F for Foreign : “Feminism from A to Z
About 200 years ago, a young woman sat in the secrecy of her own home, learning how to read and write from her husband. Due to this brave act of defiance carried out in the clandestinity of her home, millions of girls in India now have the opportunity to be educated freely. The Indian women’s rights movement is indebted to Savitribai Phule, and despite the great lengths it still has to cover, its journey until here has been made possible due to her dauntless spirit.
In a world enveloped by the thick, restraining fog of patriarchy, the only ray of sunshine that gives some semblance of a worthy fight for women is the feminist movement. Yet, the stories we hear, revere and celebrate are almost always about experiences unrelatable to the vast majority of women of the subaltern.
Savitribai Phule, a pioneer of the Indian feminist movement, lived at a time when women were not allowed to be literate. The luxury of knowledge and learning was not something they could avail, and they had been covertly educating themselves in the darkness of gloomy nights so as to not be discovered. Savitribai became the beacon of light for a generation of women who couldn’t dare to dream beyond their dimly lit homes. The resistance to her work was strong, but her resolve was simply stronger. Despite the crowds that would pelt stones at her, Savitribai would go on to open three different schools for girls, eighteen education centres, clinics, and would teach children of different castes.
Even today, India has a literacy rate for women of around 70%, significantly lower than the literacy rate for men which is around 85%, as reported by The Times of India. This is even more critical among girls of lower castes who are often denied education, and in rural areas where girls are encouraged to stay at home, or drop out of school. Savitribai’s legacy serves as a reminder to not let the sacrifices of women go in vain, and continue to work towards providing equal access to quality education to girls. But more importantly, her legacy highlights the complexities and nuances of intersectionality that most mainstream feminist ideas fail to capture. Clearly, feminism in India is inherently linked to caste, income levels, area of residence, and opportunity. Yet, this is just one example out of many.
Vilma Espín, a Cuban revolutionary and feminist, established the Federation of Cuban Women alongside her work in the Cuban revolution. Her legacy in Cuba as an advocate for women’s education, enabling them to join the workforce and equipping them with skills to ensure their self sufficiency has been revolutionary in the emancipation of women. She was central in the formulation of the Cuban Family Code, mandating men’s participation in household chores and childcare. Vilma Espín’s work demonstrates how feminism can never be divorced from class struggles and equality of opportunity.
In Kenya, the feminist movement took on a role centred around the decision making of local women as part of social welfare groups. However, after colonisation repurposed these groups to “civilise” African women, the Kenyan feminist movement also took a new approach to ensure equality of opportunity in a patriarchal society. Professor Wangare Muta Maathai, known for her indelible impression on feminism in Kenya, formed the Green Belt Movement which worked towards improving the livelihoods of women by increasing their access to natural resources such as clean water, thereby simultaneously contributing to conserving the environment.
All of these stories of resolute revolution are rarely heard and revered the same way stories of the Global North are. However, it is clear that feminism all over the world is intrinsically linked with struggles of decolonisation, enabling social mobility, class and caste struggles, and equality of access and opportunity.
Yet today, CARE International reports that of the 828 million people living in hunger globally, 3 in 5 are women. As of 2020, around 130 million girls are completely missing out on school, as reported by UNICEF. According to the World Bank, an estimated 500 million people lack access to menstrual hygiene and facilities.
Let this serve as a reminder that now, more than ever, is the time to listen to these stories and platform these imaginative, intersectional ideas of feminism as they remain our only hope for a future that nourishes, not exploits.
By Lavanya Kapoor