21 November 2007

Feminism and Nationalist Politics

Much of feminist theorising in India, with its insistence on historically locating various feminist movements, has felt the need to examine the nature of women’s movements during the struggle for independence from British imperialist rule. What has also, most pertinently, been taken into account has been its relation to the prevalent Indian nationalist discourse.

Sarojni Naidu in the midst of a very active and organised All India Women’s Conference in Mumbai in 1930 declares in her presidential address: “I am not a feminist”, and later that:

“We must have no mutual conflict in our homes or abroad. We must transcend differences. We must rise above nationalism, above religion, above sex.” [Quoted in Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s Introduction to Feminism in India]

‘Feminism’ with its obvious western associations had no place in the vocabulary of contemporary nationalist politics. In the agenda of nationalist rhetoric, internal differences are subsumed in the interest of the “larger picture” which the narrative of the ‘Nation’ forefronts.

Of course, it was not as if “the woman’s question” (to use a very loose term) was not being debated. It was, but solely in the context of the struggle for Independence. Women came out into the public space; participated in marches, protests; formed all-women organisations, etc – but all towards the collective goal of achieving Independence. This was somewhat similar to several other movements by underprivileged sections of society whose “cause” was integrated into the nationalist framework.

Among the loudest contemporary voices protesting against such a political schema was Rabindranath Tagore. Though Tagore’s focus was largely on class and caste, and not gender issues, he is important for this argument too. A freedom movement, according to Tagore, that seeks to gloss over internal differences; that does not specifically address the issues of the underprivileged; that imposes the construct of a ‘Nation’ over diverse social, linguistic and cultural groups; can only be a failure, even if it does achieve independence.

Tagore’s warning does not seem to be very irrelevant. For even though, after the Independence in 1947, women were granted suffrage along with men, debates about ‘the women’s question’ had disappeared from the public space in the decades that followed. Several very significant and related questions, which accompanied a lot of women’s suffrage movements around the world could not be raised. The collective energy that had been amassed during the freedom struggle and channelled towards that end was diffused through a paternalistic granting of the right to vote.


Mike said...

I am reminded of that scene in Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (you'd love it--its amazing) where the Arab-Algerian women grab bombs to place in the French (colonised) part of Algiers in order to drive the colonizers out of the country... the question that doesn't come up is what they are sacrificing in fighting for and gaining national independence (their rights!).
Just curious: do you think that Tagore is saying that any imposition of a national construct over a differentiated social body will only produce failure, or that it was an issue of the collective energy present in the fight for independence having the opportunity to account for these diverse bodies of society (like women) and then squandering that energy by fitting it only to a paternalistic national framework? In other words, I guess I'm asking what do you think about Gayatri Spivak's contention that essentialism can be used strategically to deconstruct essentialism: that women perhaps by subsuming themselves under the heading of nationhood could with the help of the collective energy deconstruct the notion of both the nation and womanhood as stable (phallogocentrically determined) identities? Or--and this is what I'm really asking--is this narrative of what could have happened at that moment symptomatic of a view of Independence that is too western, too acculturated to the optimistic leftist politics and nationalism so prevalent here in the US and so dangerously unquestioned? I don't know if this makes sense--in a way it doesn't repay one to ask this historical type of question at all (my question--not yours, which is different and better), for the issue isn't how could feminism during the Independence struggle not get subsumed under nationhood in getting subsumed under nationhood, but to look at how it just did get subsumed--which is what you do so well!
Your point is great though--the rhetoric of nationhood is a very, very dangerous discourse for the underpriveleged. We are very, very far from thinking through these things here in the US... especially in the current climate of unquestioning patriotism...

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

I must admit, you gave me a lot to think about (which is one half of the reason behind the delayed response), not only to things directly related to the questions you put, but several related issues as well.

To tackle Tagore first: His critique of nationalism was formulated against the prevalent majoritarian political rhetoric which was on the verge of demanding an independent Indian nation state (this was around 1910s). His problems mainly being: a) The concept of the ‘nation’ itself was Western, born out of capitalist discourse. b) On the nation was superimposed a Hindu identity (subsuming other religious groups, mostly Muslims). Such a concept obviously favoured the landed Hindu class (and other privileged categories). c) There were more pressing concerns which required attention – like child marriage, workless/ landless labourers, etc. Independence then becomes a replacement for one centre of power (the British) for another (upper class Hindu). The margins being left where they were.

The “diverse bodies of society” were used but in the context of a nationalist framework already paternalistic/ Hindu dominated/ upper class centric to begin with.

And as for the question of strategic essentialism: I wouldn’t say I’m not in favour of such an argument; I’m just not sure whether it would work in this case. You see, the equation of nation = Hindu (and because it was in the form of a Hindu Goddess) = woman is something very strongly etched. And along with this comes the necessary imposition of culture on women. So I feel that the act of women subsuming themselves under the category of a nation can not/ should not be read as something positive. (I’m not even sure I’m making much sense here. Maybe I need to read/ think/ be convinced further.)

For the political situation in the U.S.: I agree. An unchallenged patriotism is something I find extremely disturbing (especially, though not restricted to) a post 9/11 scenario.

Mike said...

Wow--again a lot of food (why is it food? what does food have to do with this? I'm very confused.) for thinking... Everything you said about Tagore is awesome--you've convinced me to pick up Tagore's works as well as that introduction to feminism in India and check it out... I was going to write some more here in response, but you've got me thinking so much! I think your remark about nationalism not being able to be positive at all is absolutely right... it is extremely dangerous. But I am also surprised: here that particular avenue of feminist discourse--how tied are feminists to an idea of nationhood, especially after 9/11--is never seen to be a problem: feminism if anything is inflecting itself through that horrible patriotism unquestioningly... another version of the "having it all" ideology... eek. So to see an extremely rich articulation of the problems of nationalism and patriotism tied into feminism is almost too refreshing and thought provoking!--that is, for someone within the stagnant, frustrated realm of feminism in the US.

metaphysicallycomplicit said...

Any investigation here into gender inequality must necessarily, I think, look at class/ caste/ religious divides simultaneously - because this is the nature of lived 'reality'. Anything else would be a failure. The cultural contexts are very different. (Not just from other countries but within the country as well.)

P.S. - If you're really interested in Tagore, I suggest reading "Nationalism in India", an essay that came out (curiously enough) from his lecture tour in the U.S. I couldn't locate an online version, but he ought to be among the least difficult to find considering he's better known.