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Indian Women and Protest : An Historical Overview and Modern Day Evaluation

India is a vast and complex capitalist society. Said to be the largest liberal democracy in the world with a population of over 1 billion, India is not easy to assess. Viewed through a western perspective it can often seem an impenetrable place. Often we see the Indian woman cast as a victim of patriarchal and religious control (Chatterjee : 1989). Images of instances of ‘sati’ and stories of mass foeticide have helped form in the western mind the stereotypical ignorant and backward Indian women (Jeffrey & Basu : 1998). However there is a ‘rich history linked to the social reform movements’ that were taking place in India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (1999 : 3). This history has a direct link to the women of today and in this essay we will show how the Indian women’s movement is a vibrant and complex movement that includes millions (Ray : 1999), yet is also a diverse and often of a contradictory nature (Desai : 1996). We will show how the movement varies according to geographical area, how individual organisations are run along differing ideological perspectives and how they are tackling the many problems that Indian women face.

Therefore in order to evaluate the position of women in India today it is necessary to first look at some of the fundamental changes that occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ; in particular the nationalist and independence movement. These movements and the changes they brought about in India profoundly altered women’s standing in society.

It can be said that the evolution of the Indian women’s movement in the nineteenth century grew out of a cultural and nationalistic response to the British colonialists condemning of the treatment of women as barbaric and directly connected to Indian religious practices (Chatterjee : 1989). It was the colonialist’s contention that the traditions of Indian religions accounted for the suppression of women, not their social or economic condition. This led nationalists to take up the women’s cause and frame it in the wider context of an attack on Indian tradition in general. This they did by drawing the distinction between ‘ghar’ and ‘bahir’, or the ‘home’ and the ‘world’ ; the dichotomy used to divide the inner spiritual world and the outer material world. Chatterjee (1989) interprets this dichotomy as a way of maintaining the positive elements of western materialism ; economic practices, good governance, rationality, science, etc, with the higher, spiritual nature of Indian culture ; the identification of traits that are distinctively national.

This dichotomy helps us to understand how women’s gender roles were redefined within the nationalist’s political project. Women became protectors of the spiritual domain, the home or ghar.

Education of women became a popular idea in India (amongst the higher castes at least) in the early nineteenth century (Patel : 1998) [1]. This was done in the context of the nationalist movement as it was seen as desirable that women became educated in their own language, and desirable that they could achieve a superiority over western women, women of the preceding generation and over women of the lower classes (Chatterjee : 1989). This gave the women of the higher classes and castes a sense of freedom and self-emancipation. This, however, was part of the dichotomy that Chatterjee (1989) identified and in fact led to a new form of oppression.

This new form of oppression can be seen as imprisoning the women in a ‘nonactivist and nontransformative’ state, whose superiority over all others meant she now embodied ghar and the ‘unchanged domesticity in an age of flux’ (1998:93). This transformation of the women to this new elevated position in Hindu society restricted them to this newly defined gender role. This role was to play a crucial part in right-wing politics in the future.

It was around the 1970’s that the contemporary women’s movement began to be more radical and active, especially against the Indian state who for a time declared a state of emergency which led to the repression of all political and progressive groups, not just women’s (Ray : 1999). This repression led to a fight back by women’s organisations which greatly increased their scope and power. Today issues are fought over a large spectrum of issues including ; union rights, abusive partners, the rights of ‘dalit’ women (the lowest caste in the Hindu religion), worker’s rights, sexual assault and much more (Ray : 1999). It is not just left-wing and progressive causes that are fought over by women, but right-wing issues too.

Hindu nationalism, the kind of nationalism that led to the new form of oppression that Chatterjee (1989) described, still has a large say in women’s issues in India today. Gender symbolism has been used by the modern Hindu nationalist movement in much the same as the nationalists and anti-colonialist’s of the nineteenth century did, with the crucial difference, however, that several female leaders now espouse renunciation and violence as a part of their imagery (Sarkar & Butalia : 1995). Amrita Basu uses the example of three Hindu women in Sarkar & Butalia (1995) to highlight how sexuality and violence have been used within the women’s movement. Vijayraje Scindia, Uma Bharati and Sadhvi Rithambara, members of Hindu nationalist parties and leaders within their associated women’s organisations, have all declared their celibacy and are known as ‘sanyasins’. In India, as Mahatma Ghandi illustrates, renunciation exercises enormous symbolic and iconic imagery. This image of the sanyasin heightens their ability to reach out and unify diverse sectors, different castes and classes within Indian society. Scindia, Bharati and Rithambara have been able to do this with great success as they are seen as beyond moral reproach.

