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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

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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. Neither "Anglo-American feminist criticism" nor "Indian women" are homogeneous terms, and their interactions have been enormously varied. I realised, with increasing frustration, that even to indicate some of the parameters within which these terms function would be to attempt a summary of the relationship between gender, colonialism, 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, may together help to outline some of the complex contexts that structure the relationship between Anglo-Ameri- can feminism and feminists in India. My responses to Western feminist criticism fluctuate with my movements in and out of my country. In India, I am shaped by a political ethos where the

terms "Indian" and "Western" are often made to signify a series of


opposites: authenticity and false consciousness, "real people" and "upper class," indigenous and colonised. While such a dichotomy was obviously

shaped during nationalist

struggles, it has increasingly been

invoked in


India too for defining "the nation" in ways that exclude

certain class, gender, or caste positions and interests. It has especially grave repercussions for feminist thought and movements in India, which are constantly called upon to demonstrate their genuine Indian-ness and there- fore their relevance for the lives of"real Indian women." This is not, in my opinion, a bad thing per se, but the fact is that a huge variety of feminists are invariably chastised for being influenced by Western modes of thought, a charge that was (and still is) also levelled against Marxists. It is easy to imagine why entrenched patriarchal traditions would seek to marginalise women's movements by calling them un-Indian. In fact, such a rhetoric seeks to disguise the indigenous roots of women's protest in India.

This is not to argue that Western women's thinking or organisations have not influenced Indian feminists. Cross-fertilisations have been crucial to


feminist struggles everywhere. But, given the history of colonial

rule, the

burden of authenticity

has been especially heavy for women's activists in

India. Hence, at a very basic structural level, apart from the dynamics of

any actual contact,

their relationship

to Anglo-American

feminism is

conflictual. Let me briefly digress into this history. 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 nine-

teenth centuries. 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. Each of these groups claimed to liberate women from the bondage of the other. Hence both focussed on female-centred reforms, and the issues of child

marriage, widow remarriage, female education,

and widow immolation



during the second

half of



The "new woman"

constructed by nationalist discourses at this time was educated, accom-

plished, even politically active, but always acted for the health of her family,

community, culture, and religion rather than for herself-in

short, she was

an accommodative ideal, which sought to deflect the radical potential of the

re-definitions of womanhood that surfaced during this period. The national-

ist movement

was also a struggle to represent, create, or recover a culture and

a selfhood that had been systematically repressed and eroded during colonial

rule. Women became


of this territory: ironically, but para-

digmatically, their own selfhood and culture were rewritten as synonymous with that of the larger community. In the process, entire traditions of female

expression and communication were delegitimized. Nationalist and colo- nialist patriarchal thought ironically collaborated in repressing deviant

femininity. As several critics have pointed out, "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. Nationalist reformers encouraged women's education and a certain redefinition of the family, not unlike the way Humanists did during the English Renaissance. Women were invited to use their education only to become more efficient homemakers, better wives and mothers; they reacted, as indeed they had in early modern England, in a variety of ways-many of them creatively using their education to protest against existing norms. The relationship of colonised people to colonial education is necessarily conflictual and has historically been both debilitating and enabling. I have been trying to indicate how in the case of women, this relationship becomes even more tortuous. Recently, a path- breaking anthology of Indian women's writing has been published.' Along with several other recent translations and collections of women's fiction,


this anthology has made it easier for readers in English to glimpse the astonishing variety of women's voices before, during, and after colonial rule, and to unravel Indian women's responses to colonialism, to Western femi- nism, and to their own local traditions. Feminists everywhere have had to confront the question of their negotia- tions with national political discourses. Such a legacy shaped both the left

and the women's movements

in India. The

Indian left did consistently

concern itself with "the woman's question," but only in Engelian terms, and

like left movements


it systematically

subordinated gender to

class. 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, 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



