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Tangled Histories: Indian Feminism and Anglo-American Feminist Criticism Author(s): Ania Loomba Reviewed work(s): Source: Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1993), pp. 271-278 Published by: University of Tulsa Stable URL: . Accessed: 19/11/2011 15:23
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it has increasingly been invoked in contemporary India too for defining "the nation" in ways that exclude certain class. Cross-fertilisations have been crucial to 271 . It has especially grave repercussions for feminist thought and movements in India. I am shaped by a political ethos where the terms "Indian" and "Western" are often made to signify a series of binary opposites: authenticity and false consciousness.Tangled Histories: Indian Feminism and Anglo-American Feminist Criticism Ania Loomba University of Tulsa What does Anglo-American feminist criticism look like from the outside? I thought it would be a lot easier to respond to the subject of this forum than it has actually been. "real people" and "upper class. In India. I realised. My responses to Western feminist criticism fluctuate with my movements in and out of my country. It is easy to imagine why entrenched patriarchal traditions would seek to marginalise women's movements by calling them un-Indian. Neither "Anglo-American feminist criticism" nor "Indian women" are homogeneous terms." indigenous and colonised. which are constantly called upon to demonstrate their genuine Indian-ness and therefore their relevance for the lives of"real Indian women. such a rhetoric seeks to disguise the indigenous roots of women's protest in India. and nationalism in India! My own contradictions as an Indian woman who teaches English literature. and the historical circumstances within which these contradictions were engendered. a bad thing per se. with increasing frustration. but the fact is that a huge variety of feminists are invariably chastised for being influenced by Western modes of thought. in my opinion. colonialism. gender. This is not to argue that Western women's thinking or organisations have not influenced Indian feminists." This is not. that even to indicate some of the parameters within which these terms function would be to attempt a summary of the relationship between gender. a charge that was (and still is) also levelled against Marxists. and their interactions have been enormously varied. may together help to outline some of the complex contexts that structure the relationship between Anglo-American feminism and feminists in India. While such a dichotomy was obviously shaped during nationalist struggles. or caste positions and interests. In fact.

Hence both focussed on female-centred reforms. Recently. Feminist historians of India have begun to explore the multiple ways in which women became a crucial site for the political and cultural struggles between British colonialists and Indian nationalists. Nationalist and colonialist patriarchal thought ironically collaborated in repressing deviant femininity. widow remarriage. they reacted. Women became emblematic of this territory: ironically. as indeed they had in early modern England. "tradition" and "modernity" as well as "India" and "the West" were being debated via the question of Indian womanhood. For women this was a very contradictory situation. better wives and mothers. female education. their own selfhood and culture were rewritten as synonymous with that of the larger community. in a variety of ways-many of them creatively using their education to protest against existing norms. entire traditions of female expression and communication were delegitimized. Nationalist reformers encouraged women's education and a certain redefinition of the family. but always acted for the health of her family. and religion rather than for herself-in short. accomplished. The "new woman" constructed by nationalist discourses at this time was educated. I have been trying to indicate how in the case of women. at a very basic structural level. Women were not wholly excluded in the process of defining an Indian nation: they were central to the battles between colonial and nationalist forces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Hence. their relationship to Anglo-American feminism is conflictual. even politically active. she was an accommodative ideal. not unlike the way Humanists did during the English Renaissance. this relationship becomes even more tortuous. and widow immolation became central during the second half of the Raj. or recover a culture and a selfhood that had been systematically repressed and eroded during colonial rule. Women were invited to use their education only to become more efficient homemakers. 272 . and the issues of child marriage. but paradigmatically. The nationalist movement was also a struggle to represent. But. Each of these groups claimed to liberate women from the bondage of the other. community. given the history of colonial rule.feminist struggles everywhere. Let me briefly digress into this history. the burden of authenticity has been especially heavy for women's activists in India.' Along with several other recent translations and collections of women's fiction. In the process. create. a pathbreaking anthology of Indian women's writing has been published. culture. As several critics have pointed out. The relationship of colonised people to colonial education is necessarily conflictual and has historically been both debilitating and enabling. which sought to deflect the radical potential of the re-definitions of womanhood that surfaced during this period. apart from the dynamics of any actual contact.

