When I first came to America in the late ’70s as a student at vU.C. Berkeley, I thought I had arrived in the land of fast foods, freeways, and feminists. I soon discovered, however, that while the first two were available in abundant measure, feminism was as scarce as a flying fortress in America.
Over the next two decades, I was to become even more disenchanted with the status of women here, so much so that I began to wonder, if I, with my fiery passion and avowed independence, was an anomaly in the world of men.
But a recent trip to India made me realize that feminism is alive and well there; that in the land of Sati Savitris and Mother Teresas, jet-set aristocrats and zopadpattis, women are liberating themselves at each end of the social spectrum. To me, the woman that symbolizes Indian feminism more than any other is Arundhati Roy, author, activist, and political thinker.
When Roy won the prestigious Booker Prize for her debut novel, God of Small Things, the Western establishment cast her in the image of an exotic oriental beauty who had suffered at the hands of the Hindu male. Her response was to shear off the black curls framing her face in that famous full-page portrait in the New Yorker, and declare, “I am not some pretty woman who wrote a book!” Unlike Rushdie, the only other Booker winner from the subcontinent, Roy refused to become a token ethnic presence in the cocktail party circuits in New York and London.
Instead, she embarked on political causes like decrying India’s nuclear tests, saving villagers from the ravages of the Narmada dam, and demanding justice from Enron’s exploitation of my home state’s power shortage in her latest book, Power Politics.
I couldn’t help but chuckle when she exclaimed in a recent interview that she could “take 10 guys out to dinner!”
What was refreshing about her comment was the fact unlike American female role models like Hillary Clinton or Britney Spears, Roy uses neither men to prop herself up as a complete human being, nor her sex appeal to attract attention.
And Arundhati Roy is not alone. India is undergoing a remarkable transformation at the moment, through women like Medha Patkar, Vandana Shiva, and Madhu Kishwar who are not only replacing old role models of Sita and Parvati, but who are also creating a new international dialogue in ecology, biodiversity, and globalization.
Westerners might try to dismiss Indian feminism as the product of these women’s privileged educated classes, if it were not for the fact that the more independent and politically active Indian women today come from the working classes.
Meet Mangala for example, who I came across while working on a documentary on female infanticide in the slums of Pune. Married at the age of 12, and abused by her in-laws because of her small dowry, Mangala was forced to leave her husband in the middle of the night for fear of her life. After her brother too demanded rent and threw her out because she couldn’t provide it, Mangala spent a night under a tree and eventually built a shack under its branches with the allowance she earned at a public health center. She struggled for decades to make ends meet, to learn her rights to alimony and inheritance. Today, Mangala organizes political camps for working-class women and speaks at women’s forums where she urges women like herself to leave abusive situations and to become financially independent.
At a lunch invitation at her Zunka Bhakar restaurant, where she serves a clientele of factory laborers, Mangala introduced me to her adopted son and proudly showed me pictures of her holidays in Goa, her childhood friends, her meetings with political leaders. Here was a woman who had never heard of Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan, but who knew how to live a rich and fulfilling life on her own.
I came across many other unsung heroes during my trip to India, like Jaya Kaley; founder of the social service organization Jagruti, who gave up a brilliant banking career to work among slum dwellers. Kaley arranged a town hall meeting for me with the women her organization helps. As I watched her invoke their confidence with humor, insight, and genuine compassion, I realized that it had been worthwhile for me to have come all the way to at last find a niche I could fit into. And even though Jaya told the women that I had come from America to listen to their woes and to help them, I felt that it was they who were giving me inspiration.
It is not that these Indian feminists hate men; on the contrary, Roy’s first book, for example, contains a passionate dedication to her lover. But the lives of these women are not defined by men. For them, the personal is not political, but rather the political transcends the personal.
Watching a tape of the acclaimed HBO series Sex and the City after my return, I couldn’t help noticing how one female character obsessed about losing her orgasm, while a second one agonized over inviting an ex-boyfriend to her birthday, and a third one worried about her husband’s soft penis. And I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this what American feminism amounts to today; the freedom to sleep with whomever you want and the ability to talk dirty like the boys?”
And I had a desire to go back to India, where feminism is not just reduced to a “Vagina Monologue.”
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.