Indian left, which was hugely enabling in many ways but which also shaped

my personal and social attitudes to gender

issues so that

not only



genuinely believe that "the" revolution would be followed by women's eman- cipation but I was quite blind to women's issues in the world I lived in, and

indeed in my own life. I remember how bitterly Michele Barrett's Womens Oppression Today was criticised for departing from Marxist principles. Iron- ically, years later when as a graduate student I read systematically through feminist writings, 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. In this context, British feminists were more meaningful for me than American ones, because in the British context too, there had been a long history of left- wing movements. During the early seventies, there was a mushrooming of women's groups outside of the left-sponsored women's organisations. In India, the hostility between them and the women's movements attached to left parties paral- leled similar divisions in the history of Western women's movements; in addition, an Indian/Western dichotomy was mapped onto them. Hence independent groups were not only accused of being middle-class, essen- tialist, and divisive but also of being Western in their orientation, and thereby divorced from the Indian realities: poverty, underdevelopment, and capitalistlneo-colonial exploitation. The reverse charges were that left- oriented women's movements subordinated gender to other concerns, thereby ignoring the actualities of Indian women's lives: rape, domestic violence, and harassment. In practice, such divisions were often negotiated, if not bridged, in a fairly unique manner. Women's groups across the political spectrum have worked together to launch, since the late seventies, major

campaigns against dowry murders, rape, widow immolation,

and domestic


violence on the one hand, and against price-rise, police brutality, and state apathy on the other. What is significant, for my purposes, is that there is

great pressure on all these groups to be "indigenous." 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, left organisations have to deal with them in their day-to-day functioning. On the other hand, 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 them- selves denounce Western feminism as neo-imperialist or, at the very least, misguided. So we see women activists across a wide political spectrum, and who may otherwise be bitter opponents, concurring in suggesting that

"feminism" is a term irrelevant for the fight for women's rights in India.

Two qualifications

are immediately in order. Firstly, such an "anti-

feminism" rhetoric belies the actual gender politics of these individuals

and groups, who are engaged in a variety of ways in fighting women's oppression. Secondly, this attitude is, in part, an inevitable reaction to and

critique of the imperialist and ethnocentric

underpinnings of much Anglo-

American feminist discourse. But, unfortunately, it resurrects a new version

of an East/West divide and therefore often simplifies the politics of both

Indian and Anglo-American

feminism. It ignores, for example, the critiques

of black or other women of colour, or indeed the work of a great many women

of all colours that has articulated the relationships between gender, sexu-

ality, class, nation,

race, and culture. However, if in India the differences

between varieties of Western feminism are often flattened out, when I travel

to the West, either literally or critically, 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 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." 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, it seems to me, is perhaps more acute in the United States than in Britain. Multiculturalism has created spaces for "minority" cultures but has also invited them to melt into the pot so that "Indian" means "Indian-American," i.e., Indians who live in America (not to be confused further with "Native American"!). 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, but it usually implies that the critiques of dominant Anglo-American feminism rest entirely on the shoul- ders of non-white American women, and "the third world woman" is an

entity that is largely notional,

whose heterogeneity and contexts are blurred


even within "correct" circles. This may sound too sharp, and I constantly

realise that I am in the danger of erasing the very nuances within "Anglo- American criticism" that I think are glossed over in India. One specific area within feminist work in which we can see the results of the East/West divide is the question of sexuality, which remains relatively unexplored and untackled in India, and is regarded by a majority of feminist


as an issue not relevant to Indian feminism. Even those who in

private think that the issue is crucial have not really acknowledged that in

their political practice,

and it is only in the last five years that some

breakthrough is visible. Even as recent scholarship in India has significantly

rewritten Indian history in ways that are both challenging and enabling, even as it has begun to consider gender as a major analytical framework in assessments of colonialism, nationalisms, postcolonial governance, religious controversies, left-wing movements, and peasant struggles, it is still uneasy or reluctant to discuss either sexuality or female subjectivity, except to point out the difficulties that accompany their recovery. The hesitation of feminist historians, activists, literary critics, and cultural analysts in this regard is surprising and at apparent odds with the fairly long history of women's



