Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Indian Feminism

Dr. Chandrakala Padia, chair of the Political Science Department of Banares Hindu University, invited us to the home of her daughter-in-law to talk further about feminist issues in India.

In the first picture: her daughter-in-law and colleague, Dr. Vinita Abhishek, with her son.

Next: Vinita's mother, Ms. Madhu Bala Agranval; Dr. Karen Torjesen, Dr. Padia, me, Vinita and her son.

Vinita's mother treated us to a delicious lunch of idli (little rice cakes) with coconut curry.

I asked Vinita if her marriage had been arranged.

"No," she said. "I liked the work of Dr. Padia very much, and one day I decided 'I will marry her son.'"

She had not yet met the son... they only talked for 3-4 hours before their marriage.

"So you fell in love with her!" I commented.

All of us laughed, and Vinita told us that her husband is very progressive. "He motivated me to finish my Ph.D.," she said.

Chandrakala studies the ontological status of women in the Dharma Sastras from 200 BC to 200 AD, the same time frame in which Karen studies early Christianity. (See her When Women Were Priests).

Chandrakala studied with the French theorists such as Julia Kristeva and has written six or seven books. In 2002 she edited Feminism, Tradition, and Modernity from papers presented at a conference in the Himalayas. See http://www.indiaclub.com/shop/searchresults.asp?ProdStock=7800.

Vinita and Chandrakala agreed that in the Vedas there are seeds of feminism, but the Dharma Sastras carefully defined the role of women. The Bhagavad Gita can be used as a source of theory for Indian feminism.

"I have strong faith in ancient Indian wisdom," said Vinita, "But the Dharma Sastras limit women somewhat and are used now to limit women even more."

It hinges on the interpretation of lines such as "...so the women are not free." She and her mother-in-law disagree on fine points of interpreting these ancient Indian texts.

Use of tradition--parampara--is the problem.

"Gandhi said we should not be bound by a wrong definition of parampara," said Chandrakala. "He means that there can be continuous change but the essence stays the same. It's like a tree--we must prune it so it can grow faster. Those who blindly follow parampara will not grow."

"But before we reject some statement in the old texts, we must carefully study and make a careful decision." (See Public Man, Private Woman by Jean Bethke Ellshtain.)

She spoke on this subject at the University of Chicago in 1997.

An important Indian ecofeminist and theorist is Vandana Shiva (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vandana_Shiva). Like 90% of Indian feminists, she is Marxist. She challenges the consumption underlying Western lifestyles and Western feminism.

"Gandhi said 'Needs have to be catered to, but wants have to be limited,'" said Vinita.

She pointed out that Western feminists have some problems that do not exist in India:
1) Unwed pregnancy
2) Violence on television
3) Early sexualization of young girls.

"Indian feminism has much to offer you," she continued. "We want to be citizens of the world as well as citizens of India."

"We sacrifice for the sake of sexuality; we keep it in our houses, not on display," said Chandrakala. "Individual freedom and choice are supreme in modern society, but they are more limited in India. Also renunciation is important; the controlling of the senses is the heart of yoga.
When I went to Paris to study, I had to evaluate what I encountered. Modernity, consumerism, and globalism should not go unchecked."

"Marriage and divorce are okay, but they should not be done like changing clothes. Too much freedom is not actually freedom. The ancient texts stress freedom from desire."

"Consideration of the spirit should not be relegated to the world of religion," said Vinita. "Indian feminism has this to offer you."

Chandrakala mentioned a point about Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky from her first book, Liberty and Social Transformation: A Study in Bertrand Russell's Political Thought. She was a director of the Bertrand Russell Society 2003-2005. She has a profile on ZoomInfo: http://www.zoominfo.com/people/Padia_Chandrakala_69715927.aspx.

"The best life is that which is governed by spirit," she said, quoting Russell.

They invited us to a conference September 8-10, 2009, in Manila: Women, Peace, and Security: Visions for a New World.

Afterward we looked at handmade products from Rajasthan, the state west of Delhi in India. Vinita's mother is opening a shop to market these fabrics and art pieces.

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