2011.05 Female Activism


Indian women nowadays face numerous constraints of suppression and inequalities which are to be addressed urgently. Child brides, widow immolation, illiteracy, dowry murders, rape or female fetus abortion are some of the religious and social practices that are still deeply embedded within the society. Yet, to get a broader understanding of these realities, the society should be clearly involved, its traditional structures and construction of gender identities which have to be regarded within the light of its mythological belief and religious norms that got formed by different influences throughout history and are reflected in manifold expressions of art, poetry, literature and film industries of modern India today.

Myths and religion are powerful linkages that keep social structures together. Throughout centuries different influences, cultural mingling and various impositions of laws and ideas led to the social constructions of the Indian society today. Although it is important to highlight and create awareness that the position of women has undergone many restrictions it should be acknowledged that a solely victimization is not in every case presenting a holistic picture of reality: the power of silent and active resistance may not be underestimated. In addition an ethnocentric definition of the terms ‘subordination’ and ‘discrimination’ might itself be a misleading bias and deserves critical discussion. Even though many Indian women still have little influence on their own destiny, a noteworthy change is the continuous increase in activism through movements which play a considerable role in empowering women and their role in different society contexts.


From Hindu Philosophy we learn that there has already been goddess worshiping in the ancient Vedic culture which dates back to 2000 years BC and is understood to constitute together with other cultural influences, the origins of Hinduism today. It is handed that in the Vedic civilization men and women were considered of equal status, a tradition which is represented in the belief that the male and the female part depend on each other and only together build the principle of life. Therefore the ‘ideal’ faith is the one of Ardhanareshwa, which implies the understanding that the creator of the world is half men and half women. Even though in the Rig Veda – a early collection of hymns and allusions- the female and male part are considered of the same value, their nature is already assigned with respective gender attributes: the male part is ascribed to the idea of the human self (purusha) while the female part is attributed to nature (prakriti).

After periods of worshipping and equality the decline of the female status in society is dated back to around 500 BC. With the breakdown of great Hindu kingdoms like the Maurya, growing social renewals led to further restrictions for women. While child marriage is dated back to the 6th century it was the medieval period that represents the lowest point of women’s position in Indian history. It was this time that child marriages, Sati and bans on widow remarriages became common practices in most Indian parts. Islamic conquering brought practices such as the purdah while in Rajasthan self immolation became a custom.


An important part of India’s mythology is build by the Ramayana epic which dates back to 400 years BC and is said to have diversified up to 300 variations until today. It contemplates the story of Rama, an ideal man an heir to the throne of Ajodhya.
An interesting part of this mythology is the story of Sita, the wife of Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu a Hindu god) which followed her husband into exile and underwent a fire trial to prove her chastity. She survives the trial with no flames touching her. Sita, synonymous to “seed” in Sanskrit, is the daughter of mother earth and worshiped as goddess of fertility. The story shows that female worshipping as well as early gender constructions arise out of early myths: Sita is represented as a strong woman with ‘perfect female attributes’ (like in many other cultures equated with mother earth and fertility) and does not hold a subordinated position. Yet, as a woman she is already under the social obligation to prove herself in front of her people and to undergo respective trials.

Colonial Rule

Another important and radical influence on Indian society and the status of women was the rule of the British colonial emperors. History in these decades was written from a Eurocentric point of view and consequently led to judgments from outsiders positions, without taking into account the voices of its people. According to the historical accounts of colonial writings from the nineteenth century it was the British rule, its ideas and values that ‘enlightened’ the Indian society and therefore changed the role of women after many centuries of female status decline. Colonial writers together with Indian ‘enlightened’ historians were reviewing ancient Indian texts in order to rewrite history. It was acknowledged that there was ancient worshipping of women a long time ago, yet both colonial and Indian historian considered women as inheriting a subordinate role due to their biological attributes. Moreover ‘common’ female attributes such as ‘devoting and self sacrificing’ were claimed to exist in women behavior throughout history (Forbes 1996:1).

It is essential for the rethinking of colonial historical writing – especially in regard to gender matters- to realize that the power structures embedded in these contexts are manifold. Women were facing a subordinate role in relation to men but also in relation to the colonial system and very importantly its respective historical writing had shaped the way women were seen in the society and consequently influenced the way they regarded themselves. (Forbes 1996)


The attention towards homosexuality in Indian society was undergoing similar influences. Even though in ancient India same-sex relationships were not only approved there are references in Indian texts that judge it in diverse ways ranging from critical to celebratory. In the course of this it is essential that in Hindu thought a men who has sexual intercourse with other men is not necessarily defined as gay with a respective social classification but could rather be married to women while relating towards men. It looks like the prevailing ideal was the idea of men and women living together in marriage also for reproduction purposes and in order to maintain the principle of life. In this sense sexuality could be divided from social gender structures allowing individuals to live their orientations within these structures. It was mainly the modern idea of romantic love that changed this view, imposing the concept of heterogeneity as the only form of relationship within the social establishment of marriage. The colonial rule not only changed way of looking at women but also the social behavior towards gay and lesbian relationships. In the Victorian age homosexuality became widely implied taboo and even criminalized – structures that deeply remained in the society until today.

Women’s Agency

Since women in South Asia are facing many inequalities and discriminating structures, their respective agency should given great attention. As a matter of fact there is female activism both public and private that should not be forgotten.

