Millennial Indian women have been leading a new kind of feminism since the early 2000s, long before the present day feminist resurgence in the US.
Reading other women’s #MeToo stories brings back memories of my sexual abuse as a young girl growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s in India.
Like many women, I couldn’t talk about it then. India had a tradition-bound society with strict gender norms and expectations. But a lot has changed since.
A new and powerful anti-sexism movement began in India, long before the present day feminist resurgence in the US, as I explore in a book I recently co-edited.
New modes of protest
In the early 21st century, millennial Indian women launched a radically new kind of feminist politics that had not been seen before. Inspired by a vocabulary of rights and modes of protest used by the youth across the world, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring, they initiated a series of social media campaigns against the culture of sexual violence.
The earliest campaigns – the 2003 Blank Noise Project against eve-teasing, the 2009 Pink Chaddi (underwear) movement against moral policing and the 2011 SlutWalk protest against victim-blaming – were limited in their scope but set the tone for this new mode of protest. Campaigns such the 2011 Why Loiter project on women’s right to public spaces, the 2015 Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) movement against sexist curfew rules in student halls and the 2017 Bekhauf Azadi (Freedom without Fear) March resonated with a much larger number of women, turning this social media-led phenomenon into a true feminist movement.
These online campaigns represented a heightened level of frustration among the youth in a country where, despite several decades of feminist activism, the deep-rooted problem of gender inequality and sexual violence persists.
Mainstream feminism in India
Mainstream Indian feminism has tended to focus on issues such as child marriage, sex-selective abortions and dowry-related violence. It saw sexuality only in terms of extraordinary forms of sexual violence against marginal women, such as rape of Dalit (formerly “untouchable”), tribal, or Muslim women, or those living in the country’s military zones such as Kashmir or the North East.
But it did little to address the question of eve-teasing – the everyday, supposedly harmless and largely sanctioned practice of sexual harassment and molestation that affects women on the streets and in workplaces, across class, caste and religion. For it, this problem could easily be solved by protecting and restricting women.
Things changed when India’s 1990’s economic liberalisation triggered an unintended and unexpected cultural shift in the country. It brought questions of women’s freedom, choice and desire to the forefront.
On the one hand, Western multinational companies that began investing in the country in a big way, opened up massive job opportunities for women in urban India.
On the other, the arrival from the West of sexually explicit images – through film and cable TV – into Indian homes changed the meaning of sexuality and sexual desire for young women. Print and visual media, for example, began to show a new kind of Indian femininity that was comfortable with her modernity and sexuality.
These transformations unleashed a major backlash from conservative Indians who felt threatened by the changing lifestyle of a growing number of educated, professionally skilled and financially independent women questioning traditional gender roles and expectations.
Faced with the resultant rise of sexual violence in the society, rather than tackling the root cause of misogyny and sexism or ensuring women’s safety in public places, the state and society responded by being patronising and policing young women’s behavior. They sought to keeping women safe by restricting their movement.
New Indian feminism
The 2012 fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi became a tipping point. An unprecedented number of millennial youth launched a rallying cry for women’s unconditional freedom. They asserted that women have absolute right to their choices, their bodies and to their movement in public spaces at any time of day or night. They challenged outmoded cultural beliefs that women invite sexual violence through their clothes and behavior.
By bringing the discourse of freedom, sexuality, choice and desire into the public realm – in the streets and through social media – this agitation forced the government to expand its legal definition of rape, introducing harsher punishment for rapists and criminalising stalking and voyeurism.
A holistic movement
What is unique about this movement is that it is a multilayered struggle. It combines freedom from sexual oppression with freedom from caste, ethnic and religious oppression.
Often referred to as India’s “Arab Spring,” this movement created a ripple effect for other struggles to break out. The Chalo Dilli or #NotInMyName movements rose up against the right-wing state led violence against Dalits and Muslims. In this sense, this new feminist agitation represents an impressive level of maturity, inclusivity and political sophistication.
I see this new movement as the rise of “fourth-wave” feminism in India. I borrow the idea from the British journalist and writer Kira Cochrane and the American feminist blogger Jessica Valenti. While Cochrane and Valenti define the fourth wave in the West as online feminism, fourth wave in India, I claim, is a mostly social media-led holistic movement that combines women’s freedom with a wider call for social justice for minority men and women.
A ways to go
The battle is far from over.
While some of the younger actresses have started to speak out about sexual abuse in India’s largest film industry, Bollywood, it is doubtful if these revelations will have the kind of impact that it had in the US. A law student’s list on social media containing names of 50 sexually abusive academics has been decried by many for not following due process. And, like many in the US who fear that #MeToo has become a movement for the privileged few, many Indians reject this online feminist movement for being too elitist in a country where only a quarter of its population has access to the internet.
However, now that the battle cry has been launched, the only way out is forward. I’d contend that Indian and American women alike must amplify their voices, mark how they’re different from previous feminist movements and set a goal of freedom for all.