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A dialogue on fundamentals, pervasiveness and core values of feminist theory

The Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi conducted a Three-Day Immersive Online Certificate Training Course on ‘Feminism: Fundamentals, Facets and Future’ from February 23rd to 25th, 2023.
The session was inaugurated by Aashwash Mahanta, a researcher at IMPRI, who welcomed and introduced the speakers for the event. The course, spread over three-consecutive days, introduced the participants to the origins and trajectory of feminism, its contemporary and European aspects, intersectional feminism, feminist theory in India, and the intersection of law and feminism. It initiated a dialogue on the fundamentals and core values of feminist theory and encouraged a feminist consciousness within the participants.
Professor Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Distinguished Professor, at IMPRI, kickstarted the course with an introductory note, highlighting the pervasiveness of feminist attitudes in the contemporary world.
The discussion was then taken over by our first trainer, Dr. Leena Pujari, Associate Professor and Head of, the Department of Sociology, K C College, Mumbai. Focusing on the works of Bell Hooks, Sarah Ahmed, and Nivedita Menon, she discussed their individual interpretation of feminism and their similarities and differences. Deriving from these primary definitions of feminism, Dr. Pujari sought to disintegrate the widely held notions of feminism and concluded that feminism is a personal concept about understanding the interconnected nature of oppression and interrogating systemic injustices evolution and transformation.
Moving on to tracing the origins of feminism, she began by discussing the Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 and the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 as the formal points of origin. This also marked the beginning of what has been defined as the first wave of feminism. She discussed the seminal works of Olympe de Gouges, who wrote the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women’ in response to the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’ in 1791, and Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote the ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792. Going back to the anti-slavery movement in America, she discussed the participation of white bourgeoise women and black women in the same, and the subsequent but simultaneous consolidation of the women’s movement, leading to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
Dr. Pujari further elaborated upon the beginning of the Second wave of feminism post world war II and the production of classic texts like Simon de Bouview’s Second Sex in 1949, and Shulasmith Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex in 1970. She then examined the expansion of feminist thought by the post-modernists and post-structuralists who raised questions about cultural identity and the politics of pleasure. She concluded by urging the audience to move away from a Eurocentric approach in the search for the origins and also look elsewhere in regions like South Asia and Africa.
Her presentation was followed by Professor Roxana’s insightful lecture on aspects of contemporary feminism and European trends. She is a Professor in the Faculty of International Business and Economics, Department of Modern Languages and Business Communication, Bucharest University of Economic Studies, Romania. At the outset, she defined features of contemporary feminism, namely the emergence of intersectionality and the plurality of voices that have emerged. She contextualized this change by looking at the changes in general society, and the backlash that contemporary feminism has received from conservative forces.
Remarking on the major challenges to feminism today, she discussed Angela Mcrobie’s post-feminist critique of a ‘faux feminism’ that has developed due to the instrumentalization of feminism by governments, the labor market, and corporate organizations, and the individualization of feminist struggle in popular culture. In the same line, she brought forth the challenges of neoliberalism, which has produced feminism that is more palatable through pinkwashing and corporate-backed campaigns that are tokenistic. These dangers of mainstreaming feminism have been discussed by Sylvia Walby in her work “The Future of Feminism”.
Talking about the challenges in Europe, she introduced the audience to the concept of ‘femocrats’ – women bureaucrats who imposed their vision of feminism from the top – a trend that is observed to be rising in the region. She urged the audience to question the gender equality movements coming from the top instead of passively receiving them. However, she also went on to discuss the incorporation of gender mainstreaming in the policies introduced by the European Union.
She drew her presentation to a close by discussing the advent of feminism in post-communist central and eastern Europe after 1990, the problem of transference of feminist ideas from one region to another without adaptation, and the current precariousness of academic and activist feminism in the region.

DAY 2 | February 24, 2023

The second day of the course began with an exhaustive presentation by Dr. Vahida Nainar – independent researcher and gender consultant – who explored the history of sexual violence law reforms in India. She started by discussing the Mathura rape case of 1972, where the acquittal of the accused and the court’s understanding of consent and rape sparked an outcry from women’s groups and academics. Their advocation led to the first amendment in 1983, which considered the victim’s testimony of non-consent as a fact in the trial. Additionally, custodial rape was criminalized and the burden of proof shifted from the victim to the offender.
She then talked about the formation of the Justice Verma Committee following Jyoti Singh’s rape in 2012 and the suggestions for amendments made by several women’s rights advocacy groups. These called for changes in judicial language and vocabulary, expanding the definition of rape, recognizing other conducts of sexual assault, widening the understanding of consent, and outlining the procedure for aggravated sexual assault cases. Some recommendations made their way into the criminal amendment act of 2013 and 2018, and the POSCO amendment act of 2019.
Dr. Nainar proceeded to discuss the debates on punishment, covering the efficacy of the carceral approach and death penalties in cases of sexual violence, the failure of the criminal justice system in dealing with such cases, and the socio-cultural and gender impact of the same. She concluded by highlighting the continuing challenges of searching for alternate approaches to accountability, reparation of sexual violence, prevention and protection against sexual violence, and realising the principle of equality before the law.
Following this, Prof. Manisha Desai, Department Head of Sociology and Professor of Sociology and Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut, USA, delivered a lecture on feminist reflexivity and decoloniality. She traced the history of feminist concerns and brought forth the central position that reflexivity has held in feminist discourse. She defined reflexivity as self-critique via reflection, which has been essential in the survival of feminism. Dr. Desai examined the evolution of concerns in the feminist movement to the development of the concept of intersectionality and how decoloniality had developed as the most current expression of reflexivity in feminism. She illustrated how decoloniality sought to move away from Eurocentric models of understanding and brought in issues of settled coloniality in regions of America, Australia.
Drawing her discussion to a close, she talked about practicing reflexivity by engaging with critiques to come up with new kinds of feminism.
Finally, Professor Vibhuti Patel traced the history of feminist assertion and activism in India, going back all the way to the therigathas of Budhist bhikunis. She highlighted the role of women stalwarts like Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai, and Dr. Rakmabai in the 19th and 20th century social reform movement and their assertion for causes of female education, child marriage, female infanticide, caste-based oppression, and the condition of widows. This trend found its way into the Indian freedom movement which saw the largescale participation of women who not only became the face of the movement by also influenced others to do the same.
She discussed critical areas in feminist politics in India, such as ecofeminism, the livelihood concerns of women, reproductive rights of women in India, and the problem of their implementation. Dr. Patel also integrated concerns of intersectional feminism, bringing attention to the experience of women with disabilities who face double marginalization. She also reflected on the rising concern over sexual harassment at the workplace. Furthermore, Dr. Patel dwelled into issues that have emerged in the Indian feminist discourse, like gender and access to healthcare, sexual violence in conflict areas like Kashmir, and North-East, the debate on ethicalities and legalization of sex-work, concerns over issues of sexuality and oppression faced by LGBTQ groups. Concluding her lecture, she talked about the debates that have been prevalent in the public sphere like the issue of age of consent, honour crimes, family laws, and temple entry, among others.