to Western feminism. because in the British context too. British feminists were more meaningful for me than American ones. Feminists everywhere have had to confront the question of their negotiations with national political discourses. Hence independent groups were not only accused of being middle-class. years later when as a graduate student I read systematically through feminist writings. in a fairly unique manner. and harassment. and to their own local traditions. and domestic 273 . Barrett appeared at the extreme left of the ideological spectrum! I would like to acknowledge how important her book was for me in trying to bridge the gap between orthodox Marxism and feminism. During the early seventies. and capitalistlneo-colonial exploitation. and like left movements elsewhere. In practice. in addition. widow immolation. I remember how bitterly Michele Barrett's Womens Oppression Today was criticised for departing from Marxist principles. which was hugely enabling in many ways but which also shaped my personal and social attitudes to gender issues so that not only did I genuinely believe that "the"revolution would be followed by women's emancipation but I was quite blind to women's issues in the world I lived in." but only in Engelian terms. But added to this was the indigenous heritage I've outlined above. so that even though Marxists were themselves accused of being aliens on Indian soil. Such a legacy shaped both the left and the women's movements in India. and indeed in my own life. and to unravel Indian women's responses to colonialism. major campaigns against dowry murders. essentialist. the hostility between them and the women's movements attached to left parties paralleled similar divisions in the history of Western women's movements. and divisive but also of being Western in their orientation. The Indian left did consistently concern itself with "the woman's question. and thereby divorced from the Indian realities: poverty. there had been a long history of leftwing movements. rape. they in turn treated any unwarranted focus on gender as practically a conspiracy by Western feminists to lure their Indian sisters away from the Indian working class! I grew up and became politically conscious within the Indian left. if not bridged. during. Ironically. The reverse charges were that leftoriented women's movements subordinated gender to other concerns. underdevelopment. such divisions were often negotiated. In this context. thereby ignoring the actualities of Indian women's lives: rape.this anthology has made it easier for readers in English to glimpse the astonishing variety of women's voices before. an Indian/Western dichotomy was mapped onto them. it systematically subordinated gender to class. since the late seventies. In India. and after colonial rule. domestic violence. there was a mushrooming of women's groups outside of the left-sponsored women's organisations. Women's groups across the political spectrum have worked together to launch.

it resurrects a new version of an East/West divide and therefore often simplifies the politics of both Indian and Anglo-American feminism. for my purposes. whose heterogeneity and contexts are blurred 274 . and culture.e. On the other hand. However. class. is that there is great pressure on all these groups to be "indigenous. when I travel to the West. an inevitable reaction to and critique of the imperialist and ethnocentric underpinnings of much AngloAmerican feminist discourse. Firstly. police brutality. either literally or critically. Secondly. the critiques of black or other women of colour. for example. misguided. But. and "the third world woman" is an entity that is largely notional. left organisations have to deal with them in their day-to-day functioning. I find my sense of my own cultural difference is pushed to reaction by the ethnocentrism that still pervades a lot of feminist literary criticism. It ignores. and state apathy on the other." i. such an "antifeminism" rhetoric belies the actual gender politics of these individuals and groups. What is significant. Multiculturalism has created spaces for "minority" cultures but has also invited them to melt into the pot so that "Indian" means "Indian-American. some women activists who defined their own positions to a large extent in opposition to the left and by creatively using some of the strategies and insights developed by Western women's liberation movements now refuse to call themselves "feminists" and themselves denounce Western feminism as neo-imperialist or."A special problem here is the conflation of the positions or struggles of non-white women within the Western world with those of women of the so-called "third world"-a problem that. at the very least. or indeed the work of a great many women of all colours that has articulated the relationships between gender. in part. This is obviously a result of both a lack of concern with the rest of the world and a vast cultural diversity within the country.violence on the one hand. and against price-rise. Indians who live in America (not to be confused further with "Native American"!). It is in fact very difficult to stop being a kind of nativist when one faces hostility or ignorance or patronising gestures from one's "sisters. is perhaps more acute in the United States than in Britain. concurring in suggesting that "feminism" is a term irrelevant for the fight for women's rights in India. this attitude is. race. unfortunately. nation. who are engaged in a variety of ways in fighting women's oppression. sexuality. So we see women activists across a wide political spectrum. but it usually implies that the critiques of dominant Anglo-American feminism rest entirely on the shoulders of non-white American women.. and who may otherwise be bitter opponents. it seems to me." A certain crossing over of positions and rhetoric is evident over the last two decades: despite their avowed devaluation of issues of gender and sexuality. if in India the differences between varieties of Western feminism are often flattened out. Two qualifications are immediately in order.

