Lizzie: Feminism Reimagined

When studying gender and feminism in a western context it is easy to forget about everyone that exists outside of that context. The only unfortunate thing about that is, western feminism is consistently critiqued for favouring the issues associated with white, middle class, westernised women which are not adaptable for context such as that of India.

PMSA recipients at Hayuman’s Tomb.

The complexity of the social framework in India extends further than inequality between men and women. In India the Caste system still has a strong hold on society which has a influential impact on the restrictions placed on women and can vary between depending on an individuals Varna and Jati. The western understanding of caste has been simplified by information from the colonial era in India that has assigned over 4000 Jati’s to 4 main Varna: Brahmi, Kshamya,Vaishya and Shudra. A caste has a particular place within society and is typically discerned by wealth and therefore skin colour (poorer people tend to work in fields, therefore have darker skin due to being tanned). Despite wealth, women tend to be restricted along caste lines which directly contradicts western thought which sees money as mobility.

Beautiful little girl dressed in a brightly coloured dress.

India is also home to multiple religions that are very much alive and deeply embedded in everyday life. With the practice of these religions has come a culture of conservatism in terms of clothing and the demonstration of sexuality which can be misinterpreted by western feminism as a form of oppression. However, cultural context would lend to the idea that the lack of desire to show off the physical body is much more empowering to women living in India. This is coupled with the need to protect yourself from the sun and cover the skin to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes which favours light, floaty clothing that covers your skin. This theme of practicality and culture being paired together connects with the strength of innovation in India.

Entrance to a Silai School, a program started by USHA to teach rural women how to sew and empower them to grasp opportunities to pursue entrepreneurial aspirations.

Before going to India, as a small white woman, I had a few people express concern about my safety and there was a genuine fear and perception that India was inherently unsafe for women. As our mentor, Nick, said on the first day “anything you can say about India, the opposite is also true.” Any country has elements of bad people doing bad things and India is no different. Sathya Saran, a kind, educated and influential writer, journalist and business women that has been all over the world shared in a candid korero with our group that she returned every time to India “because it’s where I feel safe”. As women from New Zealand there is an element of not being able to truly understand that feeling when in India because our hair and skin stand out and people stare out of pure curiosity. But for an Indian woman, India is home, it is where she fits best, is her happiest and feels the most empowered. At this point it is about accepting the differences between our identities and understanding that this makes the world a much better place.

Women working at the Silai studio, some had been selected to sew at Mumbai Fashion Week

There are elements of society that women are fighting to change in India that is connected to gender inequality. But it is clear that westernised feminist ideals are not a one-size-fits-all solution. Travelling to India has taught me the importance of understanding the cultural context of femininity and how different empowerment and mobility can look across these lifestyles. At the end of the day it is about bringing these ideas back to their roots; feminism is about achieving equality and not being offended on behalf of people due to a lack of understanding of the context of their world.

A woman looking after the shoes of those at worship.

Lizzie Harvey

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