DAY 3 | February 25, 2023

The last day of the course started with a lecture on the reflections and intersection of law and feminism delivered by Dr. Saumya Uma – Professor, Jindal Global Law School and Director, Centre for Women’s Rights (JGLS). She discussed the use of feminist principles in the examination and analysis of law, and understanding its ramifications.
She discussed the forms of women’s subordination, and how the law, which is built upon male experiences, can be one tool of oppression of women. Moving onto a discussion of feminist theories about law that aim to transform the relationship between law and society. Dr. Uma outlined feminist perspectives on how the law reflects patriarchal interests, and the limitations of the law when it comes to preserving the status quo and embodying the dominant cultural attitude. She concluded by outlining the different lines of critique that feminists have pushed against laws, statutory provisions, institutions, and programs.
Finally, she gave examples of feminist advocacy initiatives which ushered in new laws like the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, and the Criminal Law Amendment Act, of 2018. She ended on a positive note by noting how feminist advocates not only focus on the critique of law but also a celebration of gender-positive judgements to create more awareness.
The lecture was followed by a discussion on feminism and intersectionality by Prof Linda Lane – Senior Lecturer, Department of Social Work, University of Gothenburg, Sweden. She emphasized the importance of locating the place of women from diverse backgrounds into the feminist discourse, which was primarily written from the perspective of white, upper middle-class, heterosexual women. She talked about the role of Kimberly Crenshaw in formalizing the definition of intersectionality, and elaborated on her three critical aspects of intersectionality – structural intersectionality, political intersectionality, and representational intersectionality. Prof Lane further discussed the achievements and implications of intersectionality within feminism, emphasizing its recognition of the interconnectedness of social identities.
Prof Lane then engaged with the argument of Patricia Hill Collins and outlined three main branches of study within intersectionality – the first deal with the basic ideas, issues, and debates within intersectionality, the second tries to use intersectionality as an analytical strategy, and the third focuses on intersectionality as a practice to bring about social change.
She also highlighted the link between women’s subjugation under colonialism and patriarchy, the emergence of new issues brought forth by globalization and neo-liberalism, and the backlash intersectionality has received as being dangerous or merely “identity politics” leading to social differences.
Prof Bijayalaxmi Nanda, Principal and Professor of Political Science at Miranda House, University of Delhi, delivered the final lecture of the course on feminist discourse on rights, using a case study of sex-selective abortion. She stressed the importance of engaging with different feminist perspectives and adopting a syncretic approach to bring about change.
She discussed the declining sex-ratio in India, and the contradictions that have emerged over this phenomenon like the competing rights of women and girls, the debate over reproductive autonomy, and the emergence of new feminist discourses on sex-selective abortion.
Dr Nanda elaborated on the “policy response continuum”, with the killing of female foetuses on the demand end, and the formation of policies by the State to respond to this gender discrimination on the supply end. She pointed to collaboration between feminist academics and activists in India to make demands on the State to bring out women empowerment schemes, financial incentive schemes and other laws.
She talked about the maternal health crisis in the early 2000s and the politics of feminism, including the dilemmas feminists face in balancing women’s rights with the ending of discriminatory practices, using the example of the Nawanshahr Experiment in Punjab. She then brought the audience’s attention to the schemes that have been introduced by the government in various states to alleviate the problem of sex-ration and their success, focusing on the Ladli scheme in Delhi which did not bring much of a turnaround.
She noted the limited success of financial incentives and how they were mostly used for dowry, rather than education, and did not change women’s bargaining power in the community. Bringing the course to a close, she concluded by calling for a syncretic feminist approach, highlighting the importance of the State in building social capacity for women, and moving towards transnational feminism.
Every lecture was followed by an interactive question and answer session which facilitated a more nuanced understanding of the topics covered and cultivated a critical feminist consciousness among the participants.
Acknowledgement: Sumira Grover, research intern at IMPRI



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