sexuality. Indian culture was represented. Even though in practice. a division between 275 . except to point out the difficulties that accompany their recovery. nationalisms. say. a view that has been detrimental to research on how female sexuality is represented. religious controversies. and peasant struggles. and the possibilites of female bonding offered by segregation of the sexes further confuse the issue: they have variously persuaded even (some) feminists of the liberating redemptive aspects of "Indian" as opposed to Western culture. there has been. some of which persist today. Despite this. postcolonial governance. repressed. their rhetoric still reflects the belief that grass roots realities in India are so harsh that the issues of sexuality.even within "correct" circles. in very recent years. Firstly. and their patriarchal nexus. say. both by Orientalist and nationalist commentators. in a not-so-surprising continuance of nationalist or left-wing paradigms. and is regarded by a majority of feminist organisations as an issue not relevant to Indian feminism. literary critics. controlled. women's movements of all hues have had to deal with the congruence of the sexual and the economic. than. activists. and cultural analysts in this regard is surprising and at apparent odds with the fairly long history of women's political activism and with the recent spurt of feminist research in the country. and subjectivity are diversionary issues. left-wing movements. I think that there are several reasons for this. which remains relatively unexplored and untackled in India. and it is only in the last five years that some breakthrough is visible. nationalism. it is still uneasy or reluctant to discuss either sexuality or female subjectivity. The presence of strong matrilineal traditions in various parts of the country. poverty. Secondly. even as it has begun to consider gender as a major analytical framework in assessments of colonialism. the space accorded to female energy and power in Hindu mythologies and various local cultures in India. an increase in the number of women's activists who are raising these issues in practice and beginning to articulate their experiences. sexual orientation. One specific area within feminist work in which we can see the results of the East/West divide is the question of sexuality. and deifying instead of demonising female sexuality in particular. But in general. Even those who in private think that the issue is crucial have not really acknowledged that in their political practice. This may sound too sharp. to be Indian is to be more concerned with. The hesitation of feminist historians. These assumptions creep even into work otherwise critical of Orientalism. Even as recent scholarship in India has significantly rewritten Indian history in ways that are both challenging and enabling. as celebrating instead of repressing sexuality in general. and I constantly realise that I am in the danger of erasing the very nuances within "AngloAmerican criticism" that I think are glossed over in India. and managed by these intellectual and cultural traditions.

and multiplicityof identities are detrimentalto both an analysisof the world and social change and are. As Michele Barrett sums up in a recent review. and ethnicity.heterogeneityof power. which (andthe) issueof race and ethnicity is a vexedone for psychoanalysis. one of the early women poet-saintsof India. The speaker who followed me cited this as proof of my alienation from India. the latest form of Western intellectual hegemony designed to prevent marginalisedsubjectsfrom refashioning their worlds.. She berated Western feminism by invoking the caricatureof the bra-burningactivist. BecauseI wastalking I aboutfeminist criticismand historiography.. mously enabling for and central to feminist Cora Kaplanor HazelCarby.has a much wider appeal for Indian feminists.The workof those Anglo-Americanfeministswho addressthese problems. One of the students intervenedby saying could hardlybe a realissuein a countrywherethe that althoughbra-burning majority of the women did not even wear bras.authentic.."2 think this is partof the reasonwhy Indianfeministsare elsewherein Westernfeminism at the moment. and to inter-relatingthe social with the subjective. in fact. and reallyworthwhileand what is or regardedas superfluous merely fashionable is frequentlyarticulated in terms of a divide between poverty and sexuality-the latter also being concern. they have also been cultural notoriouslyproblematicfor those who arecommittedto addressing difference.A relateddifficultylies in a growingscepticismabout to the relevanceof poststructuralism Indian intellectuals and in the suspicion that ideas such as the fragmentationof subjectivity. who insists that psychoanalysis useful is for addressingthe questions of ideology or political culture. chose to give severalexamples from the area I know best-the English Renaissance. extremely salutaryin this regard. The formerevokes American radicalfeminists of the 1960s and '70s and their ratheressentialisttheoreticalmodels. waryof Westerntheoreticalmodelsfor the discussionof sexuality."in feminist psychoanalysis. This attitudeis furtherentrenchedby the dismissedas a "Western" fact that sexualityand subjectivityhave dominantlybeen addressedin the Even as these have been enorWest within psychoanalyticalframeworks. I rememberan incident at a seminaron feminismheld at a constituent college of the Universityof Delhi where I was invited to talk.what is consideredlegitimate.MahadeviAkka. class. is a theoreticalmodel that has centeredon issuesof genderand marginalized other differentiations and identificationsthat are also of evident social and I political interest. surely the point of the 276 .which arestill the stick with which all Anglo-American feminsm is occasionally beaten. as a counter-ideal. there is far more interest in literatureand culture than in society and politics. So far I have been conflating Western feminism and feminist literary criticism. I find a writerlike JacquelineRose. She also moved on to cite.

