Indian Women in the Public Sphere

Lianne Oosterbaan

Beyond the Private World is an edited volume with a focus on the struggle of Indian women for access to public space and shows through narratives how women address gender inequality through their efforts of struggle and movements. Although the title and introduction of the volume suggests the focus is on India as a whole, the actual focus throughout the different chapters is limited to India’s north-eastern state West-Bengal.  

This edited volume is nicely structured, starting with chapters about pre-modern India, followed by chapters on modern India and chapters on empowerment and change, and closing with chapters on breaking with tradition before the conclusion of the volume. This well-chosen structure clearly shows women’s changing position in Indian society over the last 15 centuries. This volume’s main contributions are to help understand how women’s position is a continuously changing process directly influenced by powerful and economically well-off sections of Indian society. The volume also shows (in chapter 7) that access to the public space is not always liberating for every woman, a very important realization.
The first chapter, which is also the introduction, is written by the editor, Subrata Bagchi, in which he argues that India’s focus on change and the transition towards modernity has influenced women’s position and gender relations. The grip of patriarchy and tradition (ideas of which are also re-defined by nationalists) on ideas of feminine virtues is very strong and does not give women a place in the public sphere, despite women’s best efforts. Women have to struggle not only for the public space itself, but also against restrictions put on them by family, social taboos and the inviolable norms of private life.
Chapter 2, by historian Anita Bagchi, discusses the position of Hindu women in the public sphere during different periods within the 6th century. Hindu texts elaborately discuss a person’s duties and responsibilities throughout the different stages of life, in which the idealization of women is always connected with the home, care for the family and the complete devotion of women towards men in such a way that the subordination and submission of women is not immediately clear. This inequality between men and women within the home are at the base of inequality between men and women in general. Chapter 3 is written by Radhika Seshan, also a historian, and she focusses on the relation between religion as social structure and women’s (transforming) position in society through the discussion of three women saints. Another historian, Farhat Nasreen, wrote chapter 4, in which she discusses the status of elite Muslim women and their participation in politics in medieval India. The re-interpretation of the Koran time and again has led to a lessened status of Muslim women. Nasreen writes that “the ratio of power held by any group or class is directly proportional to its economic and political strength”. This is not a new observation, but nevertheless a very important one considering that women make up the majority among the poorest populations in India.
Chapter 5, written by Chhanda Chakraborty and Subrata Bagchi, focuses on contemporary Hindu women whose lives are arranged according to family norms and regulations and the movements women led and/or joined for women’s rights to education, political participation, and employment. This chapter is an important contribution to the volume, mostly in acknowledging that even Hindu women are not one homogeneous group, but that there is a lot of diversity among them and so are their needs, efforts, and struggles. What the authors in this chapter excellently describe is that even though women have rights by law, this does not mean these rights are lived by. There are still social norms, power relations, and ties to tradition at play which ignore women’s rights.
Chapter 6 argues Muslim women are triply disadvantaged (as a minority, as women, and as being poor) and discusses movements fighting for Muslim women’s status and rights within India’s society. The author argues that there can be all the right improvements, but as long as these improvements do not contradict the social justification of gender inequality, nothing will change for women’s position. He writes Muslim women are the poorest and most disadvantaged group of people within India. Chapters 7 and 8 show clearly how economic poverty can blur the private/public dichotomy since poor women, whether Dalit (chapter 7) or Adivasi (chapter 8) need to work outside the home. Chapter 7 is one of this volume’s best contributions, showing how access to the public space for women is liberating but at the same time exploitative and oppressive. Furthermore, the author describes how the process of Sanskritization is actually worsening the situation of Dalit women who are improving economically.
Chapter 9 focuses on education and centres around the argument that education is in fact repeating the traditional gender roles and stereotypes instead of empowering girls and women. Furthermore, the authors show specific groups of girls with low and poor social and economic backgrounds are excluded from the educational system. In chapter 10 women’s participation in politics is discussed and suggestions are given to improve women’s political representation. Sanchari Roy Mukherjee, an economist, focusses in chapter 11 on the (lack of) participation of women in the labour market and their undervalued contribution to the household income. Because of this undervaluation, women continue to be unorganized and underpaid. Chapter 12 shows how dress norms, feminine etiquette, and ideas about shame are closely linked to women going outside the home. Chapter 13 focusses on women dancers and how they are looked down upon due to perceptions of femininity and appropriateness. A nationalistic vision (which is Hindu, upper class, and patriarchal) shaped ideals about female dancers, in which the body receives special attention. In chapter 14 women’s marginalized participation in sports in discussed. Movements for gender equity rarely plea for the importance of women’s engagement in sports, and this chapter urges for the importance of including women and sports in movements’ goals. The conclusion, chapter 15, focusses on gender violence, how that prohibits women’s participation in the public sphere, and on the responsibility of the state to ensure safe and risk-free spaces.
All the women discussed in the book appear to be among the very few who have succeeded (partially) in their struggle. I miss a chapter on the everyday lives of women and their everyday encounters with the public sphere, which does not always have to be part of a conscious political struggle. Furthermore, while in the very first paragraph S. Bagchi writes that women are taught female virtues throughout their entire lives, the restrictions these internalized ideas about femininity pose to women are barely discussed in the following chapters, despite the importance of this aspect. Also, for readers who are familiar with women’s struggle and status in India, this volume does not reveal much new insights on the matter. This does not take away, however, that this volume is a good introductory read for anyone interested in women’s struggles in India but does not have much knowledge on the subject yet. 

Lianne Oosterbaan, independent researcher