However this elevation of the individual through sexuality gives women the power to enter political debate with religious symbolism, muddying the waters of the Indian states already shaky secular status. This extension of the dichotomy of ghar and bahir, and the empowering affect the ‘protective inner sanctum of the home’ (1995 : 162) has on Hindu women enables them to attack politicians, Muslims and the secular state, often in a violent way. The assertion of female dominance over Muslim men has led to widespread violence against them. Propaganda from the right has helped build up the caricature of the Muslim man as attacker of Hindu women and therefore attacker of all Hindu’s. It is the case that this violence is an example of the right-wing Hindu movement’s abilities to co-opt women’s issues in the name of their own causes.

Tanika Sarkar in Jeffrey & Basu (1998) relates this to intercommunity strife and conflict, a feature of Indian life that the Hindu Right has sought to stoke through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. The Indian women, then, became a symbol of the whole Hindu community and ‘has emerged as crucial mobilizing impulse, since much of the violence was composed around allegations of abductions by Muslim criminals’ (1998 : 97).

The Indian woman is not, however, defined wholly by the right’s attempts to appropriate them. Many millions of women are engaged in a variety of protests against such gender distinctions as ghar and fight many other battles, small and large. Before we detail some of these battles we must first look at how these battles arise and why.

In India it seems that the types of protest that occur are very much dependent on the locale. Different parts of India seem to produce different types of protest from women. Raka Ray (1999) identifies the alternate forms of protest that occur in Bombay and Calcutta, and claims that this is due to the different ‘fields’ in which women’s organisations operate. Ray (1999) draws on Bourdieu and Wacquant’s (1992) ideas that organisations are embedded to their field, acting not as autonomous entities but as organs that are attached to the field in which they originated and its social relations. This can be can be either an antagonistic or complementary relationship between organisation and field and therefore of particular interest to our analysis of women’s social movements.

For example Ray (1998) [2] claims that in Calcutta there appears to have been fewer organisations set up by women concerning women’s issues than in Bombay. However this is only a superficial appearance as it is because the organisations in Calcutta operate around issues that are not specifically feminist or gender related and therefore receives less international recognition. The issues that women in Calcutta focus on are not said to be specifically women’s problems ; electoral reform, water issues, electricity issues, etc. These concerns affect women but are not gender focussed. In Bombay however women are involved in gender related issues far more. These issues concern violence towards women, sexual harassment, contraception, etc, and are all said to be feminist issues that are explicitly a concern of women.

The differences in issues in the two cities can be explained by Ray’s (1999) concept of differing fields. What this distinction also does is help outline that women in India are involved with far more than the traditional, feminist, gender related issues. This widening of the spectrum in which women operate opens up to us how women in India today are empowering themselves in all aspects of society. Ray (1999) outlines two different fields in which women operate ; the ‘political’ field and the ‘protest’ field.

The ‘political’ field is said to be occupied by the state and mainstream parties, and are often working within the already established order. ‘Protest’ fields operate within the political fields but are often in direct opposition with those in power or those contending for power within the political field. These fields both have historical and cultural roots in the locale they are situated in and therefore so do the movements that arise from these fields. So the issues that are seen as important in Calcutta are important because they are of particular interest to women in Calcutta. Ray (1999) makes the point that Chafetz and Dworkin (1986) associate these differences with demographic differences such as family size, age at marriage, etc. These can be said to directly determine the type of protest that a women’s organisation may take up because it can, among other things, influence the amount of free time women have, their economic position and their need to be part of the labour workforce.

So we see that in India the women’s movement can differ dependent on the field in which they are located. Also we can say that we must not limit what issues we assume to part of the women’s movement and that traditional gender defined issues should not monopolise the whole women’s movement. Although feminist enlightenment has aided the women’s movement, we should be wary of delineating it as purely a feminist movement.

