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The F-Word lives
Feminism in India has never been a homogeneous monolith. From the Chipko movement to pushing through the domestic violence act, from Left inspired activism to the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the "woman question" has been raised in various unconnected ways, each making the gender perspective matter.
A young girl's refusal to marry into a family that didn't have a toilet at home is as much a bold expression of the women's issue in this country as is a Muslim girl's insistence on wearing a hijab as a symbol of her identity.
At a time when NGOs and community-level work seem to have dulled the feminist's edge, the divergence of actions is growing in new ways. Two distinct threads have emerged themed on freedom and dignity but so different you could miss the connections.
Urban feminism is young, privileged, questioning and demanding. "We fool ourselves. It's easy to pretend one leads an empowered life because one is educated, has money and can travel abroad, " says Chennai-based feminist poetjournalist Sharanya Manivannan. Similarly, "We have the freedom to work, travel and commute but there's such a mental strain to make it happen. There's no sense of feeling safe in your body, " says Anindita Sengupta, creator of website 'UltraViolet'. "Contributions to our site made me realise that a space was necessary for the middleclass city woman to express, communicate. "
Online is the urban feminist's battlefield, best showcased by the Pink Chaddi campaign inspired by a Shri Ram Sene threat to disrupt Valentine's Day celebrations in 2009. "The Pink Chaddi campaign talked of an issue that affected women in cities. Who has the time to march on the street?" says the Mumbai based 34-year-old Sengupta.
"The city woman has her own problems. She is dissociated from the older form of activism. Traditional women's groups would organise protests for causes like say garment workers' rights. But it doesn't connect with the urban woman. But look at the response Pink Chaddi got: an issue directly affecting them, from college kids to older women. " Sexual harassment is the single largest issue for urban feminism, feels Sengupta, followed by domestic violence and the 'superwoman' complex. "We still grapple with marriage-motherhood : the traditional roles, " she says. Sharanya says she is proud to be a feminist who focuses on the "disconnect between financial freedom and social restrictions". "Strangers feel it's perfectly normal to ask me about marriage.
They think I owe them an answer, " says the 26-year-old currently writing on the negotiations women need to engage in. Middle-class values are inherently patriarchal so education, financial freedom don't make "automatic markers of empowerment", she says. Her feminism deals with fighting "violations, invasions on a daily basis".
In the second thread in a similar search of the feminist within and to create their very own space are Muslim women's organisations, the sixyear-old Bhartiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) and an older Mumbai-based Muslim Women's Rights Network at the forefront.
With 25, 000 members across 12 states and an annual membership fee of Rs 5, BMMA is countering Muslim male-dominated forums and "challenging the notion that Muslim women are voiceless victims, " says Lahore-based feminist Nida Karmani. The need to organise women's groups rose after the Gujarat riots. "Till then, it was about individual Muslim women activists. The sexual violence that Muslim women faced in Gujarat, their burden of communalism made us realise that even women's organisations would not take up these issues, " says BMMA's founder member Zakia Soman. Muslim women deal with a "double exclusion", she says. "Patriarchy within the community and marginalised in the feminist movement. You need to have lived that life to face the challenges. " Religion is the cornerstone for BMMA. "Women are denied rights given by the Koran. Communal violence leads to more restrictions on women and at the same time there is no proper understanding of triple talaq or polygamy. How many Muslim men bother about women's rights?" says Zakia, who pushes to "create a progressive voice. " "Otherwise, only emotive issues get raised. Not substantial issues like education or economic empowerment. "
Bangalore-based Ruksana Hassan of the New Dawn Rehabilitation Trust says her feminism is based on religion and focussed on the purdah system. "No-one talks of crimes behind the burkha. The character assassination if she goes without it, and what she suffers behind the veil. "
Away from the mass build-ups of yesterday's banner-bearing women's movements, today's feminism seems to be working one woman at a time in different stages of her life.
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