Stop "Saving" Women: A Transnational Feminist Approach

According to The Guardian, India is the worst place to be a woman. And, according to the media, India’s “poor and oppressed” women suffer everyday from dowry abuses, domestic violence, and patriarchal control both within and outside the home.

As I learned more about women in India through my academic coursework at Elon and through a study abroad course, I grew frustrated that the dominant picture that emerged of these women was so demeaning and inaccurate. Scholars, governmental policy documents, and laws talked about women instead of with women. So I applied for grants, packed my bags, and made my way to Chennai, the capital of India’s southernmost state, Tamil Nadu. I wanted to spend time with people who had real, embodied answers to the questions I had regarding women in contemporary South India.

While feminism is often associated with mass women’s movements, I went to India seeking moments of fragmentary, everyday resistance. In a global dialogue that looks down on so-called “developing countries” for “oppressing” women, we need accounts of two-thirds world women standing up and empowering themselves in disparate social locations. I found that this resistance most often occurs through law, religion, and activism. So, I went directly to the source to learn more about these three forms of contemporary resistance.

During my time in Chennai, I shadowed inspiring women in the High Court of Madras and observed these lawyers fighting the system alongside women by arguing their cases, working with judges to move cases to the front of the docket, and creating new laws that improve lives, such as the Domestic Violence Act of 2005. While it is a hard, long process, women utilize their agency to combat oppression through the law.

Each morning during my time in Chennai, I was up by 6:30 AM winding my way through the streets toward a local Hindu Goddess temple. Women actively engage with the Goddess and with other women in the temple community in order to improve their lives. They relate to the Goddess because she is fierce and powerful in some forms but soft and devoted in others, giving her layers of personalities that can empower diverse women. Women can navigate complicated familial and social situations by forming relationships with other women in the temple, too. For example, I noticed the same group of women gathering at the temple every morning. I found them standing together, laughing, chatting, and cooking. Here, I saw everyday feminism in their ability to unite with one another and make one another’s lives better through the community they formed.

A woman prepares offerings for the Goddess
A woman prepares offerings for the Goddess

Finally, women are engaging in various forms of activism every day. I identified two forms of activism during my fieldwork: participation in NGOs and academic activism. I had the opportunity to visit various NGOs, speak with volunteers, and interact with Women’s Studies academics. These NGOs work to economically empower women by giving them the resources they need to be strong members of society, and assist women who are struggling with mental health or physical health issues. Academic activists spread feminist power through education and knowledge. Women engaged with the challenges facing women in contemporary India and strategized about effective resistance in the classroom and at conferences such as the Indian Association of Women’s Studies 15th Conference, which I was honored to attend.

A <em>kolam, </em>a local art form, is a welcome sign at the Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference
A kolam, a local art form, is a welcome sign at the Indian Association of Women’s Studies Conference

While structures that constrain women manifest in disparate ways throughout the globe, the systems and roots of patriarchy share similarities. When I spoke to women about the challenges they are facing in India, many of them asked me about the struggles women experience in the United States in response. I felt support coming our way from many women who were genuinely concerned for us in regards to the current administration.

Ultimately, I learned that in a world where domestic violence, control of women’s bodies and choices, and the exploitation of women’s work in a diseased capitalist worldview define gender relations, women’s active resistance is imperative. We must persist, resist, and reject the diverse forms of oppression we experience. Women in India provide a model of resistance that women in the United States can emulate in our own lives so as not to be passive receivers of patriarchal oppression but instead be active agents and advocates against it. In the United States I regularly observe competition among women under the male gaze. Instead of lifting one another up, we often critique one another, competing for capital, resources, and respect. Further, we as women perpetuate the systems of oppression by enabling men to dominate and continue patriarchal hierarchy in society as a whole. White feminism can be just as harmful as sexism. This is not an effective or inclusive feminist model for resisting patriarchy. Instead, we need to come together as women of all kinds. I am not calling for a naïve circle of sisterhood; that is far too idealistic and ignores difference in identities. What I am calling for is a united community that collectively positions women against oppression and the systems that enforce it, not against one another. A few women in India told me that feminism in the “first world” seems glossy and individualistic to them. While it is hard to critique one’s own experiences, I agree that it doesn’t look like much of a struggle to put the word FEMINIST on our laptops and on t-shirts and compete with other women to be more of a “bad bitch.” We have to do more.

So, let’s stop wearing the t-shirts and trying to “brand” feminism until we do some of the hard work. Let’s stop pitying those “poor, oppressed” women across the globe while we avoid fighting our own fight. Instead of ordering ourselves above other women, we must fight the patriarchy as one.