Protest by women in India against oppressive conditions comes in many forms. Today the women’s movement ‘exists in a highly decentralized form with hundreds of organizations in both urban and rural areas throughout the country’ (1999 : 4). This description furthers our claim the wide breadth that movement encompasses. How do we define what is part of the Indian women’s movement ? As Patricia Jeffrey (Jeffrey & Basu : 1998) points out, female resistance to oppression can be found in many places and in many forms ; the excessive salting of meals, the singing of songs to remember injustices and comfort others, derision of husbands to friends and family behind his back, etc. These protests may seem trivial but they show the Indian women to be far from the compliant, ignorant person that she is often painted as in the west.

Desai (1996) [3] shows us that the Indian women’s movement has become more affective by distinguishing between national and local level organisation. Through autonomous, flexible and informal structures and collective types of organisations the Indian women’s movement has been able to achieve in both political and cultural spheres : National organisation and collective work with other groups to achieve political goals and local successes through initiating collective responsibility in cultural matters. Desai (1996) points out that the flexibility of women’s groups has enabled more successes and is being copied internationally. This dispels the notion that gains can only come nationally through bureaucratic structures, the Indian women’s movement has shown that through cooperation and consensus building great successes can be achieved.

This is supported by Bush (1992) [4] in his study of the Indian states response to and dealings with issues of domestic violence. When the state recast the problem of violence as a social issue it had the affect of providing protection against violence but no actual empowerment. This led to only superficial successes. This study points out that the institutionalisation of women’s movements may lead to diminished effectiveness. Therefore the more open, autonomous form of organisation can be more beneficial to the Indian women’s movement. Whilst Ray (1999) insists that no women’s organisation can have complete autonomy from their field of operation, their history, etc, we can say that these groups have a large degree of autonomy concerning outside political influence, thus showing the large amount of groups operating in a protest field.

We can conclude then that whilst the Women’s movement in India is an energetic and modern movement, influencing over social movements both nationally and internationally, there are still many problems to confront. Particularly the inversion of feminist values by right-wing groups and the problem of defining what exactly women’s rights should constitute : The narrowing of feminist values. In this essay we have shown that the Indian women’s movement is diverse and that women in India today are involved in redefining their own gender roles. Indian women today are far from the ignorant, oppressed stereotype perceived in the west. They in fact are active in both an individual and collective approach to organisation, and are centrally engaged in transforming their own lives.


— Bush, D. (1992) ‘Women’s Movements and State Policy Reform Aimed at Domestic Violence against Women : A Comparison of the Consequences of Movement Mobilization in the U.S. and India’ Gender and Society Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), pp. 587-608

— Desai, M. (1996) ‘Informal Organizations as Agents of Change : Notes From The Contemporary Women’s Movement in India’ Mobilization : An International Quarterly Volume 1, Number 2 / September 1996

— Jeffrey, P. and A. Basu ‘eds’ (1998) Appropriating Gender, Great Britain : Routledge

— Patel, I (1998) ‘The Contemporary Women’s Movement and Women’s Education in India’, International Review of Education Vol. 44, No. 2/3

— Ray, R. (1999) Fields of Protest, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press

— Ray, R (1998) ‘Women’s Movements and Political Fields : A Comparison of Two Indian Cities’ Social Problems Vol. 45, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 21-36

— Sarkar & Butalia ‘eds’ (1995) Women & Right-Wing Movements, London : Zed Books Ltd


[1International Review of Education Vol. 44, No. 2/3, Social Movements and Education (1998), The Contemporary Women’s Movement and Women’s Education in India, Ila Patel.

[2Social Problems, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Feb., 1998), pp. 21-36 Women’s Movements and Political Fields : A Comparison of Two Indian Cities
by Raka Ray

[3Mobilization : An International Quarterly Volume 1, Number 2 / September 1996, Informal Organizations as Agents of Change : Notes From The Contemporary Women’s Movement in India by Manisha Desai

[4Gender and Society, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Dec., 1992), pp. 587-608.
Women’s Movements and State Policy Reform Aimed at Domestic Violence against Women : A Comparison of the Consequences of Movement Mobilization in the U.S. and India
by Diane Mitsch Bush

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.