Indian Feminism: Legacy and Future

Event Report
Trisha Shivdasan

The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi conducted a Three-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on ‘Feminism: Fundamentals, Facets and Future’ from February 23rd to 25th, 2023. 

The course, spread over three-consecutive days, introduced the participants to the origins and trajectory of feminism, its contemporary and European aspects, intersectional feminism, feminist theory in India, and the intersection of law and feminism. It initiated a dialogue on the fundamentals and core values of feminist theory and encouraged a feminist consciousness within the participants. 

On the second day our third speaker, Dr. Vibhuti Patel, visiting distinguished Professor, IMPRI, continued the conversation by providing a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of feminism in the Indian context. Dr. Patel emphasized the roots of feminism in ancient Indian texts and shared significant historical examples of women who challenged societal norms and advocated for gender equality.

Historical Roots of Feminism in India

 Dr. Patel began by highlighting that feminism is not a concept imported from the West but has deep roots in Indian history. She cited examples from ancient texts like the Therigatas, dating back to 1818 BCE, where Buddhist Bhikunis expressed concerns about the lives of housewives, widows, aristocratic women, and sex workers. These texts addressed the pains of domestic duties, childbearing, and desertion by men, showcasing early feminist expressions in India.

Dr. Patel also discussed the writings of women like Mahadevi, Laleshwari, and Annabai from the 11th and 14th centuries, who challenged societal restrictions and the caste system. These women left their palace lives to lead lives of austerity and spiritualism, inspiring future generations.

Notable Figures in Indian Feminism

 The presentation touched upon key figures like Mirabai, who was seen as a rebel for her unconventional choices, and Pandita Ramabai, who challenged child marriage and advocated for girls’ rights to shape their own destinies. Ramabai’s activism led to significant changes in the age of consent, highlighting her role in the freedom movement.

Waves of Feminism

Dr. Patel discussed the waves of feminism, with the first wave gaining momentum in the 1970s. She emphasized that Indian feminists played a crucial role in shaping fundamental rights and directive principles in the Indian Constitution, underscoring the importance of articulate demands rather than passive concessions.

The first wave of feminism in India was followed by various forms of feminism, including liberal, Marxist, socialist, radical, psychoanalytical, eco-feminism, and black feminism. These movements aimed to address gender inequalities and empower women.

Contemporary Feminism

Dr. Patel highlighted the influence of globalization and liberalization in shaping contemporary feminist discourse. Economic changes in the 1990s led to a reduction in social sector budgets and an increase in state coercion. The issues of identity, culture, and their impact on gender relations became central in the 21st century.

Environmental policies, livelihood concerns, and movements like the Chipko movement and the Save Amazon movement were discussed. Climate justice and reproductive rights, as well as concerns about new reproductive technologies, were emphasized. Feminism also extended its scope to include women with disabilities and focused on issues of solidarity.

Gender Politics and Challenges

The presentation addressed various aspects of gender politics, from challenging the glass ceiling in the corporate world to advocating for a life cycle approach to healthcare. Women’s active participation in conflict zones and their resilience in the face of challenges from cultural nationalists and misogyny were discussed. The session highlighted the ongoing struggle for gender equality and social justice in India.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel’s presentation provided a deep insight into the history and evolution of feminism in India, emphasizing its indigenous roots and the significant role of Indian feminists in shaping societal change. The presentation underscored the challenges and achievements of the feminist movement and its ongoing relevance in the 21st century. It served as a valuable contribution to understanding the fundamentals, facets, and future of feminism in the Indian context.

Acknowledgment: Trisha Shivdasan is a research Intern at IMPRI.

Read more event reports of IMPRI here:

Feminist Immersion: Reflexivity, Decoloniality, and Global Impact

Sexual Violence Laws: Feminist Advocacy and Empowering Justice