and with the recent spurt of feminist

research in the

country. I think that there are several reasons for this. Firstly, Indian culture

was represented, both by Orientalist and nationalist commentators, as celebrating instead of repressing sexuality in general, and deifying instead of demonising female sexuality in particular. These assumptions creep even into work otherwise critical of Orientalism, nationalism, and their pa- triarchal nexus. The presence of strong matrilineal traditions in various

parts of the country, some of which persist today, the space accorded to female energy and power in Hindu mythologies and various local cultures in India, and the possibilites of female bonding offered by segregation of the sexes further confuse the issue: they have variously persuaded even (some)


of the liberating redemptive aspects of "Indian" as opposed to

Western culture, a view that has been detrimental to research on how female

sexuality is represented, controlled, repressed, and managed by these intel- lectual and cultural traditions.

Secondly, in a not-so-surprising continuance of nationalist or left-wing

paradigms, to be Indian is to be more concerned with, say, poverty, than, say, sexuality. Even though in practice, women's movements of all hues have had

to deal with the congruence of the sexual and the economic,

their rhetoric

still reflects the belief that grass roots realities in India are so harsh that the

issues of sexuality, sexual orientation, and subjectivity are diversionary issues. Despite this, there has been, in very recent years, an increase in the

number of women's activists who are raising these issues in practice and beginning to articulate their experiences. But in general, a division between


what is consideredlegitimate, authentic, and reallyworthwhile and what is regardedas superfluousor merely fashionable is frequently articulated in

terms of a divide between poverty and sexuality-the

latter also being

dismissedas a "Western"concern. This attitude is furtherentrenched by the

fact that sexualityand subjectivity have dominantly been

addressedin the

West within psychoanalyticalframeworks. Even as these have been enor- mously enabling for and central to feminist concerns, they have also been

notoriouslyproblematic for those who are committed to addressingcultural difference, class, and ethnicity, and to inter-relatingthe social with the subjective. As Michele Barrett sums up in a recent review,"in feminist psychoanalysis,as elsewherein Westernfeminism at the moment, there is

far more interest in literatureand culture than in society and politics ....

(and the) issueof race and is a theoreticalmodel that

ethnicity is a vexed one for psychoanalysis,which has centeredon issuesof genderand marginalized

other differentiationsand identificationsthat are also of evident social and political interest."2I think this is part of the reasonwhy Indianfeminists are


Westerntheoretical models for the discussionof sexuality.Personally,

  • I find a writerlike JacquelineRose, who insists that psychoanalysis is useful for addressing the questions of ideology or political culture, extremely salutaryin this regard. A relateddifficulty lies in a growingscepticism about the relevance of poststructuralism to Indian intellectuals and in the suspi- cion that ideas such as the fragmentation of subjectivity,heterogeneity of power,and multiplicity of identities are detrimentalto both an analysisof the world and social change and are, in fact, the latest form of Western intellectual hegemony designed to prevent marginalisedsubjects from re- fashioning their worlds.The workof those Anglo-Americanfeminists who addressthese problems, like Cora Kaplanor HazelCarby, has a much wider appeal for Indian feminists. So far I have been conflating Western feminism and feminist literary criticism. The formerevokes American radical feminists of the 1960s and '70s and their ratheressentialist theoretical models, which are still the stick with which all Anglo-American feminsm is occasionally beaten. I re- memberan incident at a seminaron feminism held at a constituent college

of the Universityof Delhi where I was invited to talk. Because I was talking aboutfeminist criticismand historiography, I chose to give severalexamples

from the area I know best-the

English Renaissance. The speaker who

followed me cited this as proof of my alienation from India. She berated

Western feminism by She also moved on to

invoking the caricatureof the bra-burningactivist. cite, as a counter-ideal,Mahadevi Akka, one of the

