feminisms. Feminism in India is not a theoretical monolith and continues to be dynamically influenced by the transformations in society, culture, collective and individual consciousness, and action. In fact, it is Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s opinion that it was men who initiated the Indian feminist movement that women later joined. Thus, even taking into cognisance the various oppressive patriarchal structures in which women negotiate their access to their entitlements as human beings – be it the family, religion, kinship, caste, market and the State – it is difficult to reduce the Indian feminist experience to a male versus female dichotomy, where the former suppresses the latter. Though patriarchy is an enduring and significant hierarchy, the realities of Indian women are affected by other relational and personal hierarchies within the family or the peer-group that are more insidiously connected to patriarchy. Given the complexities of the Indian feminist experience, this article will first attempt to summarise the various stages in Indian feminism while analysing their relationship to the three waves of Western feminism. In doing so, it will also discuss the various issues and legislations that affect women in India. Finally, it will examine the recent declaration by the Chief Justice of India that it is now time for a women Chief Justice and the landmark judgement by the Indian Supreme Court that all women officers will be permitted to request Permanent Commission in the Army, against the backdrop of the historical evolution of the feminist movement in India.
The First Phase
The Indian feminist movement may broadly be divided into three phases. The first phase can be situated between 1850 and 1915 in the pre-independence era as a social reform movement that emerged with the rise of bourgeois society and the new perspectives that accompanied that. This society was populated with Indian intellectuals educated with the values of Western liberalism –equality, justice and liberty – which expanded those ideals to strive and eradicate the social evils besieging women. The reformers included individuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore, and Keshav Chandra Sen. Though the movement was not homogeneous, and there were variations in terms of the ideals and the remedies, their basic objectives were the same and were tempered by the hegemony of colonial rule pervading beyond the market and polity into personal life. Though the Indian intellectual elite were deeply influenced by the values of Western liberalism, they were also resolved to resist the suppression of the Raj, thus bringing to the early movement, K.N. Panikkar’s ‘cultural defence’. This paradoxical ‘cultural defence’ had three major outcomes. The first was that the Western ideals of rationalism imbued the Indian reformer with the realisation that societal progress is essential to foster the spirit of nationalism. Holistic progress could not occur if the women in Indian society were relegated to backwardness and social debilitation through deeply unfair practises like polygamy, child marriage, sati and prohibition of widow remarriage.
Thus, along with casteism and illiteracy, these were also other impediments to progress. These reformers worked to rid Indian society of all these societal evils through legislative, political and educational reforms – efforts which would also serve to benefit women. Eventually, all these led to the formation of several regional organisations like Pandita Rama Bai’s Sharda Sadan in Poona (1892), Maternity and Child Welfare League in Baroda (1914), Mahipatram Rupram Anath Ashram in Ahmedabad (1892), and Bhagini Samaj in Poona (1916). Another outcome was that though the reformers tried to create a new rational-liberal ethos, the effort to defy the colonial rule also ensured that these movements were rooted deeply in Indian tradition and culture. While this may have been necessary to keep secure their sense of Indian identity, it also meant that the reform movement could not radically oppose the existing structure of Brahminical patriarchy (indeed, not acknowledging patriarchy or challenging gender-based power relations at all) that infiltrated through Indian history and traditions. It meant that these reforms were not led by women independently. Instead, they were supposed to be passive recipients of humanitarian efforts of their Western-educated fathers, brothers and husbands, in order to be constructed into the ideal Indian woman who is both rooted in tradition but educated in Western ideals, so that they may be useful to the newly emerging Indian elite. Indeed, the bolstering of women’s education was for these reasons, not for the emancipation or equality of women, though it did provide a secular space for growth and deliberation. The third outcome of this wave of cultural revivalism was that women became symbols that were emblematic of both tradition and progress, and the space afforded to women was not of an equal but of an abstractionist ideal. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath that views the nation as a mother-goddess both protecting and needing to be fiercely protected by the army of militant male santans (children), is quite illustrative of the way that the first phase of the movement viewed women – as recipients, as conceptual ideals to inspire revolutionary consciousness in men, as repositories of tradition and advancement, but never as equals. Indeed, though they dealt with the issues that affected women, they did not question the causes for the same.