But in interactingand learningthey have also implicitly and explicitly advancedcritiquesof Westernfeminism and of the continuing inequalitiesthat still structureour lives.And. I realise that I have written far more aboutfeminists in India than about "Anglo-Americanfeminist criticism. but its long history.if only becauseFrenchfeministshave and been so influential in the last fifteen years.It is perhapsnot surprisingthat the colleges are majorityof those who teach and studyEnglishin undergraduate women. it is not easy to ignore. essentialist. They offered a gendered version of the white man'sburdenin colonial India wherebythey wouldrepresent. Englishliteraryeducation. a meaningfuldialogue is possible only if both sides listen to each other: in a forum like this. When I use these terms.fightfor. Today. British feminists of the nineteenth centuryinvokedsisterhoodonly to contributeto the notion of a passiveand victimised Indian woman.therewas hope. the first women's organisations in India drew active support from some British feminists. after all.there is a growingnumberof critiquesof the ideology and institutional politics of English literaturein the Indian classroom.3 Some of the most trenchant work in this regardhas been by Indian women teachers who are doublyalienated from the English literary canon.While Indian feministshave certainlybeen indebted to their Westernsisters."a term with which I am rather uncomfortableand which I wouldhave liked to unpacksince it contains work that I admireand have learnt from as well as work that I feel impelled to resist.There is still a global imbalance.and liberate Indian women from Indian patriarchy. that is. As was. in which feminist criticismis deeply implicated.the fact that Mahadevi Akka had reportedly walked naked. which has had a colonialist as well as patriarchalhistory. within a differentspherein materialand ideologicalterms. for example. ironically.In spite of this. I Contemporary think. covered by her long hair alone. I do not wantto implythat there arenot realdifferencesat stake. it might be worth including what Indianfeminism(amongothers)looks like in the West.not just the presentconfigurations of power. and who have creatively and critically interacted with AngloAmerican feminist criticism. Both "Anglo-American" "Western" somehow evoke white. I do not think of Asian or Caribbean 277 .agitation in America wasboth contextuallyrelevantand of symbolicvalue. I rememberfeeling that if undergraduatestudentshad resistedbeing drawninto futile oppositions. Such interaction has also been useful for historiansand culturalcritics of India. and hegemonic brands of feminism. It is also wrong to read it as synonymouswith "Westernfeminist as criticism" I have done in this essay. feminist literarycriticismhas had a fairlypositive impact.most of which have been made possible by anti-colonialist as well as feminist criticism.and which is still widely prevalentall over the country.

. 465.. 456.and SusieTharu.1991). 2 (1992). No. NOTES 1 Susie Tharuand K. History special and issueof TheJournal English Foreign 7 of Languages.The Masksof Conquest: Literary Studyand British India(New York:Columbia UniversityPress.. Lalita. The Lie of the Land:English Studiesin India(New Delhi: Oxford University Literary Press. 1993. ed. 2 Michele and Barrett. ed.. Svati Joshi. It may be that we need to redefine the term. (NewYork: FeministPress.ed.women in England."Psychoanalysis Feminism:A BritishSociologist'sView.GauriViswanathan. Rulein 1986). for example. or perhaps the term itself has outlived its usefulness. Language. Teaching Literature. 1991. 1991. ed. 278 . Women in The Writing India.eds. and I suspect such an omission would be true of many feminists in India. 1991). Noes. Rethinking English:Essays in Literature.." Signs. RajeswariSunder Rajan.2 vols. 1989). 3 See. 1993). New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress. Woman ImageText(New Delhi: Trianka. (New Delhi: Trianka. and 8 (Juneand December 1991). 17. Lola Chatterji. or Hispanic or African-American women in America.