VIRAT NEHRU reports on ‘Indian Women Tell Their Stories’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival
Two of India’s internationally renowned female writers, Ira Trivedi and Deepti Kapoor, who’ve been writing at the forefront of India’s growing feminist revolution, took part in one of the most insightful panel discussions at the recently concluded Sydney Writers Festival.
Though officially an occasion to launch the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories – a result of a conscious effort to showcase talented Indian women’s writing to an Australian audience – the discussion became an honest and thoughtful meditation on the evolutionary phase of Indian gender politics, and the changing social and cultural status of women in India.
Addressing the problem of sexual violence against women, which appears more black and white in India than in other western countries, Trivedi argued that the lack of a feminist revolution has held back women’s rights in India.
“India, unlike the West, has had no feminist revolution,” she said. “We haven’t had women coming out to fight for laws on a large scale. In fact, India is very good at making laws. We have some really great laws in place to protect women against sexual violence, to protect women against dowry, to protect women against abuse. Laws are not the problem in India. The problem is the deeply ingrained social and cultural norms.”
Trivedi went on to make a salient and persuasive point about how the sexual violence against women was not as much an issue of women, but rather a significant question mark on the nature of masculinity in India.
“While women might be leading the feminist revolution, it is the men who are quite confused about it,” Trivedi opined.
On the other hand, Kapoor eloquently called out some of the uncomfortable truths about the role religion has played, and continues to play, in the oppression and subjugation of women in the country.
“In both Hinduism and Islam, women are not equal to men, not just in the religious text, but also in how the social and cultural hierarchy of life actually plays out,” she said.
“Women usually stay at home. They don’t get educated. Their only duty is to look after the family. When you have that ingrained in the psyche of a population, it is going to play out in numerous ways. When religion stipulates that women are not equal, given that India is a deeply religious society, what do you do? How do you break that?”
Kapoor made an important point. An issue as serious as marital rape is still not considered a crime in India. One of the most frequent excuses that Indian governments and legislators have given to justify their passivity in addressing this problem is that the issue is intrinsically linked with religious sentiment, and hence is so sensitive that it is almost beyond reproach.
However, it is through a historical lens that the panel provided its most piercing insight.
“India has been invaded by outsiders for centuries – whether it was the Mughals or the British,” said Trivedi. “And when all these outside influences were coming into the country, the way that Indians preserved their culture was through their women. Women became the upholders of traditional social and cultural values while the men interacted with outside influences. The women were expected to pass along the culture to their children.”
Kapoor was quick to point out the institutionalisation of this historical oppression. “But the flip side of that is that if something happens to a society, if something is ‘wrong’, it is the women who are leaking, not the men,” she said. “The men aren’t responsible. It’s the women who are constantly made to feel that they have to keep the moral fabric of society intact.”
The panel handled a complex discussion about women’s rights in India with nuance, honesty and valuable insight.