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Why 2017 was a significant year for feminism in India?

Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared that the word for 2017 is 'feminism'

Written by Swati Saxena |
Updated: December 28, 2017 9:39:01 am
feminism, word of the year, Merriam-Webster dictionary, most searched word feminism, #MeToo, feminism in India, gender issues, gender in India, Indian Express opinion Global conversations around the word ‘feminism’ peaked with #MeToo in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the US. (Source: Thinkstock Image)

Merriam-Webster’s word for the year 2017 is “feminism,” a top lookup for the year with 70 per cent increase over 2016. The meaning of the term has evolved from essentially, “the qualities of the female”; to social, economic and political equality of the sexes that often sees it as a movement, “organised activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”

Global conversations around the word peaked with #MeToo in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in the US, as shared stories of women harassed, discriminated, abused, and exploited poured out in the social media.

Feminism in India in 2017 centred on four themes: First, conversations around women safety and universality of abuse; second, setbacks in terms of legislations and repressiveness of the state; third, around initiatives from individual brave women and women groups ranging from petitions to protests; and lastly, through global accolades with their unique symbolic value.

India, with its own versions of patriarchy manifesting from home to outside spaces, and in forms ranging from female foeticide to rapes and murders, joined the trend and created shared spaces for listening and questioning. Raya Sarkar’s Facebook list naming and shaming predators in academia, many seniors and from elite institutions, prompted questions on lack of due process comparing the list to vigilantism or even lynching. Many defended the name-and-shame tactic as a great way of women warning each other where complaints, procedures and subsequent actions were non-existent and sometimes the only way to bring down powerful predators through guerrilla tactics such as these.

The latter argument finds many takers in a society where victim blaming is rampant, state, police and judiciary is often unfriendly and most cases go unreported for fear of shame and repercussions. The acquittal of Mahmood Farooqui on the ground that a woman’s ‘No’ was ‘feeble’ and thus it was ‘difficult to decipher… a denial of consent’ is a troubling precedent in this regard as it may transfer the onus of consent on the victim, as sexual harassment and assault goes unchecked.

Legally two more incidents were significant for feminism. The ‘Triple talaq” was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and hailed as a huge victory for gender rights. It started with Shayara Bano who petitioned the SC on the ground that the ‘triple talaq’ violated her fundamental rights and soon garnered active support of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan who termed the practice as “patriarchy masquerading as religion.”

On another note, feminism in India received a setback with the Supreme Court’s refusal to recognise marital rape, even as it recognised sex with a minor wife as illegal. The Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi declared that due to illiteracy, social customs and religious beliefs, marital rape could not be applied in India. In a country where terms of consent are poorly understood, women have little agency over their bodies and intimate partner violence is pervasive this will have serious repercussions.

The repressiveness of the state and the authorities has meant that often the onus of change shifts to women. Perhaps this is why “feminism” has evolved as a movement with agenda, organisation and means to protest. In fact, the main reason for the interest in the term feminism in 2017 was the Women’s March in Washington in January which addressed issues such as healthcare, violence, LGBTQ rights etc. and saw wide participation from politicians, rights advocates, artists and media.

Closer home, young women students of BHU demonstrated this with widespread protests when a student was shamed for being harassed. The issues encompassed rising misogyny on the campus and several discriminatory rules. Another significant feminist milestone of 2017 – the rape conviction of the powerful Dera Sacha Sauda chief Ram Rahim – can be credited to the courage of a young woman disciple in his sect whose decade long battle brought down his empire.

Given the interconnectedness of the conversations due to social media, the ubiquity of the problem and the global dynamics of feminist issues, feminism as a discourse and a movement is likely to evolve into vibrant and complex forms. India with its energetic democratic culture where women-led struggles have ranged from local grassroots issues (against sale of liquor or environmental issues like Chipko and more recently struggle for better wages by frontline health workers ASHAs and Aanganwadis), to global universal problems like sexual harassment and violence (Nirbhaya protests which led to Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013) is likely to contribute to this wave of feminism in significant ways.

Events like Manushi Chillar becoming Miss World (with her answer being about recognising the work of mothers), the Indian women cricket team finding a place in the final and Dr Swaminathan being selected as Deputy Director General of WHO will be symbolic in marking Indian women’s place in the international arena. At the same time and vitally, feminism must be about the longer-term endeavour for better health, education, safety and work for women, making issues about women mainstream by gendering policy and development, and dismantling patriarchy through repeated introspections and attacks.

Swati Saxena is an independent writer and researcher who writes on gender, health, society, policy and culture. She tweets @SwatiSaxena1231

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