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The Mass Media

Indian Professor Emeritus wows ’em at the Healey

The Women’s Center and the English Department scored again with a lecture by Professor Emeritus Jasbir Jain, well known critic and writer on women’s issues in India. Dr. Jain holds her emeritus at Rajasthan university and came to our frigid shores last Thursday to educate an appreciative crowd on the long and durable feminist tradition in India. Barring a dubious exhortation by corporate consultant Ingrid Rivera, the Women’s Center has had a string of excellent speakers and popular events. Lunch was provided. The box lunches were excellent on the whole- the turkey sandwiches rather bland, but the ham was superbly lean and the vegetarian excitingly fresh, the cookies were crispy, and the oranges delectable. No word on the chips.

Sounding positively giddy, Linda Dittmar, English Professor here at UMass, introduced Dr. Jain and detailed her long career and many publications. Dr. Jain has taught in classrooms from Sweden to Hong Kong, and is the author of many definitive works of scholarship on Indian literature, including a new collection of essays, Gender and Narrative (Rawat Pub.). She is also an expert in postcolonial studies and the current chair of the English Department at Hyderabad University.

In a warm display of international scholarship, Dr. Jain spoke for forty minutes on the antecedents of modern feminism in India and the influence of British colonial rule and Ghandian ideology on the struggle for equal rights. With a firm classroom touch, she outlined the traditional position of women in Indian society, the differences between the Hindu outlook and a secular, western one, and managed to get a few laughs from the cheerful audience.

Feminism in India has a long history, with women writers and reformers as early as the 18th century. The traditional female role in Indian society is based on emulating Sita, a mythological heroine of the Ramayana, a Hindu religious epic. Sita was faithful, family-oriented, and nonchalantly submitted to being burned at the stake to prove her virtue. She provides an idealized vision of womanhood, the Betty Crocker of Indian mythology, “sita” is the term is used to pay compliments to a girl or woman who acts in a demure and responsible manner.

Dr. Jain explained that the Ramayana and other religious texts gave rise to a concept of femininity that assigns to it the creative and sexual energies of the universe, embodied in the goddess Devi and personified in various exciting forms, like Kali (destruction), Parvati (concubine) Tara(compassion),, and Shodari (teenager). Traditionally, the male role is to subvert and channel this energy into constructive outlets, and the woman’s role is concentrated in family and community. Explaining feminism’s roots in 18th century India, Dr. Jain outlined ideas that might be hard for modern women to swallow, such as a deep cultural respect for femininity, even at the expense of equality. “It’s important to remember that in India, religion spills over into every aspect of life,” and often the historical struggles of women were aimed at acquiring more freedom and control within a traditional milieu, rather absolute equality. This is not the case in modern India, where a woman has served as the head of state (Indira Gandhi) and constitutional amendments guarantee at least 1/3 of all representative seats go to women.

In traditional Hindu society, each caste, or hereditary class, of India had slightly different conceptions of the role of women. The highest caste, the Brahmins, were very limiting, often following the customs of “purdah,” or complete isolation of females from society. The more primitive tribal villages often followed the customs of “isa” or “honor” in Urdu, revering the women of the villages and fiercely protecting her “purity”. “Isa” has been blamed recently for the notorious custom of “honor killing.” A girl suspected of easy virtue may be slain by embarrassed (and testy) male family members, even if she was raped. This practice is known throughout Central Asia and is not confined to the tribal villages of India.

Another practice for which Indian culture is justly infamous, once prevalent among lower castes, is “suttee.” Traditionally, a bride is expected (or forced) to join her deceased husband on a funeral pyre. An aspect of “sita” suttee is supposed to help a wife show her devotion to her husband and their commingled destiny. Feminism took an early victory when the British outlawed suttee in 1829. Seen as a very holy act in some parts, suttee periodically flares up again, and is stamped out by the Indian authorities, who tend to view it as a horrifying barbarity. the last case to garner international attention occured in 1987.

Colonial India opened the “discourse on feminism in all directions,” said Dr. Jain. British colonial rule in India presented a double-edged sword to early Indian feminists and reformers. Colonialism “forced a dialogue between cultures,” but the British imposed a system of laws that relied on a very harsh tradition of subservience in women. This relegated women to the status of property, until a landmark case in 1884, when a young woman, Rahkmabai, won a lawsuit against her husband. Rahkmabai’s husband had filed suit to force her to consummate their marriage. She had been married at age eleven. The case attracted international publicity, and women gained a key legal protection, the right to their own bodies.

Women in India have a long tradition of writing that helped further feminist causes as long as, Dr. Jain was careful to emphasize, they adhered to strict codes of morality and appearance. Drawing laughs and applause from the crowd, Dr. Jain spoke of a famous feminist story from 1905, “Sultana’s Dream,” where, “the women were walking the streets, free from insults, and all the men were in purdah!”

Dr. Jain also explored the effects of Gandhian ideology and post-colonial feminism before taking questions. Mohandas Gandhi, widely regarded as the father of Indian independence and hailed for his philosophy of non-violent protest, espoused a doctrine of “satyagraha,” seeking the truth. He encouraged followers to give up struggle and worldly things, and Dr. Jain pointed out that while this was a noble aim, “It did not encourage women to act as a community” With independence came a renaissance of Hindu culture in India that brought a powerful incentive to return to a male-dominated India. Democracy prevailed, however, and the Indian government has been very proactive in pursuing women’s rights.

Closing her lecture, Dr. Jain detailed the many recent strides in Indian society for women, such as anti-harassment laws, and the efforts of the government to bring education and awareness of laws protecting women to remote and primitive areas. She took questions and comments with a good deal of grace until the house emptied, as students ran to classes.

Dr. Jain currently lives and teaches in Hyderabad, India. She is working on a book about the post-colonial novel in India.

About the Contributor
Carl Brooks served as news editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2003-2004