early women poet-saints of India. One of the students intervenedby saying that althoughbra-burning could hardlybe a real issue in a countrywhere the majority of the women did not even wear bras, surely the point of the


agitation in America was both contextuallyrelevant and of symbolicvalue. As was, ironically, the fact that Mahadevi Akka had reportedly walked naked, covered by her long hair alone. I rememberfeeling that if under- graduatestudents had resistedbeing drawninto futile oppositions,there was hope. I do not want to implythat there arenot realdifferences at stake.And,

after all, a meaningfuldialogue is possible only if both sides listen to each other: in a forum like this, for example, it might be worth including what Indianfeminism (amongothers) looks like in the West. There is still a global

imbalance, in materialand ideological terms, in

which feminist criticism is

deeply implicated. While Indian feminists have certainly been indebted to

their Westernsisters, it is not

easy to ignore, not just the presentconfigura-

tions of power, but its long history. British feminists of the nineteenth

century invokedsisterhood only to contributeto the notion of a passiveand

victimised Indian woman. They offered a gendered version

of the white

man'sburden in

colonial India wherebythey wouldrepresent, fight for, and

liberate Indian women from Indian patriarchy. In spite of this, the first

women's organisations in India drew active support from some British


Contemporaryfeminist literarycriticism has had a fairlypositive impact, I


within a differentsphere in India, that is, Englishliterary education,


has had a colonialist as well as patriarchalhistory, and which is still

widely prevalent all over the country.It is perhapsnot surprisingthat the majorityof those who teach and studyEnglish in undergraduatecolleges are women. Today,there is a growingnumber of critiques of the ideology and institutional politics of English literaturein the Indian classroom,most of which have been made possible by anti-colonialist as well as feminist criticism.3 Some of the most trenchant work in this regardhas been by Indian women teachers who are doubly alienated from the English literary canon, and who have creatively and critically interacted with Anglo- American feminist criticism. Such interaction has also been useful for

historiansand culturalcritics of India. But in interactingand learningthey have also implicitly and explicitly advancedcritiques of Westernfeminism

and of the continuing inequalitiesthat still structureour lives. I realise that I have written far more about feminists in India than about

"Anglo-American feminist criticism,"a term with which I am rather un-

comfortableand which I wouldhave liked to unpack since that I admireand have learnt from as well as work that I

it contains work feel impelled to

resist. It is also wrong to read it as synonymouswith "Westernfeminist criticism"as I have done in this essay,if only because Frenchfeminists have been so influential in the last fifteen years. Both "Anglo-American"and "Western"somehow evoke white, essentialist, and hegemonic brands of feminism. When I use these terms, I do not think of Asian or Caribbean


women in England, or Hispanic or African-American women in America, and I suspect such an omission would be true of many feminists in India. It may be that we need to redefine the term, or perhaps the term itself has outlived its usefulness.


  • 1 Susie Tharu and K. Lalita,eds., WomenWriting in India,2 vols. (New York:The Feminist Press, 1991, 1993; New Delhi: Oxford UniversityPress, 1991, 1993).

  • 2 Michele Barrett,"Psychoanalysis and Feminism:A BritishSociologist's View," Signs, 17, No. 2 (1992), 456, 465.

  • 3 See, for example, Lola Chatterji, ed., Woman ImageText (New Delhi: Trianka, 1986); Gauri Viswanathan,The Masksof Conquest:Literary Study and BritishRule in India(New York:Columbia University Press, 1989); RajeswariSunder Rajan, ed., The Lie of the Land:English Literary Studies in India(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991); Svati Joshi, ed., RethinkingEnglish: Essays in Literature,Language, History(New Delhi: Trianka,1991); and Susie Tharu, ed., TeachingLiterature, special issueof The Journalof Englishand ForeignLanguages, Noes. 7 and 8 (June and December