In the first scene of the Deepa Mehta’s 2005 Indian film Water, a father tells his eight year old daughter, Chuyia, “Child. Do you remember getting married? Your husband is dead. You’re a widow now.” These are some of the last words Chuyia hears from anyone familiar to her, as her condition abandons her in an ashram for Hindu widows to spend the rest of her life in renunciation. Chuyia, failing to realize her condition upon arrival, enters the ashram innocent and naive, as the elderly widows surround her and one proceeds shave her soft head. Watching Chuyia begin to understand her circumstance as she terrifyingly runs for escape screaming for her family, one can only feel a tragic catharsis watching an eight year old being sentenced to life in prison for a “crime” she did not commit. The ideas and criticisms that come to one’s mind are undoubtedly what writer and director, Deepa Mehta, aimed to evoke – injustice, patriarchy, and oppression by way of religion.
As the film progresses we see simultaneously the progression of the relationship between Chuyia and a beautiful widow in her twenties, Kalyani, who forbiddingly falls in love with Narayana, a high-caste Ghandhian. Through these relationships, the film unfolds the historical context of the time and implicitly criticizes some of the Indian traditions that have been linked to injustice of Indian women. The one agreement among audiences concerning this film is its efficacy in portraying the horrible condition of low class, female Hindu widows. However, the point of contention enters the discourse when it comes to audience reaction. Just two days into shooting the film, a mob representing an extremist nationalist Hindu group destroyed the film’s set, claiming that it was an “organised plot by the Christian church against Hinduism.” Furthermore, the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Forum, claimed that the “film’s script ‘smacks of the conspiracy by the votaries of Western culture to tarnish the image of widowhood in India.’’ Thus, a message aimed to address change and progressive equality, for some, is purely a representation of the demonic “West.”
What the film and its extreme reaction have in common is the ways in which women’s oppression takes discreet shape, and the fact that these practices exist through complex psychological, political, social, and religious mentalities today. During a scene in Water, Bhagavati, the mother of Narayan, a Gandhian who wants to marry Kalyani, says to her son regarding Chuyia, “God willing she’ll be reborn as a man.” What Mehta is trying to convey is the reactionary sentiment of many Indian women that acknowledges a ubiquity of Indian patriarchy and the injustice it entails for women. Though the film is set in 1938, the sentiment that Indian feminism is either barely visible or a mimicry of Western feminism is still prevalent in much of the public rhetoric. However, as most transnational feminists argue, feminism is not by any means an inherently or exclusively Western idea. In fact, many scholars argue that feminism “evolved” separately in the “East” as it did in the “West,” what Uma Narayan claims is a type of “convergent evolution.”
Narayan claims that she inhabits both an Eastern and Western understanding of feminism, as she identifies as a Third World feminist who has lived a number of years in the West. In her article on “Contesting Cultures”Narayan identifies and refutes the reasons for Third World feminist backlash in India. Combating the argument that feminism in India is merely Western, she claims, “. . .for many Third World feminists, their feminists consciousness is not a hot-house bloom grown in the arid atmosphere of ‘foreign’ ideas, but has its roots much closer to home.” Narayan claims that her feminism grew out of personal experience as an Indian female, and strongly influenced by her mother and grandmother. Not only are the roots of Narayan’s feminism found within her family line, but they grew out of experience with other Indian women as well. However, while Narayan acknowledges the similitude of feminist activity between the East and the West, she makes explicit the distinction between Indian feminism as a pure emulation of the West and the stark yet tragic similarity that both contexts allow for women’s inequality.
One of my favorite books tackling the relationship between the Goddess and Indian politics is found in Kathleen Erndl’s book, Is the Goddess a Feminist? Erndl discusses her conception of feminist religious practices, questioning the relationship between Hindu Goddesses and women’s well-being in India. For example, Erndl argues that Indian woman involved in various women’s organizations that supports economic, educational, and social opportunities for women and challenges the sacred aspect of marriage for women. Many of these organizations attribute their work to the influence of the Goddess in their lives. Furthermore, this Goddess feminism is distinctly non-Western, “. . .for she is illiterate and has had virtually no exposure to Western ideas.” Thus, as Erndl argues, Goddess worship and shakti, the female power of life and death in Hinduism, acts as a source of empowerment for women. However, Erndl does acknowledge the angle of manipulation of these practices to serve the patriarchal culture. Some argue that “shakti-related phenomena such as Goddess possession of women gurus are safety valves which ultimately function to preserve the patriarchal system. The idea that women (and other disadvantaged people) engage in religious practices and experience spiritual empowerment as a kind of consolation prize for losing status in the ‘real world.’” This argument is extremely convincing to me, and I imagine other feminists as well, but that does not mean that this Goddess is not a “feminist” per se. Though a Western feminist, Erndl poses an alternative to bring about feminism that is characteristically “Hindu” in order to satisfy both religion and women. She claims that “. . .the task for Hindu feminists, on an ideological level, is to rescue shakti from its patriarchal prison.” Given this emerging scholarship, provocative media, and ongoing globalization affecting Indian women, I think it’s important to recognize feminism in India is both necessary and organically “Indian.”
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.