Feminism In India: What You Need to Know

Feminism In India: What You Need to Know: Gender inequality has existed in societies since the primitive ages. Primitive humans gendered their labour, where men went out to hunt while women reared children. Despite the evolution of society, which has led to more fluidity among gender roles, women are still oppressed and are victims of the patriarchal society.

Patriarchy is defined as “social organisation marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line.” In a country like India, most families are dominated by male members where men uphold the family while women provide domestically. However, despite the bias, women in India are victims of the patriarchy, which makes them vulnerable to abuse and discrimination.


The following article aims at understanding the Indian woman and the Indian and Dalit feminist movement’s role in the upliftment of women irrespective of caste or class. The article also highlights prominent women in the feminist movement and how feminism in India has developed into, in the present day. 

The Indian Woman 

The notion of a “good Indian woman” has been a basis for criticism in India. A “good” woman does not leave the house unless she has a reason to leave the house”, as observed in Shilpa Phadke, ‘s book “Why Loiter?”. As a result of being limited to their households, women in India are subjected to domestic violence but are expected to remain faithful to their husbands. From the historic inequalities faced by Indian women such as child marriage and Sati, the present-day Indian woman is also still a victim of the society. In Veena Das’s Essay “Modernity and Biography: Women’s Lives in Contemporary India”, she quotes Charles Taylor, who states that the people in traditional cultures are given “an unchallengeable framework” which is expected to be followed and reflected upon in their lives which hinders in the notion of modernity. This creates a glass ceiling which creates restrictions and hindrances in the lives of women in India, a country of traditional cultures, who are forced into leading lives by the cultural norms. In order to understand this, Veena Das conducted an ethnographic study of Indian Urban families through biographies. Her findings, recorded in three fragments. Her findings state that urban Indian men feel the “loss of masculinity” as urban Indian women take on the traditionally masculine role of earning for the family. Hence, she states that this creates a need for the urban man to reclaim their masculinity which results in domestic abuse. The present-day women are victims of the increasing crimes targeted towards them. In a report published in 2015, the National Crimes Record Bureau of the Government of India compiled the crimes committed against women including rape, molestation, kidnapping and abduction, and dowry deaths in the three previous years. It was found that there has been an increase from 9.4% in 2011 to 10.7% in 2015. Over the past ten years, it has been observed that the percentage of crime has increased from 4.3% to 84.9%, while the percentage of cases registered has increased from 4.3% to 110.5%. 

Read: Women’s Movement in India

The Indian Feminist Movement

Feminism is an advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. While the western feminist movement began at the Seneca Falls Convention, (1848) which was a two-day convention for the social, civil and religious rights of women, The Indian feminist movement rose as a part of the middle-class social reform movement in the 19th century. This was the beginning of the feminist movements in India where issues related to a woman’s status in society was included in the social reform movement by reformers such as Rajaram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, Annie Besant, M.G. Ranade and B.G. Tilak. The moment was focused on the prevention of ill-treatment of women and raising the status of women. However, a vital aspect of the Indian Feminist movement which differentiated it from that of the West was the intersectionality of caste along with the class. 

Prior to the partition and India’s independence from the British, the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) was the primary organisation that addressed social inequalities and sought a change in the treatment of women as they were closely related to the Independence movement. The AIWC was initially formed to discuss the education of women in India. However, education could not be discussed without addressing other factions in the society which oppressed women such as child marriage and widow burning (Sati). Post-independence the AIWC joined the Women’s Indian Association. The other prominent organisation was the National council for women in India. This was an Indian segment of the International Council for Women. These organisations were crucial in leading the movement which gained attention post-independence and was most prominent post the 1970s. However, despite the rise of the Indian Feminist movement, the movement catered to middle-class Savarna women hence leading to the need for a separate Dalit Feminist Movement. 