Private agency

The private sphere is often underestimated for giving women a space to fight domestic oppression; still many do succeed to rebel against their situation in silent but effective ways. There are a great number of cases that show how women escape the imposed social obedience through songs, memories, sabotage or cheating. Even though it is less overarching to the broad society, this private resistance still shows women’s capacity for resistance and should therefore not be underestimated.
Yet many social orders and restrictions are not directly addressed by silent disobedience leaving a broader efficiency to fight systematic gender inequalities untouched. (Jeffery 1998: 222)

Public agency and nationalism

There are many public activities that can be mentioned as women’s activism in India. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – affiliated women’s organization is an influential movement and political agency that is led by women . Together with the Rashtriya Parishad Sangh- affiliated Rashtra Sevika Samiti and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad affiliated Durga Vahini, these three women’s organizations form the main direction of Hindu women’s (nationalist) activism. Their agencies vary from direct involvement in politics to the education of girls and women towards a Hindu nationalist state and the fostering of Hindu solidarity through social services. (Basu 1998:168) “Women’s activism has not only found expression among the movement’s orators and spokespersons but has also taken hold at the grassroots level. In the early 1990s, thousands of women became skilled in organizing demonstrations, campaigning for elections, and using arms and ammunition.” (Basu 1998: 167)

Another profound aspect of the political line that combines both women’s empowerment and nationalist ideas (in contrast to the fundamentalist Muslim movement) is the depiction of Muslim women inferiority in India, an idea that entails a general Hindu victimization in relation to Islamic influences. Since the influence of Islam is regarded to have enormously changed the position of Hindu women towards a lower position it is today blamed on Islam in general that India might be back warding in certain matters. While Hindu women stand for modernity and progress, the Islamic attitude towards women represents the opposite. To prove this position it is claimed by the BJP women’s organization that in ancient Vedic time the equality of men and women were represented through adhinarishvaka. Moreover it is said that before the Islamic conquering of India, women held equal economical, religious and social positions. This picturing of Muslim women shows parallel lines to the way Indian women were represented by colonial writers. (Basu 1998: 172f)

The Pink Saris

Sampat Pal leads the movement of the Pink Saris, a less politically but still publicly active intervention against women’s restrictions in the Indian society. After standing up from her own fate of childhood marriage and domestic violence, Sampat Pal became a leading figure for Hindu women facing the cruelties of domestic violence, sexual abuse, caste- discrimination or banishment for pre- married pregnancy. She became famous figure for giving a voice to the oppressed at a local level and standing up against male domination by publicly calling men into account for their action.


The discussion of women’s constraints and their respective agency in modern India is a very complex one including various influences from historical and cultural aspects to colonial rule. Moreover the topic has to be addressed along with the diversity and manifoldness of the Indian society. It is crucial to look at the beliefs, religion and ancient myths that manifests the society and holds structures together. The worship of goddesses attests that women in India once enjoyed great respect and equal status. Nevertheless women today rather advocate for being celebrated as human beings rather than goddesses and witches.
Today one must not forget the influences of modernization and political lines such as the BJP through which women increasingly organize, mobilize and raise their voice publicly. It is furthermore crucial to keep in mind that the discussion of the situation of women in India differs according to which women are regarded. The Indian society is much differentiated in its religious alignments and staggered by the cast system. Accordingly discriminations of e.g. untouchable women might differ from those of other casts such as the Brahmans. Moreover Hindu and Muslim women have to be regarded from a different angle because of their different customs and religious beliefs that shape their social organization.

Most likely rural and urban communities cannot be addressed in the same way. In addition it is a relative term who is oppressed and who is in the same time oppressing. Women are not only victims but sometimes actors themselves e.g. a women can be suppressed by her mother in law or damned by her own family for not agreeing with decisions imposed upon her.

Another important issue for changing women’s situation today concerns a general social and political agenda. If the status of women is to be changed on a broad ground, a respective social system has to be established in order to catch and support those women that do not want to live in the households of their husbands and thus economically depend on them. Consequently awareness raising, education and employment have to be generated by the state political program.

It is encouraging to see how women succeed to create awareness of their situation within a system that still widely denies a respective debate. Although there are many obstacles that may not be underestimated women have already reached far with active and passive, public and private resistance. Yet there is still a long way to go and further possibilities have to be provided. Women have to be onwards encouraged to stand up against inequalities and oppression. To create a space for active female empowering it is a necessity that concerns all of us, whether male or female.

Thereby not only the South Asian women and organizations are addressed. In times of globalization it is worldwide influences that create chances but also obstacles and generate a global scope of local agendas. Development, multinational corporation, economical liberalization and increasing influences of media and communication technologies imply both: the cross linkage of origins but also the global possibility for awareness and respective action.

by Rebekka Koelbl, INEX

Web Links on the topic

Women make movies. Trailer to the documentary Pink Saris

A documentary of Sampat Pal who leads the movement of the Pink Saris, a publicly active intervention against women’s restrictions in the Indian society.

Is Homosexuality a crime?

Ndtv- discussion on homosexuality debate in India. Guests:  Sujatha Rao, Director General, National AIDS Control Organization; Ashok Row Kavi, Chairperson Humsafar Trust; Fr John Edapilly, Dean of Studies NISCORT

Born to bondage

Documentary on women bondage in India

Women’s voice now. Whose honour?

Documentary about honor killing. Neha Sehgal and her students from the DAV College of Women in Yamunanagar confront the patriarchal establishment of a village.

BBC debate  2009

Debate tapping into female talent

The mundane and the mythical

Documentary by Ms Ruma Ghosh. The film attempts to explore some of the fast disappearing traditions particular to Jhabua among one of the oldest and largest indigenous groups of India.

Theatre of the oppressed

The Theater of the oppressed shows a way of expressing urgent issues in public and make the civil society aware of women’s situations. It was originally designed by August Boal and is nowadays practiced in more than 70 countries.

Further Reading

Bangladesh praised for reducing acid attacks

India’s missing daughters

Story of a sweatshop buster in Bangladesh (by Mehru Jaffer)