Much of feminist theorising in
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
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.