The Dalit Feminist Movement

Caste in India is a crucial aspect that plays a role in societal structures. Caste has been used as a meaning of controlling resources and segregating labour. Caste also dictates sexual autonomy as women are restricted to their castes. Dalits, the outcastes, are oppressed by the upper castes. Dalit women have to face double oppression as they are victims of oppression from their gender as well as caste. Hence the Dalit feminist movement is essential in unfolding the oppression faced by Dalit women and working towards their upliftment. The movement arose as a critique of the Indian feminist movement in the 70s, which was exclusive of women from the lower caste. In reviewing second-wave feminism in India and the Dalit movement, Datar (1999) recognises the importance of the anti-rape agitation but views sexual politics as a ‘stray tendency’ within feminism. Dalit women are more prone to sexual violence by men within their caste as well as those from the upper castes. This is as a result of the occupation of sex work which, several Dalit women are forced to embark as they are seen as being available to the men of the upper caste, stripping them of autonomy of their bodies. 

As a result, the Dalit Feminist movement seeks representation of Dalit women in the mainstream feminist Savarna movement. This is crucial as it aids in acknowledgement of the issues of Dalit women which is misrepresented or not represented at all by the mainstream Indian feminist movement. Dalit women often wrote biographies of their lives to bring to light the challenges of being a Dalit woman which was inspired by B.R. Ambedkar. Dalit feminism seeks upward mobility of Dalit women in order to eliminate physical and sexual violence, discrimination, and oppression. In order to do this, the Dalit feminist movement seeks reservations exclusively for Dalit women in educational institutions, representation and inclusion of Dalit women in decision and policy-making which can help narrow the gaps created by the caste system and their gender identities. 

Prominent Women in the History of the Indian Feminist Movement

  • Savitribai Phule – A Dalit woman who attempted to educate herself and women from depressed castes, started the first school for girls and is often cited as the mother of the Indian Feminist Movement
  • Tarabai Shinde – Writer of Stree-Purush Tuna’, a text depicting sentiments against women’s subordination and the patriarchal biases of both Brahmins & non- brahmins groups.
  • Pandita Rama Bai – Daughter of Anant Shastri Dongre, who was an unconventional social reformer, began the social transformation by educating his wife who taught her daughter. She played a vital role in setting up several women’s organisations. She founded the Arya Mahila Samaj which gave shelter to distressed women and helped them to develop crafts to sustain themselves. 
  • Rassundari Devi – A housewife with limited schooling, wrote her autobiography in Bengali in 1876 called Amar Jibon (My life)  

Read: Backward classes and Dalit Movements

Present-Day Feminism in India

The Indian feminist movement has led to the creation of several pro-women laws in India. The movement evolved to include issues such as increasing birth ratio, creating employment for women, encouraging widow remarriage, creating pro-women laws such as Sati Prevention Act (1987), the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (2005) and The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (2013). The feminist movement and struggle have resulted in liberating women in several ways, such as having women in positions of power, gaining access to higher education, creating reservations for women in jobs. Although feminism has received criticism in the modern-day for being biased towards females, it is seen so as it focuses on gender equality and women are still struggling to gain an equal status to a man in society. 

However, despite the feminist movement, women in India are still victims of domestic and sexual abuse. This is tied back to the concept of honour where, despite the progressive outlook towards women, women are still forced into being submissive and remain silent. Women are still expected to conform to social norms and have limited freedom compared to a man. Shilpa Phadke, in her book “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets” points out the risks a woman faces in an urban society in the 21st century India where women on the streets and urban public places are still harassed, catcalled groped and are at risk. Women are expected to stay indoors and only step out when they have a reason and hence the question “Why Loiter?”. Present-day feminism thus is focused around aspects such as achieving safety for women in public spaces, voicing discrimination against women in the workplace such as lower pay, hence addressing the wage gap, creating a space and voice for victims of abuse to speak up rather than be victim-blamed and shamed. Therefore feminism will continue to be a need to fuel the upliftment of Indian women.   


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Shubha Arvind is currently pursuing a degree in Psychology with an Open Minor at FLAME University. Her passion for culture studies, sociology and film and she aims to focus her minor around them. She actively participates in discussions and hopes to make a change. Her hobbies include playing the violin, swimming and art.