The Second Phase
The second phase of the movement (1915 – 1947) arrived with the formation of the Women’s India Association (1920), National Council for Women in India (1920), and the All India Women’s Conference (1926), which arose out of the regional associations formed in the first phase. This strong associational engagement was also reinforced by Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation and Civil Disobedience Movements that encouraged the en masse participation of women from different spheres of life. The introduction into active political participation also led to the formation of women-only organisations like Sarala Devi’s Bharat Stree Mahamandal in Ahmedabad, which later expanded across India in Delhi, Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad and Amritsar. While these organisations were, to an extent, formed due to Gandhi’s steadfast involvement of women in the nationalist movement, they also expressed a large degree of autonomy and control of the narrative. The fact that these associations were solely constituted of women also provided them with a space to discuss the issues of the home and public life that they would otherwise be hesitant to, including purdah and its harassment of female education and empowerment. Still, it would be inaccurate to discount Gandhi’s role in this phase of the movement. His notions of political engineering and mobilisation of the masses led him to understand that women were an essential component of the freedom struggle. His ideas of swaraj and ahimsa did have soteriological promise for women, especially because they emphasized self-reliance, freedom and unity, and it allowed women the opportunity to find dignity outside the home-realm in public life. This was also augmented by the fact that the issues of khadi and salt were deeply personal ones. They were to do with clothing and food, sewing and cooking – both of which were realms traditionally occupied by women. When these issues were brought into the public fora, it also led to the creation of an opening where the private issues concerning women could be made political, could be thrusted outside the home into public politics. This was why women joined the Civil Disobedience Movement in droves, which began by a procession of five thousand women led by Lado Rani Zutshi and Parvati Agarwal in Lahore (1930), and another in Madras by Durga Bai Deshmukh. This was also why numerous women from urban and rural areas marched in the Salt March with Gandhi. The first two phases led to a large degree of empowerment and emancipation for women and reinforced a strong basis for associational engagement and organisational discipline, both of which became mainstays of the Constitution of the newly independent India. However, these movements were still guided by men, and though women came to fore into public political leadership, it was often because the male leadership was incapacitated or imprisoned and were unable to hold the reins of the freedom struggle. Until 1947, therefore, the women’s movement was still bereft of the total autonomy of women.
The Third Phase
The third phase (1947 – present), consists of three sub-phases. The first, situated just after India won her independence, from 1947 to the 1960s, was a period of accommodation. The newly-independent India was deeply troubled by the aftermath of colonialism, and there existed in society, deep divisions that were manifestations of that exploitation. Despite these struggles, there was an attempt by the framers of the Indian Constitution to create a nation that treated men and women equally. This part of the third phase, as well as the very first phase (1850 -1915) could somewhat be equated to the first wave of Western feminism, where there was a conscious acceptance of the formal and legal recognition of the inherent equality of both the sexes.
Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution necessitate that the State treats all individuals, regardless of sex, as equal and prohibits any discrimination on those grounds, as Article 15(3) also empowers the State to make special provisions to protect the interests of women. Article 16 provides for the equality of opportunity in employment or appointment to any State offices, which have led to the policies for women in Panchayats and Municipalities in Articles 243 D (3) and 243 T (3). Article 39 requires that the State institute policies towards assisting both the sexes to have the right to secure adequate means of livelihood, and equal pay for equal work. Article 42 also directs the State to ensure humane conditions of work for women, which has led to legislation such as the Maternity Benefit Act (1961, amended in 2017). It also formalised the State’s intervention into the private issues of marriage, divorce, adoption, and guardianship that prohibited the unequal and unfair treatment of women through – legalising inter-caste and inter-religious marriage (Hindu Code Bill, 1955-56, Special Marriage Act, 1954), criminalising child marriage (Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006) and dowry (Dowry Prohibition Act, 1961), and providing equal guardianship rights (Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956). Though this phase did formally recognise the equality of women, the next sub-phase (1970s – 1991) was a period of economic crisis, stagnation, rising prices, and general discontent in rural and urban areas, that further complicated the feminist movement. In this phase, as well as in the second phase (1915 – 1947), connections may be made to the second wave of Western feminism where associational organisation was bolstered through bodies like the Shramik Mahila Sangathan (1971) and the Progressive Organisation of Women (1973-74); mass mobilisation autonomously led by women occurred in incidences like the anti-price movement (1973), and the new women’s movement (1970s); and women across class and rural-urban divides mobilised at grass-root and national levels to combat personal issues made political like the division of housework, exploitation of Dalit women, rape, and dowry deaths, through the formation of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the National Commission of Women, Joint Women’s Program etc. This period was also marked by the United Nations Commission of Women’s Towards Equality Report (1974) that was operationalised though a blueprint of a national plan of action that would, through each Five Year Plan, work to address issues of special relevance to women, such as health, family planning, education, nutrition, employment and social welfare. Though this phase was also quite formal, there was an increased associational mobilisation, and the full-fledged entry of women into the organised and unorganised workforce. The third sub-phase (1991 – present) is located in the era of globalisation, liberalisation and privatisation, that set into motion large-scale societal transformations that made possible the social and economic mobility of women, and their equal engagement with the workplace. This sub-phase, similar to the third wave of Western feminism, brought to the fore issues of gender and patriarchy, systematically agglomerated both public and private concerns of women into active political and civil society-based participation, and located personal empowerment as the origin of social empowerment of women. As women became more integrated into the workforce, legislations like the Vishakha Guidelines (1997), the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013) were passed to mitigate the specific impediments of women in the office.
