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Reviewed by Ammara Khan

The western discourse on feminism tends to overlook women’s struggle in other parts of the world. Moreover, with more and more women breaking the shackles of domesticity to participate in the public life, there are many in the western tradition who see feminism as irrelevant. They believe that feminist discourse of victimisation has no place in the “post-feminism” world where women are agents of their freewill. However, such claims are largely made in the context of the western tradition and ignore the concerns of the majority of women in developing countries. They conceive of feminism as a monolithic movement, independent of cultures and histories, moving in a linear fashion.

In response to this attitude there has been a surge in the revisionary feminist scholarship, sensitive to the multiplicity of culture and race. Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture, Subjectivity and Agency by Jasbir Jain is one such attempt. It aims to go back to the distant Indian past to uncover the unique and diverse background to Indian feminism. Jain tries to disentangle the complex debates on feminism to present a clearer and comprehensible history of Indian feminism for her readers. “Since women inIndiaview their bodies, their roles, and their social structures differently, there is no way the origins of the movement in two different cultures could have been the same,” says Jain in the preface to her book.

Indigenous Roots of Feminism provides a feminist history ofIndiaand simultaneously historicises the culture and discourse to give a deeper insight into the struggles of Indian women throughout history. It moves through those moments of feminist agency which influenced the development or regression of the women’s movement. Jain claims that this movement did not proceed in a linear manner but witnessed various phases that were incidentally expedient or detrimental to the basic cause. Moreover, she claims that the patriarchal hegemony inIndiais different from the West because it has its origins in a different culture.

Divided into seven parts, the book addresses various principle texts that are significant in the establishment or deconstruction of patriarchal values, including the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the transgressive and rebellious poetry of the women Bhakti poets, the nineteenth century resistance writings in the form of autobiography and fiction, and the key films of Indian cinema that highlight the modern representation of femininity and agency in India.

Jain makes a refreshing feminist critique of the epics and puranas and their subsequent rewritings, which according to her are emblematic of resistance through revisions. Her analysis of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala helps us understand how these historical texts are able to evince patriarchal hegemony and its sustenance to our present.

It is the marginalisation of women in history, according to Jain, that is responsible for the slackening of the feminist movement. The beautiful poetry of women Bhakti poets, who defied patriarchy courageously, has been forgotten while the men remain at centre stage. As she writes in the final chapter, “At times, the processes of modernisation have run parallel to the regressive hegemonic controls”. And it is not only patriarchy that Indian women are fighting, “they are also carrying on a constant struggle against their own self-image and the cultural construction of femininity”. As the ancient roots of feminist thought are laid bare, Jain questions and redefines the present function and scope of women’s movement inIndia.

Inhabiting the crossroads where past and present meet, Indigenous Roots of Feminism explores various aspects and concerns of feminist thought inIndiaover the span of centuries, creating a dynamic picture of feminism inIndia. Jain vehemently challenges the coarse and stereotypical way of perceiving Indian women and their culture.

Jain’s style is approachable and reader-friendly as she doesn’t limit her target readership to academia. In fact, this is one of the most refreshing and engrossing books I’ve read lately. And considering our shared history, Jain’s findings are quite helpful in understanding the situation of Pakistani women.

By approaching feminist debate in an original and indigenous framework involving a broad range of contexts and by providing a historical and textual understanding of the past as well as the present, Indigenous Roots of Feminism provides the much needed insight into the unique nature of women’s struggle inIndia. This volume is essential for those interested in the struggles of Indian women and in subaltern studies.

Indigenous Roots of Feminism: Culture, Subjectivity and Agency


By Jasbir Jain

Sage Publications

ISBN 8132104390

368pp. $40