As it became more and more ‘respectable’ for women to be engaged in the public workforce, the ideal of the New Woman – independent, self-reliant and empowered – is becoming the accepted norm in modern Indian society. Several obstructions do exist, and the condition of women in India still leaves a lot to be desired, as there are almost daily incidences of rape, murder and honour killings meted out to women both in urban and rural areas. Simultaneously, sexual harassment and general inequality is still deeply prevalent in the social patriarchal consciousness indifferent to formal recognitions of equality. However, it has to be admitted that the financial independence that has accompanied the third sub-phase, as well the revolutions in the internet, technology and communication, has created a supportive environment in which women feel able to discuss, deliberate, represent and fight for the issues that affect their personal and public lives, and are able to form communities across borders to aid them in the same. When talking about women and power in India, as important as it is to consider the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts calling for reservations of seats for women, it is equally essential to bear in mind the online communities and movements that have occurred, led by empowered and independent women, freely discussing their issues. Indeed, some feminist scholars believe that the online platform has brought into being a fourth wave of feminist activism globally, where women all over the world, across different social realities, are able to proudly build and lead micro-rebellions autonomously. A good example is the widespread success of the #MeToo movement that has shaken the foundations of institutional sex and gender-based abuse and brought to the fore voices that were previously silenced.
Chief Justice Bobde’s statement, as well as the decision of the Supreme Court, points to further successes of the feminist movement, but it also begs the question – why was it necessary? The fact that these issues still need to be deliberated and publicised entails that the equal rights of women are still not implemented in the formal sphere, and both the Judiciary and the Army still, at some level, subscribe to patriarchal norms. On April 16, 2021, the Chief Justice of India declared that it is time for a woman Chief Justice. It is unfortunate that in the list of 48 Chief Justices since 1950, India has never had a woman Chief Justice, and that there have been only eight women Supreme Court Judges since Independence. It is also unfortunate that when questioned about the clear inequity in number, the Chief Justice’s observation was that there is no need for an attitudinal change in the Collegium to ensure greater representation of women, even as Advocate Sneha Kalita (Supreme Court Women Lawyers Association) told the bench during a hearing to allow meritorious women to seek appointment for judgeships in the High Court, that the representation of women in the higher judiciary is “abysmally low” at 11.04%. Responding to the questions by the media, the Judiciary has made statements saying that women are considered for every appointment by the collegium and were just incidentally not selected, with Justice Bobde declaring that women lawyers deny appointment due to domestic and child-rearing responsibilities. These statements are deeply immature and rooted in patriarchy. The Judiciary is charged with protecting the formal recognition of the equality of the sexes through equitable socio-politico-legal arrangements.
Hence, it is a matter of concern that utilising those legislations to pretend that gender discrimination does not exist within its ranks, while also making apparently progressive statements. The Army is still considered to be a generally masculine realm and profession, even as women across the Army, Navy and Airforce perform with capacities and capabilities equal to their male counterparts. The Supreme Court’s decision on 25th March 2021, followed by the Defence Ministry’s formal sanction letter ordering the Army and the Navy to consider granting Permanent Commission for eligible women officers and to endorse the inclusion of women in positions of command, is a welcome step in the right direction. The two-judge Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices DY Chandrachud and MR Shah declared that the Army’s selective Annual Confidential Report (ACR) and the delayed enactment of the medical fitness criteria is discriminatory to women officers. The medical fitness rules that require women officers to match the lowest merit of a male officer in the SHAPE-1 criteria, are fundamentally unfair to women, with the Justices terming them “irrational’ and “arbitrary”. It was also the bench’s opinion that such a system of evaluation has the consequence of psychologically and economically injuring women officers in the Short Service Commission, as they are not able to access either the benefits of a Permanent Commission, nor the satisfaction of being treated as deserved by their obvious merit. Though the Delhi High Court in 2010 awarded the access to Permanent Commission to all women officers in all branches, that order did not apply retrospectively to women serving in Short Service Commissions before that date. The recent judgement, requiring that the Army consider the granting of Permanent Commission for women officers within a month and granting the same within two months, improves the situation for all women officers. There are complexities to deliberating the equality of the sexes in the armed forces, but there is no reason why the choices of motherhood or spouse-hood automatically discredit meritorious women officers from the grant of Permanent Commission. Indeed, it is in these circumstances that the personal must become the political.
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